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The Black Hole

Focusing on the positives: some good ideas for improving science

These relatively recent initiatives deserve recognition for helping the scientific community.


Sometimes, you just get lost down the rabbit hole of the Internet. In one of these episodes, I came across a valedictory address by Australian comedian Tim Minchin in which he bestows his life lessons for young graduates. While it wasn’t a mind-blowing speech, one of the life lessons that resonated with me was “Define yourself by what you love” with the rather glib catchphrase of “be pro-stuff not just anti-stuff.”  The basic message being that we don’t celebrate good ideas or fun things often enough. I started thinking about the blogosphere (and journalism in general) and how most opinion articles are written about things that enrage or bother us. Over the years, Jonathan and I have done a lot of the latter – I know I often define my thoughts/opinions in opposition to the norm. Therefore today’s post focuses on the occasional “pro-stuff” opinions or tools that I’ve shared over the years. This is not an exhaustive list (we’ve been writing for nearly 10 years now…) but it does hit on some key issues that are relevant to today’s scientists and deserve greater exposure.

I’ve divided the list into three main categories – peer review, PhD training, and career progression:

Peer Review

There are three things under the broad banner of peer review that have caught some attention on our site:

  1. Synthesized feedback letter for papers – the life sciences juggernaut eLife has really pioneered this and it avoids so much of the pain of peer review.
  2. Unified paper submission style – researchers waste countless hours reformatting for journals that will not end up accepting their paper (Calling for a unified paper submission style)
  3. Faculty of 1000 (F1000) – this community of scientists (which I am now a part of) selects their “must-reads” for highlighting to other scientists. The overall idea is to identify excellent papers and push them forward alongside a short summary in the hopes of raising the paper’s profile. The setup of the whole system is positive – you highlight the good, excellent, or exceptional papers in your field. There is no option for “terrible.”

PhD Training

  1. Making PhD outcomes transparent – UBC and UofT have begun this task and it’s a great one. Analysis and publication of PhD outcomes allows prospective students to make better decisions and also inspires graduate programs to invest in the future of their people (Make your PhD outcomes transparent and be proud of where your graduates end up)
  2. Facilitating the transition to non-academic careers – Both the U.S. NIH and NSF produced major reports in 2012 on the state of science training and strongly encouraged and supported more efforts to train PhD students for careers beyond the academy (A Stellar Opportunity; Some good and bad ideas for restructuring the PhD)
  3. Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees – this article argues for more active management during the PhD

Career Progression

  1. Good parental leave policies – many readers know I took 3.5 months of parental leave and plan to take it again in early 2019 for child #2. Two excellent ideas in this space:
    • The ERC policy on eligibility windows (where women get 18 months extra time per child and men get credit for the number of months they take off as official parental leave)
    • Sweden’s national use-it-or-lose-it policy where maximum leave is only granted if men take a portion. (Reflections from a male scientist on parental leave)
  2. International pension plans – postdoctoral fellows are legitimate employees and often get the wrong end of university pension plans designed for long-term employees. Europe has created an answer – the international pension plan. (Europe to offer cross-border pension plans for mobile researchers)
  3. Long-term “staff scientist” positions – a number of organizations have created these and they recognize the indispensable contribution of long-term employees in research institutions (The solution: Hire scientists to do scientific research…)
  4. Second mentors – a number of institutions have now formalized mentorship programs for early career researchers. Some are good and others have much to be desired, but the idea is a great one – giving postdocs an impartial view of their career (Postdoctoral mentors and a regular reality check)

Beyond this, I don’t have much more to say except to encourage our readers to spread the good word about the ideas they also think are worth promoting. Many of these are inexpensive (or free!) and could be rolled out in institutions or granting agencies with relative ease, so why not give it a little push where you can, instead of keeping your head in the sand.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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