Monthly Archives: January 2014

GRADUATE SCHOOL EDUCATION OF SCIENTISTS: WHAT IS WRONG TODAY?

             Before professional scientists find a job, they typically spend 3-8 years in graduate school earning their doctoral degree, followed by at least 2 more years with advanced practical training in conducting research experiments as a postdoctoral fellow.  This long training of research scientists then continues with self-education for the rest of their professional career, regardless of whether they are employed in universities, industry, hospitals, or elsewhere.  It is amazing to realize that there now are several major gaps and inadequacies in the current scheme for the advanced education of modern scientists, particularly those working as university faculty.  

           

            Graduate schools are not sites for vocational education, but rather they deal with background knowledge, techniques, history, interactions, and theory.  Nevertheless, if any employment involves complex activities A, B, and C, then is it not reasonable that education and preparatory training should give practical instruction in all of these activities?  If the employment activities shift or are enlarged to involve A, B, C, and also D, then does it not follow that instruction about D should be added to the teaching and training?  Why is the education of scientists an exception to these expectations?  University scientists now are not receiving education about several key aspects of their profession.  Being educated just about science and how to do research is not enough!

 

            Doctoral scientists starting work at industrial research and development centers do receive instructions about the business of their employer, how to handle financial matters involved with their work (e.g., planning, purchasing, repairs), the format for research proposals to be submitted to company administrators, procedures for regulatory compliance, deadlines, etc. Their educational situation seems quite different from that of their counterparts working as faculty at universities.  

    

            Although scientific research in academic institutions now is just a business (see my earlier post on “What Is the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?” in the Scientists category), there are not any courses on business subjects given to young scientists during their training at graduate schools; after finding a job, they mostly receive only minimal instructions about business matters from their new employer.  Another of the very biggest practical problems facing today’s academic scientists is the management of time; although there are good academic courses on the principles and practice of time management, these are not being offered to graduate students specializing in science.  Even the general principles for the good design of research experiments, including constructing the research questions and designing adequate controls, mostly are taught only by example rather than as a systematic coverage of theory and practice.  Almost all research scientists of necessity use statistics for evaluation of their experimental results; a course on statistics usually is only an elective offering, and many graduate students in science mistakenly choose to not take this.

           

            Another large practical problem for scientists working at universities concerns how to deal with the research grant system.  This large topic about business usually is not covered by any organized coursework, but rather is dealt with on the spot after a job finally is landed.  Much unnecessary loss of time by the young faculty member often results from use of this trial and error approach; it would be much better if the nature of “specific aims” and other special and very important cryptic terms used in research grant applications were taught in a course of instruction, rather than learning about these from the criticisms of reviewers evaluating their very first grant application.  It also still is unusual for graduate students in science to receive didactic instruction on the professional ethics of scientific research, the relationships between the different branches of science, and the important place of engineering in the modern science enterprise. 

 

            Many of these deficiencies could be corrected easily once theimportance of the missing topics are recognized and accepted. The several gaps in graduate education of scientists occur very generally.  Whether these gaps are filled by formal coursework or by tutorial instruction is not important.  Some of the needed additional instruction will necessitate employing non-scientist teachers for instruction.  Other status quo difficulties concern the fact that these missing subjects all are “non-traditional”, whereas universities training graduate students in science are almost always strictly very traditional in their educational approaches.  Thus, current education for scientists in training simply plods along and graduate students are not being taught about the major job problems they will encounter later when working in their new job. 

 

            Some of the needed new instruction will demand use of a new format in order to do justice to their subjects.  Such new courses should be offered by 2-3 different teachers, so that the full range of topics and subtopics can be given in an effective manner. It is obvious to me that a new course about money matters in a modern university faculty job would be better if given by a group including an experienced faculty scientist who has had good success in dealing with the research grant system, and a faculty teacher from a business school; this course also would benefit from participation by a professional ethicist.  Getting all 3 types of educators to work coordinately in one course would be truly wonderful, but that would be quite an unconventional undertaking.  Some of the missing educational offerings might become easier if they are given as intensive short courses (i.e., 3-5 weeks), rather than as the usual textbook-based courses lasting several months.  This change in format also will provide a better opportunity for having valuable discussion sessions about practical questions with several experienced faculty research scientists (i.e., from different departments, working in different disciplines, coming from different graduate schools, and having different degrees of status).

 

I believe that these additional efforts to improve graduate school education will help all young scientists to deal more successfully and less painfully with their new job responsibilities and the problems in trying to be a good professional scientist.  It then will no longer be necessary to waste so much time figuring out the nature of these job problems, and trying to learn from the traditional trial and error approach. 


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INTRODUCTION TO CHEATING AND CORRUPTION IN SCIENCE

 

Dishonesty in Science (http://dr-monsrs)
Dishonesty and Corruption in Science (http://dr-monsrs)

  

             How much cheating and corruption is there in science?  The best answer is that nobody knows!  Even today in 2014, there continue to be much-publicized instances where some professional research scientist is revealed to have published research results in peer-reviewed journal articles where the reported experimental data were either fabricated (faked) or were grossly changed (i.e., to construct a surprising pseudo-result) [e.g., 1,2].  While money is almost always involved in some way, for corruption in science money only rarely goes directly into the pocket of the dishonest scientists, unlike the usual situation for widespread corruption within politics and the business world.  Instead, it often goes into their professional purse and is used for such personally rewarding expenses as the purchase of additional research equipment not paid for by their grants, salaries for additional research coworkers, extra business travel, a new computer with special software, etc.). 

 

  Dishonesty in science includes several different types of unethical activity.  At a simple level, this corruption can involve such disgraceful events as (1) adding some imagined numbers to a chart of experimental results, so as to get better statistics, (2) changing or removing some numbers in a chart of collected results, so as to shift the conclusions being supported by these data, (3) misrepresenting the design of experiments, so as to support certain conclusions or deny others, or (4) not giving appropriate credit to internal or external collaborators and coauthors.  Thus, these simpler types of dishonesty involve research fraud by data fabrication and manipulation, drawing false conclusions, theft of intellectual property, etc.  At a more complex level, dishonesty in science can involve such activities as (1) stealing experimental research data from other labs, (2) stealing ideas or even research projects from other scientists, (3) fabrication of entire experimental datasets, or (4) constructing an application for a research grant using imaginary results or falsified statements.  These larger types of dishonesty thus involve theft of data, lying about the experimental results gathered, stealing of ideas, misrepresentation with the intent to deceive, etc.  Some or even many readers will wonder how in the world could any of these examples actually happen?  I assure them that I have heard rumors, seen and listened to stories, and, read reports about all of these!  Moreover, I have conversed with two separate doctoral workers who unsuccessfully pursued lawsuits for their claims of data theft.

   

  I personally believe that almost all faculty scientists are completely honest.  Any unethical behavior by professional scientists betrays the enormous trust given to them by the general public [3], and the necessary trust given by their fellow researchers.  Any dishonesty thus destroys both the integrity of science and the practical ability of other researchers to proceed forward from what they believe is the truth when designing new research experiments.  When dishonesty occurs in successfully acquiring a research grant, that event directly decreases the chance that some other scientist who is totally honest is able to acquire funding for their worthy project; this type of robbery is not often recognized as being a very important part of modern corruption in science.  A shocking and disgraceful example of successful cheating in order to get a large research grant award was uncovered very recently [1]. 

 

In addition to outright dishonesty and deception by scientists, where research integrity is discarded, there also is a gray area where some very limited portion of collected data (e.g., a very few outliers in a data plot) is eliminated from the total pool of experimental results displayed.  The opposite condition for this same kind of situation also occurs, where one or two pieces of individual data that are much better, clearer, or prettier than the average case, are selected to be shown in publications and in oral presentations.  These practices are not at all unusual and are known generically as “fudging the data”; both can simply serve to make the quality of the collected data look better and be seen more easily.  They commonly are not considered to be dishonest. 

 

 What happens when outright dishonesty by a faculty scientist is either proven or admitted?  In many cases, there has been almost no penalty given beyond having a published article withdrawn or being discharged from a laboratory group.  Part of this apparent lack of serious concern is due to the fact that in cases where some very celebrated scientist has been accused of being involved in corruption, long battles and countercharges in the courts have ensued [e.g., 4,5].  If famous research leaders are directing some very large laboratory in which the cheating allegedly occured, it usually is totally difficult to prove either that they were involved in the dishonest act(s) carried out by some individual lab worker, or that the leader even knew about the wrongful event(s) [4,5]; separation of the supervisor from actual technical workers is very widespread within giant laboratory groups (research factories), where the chief scientist really is only an administrative manager and does not even know the names of all the people who work there. 

 

Most corruption in science almost certainly remains undetected.  Unless there is some witness who is upset enough and courageous enough to report the dishonesty, and unless hard and fast documentation can be acquired, the loss of research integrity will never become known or proven. A good example of this is given by the very recent case cited earlier [1], where the dishonesty was discovered only when some other research laboratories found that they could not duplicate some of the experimental results published by the unethical scientist.  Despite new rules intended to protect whistleblowers and the recently increasing appointment of officials in charge of research integrity at academic institutions, it continues to remain very difficult to investigate and prosecute alleged dishonesty in science.  There is a natural reluctance for anyone working in academia, whether faculty or students or lab technicians, to make accusations that necessarily will involve official investigations, prolonged legal activities, and possible retribution.   

                      

Clearly, the present measures being taken to prevent, detect, and punish dishonesty in scientific research are inadequate.  There is too much lip service in dealing with cheating and corruption in science, and it seems likely that this problem will increase.  I suspect that the amount of dishonesty in applications for research grants particularly is increasing now, and soon will become the most frequent form of corruption in science.  The chief driver for my prediction is that it is very, very hard to detect, and nearly impossible to prove, any dishonesty in grant applications; moreover, there presently is only scanty attention and little concern being given to this problem by the different granting agencies.

           

Although all academic sicentists are quite aware of the problem of dishonesty and corruption in science, there generally are few casual or formal discussions about this issue.  Exactly why do some few scientists become dishonest?  What motivates cheating and dishonesty in science?  How can dishonesty and corruption in scientific research be decreased and eliminated?  What new penalties should be instituted for cheating in research?  Can an unethical researcher be made honest by some curative process?  I will discuss these complex questions and related issues within future postings. 

 

[1]  Mail Online, 2014.  Rogue scientist faked AIDS research funded with $19M in taxpayer funded money by spiking rabbit blood.  Daily Mail (U.K.), 26 December 2013.  Available online at:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2529541/Rogue-scientist-FAKED-federally-funded-AIDS-research-spiking-rabbit-blood.html

[2]  Callaway, E., 2011.  Report finds massive fraud at Dutch universities.  Nature, 479:15.  Also available on the internet at::  http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111101/full/479015a.html .

[3]  Pew Research, 2009.  Public praises science; Scientists fault public, media; Scientific achievements less prominent than a decade ago.  Available online at:                                       http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/public-praises-science-scientists-fault-public-media/ .

[4]  Wright, P., 2003.  Robert Alan Good.  The Lancet362:1161.  Also available on the internet at:                                                                                                          http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2803%2914489-3/fulltext .

[5]  Bombardieri, M., & Cook, G., 2005.  More doubts raised on fired MIT professor.  In: The Boston Globe, October 29, 2005.  Available online at:  https://secure.pqarchiver.com/boston/doc/404985132.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Oct+29%2C+2005&author=Marcella+Bombardieri+and+Gareth+Cook%2C+Globe+Staff&pub=Boston+Globe&edition=&startpage=&desc=MORE+DOUBTS+RAISED+ON+FIRED+MIT+PROFESSOR .

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ON THE PUBLIC DISREGARD FOR SCIENCE AND RESEARCH

 Science and Research have No Imprtance to Daily Life!

  Science  and  Research  Have  No  Imprtance  for  Daily  Life !!                          (dr-monsrs.net)

           

            Most scientists are aware that specialized investigations in science, whether performed by Nobel Laureates or by themselves, are totally uninteresting to all people in the general public.  The major causes of this unfortunate estrangement between ordinary people from science are: (1) the public is given a very inadequate education about science and research in schools and the media (see my recent post on “Most of Today’s Adult Education About Science is Worthless!” in the Education category), (2) researchers in all branches of science communicate with special terms and abstract concepts, none of which areunderstood by the public, (3) almost all people have never talked to a real live research scientist or visited a research laboratory, (4) the media presents scientific research as some sort of amusement, and as being conducted by brainy creatures wearing white lab coats and coming from another planet, and, (5) most people feel that science and research have no importance for their daily life.  All of these causal factors now have been active for a long time, and their negative effects are quite ingrained in modern society. 

 

            The unfortunate consequences of these 5 conditions are that the modern public: (1) has no realistic idea what science is and how research works, (2) has almost no comprehension of how science and research has advanced daily life, (3) is only aware of pseudo-science, but not of real science (eu-science), (4) does not see that science is people, and (5) pays no attention to science, except for watching some science circus show on the television.  The end result of these several and deficiencies is that ordinary adults today have no interest, no understanding, and no regard for science, research, and scientists. 

 

            Removing the causes will greatly decrease these unfortunate consequences, and will permit many adult non-scientists to develop a growing understanding and a natural curiosity about scientific research.  In particular, if the needed changes can be made, then: (1) people will begin to see scientists as dedicated fellow individuals whose work is important to everyone’s daily life and hopes for the future, and (2) the media will stop the incessant titillation of the public by showing scientific research as an amusement (e.g., “Who is today’s new star scientist?” and “What is the most amazing research discovery in science this week?”).  The media must present real science in action, in order to diminish the false view that science is an amusement.  The difficult removal of the common belief that “science doesn’t matter at all to me” will necessitate showing how current important practical problems are being examined in actual experimental studies by real scientists and engineers, and, presenting many real examples about how scientific research has originated interventions or improved solutions to modern practical problems that everyone is familiar with (e.g., anti-cancer therapies, detection and diagnosis of microbial infections, disease-resistant agricultural crops, high-tech batteries, new additives for gasoline, new types of light bulbs, paternity testing based on DNA, remediation of environmental pollution, etc.).  

 

            The recent development of crowdfunding (see my recent post on “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” in the Money & Grants category), where very numerous individuals in the public elect to each contribute a small donation to help support some research study in an area having their personal interest [e.g., 1-3], also has created a new mechanism for stimulating constructive personal interactions between the public and scientists.  In some of the research studies supported by crowdfunding, the donors (i.e., ordinary adults) are invited to actually join in with the scientists to work on that project.  In all such cases, these people will develop a much better personal understanding about how research actually is done (e.g., not all experiments work, the results obtained can be quite different from those expected, many experiments and a considerable period of time usually are required to reach a solid conclusion, there can be more than one interpretation of research data, etc.).  Secondary benefits are that these adults will later tell their friends about their experience in the crowdfunding project, encourage the interest of their children for science and research, and, become much more supportive of scientific research studies in general. 

 

            Some national science societies now feature special educational sessions at their annual meeting, open for attendance by the adult public, school children, school teachers, and the local media.  This is a great idea, but would be even better if these sessions are recorded and then made available for wider viewing at individual convenience on the internet.  Additional new efforts are needed in this very important area.  These should include: (1) better adult education about science and research; (2) more opportunities for adult non-scientists to meet and talk to real scientists; (3) more opportunities for both younger and older persons to personally participate in selected actual research projects; (4) more opportunities for the public to visit real research laboratories at universities, hospitals, government laboratories, and, industrial research and development centers; and, (5) elucidation on the internet and television about how truth is established by scientific research, the path whereby some research scientists have become especially famous and celebrated, and, exactly how exciting new technologies were developed by scientists and engineers.  All of these new educational efforts will produce changes resulting in greater public understanding about real science, how research is done, and, why advances in science and technology depend upon the new ideas and new concepts coming from creative and dedicated individual research workers. 

 

[1]  Stewart, M., 2013.  With funding becoming scarce, scientists are looking to the public for help.  ASBMB Today, 12:21-23.  Available on the internet at:                                          
http://www.asbmb.org/uploadedFiles/ASBMBToday/Content/Archive/ASBMBToday-2013-11.pdf .

[2]  Rice, H., 2013.  Crowdfunding, Overview.  The New York Academy of Sciences, Academy eBriefings, October 9, 2013.  Available on the internet at:                        http://www.nyas.org/publications/EBriefings/Detail.aspx?cid=82c4e4b4-f200-49b3-b333-c41e1e2f46aa .

[3]  Schmitt, D., 2013,  Crowdfunding science: could it work?  Higher Education Network, The Guardian, Nov. 11, 2013.   Available on the internet at:                                                       http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/nov/11/science-research-funding-crowdfunding-excellence .

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THE LIFE OF MODERN SCIENTISTS IS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF DEADLINES!

A Life of Endless Deadlines
Research  Scientists  Live  A  Life  of  Endless  Deadlines                                (dr-monsrs.net)

         

            Faculty research scientists working at modern universities always are very busy (see my post on “What do Scientists Actually do in their Daily Work” in the Scientists category).  Almost none can avoid having their professional life being characterized by far too many deadlines.  Some job deadlines are yearly or monthly events, while others occur weekly and even daily.  For many university scientists, there are major deadlines for submitting applications for competitive grant renewals or new research grants, annual forms and reports to the granting agency, signed forms going to the employing institution, and, yet other business and financial submissions related to research grant awards.  These deadlines for research grant activities in turn create secondary deadlines for sending in new or revised manuscripts to professional journals, submitting abstracts for science meetings, and getting certain lab results finalized.  Yet other deadlines occur intermittently throughout the academic year, involving lectures and examinations in university courses, safety inspections, chemical inventory updates, radiation usage reports and inspections, graduate student meetings and examinations, writing invited chapters for new science books, participating in journal clubs, obtaining travel approvals and arrangements, preparing and giving invited seminars at other institutions, attending meetings of science societies, reviewing assigned manuscripts, etc.  Most of these many deadlines cannot be avoided or postponed. 

 

             For industrial research scientists working at research and development centers in commercial companies, there also are very many job deadlines.  Progress in their projects must be kept on a mandated schedule, formal internal reports must be prepared and approved by the target dates, supplies must be acquired in certain business periods, presentations for internal and external meetings must be finalized and approved, proposals for patent applications and future investigations must be generated and finalized, training of new staff employees must be finished during the allowed period, and, all assigned tasks must be brought forward to meet targeted goals set by the commercial employer.  Most of these deadlines cannot be postponed or ignored.  The fact that industrial scientists often work on more than one project intensifies the number of their deadlines.  

 

            Of course, every salaried worker in almost any type of non-science job also has deadlines.  This is normal and serves to encourage progress in the job.  But, here I am describing something much larger and more extensive.  When the schedule of one’s entire job life becomes only an endless series of deadlines, the main question each and every day then is, “What is my next deadline?”.  This is typical for the life of university scientists actively doing grant-supported research.  It is truly like running on a treadmill and being unable to jump off.  If a deadline ever is not met, there always are unfortunate consequences.  The traditional solution to this problem is to hire more helpers (e.g., lab coworkers, secretaries, a lab manager/administrator, graduate students); this does not always work as anticipated, since these new personnel also add to the existing pile of deadlines.  Common casual attempts to deal with the problem of too numerous deadlines also do not usually work very well (e.g., thinking about new experiments while one is driving to work or taking a train, preparing the agenda for a committee meeting while eating lunch, analyzing experimental data just before going to bed, etc.). 

 

            In addition to requiring great discipline, much stamina, and intense dedication, the endless deadlines for scientists often produce some very negative effects.  Ultimately, the frazzled working scientist begins to feel that he or she is doing something in a very mechanical manner.  Most importantly, the endless deadlines readily conflict with the very important need of all scientists to spend some time simply thinking about their present and future research activities (e.g., how can I make this experiment give clearer results, do I have enough of a certain very expensive chemical to last for the rest of this year or should I purchase more now, should I pay an external service lab to run this assay or is it better to do it in-house, what should I do about my graduate student being a very slow worker?).  The numerous deadlines too easily also can result in there being little or no time to spend elsewhere for family life and normal outside activities. 

 

            At its worst, the dedicated university or industrial scientist trying to deal with all their job deadlines never has sufficient free time to be able to think and generate new ideas, carefully design new experiments and good controls, dream up new research projects, or take a day off to organize and assemble a new presentation showing results of the latest experiments.  The problem of time management created by all these many job deadlines is a major practical difficulty for university scientists doing research, and can also be a major job concern for industrial research scientists.  I myself  encountered this very large difficulty with handling deadlines, and in response I always used to work on weekends and most holidays!  The time crunch induced by the endless deadlines inevitably has negative effects upon the professional work of scientists for advancing the research enterprise. 

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MOST OF TODAY’S PUBLIC EDUCATION ABOUT SCIENCE IS WORTHLESS!

 

What  is  Research?
What  is  Scientific Research?     (dr-monsrs.net)

 

            The general public today perceives science as being something much beyond their ability to understand.  Many people actually are afraid of science!  Since science and research seem to have no direct impact upon their daily lives, the simplest solution is for people to completely ignore them.  In today’s world, these conditions have resulted in the enormous estrangement of most ordinary people from scientific research.  

 

On television and the internet, science programs almost always portray science as an amusement.  These programs often feature titillation and try to illustrate science in action (i.e., research) by showing unknown instruments having lots of colored blinking lights and noises, somewhat bizarre men and women wearing white lab coats, laboratory shelves with myriad vials and bottles, and, computer screens filled with a galaxy of numbers.  This caricature of scientific research supports the common fear of science, and directly leads to seeing it as being something quite amusing. 

 

The present “science-of-the-day” format found in many media programs about science almost always features claims that the most recent research finding promises some wildly fabulous advance.  Probably most viewers do not even hear the obligatory follow-up statement that the promised glorious results will be many years in the future.  Any attempt to explain what is being shown is always very abbreviated and superficial; the result is that the audience is amused and always dutifully repeats, “Isn’t that wonderful!”, but really learns and comprehends nothing new.  This entire approach for public education demeans the audience, is grossly unrealistic about what science does and how research advances, and so seems worthless.  These programs and their warped approach will not be helpful to anyone in the public. 

 

 Science would be much better presented via examples of real scientists showing and talking about their research work, particularly when these studies involve some of the current problems we all face.  Actual scientists, not actors and actresses, should be presented and interviewed.  This use of real living scientists will reveal them as neighbors and fellow people, not as mad monsters from some other world.  The message of these presentations should present simple and clear step-by-step explanations showing how the selected question or problem is approached, how the experiments are conducted, what was found, and what conclusions are drawn from the data.  All such presentations must explain what this means for the public, and be produced to be readily understandable by ordinary adults. 

 

Practical matters are more easily understood than theoretical concepts.  Showing some real examples of practical problems where basic research, applied research, and engineering are being conducted will help counter the mistaken general viewpoint that scientific research has no impact on daily life; attentive viewers will come to see that nothing could be farther from the truth.  Probably the most difficult part of my proposal for better adult education will be to get people in the public to watch the 10-30 minute expositions; all too many modern adults have a very limited attention span, thus inclining them to watch sport events rather than any presentation about science and research. 

 

Most ordinary people have never ever talked with a real live scientist, and very few have ever visited a research laboratory.  Ideally, this should occur during education in primary and secondary schools.  By introducing new and more effective formats that are not presently being utilized for media presentations, science will become much more personal and much more human for everyone.  When the public becomes more familiar with scientists as real people, and comes to see how research can benefit everyone, they then will become more understanding and supportive of the long efforts needed to solve the difficult practical problems affecting everyone (e.g., behavior, energy, environment, genetics, health, nutrition, politics, society, water, etc.).  Improved understanding that real science (eu-science) is about finding new knowledge and helping everyone will remove the current emphasis on amusement and pseudo-science. 

 

When the public better understands that science is people, and that scientific research is important for everyone, they will become more enthusiastic about eu-science, and will come to recognize the falsity of being entertained by pseudo-science.  Kickstarter [1] and other mechanisms for crowdfunding [2-4], where hundreds to thousands of ordinary people each make a small financial contribution to a selected project, recently has become popular; in some cases with support for science research projects, the contributors can  become personal participants in the actual experimental studies.  This aspect of crowdfunding dramatically reveals that the hidden large potential interest of the public in scientific research is waiting to be unlocked. 

 

 [1]  Kickstarter, 2013.  What is Kickstarter?  Available on the internet at:  http://www.kickstarter.com/start . 

[2]  Stewart, M., 2013.  With funding becoming scarce, scientists are looking to the public for help.  ASBMB Today, 12:21-23.  Available on the internet at:                                          
http://www.asbmb.org/uploadedFiles/ASBMBToday/Content/Archive/ASBMBToday-2013-11.pdf .

[3]  Rice, H., 2013.  Crowdfunding, Overview.  The New York Academy of Sciences, Academy eBriefings, October 9, 2013.  Available on the internet at:                        http://www.nyas.org/publications/EBriefings/Detail.aspx?cid=82c4e4b4-f200-49b3-b333-c41e1e2f46aa .

[4]  Schmitt, D., 2013,  Crowdfunding science: could it work?  Higher Education Network, The Guardian, Nov. 11, 2013.  Available on the internet at:                                                        http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/nov/11/science-research-funding-crowdfunding-excellence .

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MONEY NOW IS EVERYTHING IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AT UNIVERSITIES

All Is Money in University Science  (dr-monsrs.net)
All  Is  Money  in  University  Science     (dr-monsrs.net)

            Scientific research in recent times certainly is very costly (see my earlier post on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” in the Money & Grants category).  Everything in a university research laboratory is quite expensive and costs keep rising each year.  Even such common inexpensive items as paper towels, phone calls, xerographic copies, and keys to lab rooms need to be paid for at many universities.  To handle all these expenses, faculty scientists must apply for a research grant, obtain an award, and then work hard to later get it renewed.  Unless a faculty member is working at a small undergraduate college, it simply is not possible to conduct research using only internal funds and undergraduate volunteer lab workers.  Without having laboratory co-workers, research comes to a screeching halt whenever the faculty member must be out of the lab while teaching, attending a committee meeting, eating lunch in a cafeteria, or going to see the dentist.  In addition to paying salaries for postdoctoral fellows, research technicians, and graduate students, faculty scientists must buy research supplies and equipment, get broken instruments repaired, and pay for many other research expenses (e.g., business travel, costs of publication, use of special research facilities on- and off-campus, etc.).  Thus, to conduct scientific research in a university, it is fundamentally necessary to obtain and maintain external research funding; without a research grant, laboratory research projects in universities now are nearly impossible.

           

            Although the federal government each year thankfully provides many billions of dollars to support experimental studies, the present research grant system in the US is not able to fund all the good proposals submitted by faculty scientists in universities.  Of those overjoyed applicants meriting an award, many receive only part of their requested budget.  The U.S. National Science Foundation, a very large federal agency offering research grants in nearly all branches of science and engineering, reports awarding research funds to only around 28% of the many thousands of investigators applying for research support each year [1]. 

            

            Today, the professional reputation of individual faculty scientists depends mostly on the total number of dollars brought in by their research grant award(s) each year.  It also is true that different universities compare their reputation for quality in education and scholarly prestige primarily on the basis of the annual total amount of external research grant awards generated by their faculty scientists.  Many universities seeking to elevate their financial profits from research grants now urge their science faculty to try to obtain a second or third external award (i.e., for a related or unrelated project); universities also can increase their profits from research grant awards simply by hiring more science faculty. 

            

            Failure to get a research grant renewed is no longer unusual, due to the ever-increasing large number of doctoral scientists vigorously competing for new and renewal funding.  Any such failure means a rapid loss of assigned laboratory space, loss of graduate students working with the faculty member, a diminished professional reputation, and the necessity to henceforth spend all of one’s time trying to get re-funded.  Although non-renewed faculty scientists can continue researching and publishing using supplies at hand, such activity usually declines to some small level within about one year of not being funded.  This unwelcome failure is a disaster that often causes a midcareer crisis (e.g., denial of promotion to tenured rank); having a second research grant does provide some welcome protection in this distressing situation.  

            

            Each and every faculty scientist is competing against each and every other scientist for a cut of the government pie.  While ordinary competition generally has good effects upon human activities, this most prominent of all science faculty efforts is so extensive and generates such high pressures that it must be termed a “hyper-competition”.  The hyper-competition for research grant awards downgrades collegiality, subverts collaborations, and encourages corruption; each of these has very destructive effects on the research enterprise.  Applying for a research grant always is very stressful; for each renewal application (i.e., after 3-5 years of supported research work), one must compete with a larger number of new and renewal applicants than was the case for the previous  application.  Since the consequences of dealing with the research grant system are so very important for the career progress of any faculty scientist, one might wonder why graduate students in modern science are not being required to also receive an MBA degree, in addition to their Ph.D.?  

 

There is an increasing tendency for faculty scientists to form research groups, ranging from 3 to over 100 individuals.  Joining a small research group means that the failure of one group member to get a renewal application funded does not either kill anyone within the group or stop the entire project from continuing.  Giant research groups typically are headed by a king or queen scientist, and can have their own building; these giant groups automatically provide more brains, more hands, more research grant money (from awards to multiple associated individuals), and more lab space than any individual scientist or small group can obtain.  In the large associations, group-think typically can become the usual condition; in such cases, the role of each individual doctoral scientist in the group often devolves into serving only as a highly educated technician, with little need for individual input, creative new ideas, or self-development.  Today’s research scientists who work as individual researchers in academia know they have a fragile status in the hyper-competition for research grants, and usually are extremely careful to select a niche project where there is little likelihood of competing with any giant research group; that mistake would be the kiss-of-death.  Although the federal granting agencies do currently endeavor to give initial awards for 3 years to many newly-appointed science faculty, they also seem to favor the funding of very large research groups; this is readily understandable, since such awards usually provide these agencies with a much firmer likelihood that the proposed studies will be completed on time, and, the anticipated research results will be found and published (i.e., because the proposed experiments actually have already been completed!).  

 

Inevitably, the former prominence of individual research scientists becomes diminished by any policies favoring the formation and operation of very large research groups.  The acknowledged curiosity and creative initiatives of individual researchers have been the main source for new ideas, new concepts, and new directions in science.  Basic research is the necessary progenitor of all the advanced technology arising in the modern world.  Both the granting agencies and the academic institutions should change their priorities and policies so as to increase and encourage, rather than decrease and discourage, the vital activity of individuals (i.e., young basic scientists) who contribute so importantly to research progress.  When basic research is de-emphasized or disfavored, so too is creativity in science also being diminished.

 

             Another negative aspect of the enlarged importance of money for today’s scientific research is the commercialization of experimental studies in modern universities.  Commercialism is widely accepted as the primary driver of research and development within industry; currently, it is being extended and expanded into all university research efforts (see my earlier post on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” in the Big Problems category).  Basic science thereby is increasingly diminished, and many efforts are being targeted toward some commercial development or industrial goal.  That scenario refuses to recognize the proven history that both applied research and engineering developments almost always follow from one or more preceding very basic experimental studies; those basic investigations typically have no practical usage foreseen at the time of their publication.  Many detailed examples, ranging from the transistor [e.g., 2] to paternity testing based on DNA technology with the polymerase chain reaction [e.g., 3,4], show that although some highly imaginative or theoretical idea for a new device or process might have stimulated much interest, very important commercial products only arise much later after the initial basic results are modified and developed by many applied research and engineering efforts. 

 

            Scientific research at universities now is only a business activity. have seen this perverse situation in person during my own career experiences, and believe that these problems and issues with money and university profits now have changed the very nature of being an academic scientist.  I can only conclude that money today is just about everything for scientific research at modern universities.  This new emphasis creates many secondary problems for science progress and puts many roadblocks in the way of individual research scientists.  The traditional goal of scientific research is to find more new knowledge, not to acquire more and more money.  Counting the number of dollars in research grants cannot be a valid and meaningful measure of the professional status and value of individual faculty scientists.  Readers should know that I am certainly not the only scientist to state all these views with dismay (e.g., A. Kuszewski, 2010.  What happened to creativity in science?  Available on the internet at:  http://www.science20.com/print/72577 ). 

 

[1]   National Science Foundation, 2013.  About funding.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.nsf.gov/funding/aboutfunding.jsp . 

[2]   Mullis, K.B., 1987.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf/ .

[3]  Universal Genetics DNA Testing Laboratory, 2013.  Paternity DNA test.  Available on the

internet at: http://www.dnatestingforpaternity.com/paternity-test.html .

[4]   Ingenetix, 2013.  Paternity testing.  Available on the internet at: 

http://www.ingenetix.com/en/paternaty-testing

 

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