My essay entitled
“The curse of committees and clubs,” hereafter termed the C3 essay, really hit a nerve. The purpose of the essay was to raise the question of whether our system of allocation of federal grant resources in support of biomedical research is optimal.
Two things happened because of my use of the inflammatory noun “riffraff.” First, I mistakenly offended young scientists. For this, I am deeply sorry. Second, inclusion of the volatile word in the C3 essay prompted widespread attention. For this, I am simply delighted. This was my first brush with social media, and I can clearly see its power. If serious debate can be channeled in this way, our research enterprise will undoubtedly benefit.
Let’s start with the young scientist issue. If there is any doubt of my commitment to fostering the careers of young scientists, here are some facts.
- Five years ago, the journal Cell asked me to write an essay on any topic of my choice. I chose to write an essay titled
“Unconventional wisdom” that was solely devoted to my advice to young scientists. I hope that some of my critics might read this essay; as best as possible, it tells young scientists the formula I molded to the benefit of my own career.
- About two decades ago, I co-founded a biotechnology company with Robert Tjian and David Goeddel. The company, Tularik Inc., was successful in many ways including the creation of hundreds of jobs for young scientists. Tularik’s success allowed me to make a variety of philanthropic donations. Among these, the largest was given to University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in honor of my parents, Sara and Frank McKnight. Over the past 15 years, this endowment has invested millions of dollars in one thing and one thing only — young scientists.
- Knowing just how difficult it is for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to find first-rate jobs in either academia or industry, I have always directed a small laboratory, typically consisting of no more than two to four trainees. By managing a small laboratory, I have been able to devote significant attention to my trainees, and I am exceptionally proud of their track record in finding good jobs subsequent to their training in my laboratory.
- While at Tularik, it was my job to direct the biological research efforts of the company. The single most important challenge of that job was to hire and mentor young scientists. I can hardly overemphasize the pride I take in the successes of Tularik’s biologists, many of whom are biotechnology industry leaders.
- I moved back to academia in 1995 and for the past two decades have served as chairman of the department of biochemistry at UTSWMC. Again, my single most important challenge as chairman has been the task of hiring and mentoring young scientists. The successes of the young scientists I have hired and mentored at UTSWMC represent the legacy I will leave behind this coming year when I step down. Nothing has been more important to me at both Tularik and UTSWMC than helping mentor young scientists to independence and success.
Now to the central point of the C3 essay. I do not believe that the study sections that judge National Institutes of Health grant applications are nearly as good as they should be. I was roundly criticized in social media for failing to quantify or justify this assessment. My next two essays, for the December and January editions of ASBMB Today, will deal with this flaw head-on. Trust me — I will take off the gloves and fight bare-fisted in those two essays.
Between now and then, let me try to explain where I am coming from. For the purpose of simplicity, I will use a sports analogy.
In the state of Texas, tens of thousands of young kids begin competing in organized football during elementary school. The enterprise is highly inclusive and exceedingly diverse. By the time these kids get to high school, they know a lot about the sport and have begun to develop skills. In high school, however, a weeding-out process begins. Not all kids make the junior varsity and varsity teams, and not all kids — even if they make the team — are apportioned equal playing time. As things progress to college, the weeding-out process becomes all the more acute. Playing on Friday nights as a high-school athlete in Texas is lots of fun with broad participation. Playing on Saturdays as a college athlete may be equally fun, but only the most competitive kids are on the field. The final weeding-out step comes when players are drafted by the National Football League — 32 teams sport 53-man rosters, meaning that only 1,696 young men are eligible to suit up for Sunday football. These are the best of the best athletes and are rewarded accordingly.
I think of science in this same way. Lots of kids begin to learn about science in elementary school and high school. A fraction of these budding scientists choose to major in research disciplines in college, a smaller fraction choose to become professional scientists by earning Ph.D. degrees, an even smaller fraction choose to pursue postdoctoral studies, and an NFL-like weeding-out process takes place for those few scientists who win independent jobs in academia, research institutions or for-profit biomedical research companies.
No politics dictate which football player makes it to the NFL. It is the best of the best who make the cut for one simple reason. If an organization does not know how to choose and develop the very best football players, the team will lose most of their games, the fans will not fill their stadium, television will not care to broadcast their games and the organization will fail. Historically, the same could be said for professional science. Universities, medical centers and top-flight biotechnology companies do their utmost to recruit and mentor the cream of the crop of our scientific workforce.
Having hired scores of scientists in both academic and industrial settings, I am familiar with the process. A search committee is selected, a job advertisement is posted, hundreds of applications are evaluated and a handful of the top candidates are invited for on-site interviews. Whereas many criteria are weighed in preparation for making the final decision on which candidate to tap, by far and away the most important consideration is the potential of the candidate to make substantive, original discoveries. Like in the NFL, it should be the desire of academic and industrial scientific organizations to field the strongest possible teams.
Now, at least in academia, an entirely new metric has insidiously contaminated our enterprise. Instead of perceived capacity to make unique discoveries being at the very top of the list, this critical premise has begun to be replaced by “fundability.” If a job candidate is working in a trendy field liberally funded by the NIH, such as the ENCODE project, he or she may well be chosen over a superior candidate. How sad it is to have witnessed this change over the tenure of my decades as a biomedical researcher.
When science funding used to be driven in a bottom-up direction, one had tremendous confidence that a superior grant application would be funded. Regrettably, this is no longer the case. We instead find ourselves perversely led by our noses via top-down research directives coming from the NIH in the form of requests for proposals and all kinds of other programs that instruct us what to work on instead of asking us what is best.
Given the huge impact of fundability on our scientific workforce, the people sitting on NIH study sections now exert exceptional influence on our profession. I am hypersensitive to this situation, and I am simply unwilling to ignore the quagmire in which we now find ourselves. I may be wrong. Our system for distributing billions of taxpayer dollars to the biomedical enterprise may need no tweaking whatsoever. This is a debate; debate is healthy. Over the next two years, I will be offering my take. I welcome yours!
Steven McKnight (
) is president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and chairman of the biochemistry department at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.