After quite a few years I attended a conference, ISEB4, the 4th meeting of the Indian Society for Evolutionary Biology in Ahmadabad last week. It was a refreshing experience particularly watching the younger generation of evolutionary biologists coming up. Also promising were the new centers of evolutionary biology and ecology coming up at different Universities and Institutions in India.
But simultaneously I could hear a subtle alarm bell. Things are moving ahead, no doubt, but are they getting too stereotyped?
Yes, unfortunately they are. The career paths of science, the definitions of success, the paucity of positions, the necessity and the ways of building an “impressive” CV, the modalities of getting funded are all getting increasingly narrower. Bottlenecks are getting too tight and that, down the line in a just a few years would be largely counterproductive. We see that most youngsters stick to the line of work they followed in their PhD, which was a continuation of their parent lab’s already established line of work. They take a small variation of the same line as their plan of work. Following a narrow field of work for several academic generations is not detrimental to science, but doing only this and not looking beyond certainly is. Nobody ventures into something new because for recruitment or for funding they are asked to present a research plan, then they are asked what experience do you have in this, how do you know it would succeed? So only sticking to the old is safer and that works. Novel ideas fail at every stage. This peril is brought about by the stereotyped and ritualistic career paths. The antidote is that the career paths need to diversify in more than one ways.
I use the word diversify in multiple dimensions. Diversifying the field of investigation, the model organism or the model system, use of novel and diverse tools as per the need of the problem, addressing novel and entirely virgin questions, diversifying the system and including more kind of people in science; all this will only enrich science. I don’t think anybody will disagree with this. But what prevents diversification is the ritualistic career path. The system and the criteria for evaluating a researcher for recruitment, for promotions and for funding have become rigid, ritualistic and often non-sense. The minimum requirement for a faculty position is PhD, three years or more of post-doc, an impressive number of publications, at least a few of them being in flag ship journals. Do these qualifications guarantee a good candidate? The answer is no. A good CV might just be because of the luck in getting in a good lab. Does not having such a CV indicate lack of talent? Again the answer is no. But institutions look at on paper qualifications more than the talent, capacity and dedication.
My doubts about this ritualistic requirement are too fundamental. In the field of literature, everybody does not need to write a novel. Short stories and even three liner haikus bring equal respect if they are of an appealing quality. But in science, only a thesis gets you PhD and without PhD a career in research is impossible. A two page theorem can potentially revolutionize a field of science, but that cannot make a thesis and therefore cannot make a career by the current stereotype. Since people only look at the number of papers and impact factors, reading one’s research with interest has almost lost its relevance. What kind of science is published in big journals and who can publish in big journals is also more of a tactical issue than a quality issue. Getting a position and getting funded is also more tactical. Only a stereotyped format is expected in a funding proposal. I can see young researchers thinking too much about these tactics and ignoring their own natural questions, attractive curious findings, urge to explore and zeal to find something really novel. High risk disruptive ideas are most unlikely to get funded. As a result novelty, exploration, disruptive elements, rigor, insights, paradigm shifts have largely taken a back seat. Research is being sold by gallons rather than by taste and flavor. The perils of this ritualized science are increasingly coming to light in terms of scientific misconduct, reproducibility crisis, peer review biases, stress-anxiety and suicide rates among students.
Changing the mainstream is almost impossible, but that’s not what I am suggesting. My solution is to support alternative models of doing science. Why should PhD be the only path for getting into research? Why can’t housewives do meaningful and fruitful research? Why can’t farmers solve their own problems by participating into research? Why can’t Universities join hand with citizen forums to address important questions? Throughout my entire life I have experienced the alternative routes, experimented with and demonstrated that they work. The alternative models of doing research are like collaterals in heart disease which keep the heart pumping even if a main vessel is blocked.
While clear pathological signs are accumulating in mainstream science, we need to focus on development of collaterals. Who can do this? I believe the new upcoming academic models such as private Universities, autonomous colleges, liberal arts curricula, citizen science forums can do this and they need to be strengthened. If these models take pride in mimicking the mainstream again, they would simply join the mass sugar coated collapse of academia. Their real strength lies in doing what mainstream is NOT doing. Asking questions which the mainstream is not asking. Tapping new possibilities and trying out crazy ideas. Being open to failures and traverse new paths. I am trying to search for an element of such vision in these alternative models. I do see some vision in some of them and hoping it develops into a fruitful diversity of models of practicing science.
The diversity of research models will fill in the big voids that currently the mainstream science is unable to cover. Most mainstream scientists are too specialized, narrow minded and fail to visualize bigger and comprehensive pictures. Most have been generating huge amounts of data that haven’t been interpreted collectively and comprehensively. Main stream typically fails to look at alternative possibilities and interpretations which are more likely to come from non-career-minded thinkers. Owing to the rat race for high impact publishing main stream rats seldom try to test reproducibility of results. Spending time in testing reproducibility is a waste of time for them because that is unlikely to get a high impact publication. Since funding is highly biased towards a few buzz words, mainstream does not go beyond trend following. The other alternative models can do such things which are extremely valuable for science and the society. If we fail to develop these collaterals, the mainstream will continue its downfall until common people lose trust in science. Technologies and even basic science will be completely monopolized by a handful of agencies and companies (this is already happening in science publishing) and people will be completely alienated from science.