The crisis in collegiality;
or, How life got better when I gave up my lab

Robert Pollack

WHY HAS THE morale of scientists declined in molecular biology, the field that has been at once most productive and most important to the greater society in recent decades? Why are the researchers whose discoveries have forever changed the way we understand ourselves so uneasy about their own futures?

I am unconvinced by explanations relying on a developmental model (that no Kuhnian paradigm shift is currently invigorating the life sciences, leaving a scientific generation adrift between revolutions) or an economic model (the Carvillesque argument that "it's the economy, stupid," and that more money will make science fun again). The rising tide of biomedical funding from the National Institutes of Health, philanthropic foundations, and the for-profit sector -- even as almost everyone else with taxpayer support faces cuts -- weighs against the latter hypothesis; the proliferation of testable new ideas arguably refutes the former. Neither model offers insights into the lives of the scientists I know.

I think I have another answer. About five years ago I gave up my laboratory, one that had been well and continuously funded for a quarter of a century. Few scientists close their labs as an act of free will; grants were becoming harder to get, but the time it took to get them is what drove me out. There was little point in pawing through results just to find bits of bait to put on the hook of another grant application. My idea of free science did not mean experiments done to get a grant and grants gotten to pay for that sort of work.

I decided to stop playing Ulysses, tied up my boats, and walked off to a life that made sense to me. Though anyone with a funded lab might reasonably object to me calling myself a scientist once I'd left my lab to departmental colleagues, I would argue that I am indeed a scientist today, with a morale that has never been higher. I continue to write about the medical sciences, to teach the subject, to review manuscripts and grants. In place of directing the work of a lab of my own, I am the chairman of the scientific advisory board and a director of the biotechnology company Ambi, Inc.

My own experience, a data point defying both the economic and paradigmatic models of morale, is consistent with a third hypothesis: that morale is a measure of something social. Morale is not a matter of individual funding or success, nor of anything else individual, but of kindness and decency. At the root, low morale is a consequence of academic scientists' allowing the social foundations of their field to rot away beneath them.

Sociability in a science may be a matter of the developmental stage the science is in; morale was certainly highest in molecular biology when it was a new field. My own career is long enough to have given me the experience of this early stage, when collegiality had not yet chilled into calculation. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was infused by a communal, borderline-anarchic spirit when I arrived there in 1969. I gave my job seminar to an audience of 12 that held three Nobel laureates, an audience that kidded me and each other and ate lunch all the while, as I gamely ran through my slides and tried to be serious. It was only decades later, after too many seminars that cried out for a breath of levity, that I realized I had been given a welcome of a very precious sort.

The society of today's academic molecular biology has an altogether different, coarser feel. Scientists interact only as they must to get their own work done: The social structures deal with the training of new scientists and the funding of operational ones, but not the morale of either. It is a paradox that life scientists in particular, so sensitive to the staging of developmental processes at the molecular level, should be so blind to the stages of their own lives. Why insist that your graduate students know the larger context of your field, learn about aspects that you are not interested in, or learn how to teach, when you need them in the lab immediately, and you yourself find teaching a distraction from your work? Why help a postdoc become an independent scientist if you are going to be competing with that person a few months later? Why share data or material if yours has the chance of being patented? Why, in other words, care about anyone else, or expect to be cared about in turn?

As a result of this diminished, Hobbesian view of human relations, the education of many young scientists is deeply defective. Graduate and postdoctoral programs resemble high school and college basketball programs, with a tenured job at a major research university being the equivalent of an NBA offer. The low to vanishing probability of either the professorship or the starting position is known to coaches and directors of training grants alike, and both manage to avoid telling the quantitative truth to the young. It is rare to find an example of a mid-career, tenured university scientist who gives students a reasonable estimate of their chance of becoming tenured university scientists in turn.

For those professors who reach it, the third stage of a career -- life after the grant -- can be a morale-booster, because to get there in one piece they must first break out of the press that flattens so many scientists into spreadsheets and priority scores. Making this transition is like crossing a highway on foot: Oncoming drivers cannot afford to stop, lest they get into an accident themselves and have to join you walking. Worse than invisibility is condescension: I recall another colleague's attempt to assure me that I had simply entered scientific menopause. Eventually, I learned what smart women already know: Menopause has its freedoms and even its pleasures. The mix that works for me involves writing, teaching, consulting, and advising. I am now completing my second book for the general public, on the difference between the outward, stable, inexorable time of science and the inward, multiple, flexible time of consciousness, and the consequent problems science has making sense of consciousness (with that nasty diamond at its center, the knowledge of mortality). These books have both been exercises in seeing patterns from insufficient data, and in that sense they are much like the science I used to do.

Teaching is an obvious place for someone who no longer runs a lab. Any serious undergraduate quickly learns that a certain fraction of her professors will be bitter and often sadly uninformed. Graduate students in a good department have no such problem, because such faculty are rigorously kept away from graduate students, except when they serve as teaching assistants, in which case the contact is perfunctory. Cynicism toward undergraduate teaching is so pervasive among funded scientists in this country that embracing such teaching in my life was perhaps the most radical decision I made.

Like my non-funded colleagues, I teach three courses a year: one introductory, one entry-level for non-scientists, and one graduate -- a bit more than twice the load funded colleagues bear, but not onerous. I have used the obligation to teach as a chance to learn, and this notion seems to have resonated with the Ford Foundation, whose recent grant enables me to convene a faculty seminar representing medicine, law, public health, the humanities, and the arts. Advising, the last of my four laboratory-surrogates, is the least structured aspect of my professional life, but it is the part that most clearly reconstitutes the humane context I missed as a lab scientist. The iron rule of career development in this country is that young people must make fateful choices about their futures without enough experience upon which to base these choices; a mixture of circumstance and history has put me in a position to lend some gravity to the choices several dozen young men and women make each year.

We might as well begin our reforms in the most conservative way, by rededicating ourselves to the meaning of the title we hold. "To profess" has a spectrum of meanings, all derived from the Latin verb for open affirmation. Affirmations are matters of the heart. Professors do not deserve the title unless they are willing to take the time and make the effort to affirm something beyond their data, since data speak for themselves and need no affirmation. To be a professor, one must first have something of importance that needs affirming.

Having assembled this life in the absence of any structures within the scientific community, I believe that the crisis in morale among scientists -- in my field, at least -- stems from a failure to form humane communities. But it is never too late to begin. In all three stages of a career, it should be possible to introduce social structures that ameliorate the anomic individualism of today's basic science, without diminishing the intellectual rigor of the science itself. Teaching, surely, is such a structure, an exemplary and essential one.

ROBERT POLLACK, Ph.D., is professor of biological sciences at Columbia and author of Signs of Life (Boston and NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1994). This article is adapted from his talk "A Crisis in Scientific Morale," delivered at George Washington University, Sept. 19, 1996.