September 2013

A letter to the president of ASBMB

Jeremy Berg:
Kenneth MannThis communication is from Kenneth G. Mann, professor emeritus of biochemistry and medicine at the University of Vermont.
I began my research career in the early 1960s as an undergraduate, having become entranced by enzymology. I followed the path to become an academic investigator: a Ph.D. student with Carl Vestling at the University of Iowa, a postdoctoral fellow with Charles Tanford at Duke University. My first academic appointment was at the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences, where I initiated research on blood clotting. For the past 43 years, I have been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Defense, private foundations and Pharma — first at the University of Minnesota; then at the Mayo Clinic (in Rochester, Minn.), where I became vice chairman of medicine; and finally at the University of Vermont as chairman of biochemistry. I stepped down from that position in 2005 and become an emeritus professor in 2013.
I retain an active research program with the DOD, Pharma, the NIH and the Duke Foundation funding, including a long-term (28 years) T-32 training grant. Several years ago, at the request of the administration of the university, I founded a company, Haematologic Technologies Inc., which serves the biopharma industry and employs more than 40 individuals.
During my biochemistry career, I have watched the academic field evolve from the collegial pursuit of intellectual and educational endeavors to an unstable and vicarious vocation. I believe the current academic environment is unsuitable for a stable career that can provide economic security for oneself and one’s family.
I became a professor at age 29 after 2½ years of postdoctoral training. The philosophy of the University of Minnesota in 1970 was that it should be an educational entity in which research was an essential component of one’s educational endeavors. At that time, a typical research grant provided for two-ninths of one’s salary, and the university’s perspective was that you were fundamentally an educator, with research being the substrate. By 1984, when I became a chairman, this focus still remained, but there was an increased intensity to generate research funds. Faculty (salary) tenure was still in vogue and, once achieved, provided a measure of economic security.
During my tenure as chairman, the security generated by tenure continuously eroded, with increased attention on the part of administration toward the business of research as an income-generating activity. During this period, the increasing bureaucratic requirements of extramural agencies required expansion of the governance of the research system and led to expanded administrative structures that required more support from research indirect costs. Administration structures grew exponentially, and salaries for the executives in the administrative roles expanded at rates greater than those of faculty salaries.
The extent to which this has occurred produces a university environment in which the executive administrative branch is highly prized and rewarded and the academic faculty members are more and more relegated to being independent entrepreneurs renting very expensive space. Education has suffered, as faculty members are less inclined to teach.
As a consequence of this evolution, the value of research efforts is associated frequently with its dollar generation rather than its intellectual merit. At the same time, the competitiveness for survival in this research environment has led to protracted training intervals. Few new faculty members have the luxury of achieving their first academic appointment by age 29, with first successful grant applications now achieved by individuals in their 40s.

I applaud your and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s efforts in finding a sustainable model for a career in academic research. Given that the dollars to support research are not likely to expand, the issue of distribution between direct and indirect costs, faculty and administrative compensation, research and didactic endeavors must be evaluated. It does not appear rational for indirect costs to be different at different institutions. As pointed out in earlier editorials by Bruce Alberts (1) and myself (2), the present situation of overbuilding and utilizing indirect costs in a Ponzi scheme is not sustainable. Secondly, the expansion of costs that go for the support of executive salaries should be rationalized by function rather than commercial market bases. Universities are not businesses, and executive compensation should be divorced from the market considerations of the for-profit business sector.

  1. 1.  1. Alberts, B. Science 329, 1257 (2010).
  2. 2.  Mann , K.G. Science 330, 1045 (2010).

Goodies and gifts

Erica SharpeASBMB Today contributor Erica Sharpe is on the lookout for science-inspired products and gift ideas. Here are her picks for this month:
Zazzle iPhone caseThese days it seems like everyone and their uncle has an iPhone. Science nerds are no exception. Zazzle offers an iPhone case with an engaging image of a DNA strand seemingly glowing against a blue abyss. Many other molecular-biology-type gifts are offered as well, including stickers, ties, mugs and many T-shirts to boot!
Who says science nerds don’t love jewelry? Granted, many of us wouldn’t wear our finest items into the lab, but many of us would love a decorative piece with the human genome on it. This intricate genome representation can be set on earrings, necklaces, bracelets or keepsake boxes (for those who would rather not wear jewelry).

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