November 2011

Letter to the editor

The toxic professor syndrome


Dear Editor,

The article of professors Hannun and Raben (August issue) with the above title brings to mind Jevons’ remark that asking researchers about the research funding system is like asking birds about aerodynamics (1). Given the goal that Hannun and Raben aver – namely the enhancement through research of “our understanding of human health and disease” – they might have begun by admitting, at least as a theoretical possibility, that the present system is precisely tuned to that goal, with the existential problems to which they refer as an unavoidable consequence. And they might have demonstrated a knowledge of at least some of the existing literature on the topic, where some of the specific solutions that they hope for are already on the table (1–3). Decades ago, the first priority of the National Institutes of Health should have been the establishment of an Institute for the History of Science with the mandate of investigating how past discoveries were made and how the discovery process might be optimized. Surrounding that very large institute would be the much smaller, less richly staffed institutes dedicated to cancer, infectious diseases and other biomedical subjects. Over the years, the latter institutes would probably have grown and the former would possibly have shrunk. Perhaps there would then be no “current crisis … of epidemic proportions” with pious calls for us only now to begin “serious study and analysis.”


1. Jevons, F. R. (1973) Science Observed. (Allen & Unwin, London).
2. Ziman, J, (1994) Prometheus Bound. Science in a Dynamic Steady State. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).
3. Forsdyke, D. R. (2000) Tomorrow’s Cures Today? How to Reform the Health Research System. (Harwood Academic, Amsterdam).

Donald R. Forsdyke
Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada
department of biomedical and molecular sciences


Authors' response: 

We were pleased to see Dr. Forsdyke’s response to our article on the "Toxic Professor Syndrome."  Our primary goal in writing the article was to raise an awareness of this critical issue.  Despite the fact that this issue has prevailed for some time, as Dr. Forsdyke notes, there has been very little formal discussion and even less movement to address the growing crises we all recognize.  To bring new attention to this issue, we believed that posing the problem in terms of a biomedical phenomenon would help raise awareness. It appears this goal has been met, and we thank Dr. Forsdyke for helping to continue the discussion. We welcome all input, as not addressing this issue promises to seriously, and perhaps irreparably, damage the basic science research enterprise. 

Yusuf Hannun and Daniel Raben 

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