The downside of EB: Why we do the science we do

Apr 10 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the reasons I go to meetings is to see people. To talk with people. To do all that non-structured learning that happens when you talk science with very smart people. One never knows where one's next great idea, or better yet, one's next great kick-in-the-butt will come from.

But I also go to talk with people I care about. With the advent of the intertubz, that group has expanded. Some of those people are folks you all know better than me: Doc_becca and my BlogMom, Isis the unsinkable. Some I didn't get to talk with this year, Whizbang (you should absolutely read her posts about EB) and Drugmonkey. Some are not so well known, and don't even blog or tweet. At the Old MRU, I taught a number of grad seminars in another department, and ended up sitting on committees and even collaborating (a great great paper) with one of the students. Several of these guys are now in postdocs or even have real jobs.

Some of these people don't mind if I use their names when I tell their stories. But others do. So what follows is a pastiche of people. The individual things I describe are true, but I've changed some of the identifying facts.

The downside of the meeting was nothing we haven't heard before. It just was poignant and in my face. The junior faculty member who had some funding, but its over. She has had some bridge funding, may have to close her lab. She's done enough to be in the Right Place for Tenure, but what will she look like in 18-20 months when her documents go in, and she doesn't have an active lab, because she can't afford a tech and the supplies?

Then there's the recent PhD who took a postdoc with a (very young) new Ast Prof. Its a major MRU, but there is only funding for 18 months. What should this person do? Start applying for jobs or a 2nd postdoc, or through herself into the work and try and get more papers out and hope that the PI will bring in more funds to extend the position?

There is the young faculty, who is 3 years into the job, and just can't get funded. Very close. Over and over. This is an NSF person, in a part of NSF that has one deadline per year. He is doing what all of do: expanding where he can send grants, modifying his research to be able to be funded. But he's clearly chasing money, and not doing the science he chose.

There is an axis here, with extremes: at one end is doing the science you like and saying "screw the funding world". There is honor to this position, and of course, there is no reason to expect NSF, let alone NIH to fund what you want to do. If you can craft a career this way, a career with which you are happy, by all means, knock yourself out. Do not underestimate the importance of being happy in what you do. The other extreme is crafting a research program based on what is hot and what is fundable and what is sexy right fucking now. I know lots of Big Dogs who do this, consciously or unconsciously. There is (some) honor to this position: "I want to be a scientist and if NIH says this is an important problem to solve, I'm right there with them".  NIH (and The Congress, by law) have the right to determine what the NIH mission is. We may think their priorities suck. We may think they should be studying the evolution of calcification in conodonts (which is an interesting, if obscure question), but our input to the mission comes as citizens.

Between the extremes are most of us. When I get a review that says that insufficient attention has been paid to the impact of rosebush thorns on bunny hopping, I will include a section on testing the material properties of thorns. I modify what I do based on RFA's, reviews, and chats with NIH staff (when I can get them). I have a job that requires me to be funded. Yes, its in my contract at new almost-MRU.

But I am not going to start doing genomics or optogenetics or a kind of biology for which I was not trained and is not relevant to the questions I have been asking. But, I am a bluehair (really). What about the young turks? How much should you, can you, change what you  do to chase funding? That is a very tough question, and one I think that needs to be considered on a case by case basis.


7 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    There is also the goal of convincing the rest of the world that what you would prefer to work on is important. That's the long game though.

    • potnia theron says:

      yes, but I think for young ast profs to think in those terms gets complicated. Great if possible, but I wouldn't want to put that burden on them too.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    "Personally, if you’d asked me when I started this job if I thought that I’d be able to get grants for my research, I’d have said, “I think it’ll take me a few tries, but I think I can do it.” Well, that hasn’t happened. So I’ve had to re-invent myself, my expectations, everything, from almost the ground up. It’s been a decade-long battle to redefine myself as a scientist. I’m still not done. ... Reinventing yourself professionally is long, and hard, and it sucks."

    Related post:

  • Pascale says:

    Sorry we didn't cross paths at EB this year. In my case, I felt like the last 2 years of my lab were spent responding to study section stuff rather than generating the data I wanted to see. In the end, the study section still found it insufficient, and I found myself without the stuff I wanted to publish.
    As a junior type person, you have to be willing to learn new techniques (or at least find collaborators or techs who can do them for you).
    I ran into a number of my colleagues who have also closed labs and moved onto other pastures. While we all agreed that we missed the feeling of discovery, none of us missed the incredible pressure to get grants. I can now enjoy science by writing about it, rather than writing to beg for money.

    • potnia theron says:

      Good point... its another scale flexibility to change (methods? import? model?) vs. selling out to that change.

      There is a strong appeal about not having to beg for money.

  • Morgan Price says:

    I think the "screw the funding world" approach is great if you have a backup plan for your life if/when you're forced out of academic research. But a lot of postdocs or new PIs don't want to think about leaving academia.

    • potnia theron says:

      In some fields (non-medical), this is still possible. You also have to be willing to do some / a lot of teaching.

Leave a Reply