Breakthroughs in some areas of science are changing lives for the better. When I was very young, my mother would sing to me in person; today she fills my laptop screen from halfway around the world, singing for my daughter. And this is only one of many technological breakthroughs that have changed the way we live and how we do science. The transition from writing letters on paper to e-mailing, sending instant messages, and chatting online seemed very fast.
But does this apply to my field? The investment in life sciences has been massive, but what practical benefits have resulted? For some years now I have been drowning in the sea of publications relevant to my life-science research, chasing answers for human maladies, but I feel that I am nowhere close to any important result. I have an excuse: I'm still young. I haven't been at it that long. But is the field progressing?
Frustration over my productivity provoked me to take a wider look at breakthroughs in all of the life sciences in recent years. To my surprise, I found only a few discoveries that I am sure are (or will be) transformative, a tiny number compared to the mammoth volume of research publications. Are life-science researchers failing to keep up with the pace of researchers in other disciplines?
Consider two important breakthroughs: stem cells and whole-genome sequencing. If they have not yet led to fundamental, widespread, practical improvement in human health and disease, I am confident they soon will. But why is it taking so long?
When I wrote, above, that I am concerned about my own research output, I did not mean that I'm concerned about the number of publications I have. Publications and progress are different things. Yet, it seems that, to an unfortunate extent, publications—preferably in high-impact journals—have become science's desired output. Publications—not breakthroughs. We are so caught up in publishing.
Current, career-related policies force academic scientists to publish early and often if they want to continue in the field. Trainees are encouraged to attend courses on how to publish scientific articles; in these courses the instructors focus not on research advances but on tricks to accumulate publications. Gimmicks. For example, research collaborations are portrayed not as a way to improve your ability to make progress on important problems but as a good, quick way to increase your publication volume. Experiments are repeated endlessly, not to yield new insights or verify existing ones but to generate publication-quality images.
The risks of publication-focused research are many. If your focus is on publication volume, there's less incentive to challenge existing paradigms. Paradigm-shifting papers, after all, are harder to get published than papers that reinforce the status quo. We budding scientists learn to be careful not to offend established scientists by challenging their ideas. We learn to focus on safe science that delivers quick, publishable results. We hide ideas and data from our colleagues because we're afraid that they will publish before we do. Results are hidden even in science talks and conferences, which should be ideal platforms to share ideas.
Clearly, we need to find new policies and incentives that return science to a true hunt for scientific truth and not for publications. That means, for one thing, reducing the emphasis placed on publications in evaluating scientists for hiring, funding, tenure, or promotion.
While science's intense competitiveness has some advantages—scientists work very hard to win the contest—I believe that it has lately become too competitive. I believe we should try to move toward a less competitive environment, where well-paid staff scientists work to make progress on important problems, supervised by a principal investigator who also has secure employment. I envision funding agency program officers keeping a close eye on the research to make sure it stays focused on the agency's mission, the big picture, and fundamental or practical advances. Scientists should be evaluated not on the basis of their successes—failures are important, too—but on the competence of their efforts and their continued focus on research's highest goals.
Young scientists should not be encouraged to become scriptwriters. Instead, we should be encouraged to develop ideas and transform those ideas into real progress on important problems and, in time, practical advances. Let’s work as a team to advance science in ways that really matter.
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