On leakage

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.

A couple of my Science is Vital co-conspirators have also done it: Jenny (who went from academia to industry and thence to publishing) and Prateek, who like me has done it twice.

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.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
This entry was posted in Careers, Science is Vital, The stupid, it burns, Work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to On leakage

  1. Nat Marshall says:

    I dunno if that’s a universal scientific attitude. We ‘leak’ so bad round here that we’re bascially working in a colander. All our clinicians go back to clinics, some people go to the drug industry/manufacturers, some to regulators, some to academia. It’s not looked down on at all around my watering hole.

  2. Perhaps this is a Golden Triangle thing, Richard – I mean the

    “Leave academia? But why on earth would you do that, dear boy?”

    – kind of thing.

    Out in the UK Beyond OxLondBridge, it has been a racing certainty for most of the last two decades that the majority of the grad students we train, and indeed the postdocs, won’t end up doing research in Univs long-term. BTW, med comms has been by a distance the biggest mopper-upper of the pharmacology/ physiology PhDs we’ve trained in Manchester over the last decade and a half.

    Of course, one of the bigger still-in-the-laboratory employers of our NW of E bioscience postdoctoral folk has been Astrazeneca at Alderley, who are now re-locating to… Cambridge.


  3. rpg says:

    It’s probably not universal, and might even be a disease of the kind Austin describes. But it comes from the strangest people and I was quite reassured to discover it wasn’t just me!

  4. rpg says:

    Actually, Jenny wrote about something similar—I can’t find it now, but this snobbishness isn’t confined to the Triangle. At least, not the part about leakage from research. She tells the story of sitting on a conference bus (I think) listening to two old farts wibbling about ‘failed scientists’. By which (if I have the archetype right) they would have meant people who stopped working in an academic lab and got a real job.

  5. Laurence Cox says:

    I can remember the same attitude amongst the academics when I left Sheffield University after my first degree in Physics. When people judge scientific success by the papers they author, it is hardly surprising that academics look down on those who are in industry. Change the criteria to Queen’ s Awards for Industry and MacRobert prizes and the whole landscape looks completely different.

  6. Colin Rosenthal says:

    I used to work in astro. I can honestly say I never heard anything like this, or indeed anything negative about public outreach (although certain _specific_ public-outreachers got a fair amount of stick).

  7. rpg says:

    Interesting, Colin. May I ask where that was?

  8. cromercrox says:

    Pah. You are just venturing into middle-age, in which, dear boy, one must make friends with such things as leakage.

    Did you say you were hiring?

  9. rpg says:

    In Soviet Russia, middle age enters *you*.

    Yes, I did. Not sure that we’re 100% keen on 100% home-working (given the rather eclectic nature of the job) but we often hire freelancers. There might be something there that might suit.

  10. cromercrox says:

    Have my people contact your people. Or something.

  11. cromercrox says:

    But srsly, I’m surprised such snobbish attitudes in science still exist. As we all know, only a few get to be PI, so there is likely to be an enormous exodus of people from the pursuit of pure science. Many years ago when the world was young (OK, it was 1987) and I was a graduate student, I went on a residential course funded by my then research council whose explicit aim was to show grad students that careers outside pure science existed, and, Heavens to Betsy, that they might be fun, worthwhile even. I remember that course with great affection. It was something of an eye-opener.

  12. rpg says:

    Yah. I’m not at liberty to reveal what was said yesterday, but the attitude does persist, and actually in more subtle forms than I’ve caricatured above. For example, on Facebook Eva is talking about ‘alternative’ careers rather than ‘leakage’; which shows that we’re wrong-headed to start with. It is, as I’ve written previously, the academic science career that is ‘alternative’.

    That you have to write “show grad students that careers outside pure science existed” and ” It was something of an eye-opener” is a damning indictment of the system we currently have. Why do we even have to tell grad students this? It should be obvious from the start.

  13. tusienka says:

    You’re so right. It’s great to do research and have a passion for it but who else, if not scientists, should take on the challenge of communicating research to the world. We need to stay open to opportunities in different aspects of our science-making and respect each single one of them. Thank you for the post!

  14. Being of a similar vintage to Henry, I remember being sent an advert for one of those courses (were they called ‘Graduate Schools’?) but never getting around to going. Which I quite regret, looking back.

    As I said above, agree about such snobbishness being increasingly rare. There must be few labs left where it would be a normal expectation that all (or even most) of the postdocs are going to become PIs in their turn. Partly the point of my comment up above that I find it hard to imagine these attitudes hang on other than in the small number of institutions/labs which still see themselves as ‘the eliite’.

  15. cromercrox says:

    That you have to write “show grad students that careers outside pure science existed” and ” It was something of an eye-opener” is a damning indictment of the system we currently have.

    Hang on, old bean, that was then. People now walk the Earth with Ph.D.s who weren’t born then. If indictments are to be bandied about, damning or just mildly irritated, it is towards those places where such attitudes still persist, transgenerationally, or something.

  16. I actually think academic attitudes have shifted markedly in the past five years. At my previous institute, the group leaders organized regular pizza/beer meetings for the PhD students to meet representatives from people in various science-related industries (often alumni of the institute itself). There is funding at UCL for internships in for science students in business placements and a large department that deals with coordinating these efforts.

  17. cromercrox says:

    @Austin Being of a similar vintage to Henry, I remember being sent an advert for one of those courses (were they called ‘Graduate Schools’?) but never getting around to going. Which I quite regret, looking back.

    To be fair, I was coming to the end of my Ph.D., had already decided to leave science, and had already made inquiries about journalism. As I recall my application to join Your Favourite &c was already in train – so I guess I was somewhat self-selected. But it was a fab few days. Lots of hot-blooded, excited, intelligent young people all gathered together in a cave and grooving with a Pict. There was a great deal of drinking. And other things.

  18. @rpg –

    I think it IS obvious now, but it wasn’t when Henry and I were grad students in the mid-to-late 80s.

    Back then it was still ‘normal’ expectation that the path after a PhD was a postdoc, or more likely two, and then a junior Faculty job. But there were many less PhD students (and postdocs) around then than became the case by the mid 90s.

    For instance, I was a PhD student 1983-7 in the Physiology Dept at UCL (rated 5, the top grading, in the first ever RAE in ’86, along with I think two or three other Physiology Depts). There were something like two dozen PIs in the Dept, but in my year group (which was typical) there were only four PhD students, so maybe only a dozen PhD students in the Dept overall, across all PhD years, thus notably less than one per PI.

    Under such circumstances the basic arithmetic says it was not such an unreasonable thought that many of the PhD students would end up as lab PIs, and a fair number actually did.

    However, clearly those days are long gone, and, like everyone else commenting here, I am surprised there are people who haven’t noticed.

  19. Joaquin says:

    I think that, very often, one needs more courage to leave academia than to remain in it… clearly peerage in Academia is not very friendly: apart from a crooked “peer review”, we have a rather nasty “peer pressure” 🙂

  20. cromercrox says:

    What Joaquin said.

  21. Grant says:

    “I’ve written previously, the academic science career that is ‘alternative’.”

    I swear you’ve stolen my line, there. I swear!

    Seriously, I agree. I wrote similar thoughts as the stats shown the majority left academia, so academia had to be the exception not the rule.

    For what it’s worth I often feel my work as a computational biology consultant has me in between both, as I work with both academic and commercial research groups.

  22. rpg says:

    Yeah, I think there is a zeitgeist to be embraced, here.

  23. Also a leaker… one academic postdoc then into industry for six years. You could maybe argue that even though I returned to an academic research group, I’m still leaking because I’m not a staff scientist/professor per se. Would you classify things like research administration, facility operations, or group management (as opposed to “group leader” in the PI sense) as leaking as well?

    I’ve probably said this before, but the father of a good friend of mine, who is a (now long) retired chemistry professor, told me that when he was hired it was almost expected that chemists going into professorships would have worked in industry for a time (as he did). Attitudes vary from field to field as well as from era to era, I guess. No idea if chemistry is like this now or not.

  24. rpg says:

    Admin isn’t just leakage, it’s down the pipes and through the U-bend.

  25. Steve Caplan says:

    Here in the business-oriented US of A, I think that if we use the leakage analogy, those of us still struggling in academia feel as though we’ve been caught with our pants down…

  26. rpg says:

    It’s more like they’re ‘leaking’ on you…

  27. Steve Caplan says:

    You should start your own whistle blowing company: RPG-Leaks

Comments are closed.