Lab Insurance

Apr 22 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

A lot has been written about how big labs with more grants are not necessarily more productive per grant dollar spent on research. This may be true, but one big advantage that having multiple grants gives you is: insurance. I've always had a small lab and I think we've been fairly productive with the very limited amount of grant funding we've had over the years. The largest my lab has been (briefly) was 2 postdocs and 3 grad students, but normally we're about half that size since that's all I can afford to support (barely). Which is fine, we also have a lot of undergrads working in the lab for course credit and towards their Honors theses and they can be fairly productive, but often devote less of their time to research during the school year. And I've been lucky to have good people who get a lot of work done. But the problem with a small lab like this is what happens when one of your 2 or 3 lab members is not very productive. And I don't mean so non-productive that they'll lose their job, but maybe just not so into it or distracted with a bunch of other stuff. As a mentor, one tries to correct these things, but sometimes it just doesn't work out quite as well or the person only partially responds to your intervention. As a result of one unproductive person, you can have entire projects grind to a halt, making it harder to publish papers and to get more funding. And it is easy enough to say, well "why don't you just kick this person out". But again that is hard to justify in the absence of any egregious wrongdoing, and even if you do, then you are halfway through the grant cycle and can't really commit to hiring anyone else, since who knows if your grant will get funded again. This makes it increasingly difficult to recover from funding lags, and forces one to basically start from scratch once new funding comes in but there's no one left in your lab to help train the new people. With multiple grants one can afford to support multiple individuals, spread projects more evenly across the lab and thus be more protected if things don't work out with a lab member.

9 responses so far

  • lurker says:

    I am that situation you describe of "starting over" since starting my lab several moons ago. I bet many other "middish-career" peers are also facing this - startup all spent, foundation grants and early grants all spent, a 1-2 year funding gap meant letting go all the "trained" staff and graduating students earlier than optimal. Then you finally get the NOA, and almost none of the personnel you had listed on the budget justification are left because they had to be let go. Funding gaps and instability are really going to kill our profession, because no matter how passionate one feels about this field, instability does not sustain the incremental trajectory of science. Instability may work for restaurants, politics, sports, entertainment, and financial industries, but it sucks just about everywhere else. Maybe I'll try to write a book like HJ, fund my lab via book tour signings...

    That is why the Cancer Moonshot will only be like the ARRA bump: good intentioned but ultimately a disastrous distraction from the fundamental failure-points in the academic science funding debacle. All we end up doing is this periodical cathartic chat on Scientopia and more recently on the NIH/NIA/NIGMS blogs on how to "better allocate" funding, but no action will actually stem the tragedy of the commons we're all facing now.

    • namnezia says:

      Agreed, although I don't think anything is going to change anytime soon. So the best thing is to adapt and develop strategies to ride out the instability and provide some sort of continuity to the research. Which I guess is easier said than done. Might be worth brainstorming about what these strategies might be. Collaborations? Private fundraising? Moving to a new institution? Modular projects?

      That said, I don't think I'd go as far as characterizing this as a tragedy, I can imagine far worse things that could be happening!

      • GMP says:


        • namnezia says:

          Ha. Didn't Dr. Zen try this? I don't think you could raise enough to hire anybody w/this mechanism.

          • gmp says:

            I was joking... But when I feel down in the dumps regarding grants, I fantasize about crowdfunding my science.

            I run a group with only grad students now (6-8) and an undergrad or two, so I can mitigate the risk by having them TA if all else fails (RAs are the norm); I had a great postdoc who was me for 4 years, he's a prof now, but I'd generally take a 3rd-year student that I have trained over a random postdoc any day. (PhDs have great earning potential in my field, so it's not like they have to do a postdoc.)

            I take on new students a year before a grant expires so there is overlap with those getting ready to graduate; the money is tight that year when we're double staffed, so there is some TA-ing involved to enable knowledge transfer.

  • Anon says:

    I would press for two things to become more common that aren't now.

    Department/Institute bridge $. Keep a portion of the IDCs for lab insurance pool within a department. Not enough to keep science going at full pace, but maybe enough to keep that one person for laboratory memory.

    Genuine Co-PI situations. Two-PIs running the same lab, divergent interests but overlapping equipment and a willingness to share the good/bad times. I've seen this work brilliantly, but it grates against corresponding author priority and ego constraints.

    • namnezia says:

      If the research interests diverge, then the corresponding author bit shouldn't be a problem.

    • clueless noob says:

      We do something locally like the departmental bridge from IDC. Only problem has been that the fund becomes a very attractive target when budgets are tight. The dollars then get hoovered back up by the local deanlets -- after all, it's not *their* seed corn that they're eating.

  • becca says:

    It has seemed to me for some time that postdocs need a large scale union, in part just to collect dues that function specifically as a non-geographically limited form of unemployment insurance. I think we've gotten away without it for as long as we have largely because of the low unemployment rates among PhDs, but I think the recession showed there could be utility in it (and I admit to having my suspicions about people [lots of them women] who simply drop out of the labor force after working in research, i.e. the official unemployment rate among PhDs may be particularly misleading).

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