It is NOT “eating our seed corn”

April 20, 2020

The concept that we are “eating our seed corn” if we don’t do X, Y or Z to support junior scientists is completely misinformed, inapplicable and wrong.

This was super popular back when the ESI issues were being debated and the NIH was trying to justify giving special consideration to fund the applications of new comers to the system. I do happen to support continued efforts to help those who are on the short end of the NIH grant award stick, but this is mostly about the concept and how it leads to bad thinking.

“Eating our seed corn” has raised its misguided head in the Time of Corona as we are discussing University polices that have, apparently, started to slow walk new hires, pull back startup funds of recent hires, etc. There was even a little hint of graduate programs pulling offers of graduate stipends if the candidates had not responded to an offer yet, despite the deadline for response being in the future.

This is bad. Yes, it’s devastating for those individuals who are in the transition zones right now and are being denied opportunities that were in front of them. It’s devastating for departments and laboratories that were very much looking forward to securing new contributors. What it is NOT is “eating our seed corn”.

For those that have never so much as planted a food garden…. I am going to risk insulting your intelligence and to point out the obvious. “Seed corn” concerns were from a time of agriculture when a person hoping to grow a crop couldn’t just run down to the feed store and buy seeds whenever they wanted to. It comes from a time where you had to save your own seeds from the harvest time so that you could use them, about six months later after the winter snows had cleared, to grow next year’s crop(s). No problem right? Millenia of agriculture agrees- set aside enough seeds fro harvest to plant for next year. Easy peasy.

But…sometimes there wasn’t enough food to get through the winter. Seeds, of course, are also food. The corn kernels that we eat are those same seeds that can be planted to grow next year’s crops. And if you eat all your seeds to make it through this winter, you are going to have no corn crop next year. Or the year after that. or ever. Until someone takes pity on you and gives you some of their seed corn.

You can’t just make new seeds after you’ve eaten them.

New scientists are not like this. At all.

We CAN make new ones whenever we want, even if we’ve skipped several cycles. As I’ve noted in another context, if we have a department that literally closes it’s graduate program admissions for five years….they can start right back up in year six with essential zero headaches. The same professors suddenly forgot how to train graduate students? Please.

That’s because the proper analogy is more like acorns. Graduate student production is a perennial, not an annual, crop. If you have a big old oak tree on your property, it’s gonna grow acorns. Every year. We don’t chop it down to eat the tree when we get really hungry in the winter, right? It’s not edible. So next year, it’s gonna grow more acorns. And the cycle of health for that tree is really, really long. It doesn’t care if you ate 25% or 100% of the acorns it grew last year, it’s going to produce more next year. And the year after that. And after that.

If growing conditions are terrible, sure, many perennial agricultural producers may have low output that season. Some may even fail to produce anything edible that season at all. But as soon as the conditions return to favorable, that plant produces another crop. It takes a really, really bad set of conditions, sustained for years likely, to kill an oak tree. Short of devastating trauma, that is.

Sticking with the agricultural references, we are facing a water shortage and not a wildfire. We are not Little House on the Prairie where we have only ourselves on which to rely for seeds. We are most certainly not solely dependent on annual food crops. The enterprise of scientific research in the US is a perennial. It has persistence and resilience.

The ESI debate was no different. We were not then, and are not now, talking about the sort of existential emergency that is described by “eating our seed corn”. We are talking about priorities of how many plants and in what variety we can support, given a water supply that is rationed by external forces. We’re only getting so many acre-feet this year. And it looks to be less than we got last year.

The point is that we need to make rational, thinking choices about what we are going to prioritize and support. We should not panic, running all about screaming that every crop will be gone forever if we don’t water it just like it was watered last year.

6 Responses to “It is NOT “eating our seed corn””

  1. jmz4 Says:

    Its more like “losing a harvest” if we’re going to strain agricultural metaphors to encompass something we should just be able to understand without additional abstraction.

    I’m in this boat. I was interviewing this year with my K99 and fancy Nature paper that took forever to get and diversity and outreach experience, and teaching, and mentoring and all the other ducks in their row. Even so, 40 applications and only a few interviews. But two of them looked promising.

    I’m pissed, I’m bitter. I wish old people would at least talk about retiring rather than just wringing their hands. But they do the same thing when they talk about diversity. It’s always the younger crop that needs to sacrifice to make the pool of professors more diverse, never mind you could axe one old white dude and fund 3 TT positions in his place.
    But it isn’t going to hurt science in the long run. Getting a tenure track job has been a long shot for most PDs for a while. It’ll be a bit longer of a shot for a while. There will probably still be suckers trying to do it 2 years from now. I’m not going to be one of them, though.


  2. Neuro-conservative Says:

    jmz4 – can you tell us a little more – did the two promising departments tell you that they were cancelling their hiring process due to the Wuhan coronavirus?


  3. jmz4 Says:

    Yes. One was a closed recruitment with a few other applicants, the other I had been invited back for a second interview. In both cases they said they were “pausing” indefinitely their recruitment in light of hiring freezes in effect at the institutions. One was a clinical department that was getting double-whammied.
    Independent verification confirmed hiring freezes were, in fact, in place at both universities.


  4. Neuro-conservative Says:

    I certainly hope for the best for you, and that these institutions will be able to re-open their process. Perhaps also your current institution will make you an offer? I am aware of people under normal circumstances who have been able to convert their K99 to R00 while staying in place.


  5. Curio Says:

    “never mind you could axe one old white dude and fund 3 TT positions in his place”
    Pray tell, how do you come up with this figure? The truly ax-able oldie is not drawing 3M next year — a reasonable bet for 3 startups. Also, don’t assume they’re white or dudes.
    I ache for you in this position — it sucks. But the solutions are not trivial and the math had better back up your proposals.


  6. jmz4 Says:

    My current institution is Harvard. They don’t do “that sort of thing.”


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