Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Does Science (research) Suck?

There is a great little article on The Guardian site where Kayleigh Dodd highlights issues that a lot of research scientists share. Myself included.

Kayleigh points out the plight of a research scientist is that they have a very limited shelf-life of about 8 years after their PhD where they essentially have to become a group leader or get out. The problem is that regardless of whether every postdoc were to publish yearly in Nature and/or Science they aren't all going to get their own lab. There simply isn't enough money, especially in the current climate, to allow for such exponential growth. So that leaves the vast majority of postdocs in a situation where they aren't going to be group leaders and therefore have to leave academic research and hopefully find some other career because permanent postdoc positions or senior lab manager positions are few and far between. So unless we have a scenario where everyone naturally moves into another job of their own choice we seem to have a pyramid scheme that throws you off if you don't reach the peak in time.

I wouldn't have a problem with that situation as long as it was made abundantly clear to people entering a PhD in biology but I don't think that's the case. If you go into a "career" knowing you most likely have to retrain for something else within 10 years then that's your own choice. I'm sure there are many people who'd love to have 4-8 years doing something they "enjoy". For others it may cause some hesitation.

Before I go into Kayleigh's "solutions", and some of my own, I'd like to play Devil's advocate.
First of all the current model works incredibly well for research. Not for individuals' careers but science as whole. You have an ever cycling pool of PhD students and postdocs aggressively trying to attain the papers and status that will allow them to be one of the deserving (and partly lucky) ones who get to be a group leader. From a business point of view this surely means you get more research being done? From an evolutionary point-of-view academic research operates on "survival of the fittest" and only the strongest go on to be a group leader guiding a field of research for the future. The ones that don't survive don't really matter as science marches on and their work is incorporated.

There is a lot of truth to this model and I think a lot of funding agencies and group leaders stand by it. There are some pitfalls though. First of all it narrows scientific research as your chances of success are increased by following the field where the funding is, just like Kayleigh mentions with regard to cancer. Although the same can be applied to neurodegeneration and any other first world disease areas.  There's nothing inherently wrong with that approach although many major breakthroughs often come about indirectly through basic research. Another issue is contract length. short contracts should keep everyone on their toes but what about projects that simply can't be done in a 3-4 year cycle? Surely the continuity of the initial researchers seeing the project to completion is far more efficient than spreading it over 2-3 postdocs? Never mind the moral problem of the first postdoc/student losing their job because that huge paper won't be out for another 7 years.

Perhaps the most damaging pitfall is that eventually people will "catch on". The fact there's an article on the Guardian website shows the problem is moving from the constant moaning that researchers indulge in into the general public. If this continues to happen younger people may realise this may not be such a good career to embark upon. No-one wants to embark on a career where there is a strong opinion it's a short term-career and you won't even enjoy it. While that could be a fix in itself with regards to reducing the amount of competition, it would be a disaster for research if a time came where there weren't enough new researchers.
From my own experience research seems to benefit from the general public thinking it's a high-flying career. I recall playing a game recently where a scientist was a step up from being a football player! You also only have to look at researchers in popular culture to see a general stereotype of unlimited resources, wealth and the suggestion they've been doing this all their lives (although in fairness they are often evil with a penchant for world domination as well).

So how can this problem be solved?  Kayleigh has some tongue-in-cheek and serious suggestions.

One is to go for the kickstart model. It could work in principle but I suspect it would lead to the "trendy" sciences dominating again - unless you work on an uncommon disease that a billionaire has. The other issue is how do you assess whether they are good scientists?
Well, Kayleigh's second suggestion is a pretty good one in terms of the "journal of mediocrity" where your solid work as a scientist can be showcased regardless of whether the question revealed interesting answers. There could also be a journal where you can confirm the findings of the scientist who just scooped you.

Kayleigh's final suggestion is hilarious and depressing in equal parts - "science X-factor" where scientists raise money via public premium voting to win the money to conduct their research. That would be the nail in the already well constructed coffin for me.  Given how the X-factor works, the winning scientists would invariably be inoffensive, bland and conduct research that is essentially a dumbed down cover of a better scientist's research. Sad days indeed. If we had to go the way of reality TV for funding, I'd rather they went for the "apprentice" model where a Nobel prize winner could judge the contestants on their ability.

I was intending to throw some of my own serious and not so serious solutions into the mix but this has already turned out to be a long post. I'll do some follow ups.

The take home message is that something has to be done and the research council has to acknowledge an underlying problem. Job security has always been an issue in pretty much any career but when geeks start claiming that doing geeky stuff is no longer fun because of the infrastructure changes need to be made.

PS - For the group leaders out there, I know it isn't plain sailing even when you make it to that position. You could argue that the constant struggle means there is no respite.


  1. I take issue with your point that the short term contract model works incredibly well for science. Like you talk about in your other post where's the control? How do you know it wouldn't work better with permanent jobs and stability? If its such a great way to run things why is nothing else run like this? I put it to you that it is a myth that it is the best way to run science and there is in fact no evidence that this is the case. I will limit myself to a few points. Firstly, the government 2003 (i think) report into the effect of short term contracts in science made the point that actually it drives talent away. Far from the cream rising to the top as you suggest it is actually the case the most talented people are the best equipped to leave and get a better job elsewhere and they often do. The endless cycle of young talent does not select the best people, in fact it is incredibly inefficient and a wasteful use of resources. The point of it is to keep wages down. It completely ignores the fact that spending time and money training someone is wasted when that person leaves. Why spend thousands training someone to be an expert in stem cells only for them to leave and join the firebrigade? It keeps wages down and it keeps competition for the top jobs/areas of research under control. How do you get one of these 'top jobs'? Its almost invitation only and funny handshakes all round. The process is so obscure its like being asked to join the masons. If you don't have the right contacts its not going to happen no matter how good you are. Another myth, grants are given to the most deserving applications. The reason for funding via grants is that it allows experts to pick the best projects. Why then is it so important to have a famous name attached to your application. It is another complete waste of time and money employing people to apply for money when there is no evidence that it is better than just giving a set amount of money to each university and they can hire who they want. I cannot accept that with the right oversight that would not work at least as well and if not better than the current system. I wont rant for ever I just want to make the point that I believe that it is all a scam where people at the top stay at the top and control their own competition. Like a good scientist I want to see the evidence that the way things are run really is the best way but nobody is willing to do the experiment. I wonder why.

    1. As I said I was playing Devil's advocate - I don't actually agree with it but the fact it still exists means the people deciding on contract lengths do. As you say it may be short-term money saving as opposed to long-term.

      I totally agree with you that they should trial different approaches in other institutes to see how it works. It was something I'll mention more in a follow-up but some institutes are providing training for other science-related disciplines which while not solving the problem is at least taking some responsibility for the people who spend several years researching. Longer contracts are being trialed here and there I know some places do 4 years minimum now. You should be able to get contracts that last the length of a project as long as you can prove you are moving forward towards something of merit.

      Networking is a pet hate of mine. Unfortunately it has become as much a part of science as every other job. Not all networking is bad though. Having collaborators that genuinely enhance your science is a good thing. The "big name" thing is something I've heard of but fortunately have no direct experience of yet. I have heard of people choosing to work in "named" labs because they are certain it will be easier to publish though.

      Thanks for the interesting comments :)