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Published On Aug 27, 2015

Policy

Scientific Uncertainty

Nobel laureate Jack Szostak reflects on the future of science in the United States.

Biomedical research has made terrific strides in the past decade. Yet the overall funding for research and number of academic positions for scientists has remained relatively stable. The resulting competitive landscape has made it extremely difficult for young scientists to forge a stable, secure career in academia. 

Jack Szostak, a molecular biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2009. With the perspective of his 35-year career in the sciences, Szostak recently joined a small panel of fellow Nobel Laureates to discuss the future of scientific careers for an audience of young scientists, and shares some of those reflections with Proto.

 

Have scientific careers changed during your life?

When I started out, the whole biomedical enterprise was in the early stages of a huge expansion. So it was easier to get money and find faculty positions. Even then it was competitive, but I think people doing creative things had an easier time during that period of huge growth in the enterprise. More recently, funding for research hasn’t really increased. 

 

What about the relationship between industry and academia?

I would definitely say a larger percentage of people coming out of my lab now decide to work in industry. And these are often people who would like to be in academia but became frustrated with the tight job market.

There used to be a real divide between industry and academia, fueled by a sense of academic superiority that wasn’t particularly justified. But the reality is, if you want to develop technologies or new drugs that are going to help people, it usually gets done via industry. As a result, there is a lot more interchange these days in which discoveries are made in academic labs and then transferred over to industry, where they can be further developed.

 

You mentioned people doing creative things in science. Is there more or less of that in the current landscape?

Really good creative scientists still do risky stuff—that is why we are in science in the first place. But when only 10% of grant proposals are approved, it is hard to pursue things that are overly risky. That’s just an unintended consequence of a grant system that has become increasingly conservative. 

A large number of fantastic discoveries have come out of very obscure beginnings. The CRISPR gene-editing technology, which has swept the world, is a great example. It started from people studying obscure sequences in bacteria—they didn’t really know exactly what they were looking at. Things like that need to be funded, but those are precisely the types of projects that now fall by the wayside. 

 

Is anything being done to address this problem?

People are trying their best to find ways to counteract this trend. For example, the NIH is developing a program that identifies productive or creative people and provides funds that allow them to pursue whatever project they want. This is quite different from the generic R01 grant, which is project-based. 

 

What about larger solutions?

Although we can lobby Congress to allocate more money for science, I doubt that we will see another doubling of the NIH budget as we saw between 1998 and 2003. We really need to reform the way federal money is distributed and try to find more efficient mechanisms that are less bureaucratic. 

 

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of science?

It’s important to recognize that despite all the problems we have, this is still a great time to be doing science. There are unbelievable advances being made, and incredible new technologies that allow us to make discoveries that we couldn’t even dream about 20 years ago. So it may be harder in some respects, but it is still a fantastic time to be involved in research. 

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