‘Quick wins’ rather than asking truely pertinant questions.

Scientists, have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and solving problems, at least the good ones do.  Scientists tend to be good at noticing interesting patterns or coming up with interesting ideas based on what they have heard, often at other scientific conferences and read.  Based on these observations or ideas (also called a hypothesis) the next step is to write a proposal in order to gain some funding to pursue these ideas with some supporting evidence or use current research which you did not perform to support your ideas, normally its a mixture of the two.  There are two main types of funding to which you can apply.  The most normal route is via a grant, which normally provides funding for at least the cost of the equipment but also salary for other scientists on the project.  This funding is allocated on a (very) competitive  basis which is reviewed by other scientists to see how much they like it and how feasible the work is.  Unfortunately to apply for a grant you normally have to be a permanent member of staff at a research institution such as a University.   Prior to trying to apply for a more stable position most scientists go through a period of employment where they are funded through fixed term contracts.  The other route is to try and gain a fellowship where the money for the project is allocated personally to you, this is called a fellowship and again are competitively awarded, even more so than grant applications.

After a recent fellowship rejection I eagerly awaited the feedback.

The feedback I got was vague and to be honest not very useful at all.  At least with feedback on papers, reviewers can often come up with useful suggestions.  The first comment or reasons for rejection was ‘not enough papers’ and the second was ‘interesting idea’.  So I guess I need to publish more papers then (I currently have 5 , around 120 citations, with three more papers in the pipeline that should be published in the not too distant future all in reasonable/good journals), for my career stage and field I consider not to be too bad.

Shortly after this rejection I was in a meeting with a number of scientific colleagues, discussing the progress of some research, directions to take next and publications.  Largely as a consequence of the impending end of our grant, the most prominent quote of the meeting was that we needed to work towards the data generation/publications that gave us the ‘quick wins’.

Researchers are human and if we live on this planet we still need to pay our bills, buy food, clothe ourselves etc.  Hence if more publications = better (which I would argue isn’t the case for the majority), our survival both scientifically and financially is reliant on more publications.

Herein lies a major problem in scientific research, due to the nature of short term grant cycles (three years if you are lucky, in the case of life science research this can be excruciatingly short, protocols can last months) rather than asking truly pertinent questions, there is the rush to publish and tick the boxes. Can you imagine a medical doctor, lawyer, architect or other highly trained individual living on fixed term contract.  Scientists are just as trained as these individuals yet are expected to perform such a feat.  I personally don’t want a higher wage I would like greater stability so that I have the time to perform high quality research and develop areas of research which are not necessarily defined by funders.

Thinking of potential solutions to this problem.  Why not remove permanency/fund fewer scientists for longer and actually give the time necessary to high quality research?

I believe we are breeding a generation of researchers who are becoming more and more despondent about performing scientific research, particularly in the life sciences with the most ambitious and creative opting for alternative career paths as the others carry on producing lots of little.


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