Rich Scientist, Poor Scientist

Visiting your old grad school lab is weird. It’s like wandering around your childhood summer camp, reminiscing about the happy months you spent boating, hiking, and being physically assaulted by more socially successful peers.

“There’s the bench where I did my first high-pressure liquid chromatography!” you squeal. “Ooh, here’s the cold room where we stored temperature-sensitive reagents and beer! And hey, there’s the older grad student who mentored me all those years ago! Wait, he’s still here?”

Sell ad space within the names of new species you discover, likeor .

I had that feeling last month when I paid a visit to the place I spent my scientific formative years. (Well, one of two places. The other was the student union that had apinball machine.)

Just like visiting summer camp, though, I soon found myself comparing the lab of yesteryear with its current incarnation. And today the lab wasn’t faring so well.

When I was there, about twenty people worked in the lab, including seven grad students, postdocs out the wazoo, and even an undergrad who used to whine—and these were his exact words—”Adam, the data are being weird!” I think he’s a medical doctor now. Anyway, it was known as the department’s largest lab, a bustling powerhouse facility that churned out grants and always dominated the annual holiday party dessert competition.

Now, however, it appears to have fallen victim to the same budget cuts that are killing science around the country. Research projects have been abandoned. Equipment sits idle. The lab of twenty has become a lab of five. And the five are scared.

Earlier this month, CNN reported that hundreds of science positions have evaporated because of budget cuts to federal funding agencies. Scientists across the nation are polishing their CVs, begging for reference letters, and considering—shudder—law school. Some are finding new labs, some are abandoning science altogether, and some are swapping their fading shreds of dignity for spare change, which is also known as adjunct teaching.

Whether you blame the Obama administration, the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives, or the cunning sales rep who bankrupted your lab by offering free keychain flashlights and nerdy T-shirts with the purchase of every $90,000 Big Useless Instrument, science funding ain’t what it used to be. And, at the risk of waxing overly nostalgic, I daresay it used to be nearly adequate.

Unless Congress is persuaded by the high-energy particle physics lobby, you’ll need to think of creative ways to save money and keep your research funded. Here are a few you may want to try:

  1. In these times of austerity, funding committees tend to favor realistic research with straightforward, practical applications. So you’re screwed.

Peering into the empty corners of my former workspace, I noticed that a dying lab looks different from any other dying business. Ninety-eight percent of the equipment, the reagents on the shelves, the Post-it notes on the refrigerator, don’t change. The cabinets aren’t cleaned out, the computers aren’t hauled away, and the assets aren’t sold as scrap. It’s the people who disappear.

That’s what made the lab seem so empty. The freezer from the early 1980s? Still there. The glove box in the hallway, which has sat in the hallway as long as anyone can remember, neither used nor usable but for some reason sporting a sign that reads, “NOT TRASH”? Still there. But grad students have stopped joining the lab, postdocs have stopped post-docking, and the line for the microwave in the lunch room is depressingly short.

I understand that belt-tightening is inevitable. And there may be nothing you can do. Still, I urge all you principal—not private—investigators: As you work to cover your budget shortfall, please do anything you can to keep the people around. Labs thrive on ideas, and at least for now, only people have ideas. Times being what they are, they may not have a future in science, but for now they’re science’s beating heart. They’re more valuable than any piece of equipment.

Except for a The Twilight Zone pinball machine.

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