Wednesday, March 11, 2009

routine vs research

To continue the last post - whose start in the middle for readers not in the field I do apologize for - I just want to say a few words on the relationship between funding and research.

Researchers often find themselves in a persistent catch-22: to get a grant you have to have some kind of results that prove you know what you’re doing. But to have results you need to already have equipment, reagents and manpower, none of which wait to be paid for. If you’re in a big enough lab, there’s usually a lot of different things going on, and emerging projects get paid for by using existing resources funded under other titles. Manpower for startup projects often means students, who generally come cheap. If you’re in a smaller group, though, if you go through a dry period with few or no publishable results, stepping out of the virtuous work-grant cycle can be fatal.

My own lab follows a slightly different model: we have more or less steady funding for the diagnostic work we do, and as we become more efficient at that it costs less and takes less effort. The resulting excess in both money and manpower is available for research projects.

There’s currently quite a bit of tension between certain of my technicians, as much to do with their personalities as the different types of work they do. The ‘diagnostic’ techs like routine work, they’re focused on their output of finished analyses, and anything that interrupts that routine is unwelcome. Unfortunately, some of the things that interrupt the routine are the arrival of new machines or techniques designed to make their lives easier. As with any new thing, it takes time and effort to get the new machine working properly and integrated into the laboratory. Some of our robots have necessitated months of this preparatory work, and the initial failures appeared to demonstrate their uselessness. So the diagnostic techs tend to wash their hands of all new techniques, adopting an attitude of ‘let me know when it really works’.
This of course increases the workload of the ‘research’ techs, who are interested in doing new things, focused on making discoveries, and for whom doing the same experiment every day is anathema. The conflict comes in when the diag techs’ attitude towards research is that it is a luxury, has nothing to offer the patients who are waiting for their results, and the techs doing research are just there to play. Plus the return from the research techs whose efforts to make a new technique or machine work before turning it over to routine practice often go unappreciated. I’m exaggerating a bit, but the potential for some exciting cat-fights is definitely there.
And this detour into the conflicting goals and attitudes of the different technicians goes directly back to the funding issue. Some would say that research is a leech on the back of diagnostics. But not so long ago what is today a routine test was research. Every last one of the routine reactions and standard machines spent its time in research, being figured out. We’ve been analyzing the sequence of the BRCA1 gene in breast cancer families since the day it was cloned, and we’re still redesigning how we do it. And the research of today, well, you can’t always say what parts are going to be tomorrow’s routine, but some will. Some had better, or the advances in medicine will come to a halt!
So I explain this, again and again. You have to spend time now to save time later.

Anyway, to tie things together:
First, it’s interesting to follow the changes that are driving certain genetic analyses away from academic research and into the private sector.
Second, research, or at least development, in this area is still inseparable from routine work.
Third, the expertise that I and my academic colleagues have in interpreting the results of the analysis simply cannot be transferred to a gene sequencing factory. This area remains too complex and with too many unknowns.
Fourth, if you were to separate the routine benchwork from the research team, the research team would no longer be viable financially. At least around here.


marc aurel said...

I know nothing about this, but it seems to me that in Canada research labs, (apart from blood work labs, some of which are private), are attached to hospitals. I guess drug companies have research labs, but the concept of independant, state funded labs is foreign to me. Am I wrong?

sciencegirl said...

Well, there are drug company labs, research labs attached to university hospitals, research in universities without hospitals, and private labs that do either routine blood work or work on contract to the drug companies. All the university labs are state funded, because all the universities here belong to the state.
The concern just now for the kind of work I do is that, now genetic testing techniques have become routine, that work will go over to the routine blood work kind of lab, stranding the real interpretive expertise at the hospitals without enough supportive funding to make those positions viable.

Barry said...

I see the difficulties and the reason why conflict is almost programmed into the system.

I'm assuming work has been put into improving communication between the two groups without appreciable success?

sciencegirl said...

Lots of work, little progress.