Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The big lab/small lab conundrum

Jan Bruegel the Elder - Landscape of Paradise and Loading of
the Animals on the Ark
I wish things were as simple as Dr. Jon Lorsch, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, describes in his video here, envisioning a scientific environment of many small labs, each with $300-500K in funding tops, developing exciting new ideas. Everyone has different focuses, making breakthroughs in many fields. PIs unburdened by writing grants and spending appropriate time mentoring the manageable number of people in their labs, so the everyone is happy and gets a job.
Meanwhile, at the Society for Neuroscience Meeting in Chicago, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the entire National Institutes of Health, talks about supporting more science "super stars" using the R35 mechanisms, the Outstanding Investigator Award (NINDS call here). Giving exceptional scientists $750K per year for 8 years to do as they please, not much different from the MIRA awards that Lorsch himself had introduced last year (or HHMI funding).

So which is it? As young investigators, where do we fit? How do we plan? What if you're not a superstar or you don't meet their superstar definition? What if the current funding climate will never allow you to get sufficient funding to become a superstar or just a simple yellow star? How is a small lab PI going to compete? What if people leave and you have to start over again and again?

I will recount a story. Recently a huge paper came out in a fancy journal describing a new finding and was picked up by the popular press as a magnificent breakthrough. I first heard of that hypothesis at a small meeting three years ago from a young investigator who was chatting with one of the leaders in her field. He told her they had some inkling that it could be true and she should pursue it. The fact is that she couldn't. From my estimation, that project cost upwards of half a million dollars with expertise from multiple people and a kick-ass computing cluster. The technology development alone was staggering. I'm in a similar boat. I have been fighting for the better part of a year to put together all the collaborators for a ridiculously ambitious NIH grant and most likely the NIH is not going to believe me. I think it's a great idea and I think it's feasible, but I cannot do it alone because the number of people and the resources I need are just too many and most are not available at my university. Getting everyone to work together it really tricky and exhausting...(Note: grant was triaged)

While I applaud Lorsch's intent, in light of what I'm going through, his statements terrify me.  Also I find this concept that labs with lots of money are hotbeds for unproductive trainees kind of insulting. I did my postdoc in a multimillion $ lab for the reason that I would be free to do anything I wanted with as much money I wanted. The project I want to propose right now would be a regular one there and the NIH would fund it in a heartbeat. Unburdened by budgetary issues, I've seen trainees accomplish astonishing feats (with very limited PI interference, luckily). There are some things in science that you can only do with lots and lots of money. In the time of multi-omics and cohort replications in male and female mice project costs are skyrocketing. Plus it would be really nice if we could make some of our postdocs staff scientists requiring some hefty salaries.

So I'm kind of annoyed, because the truth is that we need more research funding, so that the big labs can do their big lab thing, the little labs can thrive and sometimes play with the big labs. And while I'm at it, universities should be less greedy and a bit more supportive...so that people don't have to have one R01 just to pay for their salary. Here I said it, now discuss. My R01 is getting reviewed next week so I'm here just to rant.


  1. Nony (aka Anonymous)October 21, 2015 at 12:59 AM

    "Also I find this concept that labs with lots of money are hotbeds for unproductive trainees kind of insulting."

    Well, I have no experience being in a lab with lots of $$, but I can tell you that small labs (1-5 students/trainees) don't necessarily mean that the PI is spending quality time on mentoring. My PI sure isn't. He talks about how he wishes he had more time to spend in the lab, but I suspect he is rather glad not to be at the bench anymore. Considering the level of experience of his students, he really should be supervising them a lot more closely, IMHO. (We've had some embarrassing reviews on papers as a result.)

    The truth is that most PIs aren't naturally good managers; I mean, most people in general aren't, are they? It's a learned skill. And academia teaches PIs that that's not a skill worth learning. If you have a small lab, "management" is easier. With a big lab, you really have to know what you're doing and take the time to develop some infrastructure if you want to be successful. So I agree with your statement above.

    I'm heading off to a "big" wealthy lab for a postdoc soon. I hope that experience doesn't end up proving me wrong.

    1. Yes, you raise a very good point which I didn't make clear. Mentoring can be bad or good in a small or a big lab. It's PI dependent. I've had to review papers from people I know and had to refrain from bluntly saying "Did you actually read this before you let your student send it in?"

      As for heading out to a big wealthy lab for postdoc, a few pointers. The boss may or may not be a better mentor, but as long as they leave you alone, you'll have the resources to kick your science up a notch. As I mentioned before, my postdoc mentor was my source of money and prestige and I found other mentors to actually talk to me about career stuff. Big and wealthy women tend to me more prone to take you under their wings, get to know them if your boss is a male. I was forced to assemble a mentoring committee for my K99 application and that was a godsend because everyone on it took it really seriously. In your first couple of years there start identifying people you could tap to mentor you. :)

    2. Thanks for the advice! :-)