Another tenure-track scientist bites the dust

Matthew usually didn’t like to check his grant review status on weekends.

But he knew the study section had finished deliberating and had already announced whether to fund his two R01 research grant applications. They had provided, or denied, his budget for lab supplies, graduate student stipends, and his own salary. They had validated, or refuted, the importance of his life’s work. And, unlike his previous grant applications, they had saved, or ended, his academic career.

So, just this once, Matthew—an assistant professor at a large research university in the American South whom I’ve known since graduate school—decided not to wait until Monday. (“Matthew” isn’t his real name. It’s the name of my 2-week-old nephew, and using it as a pseudonym in an article about science funding is his birthday present. Welcome to the world!)

Matthew—the scientist, not the infant—took out his phone and logged on to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website. And there, while hiking in a park on an otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoon, Matthew read his fate.

Scientists, especially academics, experience this sort of anxiety a lot. Regularly justifying our research in exchange for money is simply part of the job. And this doesn’t just apply to academia. As an industry scientist, I’m less susceptible to the whims of grant reviewers, but I still work at a company that’s largely grant funded.

But for Matthew, this wasn’t just another grant review cycle. He’d been an assistant professor for 6 years. In that time, he’d taught classes, published papers, spoken at meetings, conducted research, and trained students—but, despite submitting proposals during at least a dozen review cycles, he had earned exactly zero grants. Matthew had used up his startup funds. If he wanted to remain on the tenure track, this was his last shot.

He stared at the phone in shock. Both of Matthew’s grants showed the same status: “Not Discussed.”

For those whose livelihood depends on grants, “Not Discussed” is a peculiarly cruel designation. You spend years researching and months writing your grant application, only to learn that you didn’t even get denied the funding—you were never even seriously considered for denial of the funding. “Not Discussed” means that, when the study section met to award scores, your grant never entered the conversation. The members didn’t like it, but they didn’t hate it, either, because all but three of them didn’t read it. Those three initial reviewers decided that your work wasn’t worth the study section’s time.

Imagine if an Olympic gymnast landed the dismount from a balance beam, and the audience looked to the judges’ table—but instead of holding up placards with numbers on them, the judges mumbled, “Sorry, we weren’t watching.” Well, “Not Discussed” is just like that, only without the apology.

“‘Not Discussed’ is … that’s bad,” Matthew told me, chuckling with resignation. “That’s kind of the kiss of death.” A poorly scored grant at least leaves a door open. You can contact the program officer and get all up in his or her grill about what to fix before the next review cycle. But a “Not Discussed” grant, at least one submitted to NIH, comes with little more than a thanks-for-playing paragraph.

Matthew texted the news to his wife and a few colleagues, saying he felt like he’d been “disbarred.” Then—and I promise I’m not making this up, even though it works perfectly as a metaphor for academic science funding—he got in his car, drove to his local veterinarian’s office, and picked up the cremated ashes of his beloved dog who had died 6 months earlier, which he had procrastinated collecting until he was emotionally ready.

Having his grants not discussed, his tenure-track position therefore lost, and no career to show for 2 decades of hard work, Matthew felt emotionally ready.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “there was no phoenix to rise up out of them.”

I’m sure Matthew will find a path forward, but he isn’t sure what’s next. Nothing seems unworthy of consideration. He even confessed that he’s had thoughts about—and I shudder to picture this—applying his data analysis skills in the banking industry. But one thing he knows for sure is that tenure-track academia is out of the picture. “There’s not a huge market for failed PIs,” he said.

Matthew is just one of many researchers finding themselves in this situation. “It’s well known that professors are dropping like flies,” he told me. “I know they exist. They just don’t really go around telling their story.”

I first heard Matthew’s story on Facebook, where he posted a screenshot of the NIH site and formally bid his dreams farewell. And maybe, as he points out, it’s not surprising for an academic science career to be upended in this way. But I truly didn’t think it would happen to Matthew. He’s one of those people who embrace every aspect of the job in the hope of learning the underlying mechanisms of biology. When he was 20, he told me, he knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life illuminating the intricate minutiae of how cells work. He followed the prescribed path for an academic scientist: narrowing his focus first in graduate school, then identifying original avenues of research to pursue in his postdoctoral fellowship, and finally landing a tenure-track assistant professorship.

Matthew knew the deal when he joined his department: 10 years of work, and then you have to apply for tenure. “But,” he told me, “nobody talks about, ‘What if I run out of money beforehand?’”

His first few grant applications were rejected, and not in a way that gave him a clear path forward. The reviewers dismissed his research as “not impactful,” a common refrain in science funding, which means that Matthew’s research might certainly shed light on how cells work—but when it came down to it, how much do we really need to know about how cells work? (A lot of basic science labs face this problem, which is why a lot of grants include some tacked-on variation of “Because cancer.”) He shifted research gears in response, hoping that a new angle would be more likely to be funded, but it didn’t help that he had already burned through a significant amount of time and resources.

He also felt doomed by the Catch-22 of his newness. Basic science is dominated by some particularly luminous luminaries. A program officer once reminded Matthew that he was competing against Nobel Prize winners—“note the plural,” Matthew said dryly. Grant reviewers are supposed to assess newbies and VIPs separately, but they’re also told to fund the grants with the greatest chance of success. And who has a greater chance of success? Matthew, who just got started, or a massive lab with ample resources, a 30-year track record, and a certain Swedish medallion?

“They don’t switch off their brains,” Matthew lamented. “They still say, ‘This is preliminary.’ They still say, ‘It would be nice to see this experiment, and that experiment.’ And I just got started, basically. I mean, what do you want?”

I think a lot of students have an overly romantic notion of science: You identify an interesting question, and you search for the answer. Only, in real life, what you want to research and what those with money want you to research aren’t always the same thing. And, as Matthew learned the hard way, they won’t give you money without “preliminary” data—but good effing luck getting the amount of “preliminary” data they want without money.

So, this is the system we have, folks. You can love your research and even be quite good at it, but if a committee doesn’t find it impactful, your whole career can end—provided the committee even discusses it in the first place. That’s a lot of power entrusted to a few people in a room.

The best way to survive, Matthew advises, is to constantly think about where the money will come from. Just as trainees are always considering how experiments will fit into the grand scheme of a dissertation or paper, they should get into the habit of contemplating how to convince a committee to fund those experiments.

And how should we think about this story? As an unfortunate coincidence, or a cautionary tale? What about the years of effort lost by Matthew and other early-career scientists? Their employees who now have to find new labs? The experiments begun with no money to finish them? Our tacit policy of encouraging students’ interest in science without sufficient resources at the other end?

These are questions we seem to want to leave, as they say, not discussed.

Correction, 20 July, 12:35 p.m.: This article has been corrected to more accurately describe Matthew’s institution and how a grant receives the “Not Discussed” designation.

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