Thursday, October 5, 2017

Are academic scientists cogs in the machine of education corporations?

My last post focused on how to motivate lab members during the last stretch of the tenure track and it spurred by far the most lively and interesting conversation we've had on this blog. The discussion touched many topics regarding motivation, results-only work environments, and how to run a lab in general. But there is one topic that often finds people deeply divided.

Are we as academic scientists running a small business renting space from a larger corporation (the university)? And if yes, is this attitude damaging how we train our students and postdocs?

Having grown up in a country where most universities are public, affordable and open to everyone, I have spent my entire career in the US grappling with this question and feeling uncomfortable when people extol the "tuition-driven" model, which for academic biomedical research becomes the "grant-driven" model. I'm not naive, I get how the cash flow will provide better services for students and more resources for researchers. But the cash flow also leads to the corporatization of education and research. The moment an institution starts to correlate space given to a lab with indirect recovery on grants on a bi-annual basis, research becomes a product...I will not digress on how this may push people to make bigger claims than necessary or to cut corners.

I think many of us, new principal investigators, who have finally seem how the sausage gets made feel uncomfortable, as we are pulled between an ideal and the reality. The ideal is that I would like to be like Plato in the Symposium, discussing big ideas with like-minded individuals, training young minds towards major discoveries which will have a lasting impact on mankind. The reality is that I have to be mindful of accounting, HR and facilities, which I constantly write grant proposals to keep everything going. Trainees have to be productive because without money, I cannot keep myself or them employed and even if I find money to pay for their salaries, I still have to pay for all the supplies and reagents they need to do science. So, am I running a small business? All that I know is that in work-related conversations I can relate much more easily with friends in management or with a friend who owns a coffee shop, than with friends teaching in the humanities.

Newly minted Nobel laureate Jeff Hall's comments upon leaving science ring true "Might an institution imagine that it should devote part of its ‘capital fundraising’ toward endowing the ongoing research of its employees — at least so that no such effort would abruptly sink to the null point? The answer is ‘nice try: we will raise funds, but we'll put them all into building buildings — in order to fill them with additional hires, who will be as haplessly on-their-own as is ill-fated you.’ " It is telling that lately Nobel laureates feel the need to say (and I paraphrase) "I would never have made it today" (Peter Higgs, Physics) or "The whole publishing system is messed up" (Randy Schenkman, Physiology and Medicine). I expressed before how I sometimes feel this whole career trajectory is a Ponzi scheme, and that we should call it like it is. If you work for a private university, especially a school of medicine or hospital, you are most likely a cog in a massive money-making operation and it is very clear that if you do not bring in the money, there will be no room for you.

How does this reflect on how we train students and postdocs? I feel like we just need to be honest of the challenges and benefits. As a grad student I was very aware of labs that were on the verge of being shut down down the hall and professor transitioning to pharma and medicine because tenure doesn't mean much when you have to pay 70% of your salary. It helped me shape future strategies for survival and also prepare me for what to expect. I wish I had been exposed to different types of institutions in addition to the "massive fancy school of medicine", so I really try to make a point to show my trainees that there are multiple different ways of being an academic and of doing research...and that as in every job you can look for the right "fit". I also make them aware of the budgetary considerations of running a lab, of the need to look for independent funding for their salaries and their projects, and of the need to get papers done to show productivity. The part of me that would like to be in the Symposium, hates having to chop stories up to get papers out to support a particular grant application. I want my stories to be whole, elegant and solid, but the university and funding agencies want to look at numbers...and so we balance being a cog and dreaming of being a wheel running free on the road.

I think good training can still be achieved independently of the current funding situation and that it is a disservice not showing the students and postdocs what the pressures and considerations of running a lab are. Eventually, talking about it may even get someone to do something to change the system...

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