Rock Bottom Morale in Academic Science

Last night I received an email from a friend:

Dear DrDrA:

Is it just me, or is the news about NIH and the future of science in general starting to get just plain depressing?  All the stories about labs closing and people getting grants endlessly triaged is just painful.  I’m in the midst of writing several grants right now, but have to wonder if it’s even worth it.  Lame, I know.  But I find I have so little time for real science anymore.  I’m starting to think that many of our “generation” are not going to be in academic science in 5 yrs, and that makes me really sad.  So I’m glad to hear all the nice news you post about your papers getting accepted and your students doing well, since good news doesn’t abound these days.


Science BFF

Funny that this should arrive yesterday, because this is just exactly what I have been feeling. I replied:

Dear Science BFF-

It’s so funny that you would send me this email right now- because it pretty much sums up exactly what I’ve been feeling. Not lame at all. Morale everywhere in academic science is very very low, and it is taking a toll on both of us, and I think many other scientists (DrMrA asks himself daily if this is worth it.). I find it endlessly disturbing that I will spend the next 5 months writing and re-writing grants like a maniac- and I won’t have time to direct/think about the projects we have going with my full attention. It’s this second part that I get a lot of satisfaction from – I guess what I consider the ‘real science’,  and you are right- it feels like that’s become second fiddle to other priorities.  Let’s face it, we can’t write/re-write 8 grants (one got dropped so now it’s actually 7), while putting the finishing touches on two papers, directing two grad students, reading a thesis, picking up a new student, and then finally looking at data and having time to think carefully about context and what to do next.  It just kills me that the looking at data, thinking ahead and reading part seems to have to have fallen lower on the priority list- things are upside down.

A couple of days ago a senior faculty member (SFM) that I know visited me in my office. I described exactly what I have planned for the next 5 months- and this person seemed rather stunned.  I will lose my postdoc in the next couple of weeks (I’m in denial), and she runs the lab while I write.  This will make running the whole shooting match here a little trickier. I got the feeling that SFM didn’t understand that I’m literally fighting for my own survival right now- this is going to be a long battle- and fatigue and low morale are inevitable.  I suppose my antidote to this is just to enter extreme survival mode and part of this is to celebrate every small victory- from papers right down to grad student research competitions.

I am going to be honest with you- I do ask myself if it is worth it. This weekend we were visited by a relative who is a stay-at-home mom with children similar in age to mine. I saw up close and personal how much more time she has available to focus on her kids- not that I’m sayin’ I want to be a stay-at-home mom, but nights home at 6 a little more frequently would go a long way to helping me feel better about the balance. And it’s not just the long hours- if it was long hours doing the real science, I’d still feel the lack of balance for the kids- but at least I’d be spending those hours doing something I enjoy. Long hours re-writing grants feel like work, and the scale is just tipped too far in this direction.

So Science BFF- I’m with you… I know what you are going through- we just have to hang in there as long as we can and hope that grant conditions improve. If they don’t and we find ourselves miserable, we may have to consider the alternatives.




25 thoughts on “Rock Bottom Morale in Academic Science

  1. Stupid question time but as a graduate student I’m curious: Why NIH? The faculty in my department have expended considerable energy applying for grants from an array of sources, both governmental and non-governmental. Even some of the bigger projects that I’ve worked on that were about health-type related issues were NSF grants.

  2. It is hard when the balance is not right. I am able to get away with being home by 6 and putting monkey to bed. I put my desire for a full nights sleep ahead of my need to read research papers. But then I read what you, dr.isis and the other mom/PI’s are doing, the crazy hours etc and it makes me wonder Do I really want to be a PI?? Yet I can’t imagine not working in academia doing science…

  3. Academic- I apply to federal agencies other than NIH – but NIH distributes the vast majority of the federal funds used for basic and applied research in this country. Something like 20 billion from NIH as opposed to something like 2 billion from USDA, and 3 billion NSF for example.

    (these figures are from the 2001 NSF report entitled ‘Gender Differences in Major Federal External Grant Programs’).

  4. Am I missing something? My reading of the stimulus figures is that NIH is gaining 10.4B in the stimulus package, not that it’s total budget is restricted to 10.4B. AAAS reports that it’s supplemental funding.

  5. Academic- That’s close (seems more like 8 billion though for research, distributed over 2 years), – I believe that writedit has written about this. Since the $$ are intended to be awarded pronto- and be distributed over 2 years time- it’s not clear to me how the standard 4-5 year R01 funding rates will be affected by this. Then again- I’m not very educated about this and bloggers like writedit and drugmonkey (I don’t think DM has written about this yet though) are probably better sources of information than me.

    I was only trying to point out that NIH has by far the largest budget of the federal agencies to distribute for external research grants.

  6. Supplemental funding for instrumentation replacement type stuff and possibly some random 2-year pilot project grants that will doubtless be very hard to get, and are also not research-program-sustaining-type grants. Two years is usually not long enough for tenure concerns.

    I am also really stressed and depressed about all of this, just getting started this year and seeing what I have before me. I plan to do what you’re doing: apply like a madwoman and then try not to hold my breath.

  7. An email I received from our department chair this morning:

    The NIH response to receiving a large amount of money suddenly is now taking shape. Here’s what I know so far:

    The legislation provided a total of $10.4 billion. Of this sum, 1.3 billion will go to NCRR ($1 billion for competitive extramural facilities; $300 million for shared instrumentation).

    Another $500 million goes to intramural facilities and $400 million gets transferred to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

    A total of $8.2 billion goes to the NIH Office of the Director, of which $7.4 billion is transferred to the I/Cs with $800 million remaining in OD for trans-NIH initiatives.

    Here is the basic outline of how the $8.2 billion will be spent. There will be three major mechanisms with the bulk of the funding going to mechanisms 1
    and 2:

    1. R01 applications already in the funding queue
    Two years will be provided for those applications that can benefit from two years of funding. A few applications may get four years.

    2. Administrative Supplements to existing grants.
    Existing grants with at least one year to run may be given the opportunity or be asked to submit supplements. These will be handled at least in part by requests from the I/Cs and likely with some calls for proposals and could involve equipment, extended funds for postdocs who were not able to move to their own position, summer students, related projects, etc. There may be other priority issues that the I/C staff want to see funded

    3. Challenge Grants
    A new RFA will be released within a week or two for a new, two-year program of cross-cutting, highly innovative projects, $1 M total per project.

  8. Sciencegeek- Everything up to the how the 8.2 billion will be spent I also saw at writedit’s site. It’s the part that comes after that that’s news to me- so thanks for putting that up. I wonder who/and how it will be decided which applications get 4 years, or how it gets decided who can benefit from 2 years… and at what point in the queue do you have to be at. Is it worth talking to program about this if one has a project in the Q… as a new investigator?

    Arlenna- All we can do is the best we can with the tools available. After that it’s just a crap-shoot. I’m not to pleased about the two year thing either, but then again- it’s better than 0 years.

  9. I’m sorry to hear you are losing your excellent postdoc. Things are rough all around right now– morale is definitely low all over. I am asking myself every day — is it worth it? I found out on Friday my A1 was unscored, and I thought it was such a great grant, really! Definitely far improved over the initial submission, which *was* scored. Many colleagues have had similar experiences lately. It is back to the drawing board to write write write some more proposals, with this anxious knot in the pit of my stomach wondering whether I will bring in some funding in time to keep the projects alive and some semblance of a staff paid. The worst part for me is thinking how hard I worked on the triaged grant, all the hours that went into it, how I really really felt it represented my best ideas and my best effort, and then to be told (repeatedly) that it is not enough, it is not even in the top half of grants, it is nowhere near what it would take to be successful. Even if somehow I can write a better grant next time, I do not know if I can develop a thick enough skin for this job. This is the aspect of the academic science career that I did not anticipate, even as a postdoc– that I would forever have to get beat up over efforts that I thought were above and beyond a good job.

    I sympathize with you in feeling out of balance, too– my toddler is going through a bout of separation anxiety, and morning drop-offs are *hard* just now. But worse, even when I’m with my kids, going home at a reasonable hour, I’m so preoccupied with the grant problems that I’m not really paying attention to the kids. I feel like the stress at work is poisoning my whole life, giving me bad dreams, or I wake up worrying and can’t sleep at all. I need to figure out how to let go of it, at least once in a while. Let me know if you have any good ideas for how to do this!

  10. “Is it worth talking to program about this if one has a project in the Q… as a new investigator?”

    I think so. I’m guessing that that the institutes are in a tizzy figuring out what’s going to happen, and no one knows, but I think you should be bugging people about this information, especially if your chair is not sending it on to you (or a least getting on the queue saying that you’re looking for info). I think anyone with a scored app that is potentially fundable should be trying to figure out what’s going on. They leave open the “priorities” question, but new investigator should be one of the IC priorities.

  11. drdrA – You should DEFINITELY talk with your PO about how you may benefit. 2 years of R01 funding would be a HUGE help, so see what you can do to get it, better yet 4 years. Your science is aimed at something different than most people in our field look at. If you explain this (again) to your PO in the context of why you should get your RO1 pulled up for funding, you might be pleasantly surprised. And congratulations on your paper acceptances! That is really good news, and your PO wants to hear this. You need to just hang on long enough to turn the corner…

    Crystal doc – Your grant may well have been stellar – that is the problem. That NIH is putting much of the stimulus into little R01s and supplements is consistent with the idea that they are trying to keep scientists in the game, a strategy that will benefit us all in the long run. But I agree that doing the science has gotten lost in all of this.

  12. PS: The doom, lack of balance, and the feeling that there’s a lot of “wasted” effort is widespread, not just among academics.

  13. Hang in there.

    I lost my totally awesome, lab-running postdoc last year and it was disastrous at first, but I eventually found my groove. Manic but manageable. A couple of weeks ago, though, my tot entered a difficult phase (please, let it be a phase) and now I’m feeling completely derailed. Everything seems insurmountably difficult. I’m exhausted after dropping off the kids in the morning, before even getting to my office. And, I’ve got to say, when I read some of the comments (and reread what I just wrote!), it makes me think we all should be on anti-depressants. Are we all clinically depressed? At the same time, I worry that prozac will interfere with my grant-writing edge. Something else to worry about!

  14. Anonymous- I’m sure it’s just a phase… for the tot, that is. With that said- my kids definitely pick up on my stress level and act out more when they know I’m freaked out. There have been mornings when I have to stop and spend 10 minutes collecting myself after I drop them off, but before going to work. You just have to do what you have to do. As for anti-depressants- this might require more like a combination therapy!

    Sciencegeek and neurolover… thanks for kicking my ass to talk to program… AGAIN. My new submission gets reviewed tomorrow. I’m having weird nightmares about it (which sciencegeek, I’ll share with you privately since you know the players).

    Crystaldoc- So sorry about the separation anxiety. Just have to give them an extra hug and know that the crying stops about 2 seconds after you are out of sight. When my girls did this I always called the childcare ctr after I got to work… just to make sure they were ok. They ALWAYS said that the tears were over before I even left the building. As for the continuous pre-occupation with work, this happens to me too- and I feel hugely guilty about it. I don’t think I have any great hints about how to handle it other than to say- plan an activity to do with the kids- a couple hours on a weekend morning- out of the house, away from the darned computer… something removed from the usual environment where you might more easily maintain a focus on them. As for sleep – I recommend better sleeping through chemistry.

  15. What happened with your post-doc? Did the administroids change their minds about picking up her salary for another year, or did she decide to try something else?

  16. Whimple- They picked her up for a part of the year, but not the whole year- then there were additional personal circumstances for her that made things complicated. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that some grant will come through and I can hire her back in a couple of months- that would be good timing for her. I’m sure you can read between the lines on that one- she was going to need some down time regardless.

  17. What happens if the NIH continues to give more and more money to fewer and fewer people? Those few that get the money eventually will buy up the many that don’t get the money. Maybe we’re heading to a more European type system where there are a few big cheeses running an empire of semi-independent smaller cheeses.

    You’re a vet right, so you have options: you could always go and vet up some critters full-time. But suppose physioprof were to say something like, “Hey drdrA, I’ve got lots of grant funding, we have pretty similar interests, and I know you’re good people. Why don’t you come and work for me? You can keep the title of Assistant Professor so you can still write grants (if you want to), and work towards a fully independent position again if you can get funded (which I can help you with) but in the meanwhile, you’ll have a job, you’ll keep your same salary, and you can still mostly do what you want. You just need to sacrifice a little independence, and some pride. How about it drdrA?”

    What do you say?

  18. It’ll be like my grandparents & the Great Depression, except in science – we’ll all hoard our reagents, wash & re-use gloves & tips because “they’re still good”, pick through HHMI lab trash for half-empty bottles… “Back when I was an assistant professor, we had to walk uphill in the snow to lab – without shoes!”

  19. Whimple- I worry about this too- and from the looks of what sciencegeek posted in her comment- that’s what it feels like is going to happen next. Because the stimulus money has to be spent quickly, it will go to people already in the pipeline and people with existing grants for supplements and extensions. That has the effect of enriching the few who are already doing well. Maybe it’s too early to say. I would be hugely disappointed if we turned out to have a system like the European system- DrMrA came to this country precisely to escape this type of system – it basically depends completely on politics. At least here we have had at least the illusion of fairness up until now. … and actually, I think our system works pretty well many times.

    I am a veterinarian- and I maintain my license to practice for lots of reasons including a backup position. DrMrA also has an alternate profession that he can revert too if necessary- and we believe it or not we have talked about what might happen and how we both should have to drastically switch course in this way. This gets to the bottom line which is feed your children and hopefully be able to put them through college. I feel better facing that fear and having a plan- and spaying dogs and cats for a living is a pretty reasonable backup plan.

    As for your last question- would I assume some semi-independent position in someone else’s lab if things should not work for me right now. The answer, I suppose, is maybe. If it would be as you describe- I’m not above losing my pride and doing what’s necessary to stay afloat- but it I would have to be a good match with whomever was offering to pick me up. … I have several collaborators, for example, with whom I think this would work well. But we’re not there yet. I’m doing ok so far- papers are going out, grant got scored, I’m doing better than a whole lot of people.

  20. In the spirit of doom’n’gloom…
    I recently finished reading Anthony Beevor’s “Stalingrad” (excellent book). It triggered a memory of someone drawing a parallel between the experience of the besieging Soviet troops and academic scientists today. Watching transitioning new investigators is a lot like watching a group of cold and dispirited comrades, sharing a single rifle, trying to rush a MG42 bunker (“For Tenure And The Glory of Teh Science!”).

    I suppose you need at least one C/N/S pub to even be considered as a candidate for holding the rifle.

  21. DSKS- Dude- You sure know how to cheer a girl up! No more doom and gloom- I’m kicking my own behind to see the glass as 1/2 full!

  22. “I’m kicking my own behind to see the glass as 1/2 full!”

    drdrA – you’re good at this, and it’s a necessary skill. I’ve started my daughter (who is a bit prone to seeing the half-empty glass — she has a lot of “worst” days of her life) make lists of the 10 good things that happened today. It helps. Maybe it would help us all.

  23. neurolover- My daughters have a flare for the dramatic as well. I’m hoping it’s a phase (like maybe impending puberty for the older one?)…. in the meantime I’m trying to model low drama behavior!

  24. I find it profoundly depressing that there hasn’t been a word coming out of NIH that any of this stimulus money will be allocated to help new investigators. I know its still early but I’ve heard all sorts of rumors about how the money will be spent and none of those have the words “new investigators” in them.

    I’ve been chatting with many of my junior investigator colleagues in my area lately for a variety of reasons. Many of them are in the US but many others are in the EU. The universal feeling is that we are slowly being set up to be the generation of lost scientists. Although it may not seem like it from my more recent posts and comments, I am a very optimistic person, but, fuck, this shit is depressing!

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