Having just returned the grant review session at the NIH I thought that this would be a particularly good time to bring up something that has been bothering me for a number of years.
It’s quite sad, but I’ve slowly come to the opinion that in science, just like in economics, money is “the mother of all metrics”. When I was a student, money mattered because without it one could not buy antibodies and other essential reagents. But when it came to comparing which laboratory did better research and made more important discoveries, the measure of all things was always the publication of papers.
As a postdoc at the NIH, money was rarely considered–perhaps because it never was an obstacle for anything. Laboratories received slots for postdoctoral positions based on research productivity. Each postdoctoral position came with the sum of money allotted to the lab for reagents and equipment. So it was only natural to compare the science of one lab with that of another by looking at their publications––as an indication of scientific achievements.
When assuming my position as a principal investigator some years ago, I remember the shock I felt when I attended my first seminar in the new department and heard the introduction of an external speaker. Much praise was heaped on the speaker for the number of grants he held and the number of years he had held them for. On the other hand, relatively little was said about his publication record and most importantly, the seminal findings made by this researcher.
I’ve been talking a lot with one of my senior graduate students recently about options for choosing a postdoctoral laboratory. In the course of these discussions, I realized that an important criteria might be the ability to sum up a researchers life work by several bullet points: in other words, if the researcher is truly been not just productive, but has also managed to progress in some linear fashion within his or her given field, this seemed to me to be of particular importance.
Of course, the researcher needs funding in order to buy reagents and carry out research, but surprisingly there seems to be wide general agreement among many colleagues that I have spoken to that there is some magical number of personnel beyond which a researcher loses his/her optimal per capita output. For example, laboratories that have up to eight researchers-including postdocs, students, and technicians-seem to have more publications per researcher then laboratories that are larger than that. This of course raises the issue as to whether it is wise for funding agencies to continue to heap multiple grants and large sums of money on laboratories that are already well-funded and have huge numbers of people working in them.
Most of us are probably familiar with some of these super-laboratories, where if the number of people working there are disregarded, the output of the PI is phenomenal. For example in a given year such a PI might publish a Cell paper, a Nature paper and a Science paper. These really are outstanding accomplishments. However, if one follows this researcher’s output over time and realizes that there are 19 or 20 postdocs in the lab, and that only 3 to 5 of them are the ones actually publishing these outstanding papers, that leaves a lot of unsuccessful and frustrated postdoctoral fellows behind. Of course, one could argue that in a capitalist type of system, this is the way things work; the top postdocs succeed, and the others, who are either less capable or less lucky, sink.
So when I advise one of my own students or a student from my department who comes to me asking about advice for postdoctoral positions, I often counsel them to take these kinds of issues into consideration. Yes, some of these labs are phenomenal places to train, and present outstanding opportunities for highly motivated, self-sufficient, and yes, lucky postdocs who manage to be in the right place at the right time. However, they do need to take into consideration that if they fall in the category of the 75% whose projects are not headed for Cell, Science, or Nature papers, they need to be aware that they can end up in a difficult situation.
So overall, while money may make the world go round (and grant funding may dazzle the universities), I think it’s critical for us as scientists to remember that money is not the measure of all things. For when we retire or expire, we will not be remembered as the scientist who had this or that much funding, but as the scientist who advanced a certain field by his or her specific findings. I’ll take findings over fundings any day.