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Credit: Hal Mayforth

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, like Plasmodium spiritairlines or Escherichia progressivedotcom.

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 a The Twilight Zone pinball 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:

  • Reduce your travel budget by attending only conferences in which the street value of the complimentary tote bag exceeds the cost of the plane ticket.
  • When applying for funding, claim that you require expensive equipment, regardless of your field. Math? Looks like you'll need a math-grade particle accelerator.
  • Pay your grad students less. I mean, what do these moochers want anyway, groceries?
  • Remember that money doesn't grow on trees. Unless you collaborate with a botanical geneticist—and then, oh baby.
  • Buy penny stocks! They're poised to go through the roof.
  • Sell ad space on lab coats.
  • Sell ad space within the names of new species you discover, like Plasmodium spiritairlines or Escherichia progressivedotcom.
  • Sell ad space within the Results section of your journal articles: "In conclusion, we have demonstrated that HONEST TEA IS REFRESHING and combining gamma-band power with slow cortical potentials improves single-trial classification of electroencephalographic signals."
  • Sell old lab equipment. I've heard there's a new professor named Dr. Ahmadinejad who, for some reason, wants lots and lots of centrifuges.
  • Sell items from our fundraiser catalog door-to-door. We've got wrapping paper! We've got cheddar spread! We've got obscure, subpar sports magazines! And for every $100 you sell, you can pick a prize from our Prize Pamphlet of Crap! But that's not all—one lucky scientist's lab will earn…wait for it…a pizza party! Wow! Now get out there and sell, sell, sell!
  • Ask wealthy old Mrs. Teasdale. She's looking to give away millions of dollars, but only if Rufus T. Firefly is instated as president of Freedonia. (Ah, Marxist economics.)
  • Convince the principal investigator (PI) to work part-time as a PI. Just change "principal" to "private," and … I don't know. There's a joke in there somewhere.
  • Many crowdfunding sites will let you solicit donations in return for guaranteeing certain results for the donors. Science works awesome when you preemptively guarantee results.
  • Hey, make a meth lab. There's nothing naïve about assuming you can produce large amounts of meth, sell it, and then get out of the game. (I'm still on season two, so don't tell me what happens.)
  • Apply for grant money from the National Institutes of Health. Just kidding! They're poor.
  • 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.

It's that absence that kills a lab. People without equipment can only accomplish so much, but equipment without people accomplishes nothing. It's not a lab; it's a storeroom.

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.