The 41st chair: defining careers in the current biomedical research environment.

Author:Robinson, Georgeanna F.W.B.


Observing that scientists with Nobel Prize-worthy ideas were denied this most coveted award due to restraints on the number of recipients, Robert Merton (1968) described a phenomenon he called the 41st chair. This name derives from the French Academy of Science's practice of restricting the number of members to only 40 scientists at any time, thereby withholding membership from a large number of brilliant minds (who all occupy the 41st chair). The appellation is not intended to denote a ranking of either the 40 members or the excluded. Rather, it symbolizes those who could be judged worthy of membership yet who are not elected. Merton notes that "the phenomenon of the 41st chair is an artifact of having a fixed number of places available at the summit of recognition" (Merton, 1968, p. 2; see also Zuckerman, 1996 for an extensive consideration of this concept).

The 41st chair phenomenon is pervasive today in academic biomedical research communities. By altering the scientific reward structure, academic capitalism has helped shape the 41st chair phenomenon in modern medical schools and research institutes. Peer recognition has partly been superseded by financial research support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The recent tightening of the NIH budget, however, has limited the available financial reward, forcing more researchers to occupy the metaphorical 41st chair. This has led to a situation where viable scientific ideas are either under-resourced or not funded at all. The crux of the matter here is less that ideas remain unfunded per se, but that superb, innovative ideas from established and recognized scientists, as well as younger researchers, remain unfunded. Since NIH funding for R01 independent investigator grants has been given to only approximately the best 4,000 applications, the French Academy's 41st chair can, in recent years, be translated to research's 4001st chair. Although there may be 3960 more 'chairs,' the consequences of occupying the 4001st chair are, arguably, higher for an individual's career today than when Merton first described the phenomenon. The consequences of this situation have not fully materialized, but could include a departure from academic biomedical research by waves of talented scientists from all career stages. This, in turn, would likely slow the rate of scientific advances and, ultimately, negatively affect global public health.

This paper considers the changes in the norms of science over the past 40 years, the evolution of the biomedical research environment, and the actions that institutions and the NIH are taking to alleviate the financial troubles experienced by many researchers who now occupy the 41st chair. Data are presented from unstructured interviews with four tenured full professors at a top ten NIH funded medical school in the United States who, after 20 years of continuous NIH funding, find their laboratories in financial hardship. This research enhances the understanding of the personal consequences and career definition that the current biomedical economy is forcing upon researchers. Based on the personal stories of these scientists, this paper presents possible new--and potentially damaging--scientific norms that could emerge and replace Mertonian norms should the current situation continue. Finding that academic capitalism now appears integral to biomedical research, the paper also examines the effect these potential new norms could have on public health and the advance of science. Ultimately, while biomedical research in institutions of higher education must undergo significant systemic change, the consequences of these changes could be severe for faculty careers in medical schools nationwide.

* Grounding in the Literature

Traditional Norms of Science

In the middle of the twentieth century, peer recognition was the ultimate reward in biomedical science (Merton, 1968). This concept was aligned with science's traditional values: communalism, disinterestedness, organized skepticism and universalism (Merton, 1942). These norms dictated that scientific discoveries belong to the community, rather than to the researcher who makes them (communalism); the researcher should not be influenced by personal biases in arriving at and interpreting results (disinterestedness); research must be tested by the scientific community before it is acknowledged as plausible (organized skepticism); and science should know no boundaries, whether personal, racial or national, when advances can be made (universalism). Science was pursued to enhance mankind's understanding of the world. Financial reward was less a motivator than the eternal quest to make a new discovery and be recognized by one's peers. These Mertonian norms have subsequently been recognized by scholars as embodying traditional science (e.g., Etzkowitz, 1989; Hackett, 1990; Renault, 2006; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004; Stuart & Ding, 2006).

Academic Capitalism--The Mechanism of Change for Scientific Reward

Over the last 30 years, however, the cultural norms of science have changed. Dasgupta and David (1994) make a distinction between the old and new cultures by calling the former "Science" [capitalized in the original] and the latter "Technology." This trend has been studied extensively under another label--academic capitalism, a term that first appeared in the literature in 1990 (Hackett, 1990), and was associated with Weber's description of large medical and natural science research institutes as "state capitalist" enterprises. Academic capitalism has been defined by Slaughter and Leslie (1997) as "institutional and professorial market or market [-] like efforts to secure external money" (p.8). In the twenty-first century, the term was modified to include "the new economy" (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004), and took on the meaning of "a regime that entails colleges and universities engaging in market and market-like behaviors" (Rhoades & Slaughter, 2004, p. 37). The authors note that "in the information society, knowledge is raw material to be converted to products, processes or service" (Rhoades & Slaughter, 2004, p. 15), and that universities, with a focus on knowledge creation and transfer to students, are central to the information society and hence to the new economy.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 encouraged formerly reluctant universities to commence patenting activities (Mowery, Nelson, Sampan & Ziedonis, 2001; Shane, 2004). It legitimized the university ownership of knowledge by making it legal and therefore, one could argue, culturally acceptable. Since the act was passed, universities have increasingly responded to economic stimuli, creating a market of higher education and employing microeconomic theory of organizations in institutional administration (Gumport, 2000).

Academic capitalism is not limited to financial matters. It also encompasses "the attempt to increase individual or institutional ... influence or prestige" (Louis, Blumenthal, Gluck, & Stoto, 1989, p. 110) and the consideration of behavior and culture. Hackett (1990) posits that since universities are increasingly dependent on the private sector to provide funding, they will start resembling the private sector in their operations. He details how academic scientists are adopting an increasingly managerial work style (industrial norms). The trend that led Hackett to develop the term academic capitalism was not novel in 1990, but he provided the terminology through which the phenomenon could be studied.

New Cultural Norms of Science

The emergence of academic capitalism has resulted in new cultural norms of science, distinct from those delineated by Merton 40 years ago. These new norms are rooted in a corporate approach to scientific discovery and can present a direct conflict in terms of core values (Bok, 1982). The argument propounded by traditionalists in academic science is that the "profit imperative threatens to erode the freedom and autonomy of scientific inquiry, erect institutional constraints ... to the flow of knowledge and information and allow pressures to engage in revenue generation to shape the questions that researchers are likely to pursue" (Vallas & Kleinman, 2008, p. 284). These pressures are relevant for academic scientists seeking extramural funding. Rather than allowing only research results to dictate future endeavors, if scientists pursue particular paths of inquiry that are more likely to be judged favorably by reviewers, they are engaged in what Hackett (1990) terms dirigisme, allowing capitalist values to dictate the direction of research. Many scientists would argue that tailoring research to suit reviewers is sound practice for a successful research program, which is indicative of the deep-rooted nature of the new norms of science.

The conflict between academic and capitalist norms is manifested both in practical (table 1) and theoretical (Table 2) polar extremes. These opposing values become sources of tension when academic scientists are socialized into Mertonian norms and yet feel pressured to conform to academic capitalism, either in their actions or in the value systems to which they adhere. It is the theoretical values (Table 2) that may be more applicable to academic scientists who are experiencing the trend towards academic capitalism by being forced to find financial support without seeking to privatize their knowledge. Hackett (1990) suggests that academic capitalism is forcing faculty to concentrate more on research than pedagogy (Table 2), which necessitates greater specialization if the researcher is to produce novel results in a highly competitive environment. In addition, regular, measurable productivity has become increasingly important as faculty are exposed to the shorter timelines more prevalent in industry, which are shaped by the drive for products (focusing on applied research) and the short-sightedness of focusing on quarterly profits (Fassin, 1991). The...

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