June 22, 2021

Principal Investigator or CFO? Unpacking the PI Conundrum with Basic Economic Theory

by Louis Nottingham

This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 edition of “American Entomologist”

As a relatively new research faculty member, coming to grips with the true nature of running a lab has been something of an existential pursuit. The transition from researcher in- training (graduate student, then postdoc) to principal investigator (PI) has entailed a dramatic and unexpected shift in duties. During my graduate student and postdoc years, most day-to-day activities were tied directly to research projects, as expected, but as a PI, the amount of “investigating” I do is almost laughable. Instead, my tasks mostly revolve around grant applications, budget management, and administrative duties that ensure that the people who actually do the research in my lab remain employed. It’s ironic that after completing my research training, I largely stopped performing research. I spend a fair amount of time assessing my situation (i.e., anxiously spiralling) and trying to decide whether this outcome is a personal failing or the inevitable result of “climbing the ladder.”

So, where does any forlorn millennial turn for perspective on their first world woes? A podcast, obviously—but, less obviously, an economics podcast.

For many years, I’ve been a big fan of the NPR podcast Planet Money, which is informative and surprisingly funny. (Yes, economics can be funny.) In it, I see a lot of parallels between economists and entomologists: both groups are total nerds obsessed with important topics that few others care about, and we similarly like to use jargony “principles” to explain things. For example, if you found yourself in a group of economists and entomologists, the economists might toss around phrases like “opportunity costs” and “causal inference,” whereas the entomologists might casually insert a “niche ENTOMOLOGY AND SOCIETY partitioning” here and a “trophic cascade” there.

It was in this fine podcast, full of jargon, that I found an overly generalized but acceptable way to compartmentalize my PI conundrum. Enter the principle of “comparative advantage.” This is the idea that a team succeeds by allocating tasks among team members based on relative skill level instead of maximum skill level. So, in a research lab, the PI (in theory) is more skilled than grad students and postdocs in the department of research, but the relative difference in skill is not critically large. In other words, students and postdocs can still crank out some pretty dang good research, as we all know. Meanwhile, PIs, especially those of us who are new to the role, may not be that awesome at administrative tasks and budgeting; however, if those tasks were given to inexperienced postdocs or students, it could be game over for the lab. Therefore, the PI’s comparative advantage is in finance and administration, not research. So, the PI deals with the bills; the postdocs use their skills. Thanks a lot, economics.

Although my foray into economic theory may be more cute than useful, I do think it exposes a potential shortcoming in the current research structure. Because the most experienced researchers (PIs) are forced to spend so much of their time chasing funding, managing budgets, and administering, I cannot help but wonder whether this results in suboptimal research output and less time spent training the next generation of scientists. Perhaps if research labs were less beholden to the competitive grant system, our duties would better reflect our training, and the principle of comparative advantage would be much less compelling.

Author’s note: To illustrate the economic theory of comparative advantage, this article and its figures use generalizations that do not reflect all labs. In other words, I understand that there are many graduate students who perform advanced experiments, postdocs who have impressive budgeting skills, and PIs who directly conduct research. This is just meant to be a fun and somewhat sarcastic narrative of my own experience.

Louis Nottingham (Louie) is research assistant professor of tree fruit entomology at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, and the Pacific Branch representative for the Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee. In addition to paying other people to do research, Louie enjoys hiking, mountain biking, backcountry skiing, birding, and other outdoor adventures with his wife, Molly, and his dog, Blackbird. Visit Louie’s lab website for contact and additional information: http://tfrec.cahnrs.wsu.edu/nottingham/