Why aren’t these things evil?

I would be interested if anyone had principled reasons for being in favor of the following two features of the biomedical research enterprise:

1. Large labs. I am thinking of PI:other ratios higher than 1:8. Arguments I can imagine (but have no defence for) would be related to economies of scale and pedigree advantages for trainees. If you come at me with “training quality” you better have pedigree-independent data.

2. Soft money positions. In this case, the one argument I can think of would be that there are not enough hard money university faculty to fulfill the NIH’s mandate (spend all its money), thus they ostensibly need to underwrite salaries to create a larger workforce. No idea if the premise of that is true. Sounds….not true.

So? Are these misunderstood monsters? Anyone have good reasons for these things to exist?


8 Comments on “Why aren’t these things evil?”

  1. DJMH says:

    Corollary to 2: are positions at the NIH the ultimate in soft-money spots?

  2. Of all things, I’m going to go out on a limb and defend Karl Deisseroth having a big lab.

    Say what you will about optogenetics being overhyped, etc, they are obviously a really useful tool – and it’s a new one. Not only that, but the Deisseroth lab continues to come out with other useful, new techniques. Now, one way these techniques could diffuse out into the scientific community would be via other scientists reading the manuscripts and trying to implement them on their own. Another is to train a lot of people in the lab that built them REALLY FAST. I think it’s something of a net gain for science to do the latter.

    Many other big labs, eh, won’t defend those.

  3. rxnm says:

    Really? Like CLARITY? That lab has over 30 people in it … count the non-review articles with KD as corresponding author.

    This is not to diminish the impact of optogenetic tools, but no…any lab, including that one, could disappear tomorrow and others will do the work. Exhibit A: the new Cl channel, which another group did just fine. (Also note that going by submission dates, the journal sat on the other group’s paper for a while so KD could co-publish.)

  4. large, well funded labs can provide niches for independent trainees to do their own projects even if they don’t fall into the main focus of the lab. De facto fellows like positions…

  5. rxnm says:

    I did consider that… but perhaps those people be better off in independent positions. Or in a smaller lab where that IS the main focus? Maybe in that situation, the only benefit of doing your own thing in a big lab is the reflected glory / pedigree of the PI, as you are working outside their main interest/expertise anyway.

  6. How about:
    1. Soft money positions are important because they allow for institutional flexibility in the face of a two-body problem. Hard money (can) require uni to budget 30+ years of salary & benefits, w/attendant raises. Creating a soft money position is a smaller “ask” of the uni. when, say, a department chair looks to recruit a top candidate & her husband.
    2. A large lab in the European mold (can) allow a senior head to protect junior group leaders seeking to develop research programs that are independent of their GS/PD labs. A large lab — say, the Church lab — can attract funding for projects that NIH/NSF wouldn’t go for. A large lab can allow PDs the opportunity to mentor GS — an important skill — in a supervised setting, without the full responsibility for their success. Lastly, a large lab can support staff scientists in a way a 1:8 ratio lab really can’t.

    It’s certainly reasonable to examine how soft money is allocated, and how money is disbursed to larger labs. And no doubt each of the benefits I raise could be accomplished other, likely better, ways. But you asked for some principled reasons for being in favor of one or the other. What do you think?

  7. Michael H says:

    Not to compare BSD v BSD buy Mayford’s lab is developing better tools that Deisseroth at present.

  8. rxnm says:


    All your points are good ones. And @sheacshl and @neuroMOOC pointed out the vast diversity of things that might be called “soft money.”

    Two instincts that are driving me to think about this are:
    1. NIH should separate funds that are for research and funds that are for salaries (PI or trainee)
    2. Labs have to be smaller (or we need far fewer labs). There should be far fewer trainees per PI and more staff scientists. Figuring out stable/humane careers for this group is hard too.

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