Gerjon Ikink is currently in his fifth and final year of a PhD at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam, but is thinking about leaving research. He always wanted to be a scientist so that he could contribute to society by exploring the unknown in search of the truth, in this case research into the genetic pathways involved in breast cancer.
But a few years into his PhD, he found it difficult to imagine continuing down this career path. Although his interest in science hadn’t wavered, his feelings towards the infrastructure of the academic life had. Now he is planning on moving into the world of science and education policy, hoping to right the wrongs that are pulling him out of academia.
When did you become disillusioned by science?
When I was an undergraduate, science was all about looking for the answers to the big questions, looking for the truth and understanding how our world works. But during my PhD, and maybe a little before, I became disillusioned with this idea.
I saw that career scientists were no longer driven by curiosity, instead they spend hours producing papers so they can get funding to keep doing their job. And in order to get funding they are evaluated on metrics like the impact factor of the journal in which they are published. Many believe that too much emphasis is placed on these metrics, and that a full evaluation should be based on more. Here I mean that it should be based on actual proposed research plans, combined with the experience and motivation of the researcher. Past successes shouldn’t (and don’t) guarantee future success in science. The successes come from plenty of money and time, motivated staff, a good infrastructure and to be honest, luck.
I’ve seen great scientists get demotivated and move away from academia for several reasons, including:
- They couldn’t get a grant, because only 2 peer reviewers deemed their application ‘excellent’, instead of all 3.
- Funding is too difficult to come by.
- The job market is saturated: there are more PhDs than there are places in academia to put them.
- They don’t have the time to be in the lab or in the lecture hall, because a lot of time is wasted writing grant applications.
- There’s too much focus on hot and original research — research that “sells”: there seems no place for independent reproduction of results.
- There is a lot of pressure on scientists to publish-or-perish in this system, keeping a job is dependent on positive research results.
- Frustration over the annoyingly slow and inconsistent peer-review process.
A combination of the above, I believe, is a dangerous one for the future of science.
How did that make you feel about your career?
Science, for me, is made up of 5 pillars: curiosity, integrity, sharing, peer-review and independent reproduction of results. If you have this vision of science, and the pillars start falling away, then it feels like a physical pain.
I still love science, just not the current system. Why should I continue to become more dependent on a system that isn’t working for me? I felt that if it was important enough to complain about, then it is important enough to do something about it.
So, I realised I had three options:
1) To grin and bear it and to attempt to change it from the inside.
2) I could leave science and never turn back.
3) To change things from the outside by going into science policy.
Option 1 was too difficult. A lot of scientists who I have spoken to, who are further along in their careers, also see major issues with the scientific system, but they (and their students and post docs that they are responsible for) are very dependent on the system. They can’t easily change it, because it would be biting the hand that feeds you.
Option 2 would be ok, if it were to put me in a place that is better suited to my skills and ideals. But that isn’t going to work because I think science is too important for me to turn my back on it.
Option 3 seems to be the most logical path, and hence it is the path I have chosen.
My ambition is to make it as easy as possible for scientists to do top-notch research in a fair and efficient system, so that they can have a real impact on society, not just a journal impact.
How do you think science policy can help to change things?
One nation can’t ever change this by itself; it needs to be done at a global level due to the global character of science. But some brave nations have to get the ball rolling. For example, the UK has been very progressive and successful in promoting public outreach and moving towards Open Access (OA) in science. More countries are following that example, so science policy has been, and is changing things already.
Many scientists supported OA for quite some time, but publishing in this system harmed their metrics and thus careers. Forcing scientists to publish OA gave them a strong excuse to really start doing this instead of publishing in the traditional pay-walled journals. It was basically a bottom-up request that had to be enforced top-down through policy to work.
The European Commission is now talking about essential changes in the scientific system and they have a public consultation on “Science 2.0: Science in Transition” as we speak. This will involve everything from metrics to job security to addressing the Grand Challenges the world is facing these days, for example, global health, food security and climate change. If some of the improvements we’ve discussed at European Science Open Forum are eventually implemented on European level, like better data sharing systems, this will be a huge step forward for science worldwide. These are things I’m really excited about; I can’t wait to be a part of it.
How are you looking to move into policy?
I haven’t started looking for jobs specifically, but I’ve been orientating myself for the past 2 years or so. I’m talking to a lot of people in science policy; I’ve been doing courses on economics and policy in my free time. I go to related events and conferences (like ESOF), where I participate in discussions.
I know that it will take a lot of hard work and dedication to make something happen, and I am prepared for that. I’ve been doing work experience with the Young Health Council of the Netherlands for two years now, as well as other committees. The Young Health Council of the Netherlands enables young scientists to contribute to policy advice via an online (and offline) network community. I’m involved in answering science-related questions from policy-makers and identifying new developments relevant to health policy.
I am also writing a Dutch blog on science and its role in society and business for the public interest, to bridge the gap between science and the general public.
Have you spoken to your supervisors about your plans?
I was advised by my peers not to speak to my supervisors about my plans because academics, and academia, don’t always appreciate your plan to move away. They can stop supporting you because they feel that “you’re not motivated to do science “. Sometimes it can be worse: I’ve spoken to other PhD students in the Netherlands who have been held back from going to conferences or take courses, or even have been refused a contract extension to complete their PhDs. But I thought it would be better that they knew, so they knew my intentions and they might have some advice.
When I told them about my plan, it wasn’t received badly, but it was initially not well understood either. They were noticeably disappointed that I didn’t want to continue in academia. When I made it clear that my intentions were to help the system to improve, most of my supervisors agreed with the idea, but had reservations. It is clear that this is the system in which they got to the top of their game. They’re not against it: most of them said that there isn’t a better system now, so there is no alternative. This is a clear sign that policy-makers should work with the science community to develop improved systems that fit the need of scientists, while also serving the public.