Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To tie in with June’s event which looks at how scientists reach out of the ivory tower, communicating science to the public, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on Soapbox Science. We will hear from a range of contributors: scientists, writers, enthusiasts, communicators, events organizers, policy makers and teachers, each sharing details about how they engage and reach out to the public.
But, it’s not all hugs and smiles. Recent reports by Ivan Oransky and Carl Zimmer have shed light on some of the more negative aspects of basic science research, particularly biomedical research. Both focused on the steep rise in retractions, which are scientific reports that are withdrawn post-publication, most often because of data-falsification. They also touched on why scientists might be more inclined to doctor their results, citing intense funding pressures associated with the, “publish or perish” mentality. I would like to extend these observations by providing a firsthand description of specific areas of basic science culture that I believe to be in dire need of an overhaul.
Maybe pointing out some of the issues regarding basic science research will help us to come closer to a solution. Or maybe there already is a cohesive solution to one or more of these issues and someone will send it in my direction. Either way, I look forward to participating in the broader discussion about how the culture of basic science research needs a fundamental change, from the inside out.
Basic science has grown too large for its own good
“I’ve started to lose count of the number of graduate students who’ve expressed a feeling of “being in the dark” about what they should be working on.”
Basic science research, in particular biomedical research, has been expanding. Since 1973, we’ve seen more than a doubling of academic researchers with science or engineering PhDs. Yet, the amount of federal support researchers are receiving has been declining since the 1990s. But that is not stopping academic institutions from recruiting and enrolling more and more graduate students each year.
According to the NSF, there has been a significant increase in science and engineering doctorates awarded since 2003, with the biggest increase seen in the biological sciences. However, less than 20% of those graduates will land a tenure track faculty position, and even fewer will stay the course until tenure is granted.
In essence, it has become a Ponzi scheme of sorts – and I am not just saying that because of my continuous stream of job rejections (okay, maybe I am a little). But that is not the only issue with growing too large. In many situations, we see a significant loss in a healthy scrutiny of experimental design and data analysis. Because laboratory heads can understandingly become so obsessed with where the next round of funding will come from, they feel pressured to publish as much as possible.
This can have a significant effect on those in the lab. Quite often, there are unrealistic expectations placed on postdocs and graduate students, but these burdens are not always accompanied by solid mentorship. I’ve started to lose count of the number of graduate students who’ve expressed a feeling of “being in the dark” about what they should be working on. The lack of an appropriate level of graduate student mentorship leads to a steep learning curve, which, in turn, leads to a mismanagement of both laboratory resources and time.
Of course this is not true of every mentor and I don’t mean to discredit those who serve their students well. But there should be some system to ensure that the old grad school joke about “indentured servitude” looks more like a joke and less like the truth.
Perhaps by decreasing the number of students admitted to graduate programs annually along with increasing wages for those who do enroll would help tighten things up. As would the professionalization of postdocs, as nicely discussed by Jennifer Rohn here. But, then again, I am no economist.
Scientists need to become better communicators, but please be realistic
“I want to come out in defense of scientists. I am growing weary of the blame being placed on them (me) for not “breaking it down” for public audiences.”
There is no denying that, when it comes to public understanding of science, current scientific research is as elusive as particles in a black hole. Well, maybe its not that bad, but there is a lot of room for improvement.
Here’s the thing: most scientists are already overburdened with just keeping their laboratories and careers afloat. Between an endless cycle of grant writing, committee meetings, data generation and analysis, and dealing with the general bureaucratic crap inherent to any research institution, many scientists do not have a moment to spare. Even as a postdoc, I can barely scrape up the time to write this, and my responsibility load is nothing compared to that of a laboratory head. Oh yeah, and I have to take care of my family.
So when are scientists supposed to preach their message? And furthermore, what incentive do they have to do so? Taking the time to talk to the public about research does nothing to secure grant monies. Writing a science explainer for a widely read magazine won’t ensure that your laboratory space and equipment will always be your laboratory space and equipment.
I want to come out in defense of scientists. I am growing weary of the blame being placed on them (me) for not “breaking it down” for public audiences. All too often, scientists are painted as elitists who refuse to leave the comfy confines of their ivory towers, when in reality, they are locked in the tower, held captive by the evil stepmother that is our current funding system. Those who place the blame on scientists are just out of touch with the realities of basic science research.
“…I hope that we can figure out a way to expand science communication efforts from research institutions by having a dedicated team of people who work side by side with scientists.”
With that said, there are anti-science movements gaining momentum across the globe. Whether the topic is vaccination or evolution, many are ditching logic and reason and subscribing to the fear mongering tactics of charlatans and celebrities. It really is our responsibility to pay it forward and encourage scientific literacy, because we can only combat nonsense with knowledge. Yes, science does have a PR problem. However, for the reasons listed above, being a scientist and a science communicator can be just utterly unrealistic. Therefore, I hope that we can figure out a way to expand science communication efforts from research institutions by having a dedicated team of people who work side by side with scientists.
Sure, most of the larger institutions have some iteration of a public affairs office that helps publicize the major findings, but what I am talking about is more of an ongoing conversation about the science happening on a daily basis. The job of this science communication team would help science and scientists to become more transparent and less intimidating. This, in turn, would only help garner more interest in science, and would most certainly help promote science literacy. Of course the consequences of improving scientific literacy would have positive effects on legislative policy and funding, and that’s a good thing.
Required: interdisciplinarity and transparency
“There is no scientific crystal ball. If we are not sharing our findings early and on a much wider scale, we reduce our chances of finding that connection…”
These days, it is almost impossible for a scientist to conduct his or her research without seeking some insight from those outside their field. For instance, I am trained as a lipid biochemist but the molecule on which I work (cholesterol) seems to dip its little pinky toe into a gazillion biological pools. There is no way I am going to make headway without talking to those who are experts in other fields – related and unrelated. To be more specific, I’ve enlisted the help of someone who is an expert in insulin signaling (related to lipid biochemistry) as well as structural biologists who have figured out techniques to identify all of the components of a nuclear pore complex (unrelated to lipid biochemistry).
While this might represent a more narrow example of interdisciplinarity, it makes the point that the pace of basic science research is hastened when researchers from different areas or fields collaborate. We are sitting at a crossroads where computer scientists and biologists or chemists and anthropologists can sit together and find new ways to answer old questions. Or, even better, they can propose questions that have never been asked.
Science needs this type of novelty to survive, but in order for this novelty to exist and thrive, we need more transparency. There is no scientific crystal ball. If we are not sharing our findings early and on a much wider scale, we reduce our chances of finding that connection that could transform that hail Mary fishing expedition into a clearly mapped out journey toward scientific success.
Scientifically lucrative collaborations are not the only thing born from increased transparency. Inherent to open science and transparency is a system of checks and balances that allows for opportunities to independently replicate experiments, discuss and/or debate results on a much wider scale, and, most importantly, it gives the tax payers (aka research funders) a chance to see what is happening in the name of science.
“My hope is that those who fear transparency consider taking their own baby steps toward open science….”
Yet, given the current system, most scientists are choosing to keep a closed-notebook policy because they fear getting scooped, which is science jargon for idea(s) and/or data theft. When a scientist is scooped, they are no longer able to report their data as being novel. When the data is not novel, they cannot publish in high impact journals. When they can’t publish in high impact journals, the chances for funding are significantly reduced. When the funding chances are significantly reduced, there is no money to do science. When there is no money to do science, they lose their job and their passion. You get the idea.
It is no wonder that many scientists are careful when they are speaking of their data and experimental designs. It is true even for me, and I am hugely supportive of the open science movement. For instance, I love the idea of Figshare and since I’ve learned about it, I’ve been wanting to upload some data. Yet, something in me kept me from doing so. A lot of my stuff is not yet published – what if I get scooped? The bricks for my scientific foundation have not yet been laid – would posting my data demolish my chances?
After contemplating these very legitimate issues for quite some time, I decided to just go for it, starting with my PhD thesis. Sure, this body of work is pretty ancient by scientific standards (it is a summary of work performed from 2003-2008), and some (but not all) of the data have already been published. But I was raised in a cutthroat scientific culture and even though this is a baby step, it is still a step.
My hope is that those who fear transparency consider taking their own baby steps toward open science, and that the new crop of scientists-in-training are taught that open science is the norm. Only when we get over that fear will this thing take off.
The culture of basic science research is in dire need of an overhaul. The current funding methods are crumbling, and our society is not at all well-informed. Yes scientists need to become better communicators and yes transparency would be just fantastic. But the reality is that science research – and all that encompasses – is complicated. I look forward to having a broader discussion not about what we should be doing, but about how we should be doing it.