The system as it currently exists.

Over at DrugMonkey, PhysioProf delivers a mission statement:

Our purpose here at DrugMonkey is to try to help people identify and cultivate the tools required to succeed within the system of academic science as it currently exists. We did not create this system, and we are not in a position to to "take it down". We do the best we can to help the people we train in our own labs to succeed within this system, and we try to share some of our insights here at the blog.

In a winner-take-all system like this, there will always be people who do not succeed through no fault of their own. People who are smart, talented, dedicated, hard-working, articulate, persuasive, and who do all the right things sometimes still fail. This is the nature of a winner-take-all system: there is an intrinsic randomness that influences to some extent who succeeds and who fails. It is the same in professional sports, law, medicine, performing arts, entertainment, comedy, business, entrepreneurialism, journalism, engineering, and most other professional career enterprises.

Many of us may not like this situation, but this is how things currently work. Academic science is not a ... Care Bears tea party, and wishing that it were is not going to make it so.

I think this is a fine statement of purpose for a blog. But I think the community of academic science could -- and should -- set its sights higher.

The system of academic science as it exists now is not how academic science always was, nor how it will be forever more. Institutions -- even those with complex bureaucracies -- change.

Indeed, these institutions are made up of people, many of them scientists (or administrators who used to spend significant portions of their time doing science). Granted, there are also many people who are part of the institution of academic science who are not themselves scientists (and there are people outside these institutions, like elected officials, who can have a big effect on funding streams). However, there are scientists involved in steering the ship of academic science.

There are probably very few individuals who could, by themselves, "take down" the system or make far reaching changes in it. The coordinated efforts of many people, however, might have a profound effect.

To the extent that the project of science has certain goals that are supposed to be non-negotiable (like building a body of reliable knowledge about various bits of the world), there are certain institutional arrangements that may well be bad ones within which to do science. If there is reason to suspect that particular aspects of academic science as it exists now encourage behaviors that run counter to the aims of scientific work, it is worth examining those institutional features carefully and figuring out how to fix them.

This hard work should not fall on the shoulders of any one scientist in the community. It certainly shouldn't become the sole responsibility of scientific trainees to clean up institutional structures that they did not create. But if scientists are serious about doing science in an academic setting, there may be flaws with the system as it exists now that we ignore at our peril.

I have no problem with PhysioProf and DrugMonkey focusing their attention on helping scientific trainees figure out how to do good science -- and achieve professional success -- in the system as it exists now. But I don't think this focus means that other scientists, especially those with the career success and attendant prestige to throw their individual weight around, should excuse themselves from the responsibility to examine how the system works now and to evaluate whether it can be counted on to produce the body of solid knowledge we expect from it. If certain features of the system tend to undermine the scientific goals, it's in every scientist's interest to have them fixed.

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As always, you said it so clearly and respectfully!
That was exactly what I needed to read.

If certain features of the system tend to undermine the scientific goals, it's in every scientist's interest to have them fixed.

I think you overlooked the key issue in physioprof's post. The critique isn't the rules of the winner-take-all system, it is the winner-take-all system. Sure we can make the "game" slightly fairer, but there will always be losers who should have won. This has been the case for all of modern science history (as best as I know). The rules used to be even more unfair with personal wealth being a basic requirement for even entering the game.

That said, can we make science less winner-take-all. The first step would be to remove the salary jumps for each stage. Why do salaries at equivalent places almost double from grad student to postdoc and again from postdoc to faculty? If there was something between postdoc and independent faculty with a career-duration livable salary and a bit more respect/independence, it would reduce the divide in academic research and encourage more people to remain in academic science. If more lecturer/teaching faculty positions permitted a reasonable amount of time for research then the winner-take-all system is again less extreme.

Even in industries where there are fewer people the higher up the corporate ladder you go, is there any industry where highly educated white collar workers have a salary cap in the mid-five figures until they get promoted to manager?

These types of options require more money than is currently in the system and really would be a radical departure from our current system.

Cross Commenting
If you are too lazy or scared to change the system, have the gonads to admit it. Don't pretend the fact you do nothing means that nothing can be done

Becca, nobody is in a position to take the system down. The Great Zerhouni, IC heads, random Congressional amendment-offerers, even the Prez.

PP was being a bit hyperbolic here but your comments, MsPhD and choral followers are striking a tone that is just not justified. Read through my stuff- on the old blog in particular but never fear the sentiments will continue to appear here. We PIs are in a position to nudge the system at best. You are wonderfully naive if you think any save the very senior and influential scientists can do more than nudge. Even members of IC Advisory Councils complain about having little effect...

I take opportunities to nudge where possible. I offer my opinions to my senior colleagues- locally, on study section, at meetings. I offer my opinions on the career to just about any Program representative I can find. I try to rally my scientific colleague peeps for change, much as I do with this blog. And of course, I put my money where my mouth is when it comes to professional decision making although of course most of that is in the realm of the confidential. And even there, even if I was an evangelical wackaloon for handing out grant money and paper acceptances to younger scientists (I'm not)...well there are limits to how much any one person can do. You have to bring others along with you. So all you get are ...nudges.

Those of you who stand on the outside complaining don't even get this much if you fail to respond to NIH Requests for Information on topics related to career issues. You fail to nudge if you don't attend scientific meetings and chat up Program staff (no whining!).

Finally let me make one point which is talking slightly out of school but I did it once already and it is really important. The NIH is listening to blogs. Most specifically this one although I imagine many others as well. You have a chance to do some nudging with your commentary. How fun is that?

DM, "a bit hyperbolic" is a bit of an understatement. PP's strawman-bashing non-rhetoric regarding YFS has gotten beyond silly and into downright weird. Your co-author seems to have gone a half a bubble off plumb.

There are numerous things about the current system that are the case that don't have to be the case at all. Shady PIs, harassment and lack of oversight regarding PI/student interactions. Unethical behavior of PIs, good old boy reviewer networks. Journals that play favorites. A lot of really bad stuff. Many of these things could be handled at the Dept. level with strong Departmental and Program leadership and oversight.

We could also not keep training tons of excess graduate students that really exist as cheap, disposable labor with no jobs to go to.

That said, I also nudge as much as possible. Part of nudging is being involved in decision making, and doing your time as a reviewer both or articles for journals and study sections, and as a committee member for various Departmental responsibilities. Odds are you will have to rock the boat. It is a thankless job and everything pushes you to go with the flow. You just can't do that. I don't agree with the excessive "go with the flow" mentality that says "I need to succeed therefore I can't afford to advocate for any change"- this is the reason why things don't change. (I don't know if anyone said those things specifically, but I see this attitude all the time).

I think that academic institutions today, at least those involved with research and these include both state and private ones, have settled into the corporate business model. The idea is to recruit already made "stars" or "stars" in the making, who have secured NIH grants and build the institution around them. The administrative personnel of these institutions has grown and continues to grow at a much faster rate than the academic pesonnel. The absurdity of the situation is that the overhead money brought by "stars" is supporting mainly administrative personnel, many of whom are receiving higher salaries than most teaching faculty members in departments that do not rely on grants. The current system of winner-takes-all may exists, but the winners are not really the grant-reach scientists, but rather the CEOs of the academic institutions; just check the salaries of universities presidents, chancelors, deans, division heads, department chairs.

Scientists today have relinquished every point of control they ever had over their academic institution to administrators, many of whom are not scientists. Those among them who were scientists at one point or another, long forgot many of the priciples of science and scientific conduct. They willingly went into the dark side, where the money and the personal benefits are.

If all of you would be honest with yourself, go and check the salaries of your humanities teachers or your art science teachers and compare them with those of assistent Dean X, associate Dean Y; see how many vice presidents, vice chancelors, vice deans, whatever, your institution has. Also, check how many "stars" that were recruited by your institution are still there or whether they still the "stars" they used to be. How many winner-takes-alls are not winning anymore? What it cost your university to recruit some of the "stars" and whether or not it paid off or the investment tanked. And of course, ask yourself if the number of scientific discoveries in your university has increased or decreased over the past 30 years and whether or not it correlates directly or inversly with the number of patents your university has. Science has become a big business with fat salaries and contracts for its CEOs, but the production line of this business appears to move off shores, especially now when our country spends more money on wars and less on science and education.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 25 Jun 2008 #permalink


I am wondering if physoprof's post would sound different if he were a biotech scientist. Reading his post I could not avoid the feeling that he is considering himself one of those "winner-takes-all" dudes.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 25 Jun 2008 #permalink

The fact of the matter is there will always be a limited number of academic positions; ie they are a limited resource. When there is a population larger than the resource can accomodate, a percentage of the population will fail. I think the we will always turn out more PhD's than there will be positions in academia for PhD's. If we are talking about some redistribution of resources within the academic community such that more PhD positions will be created, that is perhaps a worthwhile discussion.

In 1965 I was hired as an Assistant Professor for $950/month. I kept track of my salary buying power using the consumer price index and other sources. My buying power did not increase noticably until the last three or fours years before I retired, having spent exactly half my career as a Full Professor. No Assistant Professor hired after me was hired at a salary as great as mine at the time. Therefore they came in with reduced buying power compared to me, with little hope of catching up.

I hope this is not too tangential to the discussion.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 25 Jun 2008 #permalink

Couple of points:

-I don't think you can reasonably expect anyone who has significantly benefited from the status quo to have a whole lot of interest, or support for, restructuring. They are not going to bite the hand that feeds them, although whether that is due to hegemony or due to self-interest is debatable.

-I can't agree with this: "I think that academic institutions today, at least those involved with research and these include both state and private ones, have settled into the corporate business model." Crikey, I wish that were true! In industry, I've got Legal, Quality and HR departments to sic on my fearless leaders if they do something really unethical. If one of the bosses likes to perv on his subordinates, the boss is the one who gets the axe. If one of the bosses decides he doesn't like your data set, you take it to one of your other five bosses or take it to the Quality department, and if your data is good then many times they will back you up. Not always, but many times. Academia, you're screwed, go find another lab.

-I don't believe this: "nobody is in a position to take the system down. The Great Zerhouni, IC heads, random Congressional amendment-offerers, even the Prez." It's only half a story. I think there are many industry and non-NIH granting agencies who could position themselves to, well, not take the system down per se, but to create viable alternatives and work-arounds. It's relatively easy for someone with just a little imagination to think of alternate methods of funding nonprofit or not-for-profit science education and research. And those work-arounds remove a significant portion of the power of the existing system.

Are us "outsiders" really so dumb that we don't know how to propagate a meme, start a nonprofit, organize people and market ourselves? I don't think so. And I refuse to absolve anyone of responsibility for the existing system on the grounds that one person can't do (fill in the blank). DM, somewhere inside of you, crying out, there is a little Tyler Durden. Let him loose.

What S. Rivin said.

I forget the actual numbers, but I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year that showed how much faster administration has been growing relative to faculty for the last 30 years. It was surreal.

Apparently there are now (on average) 25 administrators for every one faculty member. Up from something like 1:2 in the 1950s.

By BiophysicsMonkey (not verified) on 25 Jun 2008 #permalink

Even in industries where there are fewer people the higher up the corporate ladder you go, is there any industry where highly educated white collar workers have a salary cap in the mid-five figures until they get promoted to manager?

Teachers? Librarians? Social science careers? We are actually fairly well paid as researchers, even at the post-doc level. No, we don't get paid the way lawyers, physicians or some engineers do, but those are the top level outliers, not the average for educated white-collar work.

On another level, it is entirely possible for a system - like the up-or-out we have - to be good for the enterprise of science as a whole and still be bad for a lot of its practitioners. I think you would have to show that the system as it exists actually is bad for science as well before you can convince enough people with influence that it needs to be changed. The people with influence are after all those for whom the system was not all that bad on a personal level.

Teachers with 10 years experience (age 32-35) get at least as good a salary as a postdoc and often get higher salaries in non-urban school districts. Their job benefits are often nice. In addition, their salaries keep rising while doing essentially the same job.

Here's why the system is bad for science. The people who leave academic science often aren't leaving science. They work for companies. While industry is vital for scientific progress, it has flaws. For science progress, is it better if someone works in secret and keeps their results as hidden as possible to capitalize on their findings or if they publish and talk at meets as often as possible about all of their results. More shared research is good for science.

Great post Dr. Free-Ride (as usual; I've been following the blog for a long time, but haven't commented much, if at all).

I'd like to see a lot more discussion about what aspects of the system might detract from science's overall goal, and how to change them to more naturally align with that goal.


"The business model" such as Enron? The oil companies? HP and its ex-CEO? Could you imagine a university answering to its shareholders where its research direction is concerned? Look at the pharmaceutical industry that gave us Vioxx, Vitoryn, Zetia, hidden research and slanted data. The business model of the cigarette industry made sure that its customers will never find out about the dangers of smoking and severely punished the one whistleblower who exposed them. An academic institution that's run according to this model has its goals upside down. Yes, a university should run efficiently, where finances are concerned, but the concept that money determines the direction science should go is wrong and will bring the collapse of academic scientific research as the enterprise of creating new knowledge

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 26 Jun 2008 #permalink

@ S. Rivlin:
I can only comment on the pharma industry, since that's the one I mostly know. Most of the industries you cite are not regulated, and that's a different can of worms entirely.

FWIW, comparing academic science vs. industrial science, honestly, until you've seen both from the inside, and seen the bad, seamy sides of both from the inside, honestly, seriously, I think industrial science is probably cleaner and more ethical. Yeah, really. When you take scale and scope into account, I think industry data is cleaner, more accurate, more precise.

In academia I saw a LOT more shady doings than I ever did in industry. I saw entire university-published textbooks of protocols that had never worked once, for anyone, ever, and upon questioning the author had been fired with cause for various offenses. I saw scientists using samples from one clinical trial to generate data for a completely different clinical trial, without registering the clinical trial or getting patient consent. I saw students who were harassed into silence or quitting on an extremely regular basis, and this was a big Research I university. And unlike industry, I had no recourse for supervisors behaving badly in academia. In industry, you DO have recourse, which is what makes those examples you cited so much more atrocious--they didn't have to fudge their numbers, they could have called Quality, Legal or the FDA themselves or they could have taken their own personal names off the paper.

I'm not saying you have to have a for-profit model; I am saying that you can have a non-profit model but use other industry-generated techniques (e.g. HR management, pay incentives, quality control, cGLP) to manage the administrative side of things more wisely and clean up the data and ethics considerably.


Academic research institutions are part of a regulated business. My point was not to blame the industry for the failings of academia, rather, the concept that financial success is a goal of its own is the main reason for those failings. Consequently, a successful scientist today is the one with the most grant dollars, whether her science is good or bad. A failing scientist is a poor scientist. Under such perception, it is not surprising that "poor" scientists, no matter how brilliant they are and how clean and ethical their science is, are losing their jobs, while the rich ones, no matter how unethical they are, retain power positions and receive the highest salaries and praises. University administrations using the rich scientists as their poster boys and girls. Money is corrupting and big money corrupting more than small money; the bigger the pot, the greater the temptation to cheat.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 27 Jun 2008 #permalink

As always, thanks for a great post Janet!

Several others have made great points. I will only add that those people that benefit most from illogical systems like the one we're currently operating under in science will continue to benefit from it so long as we continue to think we are all striving in isolation. That is, I notice a lot of the language on these comments to be about how no one can change science, but I don't see people saying, "so I am going to band together with my colleagues to do something about it." What about our grad unions? Faculty unions? The AAUP? Other professional organizations?

When I was in a grad union in grad school, one of our primary missions was the elimination of graduate students as a casualized work force. We managed to get a lot done at our university, and inspired many other unions to work towards similar goals.

It is absolutely possible to change the system if we stop thinking we're alone in it.


I fully agree with you. Unfortunately, the spirit of students, most of whom are still young and with less responsibilities, are completely gone where faculty members are concerned. They are married, most of them with children, they have mortgage payments, car payments, college tuition for their children students, and they are not going to risk losing the one income source that provide the funds to pay for these obligations.

I put my career on the line, blowing the whistle in a case of scientific misconduct [(see the following link)] only to find out that none of my colleagues was willing to stand up with me. Many of them questioned my sanity and openly said that they are not going to risk their own careers to fight to clean a corrupted system, cleaning, which they have no chance to achieve. The AAUP never offered to help and even higher-ups in the academic ladder, chairpersons and divisionheads whom I consulted with, advised me not to get involved.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 28 Jun 2008 #permalink

Hi S.,

I'm sorry to hear you had such an isolating experience when you were brave enough to speak out about misconduct. But I do want you to know that lots of others have entirely different experiences when they speak up.

I have committed civil disobedience twice (with hundreds of other academics), I have filed an unfair labor practice against a faculty member with the NLRB and been backed up by my colleagues, and have done a number of other things related to being a part of my union. Because I had a union there was an infrastructure made to protect me and amplify my voice, and make it safer for me to reach out to my colleagues and get them to join me. So I guess part of the issue is that academics need more infrastructure that is run by them and for them (unlike faculty senates, administrative positions, etc).

I continue to believe that if enough of us keep standing up and encouraging our colleagues that we will make a difference. If it helps, I was ostracized from my department for many of the things I did and put my career on the line as well. But I decided to just act fully confident in my interviews and ignore my committee and I got the job I wanted.


Good for you. I agree that there are issues to fight for that other faculty members will join you, as long as these members are not in the fireline. This is especially true when you raise your sword against the well connected, higher-up and well-funded who also controls the salaries of the faculty members their support you seek. Unions and AAUP chapters in many academic institutions are completely gone or weakened due to the reluctance of faculty members to join them. As a member of our local AAUP I can attest to it first hand.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 28 Jun 2008 #permalink