An interesting comment from Anonymous :
A friend of mine is getting his PhD this year. His mentor was awarded tenure last year. She had an RO1 and an R21 and enough pubs, reputation, etc., so that she was a "slam dunk," according to some of her colleagues in the field, at least. When my friend joined her lab, she had 7 students -- a mix of masters and doctoral students. When he graduates this year, there will be only 1 doctoral student left in the lab. His mentor hasn't succeeded in getting more grants, so I guess she hasn't hired anyone else because of that?
What I'm wondering is this: given the current climate, is this normal? Or is she really in trouble? Has she done it wrong? I always assumed that by the time you got tenure, your lab would be humming along.
We are in an era of boom and bust instability when it comes to NIH funding. It is the very rare flower indeed, in my estimation, that will be completely free of the cycle in the coming decade or two.
As always, my view is quite possibly colored by my experiences. But I have seen the boom and bust cycle play out across a large number of labs. Some of my close acquaintance. Some labs that I know only through the grant review process. Some labs that happen to make it to the scuttlebutt news channel for some reason or other.
It usually plays out like this. "Yeah, Dr. So-and-so is really well funded.....what? What do you mean they are on the ropes? [checks RePORTER]..how in the hell did THAT happen". ....Two years later "Oh phew, glad to see So-and-so got another grant. ....what? TWO grants? and an R21? how in the hell did THAT happen?"...
Normal, but the PI is still in trouble. How could she not be? Has she done it wrong? Probably not. Most likely she's just experiencing the variance of grant fortune as it currently exists.
This part is painful though: " I always assumed that by the time you got tenure, your lab would be humming along."
Yeah, so did we. Because when people of my approximate scientific generation were coming up through postdoc we saw the generation of Assistant Professors just above us struggling. But then as we were finishing postdocs and starting our own Assistant Professor stints, we saw the next-older generation transition to a cruise mode. A time where they got their renewals without too much hassle*. They got their second or even third grants and maybe a few got an R37 extension. This made the struggles we went through as newbie applicants to the NIH a bit easier to stomach. Hazing ritual. Sure, we can stand this, and then we'll REALLY get stuff cranking in the lab later.
Instead the budget went stagnant just as we were reaching that stage of our careers. And then the powers that be went and invented the ESI boost to give affirmative action to those juuuuuust behind us.
So....we ride the roller coaster. And as things keep going in the wrong direction with NIH funding, more and more of us from all scientific cohorts/generations will experience the thrill.
*Yes, I realize it is all relative. I certainly had it easier than the kids these days. And the next-older generation did plenty of complaining about how hard they had it compared to the really established folks.