August 2011

The toxic professor syndrome


The pathway to professorships. The pathway leading from undergraduate trainee to academic professor is indicated. The influence of other, non-professorship, careers and feedback inhibition from unfunded professors also is indicated.

Academic biomedical research is experiencing many existential problems as relative funding dries up. This already is resulting in serious consequences for the very fabric of American biomedical investigation, its attractiveness as a career, and its long-term viability. Established investigators are disillusioned and overwhelmed, beginning investigators are disheartened, and students are turning away from pursuing academic careers in biomedical investigation.

It is intriguing that this critical issue has not become a subject of intense national debate. One would assume that the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Association of American Medical Colleges and other key academic societies already would have approached this issue at a strategic level. Moreover, it seems that academic societies are stuck in the primary mode of soliciting increased funding for the NIH and the NSF from Congress, rejoicing when this happens and despairing when it does not.

It should be noted that while attempting to increase government-sponsored funding is a highly laudable goal, it nevertheless is a distinct issue from assuring that a sustainable size of the workforce can be supported by existing (and projected) funding.

Since the NIH is devoted to enhancing human health and is focused on funding research that advances our understanding of human health and disease, and since the NIH has emerged as the key funding source for biomedical investigation, it seems appropriate that they take a lead in tackling this issue. So how can we attract the NIH's attention and get it to deal with this crippling problem?

Below, we propose to capture this issue and spur its serious study by formulating a new syndrome: the toxic professor syndrome. Preliminary analysis of the pathogenesis of this syndrome utilizing simple biochemical theory suggests key nodes for intervention and for developing sustainable policy.


The toxic professor syndrome afflicts all levels of academic rank in biomedical research. It displays a wide range of severity, from isolated anxiety over funding to fulminant disillusion and resignation from careers in biomedical research. All subjects spend increasing time chasing funding and less time advancing research, teaching and mentoring. As this imbalance is aggravated, a toxic mood permeates the entire enterprise, with increasingly sour, antagonistic and at times offensive behavior. Moreover, this toxicity spreads to trainees who increasingly shun academic careers to avoid this toxic fate.

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I am glad to see this issue garner thoughtful discussion. However, your premise leaves out two simple suggestions that could make a large difference. One - Universities must decide if their research mission is worth investing in. If so, they must provide hard salaries for research faculty. NIH can encourage this by further reducing the maximum % effort that can be supported on grants. Second, senior investigators must retire. Academia is an unusual institution in that many individuals can continue to work long past the retirement age of other professions. When the bulk of NIH RO1 funding goes to investigators over the age of 55, it is not hard to understand why the average age of a first RO1 is now over 40. The two are related. Young investigators (who are more female and racially diverse) cannot stay in academia if there are not positions (and funding) to move in and up to. Jennifer Gooch



The analogy of an excess of investigators and dearth of funding to a disease or toxic syndrome is a good one. For quite sometime, I have thought of the analogy of the situation to housing too many rats in a cage. In the latter case, the strongest rat wins and the rest of the rats starve, weaken, develop anxiety and other sickening conditions. If possible, the smart rat finds his/her way out of the overcrowded cage to look for better opportunities. It is really the natural evolution for any competitive ecological system and is akin to any human migration. It is also clear that the strongest rat will not always be the best. For example, in research, pioneers in new areas will always appear weak as you suggest. Some professions such as the medical profession guard against this natural problem by setting quality and quantity 'gate keepers' at various entry stages such as medical school admissions etc. I wholeheartedly agree with the need to solve the problem before too much more disease spreads.


This is an insightful look at a dangerous maladay facing many researchers. Franklin Leach



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