Biomedical Research

Addressing the ‘Great Resignation’ in Academia – A Path Forward for Funders

June 16, 2022

As Nature recently highlighted, waves of academicians are reevaluating their futures and are seeking new opportunities in alternative career paths – to some, it seems the “Great Resignation” has hit academia.

Academics could share a laundry list of challenges that are intrinsic to this career path, which have been amplified and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As expected, investigators (even tenured ones!) are leaving academia in search of greener pastures that might provide the type of support, flexibility, and solutions they so desperately need. Because, while the pandemic has required drastic shifts in the way investigators conduct research, we have not seen a similar shift from funders or institutions in response to these everchanging needs. These real problems require real, tangible solutions. Funders, like us at Additional Ventures, have the opportunity to step in to provide the support researchers are searching for.

Funders and investigators are aligned in mission – developing impactful science – and we believe they should be aligned when addressing needs, recognizing the modern concerns and emerging challenges in today’s world. That’s why we take a hands-on approach with our awardees, creating opportunities to bring the community together, and making time to listen to their experiences, discuss obstacles, and acknowledge hardships. For example, we’ve augmented our approach to progress reporting by welcoming all members of the research team, not just the PI, and making room for frank discussion on unmet needs impeding progress or tarnishing a team’s enthusiasm for their work. We believe that when researchers are given the opportunity and a safe space for open conversation, the collective group can focus on solutions, and funders can better adapt when they see common trends in the research community.

But we also believe funders need to go a step further and adapt their programs and opportunities in response to these learnings. In our experience, flexibility is an asset. In a real world example, it’s estimated that of Americans who have moved during the pandemic, over 20% relocated to be near family. And while some career paths are amenable to moves, academia has traditionally not been one of them. Again, funders have an opportunity to at least partially ease this strain – for us, this means we’ve made the majority of our grant programs transferable in the event that PIs change institutions, including our Catalyst to Independence Award, which allows postdoctoral fellows to select new mentors during the course of their award. This program takes another step forward to address needs of trainees outside of the lab and offers an annual $5,000 family and medical stipend for trainees to use at their discretion – something particularly needed in a world battling a deadly pandemic.

One of the greatest concerns that researchers continue to face is the availability of funds – an ongoing challenge that has similarly been complicated by the pandemic. For example, NIH funding has plateaued in recent years, causing increasingly competitive funding landscapes. In fact, funding lines are frequently dipping below 20%, beyond the point that review panels can accurately stratify proposals without bias. This competition has had increasingly negative effects on the science produced, and has shaped a more bleak outlook for even the most established investigators.

While the pandemic has also decreased fundraising across the board for nonprofits, we can and should take a hard look at our funding approaches, eliminating arbitrary funding lines that artificially impose selectivity, and instead make bold changes where we can, such as taking more chances on adventurous, creative work. Such changes not only re-invigorate our respective fields, but also support the futures of our scientists while bringing excellent science forward. At Additional Ventures, we remain committed to consistently fund great science independent of a strict funding line, and routinely award 20 to 50% of proposals submitted to the Single Ventricle Research Fund and Expansion Award Programs, respectively.

Funders can take some of the approaches described here to bolster the success and brighten the futures of their academic partners, but we cannot solve all of these problems ourselves. It’s time for all of us – funders, institutions, policy makers alike – to step up and evolve to meet the needs of our community.

To read more on the current trends in academia, read Nature’s article, ‘Has the ‘great resignation’ hit academia?’ (Gewin, 2022).