POST DATE February 19, 2007, 6 AM
POSTED BY Peter Fiske
Having left the bench 6 years ago to start a company I cannot help but see analogies between my experience then as a scientist and now and a business owner. I imagine that most academics think they have absolutely nothing in common with the small business owner, and many would probably disdain the analogy. But let’s explore this for a bit, because I think there are some rather interesting strategic implications for how scientists in academia (and, to some extent, national labs) should approach funding their research.
A research group is like a small business. A scientist running the lab is like a small business owner. The research group has a product (science), can have employees (post-docs, research assistants) and has to pay rent (space charges) and cover all expenses. The “customers” are the funding agencies who pay the research group for the product (science).
Any small business owner would tell you that having a single customer is an extremely precarious position. If you depend solely on one customer, they have enormous power over you. They can dictate the price of your product and they can dictate the terms of your work. In many respects, if you are a business owner with a single customer, they are YOUR boss. Their fortunes become your fortunes: if they are flush with cash you end up with more business. But if they hit hard times, you are in big trouble.
The NIH (or NSF) is a big and very important customer to a lot of small businesses (research groups) around the country. But these small businesses have allowed themselves to become entirely dependent on this one customer. Shouldn’t they diversify their customer base to prevent a catastrophe during periods of downturn?
You can’t tell me that NIH and NSF are the ONLY customers out there. There are LOTS of other customers. It may be that NSF and NIH have the most breadth, and allow scientists to explore topics that interest them (the scientist). Many (most?) other sources of funding are much more applied, and often require the scientist to focus on more specific customer-driven problems. But is that bad? A mix of applied and basic research can often be a good intellectual stimulus for a research group.
Not only are there several federal agencies that fund research besides NSF and NIH, but there are a myriad of foundations and private organizations. Most of these focus on specific issues (e.g. diseases), but why can’t a scientist pursue work that involves both basic (non-specific) research and targeted (applied) research?
Once you open your mind to the possibilities of revenue generation as a scientist you can find all sorts of creative solutions around you. Many scientists consult to private industry. I suppose most of them just pocket all that extra money but they could choose to funnel some of it into their labs. My father (a geologist at the Smithsonian) funds his research largely from the proceeds of a documentary he filmed years ago. One can build cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) with private industry. There is also state funding.
We certainly don’t prepare our scientists to look at their enterprise as a business. We don’t teach them the practical Business 101 lessons of starting and growing a research enterprise. We don’t teach them the critical need to diversify their income stream. As a result, we end up with a huge population of research groups totally dependent on the NIH or the NSF for their survival. But these scientists also have themselves to blame for building a business that is overly dependent on a single customer.
The moral of this story: diversify, diversify, diversify.