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May 4, 2022

INTERVIEW: Thomas Südhof

Thomas Südhof is the Avram Goldstein Professor, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology and of neurosurgery and, by courtesy, professor of neurology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. He has been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, and the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience.

Südhof is interested in how synapses form in the brain, how their properties are specified, and how they accomplish the rapid and precise signaling essential to information processing. To study the molecular basis of neural circuits and synaptic information transfer, Südhof and his team use an interdisciplinary approach ranging from structural biology and mouse genetics to electrophysiology and mouse behavior. Their overall aim is to contribute to the understanding of disorders in which synaptic transmission is impaired, including Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and autism.

In this interview, he points out how detrimental it is to have to deal with the bureaucratic requirements of funders–both federal and private funders.

Describe your experience with funders (private, NIH, others). What do funders do right? What could they improve? If you could restructure how federal funders (NIH/NSF/etc.) are organized or how they operate, what would you change?

NIH and HHMI are at their best when they assemble committees that assess the merits of a given project purely based on the science. The quality of these assessments has declined but is still good. In my view, this is still the best system in the world.

That said, it has declined because other considerations, such as perceived translational needs, program directives, and the necessity of a more equal representation of the population in the scientific workforce, have increasingly become important. As a result, the power of non-scientific personnel in the offices of funders has increased. Often, these offices tell the scientists what to do although they have little real understanding of science. In this respect, private philanthropy tends to be sometimes even worse because very wealthy donors do not always understand the need for quality (as opposed to quantity or glitz) in science.

Surveys show scientists spend upwards of 44% of their time on proposals, reports, IRBs, budgets, etc.–that is, administrative and regulatory requirements. Is that consistent with your experience? Is there anything that could be streamlined?

That is correct. The regulations and the bureaucracy supporting it have mushroomed. Of course, there is much that could be done. The biggest problem is that administrators who do only administration simply do not understand how much the bureaucratic work takes away from the science. They seem to think that just filling out another form or writing another report is nothing, but if you have to do hundreds of these, that is all you have time to do.

If you had no constraints in terms of funding or the need to publish, is there anything that would be different about your research?

Of course. I do believe that as a scientist, we should have to justify our projects and experiments. Not having to write grants or publish papers would be bad for science. However, I also think there needs to be a balance — the grant-writing effort should not occupy more than 20% of our time to be productive, and that the review of grants and papers needs dramatic reform. There should be more attention to merit and to track records, and less attention to excitement and immediate translatability. I am convinced that if I had to spend less time on securing funding, I would be more productive and creative.

If you could change the organization or management of universities, what reforms would you recommend?

Give scientists more power over administrators, instead of the other way around. Our work is increasingly dictated by the directives of administrators who have little scientific qualifications and often no interest in the science itself.

Given the goal of improving the practice and funding of science, is there anything else I should have asked you?

The biggest problem we have in science is the role of the unregulated, highly profitable publishing industry. It desperately needs to be reformed. We need regulations not for the scientists, but for the publishers, who should be held accountable for what they publish and should have to adhere to rules that guarantee transparent peer review. At present, that industry is running wild — it is harming the careers of young people, distorting the presentation of science, and occupying a huge amount of all scientists’ time in a very unproductive manner.

Just for fun, what’s an article in the past few years that you wish you could have written? 

1. A Description of the Cell-Biological Basis of Synapse Loss and Neurodegeneration In Alzheimer’s Disease

2. A Description of How Synapses In The Brain Are Continuously Formed, Eliminated, And Re-formed in a Highly Specific Pattern

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