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.