On Monday, the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology was awarded to three American scientists for their research on circadian clocks, which has been ongoing since the 1980s. It was an an an unexpected honor for former Brandeis University geneticist Jeffrey Hall who, unlike his co-awardees Michael Rosbash and Michael Young, left the science world over ten years ago — and not exactly on the best of terms.
“I can’t pour some of the money back into my research because I haven’t been doing research for years,” said Hall in an interview with Associated Press on Monday after receiving the award. He was speaking from his front porch in “the middle of nowhere, Maine,” wearing a Harley-Davidson t-shirt and a Brawndo hat that says “The Thirst Mutilator.”
“I’m retired, with dwindling coffers. I’ve already lasted longer than I intended. This will keep me going until I’m dead,” he said wryly.
Hall’s sense of humor, however dark, marks a levity in his tone that was not present in 2008, when he resentfully commented on the state of American science academia and left research for good.
By that time, Hall had been collaborating with Roshbash and Young for almost two decades, continuing to study the period gene and its role in the circadian rhythms and sleep cycles of fruit flies. But over the years, as his work went unnoticed by funding institutions like the National Science Foundation — the big discovery for which they were awarded the Nobel happened in 1984 — Hall ran out of funding and had to leave academia. In a scathing interview with the journal Current Biology, in which he asked whether he was leaving science early because of unjust distribution of funds among “scientific luminaries,” he said:
Yes and yes. I admit that I resent running out of research money…recent applications from our lab have had their lungs ripped out, often accompanied by sneering, personal denunciations—perhaps reflecting the fact that this old-timer has lost his touch. But I still love the little flies and claim that my colleagues and I could continue to interact with them productively.
Hall’s largest issue with the American scientific community, which he said is riddled with “institutional corruption,” is that it favors science hotshots, which are themselves produced through an unfair system that excludes many worthy scientists.
“Whether or not a researcher of a certain notoriety deserves that the ‘support system’ keep him going, there is a far more general problem: What props up biological research, at least in the vaunted US of A, involves a situation so deeply imbued with entitlement mentality that it has sunk into institutional corruption,” he said in 2008.
There is an ongoing problem in science academia, he says, in which there is a surplus of doctorate-level scientists looking to join the faculty at universities and research institutions and not enough jobs. Competition is fierce: Just getting a foot in the door requires “a large body of documented accomplishments,” as Hall calls it, which is equivalent to what a full professor would have had on their resume “in olden times.” Then, once a person (or, as Hall would say, “serf”) secures one of those rare faculty jobs and begins their research, they’re suddenly expected to keep securing external funding — despite there being a very limited supply.
And even if you’re one of the lucky ones that gets that money, there’s no guarantee it will be around during the next round of funding. “What if the situation is worsened when the government at hand is anti-science and otherwise squanders its resources on international adventurism?” Hall wondered, prophetically.
Hall’s critique of the funding problems many scientists experience seem especially pointed in light of the fact that the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to researchers studying gravitational waves, a massive project that has cost the National Science Foundation over a billion dollars. Money is allotted by federal and private institutions according to what fields are “hot” in science, which is determined by a number of factors that scientists cannot control.
Suffice it to say, Hall left the science world with a bitter taste in his mouth — which seems to have morphed, over time, into a weary albeit good-natured acceptance of what he has left behind.
Still, he seems pretty relieved that he no longer has to deal with selling his work to institutions in order to get funding for research.
“Nobody knows, nobody cares. If you try to describe what you try to do for a living,” he said in his interview with AP. “I can say to you - oh, we’re studying the macromolecules piled up at presynaptic nerve terminals. Snore. What the hell is that? Don’t want to know. If you tell me more about that, I am going to be so bored I’m going to commit seppuku.”