The Sceptical Chymist | 10 Miles from Academia: The Cost of Independence

Published in Chemistry

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[Editor’s note: another guest blogger has joined our team…]

Last summer, I took some time off before starting at my current position as a medicinal chemist at a large pharmaceutical company near Boston. I was out on the town (on a rather warm summer night) with my former Harvard comrades, one of whom had just successfully defended his Ph.D.

The topic of conversation naturally drifted towards everyone’s future intentions, and a familiar division became readily apparent – many of the younger graduate students intended to pursue careers in academia, while most of the older graduate students were considering other uses for a Ph.D. in chemistry. Upon hearing that my future job was in a pharmaceutical company, one of the younger graduate students exclaimed, “But you aren’t going to have control over your own research!” indicating that independence was of the utmost importance to her.

She was right: since the company pays my salary, the management decides which topics I spend my time on. But there is quite a bit of freedom in how I approach the problems they ask me to solve and there can be a great deal of creativity (and satisfaction) involved with the process. Is it any different in academia?

In my experience, not really. Most graduate students end up working on projects that their advisor is interested in, and their advisor often chooses to work on a topic that can he/she can obtain funding for (either from the government, industry, or non-profit groups). A small number of grants are “unrestricted,” but most grants are intended to be used on whatever the funding source deems particularly important. Everything works fine, until the day you have an idea that no one wants to fund. Most people get around this through a difficult compromise – they work on something that is close, but not exactly what they want to do, while a few brave souls set up labs in their garages with varying degrees of success.

Independence is a really good thing. Some amazing discoveries have come from qualified people or groups that were allowed to truly explore their own ideas, free of external bias or constraints. One clear example of the power of this concept exists in the context of popular music. During the 20th century there was an explosion of diverse musical genres that continues today. Many factors contributed to this process, but one of the most important was the fact that musical instruments and recording equipment gradually became cheaper while at the same time becoming more widely available. This made music accessible to anyone who had a desire to pick up an instrument and create music. Moreover, they could use their own recording equipment to communicate their ideas to interested parties. Today, with the advent of computers and digital recording, musicians can make home recordings of a rather high quality and easily share their songs on the internet. It is truly an exciting time to be a musician.

In terms of accessibility and expense, chemistry, and most modern sciences in general, are way behind music. A budding rock star can buy a $200 guitar at a local retailer and record songs at home, but when I think of chemistry, I think of $600,000 NMRs and $100,000 LCMS stacks installed in the hallowed halls of the worlds great schools. I consider myself extremely lucky to have access to such amazing equipment. But many scientists don’t.

While modern science is more technologically complex than music, I see no fundamental limitation to increasing the accessibility and reducing the cost of doing research. I think this is one of the great challenges facing science. Inexpensive scientific instruments would empower new scientists, give more independence to existing researchers, and lead to an increase in creativity in scientific research.

In my future columns for The Sceptical Chymist, I hope to look at chemistry and science in a new way – one that focuses more on breakthroughs in the efficiency, cost, and accessibility of the discipline rather than new pieces of expensive knowledge for assimilation. If the tools of science were made available to more people, perhaps they would be more frequently applied to problems of great interest to our society.

About the author: Jeff Johannes is a medicinal chemist at a major pharmaceutical company in the Boston area. He currently plays an Epiphone Les Paul named “Grimace.”

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