Somebody I normally respect is on the Twitts naming and shaming scientists who have lost their NIH funding and are, allegedly*, shuttering their laboratories.

This makes me deeply uncomfortable for the naming and shaming part, one.

More important is the implication that it is somehow a greater tragedy** that people who have enjoyed something on the order of 20 years of NIH funding are now at the end of their careers.

This is nonsense. First of all, if you have the luxury to retire at 60 with a nice fat pension, maybe an Emeritus office to visit, with your kids through college (generationally more likely), house paid off (ditto), etc, etc then retiring “early” is what we used to think of as a huge win. So you stopped publishing science a little earlier than you might have liked. So what. Get a hobby.

More importantly, it necessarily diminishes the tragedy of others who never had funding.

I am not okay with this.

As you know, I’ve managed to keep my head above water as an NIH funded lab head……so far. And yeah, I feel the greatest affinity for my own continued survival in this career. Sure. Hard to avoid and I don’t fault anyone for feeling the same way. What I do fault people for is not realizing at some level how deeply selfish this tendency is. At least act like you understand everyone should have a fair shot?

And that is the point. It has been decades that I have watched the fate of people who might have become NIH-funded investigators of various levels of fame, fortune and pizzaz. Decades over which I have watched the career arcs of people who have enjoyed NIH grant support.

There are a lot of people who should have been PIs with generous amounts of grant support who never achieved this outcome. Lots. There are a lot of people who managed to maintain funding that are clearly no more, and often less, worthy than those who did not enjoy such success.

There has to be at least one unsuccessful young gun of your field that, were you the boss of science, you would put 5 senior investigators*** out to pasture to fund. If you don’t know of any people like that, you aren’t thinking very hard about it.

So sure, it is a tragedy when a luminary of your field closes shop. It is distressing even when a middle rank plodder has to pack it in. These people are salient to you, I realize. Because they are publishing. They have generated papers that are important to you.

The folks who never had a chance in the first place? All too easy to forget. All too easy to shrug off their failure to become a luminary as fault of their own (they “chose” alt career) or the system (life is hard).

But they are most assuredly a Lost Lab too.

Try not to forget that.
*I say allegedly because we have heard a tremendous amount of rumoring about labs “about to close” because of the dismal NIH grant situation. See this 2009 report in Nature News. As it turned out, one of those researchers was just fine and one was picked up at the time but didn’t learn the proper lesson.

**I am also unimpressed by the recitation of these Lost Labs’ publication record by Journal or by the lab in which that PI was trained. As if that tells us anything about how tragic it is or is not to have lost their labs. Please.

***Naturally even within a subfield, not everyone agrees on who the most promising young gun(s) is/are and not everyone agrees on who are the 5 dispensable peers. I am not suggesting this Lost Lab situation is easy to fix.