by Judith Curry
It is alarming that so many Nobel Prize recipients have lamented that they would never have survived this current academic environment. What are the implications of this on the discovery of future scientific paradigm shifts and scientific inquiry in general?
King’s Review has an article Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation: A Conversation with Sydney Brenner. Sydney Brenner, a professor of Genetic medicine at the University of Cambridge and Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. The post includes a fascinating discussion on sequencing DNA. I excerpt some text from the latter part of the article, which has some broad implications for science:
I think that being in science is the most incredible experience to have, and I now spend quite a lot of my time trying to help the younger people in science to enjoy it and not to feel that they are part of some gigantic machine, which a lot of people feel today.
Cambridge is still unique in that you can get a PhD in a field in which you have no undergraduate training. In America you’ve got to have credits from a large number of courses before you can do a PhD. That’s very good for training a very good average scientific work professional. But that training doesn’t allow people the kind of room to expand their own creativity.
SB: The thing is to have no discipline at all. Biology got its main success by the importation of physicists that came into the field not knowing any biology and I think today that’s very important.
The young have a great advantage in that they are ignorant. Because I think ignorance in science is very important. If you’re like me and you know too much you can’t try new things. I always work in fields of which I’m totally ignorant.
SB: Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.
The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship.
But today there is no way to do this without money. In order to do science you have to have it supported. The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work.
I think I’ve often divided people into two classes: Catholics and Methodists. Catholics are people who sit on committees and devise huge schemes in order to try to change things, but nothing’s happened. Nothing happens because the committee is a regression to the mean, and the mean is mediocre. Now what you’ve got to do is good works in your own parish. That’s a Methodist.
ED: It is alarming that so many Nobel Prize recipients have lamented that they would never have survived this current academic environment. What are the implications of this on the discovery of future scientific paradigm shifts and scientific inquiry in general? I asked Professor Brenner to elaborate.
SB: He wouldn’t have survived. It is just the fact that he wouldn’t get a grant today because somebody on the committee would say, oh those were very interesting experiments, but they’ve never been repeated. And then someone else would say, yes and he did it a long time ago, what’s he done recently? And a third would say, to top it all, he published it all in an un-refereed journal.
And of course all the academics say we’ve got to have peer review. But I don’t believe in peer review because I think it’s very distorted and as I’ve said, it’s simply a regression to the mean.
I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I’ve heard from many committees, that we won’t consider people’s publications in low impact factor journals.
Now I mean, people are trying to do something, but I think it’s not publish or perish, it’s publish in the okay places [or perish]. I campaigned against this [culture] because I think it is not only bad, it’s corrupt. In other words it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all. And that’s all been done in the aid of commerce, because they are now giant organisations making money out of it.
SB: They just have to employ a lot of failed scientists, editors who are just like the people at Homeland Security, little power grabbers in their own sphere.
ED: Academics are slowly awakening to the fact that this dogged drive to publish rubbish has serious consequences on the quality of the science that they produce, which have far reaching consequences for public policy, costs, and human lives.
Only the most successful academics can afford to challenge these norms by boycotting high impact journals. Until we win our Nobel Prizes, or grant and promotion structures change, we are shackled to this “publish or perish” culture. But together with leaders in science and academia such as Professor Brenner, we can start to change the structure of academic research and the language we use to judge quality. His belief that scientists like Professor Sanger would not have survived today are cautionary words, providing new urgency to the grievances we have against the unintended consequences of the demands required to achieve academic success.
This essay strikes a number of chords that resonate strongly with me. Too much of what academic researchers are doing is mere academic gamesmanship, with little impact beyond padding the resume of the academic for the perks of academia: promotions, awards, grants.
The pressure for an academic prior to publish in order to get tenure is immense; I am dismayed when the primary criteria is to count publications, look at the impact factor of the journals, and look at the H-index (citations). It is only post-tenure that an academic can ponder longer range and seriously difficult or risky projects. And few do this, since funding for such projects is very difficult to obtain; too many grant proposals are written for research that is already well underway with pretty much guaranteed outcomes.
So what does all this produce? Research that dots i’s and crosses t’s, and that promotes conformity of thought.
When Nobel Laureates are speaking up with these concerns, the academy needs to take notice. While at the Conference on World Affairs this week in Boulder, I have the opportunity to speak out on these topics on several panels. Today’s panel was Future of the University, which was fascinating.
A special h/t on this one to my former Ph.D. student Branko Kosovic, who sent me this article.