“Neurobiology was still a Small Science when I entered the field in the early 1960s. There were relatively few neuroscientists around, the expense of doing neurobiological research was far more modest than it is today, and any capable and hard working researcher could accomplish a lot with the assistance of a few collaborators and technicians. However, within a few decades neurobiology turned into a Big Science, with many more applicants seeking public funding than the granting agencies could possibly support. Universities admitted ever more graduate students to be trained in the neurosciences; research laboratories increased in number and size; and consequently there arose a fierce competition for research and training grants by the 1980s. As this transformation took place, many neuroscientists who started out as bona fide researchers turned into administrators and public relation managers. Instead of sitting at the workbench, the job of the “principal investigator” became to coordinate what went on in his or her laboratory, edit papers written by associates who did the research that he or she no longer had the time (and sometimes the training) to perform, and spend endless hours politicking and paper work to keep the laboratory financially solvent. The leader of a research group had to engage in public relations work at home to drum up interest in the work the laboratory was pursuing; write progress reports; apply and reapply for grants; spend days traveling from one place to another to attend meetings and conferences to find outside supporters and confederates; and, above all, establish good relationship with the administrators of public funds to obtain preferential treatment. While initially it did not much matter whom you knew but what you knew, increasingly it became more important whom you knew, and how many of them you knew, to get funded.

Perhaps the idea of training so many neuroscientists, all of whom could not possibly be supported by available funds, was that those with the greatest ability and perseverance will prevail and those less well qualified will leave the field and pursue some other career. Unfortunately, instead of the scientifically best qualified, faculty positions were increasingly becoming occupied by those with an administrative bent and great political skills; people who could attract large sums of money and support their institutions. As a consequence of this selection process, the panels of granting agencies and the editorial boards of journals—which became flooded with grant applications and manuscripts—increasingly became filled with a new breed of scientists, individuals skilled in forming alliances to support one another’s projects and getting ahead of their competitors. I have personally witnessed that just a few derogatory remarks made by one or two members of a panel judging a grant application meant that the unfortunate applicant received a “priority” rating that was officially “approved” but was not funded. The same may happen when a biased editor sends a submitted manuscript to a reviewer known to be hostile to the author or his group.

Let me now turn to two possible psychological factors contributing to our disqualification. First, we bucked the trend by practicing Small Science in an environment that increasingly favored Big Science. By spending endless hours in the laboratory and doing very little public relations work inevitably led to our isolation. Having failed to spend the necessary time and effort in the market place, we failed to recruit a cadre of confederates and supporters. Students and postdoctoral fellows quickly learned while they listened to popular speakers making their rounds, and dominating endless symposia and conferences, as to who was “in” and who was “out”; whom to quote or not quote in your bibliography to make it more likely that it will be reviewed by a peer sympathetic to your approach or findings; and what line of research to pursue in light of what is favored or not favored by the granting agencies at any given time. Again, in my personal experience, I watched how most of my former students and even associates, realizing that we were out of favor, stopped working on problems related to postnatal neurogenesis (for which they were trained) and found other projects to commit themselves to or abandoned their research careers altogether. But there may have been another psychological factor that has actually contributed to our becoming outcasts. Big Science needs administrators. Some scientists turn to administration with the selfish motive of exercising power and influence. But undoubtedly there are other science administrators who sacrifice their research careers for the public good. But that sacrifice may have unfortunate consequences. What scientist would not wish to make a great discovery himself or herself rather than be the cheerleader of a group making a discovery? The researcher turned administrator may console himself or herself that in an age of Big Science, Small Science is no longer possible. But what if an individual or a small group of researchers come up with a new discovery? They become the envy of the advocates of Big Science. The Small Science laboratory is liable to be distrusted and their claims discounted as unlikely to be true.”

Joseph Altman