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I started my lab 3 years ago and I’m moving already

The reality for many externally-funded research group leaders is that we will leave the institution that gave us our start.

By DAVID KENT | JAN 28 2019

After 3.5 years as a new research group leader at the University of Cambridge, I’ve made the decision to move the lab to the University of York and the newly launched York Biomedical Research Institute (side note: recruitment of two additional group leaders is happening right now!) this coming September. For me, this was a multi-factorial decision with lots of scientific, personal, and career considerations that could probably form the basis for several future posts, but today I’d like to focus on the system that instigated this move. Increasingly, new group leaders across the world (particularly in the bigger biomedical centres) get their start with a fixed-term position, typically linked to externally-awarded money. I am one of those individuals and the reality for many of us is that we will leave the institution that gave us our start. There are a number of pros and cons to such a system and this post focuses on my own experiences and lessons learned – readers should feel free to share their experience and comments.

Taking control of your situation

From day 1, I knew my position was not permanent and my whole existence at Cambridge relied on me bringing in external funding (my salary, research expenses, and employee salaries all come from external grants). This doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from the Cambridge environment and shared resources (I most certainly do!), but I was never under any illusion that my position existed beyond this context – the university and institute owed me nothing beyond my funding. Moreover, when an institute recruits 10 new investigators and there are no obvious professor positions for them to move into, you would be silly to think that everyone would still be there in five years time. I’d already witnessed the departure of several excellent young group leaders from our institute and, in some instances, they left on their own terms with exciting work and solid funding. Waiting until my research money ran out seemed unwise.

There are significant costs

There are obvious costs associated with a lab move – experimental “down-time” and equipment relocation / purchasing. What also became clear during the process is the significant cost of losing expertise (people not moving) and the extra administrative burden on yourself and others helping you leave and arrive. You keep telling yourself it will pay off in the long run, but who can really know?

Moves affect other people

Probably the most difficult thing for me in the whole process was letting my lab members know that the decision was being made. I did my best to give them as much time as possible (~12 months) to deal with the fallout, but the inevitable reality is that this affects them and their families. Unlike when a staff member leaves a company and the project / job often continues, a group leader leaving means that the contracts and grant money leave as well – this affects many more people than just the individual leaving.

This system does allow you to start well

Before people scream bloody murder at the temporary nature of these positions and their associated costs, I think it’s important to note the low likelihood that these same 10 group leaders would get their start if the institute had to stump up permanent jobs for all of them from the outset. I know my lab has benefited enormously from the resources and expertise that I can access in Cambridge and I am certain that these relationships will continue well into the future. That said, the pressure to produce in the first three to four years of a lab’s existence is substantial and in many cases it is simply not enough time to get the job done. Some funding agencies have therefore moved to models that allow longer periods for groups to get going and some of them have introduced a midterm assessment to keep things on track – but this doesn’t solve the underlying problem of lacking a permanent contract.

Demanding institutional commitment

The solution to the latter problem comes down to convincing universities and research institutes to invest in their people. Universities should not be permitted to operate as a “revolving door” for externally funded researchers – if they are willing to house someone, they should at least provide some food. One of the biggest funders in the U.K. (The Wellcome Trust) has begun to address this with their prestigious fellowships and I think this is a very positive move. When a candidate comes up for fellowship renewal, the institution must now commit to at least 50 percent of the group leader’s salary – a formal demonstration of the value they place on retaining that individual.

This is a small step. Much more can be done to help universities come around to the idea that they are a product of their people and people are their products. This, and more thoughts on moving the lab, will almost certainly feature in future posts.

David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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