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.