Conscience of commitment

Every four years, my institution requires that I take a course and exam regarding conflicts of interest. Past courses have focused primarily on financial conflicts of interest, but the course and test I took this past month had a new category on conflicts of commitment. The gist of things was simple and reasonable: If I agree to spend a percentage of my time on any endeavor or project, it is imperative that I do so.

My school, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, allows me to spend 20 percent of my time on outside activities. Using this time, I can engage in any of a number of activities relating to my role as a scientist. I can go to speak at high school science fairs, I can work with the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, I can help organize and attend meetings, I can give lectures at other institutions, I can help found biotechnology companies, and on and on — so long as the activities have legitimate relationships to my job as a scientist.

On the home front, my job responsibilities as an employee of UTSWMC are varied. For the past two decades, I have been chairman of our biochemistry department, which takes 20 to 30 percent of my time. I also need to perform as a teacher and mentor to my trainees and the young faculty members within our department. Finally, I need to write grant applications to secure external funding for my research and manuscripts accounting for the science that we perform in my lab.

Among these varied activities, I am able to spend about half of my time directly running my laboratory. If I count a 40-hour work week and devote eight hours (20 percent) to outside activities, this leaves me 16 hours to run my lab. It is these 16 hours where the rubber meets the road with respect to my duties as a mentor to the postdoctoral fellows and graduate students working under my direction.

On average, over the past two decades, I’ve directed a lab composed of around five or six trainees. The formula I’ve run with equates to being able to devote around two to three hours per week per trainee. Many people run successful laboratories with upwards of double or even quadruple this number of trainees. I’ve found my sweet spot; others can function effectively with larger laboratory groups.

If my three hours a week per trainee were cut to an hour, owing to a larger lab group, I believe I could handle this — but not optimally, at least for me. Other scientists are more skilled and efficient managers, so I can understand lab groups consisting of even 15 to 20 trainees. What would happen, however, were I to have 50 trainees instead of five? Instead of getting three hours of mentoring per week, each trainee would be getting only 20 minutes per week on average. I strongly doubt that I could function as an effective mentor if my time with trainees were cut so drastically.

What amount of time do I owe to my trainees? Does this weigh on my conscience? Does anyone even look at this? I can assure you that this issue is not addressed in the classes on conflict of interest that I am periodically asked to take at my home institution. When I apply for a National Institutes of Health grant, does anyone care how much time I spend mentoring my trainees? These are complicated and thorny questions. I have thought about them a lot but never in the context of a conflict-of-interest perspective.

As pointed out above, there is no question that different scientists are more or less efficient with respect to managerial talent. Large laboratories can operate effectively via a lieutenant system, wherein trainees are not directly mentored by the principal investigator of the lab but instead by intermediaries. Likewise, ineffective mentors may fail even if afforded unlimited time for trainee interactions. It is clear that strict formulas for mentor-to-trainee balance would be a terrible idea. On the other hand, is it proper that little or no attention is paid to the obligation of a scientist to spend an adequate amount of time mentoring his or her trainees?

To what can we attribute the success of the biomedical enterprise in the United States, starting around 50 years ago? Back then we were different from the then-dominant scientific structures of other countries. Instead of having large, hierarchical laboratories directed by distinguished professors, the United States sprinkled grant funding liberally to much younger scientists running small laboratories. Our style let young people drive the car from the very get-go of their independent careers. Young scientists did not have to pay decades of dues to run their own science, waiting as lieutenants until they might assume the top role of professor.

Though I have no data to bolster this thesis, I think funding a diverse distribution of young, independent scientists was incredibly healthy — and a big reason why American science has been so successful. I likewise do not know how things have evolved. I offer the caution, however, that — as we have enjoyed our own dominance of late – we may have reverted to the hierarchal, professorial system that we displaced decades ago. Might it be proper to begin to pay some level of attention to this question of conscience of commitment?


In a feature story on the Human Placenta Project in ASBMB Today’s February issue, a researcher photographed working with a placenta was incorrectly identified as David Weinberg.

Steven McKnight 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.