Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Problem with Research in this Country

'Professional Postdoc' in the Chemical Sciences

After getting a B.S. degree with a major in chemistry with honors, followed by a Ph.D., postdoctoral training at a top chemical institute, and over 10 scientific publications, I was ready to fulfill my childhood dream of solving scientific problems by spending hours alone in a lab. And I did…by doing some more postdoctoral training! And now I’m unemployed! Yikes! Where did it all go wrong?!

Well, you could argue that I didn’t get good quality mentorship, or I didn’t network effectively or maybe I just wasn’t that good as a scientist. I have an alternative hypothesis for my predicament: There is a lack of good quality, scientific jobs for exceedingly well-trained scientists in this country. Now, let’s just be good scientists and assume that the hypothesis is valid. Why would this be so? Consider the structure of the scientific research enterprise in the US, in its simplest form:

1. Scientific administrators hand out billions of dollars to research groups

2. Mini-empire-like research groups headed by a leader apply for these funds to meet their own research agendas

3. Many, many underpaid, overworked and well trained postdoctoral support staff keep the projects moving forward – and in many cases, initiate, develop and complete the scientific studies!

Look, a typical postdoc should get 2 to 3 years of training under the supervision of an experienced scientist. But in my experience, I have come across so many PhDs that are looking to postdoctoral positions, adjunct faculty and teaching only positions at R1 universities as a survival mechanism until something better comes along. Well, the reality is that something better usually does not come along.

Potential solution:

Wouldn’t it be more efficient and more scientifically productive to break large groups of scientists being forced into one research direction, into smaller groups of independent researchers, each using a unique approach to solving the world’s scientific mysteries? And then have these research groups supported by science technicians that are trained and paid to work as technicians? From my perspective, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm campus in Ashburn, Virginia, may serve as the prime example of the way things should be. At this campus, the philosophy is to attract both senior (group leaders) and aspiring (fellows) scientists to conduct independent scientific research in an environment that fosters cross-interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues on and off site (…yes, I did get that from their home page By design, the groups that are lead by “group leaders” and the “fellows” are relatively small, and according to Janeila’s philosophy this is to offer, “…creative scientists freedom from constraints that limit their ability to do ground breaking research.” What a great idea! Maybe this model could produce a flood of good quality jobs for the rest of us!

The anonymous contributor is a former postdoctoral scholar in the chemical sciences.