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Scientific Research Funding
Careers in Science From the Field
Theodore Poehler is Vice Provost for Research
at The Johns Hopkins University and is primarily responsible for
promoting the commercialization of Johns Hopkins-based research.
He serves as the university's primary contact with the business
community and with government on local, regional and national economic
Dr. Poehler holds a M.S. and Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University
and has published 140 papers. He has also earned 10 patents, including
one for an all-plastic battery that he developed with colleague
Peter Searson. Popular Science magazine honored the battery with
a "Best of What's New" award, naming it one of the top
100 new products, technology developments and scientific achievements
What is your profession?
I have multiple professions. I am a lifelong researcher and faculty
member, but I have also been involved in administrative positions
as well. My principle responsibility at Hopkins is as Vice Provost
of research, which means basically having oversight over research
programs, policies and problems across all of JHU. That is what
consumes a large part of my life these days.
What are the policies/problems that you deal with day to day or
in a week?
There are a number of different administrative operations that report
to me, including research projects administration, the technology
transfer office, the enterprise development office, and research
compliance. Overall, I am responsible for what the university is
doing in a variety of areas. I have some with large numbers of people
that are under my management, along with a number of other senior
people who run the various functions under my direction. I am generally
responsible for how things work at JHU. Additionally, if there is
a problem that we might have internally, or if the government has
a problem, then I am part of a small group of people who deal with
problems that arise. It is a fairly wide ranging set of activities.
What are the most important personal satisfactions connected with
your occupation? dissatisfactions?
On the plus side it is a very large and very interesting institution.
Every day there are new things to deal with, sometimes very exciting,
sometimes not so exciting. It is a very active and interesting environment.
I am dealing not only inside of JHU's nine divisions. It is in a
lot of ways very exciting, because I am in a position to help make
things happen. Where my job stands, there is the President, then
2 senior vice Presidents, one for administrative affairs, one for
academics. Under each one of those there are "vice president"
positions, which on the academic side are called Vice Provosts,
making me two steps removed from the president. There is a great
deal of opportunity, both within the university and without, to
influence what is happening in scientific research. Where I am at
JHU, I get to be part of the conversations inside and outside the
university on what is happening in science and with the government,
so it is a very demanding and exciting thing to do. This is also
probably the downside--that it is very demanding and there is a
lot to do in a week or a day.
What are the biggest challenges facing your field?
The scientific challenges or ‘other'? They really come
in both flavors. We have cutting-edge research and facilities where
we are ahead of the field. There are also issues that arise because
the environment for academic administrators and scientists is different
than what existed 20 years ago. It is becoming a very difficult
thing to maintain the integrity of the academic institutions and
also cope with the regulations for national security and other issues
coming down from the government. It is not that we disagree with
most of those policies; it is just that it takes a lot of work and
adjustment to get used to them. Some of the other challenges have
to do with how are we doing human subject and animal experiments.
Are we following the rules? Are we doing everything properly? There
are lots of rules and details that have to be followed, and that
is challenging. There was a story in the paper about a group that
is criticizing NIH's budget and the research they undertake
because they feel that it is research being done in areas where
NIH should not conduct research. NIH awarded 150 scientists working
on AIDS research with medals this year because groups have been
so critical of government-funded AIDS research. Some of those people
are working at Hopkins, so we have to figure out how to respond
to the protests against NIH funding their work.
What are the skills that are most important for a position in this
You have to be a good scientist. It is an unspoken requisite, but
its true. Science these days is extremely competitive, a great deal
more so than it used to be. More people are engaged, very bright
people, so every time there is something interesting, there is a
huge rush to do things. Getting funding to do work is very competitive,
so you really have to not only be good and smart, but have good
oral and written communication skills to make the case for what
you want to do. It is not trivial to succeed in science anymore
these days, so the classic cartoon pictures of scientists do not
really hold anymore.
What kind of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage
someone to gain if s/he is interested in pursuing a career in this
Obviously it takes a certain academic preparation. We also believe
that people need practical exposure to the field that they are going
to work in. This is internships, research, etc. to see if you like
what you want to do. You have to make sure you get proper exposure
to your field so that you do not decide in 10 years that you are
not doing what you thought you wanted to do. You need a fine education,
but also some meaningful experience in things close to where you
hope to be as a professional.
What is your educational background and what type of background
is generally required to work in your type of position?
I started in college as a chemistry major, and decided it was kind
of boring, which is kind of ironic. So I switched into engineering
and then in graduate school started in engineering, but took the
courses you need for a PhD in physics also. I worked in a mixture
of physics and engineering and a little bit in chemistry. Over the
years in my research, I started in physics and materials researching
and ended up doing a lot of work in chemistry, dealing with organic
materials and things of that nature. So a lot of what I have done
in the last 20 years is more chemistry-related, which, like I said,
is kind of ironic. So in fact my early view of chemistry was rather
wrong, and I have done a lot of work collaborating with chemists.
What I have found is that all these disciplines, when you get to
the higher end of them, they kind of merge. There is almost a continuity
between the high ends of chemistry and physics and materials and
engineering. That is one of the things that I find very important,
that you have to see the whole picture, which I know is hard as
people enter fields, but ultimately when you see the connectivity
and how everything fits together you see that there is a lot in
common in the theory and also the practical aspects of the chemistry
and physics materials and engineering. But it takes a while to get
to that point.
What are the typical entry-level job titles and functions?
What entry-level jobs are best for learning as much as possible?
It depends on what the profession is. You can get a bachelor's
degree in various scientific fields and find some positions, although
they tend to be in the lower end in the sciences. If you want to
be a researcher where you call your own shots, you have to have
a doctorate and enough of a pedigree that people believe in you.
Another thing you need in these fields is that you have to have
ideas. If you want to be a researcher you have to have more than
just a good education. You have to have your own ideas and start
new things. The best researchers are the ones with ideas. Initiative
and ideas are both characteristics that I would attribute to successful
researchers. That is especially true in academic environments, more
so than in industry or government research because you are just
given a lab and told ‘go to it.' The creative spark
is really important. Creativity is critical in any scientific or
What are the salary ranges for various levels in this field?
Is there a salary ceiling?
It is highly variable and depends on the profession. There are salary
surveys that are published online by various groups, such as AAAS.
There is a huge range, depending on your success, seniority, your
profession and industry. Even the starting salaries have huge variance
with a BS. If you have a PhD you get a little bit more because you
have more education and more experience. Once you become a contributing
member you are well taken care of, but it still depends on where
you are. If you are at a top 10 university in the country you are
going to get paid one thing as an assistant professor, whereas at
a very small college or university the pay scale is very different.
It is so variable that it is hard to give a meaningful number. Generally
people are pretty well compensated--not like baseball players, but
we are not entertainers.
In addition, I read James Savage on the problems of academic
earmarking. He was very critical of that process, arguing very strongly
for the peer review process instead. Can you discuss the differences
between the two and each methods advantages and disadvantages?
Putting it simply, many universities, including this one, are largely
against earmarking. Philosophically we disagree with it; we believe
in the peer review process. You will find dissenters from that,
and some have rationales for why they do not like the peer review.
For example, too much money goes to the elite few and does not yield
fair treatment for all researchers. But we believe in the peer review
process. Many institutions that are not historically elite research
institutions feel left out and do not get enough money, so the only
way they feel they can get funding is to go to a senator and see
if they can slip something in a bill. The chronicle of higher education
publishes earmarking reports every year. Now even though we are
against it, there are a couple of earmarks for JHU because one person
at Hopkins will go to congress and make the case and get something
in a bill. If we find out ahead of time we generally tell the person
not to do it. We are not in favor of it; we do not think it is the
right way to do things. There are now federal programs set up to
give money to institutions that do not normally receive research
grants. Therefore, they do not have to compete against the big research
institutions and instead only against other smaller schools that
have not historically received funds. This is clearly preferable
to simply having something stuck in a bill. A big problem is that
an earmark generally takes money away from other programs that government
agencies were planning to fund. Thus earmarks can occasionally be
counterproductive in the long run, because agencies become agitated
at schools that do this, in addition to being simply philosophically
opposed to it.
Submitted by: Eric Buescher, fall 2003 intern