Saturday, December 6, 2014

How a scientist's worth is measured in academia

I promised myself that I wouldn’t post too many work-related pieces anymore, mostly because there’s so little about modern workplaces these days that is positive in my estimation. Most of the posts would just be depressing. You might think that 'noble' academia would be somewhat better than non-academic workplaces that are simply out to make a profit, but you'd be wrong. After reading this article online yesterday, I simply had to comment on it, as depressing as it is. It is a tragic real-life story of a gifted scientist in England named Stefan Grimm who simply couldn’t take the pressure of the ‘business of science’ anymore and committed suicide (; Before he did, he wrote an email to his colleagues telling them about what had happened to him and how his workplace had treated him. This incident took place in England, but I can assure you that the ‘business of science’ in Norway is no different. Universities and research institutes treat their scientists in much the same way; the only difference is that universities here cannot fire their scientists for not hauling in huge amounts of grant money, because scientists are unionized and that affords them some protection. But if they could, universities and research institutes would fire scientists without money because they are a drain on the workplace; it doesn’t matter if they have years of expertise, if they are professors and can teach, or even if they write articles and publish frequently. This country is no different than any other westernized capitalistic country in the world when it comes to worshiping money, even if it likes to think otherwise about itself.

For those of you who romanticize the world of academic scientific research, this article should rid you of any notion that there is anything idealistic or even noble about academic research these days. There isn’t. Firstly, it’s BIG BUSINESS now, and it’s been big business for a while. Money is the operative word. Those who make it to the top and gain power, those who are ‘successful’, are those who drag in hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in grant awards. In other words, your funding is ALL that matters; it defines your worth in your workplace—period, and if you don’t get funding, you are worth nothing to your workplace. Even if you got funding five or ten years ago, not one person who sits in a leadership position cares about that or even cares enough to remember that; the ONLY thing that matters is: did you get funding this year, this month, this week? And did you get a lot of funding? What is the innovative potential of your work and can it make us money? Are you patenting your work? Theoretically, I don’t have a problem with the idea that a workplace should benefit financially from the research of its employees if their work leads to a profitable drug or treatment, for example. But it’s gotten way out of hand in reality.

Secondly, there is subtle AGE DISCRIMINATION being practiced. I know scientists who were once productive, with small research groups working on interesting topics, who no longer get research funding. Why does funding suddenly dry up? It’s certainly not a gradual change; rather it is an abrupt one. Why do good scientists who once got decent funding, no longer get any funding whatsoever? One possible reason is that they are now middle-aged (late forties/early fifties for most of us; but in Norway, you are old at 53, and I can find many articles that corroborate this). These middle-aged scientists no longer get any financial support whatsoever, not from external granting agencies nor from their universities or research institutes. They get their salaries and that’s it. It borders on idiocy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you don’t get funded, you don’t get students. Without students, you have zero chance of getting substantial research done. Without research data, there are no publications, and without publications, you have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a grant award. After several years of this vicious circle, management steps in and tells you that it’s your fault you don’t get money, when in reality it’s not. In many cases it is age discrimination, albeit subtle. It could never be overt; think of the lawsuits. You simply reached the magic age at which point you are old and no longer ‘worth funding’. The problem of course is that you cannot retire with a good pension at 53 years of age. So you hang around your workplace hoping your luck will change. Everyone involved knows it won’t. It goes from bad to worse. Years go by with the same results; there are no publications and now management wants to know why there has been no progression in your work. What can you say? It’s merely survival of the fittest; you’ve seen the nature programs where the young males attack the old ones for control of the tribe or the harems. The same occurs in academia; once you’re labeled as old, you’re finished. You are punished for growing old.

Thirdly, if you are not designated as the absolute BEST OF THE BEST, CREAM OF THE CROP, you are finished in research these days before you even get started. Academic research science is beyond elitist at this point; it’s more like trying to make it through the proverbial eye of the needle. Almost no one manages that. Young people do their PhDs and then move on to something else; few to none are offered a post-doc position in any given research organization ( One or two may end up as the 'chosen ones', the ones that management deems worthy enough to bet on. The reason given is that they are the brightest of the bunch, but often it’s nepotism in action—those that move upward are often simply those who are management’s favorites. They are the ones who are granted the academic career opportunities. They join the networks that management has laid out for them; all involved know that this is the key to gaining grant funding, since colleagues in those networks often work in positions that have enough clout to ensure that those networks get funding. They may not review the actual grant applications, but they have a say in the final prioritization of grant applications that have been recommended for funding by external reviewers. 
Finally, many universities now take on far too many PhD students, knowing full well that there are no careers for them in academic science, and knowing full well that they cannot offer them any sort of job future. It’s irresponsible behavior. But there’s money involved, so that makes it ok in the eyes of the universities. PhD students come with a specific sum of money for consumables and small expenses, and additionally, if you are the primary adviser, you get a tidy sum of money for having been an adviser, once the student is finished. Additionally, more students means more hands in the lab to do the research work. Who is going to turn that down? And who is going to be honest enough about the lack of academic career opportunities to tell potential PhD students to consider another profession because there are no jobs for them once they're finished? I do it as a senior researcher, but very few others do. I've said it before but it bears repeating; there are better, healthier and yes, nobler ways of earning a living and making yourself useful to society. Find them. 

P.S. This is the email that Stefan Grimm wrote to his colleagues before he committed suicide, including the link to the article that published it. 

Begin forwarded message:
From: Stefan Grimm <>
Date: 21 October 2014 23:41:03 BST
Subject: How Professors are treated at Imperial College
Dear all,
If anyone is interested how Professors are treated at Imperial College: Here is my story.
On May 30th ’13 my boss, Prof Martin Wilkins, came into my office together with his PA and ask me what grants I had. After I enumerated them I was told that this was not enough and that I had to leave the College within one year – “max” as he said. He made it clear that he was acting on behalf of Prof Gavin Screaton, the then head of the Department of Medicine, and told me that I would have a meeting with him soon to be sacked. Without any further comment he left my office. It was only then that I realized that he did not even have the courtesy to close the door of my office when he delivered this message. When I turned around the corner I saw a student who seems to have overheard the conversation looking at me in utter horror.
Prof Wilkins had nothing better to do than immediately inform my colleagues in the Section that he had just sacked me.
Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?
All my grant writing stopped afterwards, as I was waiting for the meeting to get sacked by Prof Screaton. This meeting, however, never took place.
In March ’14 I then received the ultimatum email below. 200,000 pounds research income every year is required. Very interesting. I was never informed about this before and cannot remember that this is part of my contract with the College. Especially interesting is the fact that the required 200,000.- pounds could potentially also be covered by smaller grants but in my case a programme grant was expected.
Our 135,000.- pounds from the University of Dammam? Doesn’t count. I have to say that it was a lovely situation to submit grant applications for your own survival with such a deadline. We all know what a lottery grant applications are.
There was talk that the Department had accepted to be in dept for some time and would compensate this through more teaching. So I thought that I would survive. But the email below indicates otherwise. I got this after the student for whom I “have plans” received the official admission to the College as a PhD student. He waited so long to work in our group and I will never be able to tell him that this should now not happen. What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine.
The reality is that these career scientists up in the hierarchy of this organization only look at figures to judge their colleagues, be it impact factors or grant income. After all, how can you convince your Department head that you are working on something exciting if he not even attends the regular Departmental seminars? The aim is only to keep up the finances of their Departments for their own career advancement.
These formidable leaders are playing an interesting game: They hire scientists from other countries to submit the work that they did abroad under completely different conditions for the Research Assessment that is supposed to gauge the performance of British universities. Afterwards they leave them alone to either perform with grants or being kicked out. Even if your work is submitted to this Research Assessment and brings in money for the university, you are targeted if your grant income is deemed insufficient. Those submitted to the research assessment hence support those colleagues who are unproductive but have grants. Grant income is all that counts here, not scientific output.
We had four papers with original data this year so far, in Cell Death and Differentiation, Oncogene, Journal of Cell Science and, as I informed Prof Wilkins this week, one accepted with the EMBO Journal. I was also the editor of a book and wrote two reviews. Doesn’t count.
This leads to a interesting spin to the old saying “publish or perish”. Here it is “publish and perish”.
Did I regret coming to this place? I enormously enjoyed interacting with my science colleagues here, but like many of them, I fell into the trap of confusing the reputation of science here with the present reality. This is not a university anymore but a business with very few up in the hierarchy, like our formidable duo, profiteering and the rest of us are milked for money, be it professors for their grant income or students who pay 100.- pounds just to extend their write-up status.
If anyone believes that I feel what my excellent coworkers and I have accomplished here over the years is inferior to other work, is wrong. With our apoptosis genes and the concept of Anticancer Genes we have developed something that is probably much more exciting than most other projects, including those that are heavily supported by grants.
Was I perhaps too lazy? My boss smugly told me that I was actually the one professor on the whole campus who had submitted the highest number of grant applications. Well, they were probably simply not good enough.
I am by far not the only one who is targeted by those formidable guys. These colleagues only keep quiet out of shame about their situation. Which is wrong. As we all know hitting the sweet spot in bioscience is simply a matter of luck, both for grant applications and publications.
Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?
One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.
Best regards,
Stefan Grimm

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