This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
This is an abridged collation of some of the interesting reading I came across/finally got round to over the Christmas break.
Careers and science
- Steve Caplan, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska, questions whether the increasing focus on ‘translational research’ will restrict the next generation from asking the fundamental questions in basic science – and why this is dangerous.
- … Elsewhere, he argues that despite a lack of academic careers (relative to the number of PhD positions) we should train more students to PhD level if we also improve their training – not just preparing them for academic careers. (I tend to refer to this as ‘PhD 2.0’.) He also highlights this Individual Development Plan tool from AAAS’ Science Careers.
- Science Insider reports that a blogger who exposes scientific fraud has stopped posting following legal threats. Paul Brookes, Associate Professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, hopes to set up a new site with his real name behind it. (In related news, Fang Shi-min – a freelance science journalist and biochemist – recently shared the inaugural John Maddox prize for uncovering scientific fraud in China.)
- Times Higher Education publishes an article highlighting a US study, which argues that international groups of scholars bring complementary skills and ideas that aid research, resulting in a greater number of papers, which – in turn – are more highly cited.
- The BBSRC will announce full details of two schemes to support the translation of new ideas in biotechnology and bioenergy into commercial applications this month. Both will aim to foster industrial collaboration.
- Christine Fernandez, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, summarises a workshop which gave eight tips to publish high impact.
Women in science
- The organisers of the SpotOn London conference compile a useful selection of resources for female scientists looking to raise their profiles online (some also apply to men).
- Curt Rice, Vice President for Research & Development at the University of Tromsø, writes a great article about how quotas raise quality, and how diversity is about more than social justice. He also includes a succinct account of the ‘paradox of meritocracy’.
- The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee take oral evidence for their Women in the Workplace inquiry. The transcript of the session with Dame Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell (Chair of the Royal Society of Edinburgh inquiry into Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), Kate Sloyan (Institute of Physics 2012 Very Early Career Woman Physicist of the Year Award winner), and Helen Wollaston and Trudy Norris Grey (both of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Campaign) is worth reading.
Science for the economy
- David Docherty, Chief Executive of the Council For Industry and Higher Education, summarises the Growing Value report (PDF), which urges the government to make sustained, ‘steady-handed’, strategic commitments to research; prioritising collaboration between universities and business, and entrepreneurism.
- The Technology Strategy Board explain that the biosciences are a priority for them because they “could form the basis of a new technical revolution” (PDF, from page 12). They outline the opportunities for business and the challenges for innovation.
- Curt Rice (again), summarises a recently published paper on Open Evaluation, arguing that changes to how we evaluate are essential to the Open Access movement.
- The latest issue of The Journal of the Foundation for Science and Technology (PDF) features articles on implementing the Finch Report from Professor Sir John Enderby, as well as an article from Julian Huppert MP about how he uses social media. There is also a piece by Professor Pete Downes (former Chair of the Biochemical Society Policy Committee) about how universities can catalyse innovation. Crucially, he highlights that we must produce graduates who understand this and are interested.
The policy process
- Kirsty Newman (from the Department for International Development, but writing on her personal blog) says that when looked at in the right context, policy making processes need not be complex or complicated to engage with.
- Nature has published a forward look at what they see the key stories of 2013 being, including the results of a clinical trial which uses human embryonic stem cells.
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
I attended ESOF (the Euroscience Open Forum) on Friday, in the fair city of Dublin. I took a lot away from it (not least that riding a Vespa to Gatwick isn’t a very good idea). As I’m shortly to take the best part of three weeks off for the Olympics, I will have plenty of food for thought, particularly on careers, on which I attended a number of sessions.
ESOF is a huge, biennial behemoth (the next one will be held in Copenhagen) but in a good way – I was very impressed. On Friday, the sessions ran from 8:00 to 18:30, with around ten parallel sessions at a time and no designated breaks (I took the opportunity of a Bob Geldof keynote to duck out and get a sandwich). The UK is perhaps not as engaged in the European science ideal as other countries, but on first reflection, I noted that many of the discussions were similar to those going on in the UK. Here are my scribbles from Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s keynote speech, the current European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science (excuse the roughness):
- Politicians should deploy the scientific method whenever possible, need to remind of that
- Science vital for future – and intellectual inquiry will always explore most profound ideas
- Higgs – excitement across all ages, groups and countries
- Challenge-driven research important, but curiosity-driven research leads to great discoveries – silicon chips (Bohr), WWW
- Challenge-driven research also brings fundamental benefits – e.g. aero wings and fluid dynamics
- Horizon 2020 – not everyone happy with large settlement, so keep making the case
- ERA – single market for ideas in Europe – increased competition and cooperation between member states (existing example of CERN). Goes live soon. Another important strand is Open Access. Need everyone to line up behind ERA – will deliver science excellence for Europe. Will rely on political will and trust
- March of progress will rely on centrality of science and public trust – must communicate well e.g. on synthetic biology (the same day, ‘A synthetic biology roadmap for the UK‘ was published)
- Thriving intersectoral ecosystem is necessary for solving problems
- Already examples of successful collaborations and things going on in background – Grand Challenges a good and relatively cheap way of stimulating it
- DARPA – $1m for driverless car. Led to many partnerships
- Human Genome Project – for each $ spent, $140 generated
- Open access will help collaboration. People cannot always be co-located, but could be huge enabling factor – individuals, poorer countries, SMEs – which then pump money back into local community – more tax – more research funding…
- Should we be aiming to get tangible outputs back from publicly funded research?
- We must support both forms of research. This is where ideal spin-off situation arises
- Can’t aim to capitalise on specific things before know what outcomes will be.
Elsewhere, I heard some interesting tips from Dr Silvia Giordani from Trinity College Dublin on careers:
- “Change is good… Being crazy is rewarded in the end.”
- “Learn as much as you can early, and you can put it together later.”
- “Network, network, network!”
Peer review guide launched
The previous day, Sense About Science launched their ‘Peer Review: The nuts and bolts’ guide at the conference. Despite the quickening evolution of the publishing landscape, peer review – as I heard at a recent(ish) meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee – remains the gold standard for determining the soundness of scientific papers, and misconceptions (particularly about open access journals) can be damaging.
The guide was produced by Sense About Science’s Voice of Young Science network, and provides a quick reference how peer-review works and how to do it. Helpfully, it features guidance from both sides of the fence – both editors and scientists at different stages of their careers, as well as other observers such as James Randerson from the Guardian. It is definitely recommended reading, although it acknowledges that formal training in the art of reviewing is variable in amount and availability.
If you were at ESOF too, let me know!
Peer Review: The nuts and bolts (PDF): http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/resources/99/Peer-review_The-nuts-and-bolts.pdf
Further reading (Science Careers blog): Become a Reviewer: Advancing and Contributing in the Scientific Establishment
This post first appeared at the Society of Biology’s blog and was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
I recently stumbled upon an article from the February 9th, 1952 edition (guess why?) of Nature, in which the Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds was reported holding forth on ‘Postgraduate Studies in the Universities’. Said VC, Mr C.R. Morris, was reportedly adamant that “young men and women do not… sufficiently realise the importance, or the significance, of the fundamental scientific inquiries proceeding in… university departments.” He also said that “the future of Britain as a great nation, and its future eminence in the sciences themselves, depend upon the maintenance of the high tradition of a university in which all the great fields of human knowledge and speculation are represented in strength.”
Times change. If we consider Morris’ statement as intended to recognise the value of interdisciplinarity, these views still echo true. But on the students themselves, most would agree that today’s cohorts are highly aware of university science and its high quality. In the current climate though, the channelling of students towards academia alone looks increasingly less sensible.
This is one of the issues currently being looked at by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), who are running an inquiry into Postgraduate Education. With the recent criticism of the government for seemingly neglecting this important policy area, there has been much interest in this inquiry. I worked with the Society of Biology to respond to their initial consultation, raising our concerns but also highlighting important strengths and opportunities, in consultation with our memberships. You can read the full submission here (PDF), with key points highlighted in bold. Subsequently, we were invited to take part in a roundtable discussion focussing on the life sciences. This provided an opportunity to discuss some of the issues further with members of the commission and a number of postgraduates from around the UK.
At the session, hosted by the Wellcome Trust, we heard from Professor Julia Buckingham (Pro-Rector (Education & Academic Affairs) at Imperial College London), Dr Malcolm Skingle, (Director of Academic Liaison at GlaxoSmithKline) and Harriet Dickinson (a PhD student and Biochemical Society member from the University of Cambridge), before the floor was opened up for discussion. Some of the key points raised by the speakers, myself and the rest of the group were:
- The priorities of undergraduates are gearing more and more towards gaining internships and contact with employers. More students are looking ‘away from the bench’ as they see limited opportunities, particularly with fewer individuals able to get funding from e.g. the Wellcome Trust.
- MSc qualifications are becoming increasingly requisite for entry to PhD programmes, but there are significant financial disincentives for both the individuals and the universities (who, Professor Buckingham said, are “at the end of the day, a business”).
- There are a variety of ways further study could be made more attractive; financially e.g. no interest charged on student loans whilst still in further education (for current new entrants to the system, interest is inflation-linked even when repayments are not being made) and career-wise e.g. creating clearer career progression pathways.
- We need to increase fluidity between industry and academia at all levels (Dr Skingle said that the CASE Studentships programme is “amazing” and expressed support for the Doctoral Training Centre model) but that student experience is vital if individuals are to become the institute leaders of the future.
- Students no longer ‘look down’ on industry, but it can be unclear how to get a clear idea of the opportunities. There is significant concern that if you leave academia you are seen to have ‘jumped ship’, and there are real and perceived difficulties regarding hiring processes in any return to academia.
- The necessity for postgraduate mobility creates problems for access; there need to be more supportive programmes to provide support.
Professor Buckingham raised the important point that to develop the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ we need to let students “get out” – not be a clone of their principle investigator (PI) – as well as open their eyes to careers outside science and help them to succeed. Harriet made the point that it is difficult even to get PI/institutional support for gaining transferrable skills such as learning foreign languages, and one of the other delegates expressed frustration that his North American collaborators are facilitated to develop entrepreneurial and business skills; opportunities he felt were closed to him in his UK programme. The criticism of ‘funnelling’ to pure academia has been growing recently and was echoed by Dr Skingle, who outlined the essential skills required for graduates and postgraduates to be hired. Amongst them were the traditional areas that are often lamented as being lacking, such as skills in numeracy and communications, but he also stated:
- subject knowledge
- ability to solve real problems
- ability speak the language of different scientific disciplines
- knowledge of how different industries work; being a good team worker
- ability to network outside own area of science
- computer-based systems ability (e.g. smart data mining)
- ability to change and adapt.
However, his view was that GSK does generally get what it needs from graduates and that UK students match up well internationally.
Regarding the next steps, the HEC are running a number of roundtable events like the one outlined above, the outcomes of which will be combined with the written evidence received and reported to David Willetts (Minister for Universities and Science). We were informed that they intend to take a strategic view to Mr Willetts to present a clear picture. We’ll be following this with interest, as the issues surrounding postgraduate education in STEM have been overlooked for too long.