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July 7, 2023

Interview with Arjun Raj

Arjun Raj is a Professor of Bioengineering and Genetics at the University of Pennsylvania, He received his BA in Physics and Mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley and his PhD in Mathematics from New York University.

1. In a layperson’s terms, what do you work on?

I work on molecular biology in individual cells: with new technologies, we can now peer inside of a single cell and watch the molecular processes unravel, all the way from the genetic code to cells growing and dividing. We have a particular interest in how these molecular interactions can lead rare cells to act differently than the others. These rare cells can be important in cancer and other diseases.

2. Based on your experience with funders (private, NIH, others), what do funders do right vs. what could they improve? For example, if you could change anything about federal funders (NIH/NSF/etc.), such as their approach to peer review or to “high-risk” research, what would you change?

Private funding provides a lot of flexibility, which is great. NIH provides a large amount of funding across a variety of fields, forming the bedrock of the biomedical research enterprise and ensuring that we have broad representation in our research portfolio.

In my opinion, NIH does a decent job overall, but the size of the grants has been steadily decreasing in real terms. Recently, in particular, costs have soared, to the point where a coveted “R01” grant—which used to be considered enough to run a lab—now can barely cover 1.5 people.

I think the only adjustment is to increase the average grant size. That of course means that we must reduce the number of total grants awarded, which will be painful, but I think there are big negative consequences to shrinking labs in this way. I suspect that the implicit goal has been to reduce the number of megalabs, but I think it has affected mid-size and small labs the most, since the very large labs have many other sources of funding as well.

3. 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?

Yes, I haven’t tabulated it, but certainly an ever increasing proportion of time is spent on administrative things. Many processes are becoming increasingly bureaucratic, both inside and outside of the university. Even publishing a paper now is accompanied by literally weeks of paperwork and uploading and so forth. The problem is, of course, that there is little counterweight to adding a new form—typically it costs nothing to those who administer them, even if it costs researchers lots of increasingly valuable time.

I wish I had a solution. I think AI assistants may be able to help with some of this, but that may take some time.

4. 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 don’t know that anything would be particularly different, other than paying people in the lab more and getting catered lunches. I actually think our system of trainee-based discovery and reporting is generally pretty good, although peer review should be relegated to the scrapheap in my opinion. I would probably just be able to do more positive things with my time instead of treading water.

The question of “what if we had unlimited funding” is an interesting exercise to go through periodically. I don’t actually think that most science scales up in an obvious way, so I think we’d just end up with a lot of wasted resources.

5. Just for fun, are there any recent papers in your field that you wish you could have written?

I recently heard about a paper from my colleague Christoph Thaiss linking the microbiome to the runners high (!), and I have to say, it was an amazing piece of work that I definitely wish I could have written!