When Scientists Give Up
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Federal funding for biomedical research in this country doubled between 1998 and 2003, but it's been on the decline since then. The National Institutes of Health budget has shrunk by more than 20 percent when you take inflation into account, as scientists scramble for a share of the money they often find they need to abandon ambitious ideas for more predictable, less exciting proposals. As part of our series on the squeeze on science funding, NPR's Richard Harris reports that some scientists find that so discouraging that they've given up their careers in science altogether.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Not far from the campus of the University of Virginia, Ian Glomski bought a house. He was planning to make a career at the university that Thomas Jefferson founded. We met recently and settled into his front porch to talk about the career that turned out not to be.
You can swing on the porch swing.
IAN GLOMSKI: Yup, and you can almost see Monticello from here but not quite.
GLOMSKI: (Laughter) I know.
HARRIS: Glomski has a fabulous garden in his front yard.
Is that grape over there?
GLOMSKI: It is.
HARRIS: Are those hops?
GLOMSKI: Hops? Yup.
HARRIS: All right.
GLOMSKI: (Laughter) I know. And I use that - actually that right there is wormwood. That's what you use for making absinthe.
HARRIS: And those plantings aren't simply decorative - more about that in a minute. First, Glomski gives me the back story about his career. He was a microbiologist studying the deadly anthrax bacteria.
GLOMSKI: Really, it all started up pretty well.
HARRIS: He got a PhD from Berkeley, then went to the Institut Pasteur in Paris for postdoctoral work. He landed a job at the University of Virginia and got grant funding to get his work started.
GLOMSKI: My lab was well-funded until, basically, the moment I decided I was not going to work there anymore. And I probably could have scraped through the rest of my career as I had been doing. And I would've had regrets.
HARRIS: Glomski came face to face with the reality that many scientists face right now - competition for research dollars is fierce. Grants take a long time to write, and only 1 in 8, on average, gets funded. The secret to success is play it safe - very safe.
GLOMSKI: You're focusing on basically one idea that you already have and making it as presentable as possible. You're not spending time making new ideas. And it's - the making new ideas, for me, personally - that, I found rewarding. That was what my passion was about. It wasn't about how to make this idea most presentable so that we can get it funded. I recognize that's the reality, but that ultimately squashed my passion for what I was doing.
HARRIS: Historically, the big payoffs in science come from out of the blue - oddball ideas - unexpected byways. That's what research was like for his old mentor in Berkeley. But Glomski sees that disappearing today. He had an idea to track anthrax inside an animal using a scan rather than a scalpel.
GLOMSKI: I think if it did what I hoped it would, it would have revolutionized a lot of the research that I was focusing on.
HARRIS: He wrote three proposals to fund this idea - all of them got rejected.
GLOMSKI: You have to actually be much more conservative these days than you used to. And being that conservative, I think, ultimately hurts the scientific enterprise because everybody's basically trying to be so conservative - to do things that ought to work or things that are expected to work, that you're losing out on the cutting-edge research that really is what pushes science forward.
HARRIS: Glomski saw a dreary career ahead of him. So at the age of 41, he quit. So now instead of helping to reduce the risk of deadly anthrax, he's applying his imagination and creativity towards something that's much more personally satisfying. Think back to his garden of hops and grapes and absinthe. He's starting his own distillery, Vitae Spirits.
GLOMSKI: I look forward to the day when I sit on my front porch with a friend or a new person I met. I set down a bottle in between the two of us, and we both have pleasure. I can see it in their eyes. They're enjoying it.
HARRIS: Glomski knows other young scientists who have hung up careers in science because the horizon seems so much narrower these days. And that concerns him.
GLOMSKI: I think many of the people who are leaving are the ones that have good options elsewhere. And perhaps the people that stay are not going to be the innovators. And they're not going to be the ones that are necessarily the ones that will be best for science in the long run.
HARRIS: Clear across the country in a rural corner of California, 43-year-old Randen Patterson has a similar story to tell. These days, he's proprietor of the Guinda Corner Store.
RANDEN PATTERSON: It's going to be 14.02.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.
HARRIS: But time was he worked in one of the top laboratories in the world at Johns Hopkins University and published papers in the most prestigious journals. He uses computers to build elaborate simulations to show how various biological systems are linked together. Really big-picture stuff.
PATTERSON: When I was a very young scientist I told myself I would only work on the hardest questions because those were the ones that were worth working on. And it has been to my advantage and my detriment.
HARRIS: Advantage because his big ideas have garnered real respect in his field, but detriment because despite writing a blizzard of ambitious grant proposals, he can't get his ideas funded.
PATTERSON: I shouldn't be a grocer right now. I should be training students. I should be doing deeper research. And I can't. I don't have an outlet for it.
HARRIS: Patterson says he was raised by a single parent in a trailer park. He managed to get scholarships to work his way through college and a fellowship to launch his career. After being on the tenure track at Penn State, he moved to UC Davis, drawing start-up money, academic salaries and support from colleagues's grants along the way.
PATTERSON: The country has invested into me alone, 5 - $6 million, easily. Add that up across all of the people that that happened for - we're taking all of this money as a country - we've invested it, and we're saying we don't care about it.
HARRIS: These days, science for him is an after-hours avocation.
PATTERSON: I bought my self a $10,000 computer a couple of years ago that I can run pretty much any simulation I want.
HARRIS: And Patterson has watched with some trepidation as his daughter, a fresh college graduate, is hoping, herself, to launch a career in science.
After seeing your bitter experience, why do you think she's going into that?
PATTERSON: The same reason that I did - because you love it. How can you stop loving it? And what you hope is that you bring back important information that can be used to the betterment of this planet and mankind in general.
HARRIS: But the funding squeeze could persist for his daughter's generation as well. There's a structural problem with not enough money to go around for all the people who have come into biomedical science in recent years. So inevitably, many more people like Glomski and Patterson will give up on science altogether, leaving empty labs and promising ideas behind. Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.