We need to encourage more of this

Feb 10 2014 Published by under Academics, Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

An RT Tweet from @betenoire1 was making the rounds of my Twitter feed today. It points to a Facebook polemic from a Leon Avery, Phd. (CV; RePORTER). He says that he is Leaving Science.

I have decided, after 40 years as a lab scientist and 24 years running my own lab, to shut it down and leave. I write this to explain why, for those of my friends and colleagues who’d like to know. The short answer is that I’m tired of being a professor.

Okay, no problem. No problem whatsoever. Dude was appointed in 1990 and has been working his tail off for 24 years at the NIH funded extramural grant game. He's burned out. I get this.

I have never liked being a boss. My happiest years as a scientist were when I was a student and then a postdoc. I knew I wouldn’t like running a lab, and I didn’t like it. This has always been true.
...
My immediate plans are to go back to school and get a degree in Mathematics. This too has been a passion of mine ever since high-school sophomore Geometry, when I first learned what math is really about. And my love of it has increased in recent years as I have learned more. It will be tremendous fun to go back and learn those things that I didn’t have the time or the money to study as an undergrad.

GREAT! This is awesome. You do one thing until you tire of it and then, apparently, you have the ability to retire into a life of the mind. This is FANTASTIC!

So what's the problem? Well, he can't resist taking a few swipes at NIH funded extramural science, even as he admits he was never cut out for this PI stuff from the beginning. And after a long and easy gig (more on that below) he is distressed by the NIH funding situation. And feels like his way of doing science is under specific attack.

For many years NIH was interested in funding basic research as well as research aimed directly at curing diseases. With the tightening funding has come a focus on so-called “translational research”. Now when we apply for funding we have to explain what diseases our work is going to cure.

Ok, actually, this is the "truthy" part that is launching a thousand discussions of the "real problem" at NIH. So I'm going to address this part to make it very clear to his fans and back thumpers what we are talking about. On RePORTER (link above) we find that Dr Avery had one grant for 22 years. Awarded in April of 1991 and his CV lists 1990 as his first appointment. So within 15 mo (but likely 9 mo given typical academic start dates from about July through Sept) he had R01 support that he maintained through his career. In the final 5 years, he was awarded the R37 which means he has ten years of non-competing renewal. I see another R21 and one more R01. This latter was awarded on the A1. So as far as we can tell, Professor Avery never had to work too hard for his NIH grant funding. I mean sure, maybe he was putting in three grants a round for 20 years and never managed to land anything more than what I have reviewed. Somehow I doubt this. I bet his difficulties getting the necessary grant funding to run his laboratory were not all that steep compared to most of the rest of us plebes.

And actually, his Facebook post backs it up a tiny bit.

And I’ve been lucky that the world was willing to pay me to do it. Now it is hard for me to explain the diseases my work will cure. It feels like selling snake oil. I don’t want to do it any more.

I think the people enthusiastically passing along this Fb post of his maybe should focus on the key bits about his personal desires and tolerance for the job. Instead of turning this into yet another round of: "successful scientist bashes the NIH system now that finally, after all this time of a sweet, sweet ride s/he experiences a bare minimal taster of what the rest of us have faced our entire careers".

Final note on the title: Dude, by all means. Anyone who has had a nice little run with NIH funding and is no longer entused....LEAVE. We'll keep citing you, don't worry. Leave the grants to those of us who still give a crap, though, eh?

UPDATE (comment from @boehninglab):

23 responses so far

  • miko says:

    Yeah, I agree with this... except he is not really complaining, just explaining the parts of the job he doesn't like. Fine. But there is this, which you don't mention:

    "I have come to doubt that we who run research labs are doing a good thing for our grad students and postdocs. This is also something that has changed. Grad students and postdocs work hard and don’t get paid much. I did myself, and I loved it. It’s worth it if you have a future. When I was a student, and when I was a postdoc and for the first years that I was a professor, grad students and postdocs had somewhere to go. Now, for most of them, there isn’t."

    It is nice to feel like your lab might be a place where careers start, not where they end.

  • Bill Skaggs says:

    I agree that there is no reason for us to feel sorry for Dr. Avery. But I agree even more with his claim that the process is focusing too much on immediate applications and too little on basic science. Without basic science, everything is going to grind to a halt. When you have people such as the senior editor at Scientific American suggesting that the Human Genome Project was a failure because it hasn't yet cured any diseases, things have gotten totally out of whack. The problem isn't exactly new, though. For quite a while getting a neuroscience grant through the system has required including some bullshit about curing diseases.

    Best regards, Bill

  • drugmonkey says:

    It is nice to feel like your lab might be a place where careers start, not where they end.

    so stop training grads and postdocs. I mean, he *does* want to just geek away at the bench right? fewer people, fewer bits of paperwork to fill out. ...anyway, you know why I didn't touch that part...whole 'nother set of rants.

    Bill Skaggs: You do realize, do you not, that every "type" of researcher complains about how the NIH is no longer funding their pet stuff? Clinicians and basic alike. Human subjects, animal models, in vitro. This disease, that disease. blah, de blah. It's dumb. The budget tightening hits all of us. People who can get out of their navel for just a tiny second see this. Other people act like they are under personal assault for only their model and everyone else is clearly doing fine or a little too fine if you know what I mean.

    This kind of myopia makes me see red.

  • This kind of myopia makes me see red.

    Try not to go blind, holmes.

  • eeke says:

    DM - It seems that you're cheerleading the idea that people should leave academic science, regardless of what career level they're at, because it's become too HARD. Too competitive or something. I think it's a mistake to believe that funding will all the sudden become easier for everyone because people leave and as a result reduce the demand for the money. Isn't this what you're preaching? While I respect personal decisions to move on to other things for various reasons, when people leave, they cannot be replaced. This is a tragedy.

  • miko says:

    "so stop training grads and postdocs. "

    Agreed. But after 40 years, yeah, I am not about to stop anyone from retiring.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It seems that you're cheerleading the idea that people should leave academic science, regardless of what career level they're at, because it's become too HARD

    Heck no. I am cheerleading this guy leaving because he's done a lot, is tired of it, and has some other thing he wants to do. GREAT! It's the American freakin' dream.

    Also, anyone who has the slightest desire get out helps the rest of us who want to stay in. So good for them.

    I think it's a mistake to believe that funding will all the sudden become easier for everyone because people leave and as a result reduce the demand for the money.

    It's pretty basic math. Not that hard to grasp.

    when people leave, they cannot be replaced.

    This is hard to credit when we have a huge oversurplus of very smart, very well trained, very competent and interesting scientists who could step right in to a faculty position, take this guy's grant dollars and do well.

  • Dave says:

    One of his recent papers in Cell Metabolism is titled:

    Insulin, cGMP and TGF-β signals regulate food intake and quiescence in C. elegans: a model for satiety

    Hmmmmm, let me see how I can tie that in with disease....?

    Dude has just lost his mojo.

  • The Other Dave says:

    I totally agree. This guy is like those people that post their public job quitting videos on youtube and expect applause. No one cares. Bye already.

    I'd respect him more if, instead of indulging a high school hobby, he decided to take a job as NSF or NIH program officer, or work in congress, or otherwise actually do something about the problem other than whine about it online.

  • eeke says:

    "It's pretty basic math. Not that hard to grasp."

    Not my point. The shrinking commitment to science by the US is nothing to celebrate. It could be that if demand for the money shrinks (even though you currently view the demand as a "surplus"), then so will be the money itself. Use it or lose it.

  • dave says:

    eeke, I think we are someway off that.

  • The Other Dave says:

    The shrinking commitment to science by the US is nothing to celebrate.

    I thought we were over this myth.

    U.S. Science funding is near all-time highs, as total and percentage of GDP:
    http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-sources-and-uses-of-us-science-funding

  • Oh, come on. I don't get the sense that he's whining, or that he expects violins to play for him. And where do you pick up the implication that he doesn't "give a crap"? He points out some things he doesn't like about the job, and clearly doesn't expect the job to change for him. That's not the same thing as not caring about the scientific mission.

    There's this disturbing pattern to respond to every Leaving Science post with some variation of he/she obviously wasn't good enough, so good riddance.

  • Ola says:

    CV says he was born in 1955, putting him at 59 years old. Moved from Dallas (not super expensive city) to VCU (even less expensive city), and has been a tenure track faculty for 24 years, so probably owns house without mortgage. This is a whole different ball game than some early 40s kid waiting for their first R01, with student loans still owing, living in a coastal big city with small kids (daycare $$) and a mortgage.

    TL/DR - professor who was gonna retire in 5 years anyway gets out early. People do this all the frickin' time, but not all of them choose to make a big deal of it.

  • dsks says:

    "This is a whole different ball game than some early 40s kid waiting for their first R01, with student loans still owing, living in a coastal big city with small kids (daycare $$) and a mortgage."

    Those kids will have his lab picked clean by the morning after he retires. The only thing left behind will be memories and those weird 900 ul vol pipette tips that nobody ever wants.

  • drugmonkey says:

    There's this disturbing pattern to respond to every Leaving Science post with some variation of he/she obviously wasn't good enough, so good riddance.

    whoa! back up. This is about the "disturbing pattern" of some dude who spent a career in the loving embrace of funding/science/generational privilege suddenly discovering NIH grant funding is hard now. Or discovering that their own Nobel worthy work simply would not be possible now because intervals of copious funding with minimal productivity expectation are over.

    I think my generation* has basically been under the same degree of grant stress for most of our careers because even if we started during the doubling, we were noobs. and our success rates were much lower than for the dudes who got in 10, 15 and certainly 25 years previously. they might have suffered the noob fate too, but once they made it over that hurdle, they were able to enjoy very high success rates for years. In contrast, my generation got over the noob hurdle just as success rates were finally nosediving for newly-established investigators (oh believe me, within the "established" category there was still a gradient.)

    The people above us, like Avery, who ( maybe) finally got their first requirement to revise an application 5-8 years ago and their first triage 3-4 years ago and their first round of no-way-after-five-attempts in the past three years...well, their bleating about how it is all broken falls on unsympathetic ears.

    *and yeah, current generations are having it even worse.

  • drugmonkey says:

    professor who was gonna retire in 5 years anyway gets out early

    and he could have cruised it out on R37 non-competing years. Major kudos for refusing that.

  • The Other Dave says:

    The headline could read: 'Someone near top of pyramid scheme realizes it's all finally crumbling and decides to get out.'

    People who built their careers cranking out dozens of PhDs and postdocs should not complain that there's now too much competition for grant money.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    As a bunny who started doing NSF/NASA funded science during the 1970s, allow Eli to point out that IT HAS NEVER BEEN GOOD. One fucking page of ads in Physics Today every freaking month for a decade.

    And yes, NSF requires broader impacts these days.

    FWIW the zugzwang for basic science funding in the bio area is that NSF won't touch anything having to do with healthand NIH visa versa

  • jw says:

    in my mind, the problem is that there is no room for those of us who want to work in science (and have a semblance of job security and minimally-decent pay/bennies). i think i am a good manager of students/employees, but have never wanted to be a lab leader or PI. i just want to help others with their science, take the lead on a few of my own studies, do the work and analyses and publish. but at this point, either i can be a postdoc for ten years and go broke get depressed and leave science a ruined person, or i can try to be a PI and be red in tooth and nail when it comes to funding and be similarly ruined. shouldn't there be more options than these?

  • susan says:

    I know Leon Avery and I know his work, he is excellent. To my mind, it is a sad day when someone as smart and creative as Leon drops out of science. To those of you not in the system, you should know that NIH is broken. 6% funding rates - yes 60 people out of 1000 - and no jobs is a poor way to invest in the future of American Science.

  • RM says:

    "I write this to explain why, for those of my friends and colleagues who’d like to know."

    First of all, he is not making a "big deal" about his leaving. This is something he posted on his personal facebook page, not something he published nor "tweeted" or some other nonsense to the whole world. His is simply doing the courtesy of giving his reasons to what would be A LOT of confused people. Get over it; you and your twitter account are not the intended audience for this post.

    "I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue, than why I have one. -Cato"

    He quotes Cato to make the point that he recognizes that the NIH priorities are shifting away from work such as his. He is not asking the present system to change for him, he simply feels that his work has inherent value and he does not want to disingenuously "sell" his work as health/disease related. Most basic scientists "play the game" with a nod and a wink to each other in order to satisfy the current NIH emphasis, but he is choosing to abandon that route (although he has demonstrated he can play it too). He simply sees that his work is not what the NIH is looking for so he's accepting it. Sometimes you have to do the thing that lets you sleep at night and feel like a good person. It’s a philosophical decision; he hasn't lost his mojo nor having funding problems (see R37).

    His complaint is with the change in emphasis, not the increased competition. If he does complain about the difficulty with funding, it’s with regard to the potential future for his graduate students and post-docs. This makes him feel guilty about employing them in his lab, knowing there are few opportunities for them after.

    The wisdom of the new emphasis of NIH on only funding health/disease related ie translational research over basic science research is a wider debate for society to decide. Leon is simply recognizing the new emphasis and bowing out. My 2 cents on the matter: if NIH stops funding basic physiology and NSF continues to completely stay away from the physiology world, then that leaves a gap doesn't it? Claiming translational work is of more value than basic work is like saying Physics is more important than Math or that Engineering is more important than Physics. Fundamental knowledge versus its application at a higher level. Let’s remember that many breakthroughs come from unexpected applications of more basic knowledge and that directed efforts at disease cure have rarely been successful.

    Anyways I couldn't keep reading the nonsense being posted regarding this man on this forum without responding in some way.

  • Ah says:

    It is a sad day to see him retire early. I was briefly one of LA's students and he has been a strong asset to the c. Elegans community. As a postdoc, I foresee a bleak funding prognosis for me and other post docs.

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