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On the Money

Greg Hlatky over at A Dog’s Lifeis right on target in his post of Tuesday the 24th. And that’s not just because he said that my posts always make him think – of course, he could always be thinking “What’s with this maniac, anyway?”

No, he’s completely correct about the uses of time and money in academia versus industry. He points out that:

Industry and academia each have major constraints. At colleges and universities, it’s money. Money is always in short supply and grants have to be used to cover the administration’s greed in charging overhead, tuition and stipend for the students, purchase of laboratory chemicals and equipment, and so on. The money never seems enough and professors are always rattling their begging cups with funding agencies to continue their research.

What graduate programs have lots of is time and people. Research groups have hordes of post-docs and graduate students who can be kept working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, since graduate school is the last bastion of feudalism. The product of these two factors is a maniacal stinginess about chemicals and equipment – acetone and deuterated solvents are recycled, broken glassware is patched up over and over, syntheses start from calcium carbide and water – combined with a total lack of concern as to whether these rigors are time-efficient.

Oh, yeah. And it gets perpetuated as well by the feeling that if you’re in the lab all day and all night, you must be productive – no matter how worthless and time-wasting the stuff you’re doing. I’ve seen a number of people fall into that trap; I’ve fallen into it myself.

For a good example of the attitude Greg’s talking about, see the recent long article by K. C. Nicolau in Angewandte Chemie. It’s an interesting synthetic story, that’s for sure (Nicolau and his group don’t work on any boring molecules.) But it’s marred by mentions of how this reaction was done at 2 AM, and how this sample was obtained on Christmas Eve, and how when I walked into the lab at 6 AM on Sunday, my people rushed up with the latest spectrum. . .there’s just no need for this sort of thing. Of course, Nicolau’s people work hard – they couldn’t make the things they make, as quickly as they make them, without working hard.

I recall during my first months in industry when it finally dawned on me that it was a lot better idea to order expensive reagents rather than make them, considering what I got paid and what delays would cost the projects I worked on. A liberating feeling, I can tell you. I’ve never looked back. Since then, I can spend a departmental budget with the best of ’em.