A retired chronobiologist, who spent much of his career investigating the internal clocks that guide our lives, was stirred from sleep in the early hours of the morning by a most welcome call. Jeffrey Hall had received the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Michael Rosbash and Michael W Young.
Their research revolutionized what we know about “how plants, animals, and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.”
Yet even Nobel prize winner and professor emeritus of biology like Dr Hall, who left science almost a decade ago, had a difficult time receiving funding during his years as a scientist. In time, he became disenchanted with the status quo of American academia and funding.
In a 2008 interview with Current Biology, Dr Hall noted that this was one of the reasons he decided to leave.
“I admit that I resent running out of research money… recent applications from our lab have had their lungs ripped out, often accompanied by sneering, personal denunciations – perhaps reflecting the fact that this old-timer has lost his touch. But I still love the little flies [used as model organisms] and claim that my colleagues and I could continue to interact with them productively.”
He added that there are times when scientific luminaries receive funding for less-qualified work just because of their status – and that this is preventing quality research.
“Here’s what: they receive massive amounts of support for their research, absorbing funds that might be better used by others. As an example, one would-be star boasted to me that he’d never send a paper from his lab to anywhere but Nature, Cell, or Science. These submissions always get a foot in the door, at least.”
Although he received a good amount of funding from the government over the course of many years, he’s worried about the up-and-coming generation.
“What props up biological research, at least in the vaunted US of A, involves a situation so deeply imbued with entitlement mentality that it has sunk into institutional corruption.”
He added: “A principal symptom of this state of affairs involves the following: People are hired after they have undergone long stints of training; and a potential hiree must present a large body of documented accomplishments… now the CV of a successful applicant looks like that of a newly minted full Professor from olden times. Notwithstanding these demands, and the associated high quality of a fledgling faculty-level type, the job starts with some ‘set-up’ money for equipping the lab; but next to no means are provided to initiate that ‘research program’ and to sustain it during the years to come.”
It is an exhausting system to be sure, and one that has recently been called out by scientists. The struggle for junior researchers to build their careers often results in a pressure bubble, where the quantity of publications pays out over quality in the pursuit of job security.
Whether Dr Hall still feels the same in today’s current science climate remains to be seen. However, if his sentiments remain similar, that’s likely to be the case, with the Trump administration attempting to slash science funding and post-doctoral pressures climbing.
In terms of Dr Hall’s contributions to science, the Nobel prize committee wrote that “circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field, with implications for our health and wellbeing.” Such implications include how our internal clock regulates functions such as hormone levels, sleep, body temperature, and metabolism.
For his groundbreaking discoveries into the world of biological clocks, Dr. Hall will split the monetary prize of $970,000 equally with the two other scientists.
[H/T: Quartz Media]