System failure – please reboot.

Actually I neither want to promote nor ridicule this kind of get-that-grant-guides (or get-published for that matter) here – it’s just that I already had more than my fair share of such seminars, guidebooks and well-meant advice. In summary, I don’t think that bending over backwards even further by learning more tricks of the trade on how to get into the pants minds of reviewers, editors and administrators to get funding/published is the answer. It’s just going further down a slope we recognize as leading nowhere fast. The question has become the following: is this system actually promoting good science (and good scientists)? From my perspective, honest scholars who don’t fake or hype their work and solid proposals seem to hardly stand a chance anymore. While found-out fakers and blenders (like Guttenberg, Koch-Merin et al.) continue their careers in politics, science itself is strangled by a surge of “evaluations” and ill-suited management metrics. Have we reached a tipping point yet?

I put it to you: Even someone with Albert Einstein’s background, CV and publication list (say a hundred years ago, around 1911) would have a hard time to obtain decent funding these days or get his papers published if he isn’t yet a member of the right circles or consortia. I am not saying it was easy for him back then as a young researcher with novel (outrageous!) ideas, but that the situation hasn’t improved much for budding scientists in over a century is saying something. Let’s see what our typical imaginary and, of course, completely hypothetical reviewer of today would say: “All those years he’s been outside academia at the patent office in Bern – surely there must be something wrong with the guy! Hmm, probably he is not serious/professional about his science. It’s been some time since he published in high-impact journals… and the stuff he got out has been pretty controversial. The field has moved on so much, and that strange relativity thingy is very unlikely to ever yield any useful application or products. Hard to see any practical contributions to quantum teleportation coming out of it.” It is so easy to trash just about anything in basic research, no matter how groundbreaking it is (or especially then).

A colleague having to deal with comments in this kind of spirit, as frustrating as it is, told me that he can’t blame any individual person, but he thinks it’s the system that is failing.

Similarly, Peter Lawrence is quite right in pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, but still got all the power. It’s time the scientific community takes back that power and is more careful in taking the occasional financial goodies from politics – science run by politicians (with or without a science degree) ain’t science no more. It’s time to stop supporting science managers who shield their ignorance by forms and metrics we have to fulfill, keeping the scientists from what they are good at (that would be doing science, actually) in order to keep the illusion alive that management and politicians (a.k.a. “kings”) are “in control”. A good administration makes a (scientific) organisation run smoothly and more things possible, I’ve heard. Unfortunately, my personal experience indicates everyday reality is quite the opposite.

See “The Heart of Research is Sick” – A conversation with Peter Lawrence, Cambridge

A senior scientist speaks out on real lives and lies in the ‘broken’ research system. Peter Lawrence explains how current research is in crisis and why young scientists are suffering.

As I recently got to know (one more than one occasion), it’s not only the young scientists anymore. The disease is spreading such that now even established demi-gods are also affected. Maybe indeed an internet-based reboot of the scientific system is the way forward – the ideas are out there, and new practices are emerging. The practical thing for all of us to do is to not engage in cargo-cult in any form and promote good science wherever possible. I’m sure, you know a good piece of science when you see it. Also, reminding ourselves from time to time that the purpose of doing science was not to nurture an ever growing administrative monster which uses red-tape as its DNA – it might help. (Hopeless optimist that I am, guilty as charged).

See similar posts: “Any jackass can trash a manuscript, but it takes good scholarship to create one” by David G. Drubin at MolecularBiology of the Cell, featured in “Is it new and is it true?” – probably the most important and fundamental question one has to answer as a reviewer.

  1. #1 by cistronic on 2011/12/18 - 00:33

    Not to mention, while jumping around between grant writing, evaluations, paper writing, supervision, reports, teaching, conferences, and what else have you – when does the PI of today get the time to think? Where do the great new ideas come from ?

  2. #2 by cistronic on 2011/12/18 - 12:41

    The Power of the Status Quo

    A new article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, reveals the conditions under which we’re motivated to defend the status quo—a psychological process called “system justification.”

    In system justification theory, people are motivated to defend the status quo. […]You’d think that when people are stuck with a system, they’d want to change it more,” says Kay. But in fact, the more stuck they are, the more likely are they to explain away its shortcomings.

further hints, constructive criticism, questions, praise

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