Thursday, 29 August 2013

Does Science (Research) Suck? - Possible Solutions

Continuing the post about researchers disillusionment with science, I thought I'd be proactive and make some silly/serious suggestions for how things could be improved.

As was noted in a comment in the first piece a major issue is with contract length. So one option is to try and increase the contract length. Many places in the UK now have 4 year postdoc positions and some regularly offer 1 year extensions. This benefits the researcher and the group leader when it comes to starting a project from initial concept through to published paper and may even allow for some initial misfires.

Longer contracts definitely help in allowing the researcher and group leader/institute to publish more effectively but it still doesn't solve the long term issue of "you're supposed to become a group leader". To solve that issue it needs to be possible to allow people to be postdoc researchers as a long term career. It sounds like sacrilege but I'm not suggesting that such positions are beyond reproach - if your work record sucks you should still be able to be fired. Maybe have 5 year reassessments like many group leaders have to endure? The researcher may still need to move location from time to time as well but it should be possible for people to be permanent researchers without having to become a group leader.

In France it is possible to attain a permanent postdoc position. I've no idea how well they work (if anyone does please comment) but they still exist. I do know that people jokingly suggest the position encourages French researchers to publish really well in the USA and UK so that they can get the credentials to then semi-retire in a French lab but I suspect/hope that is unfounded and largely down to a bit of envy or insecurity about the UK system.

The UK does have ways of creating permanent postdoc positions but they are often disguised by emphasising an essential skill (eg computer modelling, electron microscopy) or by having lab manager/ scientific officer roles. The interesting thing about the second category is that you have often have people with PhDs/postdoc experience applying for the position when, on paper, someone without a PhD (but a degree) can do the job. The thing is a lot of these positions are essentially postdoc positions albeit with a few more admin/safety issues (some postdocs may find they do similar levels of management in labs without a lab manager already though). Surely creating positions that are essentially permanent research positions and their popularity is evidence that permanent positions are worthwhile endeavours?

There is one massive drawback with creating permanent positions - where will space be freed up for all the incoming postdocs to work? It could inadvertently create a point of no return at the PhD-Postdoc transition as opposed to the Postdoc-Group Leader. I'll try and follow this in another post with a more controversial suggestion.

Now for a silly solution.

Postdoctoral research should become vocational  in the religious sense.
That's right, by becoming a researcher you dedicate your life to science and forsake a partner, family and distractions such as worldly goods. Your lab coat will become your habit - why bother with clothes? If you really want to you can take a vow of silence, only communicating via poster and power-point presentations. In exchange for this dedication the Institute/Monastery will give you a small room and cot to sleep in and provide you with food/health care. You can even go on pilgrimages to conferences every now and then.You want a permanent position - this is the sacrifice you have to make. We only want people who LOVE science working here.

You may think this is ridiculous but think about it. For the researchers out there, how often do you work weekends or work in excess of 10 hours a day? Can't go on that long vacation because your work would suffer? How much time do you really have to enjoy any of those things you could buy with your salary?
As for relationships, how easy is it to explain those work hours to a non-scientist (if your partner is a scientist do you ever see them)? How often have you had to uproot from an entire social group and move to the other side of the country/other country or other continent because it's "best for your career"? That kind of thing can't be good on relationships. As for family when exactly do you find the time for them? Is it even a responsible decision to have children when you know your chances of long term employment in research are so slim?
Let's face it, doing research should make it easier to go all the way into a monastic lifestyle - you're part way there already. Monks also like to drink strong beer and wine!

Maybe it's worth revisiting this as a solution for research. It's worked well in the past with the likes of Gregor Mendel and here's an extensive list that only includes Catholic clerics - the list would be even longer if it included other religious vocational groups. So who's with me? Burn your clothes and don your labcoats brothers and sisters!

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