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A Lament From the Treadmill

Here’s neuroscientist Mark Humphries on the recent release by the Allen Institute of a huge pile of data on visual cortex processing. The “Allen Brain Observatory” details the activity of neurons in the mouse brain in response to a range of different visual cues. It’s broken down by layers of the cortex and by known processing regions, and it’s the first comprehensive thing of its kind. And it’s all free, released to the neuroscience community as it is to make of it what they will. Humphries is impressed and saddened at the same time:

Most scientists would never even contemplate such a manoeuvre. Research needs grants to fund it, and grants need papers. Promotion needs papers. Tenure need papers. Postdoc positions need papers. Even PhD studentships need papers now, God help us all. Everything needs bloody papers. (Which works well for people like me who enjoy writing; but is a distinct disadvantage for talented scientists who don’t.)

(Last semester, we even got a Faculty-wide email encouraging us to write up our Master’s students’ project work for publication. Because what science needs right now is more unfinished crap.)

Data makes papers. Data makes grants. Who would ever release data without first writing up a paper? Who would fund grants to work on data that you’ve already released? Which committees recognise “releasing data” as a principal output when looking for a new job candidate or a promotion? Or assessing the research quality of a university?

He’s right that this sort of thing would not happen in academic research the way it’s currently practiced – it’s too big a project for most places, and it’s definitely too big a project not to produce a whole string of big-time publications out of it before anyone else gets to see the data. But the Allen Institute people don’t care – they have funding that doesn’t depend on how many papers they write and how spiffy the journals are they they get published in. For most academic researchers, the thought must be dizzying.

So, landmark moment for neuroscience that it is, the Allen Institute’s “Brain Observatory” is also a case study in how modern science’s incentives are all wrong. If we only measure the quality of someone’s science by the amount of money they accrue and the number of “impactful” papers they produce, then by definition we are not measuring the quality and rigour of the science itself. It is sad that an entirely private research institute can show up so starkly the issues of publicly-funded science.

Of course, I (and many other readers of this blog) work in yet a third environment. It’s one that doesn’t care so much about publishing papers – I mean, we do, it’s just something that we get around to after everything else is finished and there’s nothing left that’s more interesting to do. We don’t scramble for grant money, either, so there’s no sitting around working on proposals in the hopes of getting funded. What we do have, though, in the way of pressure is trying to produce things that will be useful enough so that people (and their insurance companies) will be motivated to pay money for them.

That environment comes with its own benefits and disadvantages. We’re not going to do anything like the Allen Brain Observatory, either, but neither are they going to come up with any drugs. Of the three places to do science, though (traditional academia, private nonprofits, industry), it’s the classic academic setting that’s looking the most grim from a risk/reward perspective. And that’s not good, because we need that one, too, and the harder and more discouraging we make it for people to work in it, the worse off we all are. . .

22 comments on “A Lament From the Treadmill”

  1. Taking one interpretation of how we got to this point, I’ll speculate that the inclusion of overhead in grant awards was an important factor. As institutions realized they could essentially fund other parts of their organization via overhead, the selection criteria for hiring academics gained an additional element: how many grants would a person get? I work in Seattle, where the logical conclusion of this has been the creation of ‘Research’ faculty at the University of Washington who can get space and do research only as long as they have grants, and they will never get tenure.

    Add to this the fact that on the public side, funding for higher education has lagged, and one can see how the focus on grants and publications and prestige have taken precedence over teaching and scholarship. I don’t necessarily blame the universities; they’re responding to financial pressures to survive, just as those of us in industry do. While I dislike some of the things biopharma does (price increases, patent disputes) to stay profitable, I understand them.

    So it’s hopeful to see an alternative model in what the Allen Institute is doing. I think there’s an analogy there to private corporations. When a family or private institute owns a company, they can do things public companies can’t because they can have a long term outlook in which continual, regular profit (or grants) isn’t the goal.

    1. Isidore says:

      Funding for higher education has not lagged. Since the end of WWII in constant dollars public expenditure for higher education has increased (for some information on this go or do a search). Both NIH and NSF budgets have been increasing by leaps and bounds, until the 2008 recession, when the increases were halted, but are picking up again. However, the problems mentioned above predate by a couple of decades the recent recession, I recall similar issues even back when I was a graduate students in the 1980s. I think it reflects the problem of an ever increasing number of people wanting to do academic research or leveraging their accomplishments in academic research to get an academic or an industry job and the only generally accepted measure of one’s accomplishments is the number of publications in high impact journals. And as much as I agree that this is not necessarily a good and accurate measure, I’d be very hard pressed to suggest a different and better and more readily accessible one. But the problem is really that even though the money pie may be getting bigger the number of people competing for a slice is increasing even faster (and also many of them need ever bigger slices).

      1. zero says:

        Federal funding for higher education as a percentage of GDP has been increasing smoothly, yes. State funding for higher education ran off a cliff. That’s not an entirely fair statement but in many states entire campuses are closing, while others are shedding anything that is not immediately profitable.
        (begin rant)
        Curiously, sports programs seem to have no trouble getting new multimillion dollar facilities in the name of prestige. Administrators and coaches have no trouble getting paid hundreds of thousands or in some cases millions of dollars each year while their academic programs abuse volunteer labor / adjunct professors, destroy teachers’ unions to further cut pay and protections, and demand an ever-increasing slice of grant money from their researchers. In some cases faculty are reduced to using students as free labor to crank out grant proposals and papers in order to keep their job and their department above water.
        (end rant)

        Enormous amounts of cash have been flowing into higher education, much of it debt-financed. It appears that very little of that money is applied directly to the goal of educating students since graduation rates and the real incomes of both teachers and fresh graduates have been flat or decreasing. Today a degree is a stall tactic, something you pay an enormous amount of money to get so your future income doesn’t decline quite as much.

        As for the NIH, FASEB estimates that NIH lost about 22% of their funding power (similar to purchasing power when comparing personal incomes/inflation/cost of living) between 2003 and 2015. Their budget dollar amounts are going up after several years of decline starting 2010 (thanks finance industry {2010} and sequestration {2013}, we all needed a swift kick in the tenders just then). Recovering ground lost to sequestration will require at least a 10% top line increase in their budget next year on top of the nearly 6% increase this year. Reaching the same funding power the institutes controlled before the recession would take even larger increases, as would any attempt to reach an actual net increase this decade. If we project a funding trend from 1950 through 2000 (just before the big funding spike and subsequent crash) then the desired budget for 2017 should be roughly $45 billion, not $33-35 billion.

        As you pointed out, the declines go back to roughly the 80’s. To make it in life today you have to have a degree or be very lucky; this was not the case in the 70’s. (Not to say that decade was fantastic for workers or anything, but there were still good-paying factory and union jobs at the time.) People today want their degree so they can get a decent job; not that many people actually want to do research for the long term but many of them won’t be able to get a post-secondary degree without playing the game and fighting for grants. A bachelor’s degree is the bare minimum for a lot of positions; these days you need a master’s or better if you want to stand out from the crowd and beat the average income. Rare exceptions include nursing and finance, but even there a higher degree can be a significant advantage.

        Personally I think education should be government-funded all the way. Our country and our businesses see incredible advantages in the world market due to the quality of our workforce and our sustained investments in research and development. There will still be a place for private institutions but in today’s job market where a BA or BS is the minimum that minimum should be available to all. Along with this, skimming overhead from grants should be ended; the full amount of the grant should be applied to the research, while the facility pays its unrelated bills from state and federal funds, tuition and donations/endowments.

        To extend that, a federal job guarantee with retraining would take some of the pressure off. Properly structured, such a program would guarantee a reasonable income without a degree. You might be building bridges or doing data entry but at least you won’t have four years of student loan debt to pay off and won’t be risking homelessness or starvation if there’s a downturn in the construction market. That should reduce the demand for degrees somewhat and allow academia to focus on people who actually want to pursue higher degrees for the sake of knowledge. It should help businesses find people who are trained for their openings without requiring a degree, since those people would be trained at government expense; businesses would see HR and training savings to offset their tax increases.

        Education is a form of infrastructure. We should be investing, not slashing and burning.

  2. gippgig says:

    No, research does not need grants to fund it, at least theoretical research, which costs nearly nothing. There is a fourth place to do science – in your basement. Been there, done that. The internet makes it far easier than when I did it (for example, the LHC and HST have released much of their raw data), and open source designs, 3D printing, & the surplus market are beginning to make low-cost labs possible. Nobody is going to build a substitute for the LHC, but focused hackerspace-type groups could build advanced labs (AMSAT has been building spacecraft for 1/30th the cost of commercial satellites for decades).
    Science – along with everything else – needs to get over its obsession with money. Science and money are mutually incompatible and should be kept as far apart as possible.

    1. a says:

      *Until money is done away with* (not holding my breath)

      – researchers, as people need to to eat, have housing, and everything else higher up Maslow’s hierarchy
      – consumables / supplies must be manufactured, quality controlled, delivered and maintained
      – discoveries must be verified and disseminated
      – all of this must occur in a societal framework that supports rules that enable this process to occur

      None of this can occur in your pipedream of low-cost basements with peer-to-peer intellectual wanking.

      ***All of these need resources, which have been abstracted into money***….it is not an “obsession”, it is a function of how humankind works on planet earth and has worked for hundreds of years.

      1. steve says:

        That’s great for theoretical physics that only needs a pencil. Try to run some experiments on the LHC to prove your theories and you may find that you need some funding. Of course you can do lots of things inside your head but to have any impact on society you’re going to need hardware, animals, clinical trials and all kinds of nasties that require actual money. Otherwise you’re just spinning stories around a campfire.

        1. steve says:

          By the way, now that you have the LHC and HST data maybe you can do something simple in your basement and solve the three-body problem. Shouldn’t take long.

  3. diver dude says:

    So, we’re returning to the 17th century European model of rich benefactors subsidising science as a way of signalling their virtue. Given what came out of that model, it seems an encouraging development 🙂

    1. tts says:

      I hope you’re being sarcastic.

      Returning to a informal jury rigged patronage system, with all its problems and then some, would be terrible.

      1. dlr says:

        Yes, but erecting “an informal, jury rigged patronage system” in parallel with the existing system wouldn’t be terrible at all. Very much the contrary. Every new, independent decision-maker added to the mix of people deciding what science to fund, increases the range of ideas being funded, and thus the range of ideas being researched, and explored.

        The big scientific advances come from exploring ideas that aren’t the current scientific consensus, (and thus, wouldn’t be funded by the US government research institutes).

        Distributed, parallel processing is the way to go for something like research, where you don’t already know the answer, or maybe even the question. Top down, single source, monolithic funding, means a lock step; blinkers; a single focus; a loss of intellectual diversity, and that is disastrous.

        1. tts says:

          Doing a patronage system along side the current means of doing R&D would just waste money so yes it would be terrible. Especially since R&D is currently so money starved already.

          I don’t think you know anything about how R&D is currently performed, the issues with current R&D (and there are issues, it isn’t perfect) or the pitfalls of patronage systems either.

          Remember, we moved away from patronage systems because they were horrible. And inefficient. Returning to that model won’t give you any benefits. Which is why almost no one uses it today for anything, much less science, and the few times you do see references to it are when there is a scandal of misappropriated funds or various drama bombs going off between the people involved which usually results in huge legal fees.

  4. BB Yardly says:

    There’s a fourth place to do science! In marketing.

    That’s where you get previously unseen results, like amino acids being bad for you.

  5. gippgig says:

    I’m certainly not saying that all science can be done that way, just that far more could be than most realize.

  6. Even though universities have legal “nonprofit” status, they’re clearly into profit, often to a fault (let’s even take NCAA sports out of the equation). With WWII and the Cold War, investment in basic research ballooned. In more recent years, technology transfer and partnerships with industry, in addition to the big grants, is what wags the dog. This high-$ diet has undoubtedly skewed the value system of academic institutions towards money over academics, leading to a corporate class of university administrators (no different from CEOs) and merchant-scientists (some of whom have been documented In the Pipeline) that are much more merchant than scientist. These are treacherous waters to navigate. Kudos to those scientists able to survive and even thrive in these waters, and who are able to maintain academic/scientific integrity.

    For those not familiar with Kent Wilson, a chemical physicist at UCSD, you should check him out. His life was epic, particularly in terms of how he funded his research. Mid-career he was burned out chasing grant money and on sabbatical (~1985) he devised a scheme to invest in emerging markets, big time, with his savings. He was hip to the physics of these markets, as other “quants” would become. There were stories that he set up a trailer next to his house for electronic trading and that a few talented UCSD grad students made good money on the side by trading. He made a killing, canceled his grants, and proceeded to raise hell (do the science he wanted to do). I don’t think the UCSD admin quite knew what to do with him, but they were of course glad to take his money, as long as his x-ray lasers didn’t kill any one. If you want to skip to the financial part of his life story, go to “Money Stress”:

    p.s. if you ever saw one of his lectures you would not forget it – literally a cross between a Pink Floyd concert and high-energy laser physics, rendered by wild man sporting a beatles hairdo from ~1964. The only thing missing was the aroma of reefer.

    1. DH says:

      Kent Wilson was definitely an interesting guy. I interviewed for a postdoc position with him, but ended up going elsewhere. He was one of the pioneers in the use of specialized hardware (FPS array processors) for molecular dynamics simulations. I hadn’t known that his research was self-funded from playing the markets!

      1. quantum control says:

        agreed – a very cool cat indeed. His quantum chemistry simulations/visualizations were second to none. He traveled the lecture circuit with a custom hardware/audio-visual set-up that rivaled rock bands, in terms of sophistication (rather than decibels). When I met him he was on his way to Turkey, Eastern Europe and Asia (then probably back to SD), doing some due diligence on his investments.

  7. KAIST chemist says:

    ibs in Korea funds for 10 years (w/option to continue indefinitely) irrespective of paper output or other “performance” metrics. However, to land one of these centers you need to be pretty thoroughly vetted beforehand…

  8. DoctorOcto says:

    People always seem to forget one of the primary roles of academic research is as a trade school for young reseachers looking to pursue a career in science. You’re not paying for papers, or ground breaking results, or new drugs, or even the raw data, you’re paying for new scientists.

    1. eugene says:

      Nobody cares about that anymore. Educational outcomes are secondary to articles published and grants received. It’s not that people forgot about it, it’s just that it’s not an outcome that keeps you employed and happy. If you trained a new scientist that only published two or three Organic Letters during their PhD training, that is a failure and slipping behind for your career (if you’re at a top 50 institution). If one of those Org. Lett. is a JACS, then you’re still on track.

  9. NJBiologist says:

    “That environment comes with its own benefits and disadvantages. We’re not going to do anything like the Allen Brain Observatory, either, but neither are they going to come up with any drugs.”

    I’ve talked to some of the Allen Institute people at Society for Neuroscience meetings, and it sounds like they’re OK with that. They seem to be happy to do basic research, bundle it up in a digestible form and give it away (web site, desktop app, small free book) or go through existing commercial venues (big book on the spinal cord).

    If they’re not BSing us all, I say it’s a good thing. And I’m not cynical enough to think they are.

  10. Chrispy says:

    Well, the folks at the Allen Brain Institute must feel pretty secure about their jobs. Because as too many have learned the hard way, papers and patents can matter a great deal when applying for jobs. “My employer discouraged publishing” is not really a valid defense.

    Employers do a disservice to employees when they don’t insist on publication. Like it or not, it plays an important role in advancing their careers.

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