Are we failing to scientifically educate the next generations?

Merope Tsimilli-Michael, after giving a talk at a conference in honor of George Papageorgiou, where John Allen also participated, asked his opinion on her presentation. In turn, John introduced me to Merope a few months later,  while in Mexico (through Skype). I read with interest what she and Pierre Haldimann had to say.

For more than twenty years we have witnessed worrying changes in science… The first symptom was that a number of publications contained serious flaws… the frequency of low quality publications has steadily increased.

Why is this? Their answer at one level is that many senior researchers have stopped investing time in educating their students, who then are found lacking in knowledge. A large part of their essay considers the reasons that have led a change of attitude, i.e. the lack of time invested by senior researchers to teach their students.

First, it may be the result of a problem routed in the culture of audit that has been introduced in an attempt to measure research outputs.

As the number of publications and citations, the position in the authors’ lists and the journals’ impact factors became criteria for the evaluation of scientists and institutions, the substance of their work is now only indirectly valued. This then has fundamentally and adversely changed the attitude of many scientists, as it pushes them, instead of doing science, to use all kinds of strategies to meet the metrics, hoping to quickly climb-up the ranking ladder. As educational capability and proficiency do not contribute to the metrics, they are usually rewarded neither by promotion, nor by funding. Teaching is often considered as a waste of time and the trend now is even to separate teachers from researchers.

Second, a line of problems has emerged from the loss of job security and a stable funding stream for one’s research.

How can a young scientist have the necessary peace of mind and the creative spirit to work on his running project when he permanently feels the heavy burden of job insecurity and is stressed by the aim to fuel the next grant application?

They answer with reference to Peter Lawrence:

short-term funding puts enormous pressure on group leaders, transferred to postdocs and PhD students, for rapid data collection and quick generation of results to produce many papers, with often a concomitant deterioration of their quality, objectivity, and utility.
Finding themselves continually in stressful conditions, which have undeniably serious social and psychological consequences, is toxic for creativity and innovative scientific work and does not allow relying on previously acquired knowledge and competences.

Third,

the world of science is increasingly commercialized, adopting utilitarian orientations and obeying “market laws”, which undermine research. Universities are envisioned as enterprises, and the principles of their autonomy and self-governance are progressively and drastically dismantled, because enterprises are audited and ranked according to how profitable they are, not by how much they contribute to the understanding the natural world and the advancement of the common good. Academics are regarded as employees that need to be controlled. Students are regarded as customers of the “product”, which is not knowledge, but a degree. Hence, the goal of the university- enterprise is to increase the number of students-clients at the lowest possible cost.

I recommend reading of the full paperScreen Shot 2017-03-26 at 7.15.24 PM

Other important points raised relate to academic emancipation and freedom:

By partitioning and apportionment of research work, especially in big research groups running big projects, PhD students and even postdocs become alienated/estranged from the final product of their work. The pressure exerted on PhD students and postdocs to produce data does not give them the time to think, to study the literature, to make mistakes, to try new things that might not work for weeks or even months. In extreme cases, they are like workers in car-industries who just fix identical screws on identical cars not having the picture of the end- product and, hence, the satisfaction of accomplished work, deprived also from their fair share in the profit.
“Freedom is not a luxury, but a necessity – freedom to explore, to think beyond orthodox opinion…”, wrote Allen (2010). But the currently predominant system suppresses such ideas and their bearers, impedes research rather than promoting it, creates a counter-productive antagonism within and between groups, and drives the potentially creative researcher away from originality and discovery, and away from the unique satisfaction and benefit that these bring.

Merope and Pierre mention specific examples from the field of photosynthesis, along with a literature review on the above problems and provide arguments that

these problems arose and developed mostly because of the dominating bureaucratic system that has been progressively built

They end their essay recommending

that the academics and other eminent scientists authoring the plethora of critical articles should undertake to create an open and continuous forum, which will keep collecting, discussing, and integrating suggestions of interested scientists, but also putting some teeth and exerting sufficient pressure for their implementation. The scientific community is collectively obliged to put up barriers against a catastrophic tide that radically undermines the fundamental concepts of academic freedom and democracy, and to strive to reverse the harmful developments that have taken place over recent decades.

I agree.

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