Improving Science

Science is, and must change.

I mentioned in a previous post that we got a bottle of Whisky to a PI of my department who refuse to give trimestrial science “output” reports.

Well, this little thing actually gave birth to an initiative we started with a few colleagues called “Improving Science“. After a few meetings and dinners, we decide to do something at our own level at the university here to improve the way the system works.

I presented all these ideas today, in front of a committee composed of 3 institute heads, and representatives of PhD students. The short talk was followed by a discussion, in which  the institute heads actually agreed with most of our ideas, and said they were thinking about it and try to implement them.

The good thing is that, in fact, they are already conscious of the problem, and having meetings about it. Nevertheless, I cant help feeling slightly frustrated because these things just take forever to change.

We had 3 mains points that we thought needed improvement.

-The evaluation of the PhD training. Right now, we only have a very final evaluation, and poor follow-up during the training. Implementing a mid-term meeting is necessary.

-The paper requirements are off the roof. PI’s required from us to publish 2-3 to 6-7 papers in order to graduate. Which means we have to split projects, do low-risk research, privilege quantity over quality, and so on. This is the thing I hate the most about the dutch system. Not to mention that people are put on them because they “need them”, without contributing to them very much, or at all. We proposed to lower that requirement to 1 good paper. It should be enough to get a PhD. Which would allow us to have more time to “play” with science and go on riskier projects. It still feel like going against a wall of habits, traditions, and dutch academic culture.

-The last point was about offering more opportunities for non-academic careers training. As most of the PhD will leave academia, the university should feel responsible to offer training in teaching, journalism, industry, policy making, or collaborate with NGO’s.

Well. I’m happy we actually took initiative, and presented our ideas. I deeply hope they will be used, and implemented as soon as possible. The next generation of scientist should be able to grow in better conditions then what we have now, although it’s not all bad of course.

My PI told me today I should not feel responsible for this. This is very weird to me. It’s everyone’s responsibility. It’s only like this that the system can change. From the top and bottom. These elements, such a the sky high publication pressure, the high amounts of burn-outs and depression, the selfishness of people demotivate and drive me away from all of this. And I still love it. But I hate it so much as well. I thought it was possible to feel like this only when it comes to people. 

I apologize for writing such a long post. I needed to get that out of me, I think.

He For She

Can not resist sharing this movie, the speech that Emma Watson, the british actress, gave at the UN last week. They are launching this new movement, called HeforShe, to promote gender equality. Very powerful and moving.

Made me think about gender inequality in science, of course, but also at a much greater, sad, and deep level. It’s incredible that, at the 21st century, men and women still don’t have equal rights, and opportunities.

Book review: How to change the world

Hi all, 116

Long time I haven’t written a book review, but here we go. A few month, when I was going trough my “PhD dip” (more on that later), this guy, a PI from the lab, recommended me to read this little book.

“How to change the world” by John-Paul Flintoff. 

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The timing was perfect, as I started reading it in times were I thought there was nothing I could do to improve academia and science. Well, the book proved me I was wrong. And since then, we started, in our institute, a little initiative to improve things.

I would recommend that book to anyone, because it’s a very good rampart to resignation or resilience. The book it structure in small chapters, starting with “How to start to make a change”. First, it will show you how to overcome defeatism, explain strategies, and how to take the first step. I will also help you to identify what exactly needs change. And then, help you to make your idea beautiful, fun, appealing, etc … many important factors that come into account when one wants to change things.

I loved reading that book. It was a perfect, short, simple, motivational read. I would recommend it to anyone that is slowly sinking into resignation, or thinking of giving up. Because on should never stop fighting or give up on important matters. Especially not in the societies we live in, where it’s easy to do so.

Let’s not give up just yet. Change might be ahead.

After last month’s rough patch, things have -fortunately- improved a bit. Just at the time I was jaded about the wonderful world of academia, a few little things happened. And they have the merit to put me back  in a more combative and optimistic state of mind.

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Everyone I’ve been talking about the worst sides of academia actually agreed with me on the system’s unsustainability. It’s bad, because it reflects how weary people are this days. It was also irritating, because most people would just say things like “It’s the system, it won’t change, you have to play the game …”. I deeply think my french education clashes with this. I simply can’t understand this attitude. Not doing anything against this consumes my energy bits by bits. Petitions, strikes, but more importantly, constructive changes and improvements are incredibly important to me.

A few events  -small or more consequent-, the past week proved me, once more, that I’m not the only one to think like that.  And it seems things could change for the best in the future.

First, let’s start with the smallest thing. Lego is starting to commercialize women scientist toys. It’s a very small step, but it deserves to be highlighted. And probably does a better promotion of women in science then that awful spot EU had managed to come up with a few years ago.

Second, I made a pact. With a friend of mine, a senior post-doc, and aspiring future PI. If we ever get in these positions, we will take action to improve the system. Not that we cannot start now. For example, I decided that my thesis committee will be approx. 50/50 men and woman. Because sometimes you have to force things before they seem normal. And I don’t want to defend in from of a committee with only 55+ men; even tough it’s almost a tradition at my university.

Third, the cherry on the cake. We received an email from our department’s administration, asking for a report on the research output from each PI. A report they want every 3 MONTHS. MONTHS. I will not even take the pain to explain how crazy that is. Anyway, one of the PI’s  send an email back (cc-ing everyone) saying that this was simply demotivating, un-inspired, and useless. I was so happy someone actually stood up and dared to say no. No to this non-sens. No to administrators who have no idea that a good research paper necessitates years of work. No to evaluating research on a simple count of papers. Whatever they contain. I, and a few more PhD’s were so happy about this that we decided to buy a bottle of excellent scotch as a sign of support to that PI.

So yes, I think it will be possible to change things, as long as enough people are willing to simply say no to non-sense. And I hope our generation will have that strength.

5000 words, 3.5 years, and …

and now it really starts. La merde. The past week has probably been one of the most hellish week of my PhD.

See, the last 3 years, a.k.a., phase 1, I’ve been happily working on a research project. Starting almost from scratch, developing hypotheses, performing lots fo experiments, and slowly building up enough data for a good research paper, making the final figures, and writing (summarizing) it in 5000 words. That was the good, innocent and enjoyable part of being a PhD student.

Then came phase 2. Submission. And rejection. And submission. And rejection. And submission. And rejection. And submission. I don’t know when it will end.

Nooooo, I wasn’t cranky. No, I wasn’t sad. No, I did not feel like my main job had become formatting stuff in Word. And counting character numbers. And converting PDF’s. And all of this meaningless s*****, just to be done for one or two days, before it came back, again, without explanations. Or standard letters. No, I did not half-joke with my supervisor I would open a bakery after my PhD and be done with all this non-sense. No, we did not have that depressing debate at university, about non-existant career perspectives, burn-outs, and universities being ruthless and terrible employers.

So let me make it clear: I know that no paper ever gets accepted just like this. It’s normal that it gets rejected, and reviewed, and edited. Nevertheless, it’s hard, because this is my work. My project for the last 3 years. Week-ends and late evenings. Overall, very hard work. And I find it impossible to stay calm, neutral, unaffected, placid, and objective in that case. We are people, not emotionless humanoids.

Yes, this is all normal. And it will eventually go away, because, yeah, experiments need to be done. The classic 4 phases I described previously. (I’m almost in phase 4, by the way).

 It is a bit less normal that subjective (or do I want to say, profit and hype-driven) editorial decisions control your scientific career. And by this I mean, it is even less normal that an impact factor, which is nothing more then a stupid number, is almost the only, yes, only, indicator, on paper, of the quality of your science.

And you know the part that revolts and disgusts me deeply ? It’s that we, scientists, do nothing about this. Or let’s say, almost nothing. “It’s the system, you have to play the game, it’s a phase we all go trough, you’ll never change it, bla bla bla …” .Yes, we are scared people, collaborating with an unfair and stupid system that ultimately drives good scientists in an other direction. Or should I say, kicks them out as soon as they are not productive enough. But why should it matter when you have tenure, or publish enough, or get grants … everything’s fine, right ? And why should it matter when you know the expiration date of your career already ? Haha.

Now, the question that I haven’t figured out yet is, can I comply to these unwritten rules ? Can I accept and play that game ? When do you stop looking at yourself in the mirror ? Frankly, I have no idea. I’ve written on this blog mostly positive things about science (1,2,3,4, and many more). They remain true, and I do still enjoy all these things. This hasn’t changed.  But is the price to pay really worth it ? That’s the million dollar question. Bah. Future me will figure it out. For now, I have to get back to the paper factory sometimes called university.

And, if I ever make my way in there (less then 10% chances, yes), dear bloody system, I am coming for you. I’m not alone. And you don’t know who you’re messing with. Like all revolutions, this one will start when the last straw breaks the camel’s back.

 

–Sorry for slight excessive dramaturgy, I really needed to rant write this down and get it out of my head.

Always on our minds ?

We had an interesting discussion today around coffee break … a colleague asked me if I had been thinking about my research during my week off. I immediately said yes, but it was not everybody’s answer.

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I have to admit I find it difficult to “disconnect” just over a week of holiday. It is easy to quickly check e-mails, and even to think of your projects just by looking around you. I see insects, I think fruit flies. I see sick people, I think immunity. I think I made my point. Now, if I am on holiday far away for a month, I could imagine not thinking about it every single day. But otherwise probably not.

Now, what is the good attitude (if one can do anything about it) ?

  • Is it good to be able to forget, take a few steps back, and start up with a fresh mind ?
  • Or is it just normal that people very much into their subjects like us cannot completely exclude it form their lives ?

I don’t have a clear opinion about it, since people in research can be quite different in the way they approach research, and in the way they pursue this demanding career. I will ask a few more people around me and update this post if I have more comments !

Please share you opinion in the comments and fill in the poll ! 

10 ways to insult a scientist

Although the scientific world is relatively civilized, people developed subtle ways of insulting each other without really saying it. Here is my top 10.

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1- Does mainly applied research. The rivalry, despise, and even haste between “fundamental” and “applied” researchers is just as legendary then the one between New York and New Jersey, France and England, Mac and PC’s. Somebody coming from the “fundamental” side will use the sentence “does mainly applied research” if they want to say “Basically, does no research at all“. Baaam.

2- Is a good teacher. Can be the correlate of ” … but, is bad at science”.

3- Has been tenured since a long time. Sounds positive at first, but actually means this person has been like a mussel on the rock. Inactive, boring, and aggregating foam on the back. Motivation to do novel and innovative research is close to zero.

4- Publishes in specialized journals. Sneaky one. Although publishing sounds like a good thing, the “specialized” part of this sentence actually means low-impact, low-interest or low-quality.

5- Is often gone on conference. Generally said of big wigs. Actually means they spend all their time attending meetings and doing PR, rather then taking care of their lab and research.

6- Research is mainly based on correlations/descriptions. That’s an other way of saying that the research lacks depth, or mechanistic details. Ouch.

7- Is good at bench work. Implies that this person is basically a technician, and is not interested/capable of sitting down to read, write, or think. You never want to hear this about yourself.

8- Is present during work hours. Again, seems like a nice comment at first, but this is actually a hidden way of saying “is present only during work hours”. Means this person is never in the lab late or during week-ends. Possibly implies low motivation level, or low output.

9- Is a nice person. Hum, like in other relationships, the adjective “nice” is generally used when nothing else is applicable. Smart, pretty, funny, etc … In science, the “nice person” is the one people like to hang out during lab outings; and chat with, but not about science. So it basically means not-very-good-at-science-but-nice-person, again.

10- Is too busy to attend seminars. Missing a seminar here and there, because a crucial experiment is going on is understandable. But some people might always claim being too busy. This means, uninterested in anything else then there own little subfield, and lazy to walk up a few floors to the seminar room.

 

So, do you recognize some of these ? Isn’t science a cruel world to live in, after all ?