This is the first in a series of interviews with practicing scientists.
Mark Rossi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University. He received his B.A. in psychology from the University of Michigan-Dearborn in 2009. He received his Ph.D. in Psychology and Neuroscience from the systems and integrative neuroscience program at Duke University in 2015 in the lab of Henry Yin where he used in vivo electrophysiology and optogenetics to study how the basal ganglia regulate motivated behavior. He completed his postdoctoral training in neurobiology in 2021 with Garret Stuber at the University of North Carolina and then at the University of Washington where he used deep brain two-photon calcium imaging, slice electrophysiology, and single-cell sequencing to investigate how lateral hypothalamic circuits guide feeding and obesity. Dr. Rossi joined the faculty of the Child Health Institute of NJ in July 2021.
How would you describe your research to a layperson?
My research is on the brain circuits that regulate feeding and how they are changed by the things we eat, especially in the context of obesity. My lab tries to understand how the brain controls adaptive feeding and how those same circuits are co-opted by our modern diets to promote pathological eating and weight gain. Ultimately, we want to use this knowledge to identify potential treatments for eating disorders and obesity.
Describe your experience with funders (private, NIH, others). What do funders do right? What could they improve? If you could restructure how scientific funders (NIH/NSF/etc.) are organized or how they operate, what would you change?
At various points in my career, my research has been funded by the NSF, NIH, and private funding agencies. I am extremely grateful to them all for their support. Despite some shortcomings, the U.S. leads the world in funding biomedical research with public money. The continued support of the taxpayers for biomedical research is absolutely critical for basic research into the biological basis of health and disease. The bipartisan and enduring support for basic and translational biomedical research is what is done well in the U.S.
For example, as a neuroscientist, the NIH BRAIN initiative has demonstrated a strong commitment to funding neuroscience research toward understanding our most complex organ.
However, the bureaucratic hurdles that accompany such funding are substantial. There are teams of people at the institutions that receive the grants, as well as at the funding agencies themselves, that are required to keep up with the paperwork associated with applying for, receiving, and maintaining federal funding. Each year, this burden increases, and each year it takes more of the scientist’s time away from the research.
I don’t have a simple solution for reorganizing funding structures to improve things. It is clear to me and likely anyone else that’s applied for federal grants that the bureaucratic burden needs to be reduced. Additionally, more emphasis needs to be placed on funding younger scientists who are taking chances and who don’t necessarily come from the most powerful labs or most prestigious institutions.
Surveys show that scientists say they spend upwards of 44% of their time on proposals, reports, IRBs, budgets–that is, administrative and regulatory requirements. Is that consistent with your experience? Is there anything that could be streamlined?
Yes, this is consistent with what I have experienced. I have only recently opened an independent lab, but so far, much of my time is devoted to administrative tasks necessary to obtain and maintain funding. There’s no one thing that comes to mind to streamline this work. Rather than a single culprit, the bureaucracy imposes death by a thousand cuts. The solution is most certainly not to add more administrators, though.
If you had no constraints in terms of funding or the need to publish, is there anything that would be different about your research?
I would likely pursue more risky questions that are less directly relevant to human disease, but in general my research program would likely be similar to what it is now.
If you could change the organization or management of universities, what reforms would you recommend?
My impression is that American universities are getting increasingly top-heavy, and others have reported similar observations:
- A “proliferation of administrators”: faculty reflect on two decades of rapid expansion
- Bureaucrats And Buildings: The Case For Why College Is So Expensive
- 3 to 1: That’s the Best Ratio of Tenure-Track Faculty to Administrators, a Study Concludes
I would recommend universities more carefully consider the impact of changing the ratio of administrators to tenure-track faculty. I have yet to see convincing data that adding administrative positions improves the quality of education for students or increases the productivity/output of research faculty. I would argue that the administrative bloat is likely contributing to rising tuition for students and ballooning indirect costs for funding agencies.
Given the goal of improving the practice and funding of science, is there anything else I should have asked you?
It’s important that funding agencies consider who they are funding, not just what projects they are funding. There are many private funders that take this more seriously, but federally funded projects are usually centered around low-risk, hypothesis-driven experiments carried out by a relatively select group of mostly senior researchers. A shift toward funding younger, earlier stage scientists without focusing on explicit hypotheses and specific aims would be helpful. Something like a five-year grant for a general research program could go a long way toward reducing the bureaucratic strain on junior researchers and paving the way for more rapid scientific progress.