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Lab losses

SLF notmyaddress at hotmail.com
Thu Feb 22 20:23:47 EST 2001

> From: Deb Cook (dacook at mediaone.net)
> I know someone at another university who may be faced with losing the research lab or moving back to the crappy building because of what is poorly described as a lack of productivity. This faculty member does not lack for students, although a couple are nearing degree completion, or publications in some stage of acceptance and revision, but that old nasty problem -- lack of extramural funding.
> It's a sad commentary that an Associate Professor with 15 years in the academy could be considered washed up and valueless at age 45 as far as research is concerned. We all have "deadwood colleagues" in various stages of decomposition. This person is not "deadwood" and would never become deadwood. This really bothers me because it's becoming evident that the some of the "rising star" young colleagues can't teach and can't mentor graduate students. But they can get grant money. Maybe it's natural selection. Maybe it's being shoehorned into that corporate model I mentioned earlier.

Wow, there is a lot to comment on here.  First, you are right:  someone who is teaching and educating students is contributing in a real way to the intellectual basis of a university, but we have lost sight of that in the careerist faculty and consumerist students.  You are further correct in that the up-and-comers are selected for doing the flashy work and getting grants, but I would argue many of them are not making any real intellectual contributions.  After all, who cares if you get a paper in Nature that says the same thing as papers from 4 other labs?  Administrators and
funding bodies love it, but I think the paper in the "lower profile" journal that says something different is far more important.

But the thing that REALLY gets me is the comment about being valueless--I know a disturbing number of people at mid-level universities who were simply thrown away when they didn't make tenure.  These are people who can teach, who can do research , who can make a contribution--but they are literally tossed out of the system, let alone their university, to become managers at a local department store or something.

In the food chain of academics, those dumped by higher level institutions usually trickle down the food chain and end up at solid places;  of course if they are dumped by the places that dump everyone, they  do just fine.

But those "solid" mid level people, in whom the taxpayer and the university has invested so much, can be thrown away.  This is ludicrous.

 I'm all in favor of "cutting edge" research, but isn't it also true that if you're on the edge, you need a place to stand? I argue that you need the solid people shoring up the foundation just as much as the visionaries.  They are the ones who tend to glue a community together.  Too bad the people with the power don't often see it that way.

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S L Forsburg, PhD  Associate Professor
Molecular Biology and Virology Lab
The Salk Institute, La Jolla CA

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