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The Black Hole

Who do universities want to hire – scientists or politicians?


In his article The Vanishing Voter, Harvard professor Thomas Patterson makes a statement about modern political campaigns that made me a little nauseous:

Ambition, manipulation, and deception have become as prominent as issues of policy and leadership

You might scoff at my fragile stomach – claiming that politics has been like this for decades – but it is not politics and politicians that inspire queasiness, rather the sinking feeling that medical science might be heading in the same direction.

I’ve previously written about honesty in academia in Identifying good scientists and keeping them honest and do not think that many people need to be convinced that deception is unnervingly common in all walks of life including science, exemplified with high profile scientific fraud cases over the last decade.

An equally disturbing trend, however, is the “scientist turned politician” where manipulation and empire-building come into play and the scientific research gets relegated to the back burner.  In some instances it seems that the research might simply be a means to an end, and not the good kind of end (cures, technologies, discoveries, etc), but rather the key components to building a successful career.
This is especially problematic when the purse strings are tightened at funding agencies and not all of the peer reviewed and “fundable” research is even close to getting funded.  In such situations, grant funding becomes even more about salesmanship.  In Selling science: the lure of the dark side, Matthew Bailes points out:

All scientists compete for funding, and the more compelling the evidence and story, the greater the chance of success.

I would not be foolish enough to argue that researchers have no need to  communicate why their research is important and deserves funding – on the contrary, I think this is a critical skill that makes one’s scientific findings carry more impact.  The difficult part is figuring out who is selling good science and who is just good at selling.  It seems to me that sometimes the people who shake the right hands, sit on the right committees, and talk the right talk at the right time stand to gain much more than those that do the right experiment to challenge the validity of their claim.

Typically, the community relies on peer review (both grants and papers) to sort this out, but I fear that the lack of recognition for peer review contributions works against the scientific community.  Again, this plays into the hands of the good politician:  for over-worked and tired reviewers, clarity and simplicity can sometimes trump the confusing or difficult (despite the latter often being more realistic and relevant).  I still think that people should be unafraid of publishing their name as the reviewer of a particular paper that gets published – this not only gives credit for reviewing, but also puts one’s reputation on the line by saying “this work satisfies me as good enough to see in print” – check out our previous entry on peer review.

When it comes to the big question of which young scientist to hire into a department to do world class research for the next few decades, university hiring committees do consider national and international networks, previous grant/fellowship abilities, pedigree (i.e.: who you’ve trained with), etc though many are inconclusive about one’s abilities in the lab or mentoring/training skills which are arguably two critical hiring metrics.

Perhaps this is why publications are still the killer metric and the one that students/postdocs often strive for – but should a Nature, Cell or Science be enough?  If you go to the right labs and know the right people, publishing in these journals appears somehow easier – some would (correctly in some cases no doubt) say that getting into those labs is part of the process of becoming a good scientist.  But that process itself is riddled with all sorts of qualitative assessments of “potential’, buoyed by strong political skills and previous networks.  When does this process begin?

Like any empire, the strength comes from consolidating power.  A former new assistant professor colleague of mine at a mid level university in Ontario once asked me – “How can I compete for an NSERC against three new hires in Toronto who don’t have to teach and have access to huge technological resources?”  I still have no good answer aside from sighing that it seems that big science sometimes seems to be done without considering whether or not it is creative (or good?) science.

I’d like readers to ask themselves – what irks them about politicians?  are scientists the same?  more or less than a decade ago? – feel free to share your thoughts, I imagine the comparisons are plentiful and painful, but stand to be corrected.

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. Chris / February 10, 2012 at 01:40

    Hi Dave,
    You make some interesting points about the culture that seems to pervade research these days (and maybe always, I can’t say). I must say, I am uncomfortable with the disconnect between the motivations of those that fund research, namely tax payers and donors to charities, and those that spend the money.
    It seems to me, the money is raised and distributed for the purposes of curing disease, furthering human knowledge, finding innovative ways to improve the human condition. However, the recipients seem to be driven, in many cases, to build their CV, earn promotions, and often, so beat competitors in their field.
    To that end, data is often jealously guarded before it is published and, if some information does escape the veil of secrecy, projects are sometimes opportunistically poached by other labs.
    Somehow, granting agencies need to find a way to measure a scientist’s contribution to the field, rather than their own publication record. If someone shares their datasets freely, collaborates promiscuously, and educates others on new techniques, he or she is making a much greater contribution to science that one who works in isolation and shares only the minimum information required for publication – even if those publications are in high impact journals.
    We, as scientists, need to remember who pays our bills, and what we are charged to achieve with those funds.

  2. Anon / February 12, 2012 at 07:02

    possible idea for your next post: proposal to CSFAs
    -have competitions for scientists in the first 10, 15, 20, 25 years of their careers etc. But also have one competition available for those who want to compete with scientists at any level of their careers.
    i wouldn’t worry about your debt to tax payers. Think hard about this formula:
    grad/pdfs pay X number of hours MOST grads/pdfs spend slaving away to make scientific discoveries a year= a really good freakin deal and a really good investment made by the gov’t and tax payers.
    Science is a long term investment, like being “green”. We as tax payers fund it not because it should cure all diseases tomorrow, but to advance the quality and the options of health care for the next generation. We NEED to think of science in this way for it to remain sustainable.
    Funding agencies or charities, however dishonest they may seem, see this bigger picture, and I’m hoping you agree that, it is not a picture that the general public, the average tax payer has the capability to understand.
    If i give money to a charity, what should i expect that the money be spent on curing me? my family member? how about finding a cure for my child? If so then that is somewhat selfish and, though understandable, relatable, and about a hundred other wonderful adjectives i could put in here to describe pain that family members of sick individuals face every day, in some lights, it can be just as inappropriate as the scientist or politician who lobbies for their own research or policies to be funded.
    As a general response to this bog entry and not necessarily to Dave and Chris:
    I’m tired of hearing/seeing scientists play the martyr. We are all just as bad, we are all politicians in one way or another lobbying for our own betterment. We all need to take a good look in the mirror. We are all part of the game. Writing about how it is not correct does not clear us from participating in it. Every time, you have looked the other way when your supervisor promotes your work and hence their own lab’s work while ignoring equally important and sometimes more relevant literature, then you have contributed to the lobbying. Simply writing that it is wrong is not enough. ADMITTING that you yourself have contributed and taking a stand against it by not contributing further is the only way to end it. But let’s face it, who would do this? You could not publish well and so who would hire you? The university or journal of biological truths? Unfortunately they do not exist…but they should!

    • Dave / February 13, 2012 at 15:30

      Hi Anon – thanks for the idea re: future post, finding the balance of funding is a tall order. I think the junior investigator awards are meant to address some of what you are concerned about, but I guess your biggest concern would be in the area immediately following startup when you’re expected to compete against the big fish without the same level of resources.
      Regarding your final comment about scientists playing the martyr, what sort of stand do you envisage people taking? If it involves any or all of the following, sign me up:
      1. Not fudging data
      2. Openly sharing data/ideas to those that ask and are clear about their intentions
      3. Signing my name openly to anything I review
      Finally, while I respect anonymity in many cases, it would be really helpful for readers to at least understand what perspective you are speaking from – undergraduate? professor? postdoc? The reason I have my own profile on this site is so people can understand my biases and add whatever salt they think is necessary to my opinion and statements. When I argue for increased stipends and benefits for postdocs, I have many different biases than when I comment on undergraduate education.

  3. Anon / February 26, 2012 at 19:47

    hi Dave,
    Thanks for your reply.
    The impression I get from your response is that you prefer people to not post raw comments. Done, I won’t do that again. The reason I got this impression is because I checked preivous posts and I was unable to find other times when you have asked people, including myself and whether they are anonymous posters or not, to identify their credentials. For example, i don’t know Chris’s credentials (the other person who commented) and I noticed you did not ask for his either. So i concluded that you asked me to provide my credentials because of the nature of my comment. This is your blog and i respect that, and since i choose to stay anonymous, I will respect you and not post raw comments again. If i have somehow gotten the wrong impression, please let me know.
    I think people should be able to post their raw comments as long as they are coherent and they generate discussions. My appologies, i thought that that is the purpose of the comments box. And i like not knowing who commented because it allows me to focus on the views as apposed to who the commenter is. Hence i post here anonymously.
    Good luck with your blog.

    • Dave / February 27, 2012 at 12:55

      Hi Anon,
      Sorry for giving that impression – I actually know Chris personally from my old facility (and many other commenters), but as you point out, that really doesn’t help out other readers, so I should be on them as much as others that I don’t know. (in case you were wondering, Chris is a graduate student) – moving forward I will definitely do that.
      Ideally people are open about their comments, but I can certainly respect the need for discretion (including some of our guest posts – see VanSci and CIHR Trainee). In those cases, all I ask for is context (if the poster is willing) so we can get a sense of perspective. If someone commenting feels that such context would be too revealing, then yes it is OK to post.
      It is definitely not related to the nature of the comment – if it was, I could simply remove the comment (which I don’t do unless it is clearly spam or very offensive to readers). So, I would definitely encourage you to continue to stimulate discussion.
      Thanks for reading and for the luck too.

  4. Dominique / March 1, 2012 at 21:44

    There is deitnifely a place in science for citizen scientists. Dr. Karl, an Australian scientist and science communicator, regularly refers to callers as scientists on his radio show. Just to be clear, those callers are regular people listening to JJJ, Australia’s #1 non-commercial radio station.Collaboration is important for finding discoveries which are important for everyone (or groups of people), but of course individual experimentation is just as important for personal growth. In either case, individually or in collaboration, as *scientists* we are beholden to the requirements and ideals of science. So a major responsibility we have is to be as rigourous and detailed as possible (incidentally, this is why I find the QS community so appealing; it’s self-improvement without the vagueness of the majority of the self-help community).However, as *citizens* (as opposed to professionals/academics), we are doing this because we enjoy it. In that sense it’s also a hobby. So the requirements of rigour and detail should never overshadow our enjoyment (though I think that should apply professionally as well). We’re not likely to forget this for ourselves, but others, particularly professional scientists, may criticise citizen scientists on those grounds. Of course any lack of rigour/detail in a citizens’ experiment can be improved upon, in much the same way professional experiments often need to be. But I think it’s important to emphasise the enjoyment (as you’ve done with the Edison project, Matt).There are some projects which should be left to the professionals. In particular, ones which are ethically sensitive or ambiguous. For example, something similar to the Milgram experiments or the Standford Prison experiment should deitnifely *not* be conducted without the oversight of an ethical review board.As for other kinds of projects, I think that as long as one has the skills & equipment, an amateur has as much right to do it as a professional (speaking as a PhD student).

  5. […] Just as X-Factor and American Idol have been criticised for killing music, the 3MT competition trivialises the research in favour of the presentation style.  It doesn’t stop here, as it seems that many facets of academia are headed in this direction including the perfection of grantsmanship vs. actually doing difficult research. […]