The End [of the big research group] Is Nigh

Nobel laureate Robert Grubbs, of the Grubbs’ catalyst fame, answered some interesting questions in an interview recently in Nature. He was asked “Is academic science research becoming dependent on industry funding?” A question I’ve been interested in since I started graduate school. From reading through the literature and talking to people about their work, the obvious trend of application-based research leaps out. Being in academia and studying ‘basic science,’ I understand how hard it is to get funding (in four years, I’ve only been on RA a single summer). Grubbs says that,

industry is having similar financial problems to academia and has also cut back on its funding of basic research… Now, most of the commercialization is done by small companies who are bridging the gap between the laboratory and industry.

For someone interested in how things work and not necessarily their utility, this is sad to hear. At the same time, it is understandable. I attended a talk by the famous chemist George M. Whitesides this weekend at the NASW conference and he supported the trend of application-based research. But he took a slightly different aspect. Instead of finding a problem and applying known chemistry (or physics or biology), researchers should find a problem that can’t be solved with what we know. Then, after much hard work and new discoveries, we’ll have both a solution to the problem and a deeper understanding of the universe. That is an opinion both the pure and applied researchers can get behind.

In the interview, Grubbs goes on to talk about how funding is increasingly difficult to find, saying it’s hard to even get into a career in the sciences. “We will probably have to reduce some of that [graduate] support and make tenure decisions earlier. The day of the really big research group is over.” In a not-so-promising ending to the (published) interview he says, “I must admit that I am sort of glad I’m old!”

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