Sunday, August 18, 2019

How Laboratory Biology Works

Long, interesting piece by Alexey Guzey summing up the results of a year-long investigation of bioscience laboratories. He finds that progress remains rapid and reports of a crisis are much overblown. A few points:

1) Critics are always complaining that the major funding bodies, especially the National Institutes of Health, are "risk averse" and don't fund enough wild ideas or enough young scientists. Guzey says that is wrong, that there are plenty of funders looking for offbeat ideas and possible home runs; he personally failed to find a single example of a potential breakthrough idea nobody was willing to fund. As for not funding young scientists, he says this misunderstands the structure of science. The grant recipient is almost always an administrator who leaves the actual work to graduate students and post docs, and the last thing we want is to take young, super-productive scientists and make them grant recipients, forcing them into the administrative role. He says ambitious, smart scientists can find spots in labs if they try hard enough, even if their backgrounds are unusual and their ideas off the wall.

2) Guzey wonders why most biological labs are led by a single person, given that research on tech start-ups has shown that those led by two to four founders do much better. Insisting on a single lab leader, he says, is "sub optimal."

3) There is a problem with the best scientists always being promoted to principal investigator, that is, lab manager:
Many people who always wanted to become scientists do not pursue or leave academia because they see how PIs work and think that they do no want to just manage people and fundraise/write grants. This is a great tragedy. Very few labs have permanent Research Scientist positions and for some reason there’s a path “PhD–Postdoc–PI” that is almost impossible to avoid (there are institutions that experiment with permanent pure researcher positions but there seem to be very few of them).
This is of course one of the banes of our whole civilization, so it seems unlikely that biology will solve the problem on its own. Personally I have been trying for years to refuse raises, on the grounds that the more money I make the more of my time I have to spend on administration to justify my salary and therefore the less time I can devote to archaeology. I have never succeeded, because, my bosses explain, the belief that good performance is rewarded by promotion and higher pay is so entrenched that if I fail to move up I will be considered a problem employee and possibly targeted for dismissal. I suspect the kind of people who do avoid promotion in a major lab come to be seen as antisocial weirdos, grumbling away in their tiny offices.

4) Everyone thinks peer review is a disaster, because so many peer reviewers are out to advance their own agendas. But nobody knows what to do instead.

5) "Large parts of modern scientific literature are wrong," because of fraud and systemic problems with the way some research is done, of the sorts that have been exposed in the replication crisis.

Anyway if you are curious about how the world looks from bioscience labs, read Guzey.

1 comment:

Alexey Guzey said...

Thanks a ton for the commentary. One note: I don't remember mentioning failing to find an example of a single potential breakthrough that was not able to be funded -- in fact I'm trying to get at least one breakthrough funded (which I don't believe would be funded otherwise) right now!