Warmth and comfort are yokes for us.
We chose thorns, shoals and starlight.
— from Mid-Journey
I came to the US in 1973, all fired up to do research. I have been doing research as my major occupation since 1980 and have run my own (tiny: average two-member) lab since 1989. So I fulfilled part of my dream and wrote about how it feels to do so in The Double Helix. Yet I may have to abandon it prematurely. Objectively, that’s not a tragedy. People die, people retire – hell, people have midlife epiphanies that make them join odd religions or take jobs in industry with salaries several-fold higher than their academic ones. But right now, I’m one of many who are disappearing. And our disappearance will have an impact far beyond what outsiders perceive (incorrectly) as cosseted academic careers.
Biomedical researchers in the US are on the selling side of a monopsony. If our research is very basic and/or we’re starting out, we can get small grants from the National Science Foundation. If it’s very directed or applied, we can get tiny grants from private foundations or the rare decent-sized grant from the Departments of Energy or Defense. But all these amount to peanuts. The engine behind US biomedical research is a single organization: the National Institute of Health (NIH). When the NIH says “Jump!” we ask “How high?” on the way up.
Grant submissions to the NIH have always been as arcane and painful as a complex religious ritual that includes flaying. Success depends not only on the quality of our science and the number and impact of our papers but also on sending the grant to the right study section for peer review, on using fashionable (“cutting edge”) gadgets and techniques, on doing science that is perceived to fit the interests of the NIH institute that hosts our grant, and on being lucky enough to get reviewers and program officers who agree on the importance of our proposed work (and in the case of reviewers, not direct competitors who are essentially handed unpublished data on a platter). All this, subsumed under the rubric “grantsmanship” or “being savvy”, is not taught at any point during our long, arduous training. In my youth, we learned by literally walking into brick walls.
However, when I started my PhD biomedical researchers could afford to have their egos and labs bashed by savage critiques and terrible grant scores because the NIH payline was 30-40%. This meant that one in three grants got funded – or that each of our grant applications (if of reasonable quality) got funded in one of the three tries the NIH allowed. Also, at that time the traditional university salary covered nine months. For most academic researchers, a grant meant they got the last three months of salary plus, of course, the wherewithal to do research.
My situation was different: I went to a poor institution (my startup package was seventeen thousand – the common minimum is a million) and except for my first two years and a six-month bridge later on I was entirely on soft money till mid-2008. So for me the equation was not “no grant, no lab”; it was “no grant, no job”. This was made a bit tougher by the fact that my research fit the “starts as heresy and ends as superstition” paradigm. For one, the part of my system that is relevant to dementia undergoes human-specific regulation. So unlike most of my colleagues I did not detour into mouse models, long deemed to be the sine qua non of equivalence (an equation that has hurt both biology and medicine, in my opinion, but that’s a different conversation).
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying I’m a neglected Nobel-caliber genius. But much of what I pursued and discovered was against very strong headwinds: I investigated a molecule that had been delegated to the back of the neurodegeneration bus for decades. To give you a sense of how some of my work was received, I once got the following comment for an unexpected observation that flew against accepted wisdom (verbatim): “If this were true, someone would have discovered it by now.” The observation has since been confirmed and other labs eventually made plenty of hay with some of my discoveries, but I’ve never managed to get funding to pursue most of them. I was either too early and got slammed for lacking proof of feasibility or direct relevance to health, or too late and got slammed for lacking cutting-edginess.
It is hard to keep producing data and papers if your lab keeps vanishing like Brigadoon and has to be rebuilt from scratch with all the loss of knowledge and momentum each dislocation brings. To prevent this as much as I could, whenever I had a grant hiatus I cut my salary in half to pay my lab people as long as possible (if you go below 50% you lose all benefits, health insurance prominently among them). I could do this because I had no children to raise and educate, though it has seriously affected my retirement and disability benefits.
While I was marching to my malnourished but stubborn inner drummer, the NIH payline was steadily falling. It now stands at around 7% which means one in fifteen grants gets funded – or that we must send in fifteen grants to get one. Academic institutions, grown accustomed to the NIH largesse, have put more and more of their faculty on largely or entirely soft salaries. At the same time, grants are essentially the sole determinant for promotion and tenure – for those universities that still have tenure. Additionally, universities have decided to run themselves like corporations and use the indirect funds (money the NIH pays to institutions for administrative and infrastructure support) to build new buildings named after their board members, hire ever more assistant vice presidents and launch pet projects while labs get charged for everything from telephone bills to postdoc visas. Essentially, at this point most US biomedical researchers are employed by the NIH and their universities rent them lab space at markup prices comparable to Pentagon toilet seat tarifs.
Meanwhile, the NIH has been changing grant formats for the sake of streamlining (an odd objective, given its mission). We used to have three pages to respond to reviewers. Now we have one. We were able to send last-minute discoveries or paper acceptances that would make the difference between success and failure. Now we cannot. We used to get detailed critiques. Now we get bullet points. We were allowed three tries. Now we’re allowed two. If our two-strikes-and-we’re-out submission fails, we must change our work “substantially” (nebulously defined, and up to the interpretation of individual NIH officers) and to ensure compliance, the NIH has invested in software that combs past grants to uncover overlap. And of course there is essentially no appeal except for resubmission: the NIH appeal process, such as it is, has been copied from Kafka’s Trial.
All these changes are essentially guaranteeing several outcomes: young people will have fewer and fewer chances (or reasons) to become researchers or independent investigators; new and small labs will disappear; and despite lip service to innovation, research will seek refuge into increasingly safer topics and/or become “big ticket” science, doing large-scale politically dictated projects in huge labs that employ lots of robots and low-level technicians — a danger foreseen by Eisenhower in his famous “military industrial complex” address which today would label him as fringe hard left. A recent analysis by MIT’s Tech Review showed that biomedical work still timidly clusters around the few areas that have already been trampled into flatness, ignoring the far vaster unknown territories opened up by the human genome sequencing project and its successors.
Of course, we biomedical researchers have played a significant role in our own slaughter. Because of the unavoidable necessity of peer review, we have acted as judges, jury and executioners for each other. Like all academic faculty, we’re proud we are “as herdable as cats” and like all white-collar workers we have considered it beneath our dignity to be members of a union. Our only (weak and vanishing) protection has been tenure. Many of us are proud to demonstrate how much hazing we can take, how little we need to still produce publishable, fundable science while still carrying the burdens of mentoring, committee work, teaching… The early rounds of cuts were called “pruning dead wood” or “trimming fat”. Except that for the last two decades we haven’t been cutting into fat but into muscle – and now, into bone. Too, keeping ahead of the never-abating storm swells presupposes not only a lot of luck and/or the ability to tack with the winds of scientific fashion but also personal relationships with granite foundations and cast-iron health.
In my case, after my second hiatus I succeeded into landing two small grants that last two years. The day I found out one of them would be funded was the day I was interviewing at the NIH for a branch administrator position. I turned down that offer, with its excellent terms. My heart is irrevocably tied to research. I had not abandoned my home, my country, my culture to become an administrator — even though the position I was offered can make or break other people’s research. One month after the second of these small grants got activated, I got my cancer diagnosis. Being on soft money meant I could not suspend the grant during my surgery and recovery: my health bills would have driven me to penury. So the productivity suffered accordingly. But such factors are not considered during grant review.
Biology is an intrinsically artisan discipline: unlike physics, it cannot be easily reduced to a few large truths reached by use of increasingly larger instruments. Instead, it looks like a crazy quilt of intricately interwoven threads (take a look at the diagram of any biological pathway and you get the picture, let alone how things translate across scales). Some argue that larger labs are likelier to be innovative, because they have the money to pursue risky work and the gadgets to do so. However, it has been my personal experience that large labs are often large because they pursue fashionable topics with whatever techniques are hot-du-jour, regardless of the noise and artifacts they generate (plus their heads have time for politicking at all kinds of venues). They also have enormous burnout rates and tend to train young scientists by rote and distant proxy.
Granted, we need big-science approaches; but we need the other kind, too – the kind that is now going extinct. And it’s the latter kind that has given us most of the unexpected insights that have translated into real knowledge advances, often from neglected, poorly lit corners of the discipline.
Now I’m not all I thought I’d be,
I always stayed around:
I’ve been as far as Mercy and Grand,
Frozen to the ground.
I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave;
Just kiss me once and then
I’ll go to hell —
I might as well
Be whistlin’ down the wind.
— Tom Waits, Whistle down the Wind
Images: 1st, Sand Lily Shadow (Tudio, Falassarna, Crete); 2nd, I Stand Alone (Michellerena, Burnie, Tasmania); 3rd, Sea Gate (Peter Cassidy, Heron Island, Australia)