Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Friday, 5 May 2017

No scientist is too junior to fix the system

This first appeared in Nature: May 2017

The March for Science filled the streets on a Saturday afternoon. The next steps should come at research institutions and universities, says John Tregoning
                Last month thousands of researchers took to the streets. It is time to channel this collective energy to shape the culture of science.
                We all love to complain how the system for doing science thwarts ideal practice. Prestigious publications are rewarded more than sound work. Everyone ends up chasing trends and asking the same questions. Broader multidisciplinary research might achieve more, but it is harder to publish and less well rewarded. We end up sticking to the path of the prestigious paper and big grant at the expense of worthier endeavors.
                Why don’t we just change the system to something better? After all, science is uniquely self-regulating. The people who set the science agenda are scientists, the people who allocate funding are scientists, and the people who decide what gets published are scientists. The tool we hold in highest regard is peer-review: we are judge, jury and executioner.
One reason for stasis is that scientists value consistency. The scientific process requires controlling variables as tightly as possible, even down to those unlikely to have any impact on an experiment. I know people who won’t change the order in which they use pipette tips; they are unlikely to change the research system.
Another reason is that we’re too busy just getting by in the current system to pause to fix its flaws. Grant submissions and experimental timepoints—tasks that reward the individual and have strict deadlines--will always win against some nebulous effort for the common good.
But most of all there’s the sad reality that those who most feel the need for change have the least power to create it. It’s all too easy to justify putting off activism. The time to fix the system, we tell ourselves, is after we have gained actual influence. If a PhD student shouts in frustration, are things going to change, or will she just be marginalized as a rabble rouser?
This leads to a pernicious inertia: moving up the ladder shifts your perspective. Making tenure puts you in a position to make change, but can inure you to the status quo. The principal investigator tells the postdoc that finding a permanent position is nothing compared with the angst of getting a grant. The postdoc tells the PhD student that defending a thesis is nothing compared with the angst of finding a permanent position. The higher you rise, the smaller the problems of those in the levels below seem. In other words, research traps young scientists in a suboptimal system, but if they plan to advance their careers before setting it right, nothing will change.
Within the last twelve months, separate groups of researchers have made headlines [] by applying evolutionary fitness metaphors to show that scientists are driven to less rigorous but more ‘productive’ practices. They portray science as a zero-sum game: everyone is so busy competing that no one revises the rules. Those who spend their time lobbying for change rather than collecting data will find themselves scooped of the recognition required for resources.
But evolutionary theory also suggests a potential way out: reciprocal altruism. The key is to use whatever influence you do have to help your peers, and to trust that your peers will do the same. I have reaped the benefits. One example was relinquishing a key authorship position on a paper in order to maintain a productive collaboration. At the time, I felt I was losing out, not fighting hard enough in the struggle for the scarce resource of credit to which I felt justified. But the small sacrifice paid off. I continued to work with my co-authors, and we wrote a successful grant together. The immediate reward of prime authorship would have been less beneficial in the long run.
More broadly, I am collecting a group of like-minded colleagues that consciously try to be less self-focused and support each other. In practice, this comes down to small things that even a pipetting-compulsive can handle: we read each other’s drafts, accept a fair share of committee posts so no one has an undue burden, take the time to forward relevant grant announcements, or just to go out for a drink. We just each try to work a bit more toward a collective good: I happen to be enthusiastic about identifying broken stuff in the building that everyone else ignores (burnt out lights, squeaky doors, blocked sinks) and seeing that they get repaired.
Start now. Don’t wait on your senior colleagues, and definitely don’t wait until you become the senior colleague. Build a network of like-minded people. Identify something that doesn’t work and fix it. It can be as small as leaky tap or as big as peer review. Believe that idealism can be catching.
Reciprocal altruism may seem idealistic, but focusing solely on your own advancement can come back to bite you. Academic promotions and appointments to senior positions require recommendations from colleagues, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has heard of ambitious individuals who would never be considered for department chair because they have stabbed too many people in the back.

Let’s strive to stand together. Historians called last month’s worldwide march to defend science unprecedented in terms of its scale and breadth. That energy and optimism need not dissipate – it should be funneled into making the overall system function better. The payoff may not occur immediately, but play the long game and we all can win.

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