The Spike
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The Spike

Chasing the research dragon

Just one more hit

Credit: Pixabay/13smok

Starting out as a scientist is full of exciting firsts. The first experiment that works; the first that fails spectacularly and evacuates a building. The first theorem that’s proven; or the first computer model that runs without crashing so badly that your PC reboots out of protest at the sheer insulting awfulness of your code. These culminate in your first output, the first success visible to the rest of the world: your first paper is published. Joy, relief, and everything you ever wanted. Right?

That first dizzying high is likely the start of you forevermore chasing the research dragon. Seeking another pure hit of that unadulterated joy, which is forever out of reach. The way we are measured and weighed, compared and ranked, forces scientists to chase the research dragon.

It is unsustainable. It damages science. And it wastes an extraordinary amount of taxpayers’ and charities’ money.

Imagine yourself a scientist. Your first paper announces to the world of science: I have arrived! But to keep your job as a scientist — to finish your PhD, to get a postdoctoral research post, to get another postdoctoral research post, and another, to get on the tenure-track, to get tenure, and to now keep tenure — you need to publish again. And again. And again. And again. You crave another hit of publishing, to sustain yourself a little longer, to ward off withdrawal from the science you love.

Worse, university management exhorts you to “aim higher”: to publish in glossy journals with single-word titles (general rule of science: the shorter its title, the more the journal loves itself. I’m going to launch a neuroscience journal called N. And have a policy of rejecting everything, to remove any uncertainty. It’s the hope that kills you). The kind of journal with press releases for every paper. Go on, they say. It’ll give you a even bigger hit. Stave off the withdrawal for longer.

But you don’t get that hit. You get rejection after rejection after rejection. Craving that first joy, but inured by endless rejection, you feel little when a paper finally gets published.

Grants for research have exactly the same problem. A first grant to a young lab leader is a joy, a spark to ignite great science. But one is not enough. You must get more. And not just for the same amount. No, you are exhorted to “aim higher”. Despite the inarguable evidence that there is, every year, less money available per researcher. One person successfully aiming higher means two people losing out. You want that hit of success, to ward off the withdrawal. You get? Rejection, rejection, rejection.

Just one more grant. And then you can keep your job.

And your sanity. Every little success helps ward off imposter syndrome. Every little success adds to the body of evidence that perhaps you can do this, after all. But when the rejections are endless; are illogical, bat-shit crazy and plain incomprehensible; are vicious and personal: what a beating takes your sense of worth?

Measured and ranked by papers and money, scientists are forced to chase the research dragon.

It is unsustainable. There are many more good scientists who are capable of publishing in the top journals than can publish in the top journals. There are many more good scientists who are capable of getting great ideas for funding than can get funding. These are zero-sum games.

It damages science. Chasing that next hit, a larger hit, makes scientists go astray. The misdemeanours starts small, but the cravings, the need, can drive scientists down dark paths. At worst, it leads to an entire program of fatally compromised research, or purely imaginary work created entirely in a waking nightmare.

It is a colossal waste of money. Chasing the dragon is a litany of depressing verbs. Submit, reject; revise, submit, reject; submit, revise, reject; submit, reject. Bury it. Those small verbs take immense time and effort. Time and effort away from doing science that was paid for by public funds. Away from testing vaccines, recording neurons, measuring atmospheric conditions. Away from learning about how to do new experiments, better statistics, better analysis. Away from thinking about theories, ideas, and solutions.

The current generation of new lab leaders is facing an entire working life of rejection. Thirty years of this? More? What toll on the mental health of the academic workforce?

Senior lab leaders, senior management at universities — the people who have made these policies — have not had to live by them. They get away with these absurd demands because of the extreme scarcity of jobs. The chances of making it to a permanent science post at a university that prioritises research are minuscle. Making it requires that you seek those hits of publishing and grant-making. If you want to spend your life doing the science you love, then you have no choice but to chase the research dragon.

Or do you? Not all universities have succumbed to pretending they are corporations, not all have given up on putting research and teaching above money; though their number is shrinking fast. And there are glimpses in some areas of research that the market is turning. Right now, if you knew anything about AI or machine-learning or data science, why would you ever contemplate working for a university? Why not go work for DeepMind, or any of the other innumerable start-ups that foster a culture of open research and ideas? If you’re a biologist, especially a neuroscientist, why would you ever contemplate working for a university? The ever-expanding landscape of independent research institutes — the Cricks, the Champalimauds, the Janelia Farms — promise freedom, continuous funding, and escape, if only briefly.

But right now, these are just glimpses. Right now, the major universities hold all the power: the job market is too fierce for all but the most narcissistic to turn down a job offer. If we cannot stop chasing the research dragon by avoiding the dealer in the first place, what can we do?

Change the funding model. In an ideal world, the universities would core fund research. In this world, they would ask themselves: why do we hire researchers on a permanent contract, then not give them the resources to do that job? (Or: why have we just hired a hyper-expensive third-year tutorial group leader?) And they would wake from their current delusion that they are a stockholder-driven corporation with quarterly earnings reports to deliver, and instead invest their huge income in their own staff. Not asking for much here. Enough to fund one postdoc for each lab? Oh, and perhaps let the permanent staff member, hired because they are a quality researcher, actually have enough continuous free time to do some research.

Change the funding model. So many applications for grant funding are good enough to be funded. Most of those are not funded. The solution? Take all applications that could be funded, and chose at random. Mix the research gene pool.

Improve the quality of peer review. Reviewing well takes time. It also takes the ability to step back and consider that the opinions of other people may be valid. Many reviews are godawful, logically inconsistent, ranting drivel. Are dismissive, arrogant, and demanding. And so papers are rejected. Peer oversight can work wonders here: forcing people to shed that cloak of anonymity is an effective deterrent. One option is having open peer review, with all reviews signed and out in the open from the start; but some worry that this would leave junior academics who write a critical review open to retaliation from more senior figures in their field. A middle-ground, and still effective option, is collaborative review — as in eLife and in other journals — where the reviewers are known to each other and argue among themselves over the merits and flaws of the paper, before ending up with a single decision. However we get there, better reviews are a conversation about science, not a litany of the authors’ sins.

In the shared kitchen on my floor of our shiny modern science building I overhear this conversation all too often:
“How’s your thesis write-up going?”, asks graduate student A.
“Tough, y’know. But I’m getting there,” sighs graduate student B, “you see…”
Before B can launch into a long tirade about their thesis, grad A hurriedly interjects “Any idea what you’re going to do after it?”
B replies “No.” A brief moment’s thought, then

“But I do know I don’t want to be a PI. That’s shit.”

It’s not all shit. We get to read exciting new papers about the latest science. We get to go to meetings in warm, exotic places — and the North Sea coast of the Netherlands — and talk science with friends over a drink or two. Occasionally, we get to find out something previously unknown to humankind. Sitting staring at a screen, knowing that the graph it shows is something we didn’t know before, and now we do.

Sadly these are but interludes. The dragon calls.

Want more? Follow us at The Spike

Twitter: @markdhumphries

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The science of the brain, from the scientists of the brain

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Mark Humphries

Mark Humphries

Theorist & neuroscientist. Writing at the intersection of neurons, data science, and AI. Author of “The Spike: An Epic Journey Through the Brain in 2.1 Seconds”

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