Day: December 21, 2017

Topical Drift

The way science is funded in the US — in short, highly uncertain federal grants — prevents the scientists from doing their best work, stifles creativity, contributes to burnout in more ways than one, and drags the whole enterprise down.

What struck me recently is how bored I am with much of my work. If someone gave me the money to fund maybe 3-4 students over the next five years (with a student, loaded, costing about $60k/year, that would be $1.2M for 4 students — so not anyone’s pocket change) and do whatever I wanted to do, I would have plenty of stuff to work on. There are things I want to learn and I would go into one of the fields that are quite far from my bread-and-butter one.

But to do the same on my own, raise the above $1.2M to do something completely new in a new field, is impossible. To be even competitive for this much money in a new field, one that is so far away from what I do that my current students or my PhD advisor likely wouldn’t be able to read my papers, would require such a drastic shift that it would likely mean a period with little or no funding, and I might never recover. I have certainly seen that — someone runs out of money, owing to bad luck or moving into a new field, and they are dead in the water. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone recover in terms of funding after a shift as great as what I envision and would love to make.

A senior colleague, years ago and at his tenure time, said he was done with his most productive line of work and ready for something else. But the sabbatical came and went, the change never happened, and the colleague is now (I fear irreversibly) switching to administration. His enthusiasm for his work must have waned, and the money certainly dried up. But if he’d been able to really switch gears, not with pittance institutional funds that cover 1 RA for 1 year but some actual resources, we would still have him in the game, somewhere, contributing with his brilliant mind.

So what do you do? Drift into new topics at a glacial pace. Essentially hold on to the topics you are done with, and would really like never to see again, and slooooowly introduce more and more topics that are more and more aligned with what you want to do… By the time you’ve finally transitioned into what you wanted to work on to begin with, you are bored with that and it’s time for the drift dance to take place yet again.