I mean, I’m no Charlie Sheen, I can’t turn tin cans into gold or anything; but I’ve always been pretty successful at everything I’ve tried. Now, it’s not like I have always wanted to be a professor – my purpose in coming back to graduate school was more to understand the subject matter (neuroscience, epigenetics, biochemistry) and the system we call ‘Academia’ just a little better. So I’m not going to feel like a total failure if I don’t move on in Academia. In fact, I did quite enjoy my work in ‘Industry’ as a flavor chemist before, so I have always been open to either the Academia or Industry option upon completion of my degree. But still, to possibly NOT have the Academia option assaults my senses a bit.
The fact of the matter is that my ‘big paper’ has gone through the following rigmarole over the last couple years:
- reviewed at the journal Science, revised and reviewed again – rejected,
reviewed at Nature Neuroscience, revised and reviewed, appealed and revised again and reviewed again – rejected,
reviewed at Nature Communications, revised and reviewed – rejected,
reviewed at Annals of Neurology, revised and reviewed, and now a second revision is requested!
Some of those ‘reviews’ took up to six months, and most seemed to hinge on a single reviewer that had an axe to grind – not that their blocking of the paper hurts my PI in the long run, it only really hurts me (and I didn’t offend them). Is the system broken? I’ll go into that later.
The problem is, that this has really stunted my personal ‘record’/CV/resume. I have papers (and some good ones, Pubmed), but who knows if I can be competitive. I’m not going to slog through multiple slave labor post-docs with a wife and three kids trying to make it work at this point just because someone doesn’t like someone else or because a reviewer owns a company that sells monitoring equipment so they require a specific type of monitoring in their ‘review’.
So, am I failing or bailing? Having now seen and experienced the system, I would like to think I’m bailing a sinking ship…of course I may have little choice in the ‘fail or bail’ matter.
Anyway, enough about me
Academia – What’s broke, how do we fix it?
Why is this important?
The federal government funds more than a third of all research-and-development spending nationwide, which totaled $398 billion from both public and private sectors in 2008, according to the National Science Foundation. Of that federal spending, about $30 billion is spent on “basic” research (Link)
That’s everyone’s money we’re talking about. We should want it/require it to be spent effectively. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to cut spending on research or basic research – it’s that innovation that makes our economy thrive. However, even in this case, there is some point at which the investment in research isn’t a good investment – when the system is so horribly broken. And it IS now so horribly broken. It has been left behind (ironically) in its use of technology, in its speed of communication and collaboration, and it has always done poorly at ‘choosing’ the best talent to fund and to lead (but even companies have difficulty with that-Peter Principle and Management Ig Nobel Prize Winner).
Things that are broken and possible fixes
Some strides have been made in this area; publically funded research (at some point) is supposed to be published in publically accessible journals now. However, (as in my case above) if some new insight comes about from a new experiment and it takes 3 years to be shared, that’s just crazy!
I mean, 3 years ago cell phones were for phone calls – today cell phones surf the web, watch movies, record pictures/movies, share content on social media sites… If a company 3 years ago said (which many did) ‘we should add a camera to our phone and add the capability to take videos’, but then finally came out with that phone in 2011 – that company would long since have been bankrupt, but the whole idea of the video capture on the phone would be laughable at this point and the idea would no longer be innovative, it wouldn’t be helping things to progress.
The Ultimate Fix – Open/Real-time Electronic Lab Notebooks
Can you imagine!?!? Some lab you’ve never heard of, not even in your field, does an experiment where they show binding of a transcription factor to a certain gene. That’s the gene you are working on for the disease you study (maybe epilepsy). You do a search of the great online ELN for your gene and notice just yesterday someone did this experiment. Maybe they had alot of difficulty getting the antibody to work and had to change the buffers. You use the modified buffers and save time and verify their work! Geesh, we’re publically funding this research, shouldn’t we get the most bang for our buck!?
Ahhh… But you say that competition makes the world go round. The first to publish, the first with the new idea, the only person that knows how to get an experiment to work,… Can’t we change our paradigm of competition? Can’t we get a healthier form of competition? Journal publishing is the end all be all of Academia at this point – and the root of many of its problems. The Open ELN would get rid of a form of competition. But perhaps we could evaluate people instead, by what they contributed to, the amount of work they did, the ideas they gave others. The openness and trackability of one’s work and career would certainly give us better ways to ‘select’ the best candidates for professorship or a job.
Half-hearted, more realistic fix
Hire paid, independent reviewers for journals. Speed up the evaluation process of research articles and at the same time get rid of the insane bias built into the ‘peer-review’ process.
The peer review process is a scam! Would we allow Wall Street to police itself and think there would be no bias involved in their decisions…. (don’t answer that). There was a time in Academia where peer-review was very effective. People seem to believe scientists are altruistic and only searching for truth, blah, blah, blah,… The reality is that scientists are people. As science has gone from a handful of peers getting funding from who knows where, to millions of people getting billions of dollars from the government – it has become big business. But we still treat it like it’s a handful of truth seekers who have no fear of where there money is coming from. There is inherent bias built in to the system. When you send an article to ‘peers’ the reviewer may do similar research so they WANT more papers published about the field (so it becomes a hot topic and more money is funneled to the field), or if it’s too close to their research they may NOT WANT it published because it’s competing with their personal funding. Then you can get into politics of a person liking or disliking another, or a person has stock or owns a company, or developed a protocol,… I mean, ‘peer review’ at this point is much, much worse than non-peer review (of course non-peers, wouldn’t understand your research, right?). Hire scientists, make it their job, they have no stake in Academia – their job is to understand and review articles. Heck, if they devote almost any amount of time to the review, they will understand your research better than ‘peers’. Peers care about their personal research, have millions of other duties, and take forever to do a really terrible job of reviewing articles.
Through my business glasses, this seems like a no-brainer. But the wonderfulness of peer review has been pounded into people’s minds and, well I just don’t see it.
PROBLEM- Human Resources/Management
The Peter Principle has been a ‘funny because it’s so true’ type thing from the first time I heard about it when I was in high school. It’s been recognized and dealt with to a degree in business…but not in Academia. Academia brings this to a whole new level. Ideally the best researcher/experimenter, after 5-9 years of slave labor, would be deigned the opportunity to become a professor – who no longer does much research or any experiments at all. But instead does a whole different set of things (teaching, managing, ‘sales’, politics). I said ‘ideally’ because this isn’t even what happens, because everything’s based on a very old system of ‘publish or perish’ and the publish part has become so corrupt and inefficient that ranking scientists by their publications ends up not necessarily selecting out the best researchers/experimenters. So in a way I guess this randomness is good (Management Ig Nobel Prize Winner). Unfortunately I don’t think it is really very random either.
Problem in a nutshell- two separate problems. 1) Best and Brightest are not effectively selected. 2) Placing best scientific minds in management roles.
…I’ll ignore ‘tenure’ for now, because the whole thing is just silly.
This is a difficult problem. One could look to successful biotech and science companies for a different hierarchy and ways to reward/pay good researchers as well as have good management and good sales staff separate. But basic research, government funded research is and should be different.
The first thing that needs to be done is reward the best and brightest, and reward them early. The current system of graduate students and post doc pay is absurd. First, we all get paid peanuts, but also, we all get paid virtually the same! What!? No matter how good you are or how bad you are? I wonder if the idea was originally to help grad students and post docs get paid more? But basically it has become a failed communist system. Where’s the incentive – again Academia relies on the strange belief that scientists aren’t human and have such deep rooted altruism that they will work for free, for the love of all science and truth.
A benefit of losing the rigid standard pay (that the grant funding agencies virtually mandate), is that the best and brightest (even if they have not been able to publish as much, due to politics, bad luck, or maybe having a family-let’s not get into Academia’s strange bias against family) can stay longer in a post doc position, in fact they could excel and prosper in such a position if that were their niche. So even without an overhaul in publishing and peer review processes, such a change could more effectively select for the best and brightest – at the same time even changing the hierarchy a little and perhaps alleviating the second problem of promoting great scientists to management positions.
So the second thing that needs to be done is get good managers in the management positions. This happens by chance quite frequently, because great scientific minds can many times understand and be successful in the management role. The problem is, there are people out there that love to manage, and it’s their gift/skill. Unfortunately (like with peer review) scientists think nobody can understand their complex work. So allowing some non-scientist to manage science projects, etc. would just not be allowed. Well, let me tell you fellow scientists out there good managers understand what they need to understand in order to manage, and they can understand your stuff just fine. BONUS FOR THE ELN JUNKIES OUT THERE - Such managers would more than likely love to subscribe to the idea of electronic lab notebooks, the efficiency is so obvious .
THE REAL PROBLEM- Fear of change
I’m not quite sure when and how ‘Technology’ and ‘Science’ separated paths. But for some reason technology has embraced change and moved forward at light speed, while science has feared change and slowed to a relative crawl. It’s hard to say that science has slowed to a crawl with a straight face, but relatively speaking it has. While electronics, communication, gadgets, and the internet come out with amazing new things almost daily, science has kept to its 5 year to decade long cycle of innovation.
The fix – embrace change
“Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence” – This is true! Unfortunately, adhered to wrong, it hobbles the progress of science because people are afraid to embrace change or even contemplate change. Using a pen and paper to record data, enough already! To investigate a new extraordinary claim should be encouraged and lauded. The claim may turn out to be false, but how many of sciences dogmas have also turned out to be false. We NEED to make and investigate extraordinary claims (based on good ideas of course).
Let’s loosen it up a little. Be open to change, allow freedom to pay more to good researchers, allow managers to manage and scientists to be scientists, stop believing only ‘peers’ can understand what you’re doing, stop believing scientists are all altruistic and unbiased (build in the required checks and balances), and start a real time/open access electronic lab notebook to synergize all publically funded research . And since I am wrapping up my PhD, I’d like to say to the NIH/NSF or whoever is going to make this ELN (maybe Google or one of the commercial ELN companies)- I’m now starting to look for a job .