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. . .