Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Death and Life of Great American Neuroscience Department

Unless your university's name ends in "rd," your neuroscience department will inevitably go through boom and bust cycles. Washington University recently went through one, losing Rachel Wong, Josh Sanes, and Jeff Lichtman. Similarly, Cold Spring Harbor lost Zach Mainen, Holly Cline, Roberto Malinow, and Karel Svoboda. Those institutions are now trying to rebuild with young faculty like Daniel Kerschensteiner, Dinu Florin Albeanu, and Stephen Shea

When I started grad school at Duke, it was ranked in the top 10 neuroscience departments (whatever that's worth). Seven years later, it has dropped to ~ #20, and lost five senior faculty (with rumors of more).  And the department is now starting the rebuilding process by hiring a new chair, Stephen Lisberger.

Having lived through the death spiral of a department, I figured I'd write a post-mortem of what went wrong.  This will be a from the benches report, as I don't know what was said among faculty.

1. Insufficient leadership

Around the time I started grad school, the department appointed a new chair.  Rumor has it that the choice was between Larry Katz, and Miguel Nicolelis, but for personal reasons neither of them could be appointed chair.  So a third person was picked.

I've always been baffled by the business world's obsession with leadership, what makes a leader, how to identify leaders, etc.  I thought leadership was just another important aspect of business, like management, or logistics. Now, having experienced a leadership void, I can understand. As far as I could tell, the department had no direction, no focus of research, or any way to distinguish itself from other departments. I rarely received any e-mails from the chair, or any other senior scientist.* People just did their work, in whatever direction it happened to go.  Which leads to the next point.

2. Lack of community

Duke Neurobiology, rather than being a cohesive department, was just a collection of labs in the same building.  There were few collaborations between labs. People in the lab next door would publish exciting, high impact papers, and no one would know.  There was a happy hour on Friday's with intermittent attendance. The lunch room was in the corner of the building where only a few labs went to it.

I realize that community is an intangible thing, and won't make up for deficiencies in intelligence or dedication.  And that other neuroscience departments may not have communities either.  But after reading Peopleware, and reading about teams of people working towards a common goal, I feel something was missing.  Simple things like centralized lunch rooms, or quarterly e-mails about papers from the department would have gone some way towards making people part of a group rather than data machines stuck to a desk.

3. No forward momentum

Science is a Red Queen race. In order to maintain your standing in the wider community, you need to continually improve: incorporating new techniques, trying new systems, asking new questions. For a department, this usually takes the form of hiring new faculty. Duke tried to do that, and held faculty searches four years in a row, looking for both junior and senior faculty.  Which resulted in one junior hire.

The inevitable result of this was that once the department stopped growing, it immediately started shrinking. Senior faculty were continually getting propositioned by other departments until one offer was good enough. And each faculty that left made it easier for the next to leave.

4. No money

Duke, as a "young" university, has a small endowment compared to other institutions. There are relatively few sponsored professorships for senior faculty. Other departments that go through boom/bust cycles are in similar positions, where they can hire young faculty, but can't match offers to retain them.  I have some Moneyball-style ideas for how a department can compete by hiring under-appreciated scientists, but that's for another blog post.

In the press release announcing Lisberger as the new chair, Lisberger said all the right things:
“I look forward to bringing excellent young scientists to the Department of Neurobiology. I hope that graduate training in Neurobiology can become a focus of the institution and will strive to help the neuroscience community achieve a level of interaction that makes the whole much greater than the sum of the parts."
Hopefully he can turn things around, and improve the brand of my degree.  It can only go up from here.

* Rumor also has it that the chair asked songbird and primate researchers whether they could switch model systems to mice.

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