Tuesday, July 26, 2016

How To Succeed In Academia Without Really Trying

Two articles came out recently, one in the New York Times, the other in New York Magazine, illustrating some serious problems in academia in the US and the UK. One of the biggest issues is that the structure of academia is exceedingly top heavy, with grants being extremely competitive and research money often concentrated among relatively few well-established researchers. For example, the NY Times article reports that the average age for a successful grant application from the National Institutes of Health has increased from 35 to 42 since 1980. Research funding is a zero-sum game, there will be winners and losers in each round. And while the pressure on academics to win external funding is ever-increasing, the overall amount of funding from traditional sources is not. The unfortunate effect can be divisiveness, secrecy, and competition among researchers whose science suffers as a result.

The NY Magazine article demonstrates how a top-heavy academic environment can lead to bad science. You may remember the fiasco surrounding the association between "psychoticism" and political affiliation, which was found to be the opposite of what the authors originally reported. Years before the retraction, a PhD student noticed the authors' likely mistake and told his supervisor about it, not wanting to risk engaging with the authors of the study themselves. It might seem overly cautious to someone outside of academia, but the consequences for challenging someone well-known can be unpleasant. The student's supervisor contacted the authors about the possibility that they made a mistake, but the authors didn't admit there was a problem and didn't share the original data as requested. The data should have been shared, as it was funded by a public agency (National Institute of Health), and there was a link to the data in the paper but the link didn't go anywhere. The authors were finally forced to admit the mistake when the student and his supervisor submitted a paper about it to a journal. One of the original study's authors reviewed their paper and likely wanted to pre-empt its publication, so he published a retraction.

When I read the article I thought, this isn't an isolated case of academics being more concerned with their image than with producing good science. The current academic research environment is structured to reward the few and leave many scrambling, and it doesn't foster dialog among researchers. It's also a bad strategy for longevity if we aren't preparing the next generation of scientists to take over when the current one retires. Next week I'll talk a bit more about this transfer and some of the issues behind preparing young scientists.

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