The reality that dare not speak its name

I walked into an empty lab. I looked at the bare desks and benches, and I was overcome by emotions too strong to contain. It was the day after my lab manager left, forced to find a new job by a vicious funding environment that took a trusted employee and friend from me and shut down my research program.

I spent 20 years studying the mechanisms underlying a childhood muscle tumor. I published more than 20 articles with a lab of no more than three people at one time, intentionally kept small so I could focus on mentoring. I established a new paradigm in my field, identified viable therapeutic targets and trained five students (three of whom went to Harvard University for postdocs). I am recognized worldwide for my research.

You would think that all of that would be enough to bring in money and continue my research. But it’s not.

With only one out of 20 researchers getting funded by a seriously flawed reviewing system and with careers being validated not by the quality of work but by the flashiness of the work, my life is the harsh reality of what is happening to research in this country. Good people are leaving academic science, forced out by a lack of money, inequity in decision making, and hypocrisy in career recognition and advancement. Many are tired of playing a game whose rules change before you even know what the rules are. The job Sisyphus had looks easy in comparison — and it was probably more rewarding!

Some may say that I did not do enough. Maybe I didn’t. I could have been a slave-driving mentor to get more publications in journals with higher impact factors. I could have worked 80-hour weeks, ignoring my family and friends. I could have given in to unfettered ambition, rolling over anyone who got in my way.

However, that is not who I am. Ultimately, I must be true to who I am and not what the system requires me to be. By staying true to myself, I produced good science, established myself as a person of integrity who can be trusted to do a job well and became known as an engaging, demanding, yet caring teacher with the best interests of his students in mind.

In the long run, that is not enough to secure money to continue my research. My career was decided by others: a government that does not value research, a review system so flawed that a fair review is not possible, and academic committees that focus on one aspect of a person’s career to determine their advancement. Because of these factors, I stand in an empty lab with no money, no workers, no ability to do research — yet needing to do the research to bring in the money. This is the horrible catch-22, a vicious circle, a no-win situation.

In 1895, when on trial for gross indecency to mankind, Oscar Wilde called same-sex love “the love that dare not speak its name.” Everyone knew it existed, but nobody wanted to speak its name. Today, I am the face of reality in academic science, the reality that dare not speak its name.

Look at my picture, and you will not see a failure. You will see someone who worked hard, excelled at what he did, held true to himself and maintained his integrity. However, you also will see someone whose work was brought to a halt by an unfair system.

Life has come full circle. I started this phase of my career standing in an empty lab, arriving there through hard work and drive. I now stand in an empty lab at the end of this phase of my career, an end brought about by a system that has changed such that I no longer recognize it.

In essence, this is the beginning of a new phase of my professional life, and honestly it is very exciting. It’s a chance find out what else I love to do and a chance to find a way to do what I love without having to be evaluated by the system. At this juncture, I feel two very different, yet very powerful, emotions: sadness and hope. I know I am not alone in feeling these conflicting emotions; I just have the strength to talk about it. So take a good look at my face, and pay close attention to my words. I am the face and voice of the reality of academic science in the 21st century.

Andrew D. Hollenbach Andrew D. Hollenbach is author of the book “A Practical Guide to Writing a Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Grant,” is an associate professor in the genetics department at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.