Science under siege

Scientists across the US are feeling the sting of decreased funding (photo: USDA)
Scientists across the US are feeling the sting of decreased funding (photo: USDA)

In the United States, the vast majority of scientific studies are performed by federally funded scientists. Science funding was already tight before sequestration began and now the government shutdown is squeezing the system even tighter. This makes it a particularly difficult time to be a scientist in the U.S. (in fact 1/5 scientists have considered leaving the country all together).


AAAS Member Central has a new blog series that examines how sequestration is impacting various components of the scientific enterprise. It does a good job of highlighting the different populations affected by these funding cuts as well as the downstream consequences (decreased productivity, closing of labs, lay offs, strains on private foundations, etc.).

The series thus far:

Stanford grad student: Sequester will have economic consequences

How sequestration is affecting training program directors

Yale lab forced to reduce size by attrition (my interview with Yale professor Lawrence Rizzolo)

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank Conlon: R21 budgets reduced by 5 percent

Federal government shutdown

The partial government shutdown that began Oct. 1 has obvious impacts on the lives and research of the furloughed scientists  and support staff who work at the NIH, NSF, and NASA, but it has far-reaching downstream impacts as well.  To get a feel for the impact on scientists across the nation (and even internationally), you can check out discussions about the shutdown on Twitter (#shutscience) and on reddit (there are some really interesting discussions on this page). Some examples:

  • new patients will not be enrolled in clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health
  • scientists can’t communicate with collaborators who are federal employees or receive supplies from them
  • new grant applications will not be processed, and the processing of existing grants may be drastically slowed
  • seasonal Forest Service scientists have been laid off
  • many government websites that scientists depend on are either not online or are not being updated (NIST resources, for example)
  • Forest Service permits that are required for field research are not being issued and scientists who do research at National Parks are locked out of their field sites (note: this can be a big deal because field work is often seasonal and cannot be stopped or rescheduled)
  • fishing surveys that determine future fish quotas will be incomplete

A silver lining?

Luckily, scientists are resilient, and some researchers are finding ways to continue to work and help their colleagues. For example, there are tales that scientists serving on grant review study sections this week are putting in valiant efforts to prevent the shutdown from slowing down review of their colleagues’ grants. And at least one professor is providing a mirror website for vital NSF forms. Hopefully these creative fixes won’t have to last for long, and the shutdown will end soon–for all our sakes.


Updated clips page

M mammals
My daughter checking out the large mammals at the Harvard Natural History Museum

I’ve updated the clips page with my posts for the American Association for the Advancement of Science blogs from the last few months.

Here are my most recent posts, which are currently available to everyone (older posts are viewable if you are a AAAS member):

Career exploration resources for grad students and postdocs Driving Force May 22nd, 2013

A look at the NIH sequestration policies Capitol Connection May 20th, 2013

Is the ‘High Quality Research Act’ the antithesis of science? Capitol Connection May 20th, 2013

Help budding scientists–be a Science Buddy! AAAS Serves May 10th, 2013

The ‘irreproducibility’ problem Driving Force May 1st, 2013

10 ways scientists can use Twitter and rehab for scientists?


10 ways scientists can benefit from Twitter
I’ll admit that when I first heard about Twitter, I didn’t really understand the fuss (in fact I may have said something like “that sounds like the stupidest idea ever—what could you possibly say in 140 characters?”). But a little over a year ago I listened to a webinar that convinced me to give it a shot.

At the beginning things were slow, and I often felt like I was shouting in an empty room (when not many people are ‘following’ you this feeling is natural). But gradually I developed a network—actually, several networks—that I’ve found really helpful for me personally and for my career. Continue reading…

Can rehab help scientists guilty of misconduct?
Could remediation work for researchers who have committed scientific misconduct? A new program run by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) aims to find out. Continue reading…

It’s time to get real about non-academic job training for biomedical PhDs and postdocs

Last week, Dr. Sally Rockey put up a post on the NIH’s Rock Talk blog clarifying allowable training activities for the different types of NIH postdocs.

Two things stood out to me about this post:

1. It appears that teaching is a supported training exercise for postdocs on NIH fellowships but not for those supported off of research grants.

Someone else in the comment section was surprised by this too so maybe Rockey will clarify this distinction in a later post. Personally, I think teaching should be an NIH-sanctioned activity for all postdocs. A few years ago I went to a career seminar by a new prof at an elite liberal arts college. He said that he thinks he had an advantage in the job search because he had taught a course at a nearby university, but he did this by moonlighting (teaching at night). For postdocs already working long hours on evenings and weekends, or those with families, this kind of moonlighting might be unrealistic. I’d also hazard to say that many grad student and postdoc advisors are already against having their trainees spend signification time on teaching (a job they will eventually do if they become professors of any sort) since it takes time away from research. If the NIH says that significant teaching is not sanctioned for postdocs on research grants (as most postdocs are), this adds credence to those advisors’ views.

2. There is absolutely no mention of career development for non-academic positions.

Can we get real for a minute? We know that we’re training way too many PhDs for them all to be eventually employed as professors (see the NIH’s own report).  What does that mean? It means that a significant number of PhDs and postdocs are going to have to find non-academic jobs. And what does getting a non-academic job require? Time and skills.

The working group report recommends that the NIH create grants for “training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options,” but as far as I know those are just pipe dreams at this point (these recommendations were also made in 1998). What about current grad students and postdocs? What do they do when they decide academia isn’t for them, or that they’re not competitive, or that they just can’t land a TT job after three cycles? They. Need. To. Find. Jobs.

Non-academic jobs (just like academic jobs), do not simply fall from the sky. They require skill building, networking, informational interviews, resume writing and rewriting, job applications, and actual experience (sometimes in the form of an internship). Inherently, all of these things take time away from the research enterprise, but they are necessary. Really. You could argue that grad students and postdocs should be doing these things on their own time, but graduate and postdoctoral training is called TRAINING for a reason. Postdocs are by definition temporary jobs, so career development (not just for academic jobs) should be part of the training. It would be great if the NIH realized this–unless this “alternative career” language they used in the recent report is just a scam.

Is the solution a culture shift?

I think there’s a larger cultural problem with the idea of non-academic careers. Throughout grad school, we’re officially or unofficially trained to become singularly focused on our research. Unfortunately, that means we lose out on the ability to diversify our skills or network with people outside our immediate fields. This is an enormous opportunity cost that really makes it a struggle to find a job once the PhD is in hand. I’ve seen several colleagues struggle with the leap to a non-academic career (as have I).

Yes, grad students and postdocs are wholly responsible for navigating our own careers. We need to be the ones finding opportunities to expand our skill sets and to make connections with people outside academia. But grad program directors and grad student/postdoc advisors can help make their trainees more competitive by encouraging them (many of whom are introverts) to do these things or at the very least not discouraging them when they want to teach a class, participate in outreach activities, or start an internship. I understand there is an inherent conflict of interest here–research papers are the currency of academic science and research output is what creates this currency. But trainees are people–not data-producing robots. They have bills to pay and hopefully futures to plan for.

What can trainees in the pipeline do now? Peter Fiske’s 80:10:10 rule

If you are a grad student or postdoc, the time to start thinking about your future is now. And if you’re in the biomedical sciences, it’s probably prudent to prepare plans A, B, and C given the numbers and the state of the economy. It’s hard to pull yourself away from the bench when you think you need a glamour journal publication to even have a shot at an academic career, but it’s also important. I highly recommend Peter Fiske’s 80:10:10 rule. You spend 80% of your work week working your ass off on your research. 10% goes to personal development and 10% goes to bragging about yourself/networking.  Seriously, read his advice here.

I wish I had put more effort into planning my career as a graduate student. I went to just about every seminar offered by our career center. I participated in three teaching seminar programs. But I didn’t spend nearly enough time doing active career development–like talking to people outside the university, writing articles, or doing an internship. Part of this was out of guilt and the feeling that I should only be focusing on my research. Part of it was fear. And part of it was time simply slipping out of my hands.

I’m making up for lost time now by doing an internship and trying to network on top of a full-time postdoc. But, honestly, this is difficult and exhausting (way more so than writing and defending my dissertation with a 6 month old). I’m thankful to have an incredibly, incredibly understanding and supportive advisor and a husband that picks up my slack with childcare and chores. I know others aren’t so lucky and some are struggling to do these things while unemployed, which is even more difficult in some ways.

My hopes are that people at the NIH, graduate program directors, and grad student/postdoc trainers start to realize the precarious position many biomedical PhDs are in right now. Let’s start encouraging grad students and postdocs to pull their heads out of the sand and to stick them outside the windows of the ivory tower.