Skip to content

20% Of Scientists To Jump Ship Because Of Sequestration

Tell us your woes.

According to Huffington Post, 20% of the country’s scientists will jump on the nearest cargo ship and head for points unknown because the government slowed its rate of increase in spending. So distraught are the whitecoats over the increase in the NIH budget—a small increase was reported to be a “drying up of resources”—that they’re ready to leave everything behind and begin anew in some foreign land.

Pity them!

The huffy reporter got his facts from a survey put out by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology entitled Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity, the conclusion of which is:

We strongly urge the federal government to overturn sequestration and return to a strong, sustained investment in scientific research.

They reached that scientific conclusion by asking about 3,700 researchers, “Would you like more money?” Kidding!

They queried scientists from “many” fields; actually, over 90% were biologists of one kind or another, the majority of which lived on soft money. “Soft money” means “writing grants” for a living. And that largely means petitioning various Government agencies for two kinds of funds: (1) salary and supplies for the scientists, (2) “overhead” for the deans and administrators.

Overhead? That’s the (roughly) twenty to sixty percent of the grant total tacked on at the end and which greases the wheels of the system. Some of the overhead pays the light bills and so forth, but some of it is shunted into “projects” thought important by administrators. The money to pay the fifth Office of Diversity Control has to come from somewhere, after all. Skip it.

Why the concern? According to the ASBMB itself (p. 6), “While the actual budgets of most research funding agencies have increased slightly…” there’s actually been some kind of decrease. If you squint. They didn’t like this, and they didn’t think others would, either. So off they went on their survey hunt.

A lot of their scientists said they spent more time writing grants and that the grants they eventually won are thinner than before (Qs 6-10). Though anecdotal, this is probably true. But what the ASBMB neglects to say is that the number of scientists competing for the trough increased, especially in matters biological. PhDs are churned out as if from an assembly line; postdocs wander hopefully from institute to institute. Some scientists even turn to writing blogs and private consulting. Only so many can feed off a finite number of governmental teats.

Then came the soul searching. Consider this puzzler: “[Question] 12. If funding was abundant, do you believe there are new frontiers in scientific research that we would be exploring that we are not now? What are they?” They parlayed the answers to that into the conclusion that funding must be ever increased for “American scientists to continue to make the discoveries that improve our lives.” The press liked that one.

Question “14. Growth in the federal investments in scientific research is necessary to maintain a vibrant and productive American research enterprise.” Is it only curmudgeonly independents who would disagree with this?

My favorite: “13. Minimal growth in the federal budgets for science research over the last several years has damaged the American research enterprise.” Notice that the growth that everybody experienced is built into the question.

They didn’t ask this question, “How much growth is enough?” Why? Because it’s a trick. Enough is never enough.

But the question generating the most buzz was 10: What about all this, eh? 3% said they lost a job, but 45% said they knew the friend of a friend who’s brother knew a guy who lost his job. More kidding! The 45% said they personally knew somebody who was canned. Maybe so. But did these folks find another government-funded job? Or did they have to stoop to working for a corporation?

More gloom: 36% said they knew somebody who will lose their job. How do they know this and is it true? Never mind.

The biggest headlines (here and here) came from the 18% (not 20%) who agreed “I am considering continuing my research career in another country.” Since this is a family blog, I can’t use the phrase that naturally comes to mind, though I can give you a hint: its initials are B and S.

If these guys are going to go, then adieu, adiós, sayonara, so long, etc. But how many actually will wake up from their daydream and snatch up their passports? Close to none. And the handful that flee will be replaced faster (yes) than they can quit.

What a goofy survey.


13 thoughts on “20% Of Scientists To Jump Ship Because Of Sequestration Leave a comment

  1. Sure they’ll leave. Isn’t that what the rich guy Alec Baldwin said he would do if Bush was elected–oh, wait, he’s still here hawking credit cards. Bad example.

    I am fascinated by the arrogance of these people. My husband and I have lost jobs due to the economy, had our house be worth half what it was when we bought it (and no federal program to “rescue” us–we had to deal with the actual lenders and work something out), and lost nearly half our income at times. What did we? Call a press conference? (No, we couldn’t blog–this was before blogging!) Threaten to leave the country if the government did not immediately subsidize our existence? No, we found other job, some “beneath” us by most of these people’s standards, but we ate, had lights and lived indoors.

    What this really indicates is what I have come to suspect all along–scientists view themselves as supreme beings worthy of continual funding and never having to prove they actually produce anything. It’s interesting to note that research that actually results in cures and diagnoses and so forth may be the least funded. There is no one-to-one correlation to money spent versus scientific discovery, no matter what these people imply.

  2. RE: “But the question generating the most buzz was 10: What about all this, eh?…”

    — “eh?”

    Eh — that’s Canadian & on a topic of this importance it may be a) unwise, or b) brilliantly clever to intermingle languages to draw attention to key points. It all depends on one’s audience.

  3. Sheri,

    What this really indicates is what I have come to suspect all along–scientists view themselves as supreme beings worthy of continual funding

    Maybe. Or not. These people were asked to answer a survey and they did.

    Think about some of these.

    the 18% (not 20%) who agreed “I am considering continuing my research career in another country.”

    It’s a survey. You may think there is a possibility of funding elsewhere. In the abstract, foreign countries may sound attractive. The survey asked if you are “considering” continuuing your research in a foreign country.

    So, you are “considering” it. Does that mean your sending out resumes? (Where? Do you bilingual?) Looked into the tax bite on Americans living overseas? Thought about schooling for your kids? (English language?) Or are you occasionally daydreaming about it? Or what?

    And if you lost your job (3%), thought there might be losing your job (8%) or thought you might have to close your lab (19%) wouldn’t you at least “consider” taking a job overseas? (Notice the option of considering jobs in private industry doesn’t seem to appear on the list.)

    Beyond that: some of these scientists answering the survey may hold green cards anyway. Why wouldn’t they at least “consider” returning to their country of origin if they could find a research position there? The reason most won’t is that research jobs in other countries particularly aren’t necessarily easy to come by.

    What’s much more likely is if government research funding in these areas declines, overall, the number of scientists working on government funding will decline. Some will find they need to look for positions in private industry– where they can do applied research or some sort of other activity where having a science background is useful, but their specific specialty is not valued.

    These jobs do exist, and moreover, to some extent, funding of research at universities and government programs to assist students are justified by the notion that some people who get advanced degrees will move into these sorts of jobs. But often, people finishing Ph.Ds are very interested in what they were studying and would prefer to continue studying that very specific thing as much as they are able. That’s why they look for jobs where they write proposals hoping for funding.

    Switching to industry will often mean they need to change focus by a sizeable measure. And the survey doesn’t even mention private industry.

  4. Lucia,

    All good points, except one. Funding is not declining. It is increasing. It is just not increasing fast enough to satisfy some.

  5. I like the “contemplate moving over seas” bit. I occasionally contemplate an invitation to visit Stockholm, but it will never happen. If it is over seas, at least we won’t see them in Canada! Every time I see “Huffington Post” I think Huff and Puff. I’m not sure why.

    But I do sympathize about the problem of living on soft money as that was once me. But you and Sheri are correct – it is not a right – scare mongering aside.

    Ken, I immediately picked up on the “eh” as well and since it is one of many pet peeves of mine, I will vent. It is not a universal Canadian expression! I do not use it and have spend the majority of my life not hearing others use it, except on television. It apparently originates in southern Ontario and thus is, at best, a regional expression. From now on I am going to claim that all Americans speak with a Texas drawl and say Y’all.

  6. Not sure if funding for the Global Warming/Bed Wetting correlation project is on the chopping block but keeping my legs crossed that it is not. Really need yo know the answer. It’s for out children.

    One project at the Dept. of Agriculture which surely will be the last cut is the on-going money tree cultivation study. This study has the backing of a number of high ranking Democrats. Cutting it (heck, even trimming it) would not be politically expedient.

  7. I actually think biochemists and molecular biologists generally do noteworthy work. I would like to see the survey of environmental scientists and climate scientists. These are the groups that need a severe pruning.

  8. @Bob: Yes, because the former tell you things you want to hear (“we can detect ______ earlier, and we can cure ______”) whereas the latter tell you things you don’t want to hear (“it’s harmful to ours and our progeny’s future if we keep up business as usual”).

  9. Everything in this article is true.
    I have a dear friend in who is a university professor in bio-engineering.
    She is spending a lot more time writing grants and getting a lot less money.
    She is considering leaving the country. Although in her case, it would be a 2 month project in Paris (funded by the NIH) and she would be returning to the US when compete.

    Yes, we turn out more PhD’s every year than we have jobs for them to do.

    One wrinkle not mentioned — The ‘ARRA’ — also known as “The Stimulus.” Created a pool of easy money that is drying up. The NIH funded a whole bunch of grants in 2009 over 3 and 4 year terms, and those grants are all coming to an end. Bio labs when on a rapid expansion, and now they are going to have to cut back. So, while the NIH never received a permanent budget increase, and hence there is no “Sequester” budget cut, they are giving away less money than than they were last year.

  10. Tom,

    I read your link. It is pure fantasy. To take one blatant example consider the human genome project. The publicly funded project had stagnated until Craig Venter entered the scene and with private funding solved the problem.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craig_Venter

    The major problem with the claim is the ignoring of what is not seen. That is, the productive uses that capital not siphoned off through taxation for publicly funded research would be put too. We can see the, often small, return from government research but we can not see what would have happened had the money remained in private hands, but given the immensely greater efficiency of industrial research we can imagine it from the above example.

    The greater funding of government research that now exists has driven out industrial competition in many, but thankfully not all, areas. Industrial labs are starting to disappear and this is not a good thing. Another tendency in the link that you provide is to claim all future advances based on some small initial government contribution while ignoring the contributions of others – claiming that any possible government link allows us to claim the whole thing. Based on this it must all come from Michael Faraday, or maybe the discovery of fire, all else can be ignored. Not an honest approach.

  11. Nothing the scientific establishment justifies the entitlement it feels it has. Most of what we pay for is mediocre and pedestrian at best. A good chunk is harmful and wrong, witness the posts here and the global warming gig with its huge tent under which so much pseudoscience is supported. A further cut could do our country’s science a world of good by restoring scientific excellence via increased competition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *