There is an article up on ASBMB Today by Andrew D. Hollenbach that laments the shut-down of his research program. In The reality that dare not speak its name we learn:
It was the day after my lab manager left, forced to find a new job by a vicious funding environment that took a trusted employee and friend from me and shut down my research program.
This is terrible, I will acknowledge. I have feared this outcome for my own research program, only briefly interrupted, for my entire independent career. The wolves are always near the door and winter is most certainly coming.
Hollenbach finds this to be unfair. And that assertion triggers slightly more thought than mere sympathy and empathetic butt clenching.
I spent 20 years studying the mechanisms underlying a childhood muscle tumor. I published more than 20 articles with a lab of no more than three people at one time, intentionally kept small so I could focus on mentoring. I established a new paradigm in my field, identified viable therapeutic targets and trained five students (three of whom went to Harvard University for postdocs). I am recognized worldwide for my research.
You would think that all of that would be enough to bring in money and continue my research. But it’s not.
My immediate thought was no, no I don't think that is enough in this day and age. 20 papers in 20 years of an independent career is not a fantastic publishing rate. Of course, yes, there are going to be field and model specifics that greatly affect publishing rate. There will be differences in publishing style and venue as well...if this had been 20 CNS publications, well, this would be pretty good productivity. But a search of PubMed seems to confirm that the pursuit of the very highest Glamour publications was not the issue. I am not an expert in this guy's field of study but glancing over his publication titles and journals I get the distinct impression of a regular-old Jane/Joe type of scientist here. Many people can claim to have established new paradigms, sent trainees off to impressive-sounding postdoctoral stints (or assistant professorships) and to have identified 'viable' therapeutic targets. I say this not to belittle the guy but to point out that this is not in any way special. It is not an immediately obvious compensation for a rather underwhelming rate of publication. For a PI, that is, who asserts he's had a long-term lab manager and up to three people in his group at a time.
Hollenbach's funding hasn't been overwhelmingly generous but he's had NIH grants. RePORTER shows that he started with a component of a P20 Center grant from 2004-2009 and an R01 from 2009-2013.
Wait. What "20 years"?
Hollenbach's bio claims he was made junior faculty in 2001 and won his first Assistant Professor job in 2003. This matches up better with his funding history so I think we'd better just focus on the past 10 years to really take home a message about careerism. One senior author publication in 2003 from that junior-faculty stint and then the next one is 2007 and then three in 2008. So far, so good. Pretty understandable for the startup launch of a new laboratory.
Then we note that there is only one paper in each of 2009 and 2010. Hmmm. Things can happen, sure. Sure. Two papers in 2011 but one is a middle authorship. One more publication in each of 2012, 2014 and 2015 (to date). The R01 grant lists 7 pubs as supported but two of those were published before the grant was awarded and one was published 9 months into the first funding interval. So 5 pubs supported by the R01 in this second phase. And an average as a faculty member that runs just under a publication per year.
Lord knows I haven't hit an overwhelming publication output rate across my entire career. I understand slowdowns. These are going to happen now and again. And for certain sure there are going to be chosen model systems that generate publishable datasets more slowly than others.
One paper per year, sustained across 10 years, is not the kind of productivity rate that people view as normal and average and unremarkable. Particularly when it comes to grant review at the NIH level.
I would be very surprised if the grant applications this PI has submitted did not receive a few comments questioning his publication output.
Look at my picture, and you will not see a failure. You will see someone who worked hard, excelled at what he did, held true to himself and maintained his integrity. However, you also will see someone whose work was brought to a halt by an unfair system.
Something else occurs to me. The R01 was funded up to March 2013. So this presumably means that this recent dismissal of the long-term lab manager comes after a substantial interval of grant submission deadlines? I do wonder how many grant applications the guy submitted and what the outcomes were. This would seem highly pertinent to the "unfair system" comment. You know my attitude, Dear Reader. If one is supported on a single grant, bets the farm on a competing continuation hitting right on schedule and is disappointed...this is not evidence of the system being unfair. If a PI is unfunded and submits a grant, waits for the reviews, skips a round, submits the revision, waits for the reviews, skips another round, writes a new proposal..... well, THIS IS NOT ENOUGH! This is not trying. And if you are not trying, you have no right to talk about the "unfair system" as it applies to your specific outcome.
I close, as I often do, with career advice. Don't do this people. Don't let yourself publish on the lower bound on what is considered an acceptable rate for your field, approaches, models and, most importantly, funding agency's review panels.
PS: This particular assertion regarding what surely must be necessary to survive as a grant-funded is grotesquely inaccurate.
Some may say that I did not do enough. Maybe I didn’t. I could have been a slave-driving mentor to get more publications in journals with higher impact factors. I could have worked 80-hour weeks, ignoring my family and friends. I could have given in to unfettered ambition, rolling over anyone who got in my way.