The dark side of running a lab

Image courtesy of Ludie Cochrane
Image courtesy of Ludie Cochrane

A lucky few scientists make it through graduate school and a post-doctoral fellowship AND manage to secure a position running their own lab. Once they begin the day-to-day grind of operating a research enterprise they often realize there’s way less time for science and more administrative tasks to do. This administrative burden can be a drain on creativity and scientific productivity. The National Science Foundation (NSF) issued a request for information (RFI) to learn what aspects of administration are affecting scientists at work, and hear their suggestions for change. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), a coalition of many scientific societies, administered a survey sent out to all 26 member societies to collect the data for NSF. The answers they received painted a picture of what it’s like to be a scientific investigator.

Parts of the data are not THAT new. A large percentage of respondents ranked grant related activities as their largest administrative burden. In this time of tight funding, it’s not surprising scientists are spending more time writing more grants for different funders. However, I was surprised to read that many had complaints about their administrative staff regarding grant submission. The staff’s inexperience with the scientific enterprise was a serious handicap to many researchers and essentially created even more work for the scientists. Is this a problem that is fixed by more training for administrators? Or by moving people with scientific training into those roles?

Another major area of burden and complaint was animal care regulations and oversight. While I personally haven’t worked with animals needing special protections and protocols, I’ve heard about the headaches it can cause. No scientist wants to harm their animals or violate regulations but when a tiny revision (even a spelling change) can take months to be approved it puts scientists in a position where they violate their approved protocol just to prevent a huge disruption in their experiments. Many suggested streamlining the review process and having certain changes fast-tracked with an approved protocol. They also suggested having certain approved protocols available to be cited instead of rewritten by each researcher performing that particular protocol.

A last area of concern is personnel management. It’s often overlooked that scientists become managers without any training on how to hire, manage the budget, and deal with administrative issues. Many requested personnel management training as part of starting their labs. There were complaints surrounding the administrative personnel in this area as well, in that HR agents were ill-equipped for the hiring needs and complexities of staffing research labs.

So what will the outcome of this survey be? Many of the issues raised are institution specific and I highly doubt many administrators of public research institutions are reading up on this surveys results. Some of the issues require collaboration between funding agencies to simplify requirements and generate a common system. Based on my current experience working for the man (National Institutes of Health, NIH) I think the likelihood of that happening is extremely low. NIH has certain reporting requirements and systems and unless outside agencies are willing to just adopt what they do, it’s doubtful that they will come up with a new simplified system.

It’s interesting to see what burdens scientists face in operating their own labs. Will this just be one of many reports presented, but not used to improve the system?

2 thoughts on “The dark side of running a lab”

  1. The issues you mention here show why it’s crucial to have a good postdoc advisor – many of these skills should be learned, to some degree, as a postdoc.

    Grants are kind of a mixed bag… a pain administratively, but they are where the PI, who doesn’t do bench work, gets to pull together creative scientific ideas. Good thing the NIH cut grant proposal lengths in half.

  2. These are exactly the same complaints my wife has about her lab. She tends to spend more time writing grant proposals than on anything else, and will often have issues with how the grant money is managed by the HR and Accounting staff.

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