I know that they know that he knows- but he won’t tell.

Recently, I have changed the focus of my research. The fundamentals are the same; but I have shifted them to focus on disease B, instead of disease A, because we have money to study disease B, and we do not have money to study disease A. Fine; it's all good; in the most basic way my research hasn't changed at all. Plus, we have been getting some interesting preliminary data, opening up lots of exciting questions to follow up on, and I decided to focus on My Favorite Protein. Because (a) it really is one of my favorite proteins; and (b) I was pretty sure no one else was doing this research. Who doesn't want to do cool stuff without having to worry about your competition scooping you?

Yes, yes, I know. That is very naïve. If it is true, and it is good, and it is exciting… then it is only a matter of time before someone else stumbles across it, too, and sometimes you only find that out because they publish their paper weeks- or maybe a few months- before you. Been there. Done that. Still bitter.

Given that scenario, I should be happy about what happened last week. I should be, but I'm not.

A Well Respected Muckety Muck (WRMM) came to give a seminar. This is a person with lots of money and lots of people who attacks a problem full force- head on- and pulls out results that I, in my poor and isolated state, can only dream about. Since my PI was the host, he arranged an informal group meeting between our 'special project' team and the WRMM. As far as I knew, WRMM was studying process A, related to disease B but in a parallel and non threatening way.

I was all prepared to give a brief powerpoint about our work- having been instructed, with very little warning, to "Talk about your research strategy without giving away any of your data". I grumbled as I unexpectedly spent an afternoon not setting up an IP, but instead mocking up flow charts about our approach XYZ that were pretty, colorful, and completely generic. And then I went to our meeting, and waited to give my presentation. And waited. And waited. Now, I hadn't been able to attend the seminar, since I had to get my children off to school that morning; so I was coming in ignorant of the data that had been presented. But that didn't turn out to be a problem for long. It turns out WRMM likes to talk about their own work- as do many scientists- and I soon got the gist of the data. But I never did get a chance to present my stuff. Which, about 10 minutes in, I realized was a good thing, because WRMM basically said: "I don't know why anyone would take the approach of XYZ. It is a big waste of time. What would be the use?"

Humph. And then… WRMM let it slip that Postdoc D was following up on some interesting data on the role of… you guessed it… My Favorite Protein, in Disease B. It was like a bolt of electricity went shooting through me; I sat straight up and barely contained the million questions that were about to come pouring out of my mouth. But Postdoc D would shoot WRMM if WRMM gave away any details so that is all WRMM would say.

The next day, when I saw my PI in the lunchroom, I asked "So, did WRMM tell you more about Postdoc D and My Favorite Protein?"

My PI finished chewing, swallowed, took a sip of his bubbly refreshment, and then responded "Yes. And that is all I am allowed to say about that."

AGGHHH. OK, I understand, if he can't say he can't say. But truly, I hope that if my PI knows that this WRMM is ahead of me in this race to the finish line, that my PI would drop some strong hints for me to change my approach. My PI hasn't; so I won't. But then… my PI can be overly confident in assessing how much data one person can generate in a given amount of time, so part of me still wonders if I should cut my losses now- before I am way too invested in My Favorite Protein. Especially when there are so many other avenues to follow up on.

Sometimes, I really hate my job.


Dad said...

And so we learn the worlds of science and academia are not insulated from the forces and pressures of competition?