Inspired by this tweet, which I started to answer and then realized my thoughts were longer and more complicated than could fit in a couple of tweets of my own.
My anecdotal observations have been the same as Seth’s. More and more high performing researchers in the public sector on leaving. Some for jobs in industry. Some for completely different positions. Some people are leaving tenured positions with no plan about what they want to do next. I could write about my ideas about why this is happening for a lot of paragraphs. But that’s not what I’m writing about today. Instead I want to think out loud about the question: Why aren’t decision makers worried about this trend? I think a big part of the explanation is that a lot of public sector researchers and administrators are motivated by zero sum incentives.
I’ve started companies. I’ve worked in academia. But my most recent experience working in the conventional private sector was a summer internship I did at Pioneer Hi-Bred all the way back in 2010. But I’ve been noticing a few interesting signs:
Powerpoint. Meeting with a venture capital firm. The guy I’m talking to apologizes for having such a long slide deck. Based on my experience in academia I assumed this mean 60-70 slides.* Nope. The really long slide deck the VC guy was talking about was 12 slides.
Meetings. Meeting with some folks at a company I am collaborating with. One guy shows up about ten minutes late to the meeting because of some stuff with his kids. We talk about the stuff that doesn’t need him at the start and talk about the stuff he needed to be there for once he showed up. Meanwhile in academia I frequently have days with 4-8 hours of zoom meetings scheduled back to back. Which is doable. At least it is until people at my next meeting start texting me on my cell phone to find out why I’m not in the meeting yet 2-3 minutes before the meeting is even scheduled to start.
Vacations. One of the startups I helped found hired some new full time “business people” a few months ago. It is remarkable how much these folks are getting done so quickly. Part of that is the advantage of dedicated people vs one person trying to wear seven hats. Part of it is the new folks brought different skillsets (why we hired them). But what’s been remarkable to me is that, in between getting so much work done, it seems like these people are constantly taking vacations: going off to cabins, or hunting trips, or tropical vacations. Meanwhile I’m 36 years old, have been reasonably successful in my academic career by the standards of my field and my job still doesn’t provide me with paid time off (including no sick leave).
The thing is, as far as I can tell there’s no inherent reason that academia needs to do any of these three things differently (and more painfully) than the private sector. It doesn’t make us more productive. It’s largely not being imposed from the outside, it’s something we do to each other or ourselves.
*This isn’t consistent around the globe. The last time I gave an hour long talk in Germany, someone warned me to aim for only 25-30 minutes of presentation (~20 slides) so the rest of the time could be for questions and discussion. So I did that. And it was GREAT! I came around with good new research ideas, an understanding of what I was or wasn’t explaining well, and I think the people listening had a better time and took away more useful information than if I’d droned on through 45+ slides with 5 minutes for questions at the end.
40% of the papers published in The Plant Cell had a corresponding author based in China, 28% from the European Union plus the United Kingdom, 16% from the United States and 16% from the rest of the world (Japan and Korea are particularly well represented in this last category).
I also said that I was really surprised when I actually read through a year’s worth of issues and counted up the numbers. I would have guessed closer to one quarter of the papers came from scientists in the United States and another quarter from China. There are lots of potential reasons to explain why my gut was wrong, but a big one is that just in the length of my scientific career things have changed a lot and my perception is struggling to catch up with the current facts on the ground.
I started graduate school in the fall of 2008. My first full year as a “professional” plant scientist* was 2009. At that time 7% of papers in The Plant Cell were published by authors working in China, 28% by authors working in the USA, 37% by authors working in the EU and 28% by authors working in the rest of the world. In the 12 years since that, China’s share grew to 40%, almost a 6x increase.
So what happened in that 12 year time frame? I don’t have good insight into Chinese policy and funding decisions. But at various points I’ve run into people who have told me that in China, human health research and agricultural research are treated as roughly equal priorities. And China invests a lot in funding plant science, including plenty of dedicated funding for institutes and professors. In the United States plant science is a very small slice of the research our country funds**, and much more of the funding we do have goes out as part of 3-5 year grants for specific projects. Here’s a great visualization of US federal government R&D spending from back when I was a grad student.
Anyway, I’m not sure what the key takeaways are here. I guess 1) It is possible for a country to take big steps forward in scientific discovery and innovation but only if we’re willing to pay for it 2) If you happen to live in the USA, like me, your subconscious may still be assuming that we play a much bigger role in the global plant science research community than we actually do.
The world changes. It is easy to fall behind.
*I was getting paid a bit more than $2,000/month to do plant science. It felt very adult at the time.
**Two big sources of funding for plant science when I started graduate school were the Arabidopsis 2010 project and the Plant Genome Research Program, both run through US National Science Foundation. As you might guess from the name, the Arabidopsis 2010 project ended a decade ago. Plant Genome Research is still around. However, it used to receive dedicated line item funding from congress to conduct research into agriculturally and economically relevant crop plants and the program is now funded at the discretion of the director of NSF.
Where in the world is important plant biological research happening today? It’s a hard question to answer. I could imagine looking at funding, or citation rates, or total papers published in the field. I can also imagine the downsides and potential for bias in all of those metrics. But I’m a strong believer that even imperfect data is better than none at all and I couldn’t find any useful data on this topic.
So let’s start with the easiest of these imperfect datasets to generate: where in the world are the home institutions of the authors of articles published in plant science journals?
I decided to start with The Plant Cell. The Plant Cell is published by the American Society of Plant Biologists, so we might expect it will have a bias towards more American authors and fewer authors from the rest of the world. One the other hand, among journals focused on plant science, and excluding journals that publish solely reviews*, The Plant Cell historically** has had the highest impact factor***, which has tended to attract a global audience of both readers and authors.
I have the breakdown below the fold, but before you look, take a moment to form your own guesses. What proportion of articles do you think came from the United States? From Europe? From China? From the rest of the world combined?
At most public universities everyone’s salary is a matter of public record. It’s always fascinated me that we don’t talk about this more often. It means it is straightforward to look at the total variance in people’s salaries in the same role and test different ideas for what might explain the differences in compensation between different people in the same role. So let’s take a look!
In my own department there are ~45 faculty with research appointments and entries in our school’s 21-22 salary database: Eight assistant professors, fifteen associate professors, and twenty-one full professors. Since assistant professors want to get promoted to associate professor and associate professors want to get promoted to full professors, the simplest model I can think of is to look at how well professor rank predicts salary.
Okay, so our extremely naive model is clearly on to something: average salary increases as people get promoted. But also salaries are much more widely distributed amongst full professors than among assistant professors. Lots of things that could be driven by. But what about the classic “let’s boil down research productivity to a single metric”: the h-index? Only 36 of the 45 professors in my department have google scholar profiles. But that’s not the big problem.
If you want to become more self conscious about your own vocal fillers, sentence fragments and the general nonsense that comes out of your mouth, ask a really good transcriptionist to write out an interview you did.
This past summer a technician in the lab rediscovered our carefully guarded stash of FFMM seeds and we decided it was time to increase them. While we did most of the increase in the greenhouse, the idea came up at the same time we were finalizing the plans for our summer nursery* so we decided to plant the line in the field as well.
I wrote my first post on this blog at the start of 2008 when I was a 22 year old university student. Prime time for a quarter life crisis, which I think was a term people were already joking about back then. Almost exactly 14 years later on the last day of 2021, I am a 36 year old, have a faculty position at a university, and tenure.
It’s hard to put myself back in the mindset of that 22 year old, but I do remember spending a lot of time wondering what I was going to do with my life. I’d gone to college as an econ major. Switched to biology because I liked my hourly job working in a lab. Skipped a lot of class but mostly* managed to pull As and Bs by picking courses that focused on midterms and finals, not classwork/homework. As graduation approached, the econ majors were all interviewing for jobs at big NYC investment banks. I remember a guy I knew rushing back into class after taking a call: “They offered me a higher salary than my dad makes!” But what do you do with an undergrad degree in biology? I wasn’t sure. One thing I did know a person could do with an undergrad degree in biology was get a GRADUATE degree in biology. I was majoring in biology because I liked working in a lab, so grad school seemed like a reasonable next step. I applied. I got in. I went.
In retrospect it was very good I didn’t stay an econ major. The fall of 2008 was not a good time to be starting in investment banking. What with the world financial system melting down and all.
In any case: I got in my old car and drove 2,800 miles (almost all of it on I-80) from New York to California** and grad school. I was bad at some parts of it. Good at others. I joined a lab that let me play to my strengths. Published my first paper. Then another. And another. Got a lollipop (as is tradition) and a diploma. What do you do with a PhD in biology? In principle a number of things, but the main path you hear about is to get a postdoc. That’s what about 70% of people who get a PhD in biology do next. I got one of those. And after a postdoc? Well there is lots of competition, but some people are able to get tenure track faculty positions. About 15% of biology PhDs. Although that overstates how hard it is, since there are plenty of people who get a PhD but would run away screaming from the idea of being a professor (and hence don’t apply for those jobs). Anyway. I got one of those jobs. What do you do with a tenure track faculty position? You put your head down and you work hard and you try to get tenure. When it comes to getting tenure, working hard is necessary-but-not-sufficient. I worked hard, but I was also really fortunate to have great students and creative collaborators and good luck. In any case. I got tenure.
What do you do with a tenured faculty position?
I’m serious, what do you do? For the first time since switching my major from economics to biology in 2005 (when I was all of 19 years old), I don’t have an obvious default Next Step. At least beyond: Do more of the same stuff you did to get tenure.
In the field people call this either a “post-tenure slump” or “post-tenure depression.” Apparently lots of folks go through it although fewer people talk about it in person. In seems to share many characteristics with a midlife crisis (e.g. “what am I doing with my life?”).
I found out about the decision about tenure in 2019. Really if I was going to have a post-tenure slump or depression it should have happened in 2020. As it turned out, my attention, like almost all of ours, was focused on other things in 2020. And the first part of 2021. But this summer and fall it has really started to sink in.
In principle, I could spend the next twenty to forty years of my life doing the exact same stuff I did over the past five. And if I did that it would probably been enough to keep this job until I’m old enough to retire. And if my job ends up going away it is more likely to be a result of the overall health of the university I work for, a factor I have extremely limited capacity to influence.*** It’s a good situation to be in and it’s also terrifying.
For the first time in my adult life, I am not facing a major hurdle in the coming years where, if I don’t buckle down and work hard enough, I’ll be forced off my current trajectory and have to reevaluate my life (not getting into grad school, failing my qualifying exam and leaving with a masters, not getting a job offer, not getting tenure). If I’m going to reevaluate my life, I have to decide myself to do so. It won’t be forced upon me. My goal for 2022 is to do a little of that reevaluation.
Ideally I’d like come up with one or more answer to how to spend the next 20-40 years that feels a bit more appealing/fulfilling/meaningful than continuing to focus the vast majority of my energy, attention, and time on a job where I work on the same questions with the same methods.**** I’m not sure what answer does appeal, but I know that answer doesn’t.
Anyway, that’s my 2022 goal: To come up with some goals to have. In the meantime I have to go work on filling out my annual report.
*General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry being notable exceptions. Frankly I’m lucky I graduated at all.
**In fairness there was a multi-month stop for the summer at my folks house in the middle of that, so it wasn’t 2,800 miles straight through.
***Declines in student enrollment, both domestic and international, are real. I don’t know what the international situation will look like in ten years but looking at the demographics domestic enrollment pretty much has to decline going forward because there are are fewer 14-year-olds than 15-year-olds in this country, fewer 13-year-olds than 14-year-olds, and so on.
****I’m also trying to make my peace with the fact that, no matter how hard I work or how much I accomplish in a given, so long as I have this particular job my department is still going to tell me every year that I still didn’t do enough stuff. It’s surprisingly hard for me to accept. I think I’m doing a good job. I think I am perceived outside the university as doing a good job. I think even inside the university when it boils down to it, there are people who believe I am doing a good job. Yet, even so, being told each year that I’m not doing enough work has worked its way under my skin to an extent that embarrasses me and to an extent that is neither healthy nor productive.
So I did a thing. For those who don’t want to click the link, it describes the results farmers are seeing in their first year of growing two new varieties of proso millet developed by a company called Dryland Genetics. Many farmers are getting 20% more grain from the same land as they did with the varieties they grew in the past. Since proso millet is grown in close to half a million acres in the USA (two hundred thousand hectares or three million mu (亩) for those of you reading internationally), that means these new varieties have the potential to produce a lot more calories from the same land, using the same water and the same nitrogen.
I helped found Dryland Genetics in 2014. At the beginning that meant reading a lot. Then writing a business plan. Then pitching that business plan. Winning over investors. Wrangling logistics. Hiring a full time breeder. Crunching numbers and datasets. Losing sleep over logistics and seed processing and cleaning and inspections and sales. More recently hiring more people who take over the job of wrangling and lose sleep over logistics and seed processing and cleaning and inspections and sales.
A really nice thing about many crop plants is that through natural self pollination it is possible to create true breeding inbred lines. Inbred lines plants that are homozygous across all or nearly all of their genomes. If the same inbred plant is the used as the mother and father to produce new seeds, all those seeds will be genetically identical to the parent plant. Just like identical twins. And like identical twins, inbred lines make it possible to understand a LOT more about the interplay of genetics and environment since we have a chance to see how different or similar the characteristics of genetically identical individuals turn out to be.