TIJABP. Malthus, research funding, and despair. Institutions matter.

by reestheskin on 27/10/2016

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I try to avoid writing on this topic, finding it too depressing — although not as depressing as I once did, as I am closer to the end rather than the beginning. And there are signs of hope, just not where they once were.

There is an editorial in Nature titled ‘Early-career researchers need fewer burdens and more support’. It makes depressing reading. The contrast is with a talk on YouTube I listened to a few days back, by the legendary computer engineer (and Turing award winner and much else) Alan Kay, in which he points out that things were really much better in the 1960s and people at the time knew they were much better. Even within my short career, things were much better in 1990 than 2000, 2000 than 2010 and so on. When people ask me, is it sensible to pursue a career in science, I am nervous about offering advice. Science is great. Academia, in many places, is great. But you can only do most science or academia in a particular environment, and there are few places that I would want to work in  if I were starting out. And I might not get into any of them, anyway (Michael Eisen’s comment: never a better time to do science, never a worse time to be a scientist’). I will share a few anecdotes.

Maybe 10-15  years ago I was talking to somebody who — with no exaggeration — I would describe as one of the UKs leading biologists. This person described how one of their offspring was at university and had, for the first few years not taken his/ her studies too seriously. Then things changed, and they wondered about doing a PhD and following a ‘classical’ scientific career. The senior biologist expressed concern, worried that there was now no sensible career in science, and that much as though he/she had enjoyed their career, he/she could not longer recommend it. There was some guilt, but your children are your children.

The second, was a brief conversation with the late physicist John Ziman. I had read some of Ziman’s work — his ‘Real Science’ is for me essential reading for anybody who wants to understand what has happened to the Mertonian norms, and why science is often increasingly dysfunctional — but he shared a bit of his life history with me. When he was appointed as a lecturer at Cambridge in physics, the topic of his lectures was ‘new’ and there were no established books. So he set out to remedy the situation and spent the first two years writing such a book (still available, I think), and after that, turned his attention back to physics research, and later much more (‘you have to retire to have the time to do serious work’). He commented that this would simply be impossible now.

With respect to medicine, there has been attempts for most of my life to develop schemes to encourage and support young trainees. I benefited from them, but I question whether they target the real problem. There are a number of issues.

First, the model of training of clinical academics in medicine is unusual. Universities tend to want external funders to support the research training of clinical academics (Fellowships), but that is a model with severe limitations. Nurturing talent is a core business of the universities, and they need to devote resource to it. It is their resposibility. Of course, they need to train and support academics, not just researchers. This is what career progression within academia is about: lecturer, reader, professor etc. What medical schools want to do is to off load the risk on to the person, and then only buy when the goods have been tasted. In a competitive world, where other career options are open, this might not work well. Worst of all, it funnels a large number of institutions — institutions that should show diversity of approaches — into the lowest common denominator of what is likely to be funded by the few central funders. Until you have independence of mind and action, you cut your chances of changing the world. (Yes, I hear you say, there is not enough money,  but most universities need to cut back on ‘volume’.)

The second issue, is about whether the focus should be on schemes encouraging young people into science. I know I may sound rather curmudgeonly, but I worry that much activity relating to pursuing certain careers is reminiscent of ‘wonga like’ business models. I think we should do better. If youngsters look at what life is like at 40, 50 and 60 or beyond, and like it, they might move in that direction. You would not need to encourage them — we are dealing with bright people. A real problem for science funding is that for many individuals, it resembles a subsistence society, with little confidence about long term secure funding, and little resilience against changes in political will. Just look at Brexit. I remember once hearing somebody who had once considered a science career telling me that it seemed to him that most academics spent their life writing grants, and feeling uncomfortable about replacing what they wanted to do, with what might be funded. Conversations about funding occupied more time than serous thinking. I listened nervously.

Finally, I take no pleasure in making the point, but I do not see any reason  to imagine that things will get better over a ten or twenty year period. One of my favourite quotes of the economist Kenneth Galbraith, is to the effect that the denigration of value judgement is one of the ways the scientific establishment maintains its irrelevance. I think there is a lot in that phrase. If we were to ask the question, what is more critical: understanding genetics, or understanding how institutions work, I know where  my focus wold be be. I suspect there is more fun there too, just that much of the intellectual work might not be within academia’s walls.


Note: After writing this I worried that people would think that I was opposing schemes to encourage young people, or that I failed to understand that we have to treat those with new ideas differently. That was not my intention. Elsewhere I have quoted Christos Papadimitriou, and he gets my world view, too.

“Classics are written by people, often in their twenties, who take a good look at their field, are deeply dissatisfied with an important aspect of the state of affairs, put in a lot of time and intellectual effort into fixing it, and write their new ideas with self-conscious clarity. I want all Berkeley graduate students to read them.”