Small Business

The Academic Laboratory As Small Business


Leonard Zwelling

         In The New York Times on April 11, David Sax makes a critical point about small businesses being the lifeblood of the communities in which they operate. It is the small business owners who support the school silent auction and who are struggling to deal with the coronavirus crisis by both paying their workers and keeping their balance sheets alive. Many will fail. Many already have. Many Americans are unemployed because of the failure of small business and that’s a double tragedy. It is the tragedy of the lost jobs and the tragedy of the lost sense of purpose for those workers.

         The laboratory workers at many academic medical centers and universities are still getting paid. That’s a good thing for which many are grateful. But their sense of purpose cannot be met from their living rooms or from dining room tables.

         For those of you who have not run an academic laboratory, let me tell you that it is, for all intents and purposes, a small business. Oh, sure there are the big labs of the celebrity researchers and Nobel laureates with 50 to 100 people in them, but most academic labs are fewer than 15 people toiling on problems that few others even understand, hoping to renew that grant that is the source of income for that small business and the means of paying the technicians, postdocs and graduate students who make the lab go and pursue the questions that they all hope will make a difference to society and especially to the sick.

         While it may be true that the people employed by these labs within major academic centers continue to get paychecks, they are not fulfilling their missions of furthering basic and applied science. They cannot. They’ve been effectively locked out. Now is the time to ask whether or not this was the wisest course of action for the people in the labs and for the academic centers that house those labs.

         Just like Main Street being fed by small business, the lifeblood of scientific inquiry is the small lab. Many Nobel Prizes emanate from such places and many significant breakthroughs that have altered the course of human science and medicine come from such places. Keeping the people who work in these places paid is only half the battle. The real challenge is keeping them engaged in the work, exchanging ideas and performing new experiments. It has been the argument of this blog that there must be a way to keep the small business of academic investigation going despite the coronavirus. Lab meetings on Zoom are no substitute for sitting in the same room, even if masked and six feet apart, and being able to view data together using a computer projector or Magic Marker on a white board. Furthermore, there has to be a way to get the work done. If that means shifts in the animal facility, so be it. If people have to rotate when they can be present in the lab and have to scrub down the benches every hour, that can be arranged, too.

         It is just unfathomable that people as creative as the basic and clinical scientists of America’s academic medical centers cannot find ways to push the work forward, fulfill their life’s work, and stay safe. Not only is this good for the small businesses of research labs, but also it is definitely good for the people who work in them and for American science.

         On a separate note, this would also be a good time to worry less about documenting the work habits of those forced to work from home and think how some of that work could be shifted back to where it belongs—with patients and science. Human Resources tracking the hours of lab investigators has a limited role in a pandemic.

         I am afraid that most of the leaders of American politics, business, science and medicine have opted for addressing the problem of the coronavirus with a meat cleaver rather than a scalpel. I expect no more of the politicians. I did expect more of the doctors.

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