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The Black Hole

Scientists can’t take risks until they are in their 40s

The current academic career structure rewards short-term deliverables rather than high-risk, high-reward research.


When you imagine what goes on in university research centres, you probably don’t think of scientists doing boring predictable things.  Indeed, the romanticized version of academic would suggest that scientists are constantly trying new ideas, pushing the boundaries of what is possible and that out from this process (on a global scale at least) emerges knowledge that explains how the world around us works or translates into useful, practical things for the betterment of society. My concern, and the topic of this entry, is that I believe the career structure of the current academic system is actively set up against this idealized version of research – it rewards short-term deliverables rather than high-risk, high-reward research. During my 15 years in research, I would actually argue that some of the most special scientists have been pushed out of the field not because of their ideas or work ethic but rather as the result of not having enough published research papers – this makes me sad for the future of science, especially when these decisions aren’t based on the ability or desire to do the research.

There are several reasons for this that Jonathan and I have explored over the years including the focus on individual scientists (as if they were rock stars), the metrics used to evaluate/rank scientists, and the politics of publishing. In short, we have a lot of problems to fix, which in turn makes it difficult to drive change, so I thought I would try and use some aspects of my own career journey to illustrate the problem.

The problem with risky projects is that they often take time (and they often don’t work). Time to think of, time to develop tools, and time to execute. This sits in almost direct contrast with the low hanging fruit approach where you take the next obvious question in your field and answer it. A big problem with the latter approach is that if it is the obvious next step, you can bet that someone else is doing it as well.

In my first three years running a research group, we’ve done alright with the bread and butter of our lab (straightforward, and dare I suggest “predictable”, research outcomes) and this gives us the bandwidth to explore some new topics. I’ve been fortunate to obtain a second pot of money for these “risky” experiments (we’re combining biophysics approaches with stem cell biology), but in the absence of this second pot (and an additional two years of time), I’d be absolutely silly to pursue this non-traditional line of thinking since my job relies on research output (read: “papers”) not “new ideas” or ‘interesting approaches.” Does this mean if a young scientist (I use the term loosely since I’m late 30s now!) doesn’t get two sizeable starting grants, they can’t take on risky projects? It certainly seems this way.

You might call the above approach a scientist’s version of hedging (split the lab into some “safe” and some “risky” projects) and for me, it’s about survival. Without a new grant, I don’t actually even have a job at my university, so the word “risky” takes on a new meaning. I’m not unique – in fact our entire floor of labs at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute is comprised of early career researchers running labs with with no salary money (for themselves or their people) beyond the length of their externally awarded grants (typically four to five years). Our employees and students have no future security beyond these grants, and we don’t either. The university commits nothing, but tolerates our presence whilst we are useful. Questions we are forced to ponder are “Why would someone join the lab in our final year(s) if there is no guarantee that the lab would even exist in 12 months time?” The flip side is that the resources and opportunities are incredible here, and you can really sense that if you left your lab space, it would be filled with somebody else’s temporary money in a heartbeat. PS: It’s a great time to have kids.

So, what do you do? You look at the list of things that are essential to get done and you map out the shortest and easiest path to ensure that you are achieving them (this isn’t an easy process!). The reality of such a process is that “big new ideas” often fall into the “maybe later” pile since they might not deliver and might not check the box that you need to have checked to survive. There is a strong disincentive to pursue high-risk, high-reward projects.

This brings me to another area where the system is set up to discourage risk and learning – doctoral training. There is an incredible amount of chat about the length of PhD programs in North America (main messages: it’s far too long, and a waste of one’s 20s). However, there is another side to this: a short PhD isn’t necessarily a good thing either. Anecdotally, I value the length of my PhD enormously (5.5 years) – it gave me the time and space to have failures and to learn from them without jeopardizing my chance to graduate. I now supervise students in PhD programs that are mandated to be three to four years in length and I can see a huge difference in the pressure and strategic thinking that results – everybody needs a safe, publishable story as a top priority and anything else is a bonus. Go for the risky option and you might graduate your PhD with no paper and, in some cases, no academic future. In the absence of line items on a CV – how do we best evaluate (and push forward) the best and brightest young scientists? The answer at this stage is that we don’t typically bother to do so beyond looking at a CV and pedigree (i.e., which research group you have come from).

I know I’ve been lucky in my own journey and I’ve seen numerous people much smarter than me that deserve (and do not ever get) the same opportunity – my plea is that we rigorously examine our career structure to try and reward inventive thinking and not simply push people forward for producing data in the next most obvious place and reward them for doing it faster than someone else.

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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  1. Donald Forsdyke / September 26, 2018 at 14:28

    So “I believe the career structure of the current academic system is actively set up against this idealized version of research.” Perhaps David’s error is indicated by the word “current.” Perhaps David thinks there is a distinction between the good old days and now. In fact it has always been like this. There never were good old days. People struggled long and hard with the problems David so eloquently raises. They wrote articles. They wrote books. They made presentations to government bodies. As stated in one of the latter in 2001: “To put an original idea on a grant application is akin to professional suicide. People suffering the affliction of originality must either bring this deviant trait to order, or get out of scientific research.”

    The real question to be asked is why, after so much paper and sweat, the system remains essentially unchanged? We look forward to David tackling this in his next essay.

  2. D. Roselyn Cerutis / September 26, 2018 at 14:33

    So true! I also took ~ 5 years to graduate with my PhD, most notably because of the failure of a technique which had to be modified before it yielded any results at all. My advisor believed (rightly so) that frustration is going to be an integral part of your science (any!) career, and that experience is the best teacher. Nowadays, you can’t give grad students projects which don’t produce data quickly, which is a shame as it deprives them of deeply learning their craft (original research) and gaining troubleshooting skills. Had I not developed those, I would have never successfully negotiated the scientific field changes I’ve had to make to stay employed in science.

  3. Gabrielle M. Siegers / October 4, 2018 at 12:35

    This is so true! I am one of those scientists who may well be pushed out soon. I am only still able to do my research thanks to a generous PI who has enough funding to support my high risk projects. The question is how to fix this? In some countries (Germany, for example), researcher positions come with some guaranteed stable funding. I think this is a great foundation to build up a solid research program and may give researchers more leeway to pursue riskier projects. But what to do about researchers (like me) who have families along the way and whose career trajectories are delayed compared to those who have dedicated everything to their science?

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