A dialogue with Peter Lawrence

I learned that fresh reflections of Peter Lawrence had been published from a post on twitter

Peter himself kindly sent me the full text (at my request) and asked me to share my views. I do so here, while quoting from the article in italics.

in a recent and cruel twist, we scientists are increasingly being seen by management as cash cows whose raison d’être is financial (Jump, 2015)

Mexico has given me asylum from this development. I rent a house for my family. Someone related to the landlord’s family works for a bank. He or she acknowledged the corruption in the financial sector. Their job entails convincing individuals to buy insurance, under unfavourable (his view) terms. Renumeration is linked to targets. Should they strike 10 deals in a month, they receive a humble salary. At 20 deals, they get 300% top-up. At 30 deals the bonus becomes 1000%. “I know I am misleading people, but they make you do this, don’t they? I also have a family to raise and I care more about them”. Is this the future of science?

Now, it is relatively rare for students to discuss their projects in the coffee room; much more time is spent worrying about the next career step, about publication and the politics of science.

The coffee room. When I was a PhD student, Herbert Jäckle’s lab subscribed to seven Journals. Coffee was free. There had been my introduction to the scientific literature, first only reading the abstracts, later learning to appreciate the works. It was also the space to ask questions, without interrupting someone’s experiment. As a postdoc with Tracey Rouault, discussions continued on every and all new developments in the (new, at the time, for me) field and almost all interactions with colleagues from the neighboring labs were based on the science that was keeping us busy. I loved the coffee room and continued to spend time there when I joined Queen Mary as a Lecturer. The department hired June to prepare the coffee; she was lovely and took care of me – us all – for 5 years. However, I came to realise that a number of colleagues wanted to escape from anything relating to science (now considered to be work, with a negative connotation attached to the word) while having a chat in that space. In my mind, the cultural difference marked a difference in the quality of the institutions; while at the Max-Planck and the NIH (in the years from 1997 to 2007) the focus had been on how to understand the world, at Queen Mary the worry was how to survive in it.

now many of us feel beleaguered by bureaucrats and politicians… Turing and colleagues found it difficult to get adequate funds to make what would be the first digital computer (Hodges, 1983)

I have posted this video on my blog before but it is worth reposting here: I trust you have watched the movie, Peter…


 It is only partly true but widely believed that just one paper in Nature, right or wrong, can get a young scientist an entree into a grant or post.

I was told (by several influential men) that such a publication would be my passport. I haven’t submitted yet a paper to the “top three” as we used to call Nature, Science & Cell (perhaps these days the goalposts have changed, but certainly to a more demanding and less rational size & shape, with new titles aspiring to glamour). This is not because I lack ambition, it is because I do not consider that I have discovered anything worth the attention of the whole world’s community of scientists (despite approaching 20 years of continuous service to science). For, and this is a difficulty for their critics, Nature, Science & Cell attract a large knowledgeable readership and for this reason, I understand that they must be selective. How they determine their filters is of course open to debate.

There was one point, when we were preparing to send a paper to Nature. “Ferritin iron overload leads to neurodegeneration”, or something of the sort. It turned out that our ferritin-overexpressing flies had been infected with Wolbachia, of the virulent type described by Benzer in 1997. I recall an extended ovation at a job talk presenting the project and how we had been misled, followed by the blunt statement behind closed doors: “Tracey told me that you were about to publish in Nature, but I see there is no such chance. Sorry.” But, beyond anecdote, there is a need to discuss why there are so few positions available for scientists. I dare suggest that it is because our laws permit the accumulation of capital under private control. Returning this wealth to the public authorities and investing it for the general progress of our civilization is the only solution I can see.

“Creativity in science, as in art, cannot be organised. It arises spontaneously from individual talent. Well-run laboratories can foster it, but hierarchical organisations, inflexible bureaucratic rules, and mountains of futile paperwork can kill it. Discoveries cannot be planned, they pop up, like Puck, in unexpected corners” (Perutz, 2002).

One aspect we tend to forget is that not all of us will “Puck!” and celebrate the important discovery. In fact, in the historic sense, only few of us will rejoice that moment. From this simple fact and the transformative power of scientific discovery & understanding, it follows that society should foster ‘well-run laboratories’ in universities & research institutes, expecting benefits from the whole scientific labour, but not from every individual scientist. Furthermore, the scientific process requires different types of fellows: dreamers, pedants, explorers, deep thinkers, talented experimentalists, perfectionists, curious minds, stubborn minds, etc. Not all of the characters required for the orchestra can be “high-producers”. Even carelessness is known to have led to important discoveries, whereas some consider that parts of our technological progress were motivated by laziness, in the sense of a conscious effort to make our life easier. Finally, having people work on similar fields helps removing private errors, while teaching is the best method I know of figuring out gaps in our knowledge. Universities are special as long as they nurture all of the above. Therefore, the key questions of policy should refocus from individual assessment to how one builds an ethical, scientific culture through higher education and well-supported institutions.


the general reader is now a mythical beast

No, please. It is only the fact that we do not cherish broader knowledge on most evaluations linked to educational or professional progression that gives such an impression. But there are many of us (I dare include myself) who read from a variety of different media, subjects, periods and spend long hours doing so. Afterall, every more-or-less mature consiousness needs to build a worldview from its own limited experience. Isn’t the process of doing so one of the few wonders that distinguish humanity?

…journals and editors are in thrall to impact factors. Editors know there will be more citations if they select papers in areas where many scientists are currently working. This means that manuscripts in unfamiliar fields tend to be rejected, while articles in currently fashionable fields are preferred.

This practice should be a hallmark of a poorly-run scientific journal. Knowing that an editor would consider the popularity of a paper ahead of its scientific value, would discourage me from approaching them to handle the publication of my efforts in science. It would signal a breach of trust. After learning, on top of all other rational arguments, about the game-playing of the system – it’s a fake! – I have concluded, again, that only fools take into account impact factors in judging a work. Of course, in a world where the “triumph of vanity as sensible as selecting athletes on the basis of their brand of track suit” has become a norm, one needs to consider the consequences of ignoring “the rules of the game”.

Signs of Change?

As much as I want to endorse your optimism in closing, my experience is reverse. Leaders of my scientific field are losing one after the other their positions in their mid forties, in their mid fifties. (I also lost mine in the – so called – “first world”). Students who have come to appreciate their discoveries and contributions are bewildered when I break the news to them. So many colleagues shake their heads in despair & disapproval, but there is little action. The managers who destroy science keep increasing their salaries (see my comment on how bankers work above). Not even suicide appears to bring change in the right direction. Rather, I see more and more change in the wrong direction, with extensive copying of the horrific errors you rightly criticise in your essay. But we do agree to the only reasonable solution and I thank you profoundly for your essay and its conclusion:

Universities and institutes must reduce investment in administration and increase investment in teaching and research. Then young people, many of whom still come into science with a sense of excitement, will no longer become disenchanted. We will need them for our survival.

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