August 2011

The toxic professor syndrome

The syndrome often affects some tissues (disciplines) more than others. As interest in basic research declines in favor of translational or big science research, some tissues suffer from a lack of support. Additionally, investigators often find their research takes them into areas where their fields historically have been unappreciated. In our field, lipid researchers have found that as they venture into areas where the importance of lipid research has not been recognized, finding expert review on study sections becomes difficult. The ASBMB Lipid Research Division is working with NIH administrators more fully to understand this aspect and provide researchers with a cadre of eligible, mid- to senior-level investigators who are willing to sit on various study sections.

The above solutions depend on organizational interventions. Clearly, members of the community must help alleviate this syndrome through active participation and prodding of action at all levels (within departments and academic centers, through representative societies, and by voicing studied opinions in national forums).

In conclusion, by presenting the current crisis in biomedical research as a syndrome approaching epidemic proportion, it is hoped that it becomes the subject of serious study and analysis. Collective and individual efforts are required. This should, in turn, stimulate innovative and exciting insights – and eventually cures – for this pervasive syndrome.

Yusuf A. Hannun ( is the Ralph F. Hirschmann professor and chairman of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Medical University of South Carolina as well as chairman of the ASBMB Lipid Research Advocacy Committee.


Daniel M. Raben ( is a professor in the department of biological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the ASBMB Lipid Research Division.

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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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