Phil Patel Case supplemental information.

To understand Phil Patel's situation here, you need to understand something about tenure. For a more detailed discussion, read "What's the deal with tenure?" below. The shorter version is this:

To make his case for tenure, Phil needs to demonstrate his success as a researcher. Usually one does this by publishing papers in scientific journals. Sometimes one does this by securing patents on inventions. Another thing a tenure-track researcher can do to demonstrate his success is securing grant money to support more research. The challenge is which of these counts for more -- is it better to get publications or patents? Grants from federal funding agencies or money from private funders or commercial ventures? Sometimes you have a good idea of what the tenuring committee prefers, but sometimes you don't.

Is timing a factor in Phil's decision here? It might be. He has two years before he goes up for tenure. Not only does he want to get a lot of data for analysis in that time, but he's hoping to get scientific publications, patents, or both. (Even if getting a patent on the rapid hair analysis technique means he won't be able to publish the details of that technique, he could still get publications about the citizen science project and the results it generates.) How long does it take to publish a scientific paper? It depends on the journal. (Some give authors a decision on their submissions within 6 weeks, others can take many months.) How long does it take to get a patent? It depends on how backlogged the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office is when you submit your patent application (and whether you have the funds to pay for an "expedited review").

You also need to know something about the Institutional Review Board (IRB).

An Institutional Review Board, or IRB, is a body that examines scientific protocols to determine whether they meet ethical requirements in their engagement of human subjects (including humans who provide tissue or other material to a study). The requirement for independent ethical evaluation of experimental protocols was first articulated in the World Medical Association's Declaration of Helsinki, which states:

The research protocol must be submitted for consideration, comment, guidance and approval to a research ethics committee before the study begins. This committee must be independent of the researcher, the sponsor and any other undue influence. It must take into consideration the laws and regulations of the country or countries in which the research is to be performed as well as applicable international norms and standards but these must not be allowed to reduce or eliminate any of the protections for research subjects set forth in this Declaration. The committee must have the right to monitor ongoing studies. The researcher must provide monitoring information to the committee, especially information about any serious adverse events. No change to the protocol may be made without consideration and approval by the committee.

The IRB at Phil Patel's university needs to approve the human subject research protocols for research officially associated with the university. Reputable scientific journals will only publish the results of human subject research if it has been approved by an IRB.

It is true that the law makes it possible for private companies (for example) to interact with their customers in ways that can look a lot like human subjects research without getting approval from an IRB. Such private companies don't usually publish the results of their research (rather, they use them within the company for marketing purposes, to improve customer experience, etc.). And, it's worth remembering that what is legal doesn't always match up exactly with what is ethical.

What happens if Phil Patel submits a protocol to the IRB and the IRB doesn't think it does enough to protect the interests of the human subjects? Is that the end of Phil's project? Probably not. Usually, the IRB will identify the part of the protocol it finds problematic and suggest ways for the researcher to fix it and resubmit it. So, if the IRB thinks subjects aren't being given accurate information about benefits of or risks from participation, or that more needs to be done to protect the privacy of the subjects and of their data, or that the protocol needs a better plan for recruiting subjects to ensure a good sample to answer the scientific question, the IRB would communicate this to Phil and then look at the updated protocol Phil submits to see whether it addresses these problems.

What's the deal with tenure?

A tenure-track position (and then, tenure) is often held up as the Holy Grail for an aspiring academic scientist. Much is sacrificed (in the form of time with family and friends, time spent outdoors or on hobbies, sleep, etc.) in the quest to get tenure. So, what is tenure?

Tenure is a job status that means the tenured faculty member cannot be fired "without cause". People sometimes described this as a job for life, but it isn't. For one thing, a tenured professor can be fired "with cause" -- for violating the law or the rules of the university, for example. Also, if your department is eliminated as your university reorganizes to cope with budget cuts, it is possible to eliminate the positions of tenured faculty -- those jobs can go away with the department. (Also, tenure doesn't guarantee a salary that will keep up with inflation.)

However, an academic life without tenure is even more precarious. Without tenure, a faculty member can be fired (or "not renewed") for any reason, or no reason, at all. (Sometimes contracts protect non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty from this, but not always.) Also, faculty members with tenure often feel that they have more protection to pursue riskier research (e.g., on more controversial subjects, or research for which less funding is available, or which produce fewer patentable discoveries).

What a faculty member needs to accomplish during the probationary period (the six years or so of the "tenure track" before the tenure decision is made) varies from institution to institution. At a research-focused university (of the sort where Ph.D. programs are found), a faculty member must typically:

1. Bring in one or more big external grants to fund his or her research.
While there is usually not an explicit requirement to bring in a particular amount of grant money, some department chairs and deans will have a funding level in mind that is necessary to award tenure.

2. Establish a track record of "important" published results. How the importance of the results is determined varies from place to place. Sometimes it's enough to publish in "high impact" journals (i.e., journals that publish relatively few of the manuscripts submitted to them and which are themselves frequently cited within published papers in the field). Sometimes it will matter how frequently your published results are cited in other published works. Sometimes other scholars in the field will be asked to submit letters evaluating the importance of the work.

3. Patent discoveries. In some fields patents can count as a measure of research productivity, almost like published papers. (Indeed, because a university can charge licensing fees for patented materials or methods, some institutions may count patents more heavily towards tenure.

4. Perform "service" to his or her department, university, and/or discipline. This usually amounts to serving on a committee or two, helping a professional society organize the annual meeting, or being a peer reviewer for one or more of the scholarly journals in one's field. This service is not sufficient to earn anyone tenure, but skipping out on it can make you enemies among the people voting on your tenure decision.

5. Teach competently. At research-focused institutions, teaching well is generally not a requirement for tenure -- and indeed, people sometimes joke that being caught caring about teaching well can sink one's tenure case (since time spent working on teaching is time not spent on research or grant writing). But again, as with service, there's usually some amount of teaching a department needs to do. The tenure-track faculty, having less power than the tenured faculty, generally are called upon to do some of that teaching, and shirking on this duty can undermine one's tenure case.

It is important to note that tenure is an "up or out" system: if a faculty member is denied tenure at the end of his or her probationary period, he or she is generally given a year's notice to find another job. Needless to say, this puts a lot of pressure on the tenure candidate (be truly excellent for six years or lose your job). And, it can create difficult situations for the faculty member's trainees. Graduate students in the lab group of a PI who doesn't get tenure may have to choose between following the PI to their next job (if they are invited to come to that new institution, and if there's sufficient funding to support them) and finding another PI at their current institution who will take them into a new lab group and let them finish their research there. If the PI who goes up for tenure and is denied has students who are ready to defend their dissertations, get their Ph.D.s, and look for academic jobs of their own, these students may end up competing for jobs with their own PI (who is now on the job market).

If you think this doesn't make letters of recommendation from your PI scary, think again.

Finally, it should be noted that the tenure system is frequently anything but deterministic in its operation. A person can do everything that the common wisdom says he or she needs to do to get tenure (important results, external grants, good teaching and service) and still not be granted tenure ... maybe because the committees judged that he or she was just not excellent enough. On the other hand, a person can take longer than hoped to get grants and to publish splashy papers and still impress the relevant committees enough to get tenure. The very unpredictability of the situation can make PIs on the tenure track irritable -- and sometimes, this trickles down to create challenging conditions for the new scientists tenure-track PIs are training.

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Part of making a good ethical decision is sorting out the details you can be sure about from the details that are less certain, weighing your dearest hopes and your biggest fears against other possibilities. We are always making decisions with imperfect information -- none of us has perfect knowledge of what all the consequences of our actions will be. Still, waiting until we have perfect information (which would take forever at the earliest) is deciding not to do anything in the meantime -- and that can have consequences, too.