Optimistic About the Future of Research
Over the past decade, I have become increasingly despondent regarding the state of the biomedical research enterprise. Five days ago, I was in Washington D.C., as part of a committee tasked with drafting a set of recommendations for a science society to promote diverse non-academic careers for its students and postdoctoral researchers. On the committee was a program director from NSF who mentioned at dinner that the funding success rate in his program was 4% and is a consistently-depressing 5% across NSF. Moreover, given the political climate, the director said that this 5% is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. Another member asked, “My wife just started as a junior faculty member at a research university; what can she do?” The NSF program director shrugged and answered, “Think about diverse careers.”
The next day, I attended the Future of Research symposium at ASCB’s annual Cell Biology meeting. The speakers at the symposium were equally blunt and grave about the deep structural problems plaguing academic research today. In fact, three of the speakers were Shirley Tilghman, Bruce Alberts, and Marc Kirschner – co-authors of the famous PNAS article “Rescuing the US biomedical research from its systemic flaws.” Strangely, after this symposium, I found myself surprisingly optimistic about the future. Optimistic in a way I haven’t been for a very long time. My good mood can be explained by the following three developments:
1. The Broadening Experience in Scientific Training (BEST) program by NIH was mentioned multiple times throughout the symposium. The goal of the program is to fix the legacy pipeline of PhD->Postdoc->Faculty to be in line with the fact that the faculty career is the alternative one and the vast majority of PhDs will not be professors. NIH recognizes the need to train the students for diverse career options and to provide the support and guidance for the trainees to evaluate the right academic or non-academic path for them. And if the person’s choice is non-academic, BEST encourages early actions to avoid doing a wasteful postdoc. I have taken part in the UCSF’s pilot under the BEST program and I know firsthand how powerful this effort is in helping students and postdocs deal with the changed landscape.
2. As much as I am a fan of the BEST program, I know its limits. It can help the scientists for whom academia is not the best option, but it does not the destructively hyper-competitive academic environment. As Shirley Tilghman summed up, “We have too many scientists, chasing too little money.” So I was relieved to hear from Jon Lorsch, the director of the National Institute for General Medicine (NIGMS). He assessed our crisis as attributable to a single problem – “project-based funding.” Instead, he argued persuasively that we need a researcher-based funding. Instead of the goal being “the number of grants awarded,” it should be “the number of researchers supported.” To that end, he described the MIRA program that NIH will be launching soon. Hearing about it, made me suddenly want to apply, even though I don’t have a lab, and I don’t recall every before being excited about applying for NIH. MIRA is exciting. There are no specific aims. It’s funding a researcher instead of proposed experiments. There are many details that Jon described, and many of them were directly addressing the key problems outlined in the session by the speakers before him. The next day, I mentioned the MIRA grant to a junior professor, and he excitedly replied, “I took part in the NIGMS survey about it. I’d kill for this grant. I’d give up all my funding to get it. This is the way funding should go.”
3. Last, and probably most inspiring of all, I was struck by three postdocs at this symposium – Kenneth Gibbs, Jessica Polka, and Kristin Krukenberg. Jessica and Kristin organized the symposium as part of their futureofresearch.org. Kenneth got his PhD at Stanford, and like me and most others noticed how deeply screwed up academia has become. Instead of ignoring it or getting out, he decided to focus his research not on the cell biology, but on academia itself, in order to figure out what is wrong and how to fix it. That the students and postdocs are starting to have a voice in this conversation and are starting to seek solutions – this is HUGE. It’s new and it’s powerful, and it’s clearly working.
As I have written before, embarking on my postdoc in 2009, I asked Jasper Rine how I can possibly not panic about the funding situation. He told me that we were in a crisis, but NIH only acts in times of crisis and things would be fixed by the time I would be applying for grants. Four years later, when I left academia, what was the crisis in 2009 felt like “the good times.” But I’m relieved to see that even though it has taken longer than Jasper predicted, NIH is clearly aware of the crisis and is working feverishly to fix it. However, NIH cannot do it by itself. So, the efforts by the science societies like ASCB and the one that asked me to serve on the committee for diverse careers, and most of all, the students and postdocs becoming active in the conversation - that is the missing piece of the puzzle.
Shirley Tilghman mentioned that when she, Marc, and Bruce were starting as junior faculty, it was the golden age of biology. What struck me is that I threw myself from math and computer science into biology in 2003 precisely because, like physics in the early 20th century, it felt to me that biology was just entering the golden age. And today, 12 years after I started graduate school, I still feel passionately that biology is exactly in the golden age. It’s in the golden age in terms of the research that we can now do, the tools, and the possibilities. That is precisely why it has been so heartbreaking for me to see the research undermined by stupid but tricky structural forces. Finally, I am again inspired and cautiously optimistic that perhaps soon enough, being an academic scientist in this golden age of biology will be fun again.