22 November 2010

The deal is rotten

Warning: This post contains strong language.

One of the official bloggers for the recent Neuroscience meeting was Pascal Wallisch, who blogs here. Over at Tideliar’s post conference examination of the SfN “offical” blogs, he posted this comment:

Upon seeing my posts, some senior people in my department have already strongly advised me to “stop fucking around” and “cut the shit” and focus on “the only thing that counts (papers)” instead. They were unambiguous about that.

I cannot begin to describe how much this anecdote upsets me. It’s an unwelcome reminder that I am a participant in a corrupt system.

Yes, corrupt. I can’t think of a better description of a system that not only allows, but seems to encourage this sort of utter disdain for everything but the narrowest of research goals. It’s the same myopia that seems to infect Scott Kern.

I bet the argument is not “nothing matters but papers,” but probably a more complex chain: papers matters because they get grants, and grants matter because universities are making hiring and tenure decisions based on grant and potential for grants.

I’m also willing to bet that this argument gets made a whole lot more in biomedical fields. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) don’t require any plans for broader impacts (unlike the National Science Foundation), probably on the basis that the benefits of medicine is seen as so self-explanatory. And NIH is, from my understanding, more likely to pay entire salaries than other agencies.

So good bye to education to our students (except our grad students and postdocs, because they’re the labour force, and damn it, they have to learn how to run the machine) or anyone else who will never be on a federal grant review panel. Screw them.

And thus is created the image of academia and science of being completely self-interested, hell bent only on preserving their own vested interests, and perceived as fat cat millionaires. And thus does public trust and interest erode, and politicians who vow to take on elites and intellectuals get voted into office and wreck science budgets and evidence-based policy.

While conversations about outreach projects like Rock Stars of Science and Science Cheerleaders go on, at least they are trying to do something. At least they have some a sense that there is a world out there beyond the “Submit now” buttons on journal websites.

Additional: Jerry Coyne's reflections on joining the blogosphere and passing four million views (ack!) is relevant to this discussion. I’ve added some emphasis:

I thought that my job was to dispense professorial wisdom to eager and untutored recipients, hungry to learn about evolution. Oy, was I wrong! I had no idea that among the readers would be many scientists and professional evolutionists, many of whom know a lot more than I do about topics I cover. And not only that, but philosophers, musicians, literature addicts, and even a Nobel laureate or two. I can hardly make a post in which I don’t learn more than I teach. And I don’t think I’ve ever written a single post in which I didn’t say something wrong. I appreciate the corrections, but it is humbling.

Photo by futureatlas.com on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


Unknown said...

So what do you suggest as the solution? More acceptance of non-grant, non-paper accomplishments as being useful? The problem is that a lot of those things are less concretely quantified. I mean, bringing in 2xROI is worth $XXX, but what is bringing in an effective communicator to the public worth? When schools are trying to link salary to revenue generated by undergrad classes, it seems the trend is the other way.

Zen Faulkes said...

Attitudes are tricky things to change. Step one is often consciousness raising.

Obviously, I think calling out bad behaviour -- like spitting on someone for blogging for a few days when invited to do so by one of the largest scientific societies in the nation supported -- is a good first step.

Universities are supposed to be about research and teaching and service.

Peter Janiszewski, PhD said...

Zen - You raise some great points, and echo the same frustration many of us who straddle the academic/blogger titles have encountered.

By too many in the institution, blogging and really any knowledge translation efforts are seen as an absolute waste of time.

Aside from the altruistic goal as academics to translate the findings our our work to the public, that is, the taxpayers who essentially paid for our research, there are more tangible benefits of exposing our work beyond pages of peer-reviewed journals, of more interest to academics.

For example, blogging, and other similar efforts, which land your work in some newspaper may get your peer-reviewed pubs cited more often.

I recently wrote about a study which proved this latter point over at ScienceofBlogging. And citations are a currency most academics care about.

Part of our challenge as academics/bloggers is to convince other academics of the worth of knowledge translation efforts, such as blogging, in terms that they will understand: citations, publications, prestige, conference invitations, caliber of incoming students, etc.

Personally, as a young researcher, and one that has published extensively in academic journals, my blog has given me much bigger of a platform, recognition and opportunities than my publications.

Zen Faulkes said...

Dave: Here's one more thing that could be done. NIH could take a page from the NSF, and require all their grants to have a section on broader impacts - at least for basic biomedical research.

NIH funds a lot of basic research that, let's be honest, is not going to pay dividends in improved patient health for a long time. NIH (and other agencies) could tell people talk about what they will do above and beyond publish peer reviewed papers in technical journals.

Unknown said...

or maybe there could be separate grant classes to monetize outreach activities

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to weigh in on this from a slightly different perspective.

I am not a scientist, nor am I a science writer. I am a blogger, but on an entirely different theme.

What I also am, is an environmental educator who works with exceptional high school age students.

Science blogs are one of the important resources I direct the kids towards to further develop their own sense of focus, learn what is out there in "the real world", and provide further enrichment opportunities. Blogs are popular with my students, and I for one think that these sorts of outreach mediums should be fully supported, not condemned.

Peter Janiszewski, PhD said...

@Zen and @Dave

In Canada, the major funding bodies have now started requiring "knowledge translation" efforts in the grant write-up. Currently this remains a grey area as to what types of translation strategies are above the bar. Certainly getting your research out on a popular science blog should count for something.

Zen Faulkes said...

Peter: The comparison to Canada is interesting, because I think this attitude may be a very specific product of a very specific system.

I don't recall hearing about this kind of "nothing else matters" attitude in Europe, Australia, or Canada very often. I hear about it from people working in the U.S. with disturbing regularity.

Jeannegarb said...

From my experience, it seems like being in academia is like living in a bubble (sort of). Many lab heads lose track of why they went into science in the first place and, especially at this time, are preoccupied with when and where they will get the next round of funding. This "myopia" as you have put it has dire consequences with regard to society as a whole. Because many academics have discounted the impact of having a regular dialogue with the public, I often receive comments from "tax payers" who claim that they are sick of seeing the government waste tax money by funding research projects on which they have no input or understanding.

I am sorry that you were placed in such a dumb situation and I hope that you are not deterred by such asinine comments. Thanks for posting and good luck!

tideliar said...

"So what do you suggest as the solution? More acceptance of non-grant, non-paper accomplishments as being useful?"

Highlighting the disturbing under-the-table here. One need not necessarily have blog metrics somehow taken into account. That misses the point, the point that a junior scientist is expected to do nothing but work in the lab at the bench for 15hrs/day pumping out data.

That's such a BS mode of action for numerous reasons. For example, tired people make mistakes, and mistakes = bad data = wasted money and injury. TRaining your staff to be nothing but blind lab rats does not prepare them to take the helm of their own ship. Most postdocs are woefully underqualified to run their own lab, because they can only do the one thing they will do least of!

PIs bully and emotionally abuse their staff with threats of doom and failure while quite simply exploiting them for their own ends. PI doesn't get the fat grant renewed without the data. Data is cheaply generated by squads of postdocs working long hours.

There is no quid pro quo.

So, "how can you be blogging! You should be writing papers" is a fallacious and evil argument. It really means "How can you be blogging? I need to get my R01 re-sub in".