The current state of academic research

It is a common theme for those of us who have decided to go into academic research, and for those who are still students at most if not all public universities, that the funding landscape is not promising in the near future. These are mostly the repercussions of two wars and the mismanagement from those who were trusted by the citizens twice. This seems a bit paradoxical in view that it is now where a lot of outreach is done to bring minorities and women or correct the bad state of the early education system, into science. Humanity of course does need more scientists, and now more than ever, since i think it is in this time that we are facing problems that require the intellect of the human population. However, if things don’t change there will be a generation that will find themselves being convinced into going into science, just to find out that there are no jobs, funding and most likely will feel betrayed by those who convinced them in the first place.

Of course, industry is another place where you can do science. But each company has its own agenda (good or bad) and we cannot hope to advance as a species just with industry alone. An example in my area is drug companies in which  i’m sure there are scientists concerned with the antimicrobial resistance surfacing, but that feel constrained because the company board thinks it’s not lucrative anymore. I understand their reasons, and i don’t think they are happy about it but there are other constraints that science shouldn’t have. Usually these constraints are not found in universities when there is enough funding.  Of course, there aren’t unlimited resources for everyone not to have to write grants, but there should be some way to ameliorate the current status of funding.

Nowadays the trend is to make everything “Translational”, “From bench to bedside”,etc. And this is clearly something that I and most people want to see. We would like to see in a more tangible and immediate way the fruits of taxpayer money given, and not see their loved ones suffer from chronic, debilitation or mortal diseases or conditions. In my lab we do something that can  be tagged as such.  However, I do agree that that’s not the way that all science works. We cannot transfer something into widespread use unless we understand al of the factors at play in a given field, which is the contrary to the way of doing science. Most science has to really pass a rigorous test which leaves no doubt about the appearance and workings of some biological mechanism. For these reasons, basic science is still valid and we must find a way to communicate this to the public. We must teach patience and support through understanding. It’s not easy at all, but we are scientists and I think we should find a way to do it.

Another consequence of this, besides the constraining of what can you investigate, is the rising numbers of retractions and misconduct observed in science. Some retractions might be due to honest mistakes. These do not happen  all the time but they are bound to happen. With the current situation these “Honest” mistakes are increasing due to the pressure of being the first to publish it and to possibly assure that some funding will come to your lab or to assure some promotion within the academic system. However, this kind of mistake is but a minority of the retractions seen in the total of them. Ferric Fang (University of Washington) and Arturo Casadevall (Albert Einstein College of Medicine) et al. make an analysis of the retractions in the Life Sciences, and conclude that the majority of retractions are due to misconduct. We can never condone this kind of behavior, but one can argue that it is the funding system that it is cornering researchers into it.

Now you might say: “Well yes I’ve heard about it uncountable times,  so what?”.  And this is a very good question to ask, it’s is natural since we have heard countless times all these arguments, but interestingly enough no one seems to give solutions or do something about it. That’s true most of of the cases, but I was astonished to hear that there is people out there really thinking about how to solve it and actively doing something about it. Again, Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall hit on target. They have a two paper set called “Reforming science” where they bring attention to the problems and propose solutions for them. The first paper is about Methodological and Cultural Reforms which talk mostly about the system of rewards and ways in which scientists obtain promotions based on measures such as impact factor and other, and give alternative ways to handle this in a more objective and probably fair way. The second paper talks about Structural Reforms, which talks about the way funding is distributed and how there are famous labs hogging resources and always growing, while young scientists struggle to maintain a small lab and don’t see anything but to always be writing grants. And because these big labs can do more then they are the first to assure funding the next round. I’ll leave to you to read the papers. And you can agree or not, and these measures they are proposing might not be the ones we need, but it certainly goes farther than just complaining about it.

Another scientist that is working on this is Jon Yewdell. He is a scientist at NIH and he describes in this interview in the TWIV podcast (The biomedical research crisis with Jon Yewdell) about the way that research is done inside NIH and how he is trying to run a pilot to demonstrate that the NIH system might be the answer or not to the current research crisis. Now, these people may not be by far the only ones that are trying to do something about this problem, but are the ones I know and would be good to know if you know of others.

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