How the funding of science suppresses diversity

20 04 2015

A fair warning, what follows is not going to be the most articulate, well written piece on this I have a kid whose midnight wake up is coming up.

Last week Dr.Hollenbach wrote a blog describing how he’s closing his lab. If you look at him, he is the stereotypical image that pops up when you use google image with the word scientist. Though they’ve added some females and a splattering of color since Dr.Isis last did this. The stereotypical guy in science didn’t make it. If you read Namaste, Ish at Drugmonkey’s or even DrugMonkeys own take on it, Dr.Hollenbach failed because he wasn’t productive enough.

At least that is how I read it. He was not doing cool enough, exciting enough science, fast enough. The fast enough is what it comes to. The funding climate is crap, both above and below the 49th parallel. Pressure is on PIs to publish in high impact journals. Its getting hard and harder to publish. Only the elite of an already elite group (of intelligent, hardworking people) are successful.

Here is what all the above looks like to a non-stereotypical soon to be PhD:

– In my field of study (broadly cell biology in a fly model system), 10 years ago the PhDs at the time were graduating with 4-5 papers. Most had at least 3 papers because the data within a thesis chapter was thought to be equivalent to the data required for a paper. That does not happen now. Most of my cohort has 1 submitted paper. Some have 1 published IF they were collaborating with another person. Which means its a shared first author publication. At my last committee meeting, I was told to write up as I had enough data for 1 paper submission and additional data for another chapter, as it told a story. It clearly showed differences in the role of two proteins. I have not shown why or how these proteins have different roles. Most likely I can not publish that data until I can define at least 1 of the processes that Protein A is involved in but Protein B is not. This is not a simple or non-time consuming project. In the end, I will have 2 maybe 3 papers IF I”m lucky enough for my PI to be able to keep me on after I defend (i’m not because of a lack of funding!!). I will need to because most papers are not accepted in the first submission. Yes I have started the “for reviewers” experiments, or at least the ones I can think of. High productivity in a tough publishing environment stacks the deck against you from the start. Now what if you have diverse students? Smart students with physical disabilities that slow them down or require them to work less hours? What if english is a second language so they take longer to master concepts? What if the student has a kid or two while doing their PhD? How will that impact the PI’s productivity?

I am 1 of 6 students. I have taken a total of 2 years off for mat leave and have essentially worked part time over the last 2 years as I could not afford fulltime care for my kids. I do not complete my science as quickly as someone that can put in 12 hour days/ 7 days a week. Even if I had fulltime childcare, I would be working 9-5. I can not come in on the weekends. Of course I work at night. I regularly analyze my data from 9pm-1am. I am a drag to my PI. Not because “hands” are good. They are great. I am extremely good at what I do. I will not give conclusive statements until I’ve repeated an experiment more than 3x. My PI knows that every thing I do has been  quadrupled checked.  My lack of availability means I’m not getting my data into a paper fast enough. No matter how much I work at night, I am limited by the time I can spend in the lab. If I don’t get the data for a paper, My PI can’t apply for grants.

We had a not so good student before me and a crappy postdoc so that equals 6 years of science not published. This can happen to many PIs. One bad student or one bad postdoc and they are screwed. We also had an AWESOME postdoc and a good student. Both got 2 publications since I’ve been in the lab. This means in 6 years we’ve had 4 publications. Not good according to DrugMonkey and Namaste, Ish.

The lab next door? The PI is exactly like Dr. Hollenback. A good mentor, I’ve known five of his students all but one have been really happy. The one that wasn’t happy, had issues outside of hir abilities in the lab, but those issues effected hir science and s/he  did not publish. The crappy student cost the PI to lose funding for a round. He rebounded but didnt get a renewal again and had to let his amazing lab manager go. It was a pretty shitty time. He’s gone into admin parttime…..

You’ve gotten to the bottom of this and you’re asking. WTF does this have to do with diversity in science? Everything. My PI has been amazingly supportive of me (outside of the thesis fiasco), despite the fact that I am hurting her productivity simply for being a parent with a working spouse.

I am not fast. I am through. I am knowledgeable and I am not slow. I am graduating with my cohort despite taking a year off and working parttime. But I am still not fast enough. I am not productive enough. I am not writing the papers that get my PI into C/N/S.

Those papers that are the fundamentally awesome papers that move fields forward are not in CNS. As I write my thesis and dive into the literature, I’ve noticed the papers that started areas of research or made groundbreaking observations were published in Development, Developmental Biology and other society journals. Really crappy papers got published in higher impact journals (and the society journals) not because of the science but because of the (male) senior author(s).

I am a parent with 2 kids. I am not going out to dinner, staying for the pizza/beer/science chit chat to network so that I too can get my name recognized. I can’t as I have kids I have to pick up from childcare.  I”m not going out to lunch / coffer for the science chat / networking. I can not because I have to get my shit done so I can leave at 2:30 to pick up my kid. Which means no one knows who I am. The scientist without the partner / kids / ageing parents.  They can focus.

This isn’t a male / female issue. The funding climate is selecting for people who can work 24/7. The ones with a partner at home (usually female) or without a partner or family obligations. I am not a good choice for a postdoc, not because I am not capable, not intelligent but because I can not make your lab 110% my priority. When “the small grocers” can no longer survive because you’ve starved them out you get WALMART science.

Why would I, the poster child of diversity for science want to stay where I am not welcome?




7 responses

21 04 2015
Drug Monkey

4 pubs in 6 years isn’t great absent other info but again, it can depend on circumstances. Expectations of the job type and subfield. Productivity in the years before and after. There are programs that seem to splurt out a run of papers one year, then fall in a hole the next, then repeat.

Maybe a new model is under development and will result in high production after the first few years.

And everyone knows at some level that stuff can just go wrong for a few years.

21 04 2015

But it is quite scary how a bad run can essentially sink you – a crop of unproductive students/postdocs results in no or few pubs, makes grants hard to renew, which makes funds tight and impossible to hire anyone else to finish the projects left behind by that bad crop, and then research grinds to a halt. There is very little, or basically no room for error.

21 04 2015

“One bad student or one bad postdoc and they are screwed”

Ain’t it the truth. What had been my lab’s bread and butter project is on life support thanks to a bad postdoc. Fortunately another project succeeded beyond all expectations at around the same time and saved us.

Nice to be reminded that you’re never more than a run of bad luck away from doom.

21 04 2015

Exactly. How / where does the student/post-doc with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis or with kids fit in this situation?

21 04 2015

In our situation is a combination of unproductive post-doc. The student has moved on from science and although would love to have their data published is not pushing it out. I have tried to move that paper along but I’m also focused on my own stuff.

21 04 2015

I’ve actually been reading his papers, and the more I read, the more I think it’s not a lack of productivity, so much as an inability to “sell” his work and clearly state how he’s advancing the field. If this continued into his grants, it could be why he wasn’t funded.
I know plenty of labs that get plenty of funding based on 3-5 papers every 5 years. Hell, the lab I’m in has 2 RO1’s and pioneer and has three publications in the last decade. But you 1) have to play the impact factor game and 2) hype your own work (often to the detriment of others). Maybe that’s what he was alluding to about “unbridled ambition”.

24 04 2015
Recommended Reads #51 | Small Pond Science

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