The fact that the way research is currently conducted in universities is not made optimally in terms of cost-efficiency and of student formation / career perspectives is something which is rather obvious, and which has been bothering me since some times. Thus, it was pretty interesting for me to read this opinion paper published in PNAS.
Alberts B, Kirschner MW, Tilgham S, Varmus H (2014) Rescuing US biomedical from its systemic flaws. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 11:5773-5777.
It is part of a larger debate (and it even is the target of some discussion even in LinkedIn groups (for instance the AAAS group). I would like to comment on two specific points of the paper.
First, the need to downsize academic research labs. I believe since already some times that the current model which promotes the existence of very big labs is not the best. First, while the senior scientist can direct numerous projects, especially in the same area of expertise, our time is still limited. Meaning that we spend more time doing administrative things than actual science. This also means that the time devoted to each trainee will be way smaller. When you have simultaneously 10 students and 5 postdocs in your lab, it is not reasonable to believe that you will give 1h of individual attention per day to each of them. Well, sadly, even 1h of individual meeting would be probably difficult, since we have quite a lot of other tasks to do as well. Universities want to have more and more student graduating, so we have in terms of career some interest to manage large labs. But what about the quality of the formation we provide? And of the mentoring we do? Not areas of research are the same. In molecular biology it is very common to see “hives” of students working in the labs, since a lot of the experiments follow very strict protocols, and maybe (and the maybe is important, as I am not that sure of that actually) requires less guidance by the supervisor. However, in the field I know the best, which is behavior (or cyberbehavior, but it is just a specific case of behavior in general), while the protocols are usually simple, what makes the difference is how you exactly do it. How you design the protocol, how you quantify the actual behavior, how you control for any bias not only when developing the experiment but also during the process (since behavior is a dynamic display). And more importantly, we need time and intense contacts to really “transmit” not only knowledge, but also our own experience to our students, so they can really learn and benefit from it. That is particularly true for a PhD student or a post-doctoral fellow. This type of relation is a one/one relation, where the word “mentor” takes all its meaning. However, there is a second element favoring the fact that big labs are growing. And that is an economic argument. A student costs considerably less than a regular employee. So it is easier to have a lot of students in the lab rather than a lot of workers. But are students only cheap workers? I would think no: first they are still learning, so their productivity is not at the best (and it shows, since the larger labs obviously have more publications than smaller labs, but often the number of publications per capita is lower). And second, and more important, they are learning skills to get a job later on. And here comes the issue that we are maybe forming too many students in some disciplines that what the needs really are. A lot of public funding is thrown to research for Alzheimer’s disease, which is rightly a major problem of public health in Western countries. However, these funds are used to form a lot of students in this topic. Most of them would love to do an academic career. Would it be reasonable to believe that universities will recruit every year dozen of newly formed researchers just on this topic? Of course, not. On the other hand, we are struggling to find specialist of research in the field of rhinology, while we do have teaching need for that, and while disease related to the respiratory system and superior aerial ways are critical as well. Downsizing the labs to more reasonable and manageable research units really centered on the professor research interests, and allowing a better, deeper form of trainingship for graduate students.
Which leads to the second point. We still need people to do the research: nowadays research is getting more and more complex and complicated, interdisciplinarity is a key word. Modern research relies on various expertises. Staff Scientists could be a solution, as suggested in the paper. It would increase the quality of the research done. It would provide some new positions for all the students we are forming. It would increase also the formation of the students by having more senior people around them. But there are still a few issues with that. First, such a solution would have a cost. We can not expect recruiting high qualified people without decent salaries. This would have to come from the funding we get ... while the actual tendency for research grants is more oriented toward decrease, and the current success rates are falling down. Second, the nature of the employer might be a problem. Would it be the researcher? Meaning that, if a researcher loss his grants, then the staff scientist would be fired? It would be very difficult to secure on the long term this key people. Would this people be hired directly by universities? While that might be an acceptable solution for research institutes, it is hardly something which can be defended in the context of universities. Also, not being the actual employer would mean that it would be the university who will decide with whom (with which researcher) the staff scientist will be working. With all the problems which can arise for that. And with the issue that they would be considered mainly as super-technicians and would see their intellectual contribution potentially decrease. A possibility could be to develop new types of grants, which would be accessible only for staff scientist, under the direction and projects of university researchers (but independent from the professor own grants), with a system of renewal akin to the system we have for career grants in biomedical research in Quebec province. It would of course some money, but the results for the efficiency of both academic-based research, and more importantly, student formation, might be worth the deal.