Science Twitter is Unhappy


Something struck a nerve with scientists on twitter a couple days ago. Now sardonic gallows humor, rage and genuine confusion fill my twitter feed.

— A- List Scientist (@DListScientist) February 5, 2015



What happened? National Institutes of Health requested that scientists comment on a proposed Emeritus Research Award. The award, according to the summary on the public comment page, would help plan “long term succession planning” , essentially phasing out old laboratory heads with younger, junior faculty, ensuring research continuity. On the face of it the proposal seems reasonable, so why are scientists on Twitter upset about it? To put it succinctly, the funding ecosystem stinks.


One of the first articles I wrote for Queereka addressed the tenuous funding situation of graduate students and how some of them had resorted to an ad-hoc collectivism to survive. The funding situation has not gotten any better since then; only one out of six research proposals receives funding. Inflation has cost the NIH at least a quarter of its purchasing power over the last decade. During the Ebola outbreak, NIH Director Francis Collins blamed bipartisan funding cuts over the last decade and the 2013 Sequestration for the lack of Ebola vaccine. Scientists, in general, are opening labs later and later in life or finding themselves unemployed. The opportunity cost to be a scientist, is high. One popular post estimates that the cost of your first post-doctoral position is about $200,000, essentially the cost of raising a child. Scientists are being squeezed.



On the Deputy Director for Extramural Research’s blog, Rock Talk, the comments have a similar tone. Some scientists, however, support the idea of putting a transitory mechanism in place for older researchers. Jeremy Berg, a former director of the National Institute of General Medicine Sciences at the NIH summarizes the problem with the proposal succinctly on his blog Datahound. To summarize, a grant recipient can nominate a qualified recipient to take over for them. Scientists already train dozens of junior scientists over their careers so “succession planning” could easily solve itself. Moreover, Jeremy argues, proposing this kind of grant for established, retiring researchers is tone-deaf.

Speaking personally, as a graduate student in a small, underfunded lab, I’m inclined to agree. The proposed grant is a solution seeking a problem. The people it would target are the very people who already have monetary, institutional, and social support from the scientific community, the least vulnerable. I wouldn’t call this a golden parachute but it’s shiny and yellow.

Public comment is ongoing until March 3. For the majority of you who, presumably, aren’t scientists I urge you to bother your local representatives. Have them increase funding to the NIH and NSF. Have them ask questions about the career outcomes of young scientists. Have them do something so this embarrassing idea doesn’t actually take root at the NIH and stack the deck against young scientists than it already is.

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