Think Like a Cockroach

How I survived an extinction event in biological research.

By | February 1, 2008

Some young biologists might think that funding from the National Institutes of Health has never been harder to get than it is now, but those of us who have been around for a while can remember a period in the early 1990's when NIH funding seemed to all but disappear. I'm talking about 7% paylines at some institutions. I went through a period where I submitted 12 unsuccessful proposals in a row. Somehow I survived along with many of my colleagues, so excuse me if I don't quite feel yet that the apocalypse is upon us. At the time, however, many of us felt exactly that way. We called the dramatic drop in funding "the asteroid strike," in honor of the recently discovered impact site of the asteroid thought to be responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period.

Comparing the drop in NIH funding to a mass-extinction event was made only half in jest, but there were similarities. The extinction event caused by the asteroid was not a direct result of the impact, but of the reduction in sunlight resulting from its cloud of debris. This was postulated to cause the collapse of the food chain, resulting in an estimated 70% reduction in biological diversity.

The sudden drop in NIH funding in the early 1990's had a similar effect. The previous diversity in the NIH research portfolio was reduced to mostly molecular biology and some well-entrenched research areas. Research groups on the fringes - "old-fashioned" research, as in physiology, as well as some newer fields, such as mathematical modeling - found it almost impossible to obtain funding.

I remember asking an NIH research administrator how I could improve my priority score when the evaluation sheet found no fault in my research plan. I was told that the only proposals being funded were from Nobel Prize winners or investigators cloning disease genes. Since my proposal was on modeling endocytosis, I was out of luck.

In essence, the asteroid strike shifted the available ecological niches. Specialized organisms that depended on the lost environments could not manage and became extinct. Those that were robust and flexible lived on, as did others in the few niches that were not destroyed. Although I know a number of scientists who lost their academic jobs during the funding shortfall, I survived, along with many of my colleagues. And we did so by inadvertently following the lesson of cockroaches.

These insects have thrived over the last several hundred million years by being hardy and able to adapt to almost any environment and food source. Instead of being specialists, they are generalists. Taking a similar strategy, I stopped applying for NIH grants in just a single area of research. I obtained a National Science Foundation grant, even though I was in a medical school. I then got a US Army grant, and partnered with other investigators on a gene therapy grant. I even wrote software for BioRad laboratories in my spare time in exchange for lab equipment and supplies. Soon, I had more funding than before and, more importantly, in a variety of different areas of research. This not only helped me survive the tight NIH finding, but also opened my mind to a variety of different research areas.

A recent article from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that NIH research grants do not appear to have a substantial impact on a scientist's total publications or citations.1 The authors propose that this is because high-value projects are funded regardless of the success of any particular grant. I think it also indicates that successful scientists are creative in finding alternate sources of funding.

The current period of funding hardship will pass just as it did before, but it will probably be followed by another downturn in the future. By expanding your research horizons into new areas, you can increase your chance of seeing, and surviving, that one as well.

Steven Wiley is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Fellow and director of PNNL's Biomolecular Systems initiative.

1. B. Jacob, L. Lefgren, "The impact of research grant funding on scientific productivity," National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 13519, October 2007. Available online at www.nber.org/papers/w13519

Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 4

February 21, 2008

The ability of a society to invest its resources into scientific investigations will determine that societies ability to find new discoveries in nature. Our country's future econmic growth is directly related to our ability to develop and apply new technologies. NIH funding is critical in this area. We have exported many of our industrial jobs and should not also export our research into the sciences..which is what will happen by cutting items such as NIH fundings.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

February 25, 2008

Science should not be a "survival" process in academia. Science is hard enough to do without having to worry about submitting 12 proposals in a row without funding.\n\nPersonally, I feel the current situation is unsustainable for anyone who considers their time valuable. If you feel like working second jobs to support your research, I admire your dedication. However, I do not think that this means that you are the best scientist - you are simply the one who is the most dedicated to staying in your current position (which is not much of an indication of anything).\n\nThis type of darwinian approach to weeding out scientists leaves in place the ones who are willing to do anything to stay in academia, and lets go of the ones who are smart enough to not want to waste their time dealing with such funding problems.\n\nDo you really think that this is the smartest way the country should use to decide who should stay in the academic science???\n\nI personally consider it ridiculous. More needs to be done to recruit and retain great people in academic science so that it can be a functional career for the best minds in the country, not just those willing to put up with low pay and ridiculous funding situations.\n\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

February 25, 2008

I lived through the extinction event of the 90's too. The secret for me was to collaborate with clinical investigators and always stay relevant to human disease. Unfortunately, this strategy is not helpful for the current crisis!\n\nIn the early 90's, we saw many scientists pursuing "alternative career paths", including driving taxicabs! Are we headed there again?\n\nRequiring PI's to devote 20% effort is an excellent start at increasing fairness. More attention should be paid to funding low budget efficient science. Unfortunately, cutting training grants will probably be necessary. Choking off the pipeline to the elite and driven few will have long term benefits in maintaining stability and quality of the science work force. \n\nFacing extinction, should we be re-evaluating immigration policies for foreign trainees?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

February 25, 2008

The current hard times may only intensify. We are now at or near the peak of global oil production. We ignored this coming problem for too long and now will have a painful transition. Research priorities will likely shift to energy technology, and overall funds available will likely fall as multiple crises converge - debt crisis, credit crisis, baby boom retirements and declining oil availability. \n\nSell your SUV. Get a bike, plant a garden and install a solar water heater.
Avatar of: Bart Janssen

Bart Janssen

Posts: 5

February 25, 2008

I admire and respect those that can do everything necessary to survive.\n\nBut it's not who survives that it the only important issue.\n\nMany really great creative minds can't cope with the politics and shear bloody-mindedness required to scramble for funding.\n\nWhen we lose those minds from science we lose a way of thinking and a way of approaching scientific problems that is important to us all.\n\nYes some can survive using the approaches described, but some stunning scientific minds just can't do what is described by the author. How much do we all lose when they decide another career makes more sense?
Avatar of: Shanthi Raam

Shanthi Raam

Posts: 43

February 25, 2008

A very truthful, useful and interesting article. I enjoyed reading it. I am among the many who succumbed in the early nineties due to cut backs. Dr.Wiley was fortunate to have had his institution retain him as he was widening his area of research. My institution itself was struggling and it was unable to do so. Although I was in the area of translational research, having discovered a way to distinguish (among the patients slated to receive hormone treatment) the hormone-resistant breast tumors from sensitive ones, while my research was at a crucial stage of validation through nation-wide correlation studies, I was unable to expand the clinical correlation studies nation-wide to validate that prognostic test. So, not every one engaged in clinical studies received support in the early nineties either. I had to be satisfied with the results of our pilot studies. Only other option for me was to get a patent on it and hope that I will get support from the private sector. I am amazed to find that the test not being in the arena of molecular biology failed to attract any attention. Professions such as medicine, engineering, law etc., do not depend on Government grants as the major source of support as science does. This situation needs to change. Our Government and the private sector need to work out a solid plan to change the situation and implement one that will provide a steady income to the scientists, so that they can be productive without being anxious all the time about their basic income. Checks and balances could be put in place to weed out the non-performers. I see NIH itself is moving in that direction and implementing long term,ten year grants of $300,000. Government and the private sector must work together to support the scientists. Failure to do so would have drastic consequences.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 26, 2008

I like all these living things survival and extinction comparisons. I think that in USA and some other countries some scientists extinction could be helped by dominant species active action in extinction. PI's from "excellence groups" have influence enough to advise government agencies to select applications in order to get rid of small-medium groups and increase their importance since if these "small organisms" do not want to dissapear, they will have to join the larger ones.\nReally, this is the strategy of human being with environment, they modify it for growing and if non desired species don't dissapear by themselves, there is always choice for pesticide to use.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 6

February 26, 2008

First, I agree with the author of the article that the key is to be flexible in order to survive. The main point is that academic research is not in fact an ivory tower, it must be responsive to the needs of the nation. In the current climate, we can not afford to fund unproductive scientists who are not working on important problems. Yes, this will push out the creative person who can't publish promptly or the creative person who can not stay focused (or explain their ideas well), but when I look at the successful people in the current climate, they are good communicators able to function as true independent investigators and are funded from a variety of places.\n\nSecond though, a big problem with the current funding climate is the resulting contraction of the pool of Ph.D. students in the system since RO1s fund the education of these folks for the most part. A prior poster suggested that this is good since the pool of new Ph.D.s is too large, however, most bioscience Ph.D.s are employed in non-academic jobs that require their degree (industry, government etc). Our economy still needs us to train these folks, however, new Ph.D.s need to realize that an academic career is not necessarily the height of success. The vast majority of Ph.D. graduates from our program are in industrial jobs making high salaries 8 years from degree (and did not have difficulty getting employment)\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

February 27, 2008

Steven Wiley's article applies not just to the world of clinical research. He has touched on what is clearly a much broader principle not only rooted in ecology, but that also applies across academia (and, as economists will readily tell us, across the business economics sphere). Within the university context, for some years now I have referred to this priciple as "Darwinian Academics", which is (as in nature and as Wiley described), specialists are at a higher risk of going extinct, while generalists are more likely to survive. Here in Canada, the early and mid-90's were also a time a huge federal and provincial budget cut-backs. Not only was there less money for federal research grants, there was less money for everything; university operating budgets were slashed as a result and the impact was systemic (support staff were terminated and/or retirements were not replaced; teaching contracts were severely reduced; no new hires of full-time faculty were made, etc.). It has taken up to the last couple of years just to get back to where things were prior to all the budgetary axes falling, and already federal and provincial governments (and, by extension, university administrations) are cautioning "prudence" for the foreseeable future. In an environment where economic forecasts and predictions can be out of date in a matter of months, "survival" dictates that the university researcher has little choice but to be a generalist and to exhibit as much academic adaptability as they can muster. In this context, I agree with Wiley -- research that is inter-disciplinary/multi-displinary in nature will stand much better odds of making it through economic bottlenecks.

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