Lost Labs and Implied Tragedy

April 25, 2014

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.

18 Responses to “Lost Labs and Implied Tragedy”

  1. neuropop Says:

    What about lost labs that have funding (R01 $$s) but have to shut shop due to denial of tenure and no bites in the job market.


  2. Grumble Says:

    “The folks who never had a chance in the first place? All too easy to forget.”

    Taking your logic to the extreme:

    Just like it’s all too easy to forget all the children that could have been had they not been aborted as fetuses. Or all the gametes that could have been children had it not been for contraception.

    I’m not sure what the context of the tweets you mention was, but if it was an effort to raise public awareness of the consequences of inadequate science funding, the points they bring up are perfectly reasonable. When you have an already-productive scientist who loses his/her lab because of funding issues, you have a tangible loss that you can show people: this is what happens if you don’t fund science.

    If you have a bunch of amorphous might-have-beens, it’s much harder to convince people to get upset about what they are never going to have.


  3. upsetting Says:

    There has been a whole lot of very capable and active might-have beens because too many productive scientists into their late 70s flooding the National Library with relevant ???? publications while making their pensions fater and fater. That’s not a tangible loss Grumble!.


  4. Joe Says:

    Both of them are big losses. You lose the guy who has been working in that system for 20yrs, doing good work and publishing, then when we do come up with money to study that area again, the new guys are going to have to learn a lot of things and make some mistakes that the old guy already knew about.
    I see young scientists that are great communicators as well as fearless scientists that choose not to go into academic science because they don’t want to have to constantly worry about money, don’t want to have to fire their workers when there is a funding gap, and don’t want to spend all of their time writing grants. Those people are a great loss.
    It hurts even more when you think about the billions of dollars the government spends on tanks that the army is just going to park in the desert and how extremely inexpensive borrowing costs are now.


  5. Larry Moran Says:


    There’s a significant chance that you might lose your grant, have to shut down your lab, and quit doing science a lot earlier than you ever imagined.

    If that happens, don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you. Get a hobby.

    Meanwhile, I will continue to have sympathy for 50 year old colleagues who can’t get funded in the current environment. Many of them have mortgages, no pensions, and kids in college.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    Just like it’s all too easy to forget all the children that could have been had they not been aborted as fetuses.

    Really? A PhD with 5-8 years of postdoc training is the equivalent to a first trimester fetus? riiiiiight.


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    There’s a significant chance that you might lose your grant, have to shut down your lab, and quit doing science a lot earlier than you ever imagined.

    Yea, no duh, genius.

    If that happens, don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you.

    I don’t. Do you have reading comprehension problems?

    Get a hobby.

    Sadly, I’m not quite ready to retire. I’ll find something else gainful to do.

    Meanwhile, I will continue to have sympathy for 50 year old colleagues who can’t get funded in the current environment. Many of them have mortgages, no pensions, and kids in college.

    Bully for you. And will you likewise have sympathy for the people who, by no fault of their own save being born to the wrong generation, don’t get the cushy gig you (through no particular personal merit other than being born at the right time, to the right ethnic derivation parents and with the right dangly bits of course) enjoyed?.

    Because that is the central point here. not a lack of sympathy, but rather a recognition that there are a lot more people that deserve our sympathies.


  8. Pinko Punko Says:

    Why are things that are not mutually exclusive being treasured as such? Collapse of current system and what it means regarding current potential squandered, past potential missed, and future diversity and creativity squelched really sucks. I’ll leave it at that.


  9. Eli Rabett Says:

    An issue that Eli sees more and more is someone in their mid sixties who has kids still in school and stays on to support them. With long permadoc periods this is becoming more and more the case.


  10. A Postdoc Says:

    As someone on the front end of this process – who’s peers are those “never-will-be” PIs in their 30’s — if one had to choose when they’re bounced out of the science game, the earlier the better. Us young ‘uns are more mobile and can more easily flip to a new career. That said, if you want to mourn us, that’s o.k. DM – but we’ll be fine, find something else, settle into that alt-career, make some $$ and be happy. What of those in the 55-60 range who can’t easily slide into something else? That don’t have the $$ to retire and survive? This isn’t an issue that’s specific to academic science – it’s always easier to change gears early than late, and I’ll still mourn mid-late career struggles – because those scare me more than the struggle of jumping from postdoc to PI: I know what I’d do if I cant make the jump now; not sure what I’d do if I got bounced 20 years into the game.


  11. Mark Says:

    Decreasing success rates pushed the system out of equilibrium:

    And, if you want to have a job obtaining NIH grants until you retire, the future looks bleak. <800 people managed to do it for over 30 years; <2,000 in the whole of US managed to do it for 20; <6,000 for a decade. At this moment, the probability that you can maintain funding when your (even multiple) grants come for renewal is <50%.


  12. rxnm Says:

    What % of these Lost Lab folks are losing their *jobs*? I mean, if we’re just talking about expanding the ranks of TDFs or people who will put more effort into teaching/service/admin, who cares?

    If this is all soft money folks who get canned with kids in college and a mortgage, that’s sad, I guess. I honestly can’t imagine what they would do.

    And, of course, let’s talk about the whole soft money system.


  13. SFGiants Says:

    Losses of any position, hard or soft money, are sad. Each individual has their own level of comfort and risk. Soft money positions, however, have always been perilous by their nature. And that includes those quasi-soft money positions in which faculty are tenured but have to bring in 70% of their salary. In this climate, that is an insane expectation. As for me, I have been at a Research I school for a couple of decades and have always taught a relatively heavy load in the basic sciences and been funded by NIH. But, I am tenured and my salary is hard, and there are other things for me to do if this entire NIH ship sinks. In my opinion, and I know that some will disagree, this is the model that is best for basic scientists when it comes to financial considerations. Basic science faculties at medical schools are too often associated with clinicians. If ‘X’ medical school or ‘Y’ hospital goes under, the physicians can go make 6 figures somewhere else. The basic scientists, well…………..

    And let’s face the music about tenure. Forget the ideological basis of tenure that focuses on academic freedom. From the perspective of an academic, the benefit of tenure is financial. The road to becoming a professor is strewn with potholes, and for those that are lucky enough to make it, it enables them to catch up financially with some of the lawyers, doctors and business folk who have larger starting salaries and become independent sooner. Who in the world would want to write all of these grants and take the long slog through graduate school and postdoc land in their 20s and 30s without a carrot at the end? And, to be entirely transparent about the present climate, I encourage my graduate students and those younger undergraduates that aspire to the Ph.D. degree to consider other professions. They are all 10 times better than I will ever be, but the opportunities are just not there.

    Finally, from a financial perspective, think of it this way. Professional athletes have a ‘healthy’ and ‘guaranteed’ base. This means that they get paid even if they get injured and miss an entire season. Why should it be any different with academics that are making much less in the first place? Even most sales people that I know have a base salary and then a commission based on their percentage of sales. When I tell people outside of the academy that some of my colleagues have most of their salaries dependent on external grant funding, they look it me in disbelief. And this type of model only further consolidates the power of the administrative class.

    With the inverted –pyramid tax base that is emerging with an aging population, I can’t ever see NIH funding improving.


  14. 6th Post Doc Says:

    Well I for one thank you for the sympathy. I am lining up my 6th post doc since 2007 and that is no exaggeration. My slide started with the death of my PI in my first post doc. Since then I have been behind the eight ball, so to speak – taking new positions with junior PIs where it is hard to tell who is training who or ones that could only keep me for months not years. I have been fortunate to be very productive despite these circumstances. I say fortunate because not all experiments will work, and certainly not ones that have very little time (relatively) to work out the model before funding gets scarce (again!). Learning the ropes in a new lab every year or 2 is no way to build a story. I only have one gap in my pub record that requires me to awkwardly talk about the death. But I have since closed that gap and have more pubs on the way that will likely be of higher quality than the average pub of my past. This is good but I fear it will not be enough. How weird is it that I have already devalued my future totally decent pubs. I use to get so stoked! Now …the sky is always falling. How do I prop it up?

    All these self help style career blogs I read say, assuming one is qualified (and most of my peers are), that “perseverance” is of greatest predictive value in success of landing that coveted faculty job and gaining your academic freedom. I feel I have persevered where many would have failed or given up long ago.

    But when does perseverance start to resemble a form perseveration? At some point it feels insane to continue… but I just keep wanting to do another experiment. Sigh.


  15. Jo Says:

    > All these self help style career blogs I read say, assuming one is qualified (and most of my peers are), that “perseverance” is of greatest predictive value in success of landing that coveted faculty job and gaining your academic freedom.

    Those blogs don’t know what they are talking about then. Momentum is huge; perseverance not so much. 6 post-docs in 7 years? I’d look for a career change. Sorry. Serial post-docs are just too big a red flag.


  16. Wowchem Says:

    6th postdoc

    It’s not all coveted and alike in the tenure ranks. Be careful what you’re holding out for. Us on the TT track are not sipping lattes with comfy elbow pads and science groupies. We are broke, super stressed, and pitted in a death match against each other


  17. mytchondria Says:

    “Hmmm…”, Mytochondria says, “it seems you have revealed quite about about your own personal angst in this discussion, Ted. Let’s delve deeper, shall we?”

    The labs I have tweeted about in #LostLabs were either unnamed individuals who were actively ‘closing their doors after X years of continuous funding’ where the PI name was omitted or a stories where PIs had quoted about closing their labs.

    These folks were ‘named’ but this information is freely available with a Googler. You don’t even need to stalk them by looking at what the funding profile has been. Theser PIs had already shared their circumstances publically (many in University newpapers, but other to national media outlets).

    Which makes me wonder about the ‘naming and shaming’ idea. Is the idea that closing ones lab in this horrific funding climate or opting out of endless writing and rewriting of grants to retire early/close a lab is shameful? I never said it was shameful.

    Shame, as I understand it, stems from having done something wrong. Many of these people did all the right things. As I cited in some of my #LostLabs tweets had glamour pubs in the last few years or trained with BSDs. I would also occassionally include information about what the closing labs had worked on before closing. I had no intention of SHAMING of the PIs. I know many of them and am proud to have collaborated with them, taken classes from them or sat on their students committees.

    In #LostLabs, I presented information about who has publically stated they would be closing their labs or parts of their programs. Which you felt shame over. Interesting. I’m sad for these folks. I want them to find positions that match their talents, but I do not want them to go back into hiding, as one should do when they have been publically shamed.

    I want my Twitter buddies and my non-scientist friends alike to realize real people with real projects, great histories of training and collaborating are leaving science. Is this a ‘greater tragedy’, as you say, than an elementary school teacher laid off or a janitor put out of work? You seem to think so Ted others circumstances are more tragic and that I should perhaps STFU about it because these folks have had their chance. I disagree.

    I have tweeted about funding, undermining minorities and foreign students, women in foriegn lands who aren’t allowed access to education and healthcare, sexual harassment and wine. One of my popular tweets (according to FavStar) was last year when I found out a PI in my department who was under 45 was closing their lab. The university’s choice, not theirs. That tweet resonated with people. Dare I say it shocked them. In response to #LostLabs, I got many postive and surprised responses along the lines of “wow, it seems even more real with names and projects”. I also assured many people that these folks stories were publically known.

    We add more value to the lives and circumstances of those who are like us – ethonocentricism as it were. As a PI, hearing another PI losing a lab and a job hurts. Like me, they probably have kids, a mortgage and people who they were mentoring.

    But, I believe the ego problem here is yours Ted. You would be ashamed if your lab closed due to lack of funding. Your voice is yours to do with as you please. These PIs chose to use their circumstances to raise awareness and I respect that and will tweet about it.


  18. Eli Rabett Says:

    A lost lab, a tenure denial, is coupled to a huge capital investment loss.


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