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Academic Laboratories that Outlast their Founders


Although they exist within the context of a university or institute, academic labs are functionally similar to startups (or, for the larger ones, established corporations) in many ways. They have their own internal management structure that is independent of the parent organization’s structure; they conduct their own fundraising and manage their own finances; and they conduct their own hiring. Their continued existence is dependent upon identifying a market niche (a field), producing a product (papers), and selling it to buyers (journal editors, program managers, and paper/grant reviewers). Academics who better anticipate what products funders like to buy are more successful. And, much as with most small companies, human resources and legal services are outsourced, in this case to a larger institution.

However, whereas companies are built around a product, service, or IP portfolio, academic labs are typically built around an individual. They are known by the name of their chief executive -- the principal investigator -- and their outputs are typically attributed to the chief executive, as though that person were primarily responsible (or indeed involved) in all of the laboratory’s activities. In contrast to virtually any other kind of corporation, if the chief executive of an academic lab retires or moves to a different organization, the entire laboratory must be shut down. Possibly as a result, principal investigators display remarkably little career mobility: whereas most CEOs retain their jobs for roughly 5 years, it is generally expected that academics will start an independent laboratory some time in their 20s or 30s, and that they will run that organization until they retire. Here, I argue that this system is both unnecessary and harmful both to the PIs, the trainees, and the academic culture at large. Rather than organizing laboratories around the individual PIs who run them, universities and funders could create persistent laboratories organized around a specific theme or topic, which would be designed to outlive the tenure of their founding PI. When the founding PI of the laboratory left, either to retire or take up a position elsewhere, the university could conduct a search for a new PI, who would inherit the laboratory’s trainees and the funding. This system would reduce inefficiencies associated with setting up and spinning down laboratories, allowing academics to move more freely between positions, increasing the number of job vacancies open at any given time.

Problems with the current system of PI-oriented laboratories:

The pitfalls of the current system are numerous, and are often taken for granted by those who are accustomed to life in academia.

  1. When academics change jobs, their trainees suffer. Specifically, under the current system, when a principal investigator switches to a new job, they must usually shut down their laboratory, and their postdocs and graduate students are thus forced to find a new job, and often to find a new project. This can result in a year or two of lost time for each trainee, or up to 100-200 person-years of lost time when a large lab shuts down. This bill, likely on the order of millions of dollars, is footed by the taxpayer.

  2. A lack of mobility harms academics’ personal and professional lives: Because there are so few jobs on the academic market at any given time, and because leaving one’s academic job inflicts such pain on one’s trainees, it is perceived to be very risky and painful for academics to leave their jobs. For example, if a PI leaves their academic post to take up a position at a company, they may wonder if they would be able to get another equally appealing position at a comparable university in the same city afterwards. In addition, because there are so few jobs on the academic market, it is notoriously difficult for academic couples to get desirable positions in the same cities, which leads to increased attrition especially among women, who may feel increased pressure to follow their partners at the expense of their academic careers.

  3. The necessity of spinning down and spinning up new labs wastes time and resources: Every academic lab must be started from scratch. In some cases, it is certainly desirable to start academic labs from scratch, but in most cases this leads to many years of low productivity in both labs that are being spun down and labs that are being spun up.

  4. Finally, the funding system incentivizes academics to work on a single topic for their entire careers. Applying for grants for work that is similar to what one has done previously allows one to reuse text, figures, and preliminary data from previous papers and applications. For the same reason, laboratories thus tend to work on only one or perhaps a handful of topics over the course of an entire career, sometimes long after the primary discovery has been made or after the bulk of the impact has been had.

Incentives that motivate the status quo:

I can identify three reasons why the status quo exists. The first is likely historical. The modern system of academia evolved from a patronage system, and patronage operates on the basis of personal relationships. Thus, it would have been impossible for a new academic to take over a laboratory that was supported primarily by patronage.

Secondly, academic laboratories operate primarily around questions and concepts that are very personal to the academic who runs the laboratory. It would likely be impossible to find two academics with exactly the same interests and skillsets. However, that is not what is needed: if an academic were to take over a new laboratory, there would be a transition period, and the resulting “chimera” would likely exhibit some of the characteristics of both the old PI’s interests and the new PI’s interests. Indeed, this system could encourage the creation of new and more interdisciplinary ideas by allowing a PI with expertise in one area to take management of a group of students and postdocs with expertise and background in a slightly different area.

Finally, the third incentive is likely financial. Currently, grants are tied to individuals. However, this is a technical limitation. Some grants are intended to fund the PI, not a specific project, and those grants would likely remain with the individual. However, most grants are intended to fund specific projects, and I see no reason why grant-giving institutions could not agree to transfer such grants to a new PI selected by the university if the original PI stepped down. Indeed, this should be in the interest of the grant-giving institution, since it would increase the likelihood that the deliverables on the grant would be achieved. In cases in which the original PI wanted to move to a new institution, there would likely need to be some process of mediation or negotiation.

Proposal and Advantages:

I propose simply that when a PI retires, dies, fails to get tenure, or leaves for a different job, the host institution should in some cases conduct a search for a new PI to replace them. A committee could evaluate whether the laboratory should be maintained, according to whether it is scientifically active, addressing problems that are of current research interest, etc. If the committee decided to conduct a search, the new incoming PI would assume responsibility for mentorship of all students and stewardship of all the grants held by the lab. Authorship on papers that were in progress at the time of the transition would be shared, as with any collaboration. The jobs and training schedules of trainees would be uninterrupted.

This system would likely increase the ability of academics to move in and out of academia over the course of their careers, by providing more attractive opportunities for returning to academia after a hiatus. By allowing academics to more easily spend part of their careers outside of academia, it would increase the total number of academic vacancies on the market at any given time (although it would not on its own increase the totally supply of academic jobs), and would thus likely create additional space and opportunities for young researchers. It may increase creativity and decrease territorialism, by allowing researchers with a background in one area to move easily into a different area. Finally, it would likely increase the ability of trainees, such as PhD students and postdocs, to develop a reputation and get credit for their work independently of their PI.

Possible problems:

Those who are familiar with the private sector may argue that corporations are governed by a board of directors which has the ability to replace the chief executive, for example in the case of bad behavior. However, academics would unlikely ever accept an arrangement in which they were accountable to a board of directors. I believe simply that the host organization should function in effect as the board of directors when the PI departs, and take responsibility for finding a new PI.

Many academics will certainly protest that they would never give up their laboratories. That’s fine -- I am not suggesting that academics should be forced to leave academia, only that the barriers to leaving should be reduced if possible. For example, I wonder what many academics would say if they were offered the opportunity to run an industrial lab with twice the salary and twice the resources of their academic post. If there were a low barrier to switching, they might decide to try it for a few years, and then take over a different (possibly larger) laboratory than the one they currently run. This could increase the talent pool both in academia and in industry.

Many academics may also protest that it would be an insult to see someone else take over, and get credit for, their work. However, experience in the private sector suggests that this is not the case. No one would give Tim Cook primary responsibility for all of Apple’s historical success. Likewise, if “Professor Samantha Famous” were to leave her post and allow her lab to be taken over by “Joe Newbie,” I’m sure that the field would be able to give Prof. Famous credit for the laboratory’s historical success, but that Prof. Newbie would get credit for the laboratory’s new inventions and changes in direction. One consequence is that, over time, the laboratory would likely no longer be known colloquially as the Famous Lab or the Newbie Lab, but rather by its formal title, the “Laboratory for Wormhole Physics,” or whatever it may be.

Finally, I am not arguing that no new labs should ever be created. Under the system I am proposing, labs would still frequently “go out of business,” for example due to expiry of funding, creating opportunities for the creation of new labs. I am simply

suggesting that we should not take it for granted that a laboratory must be spun down when the PI leaves.

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