Friday, September 28, 2007

Realistic Mentors Say 'Play the Game (And If You Want To Innovate, Game the System)' (2)

Or: Science Assessment and Publishing: Was It Perhaps Set Up By Monkeys?

Part 1: Funding
Part 2: Publishing and Grant Writing
Part 3: Realism

This whole funding and publishing system largely rewards brick-in-the-wall science (so to speak), because it has continual publishable payouts. It's the moral equivalent of school testing: each PI creates their own little empire, and their people can only work on things that fit into the grant. There is no chasing of interesting asides; I can't work on the bizarre RNA suppression phenomena that I observe, because we're not an RNA lab. Everyone has to pursue a 'publishable story' to get money/ papers/ PhDs. And, to sweeten the pot, papers are frequently rejected if the results are, and I quote, 'Too different and new.'*

As Henry so feelingly expressed in the comments, you have to have preliminary data to get a grant, but you can't get preliminary data without money, so everyone (well, at least almost everyone) fudges their grants (by including a fraction of the results).

And then further grants are judged by your citation index.
"It is fun to imagine song writers being assessed in the way that scientists are today. Bureaucrats employed by DAFTA (Ditty, Aria, Fugue and Toccata Assessment) would count the number of songs produced and rank them by which radio stations they were played on during the first two weeks after release. The song writers would soon find that producing junky Christmas tunes and cosying up to DJs from top radio stations advanced their careers more than composing proper music. It is not so funny that, in the real world of science, dodgy evaluation criteria such as impact factors and citations are dominating minds, distorting behaviour and determining careers."
This is exactly what's happened to biology. Supervisors write grants all the time; almost no senior professors do bench research. They are glorified lab managers, and my boss for one has virtually no contact with the day-to-day operations of the lab. There is no funding for 'risky' projects; many arise as some grad student's (or postdoc's) on-the-side unmentioned thingummy.

The NIH recently started a new award for daring projects and young researchers, but there are only a tiny, tiny number. Meanwhile, the mean age at first NIH grant has risen to 42, and 4% of grants go to people under 35. Yes, that's right: FOUR PERCENT.

Somewhere around 30% of all science and engineering PhDs work in academia. Half of all PhD scientists work in non-science, or only tangentially scientific, jobs- consulting, business, law, whatever. Cause, or effect? Hard to say.

*This happened to someone I know. Or: why many truly groundbreaking papers appeared in PNAS rather than the Unholy Trinity; it publishes any solid work, and with more words; there's even a non-reviewed track, though that's cheating. The Unholies also have enormously high retraction rates, for obvious reasons.