Published On Aug 19, 2015
Keeping the Lights On
Scientific funding has hit a long rough patch. The director of the MGH Research Institute explores alternative ways to provide sustainable and rewarding careers for the next generation of scientists.
Academic scientific research has never been a game for those who want to be millionaires, but the prospects in 2015 are particularly grim. Considering today’s shrinking federal funding and meager academic job prospects, many young scientists are wondering if it’s financially possible to pursue the work they trained for.
Susan Slaugenhaupt, scientific director of the new Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, discusses how the institute is responding to the funding conundrum and working on ways to create a more stable foundation for young scientists who are building their careers.
Q: How has science funding changed during your career?
A: If somebody had asked me 10 years ago whether I felt secure in my job, I would have said absolutely. I became a faculty member in 1995, shortly before the doubling of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget, and never thought much about insecurity as an academic scientist. But now, securing NIH funding has become so ultra competitive that it’s difficult for even the best to compete.
Over the course of my career, the approval rate for NIH grant applications has fallen from around 25% to less than 10%. The average age for getting your first NIH grant, which supports most biomedical research, is now 42. So when people in many other professions have already established themselves, scientists are just getting started.
Q: Isn’t that a tough way to make a living?
A: This has led to something called unproductive anxiety. Productive anxiety is the competitive anxiety that we all have as scientists—worrying that you will get scooped on your next paper, or that someone else is working harder than you.
But the unproductive anxiety revolves around questions such as, “Am I going to get a paycheck? Am I going to be able to feed my kids? Am I going to have a job in five years?” Those are the kinds of things that people shouldn’t have to worry about when they have studied for a dozen years to get an advanced degree to pursue science.
Q: Are there fewer young scientists today as a result?
A: Every week there are flyers posted around MGH on alternate careers for scientists. For example, there are science jobs in publishing, or you can go to law school to become a patent attorney. I have so many passionate people who come to train here and then decide to pursue other options because of this insecurity. It is really sobering.
Q: How do you combat this trend?
A: This past spring, we launched a new Research Institute here at MGH whose mission is to guide, support and promote research at the hospital. And when we say support, what we really mean is to solidify our funding base—to enhance our ability to interact with industry, philanthropists and other organizations that can provide the crucial early support that our scientists need in order to build a sustainable career in research.
Q: Is science funding a tough sell for the philanthropic community?
People go to the doctor and expect new medicines and therapies for their diseases, but very few understand how these treatments come about or how science gets funded in this country.
We are working to educate the donor community about how science is funded, why it is important, and what great work is being done here at MGH. We want to branch out and broaden our funding base so we are not as dependent on the NIH.
We are also working with industry experts to figure out new translational applications of current research programs and other unique ways to partner with industry.
Q: How does this directly help scientists, and young scientists?
A: We have started the MGH Research Scholars Program, which identifies the best and brightest scientists at the cutting edge of their fields, and provides five years of research funding. This program is entirely funded through philanthropy, and provides an opportunity for researchers to pursue new and unproven avenues of research—avenues that may lead to unexpected discoveries down the road.
We also have a program called the Goodman Award, which is a two-year award that supports a new investigator. And I really would like to expand these types of programs to provide more substantial funding opportunities for people who are just starting their labs.
The decision to establish this research institute at Mass General really demonstrates that the institution understands the importance of the fundamental science that happens here. It’s willing to make an effort to sustain it. So hopefully we can create a financial situation where young investigators, if they choose to come here, will have a little more security.