Janelia East and the quest for round scientists
A recent news story in Nature describes the future construction of a brand new neuroscience research institute based at University College London. The center will aim to “elucidate how neural circuits carry out information processing that underpins behaviour”.
Karel Svoboda, a prominent neuroscientist at the Janelia Farm Research Center in Virginia, was quoted in the story as stating that this new UCL institute might be “Janelia East”. Given the two published goals of JFRC:
- The identification of general principles that govern how information is processed by neuronal circuits
- The development of imaging technologies and computational methods for image analysis
this doesn’t seem like such a far-fetched comparison. Add in the money donated for another neuroscience research institute in Germany, mentioned in the UCL article, and it doesn’t sound like such a bad time to be a neuroscientist. But my question is: do we have the appropriate personnel to match this level of astronomical funding?
So what do I mean? Well, both the British and German centers have yet to be built, so their recruiting strategies are not quite in full swing. But most likely, they will start by recruiting a few powerful, influential names to give themselves some “street cred” and then fill in the gaps with up-and-coming younger researchers that they hope will eventually become stars.
JFRC has been around for longer and has gone through this hiring cycle a few times. They have slowly brought in a mix of established and newish investigators and have put together quite a fabulous team. However, the fact that they are still advertising for positions 2-3 years on (having been through quite a few cycles of interviewing and job offers at this point) suggests that these innovative, passionate scientists they are striving to hire are either reluctant to come, or are simply not out there in droves.
Therefore, once these new European ventures are online, they may run into a similar personnel problem that is plaguing Janelia. Perhaps this will not be the case. The UCL center has quite a lot going for it, being associated with a world-class university, and also being smack-dab in the middle of a major international city. This can only help with recruitment. It will be interesting to see if in a few years, whether the UCL center fills its new buildings with researchers any faster than Janelia has filled its beautiful glimmering glass-walled laboratories. But even if recruitment problems do not arise, this concept got me thinking about how to best match specific research goals with the individual labs that will actually conduct the work.
I see the current search for the right individuals/investigators to operate in these new centers as a similar problem to the one facing many newish private funding sources. Many philanthropic entities rightfully do not want to fling money around for the better of general science, but rather want to target a specific problem close to their heart. For example, the Simons Foundation has a major initiative to fund Autism research and actively recruits proposals to expand our knowledge of this disease. However, they are now sifting through all of the many proposals, some undoubtedly submitted by some cash-starved investigators, flailing to remotely mention autism as a “new critical core to my research program”. Really? The new “critical core”?? The change of research direction couldn’t be the new money in this field combined with the drying up of federal funds for your old projects now could it? Of course, the proposal gems are out there, but it takes some serious sorting to find them. Perhaps, rather than putting a square scientist (no pun intended…maybe…) into a round funding hole, we can actually produce appropriately-round scientists (again, etc…).
Funding is more and more targeted these days, so it seems we need to have better communication lines and mentoring platforms for the young scientists currently entering neuroscience PhD programs to inform them of the ever-shifting funding balance. If future funding is going to be in “Area X”, these newbie researchers certainly should know about it!! Graduate schools and even mentoring programs at the undergraduate level need to do a much better job of informing budding scientists of where the money is or seems to be flowing. It is never too early to discuss how scientific funding works nor to learn how important it is to have a solvency strategy for one’s research program. If a new PhD student is interested in neuroscience, but not quite sure what s/he wants to work on, perhaps knowing that tons of $$$$$$ is currently and in the future going to be plowed into particular areas could assist in the decision process. This would be good for everyone involved. Good scientists would be specifically trained in areas that many have targeted as particularly important, creating a competitive pool of researchers to push each other to meet the highest standards in that well-funded field. It will then be easier for top institutes to target and hire appropriate personnel, and for granting agencies to reward innovation.
Such specialization is not necessarily bad. The last thing I want to see is beautiful state-of-the-art buildings, housing millions of dollars in equipment, with millions of potential research dollars sitting in the bank, and only a select, well-targeted few able to take full advantage of this manna from heaven.
DISCLAIMER: I was a post-doc with Karel Svoboda for three years and worked at JFRC for 6 months.