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The Black Hole

A paradigm shift in academic advancement

BY JONATHAN THON | FEB 11 2013

In order to streamline career advancement, more effectively meet employment demand for the biomedical research industry, and reign in ballooning administrative costs, I propose the following paradigm shift: at academic research institutions relying primarily on federal funding to support their principle investigators, let’s do away with the five-year funding cycle and create two major career streams (instructor and investigator) with separate career advancement trajectories starting at the graduate level.

The investigator stream

Young scientists hired into investigator positions should be allotted a standard operating package that includes base salaries for the investigator, a technician and funding slots sufficient to support the number of students the department is interested in having trained by this investigator. Equipment and reagents are always shared in the form of core research facilities which employ a dedicated staff to support and maintain them. Promotion should be based on a five-year departmental review cycle that is founded on publication record, collaboration and long-term value of the research program.

Advancement in this stream (promotion to a higher funding bracket) should carry with it a larger operating budget as well as increased salary that enables the principal investigator to expand their research program. Tenure, as a concept, must be abolished and senior investigators (like junior ones) who are no longer maintaining a research program that is in line with their academic rank should be downgraded to the appropriate funding bracket. No mandatory retirement age need be imposed, and investigators who continue to maintain successful and productive research laboratories should not be required to dissolve their research programs.

The instructor stream

Young scientists hired into instructor positions should be allotted a base salary that reflects their teaching load, as well as funds sufficient to support a number of teaching assistants according to the number of classes taught, class size and number of graduate students the department employs. Equipment and reagents for undergraduate teaching laboratories should exist in the form of core instructional facilities which employ a dedicated staff to support and maintain them and is separate from the core investigational stream.

Scientists hired as instructors should not be provided resources to pursue independent research nor be expected to publish manuscripts. Promotion should be based on a five-year departmental review that is founded on program development, teaching assessments and academic distinctions, and should scale appropriately with experience. Advancement in this stream should carry with it a larger operating budget as well as increased salary that enables the instructor to expand their academic program.

Since investigators often desire to transition into instructor roles and vice versa, bridge mechanisms should be established to enable scientists on either career track to cross streams – although salary and program funds should be subject to change to reflect the new career trajectory, and must be commensurate with the scientist’s demonstrated success in this new stream. Good investigators do not always make good instructors, and maintaining these separate streams will reflect this.

A third bracket: consultant

For senior-level scientists from both the investigator and instructor streams that are no longer able or willing to maintain the level of productivity they once enjoyed, a third “consultant” bracket should be created that will enable the research institution to retain their experience and expertise without supporting a course load or research program. Consultants should be offered a base salary that reflects the institutions commitment to propagation of knowledge and is dependent on the scientist’s continued participation in research seminars, guest lectureship, and involvement in departmental/faculty decisions relating to their expertise. Consultants should not be expected to publish manuscripts or teach university courses but must be available to junior scientists from both these streams for consultation and support.

Finally, neither investigators nor instructors should have to actively apply for grants. This burden should be assumed entirely by the institutional department. Federal support for academic and research programs should be based on the combined accomplishments of the scientific-staff employed by the applying body that is collected from a rolling review-cycle and distributed using the aforementioned career progression system.

In addition to creating a more transparent system with less administrative burden, government investment initiatives can be more appropriately routed to institutions and departments that are better able to meet research goals. Since competition is inherent to scientific advancement, I will be proposing in my next posts radical new incentives approaches that bridge the gap between specialists and laypersons, and turns citizens into stockholders.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the founder and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis.
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