The Scientist just published an article in which it was argued that the lack of open scientific debate is stifling progress. The article got readers charged up, with some very strong comments condemning science and “corruption” of PI’s at the end.

The notion that biologists can’t have open debate, and that there is such a strong undercurrent of negativity (reflected in the comments) reflects a dire situation, particularly in biological sciences.

The biological research empire grew and grew … and universities grew with it. But this was LEVERAGED growth, meaning that all the growth at the universities is dependent upon an ongoing stream of federal dollars to support it.

All of the new recruits at a university like mine are brought in with the strong expectation that they will be fund raisers. Hence, the leverage is tremendous, and it keeps getting worse.

My department has steadily increased the expectation of the percentage of faculty income that must come from grants.

But what happens when the federal government can’t keep supporting it all?

Will the bubble crash, much like the real estate market crashed?

I would like to hope that that doesn’t happen. But I see no acknowledgement of this at my university. What about at yours?

People here just go ahead with business as usual, building new buildings and expecting to expand more. It is as if the recent economic/funding hardships are but a tiny blip.

But all the growth/building/recruiting is based on a flawed mathematical model: one that contains an exponential function, and as with all exponentials, it is going to blow up someday!

The crisis is that universities like mine are basing their business model on the financial and scientific climate of yesteryear, when instead they should be preparing for the more difficult realities of tomorrow.

To be clear, I’m not meaning to sound like Ms Gloom and Doom. I love science, and I think there will always be room for people doing great science to continue doing so. But that doesn’t mean it is going to be easy, or that the money will flow so readily as it did in the past. And in the meantime, unprepared university administrators may be caught in the crossfire between diminished budgets and angry faculty.

It is going to be interesting times for all!

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