This is such a multi-faceted story I barely know where to start. A recent piece in The Scientist serves as a convenient example of how local research institutes and universities are dealing with shrinking investment income, declining grant success of their staff and a need to think about the future. Although this focuses on one institute and one investigator, no doubt there are other similar situations going on elsewhere.
A news item posted by Elie Dolgin on April 8, 2009 reviews a recent disagreement between the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Stephen F. Heinemann, Ph.D. [lab website]. From the Dolgin piece:
Then the economy tanked, and in January Salk halted all funding stemming from the Salk Institute Council Endowment, which supported Heinemann's endowed chair position and a sizeable chunk of his research. Heinemann still held two grants from the NIH and received support from a private foundation. But with an active mouse research lab that cost north of half a million dollars each year, he couldn't make ends meet without the endowment that paid for 30-40% of his operating costs as well as his salary.
Yeah. I mentioned local Institutions being put in a financial squeeze in a prior post. This is happening all over and affecting faculty and researchers all over the US. These people are feeling quite miffed about the disappearance of funding streams, promised or currently-inhabited research space, increasing cost-recovery and other moves that stem from cashflow problems of their institutions. Of course, NIH funded scientists are royally pissed (as are high undergrad teaching load faculty) because they seem themselves as the golden goose being sacrificed by what appear to be eternally expanding layers of administrative functionaries up to no apparent purpose or good. Whether this is the case at the Salk or not, I don't know. And all we have to go on is the rather Heinemann-sympathetic bit in The Scientist. More of the sob story.
In response, Heinemann laid off six of his remaining staff. A fired postdoc who asked to remain anonymous told The Scientist that the decision to pull the endowment funding came "all of a sudden, without prior discussion." After many years of working at the institute, this postdoc now only has funding until the end of the month.
"I don't know what's going to happen," said Heinemann, 70, who started up his lab at Salk almost four decades ago, but like all Salk professors works on year-to-year contracts funded through grant money alone. "I could easily be out the door." Now, Heinemann is trying to get his students and postdocs jobs elsewhere "before they fire me," he said. Without adequate funding to keep up an active research program, "people aren't going to stay in the lab because it's not a good place to be trained."
All I can do is stare. This situation has complexity, in-fighting and political maneuvering written all over it. There's an allegation that the endowment funding Heinemann's lab was originally funded with cash resulting from intellectual property generated by Heinemann himself- he thinks it belongs to him. Some disagreement as to whether the law permits tapping the principle of the endowment once the interest dries up. The Salk administration gave a no-comment and Heinemann's colleague Rusty Gage was quoted in the piece with what might be seen as a defense of the institute. Ug-ly.
I suspect all we can agree on is that there are some trainees that are going to be in a mighty uncomfortable situation due to no fault of their own. I hope they manage to salvage what they can and move on to their next step in the career path.
The commentary after the piece in The Scientist is... bracing. You might as well read that over. Lots of fighting over the Heinemann lab's productivity (PubMed), whether he should have retired by now, whether he is taking up $$ and space that could support two junior faculty....etc.