This week, I sat through training on how to use real-time PCR. Originally this training had been planned for a member of the lab who no longer with the lab. Instead of canceling the training, I was invited to attend. In fact, the other member of our lab already has fairly extensive experience use this particular machine so the training was almost entirely for me. The pitfall, of course, is that I have zero biological training. I took one undergraduate course in biology. Now, I have learned a great deal of genetics in the last couple of months, so I had some clue as to what they were talking about. Nevertheless, in presenting this relatively new technology, the trainer often made the case for how great of an advance this type of technology is over the past methods of gel-based PCR. I had no appreciation for this since I have no idea what gel-based PCR is. Sure, I’ve heard the term “gel-electrophoresis” and have seen the blots, but before this summer, I had no idea what those blots were even telling me. This is not to say that I can’t interpret the data from a real time PCR experiment. In my studies, I’ve already encountered some analysis protocols for such experiments, but still, I felt sorry for the trainer who was often speaking a completely different language from this trained mathematician.
What does all this have to do with the title of this entry, “Academia versus Industry”? Well, during lunch, my colleague and I began discussing with our trainer exactly how he came to be in this line of work. He told of his prior employment in academia, at which point my colleague inquired as to why he made the transition from academia to industry. This started a very long discussion on the pitfalls of academia and the many advantages of entering into industry. You see, my colleague is seriously considering moving into industry, away from academia, and he has a number of strong opinions on why the current system of obtaining funding and “publish or perish” is flawed.
Among the advantages the listed for industry were the following:
In academia, you are an island. If you are the principal investigator, you gain very little by helping your collaborators since you make your name by the papers you produce and funding you obtain. Cooperation only goes so far as if it benefits your lab and your research. In the end, you are the business all by yourself, hiring assistants, post-docs, technicians; obtaining necessary equipment; account management; obtaining grant funding; etc. In industry, you are part of a much larger team, working together with many resources at hand.
- It is not publish or perish:
There is still competition, but in a completely different environment. Many people have argued that the peer review system is broken so the publishing of papers is not as significant as it once seemed. Your success as an individual does not depend solely on your ability to publish your research, it depends on the success of your team in accomplishing its goals, largely in the application of the science you are researching.
- Avoids the flawed funding system:
The case they made is that currently only about 10% of all grant proposals get funded and that is still declining. In fact, 7 years ago the NIH funding rate was closer to 20%. Now, before you can get a position as an assistant professor you have to prove that you can obtain extramural funding. But the current state of affairs is that only those people who have made a name for themselves are getting funding. So you can’t make a name for yourself until you get funded, but you can’t get funded until you have advanced in the field. The problem is just as bad for tenure-track professors trying to break into the funding cycle. Shouldn’t there be more money set aside and available for new researchers?
All of these arguments were made by the trainer and my colleague and, in fact, there were several more that I eventually tuned out. I occasionally tried to make the case for academia, but I was outgunned considering my lack of experience in this particular field. I, personally, have made no decisions about what I am going to do at the end of my couple of years of post-doc research as a bioinformaticist. In my mind, the field is wide open. I may even end up back at a teaching university like Wayland or DBU. I still am turned off by the closed, proprietary nature of industry. Clearly, the competition between corporations stands starkly opposed to openness in scientific innovation. Nevertheless, the current system in academia doesn’t promote this openness either.
Where will I be in 3-5 years? This question is more open than ever.