Academia, Career, Economics, Grants, Problems to Solve

Genius Enough

A successful academic career, especially in the life sciences is the acquisition of currency, which is earned by publishing quality peer-reviewed manuscripts and receiving grant funding for projects.

Earning this currency has an inherent flaw. In order to publish manuscripts, a scientist needs money, but money comes from grants. Conversely, to have a grant funded, an individual has to provide evidence of productivity and progress in the form of publications. There is, therefore, a cycle and balance that a science researcher needs to maintain in order to grow.

A scientist who wants to succeed and climb the academic ladder must be a dynamic machine, spending resources (time) that will further his own ideas by gathering grants and publications simultaneously. Failing at one entity will sabotage the machine.

The NIH did what?

The National Institute of Health (NIH) is the primary government source of funding for academic research in America. Receiving NIH funding is the hallmark of a successful academic scientist. If someone receives NIH funding for a large project, which may come in the form of a lucrative (>$1 million) R01-type NIH grant, then for up to 4 consecutive years that scientist can perform any creative endeavor they have proposed. Funding from non-NIH funding can provide supplementary sources of money, but NIH funding appears the priority when it comes to determining whether an academic scientist has made a mark in the field among his peers and is vital to attaining a promotion.

A different battlefield

A flailing US economy and war have resulted in a progressively declining NIH budget. NIH now funds less than 12% of first-time applicants. It is much worse for junior faculty, which receives less than 5-8% for the smaller R21-type grants (references pending). It is incredibly discouraging for the young and creative scientists, who are the future of academic society. These individuals who have either just begun or have had several years in the sciences are experiencing the worst of the economic squeeze. A large population of these scientists will have to wait or, in my opinion, struggle excessively for little salary in order to progress toward academic independence (i.e., spinning the grant funding/publishing cycle).

What does this mean?

Scientists who are firmly established in their academic fields will dominate funding sources, and therefore will be most able to control the publishing game. These scientists are generally of an older stock (I know of exceptions), and I would not be cynical to suggest that they are not ready to give up the reigns.

The incentives for young and energetic individuals to remain in academics are many and rewarding; however, time is not something anyone wants to waste. Given that the starting researcher in academia is compensated by a small salary in comparison to their peers with similar educational background in non-academic fields, it is difficult to justify remaining in academia.

Where will all the creative, motivated individuals go, if not part of this academic factory?

A lot of promising, young scientists are disappearing from Universities across the nation. I’ve seen it happen. Industry pays well and the atmosphere of the work environment has become more and more appealing for highly-educated, creative people.

Industries will rise and fall based on their corporate success or failure. But their success and failure is not dependent on poor political and national policies governing funding for academic sciences. This also has an interesting side effect, if this shift continues away from academic research: breakthroughs in medicine and technology will move toward private industries.

It might be okay, but it shows one common trait of our World: the driving force for human innovation is and always will be money.

For fun, hypothetical purposes only: 

To the extreme end—I foresee there being only two types of individuals who can happily remain in academia in the future: machines and geniuses. The machines work to produce data for publication. Machines do not have grants, either because they are unable to receive them in a poor funding environment or choose not to submit grant proposals (it’s a lot of work and a gamble). Therefore, machines rely on the geniuses for resources. Machines may be rewarded intellectually, not so well monetarily, and this might be sufficient.

In contrast, the geniuses come up with the ideas and tell the machines what to do. They have the intellectual might and/or ruthlessness to obtain limited resources. Geniuses will submit grants and get them. They will publish papers consistently and in great volume. There can only be a few geniuses in an environment with few resources.

Like animals….

No, seriously.

As a young academic myself, I love what I do, but I can’t help but wonder, am I “Genius enough?”


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