Apparently there’s a word for it.
I did it once, when I went to work at a small (and doomed) startup company in Cambridge, back in the tail end of 1997. I did it again four and a bit years ago, when I left the lab for the last time and went to work for F1000.
The word is ‘leakage’. I learned it this morning when we (that is, representatives from Science is Vital) went to BIS and delivered our report into the hands of the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts.
Within academia, at least those parts involved in scientific research, there is more than a little snobbishness. If you’re not doing research in a university, you are wasting your life. My move into industry in 1997 elicited much bile from my boss at the time. Having actually done a postdoc, and then to consider going outside the hallowed labs of academia, was unthinkable. When, a couple of years later, I stormed out of the company in disgust, managing to land a rather nice postdoc position at the MRC-LMB, I once again came across the attitude. Why would anybody care about working outside academia (actually, the guy who recruited me did ask me to my face if I was mad, wanting to come back)? Why, even, would anybody care about public engagement and scientific communication? A waste of time. And as for leaving research altogether… Unthinkable.
As I say, I’ve leaked twice. So has Prateek. And the thing about scientific research as an economic driver is that leakage is a requirement. If we’re going to turn bright ideas and esoteric observations into something that will make money or improve lives (or preferably both) then you need people to make that move—to take the training they receive at universities and bring it into the outside world. Why within academia this is seen as a bad thing is frankly beyond me.
I am convinced that the work I do at this medical communications agency nobody has ever heard of is bringing more benefits to humanity (and the Chancellor of the Exchequer) than any amount of my fiddling around with an obscure RNA-binding zinc finger protein could have done. Yes, of course we need breakthroughs, and those breakthroughs come from obscure and esoteric discoveries, but for the vast majority of scientists that’s not going to happen—or if it does, it won’t happen in their lifetime.
So why should we leakers be looked down upon?
I suspect there is a fair amount of jealousy involved. I have an interesting and fulfilling career, and while I do have to work unearthly hours sometimes, at least there is a strong correlation between effort and results (which, as anybody who has spent nine months trying to crystallize one tiny little protein will tell you, is a state of affairs not to be sniffed at).
Only this week I received an email (yet another email, if the truth be known) from someone who has worked in an academic lab for twenty years, is fed up with it and doesn’t know what to do. Why are we not showing people, young scientists, that slaving away in an academic lab is not nirvana; that there is a plethora of science-related careers that are more than respectable? That the coveted principal investigator position is simply a pipe dream, and that rather than trying to swim to Mars most of us should find a different dream instead?
It worked for me.
In fact, when I got back to the office after meeting with the minister I landed a hundred grand’s worth of business for the company. (And I’m creative—I’m not even in business development!) That’s just the value to us—which will go to salaries and thence to goods and services and taxes. If we do a good job, the company that hired us will also benefit, to say nothing of the people whose lives will be improved when the drug gets to market.
Yeah. I leaked. And career-wise it was the best thing I ever did.
By the way: we’re hiring. Drop me a line.