Give Science Breathing Space – Protection from Suffocation

© kuva Michael Müller

© kuva Michael Müller

Last week I finished a tough but rewarding job: From the many great research proposals submitted to the Skolar Award science contest, I finally picked my ten semi-finalist candidates. The decision wasn’t easy. All proposals that had made it through the first evaluation stage address challenging and important research questions. They cover, among others, a wide range of societal, environmental, cultural, medical and technological topics. The proposals are combinations of innovative ideas, novel methods and new approaches for seeking answers to demanding research questions. Many also make suggestions on how to apply the science based knowledge into practise. Between the written lines I sensed a passion for science, enthusiasm, inspiration, joy of exploring the unknown and hope to get funding to dive into uncharted science waters.

The pep talks and pitching

While I was reading through the proposals I took mental time leaps back to the 1980’s when I was a bright-eyed PhD student and taking my first steps in the world of science. Now, some 35 years later, I know the journey has its ups and downs. After some smooth sailing one encounters rougher waters. With persistence and also some luck, one survived the bumpier times, took a deep breath or a few and pushed on, full of hope. I especially remember the evening pep talks with my PhD student buddies in the lab’s coffee room. Each of us in turn heard the important words: Don’t give up. Now you know what not to do and can figure out what to do next. I also remember the popping sound of a champagne bottle being opened when finally, after several referee rounds, a research paper was accepted for publication. I also remember the hunting of impact factors and quotation rates.

In my mind a researcher believing in her/his research topic and pitching it to those deciding if one’s idea is worth funding, is not all that different from a start-up starter pitching to business angels. Thus it is highly appropriate that the Skolar Award science finalists will be pitching at the Helsinki Slush Event on December 1st. I am proud to be one of the judges also at the finals. I hope some business angles will be inspired to act as research angles and open their purse strings to support science which, when successful, can make a huge difference. Just think about nuclear magnetic resonance and all its applications from medical imaging to quantum computing.

A science journey surprises

Just like business start-ups starters believe in their product concepts, researchers tackling wicked questions have to have faith in their work while sailing on uncharted science waters and without a clear road map. This is called scientific exploration which needs protection in our impatient world. Research without risks is playing it safe. True, the original idea or plan might fail. One should, however, understand that during a science journey something unexpected and extraordinary may see light. Something that was not anticipated at the beginning of the research. This ability to seize the moment, change the course and goals of one’s research when this unique opportunity arises, is the ingredient that bakes great, often ground–breaking science. More often than not this baking powder remains a secret to too many, especially funding deciders, hungry for fast wins and predictable results. One would think that those funding research would be overjoyed by courageous scientists that seize the unexpected opportunities. Nowadays, unfortunately, this is not the case. Stick to your plan, don’ t wander.

Science is losing its appeal

I was fascinated by many of the Skolar Award proposals and feeling, for a change, hopeful of the future of science: There are brilliant courageous younger generation scientists who still want to work in research. At the same time alarming research news also caught my eye: Nature science journal just published an article “Hard work, little reward”. It reports the results of an online poll with disturbing results. Of the thousands of scientists participating in the survey nearly 65 % answered that they had thought of quitting and 15 % actually had. Why? If getting a PhD can be hard work, wait until you are a postdoc and start to build your own research group. At that point of your career when you start to know what science is about and have obtained the skills to start your own research group you fast notice that your time to actually do research shrinks to near nothingness. One’s time is spent in seeking funding, tackling growing bureaucracy, endless writing of research plans and reporting.

I speak from personal experience. It is a never ending circle one rides and never seems to reach a place where one gets the opportunity to concentrate on the important – science. No wonder researchers jump off this carousel after obtaining their PhD. They have seen, first-hand, how their seniors and group leaders are in the clutches of the ever growing research bureaucracy. And let’s not forget worrying about money. Even the most passionate researcher needs bread and butter.

Publish or perish – Dancing around what is already known

Publish or perish. This merciless truth was one of the first facts of a researcher’s reality senior researchers told me when I started my thesis work in the 1980’s. In the official funding criteria emphasis in the evaluation of grant proposals is claimed to be on novelty, risk taking and multidisciplinary research that addresses “wicked questions”. At the end of the day, it’s the length of the publication list that counts, stated researchers that answered Nature’s recent poll. So why enter uncharted waters? Everyone knows that it’s much easier to get a research paper through the reviewing system when you are not trying to pitch a ground breaking new finding. The best way to lengthen your publication list is to confirm what others have already published and use your creativity to find a somewhat different angle in your paper: To re-report something already published. Dance around what is already known. In Nature’s poll many researches felt that they have published papers just for the sake of “publish or perish”.

If you really want to get into trouble, start developing a new research technology. This is an effective way to say good bye to a steady growth of your publication list. If you want to get stuck in the reviewer process, do a research project that crosses the boundaries of traditional science fields. You will bump into referees that claim you cannot know anything about the field as you have “only two papers published so far in a particular field”. This response to a grant proposal and fait awaited a colleague of mine a couple of years ago: “The researcher is clearly competent with also an impressive publication record in certain fields of natural sciences. However, the researcher has not yet shown adequate enough competence in this new field. So even though the research proposal is of high quality, the risk of granting funding is too high based on the applicant’s current track record!”. My mental flashback to this response still manages to irritate me. And at the same time researchers are encouraged to widen the scope of their research!

Senseless documents – time and energy gobblers

Discussions on the everyday reality of scientists triggers memories of my earlier life events. A certain time period pops up, nearly daily, into my mind’s eye. It covers about two months of my life in 2014. I had decided to move to a shared working space and paperless office. It was time to give up my own office. Time to sort through my stuff.

Thinking back, this time period of office cleaning was an eye opener in many ways. I have strong emotional memory imprints stored in my brain of the ambivalent feelings I experienced while going through a huge amount of different types of documents. They covered over twenty years of my job as the head of various research units, centres and the leader of several large scale research programmes.

I don’t have to struggle to remember details or what I was thinking during that time. Memories that mark a tipping point in one’s life have this kind of power.

What did I find digging through the rows of thick binders of documents? A mind-blowing testimonial of countless documentation deeds. Their amount had through the years constantly increased. There were one-year, three- and five-year research strategy papers, over and over updated. Main work activities and goals had been squeezed into numerous, form-changing tables. Through the years, different project process models had been filled and refilled with doings.

For faceless decision makers I had written numerous vision papers on this and that, risk analysis reports on this and that, resourcing and re-resourcing plans. There were papers on constantly changing key targets, focus areas, short and long term goals. I found rewritings of yearly plans as document formats had of course changed. I had written numerous plans on competencies. I had tried to explain that there is a limit to a person’s ability to be a chameleon. Even if life-long learning and learning through work is in the core of all work, a research engineer cannot turn into a psychologist or a psychologist into a research engineer just like that, with the snap of fingers.

My time and energy had increasingly been gobbled up with stuff that had, if anything, been a hindrance to research. I also found writings in which I had tried to put a stop to this constant reporting and documentation. In vain. In one case (I remember very well) I had refused to split people into percentages and link one half or one third of a person into different labs and working spaces. I replied to this re-request that I had already performed this operation less than one year ago without getting any feedback on said report. The faceless answer from somewhere from someone was: just do it. It’s all about justifying resourcing, explaining needs. To survive document, report. Well in that particular case I had taken the earlier report and just changed the date. Nobody got back to me on this resourcing paper.

I claim that, also in science, the exponentially growing, never-ending reporting is one of the biggest causes of frustration; a sure killer of mental productivity effectively sucking out motivation. And the bitter lemons that add the final souring touch to all doings are the faceless time management tools. Everyone knows that clocking and dividing time into different slots doesn’t give any valuable information on what is actually going on in work, in this case research.

Writing and re-writing plans and spending countless hours in research strategy planning has become more important than science itself. When the research plans have finally gained funding and to top it all have then been approved by some chief in the organization where the work is supposed to take place, the research can be “old news”.

What brings the spark to go on?

So what keeps the more senior researchers in science in these troubled times? Energy to go on comes from the following moments: One has managed to engage in an actual scientific discussion with one’s team members or peers. One has found time to actually supervise PhD students or participate in content planning of research. One is getting food for thought through discussing and networking at conferences with other researchers. One is rejoicing together with co-authors when finally, the words “accepted for publication” appear on the computer screen. One has managed to read through with thought a great scientific paper. Often the time to be inspired is “out of office time” away from personal life time. This time tackling dilemma was a concern of many researchers answering the Nature poll. Believe it or not, also scientists want and have a private life.

For years my emotions have ranged from despair to WAU, what a fantastic job I have. The reporting tsunami grew year by year. In step with this overwhelming tide I often had a nagging guilty feeling. Its cause was often that I didn’t have enough time to educate younger scientists. Too often I had to make the tough choice between whether to use my (limited) time and creative energy for preparing (again) a research funding application or for in depth discussions on science around a research manuscript. If the next pay check of one’s PhD student hangs in the air, which way to spend your time would you choose? But trying to give some financial stability to your researchers is not enough.

Hope for hope in science

If we truly believe that 1) new ideas, innovative solutions, outside the box thinking, courage to try out “crazy stuff” pave the way to something new, perhaps even the currently un-imaginable and that 2) persistence and commitment to make an idea work are important ingredients of success in all areas of work, also science, we have to believe in people. We mustn’t overburden them with senseless reporting. Management, please, don’t micromanage. Leave people in piece. Let them do their job. You’ll be surprised at what brilliant stuff starts to see light. I hope the Skolar Awards event also paves the way to a new wave of science supporting and brings into the spot light the importance of independent science.

The outcome of my office cleaning was 2400 litres of paper shoved into the shredder. What was my learning? Never again will I waste my time on senseless re-reporting. I am older and tougher now. To younger scientists I give also a different hope: If the tide in science doesn’t change. If NO to senseless reporting just isn’t an option. If the working conditions of scientist are not taken seriously and improved remembers: The education and skills you have obtained as a PhD student and researcher are valuable also outside academia, in other fields of working life. Also here I speak from personal experience.

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