Guest post by Nik Papageorgiou
Having read some recent pieces on the age-related disorders and pass-the-pie funding patterns that punctuate the modern scientific landscape, it struck me that the biggest challenge to Science today isn’t cloning, stem cells, climate change, invisible particles or perfect tea-making. No, friends, what whitecoats should be preoccupied with at the moment is solving the inscrutable puzzle of Science Money: whither, to whom and for what.
I have no pretensions that anyone’s having an epiphany here. In the whole Science Funding bandwagon (and I’m using that term only positively), I’m the guy who’s running behind, shouting ‘HEY! WAIT UP!’ I can hardly believe that I’m writing something for LabLit that isn’t a short story or a PowerPoint cartoon with delusions of subtlety. Last time I did that – well, let’s just say it made some people cry. Myself included.
But as funding stands, we are faced with a sad reality: most of those who venture into the straits of research will not get far. The bottleneck squeezes and the sails hang limp for lack of wind. I know; like most scientists, I’ve been there and back. More than once.
Which raises the question, one I have asked myself many times and for many different reasons: at what point do you call it quits? At what point do you say, ‘Wow, I actually can’t do this anymore – not because of science, but because of the business of science’?
Scientists are a peculiar breed, and we ought to be glad for it. No matter how heroically we try to communicate our arcane trade to the public – and rightly so – we will always stand a bit apart from popular embrace. Why? Just add up the hours you’ve spent in some cold, lonely, white room and it’ll tell you something. Obsessing over some fluorescent colours at 3 AM on a weekend is not normal for the rest of the world. Blu-tacking pictures of cells over your family desk photo does not fall in the middle of the world’s bell-shape curve. I doubt it even falls at the edges. Oh – you know what a bell-shaped curve is? Guess who doesn’t.
We do it ‘cos we love it. But the numbers say that most of us simply won’t be able to do it. What then? I’m all for fighting it. But as an old soldier, I know that there comes a critical point in every fight when the fight isn’t worth it anymore; it’s not, as they say, cost-effective. Too few papers. Too few – ahem – good papers. Not enough postdoc experience. Too much postdoc experience. Too few places. Too young. Too old. And of course, that never-abetting curse: no money.
So, at the risk of demoralizing everyone (again), I just wanted to ask: when the music ends, how do scientists go out? With a bang or a whimper? Do they bow out or something less graceful? And, of course, what can they do when they have shuffled off the mortal coat?