Cull defense

Nov 11 2011 Published by under Careers

My last post probably depressed a few people. Hopefully it got even more thinking. And the smart ones planning.

So, how can we survive the likely academic research cull?

The answer is we can't. At least not everyone. But there are things I'll be doing to try and optimize the chances of my survival.

Maybe you should too.

1) Work to prevent the cull in the first place.

Okay, maybe a better way to put it is work to block what is already a cull in progress...

The only way to prevent a massive cull is for there to be a massive influx of money into the budgets of the funding agencies (NIH, NSF, DOE, USDA etc.). Given the current economic climate that seems rather... unlikely. Nonetheless, the argument can be made that a healthy (i.e. higher) level of research funding will help pull the economy out of the toilet and help prevent it from going that way in the future. Call and write your congress-critters and advocate for more funding. DrugMonkey has been a consistent advocate of this for as long as I've been reading his blog. I've tried to be consistent about doing this, and will redouble my efforts. Despite my particular congress-critters being more likely to close down the NIH in favor of a National Institute for Faith Healing...

2) Get/keep your lab funded.

Okay, that's a given. This is really the key - it's hard to survive without a research program. This is what you obviously have to put the most effort into. And effort it will take. I can't tell you exactly how to do this beyond read, think, read, plan, read, do experiments, read, think, read, publish, read, write proposals, read, have your proposals critiqued, read, think, read, rewrite proposals, read, think, read, submit, lather, rinse repeat. And read.

Already funded? Good for you. Now try and get some more. This might sound selfish - every extra grant you have is one someone else doesn't have. And maybe that person is about to be dragged down by the pack of jackals circling the herd... Sorry, this is about survival here. It's time to be selfish. Your career comes first.* You can't do anything for others in the herd if you're one of the ones on the trailing edge, in danger of falling behind and being taken out by the jackals. And they be mighty hungry jackals...

Well, there is self-sacrifice. That would free up funding for someone else. But you're not going to do that are you? You've worked too hard to get where you are now.

3) Make yourself invaluable.

And help others while you're at it.

You have skills and knowledge. Mad skills and knowledge that others don't have. Others have skills and knowledge you don't have. See where I'm going with this?

Much of science has gotten to be too big to be done by individual labs. We all have collaborations. We all could have more. Get yourself on your collaborators grants, and them on yours (if you haven't already). As Co-I's. With money. There be strength in numbers.

Think about multi-PI grants. There are people out there who have nothing but multi-PI grants.** I don't personally advocate that approach - I'm old school enough to think you should have a research program all of your own - but I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of this. Multi-PI grants let you think about tackling those interesting problems you've always wanted to go after but don't have sufficient expertise to be lone PI on. Again, strength in numbers.

You already knew all the above, didn't you? What did you expect? I'm no miracle worker.

Finally, if you have tenure and lose your funding, keep your dignity by making yourself useful around the department and university. Pick up some extra teaching and admin work. Help the young ones succeed. No one respects tenured dead wood.

Actually, we all pretty much despise dead wood and would like nothing more than to make a nice cozy bonfire out of them...

* Actually my career comes first. Then yours.
** Yes there are. I know one.

11 responses so far

  • Actually, we all pretty much despise dead wood and would like nothing more than to make a nice cozy bonfire out of them...


  • DrugMonkey says:

    you are certainly recommending a strategy that will enrage the Rock Talk commentariat. selfishness for the good of the herd? hmmm...

    very provocative. how do we know where we draw the line of self-servedness?

    • odyssey says:

      It's hard to know DM. If we assume CPP's assertion that single R01 labs are going the way of the dinosaur is correct (and I'm not totally convinced), then the minimum is two. But ultimately it will be a balance between R01-like funding as PI and the number of multi-PI/Co-I grants you have.

      And it's likely field/sub-field dependent.

  • I'm feeling quite inspired this morning after reading this.

  • Dr. O says:

    Putting your own oxygen mask on before you help others makes perfect sense to me.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Getting extra $$$ as a mere Investigator on another person's grant is a good gig...but as the knives come out for capping total direct costs or # of awards, it will *discourage* collaboration in this way. Who wants to have their own lab limited by the total grant award amount when half the budget is going to someone else?

    • odyssey says:

      One could say something similar about multi-PI awards right now, but my sources all tell me they're seeing a steady increase in those at study section... YMMV.

      Of course if total directs and/or # of grants are capped the rules of the game change. Then it really will be every PI for themselves and screw the rest. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that those kind of changes will really screw science - only the BSD's will be able to do the kind of science that is currently done by small town grocer labs (like mine) via collaboration. More people will have money, but not enough for many of them to really do anything other than science that is very limited in scope.

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