I remember first hearing the word dichotomy in college and thinking it was a wonderful way to discuss a concept I never had a word for. Since I've been thinking about internal conflicts this week, it seems fitting.
This morning The Today Show made me keep the tv on to hear this story about a kid who wants to cure his own rare form of cancer .
This story is very inspiring. I especially love the part when the interviewer is sitting with him in the lab and says something like, "Wow, it seems like such a time-consuming process, such an arduous task?! But this is cancer research?!"
That made me laugh. Here's to toiling in obscurity!
This kid is obviously motivated. He and his mom started a research foundation, and they obviously really care about getting something done.
This is literally research with life-or-death consequences.
And I thought, Gee, maybe I should be working with people like this?
Instead of the people I work with now, who are only in it to try to beat the rest of the ants to the top of the anthill.
I was thinking about how Lance Armstrong set such a good example with his own foundation, and how this is starting to become more of a trend.
I like that patient advocacy is getting more publicity.
The dichotomy is this: no matter how wonderful the funding intentions, the research is only as good as the people who choose which projects to fund.
I've met a couple of Armstrong fellows, and it just makes me wonder what kinds of applications these private foundations get?
The other dichotomy: I want this kid to succeed in curing his own cancer, I really do.
But I think it's unlikely that it will happen fast enough to help him (the average survival time with chordoma is 7 years).
Cynically, I think that if it's like everything else in research, people will claim their work is relevant to chordoma just to get the money.
They're not going to be honest with this kid and his mom when they talk about the expected rate of success for their proposals.
Part of what got me thinking about this was the dichotomy mentioned in this week's Nature about how the Nazis funded medical research.
On the one hand, lots of research came to a screeching halt because of the Nazis. Many researchers left Germany, or were forced out, or killed.
On the other hand, lots of researchers tweaked their research just enough to make it sound appealing to the Nazis, and took the money.
To me, this is just an extreme example of what goes on here and now. Everybody looks to see what's getting funded, and then tweaks their research programs and proposals to go where the money is.
The capitalists among you will say, "Well yeah, that's the point. How else are we supposed to attract researchers to work on the areas we think are important?"
Speaking of capitalism, I was talking about this the other day with a friend who wants to quit academia and start a company, and why that seems more appealing. The logic goes like this:
NIH, PIs and universities all suck at managing research money. There's a ton of waste.
We were talking about how much more could get done if anyone actually cared.
Hence the question, if it were really all life-or-death, would it be different?
We don't train people to manage money and employees when we train them to work at a bench, but it should be part of the training.
At the end of the day, when you get to the top of the anthill, it's the most important part of your job.
The ants at the top don't seem to know the first thing about how to do it.
But being a double-major in economics might not help you, because the normal rules of economics do not apply in research.
In other words, academic research dollars are monopoly money. They're not good for anything outside of research. It's not a free market.
You can't invest grant money. You don't even have that much choice about what you can buy.
You can't haggle over prices. There's not enough competition to drive research supply costs down. Sure, some things have gotten cheaper, like pipette tips and sequencing.
But if you want to buy an HPLC or a microscope? Forget it. You're lucky if the thing you want is made by more than one company.
And at most universities, if you made the mistake of hiring somebody awful, you can't even fire them.
There's no system of accountability, and nobody can figure out how to start one.
In contrast, if you start your own company, you manage the money, you hire and you fire. How you want, who you want, when you want.
Sounds pretty good, right?
It's not that simple, of course. Even if I wanted to work with a private foundation, I would still need an academic appointment somewhere, because to actually do research, you need infrastructure.
Infrastructure is expensive.
Just ask my friend who works at a startup, who is still begging and borrowing things from us at the university.
It's a strange ecology, this place with the funding agencies feeding the companies and the universities, and the universities feeding the companies, and the companies feeding the universities. It seems very unstable right now. Even as some people are telling me to "go to industry", I know there aren't that many jobs in industry, either.
It has to evolve, or collapse.