Solving Science

A topic I often come back to is how, in my opinion, scientists are not trying hard enough to solve the problems in the processes that drive modern science. I find that particularly sad given how some of the people I love and admire the most are scientists.

For me, like for many grad students, it started with a personal emotional crisis following the harsh comments of an anonymous reviewer #2. I was surprised at how a community of people who strived to make the world a better place was full of critics who didn’t seem to care that there was a human on the receiving end of their comment.

As I made my way through the academic ecosystem I started observing latent in-goup / out-group dynamics in tightly knit sub-communities. These dynamics made it really hard for a newcomer to propose alternative approaches that would challenge the views of these sub-communities. Again, as a starry-eyed idealistic researcher I got my fingers slapped, through reviews, in a way that felt very unfair.

My unease with these observations — and how strongly they clashed with my idealistic vision of science — turned me into a vocal advocate of greater experimentation in the academic processes.

At that point in my postdoc I got this advice from a successful prof: “If you keep worrying about the process you’ll never be a good researcher. Focus on the science.” She was right. In fact, my inability to stop caring about the process is partly why I gave up on the academic track…

Yet if researchers give up on the process, who will care?

Right now, it seems to be the funding agencies. The ones that gave us impact factors and h-index and a whole slew of bibliometric methods. They turned scientific funding into a game with well-defined rules… and as a result they turned (some) scientists into players. Even though, deep down, most scientists would rather just be doing good science.

I dont talk about this too much these days. For one, I’m out of the academic circuit (even though in my heart I very much still feel like a scientist 😊 ). But also because the last thing I want is to be confused with a proponent of anti-intellectualism. It’s quite the opposite: it’s because I love the spirit of science that I care about how it’s done.

What prompted this post was a discussion with Marie Lambert-Chan and Matthieu Dugal. Marie pointed me to this article. I couldn’t read it because of its paywall but the subtitle makes me hopeful: “For the first time prestigious funder has explicitly told academics they must not include metric when applying for grants.”