Canary in the research lab  pg. 2

There may be, as yet, few signs of calamity in the research lab, but there certainly is no lack of voices sounding the alarm.

“It’s very discouraging to hear that many of our best young scientists are 41 or 43 years old when they receive their first grant,” says Douglas Melton, Ph.D., co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute who is searching for a cure for type 1 diabetes. “It’s just unreasonable for society to expect that people would devote 10 to 15 years to their education and then not be given real independence until they were in their 40s.”

Jack Dixon, Ph.D., HHMI’s chief scientific officer, warns against “burning up talent.”
Paul Fetters for HHMI
“For young people, these are the most productive, innovative and exciting times in their careers,” adds Jack Dixon, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and former dean for Scientific Affairs at the University of California, San Diego. “If they’re spending a lot of their time on the treadmill of writing and submitting and rewriting and resubmitting, then they’re not spending their time doing experiments that will lead to breakthroughs in innovation.

“You can’t let talented young scientists go unfunded for five to eight years. They will end up washing out of the system. You are basically burning up talent that took many years to develop. In the Midwest,” says Dixon, who formerly taught at Purdue, Indiana University and the University of Michigan, “we call that ‘eating your seed corn.’”

Inadequate funding squelches creativity, especially for young investigators, Lawson continues.

“When we put a grant in, one of our biggest criticisms is ‘you are being too ambitious’ or ‘you’re being too creative,’” he says. “This isn’t just a matter of losing people. We run the risk of stifling or slowing down our discoveries because investigators are being told to avoid riskier ideas and pursue more predictable avenues with their research. Essentially, at times we have been told that, ‘You need to back off. You need to make this a safe research plan.’”

Despite its limitations, the NIH has tried mightily to support innovative research.

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