Has a career in science become a dog’s life?

A dog's life

Ginger, after retrieving a gazillion tennis balls on a beautiful Sunday morning.

“A dog’s life?” Certainly a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one; at least for this dog, life is good. Adopted by a loving family, huge walks walks and car rides, tennis balls galore, good food and lots of treats. I only wish a career in science were more like a dog’s life.

Scientists (and I speak of the US, although the trend is fairly global), on the other hand, can only aspire to a dog’s life. Scientifically speaking, most of us are going from “meal to meal,” hoping someone will throw us a bone. Morale is at an all time low–at least since I’ve been in this profession.

Most active scientists today are either losing personnel, or in the process of trimming down. To be blunt, this means letting go of post-docs who are not yet trained to go to the next stage, or valued technologists who are essential for maintaining continuity in the lab. The pressures on the grant system are immense. The so-called sequester in the US, coupled with flat budgets for NIH have led to a situation where researchers are being squeezed from every angle. Salaries of employees continue to increase with inflation, at approximately 2-3% year. There is a concomitant increase in the cost of reagents, equipment, service contracts, etc. And yet the size of the typical government awards has not increased in many years–if anything, budgets are continually being adjusted and decreased. In order to keep the number of awards from dropping.

Personally, I have been fortunate, so far. But the wolves are howling at the door of my lab, too. I recently submitted a renewal proposal to continue a very successful collaborative project with a structural biology colleague–but I succumb to doubts and worries that continually work their way into my brain. Without being able to renew this project, not only will we be forced to part with a very exciting collaborative project, but I will be forced to make difficult personnel decisions for the coming year. It’s nice to maintain an optimistic face, but with real-life people involved–who have families and their own financial obligations–I can’t help thinking that “I didn’t sign up for this.” Well I did, but this is the sad and dark underbelly of being a scientist.

My pessimism comes from my duties on the other side of the coin: grant review. Truth be told, reviewers seem to be doing an extraordinary job in maintaining sanity and struggling to support the very best of science. There is so much good science, but having to rank grants with one another, and knowing that often only the top 10% will be funded (or fewer!)–this means that each reviewer identified her/his top grant, and the others, as great as they may be, will just not make it.

The problem is that the review process demands “high impact” from the proposals, so that the taxpayers are getting their “bang for the buck.” But high impact is often subjective, if not outright impossible to measure. It’s often the dilemma of comparing apples to oranges: can one really compare 2 proposals on different topics–especially if both are written by strong researchers?

To compound things, my perception is that university departments and institutes continue to hire new investigators even though the system is jammed up. And why shouldn’t they? A department’s ranking is measured exclusively by the number of grant dollars obtained. 50 faculty members bringing in $20,000,000 beats 20 faculty members bringing in $19,000,000. In analogy, many researchers’ scientific output is measured by their total publications (however one categorizes impact) and findings, with no accounting for the number of personnel or dollars used for that output. So, hiring more faculty, even with the limited success rate of proposals being funded, makes sense from the standpoint of a university or institute. After all, those who do not bring home grant dollars can always be denied tenure and replaced in a few years with a new crop of eager investigators.

Meanwhile, statistics show that 3 groups of investigators are being especially hit hard by the economic reality of today’s science: 1) New investigators, of whom many simply don’t reach tenure goals, 2) mid-career investigators, particularly those who received national funding and are finding it difficult to renew their first grant, and 3) established investigators who have been funded for many years for solid research, and whose science is no longer considered avant-garde enough to compete.

And if these issues are not enough to depress the average scientific researcher these days (and believe me, they are), it seems as though the past couple of years have seen a huge increase in the demands on researchers’ time. By this, I don’t mean our bread and butter, like serving on review panels, editorial boards, teaching, and so on. I mean pure bureaucracy. Reports, surveys, forms, authorizations, compliance, etc. all seem to have proliferated exponentially. Like adding salt to the wounds. Some days, I’m afraid of opening my email…

What is to be done? The scientific community needs to continue to reach out to the public and advocate the incredible importance of science and biomedical science. To better educate the public and its leaders of the need to support science as a national/global priority. To inform the public of the huge economic boom that science brings, in addition to the obvious and less obvious advances in science itself. But it may also be time for big science to take a close look at its own system, and determine how we can make science careers sustainable and, well, at least metaphorically less like a dog’s life.


About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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