Oh how the mighty have fallen

October 1, 2013

from an essay at Science Careers by Adam Rubin:

When I was there, about twenty people worked in the lab, including seven grad students, postdocs out the wazoo, and even an undergrad who used to whine—and these were his exact words—”Adam, the data are being weird!” I think he’s a medical doctor now. Anyway, it was known as the department’s largest lab, a bustling powerhouse facility that churned out grants and always dominated the annual holiday party dessert competition.

Now, however, it appears to have fallen victim to the same budget cuts that are killing science around the country. Research projects have been abandoned. Equipment sits idle. The lab of twenty has become a lab of five. And the five are scared.

The past five or six months have been a bit depressing on my campus too. The parking lots are noticeably less full. Sure, at first it was the end of the school year to blame. And then we hit the swing of early summer when the Americans with families went off…then it was vacation August for all the Eurohabituated scientists. It was easy to mouth all the excuses. And to refuse to recognize the reality.

September is done now and it is hard to maintain any sort of fiction.

The labs are empty. There are many fewer people around. Everything has shrunken in upon itself.

It hasn’t been a huge explosion, either. No orgy of dramatic dissolution wherein a faculty member cashes in all at once.

Just a sloooooow, gradual depressing attrition of people.

A recognition you haven’t seen anyone in that particular lab space in…well, quite some time.

The sad part is, my department is doing relatively…not well, but okay. We’ve had a number of grants land on the laboratories in the past nine months or so. Really hard to complain too much in these times of belt-tightening at the NIH.

But this may not be occurring with other departments around campus. I don’t know. I don’t really pay much attention to who funds them and how hard they all work at securing funding. I can’t see it and I don’t want to….not my pay grade. Still, my perception may be enhanced by those people, over there. Those losers not in my department. Those guys.

Still. Even within our own department, we’re in survival mode. Seemingly. We’re working….but it is less than vibrant. Not what I’d describe as bustling….which it has been before. And hopefully will again.

I don’t know who the Op/Ed author quoted above worked with, what sort of lab it was or where the PI was in career progression. But assuredly, folks. Assuredly. Some of these labs are not going to come back. The PI may be near enough to the end of the career to just pack it in. There is also the possibility of a death-spiral in which an interval of low production may lead to no more trainees having interest in the lab, and therefore no preliminary data for new proposals and therefore no new funding.

The University may run out of patience and shut a PI down unwillingly.

This is still the front end of the process but make no mistake, we are fully engaged. Shrinking lab size is the first step, but it is utterly undeniable at present. It is a clear antecedent to the coming collapse of labs themselves.

My optimism that the NIH extramural-research enterprise is too big to fail is being sorely tested people.

18 Responses to “Oh how the mighty have fallen”

  1. Dave Says:

    No way is it too big to fail in a perfect storm of GOPTP Nutbaggery, especially when the NIH is horrible at lobbying/messaging and cannot seem to get enough of the general US population to give a shit. But at the same time I’m not sure the shrinking of labs is the “beginning of the end” or the first step. I think this is (in part) the “cull” that we were all waiting for, but I think it will end. Labs always needed to streamline and biomedical science always needed to reduce the number of trainees it produced. We have discussed this time and time again, and now it;s happening. Unfortunately the students and post-docs are getting it, but then they were always going to.

    Here, it’s the same as you describe. We have whole corridors that are empty and I would say there is more administrative activity that there is research activity. Everyone has their head down and is just trying to weather the storm.


  2. dr24hours Says:

    The universities are participating in their own demise. By hoarding their money (and yes, many universities don’t have much, but the big, private schools are swimming in cash) and not supplementing labs during the down-turns, they exacerbate exactly the problems you describe: extinction of labs and professorships from attrition, impecunity, and non-recruitment.

    If schools were about knowledge, and not money, they’d be leaping to protect their valuable assets: productive professors. Instead, they’re simply pouring gasoline on the fires. The problem is, they’re burning themselves along with the profs who’ve gone unfunded.

    And with that kind of shortsightedness, I won’t be too sad to see the systems fail. We need research institutes headed by people who understand the value of research over the value of constantly increasing profits (And “non-profit” accounting tricks aside, universities are all about profits).


  3. zb Says:

    And, yet, it seems to me that I’m still seeing ads for faculty to develop labs. Will the universities find funded scientists to replace the ones without funding?


  4. dr24hours Says:

    zb – I think part of it is poaching. Steal funded scis, get the indirects! But I also think part of it shows the incredible wastefulness: instead of giving a new faculty member $1M in startup to gut yet another perfectly good lab-space and horn in on increasingly rare grant money, why not give 3 labs ~$330K each to sustain them through lean times, keep them productive and compete when funding improves?


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    zb- shiny penny problem, really. in some ways, moving forward with new faculty doing exciting new science and securing the existing faculty are two independent goals. which financially conflict. so a choice is being made to cut losses and move forward. it’s not a horrible choice for a forward-thinking University to make but there is clearly a balance point in there somewhere.


  6. Joe Says:

    We have a number of dark labs. Was it not always so? I can’t tell. It seems a bit worse. The sequester has trimmed personnel numbers. My lab will have one less person next year due to the sequester. Mine is not the only one.


  7. juniorprof Says:

    Here at UA we are seeing the same thing all around. Many, many empty labs and the parking lot thing is striking. They have actually removed some lots that used to be there for overflow and the main lot still has plenty of spaces. There are PIs all around here who no longer have employees or grad students and are trying to stay alive with an undergrad toiling away 1 hrs a week (fat chance). Meanwhile there is an insatiable need for physician offices and none of these people have an academic goal to what they do and make 3 times the salary of the core faculty of the med school. Its tragic to watch.


  8. Jonathan Says:

    “especially when the NIH is horrible at lobbying/messaging”

    You probably know this and it was just common language, but it is illegal for NIH to try and lobby Congress: http://ethics.od.nih.gov/topics/lobbying.htm


  9. Dave Says:

    zb – I think part of it is poaching. Steal funded scis, get the indirects!

    This has become the biggest problem at my place. It seems that any Assistant Prof with an R01 is a target for poaching from local competing schools. We have lost many, many junior and senior folk who have funding in the last 2 years, and they have not been replaced. Recruitment is 100% non-existent, but then we have been on a hiring freeze for over 3 years now I think. This leads to the gradual thinning of the parking lot that you all describe.


  10. qaz Says:

    Isn’t this what you wanted? A great cull? A removal of everyone who wasn’t able to fight for the big time? A removal of the “small time grocer”? We should all be multi-R01 labs fighting in the thunderdome on soft-money with no university investment? When those grants don’t come in, what do you expect the university to do? They never invested in the lab before, why would they now?

    The great cull is a terrible tragedy. I say that it is because we built our house on sand. We should have been building on the old university model of teaching, salaries from the university, and research money supporting research.

    That’s the problem with living by gladiatorial combat. It leaves a lot of dead on the arena ground.


  11. Dave Says:

    ….but it is illegal for NIH to try and lobby Congress

    I wasn’t referring to congress in particular, more the general population at large. But some agencies are a lot better at making their voices heard in Washington and beyond. In my opinion, the NIH is terrible at making the case for why their budget should not be cut.


  12. DrugMonkey Says:

    “Wanted”? “Should”? qaz, you need to read a little more critically.


  13. miko Says:

    kull. kull. kull. kull. …

    (if you keep chanting it, perhaps all kull will demand of you is your youngest trainee)


  14. Ola Says:

    I see smaller departments round here, but not smaller labs. Part of the reason is we never had many BSD labs to begin with, maybe 2 or 3 on the whole campus. I myself have always run a tight ship, 4-5 people, never more. When times get tough, the mix of students/techs/post docs changes, but things keep trucking along. It’s mostly old buildings and space, so there’s not enough room for the monster labs.

    So yeah, some dood with 10 post docs who has his grad students make appointments to meet with him (as opposed to just being available, open door, any time) is hurting a bit and has to downsize? Cry me a fuckin’ river! The ones left over will be better off, even though they have to make their own media and order their own supplies now (like everyone in my lab has always done. Like. For. Evar.) because the “lab manager” is too expensive. Puh-leeze.


  15. Thanks for posting the link to my blog. It is very much the reality here: we’re going from a lab of about 15 people to a lab that will be closed next summer. On top of that we have only 0.15 PI in the lab instead of 1. And with the amount of time all of us spend on finding new jobs and complaining about the situation, there is very little room to have exciting conversations about science. It makes me sad, because that vibrant energy that makes you excited about science is something I really miss right now.


  16. […] Math: The National Security Agency is undermining fundamental principles of mathematical knowledge. Oh how the mighty have fallen Where Are All the Miracle Drugs? The human genome was sequenced about 13 years ago. We were […]


  17. Hwang Shin Moon Says:

    I can’t understand why everyone is acting so surprised, this kind of thing has been going since 1980 if not earlier.

    Once the Reagan Revolution shifted the focus to short term profits and low taxes, R&D funding started getting squeezed from both ends: declining government grants and the decimation of private labs in the name of shareholder value.

    The feces flinging monkey caucus that runs the GOP is just the most recent stop on this subway ride to hell.


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