Tomorrow’s Giants – Views and discussions

On the morning of July 1st, 2010 I had the chance to attend a conference called Tomorrow’s Giants, hosted by the Royal Society and Nature. It is part of a week of celebrations for the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society and it was held in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre, which is a really great venue.

The conference was divided in two parts, one with parallel sessions on three main topics: Data, Careers and Measuring and Assessment. The second part was a panel discussion regarding the three topics mentioned above.

Lord Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, opened up the conference at 9 am. He started with a statement about science becoming more internationally interconnected, in a World with an increased shifting of the intellectual centre of gravity towards Asia away and from Europe and North America.

‘The nature of science will be enhanced by computer technology’ he said and as a consequence there will be an increased capability to analyse huge data sets, not limited to centres of excellence. Furthermore, this enhanced computer power will help enable us to carry out computer simulations that are simply not thinkable at the moment. In some areas this has already happened, for example, he mentioned that wind tunnels have largely been replaced by simulations. Another issue that will have to be address is the fact that applications will present more difficult choices, not only in the technological sense, but ethically. These are issues that will engage us all and although ‘Many doors could be opened, it might be better to leave some of them closed – ethically speaking’.

Lord Rees pointed out that scientists will acquire the responsibility of engaging more and more with the public, and I would say that this is a trend that is already happening. He gave an example based on the scientists that worked in the Manhattan Project, who after having participated in the development of the atomic bomb, spent the rest of their lives campaigning against weapons. Nowadays, campaigners and bloggers are helping tasks that provide platforms to enable communication and engagement with the general public, but more needs to be done.

Lord Rees pointed out that although scientists are a diverse bunch, they have some things in common, for instance they all devout their careers to a particular subject. In general, the path is unpredictable and the payoff is usually delayed. They still have the freedom to pursue their interests, and although this can be seen as selfish, this is the way that successful research is achieved. It is not necessarily a frivolous choice.

Higher and further education will face great changes. There will be no future for the big Universities if they concentrate only on providing lectures without allowing channels for feedback. Lord Rees stressed that the UK has to remain a preferred place to do science. There are of course risks, as can be perceived by the falling of scientists coming to the UK, combined with the efforts from countries such as the US, France and Germany to attract more scientists. He closed his introduction by pointing out that what matters in international competitiveness is funding, and the country is facing a difficult position at the moment.

It was then time for Dr Phil Campbell, Editor-in-Chief at Nature, to address the audience. Campbell mentioned that the aim of the event is to help each other to make sure that tomorrow’s scientist have the correct infrastructure to pursue science, and introduced the format and organisation for the rest of the day. Most importantly he reminded us all that we can continue the debate and comments at the Nature Network Forum.

The audience was then separated into the three topics, and this was done with the conference badges provided during registration. In my case, I had a green dot, which meant that I was in the Measuring and Assessment Sessions.

Measuring and assessment session
The session was chaired by Prof David Sweeney, Director at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, who started the discussion by asking ‘why have we chosen to do what we do?’. The answers varied from passion and curiosity, to the simple fact that ‘it seemed to be a good idea at the time’. According to Sweeney, ‘there is no greater calling than going to places where no one else has gone’. The fact that a lot of scientists are driven by their initial curiosity, makes me think of academics as grown-up children, specially when the answers to ‘how do we know that we have succeeded?’ is by looking at how we have changed the World. Call me a cynic, but I do not believe that that it is a realistic measure to check our level of success, otherwise, only a handful of scientists would be considered successful, particularly because the impact in the World is not immediate in the vast majority of the cases. I believe that we should provide the right environment for scientists to be able to come up with incremental contributions to their fields. The addition of these contributions is then able to provide that ‘World change’.

It was largely acknowledged that there are a number of different objectives that can be taken into account in order to come up with an assessment scheme. It was obvious that the elephant in the room was very much present: funding.

Measures of success
When asked what would be a good measure of success, I was very surprised to hear that ‘making a difference’ was even mentioned. I am not sure how some people would go about measuring that, but then again they might have some pretty good ways, you never know.
The usual measures of ‘peer recognition’ and ‘citations’ were measured, and it was acknowledged that although they are important, we need to look at a broader measure.

The discussion moved then unto the people for whom we do science. The most immediate answer: The taxpayer… I really enjoyed when a member of the audience jumped up pointing out that ‘it seems that a lot of the times we do forget that scientists are also taxpayers! We do pay your salary!’. This guided the discussion to address the fact that although funding bodies provide guidelines as to what are the research directions to pursue, they have to realise that providing freedom for the researcher is a better value for their money in the long run.

Sweeney then said that ‘Facing a cut of around 25%, we need to talk about the damage that will be done to the long-term results. I partially agree with this, but I believe that we need to make the case to protect long and short-term projects. There are obviously funding bodies with different perspectives, processes and objectives, both for the long and short term. We were reminded that not all funding bodies provide all the costs, and in general we cannot fund all of our research from charities.

Metrics are evil
At least those were the words that Sweeney uttered at this point in the discussion. He continued by saying that ‘if you get a £1 million award, you might want to consider paying £2 to make it go away’, in the sense that grants are ultimately managed by Universities, and they have different objectives to those of the individual scientists. The general assessment was that any single measure is in fact poisonous, assessment cannot be done by a single number or indeed by a basket of numbers. For example, citations are not appropriate for grant funding and according to Sweeney, research careers are inherently discriminatory by using citations!

Some interesting statistics that we were presented with:

  • 18 UK universities in the world top 100
  • 12% share of the world’s scientific citations for 1% of the population
  • 11% of international trade in higher education
  • Generating value of 55Bn pounds to the economy and promoting important health and social benefit

I believe that it is hard work to get research funding wherever you are. The costs of our research have grown and grown and we might be in a bubble, we might not be able to sustain it. Where have I heard that before…

A very interesting result came up when the issue of having strategic areas of science was touched. In. A very quick poll, it turned out that the vast majority of the people present was against the idea of funding science based on having strategic areas. This is creating a certain amount of tension between scientists and funding bodies, it is difficult to tell people that (as we saw at the beginning of the session) are driven by passion that they can’t do what they find interesting, but instead go and do something else! I guess the view could be summarised as: Decisions are better taken by scientists fully engaged with society.

Blue-skies research is seen by the community not to be supported. The audience voted for not getting strategic funding solely! From the viewpoint of the funding agencies, it is natural to try to get the best value for money, however, there has to be recognition of excellence at different levels.

In terms of assessing quality it is in general possible, but by no means there is a perfect methodology. is possible but it is not perfect. For example, the RAE has been criticised because it causes physics departments to close down, however according to Sweeney, ‘we are not in it to protect the jobs of physicist’, but to assess the quality of their research.

In a nutshell, the biggest danger is to treat the measuring and assessing as a game. It is not a matter of double-guessing what boxes to tick in the applications, but to aim for excellence. We of course will have to deal with the unpalatable subjects raised, but a reflection exercise about how we are being assessed and how the funding money is used is a reasonable thing to do.

Key questions

  • How do we demonstrate to government and ourselves our contribution?
  • How do we manage volume?
  • Can we manage volume?
  • How selective should we be in awarding excellence?
  • How much does excellence depend on other work?
  • Should we manage concentration artificially?
  • How important is truly ‘critical’ mass?
  • Funding middle-ranking work while ceasing to fund excellence?
  • Autonomy/Academic Freedom is non-negotiable

It was very useful to have a feedback session where the discussions of the three parallel sessions were summarised. Here I include some of the things that were presented in the other two sessions

The major discussion was related to the emergency new tools, as well as forms and policies to share data. There were various points of view from different communities and some very contrasting ones for at matter, in particular in terms on how to share the data. It seems that some experiences form the crystallography and proteomics communities were discussed.
A conclusion was that it is easy to get money to set up a data storage facility within a project, but maintaining it turns out to be a challenge. It was then again pointed out that crystallographers have an infrastructure that they have maintained for a long period of time and charge for using it. The value of having a lot of datasets is its longevity and we need to ensure its availability.

There was general excitement in sharing the data, and the vast amount of data available would allow us to improve research and come up with new questions. However, there was a preoccupation of how to share the data. A lot of the time we need to explain how the data was used, but it is not always possible to do it in the public eye, and inevitably the example from climate change came up to the table. One way is to share the data among scientists, and the other is to make it publicly available.

We already share data, but we need to acknowledge the fact that there are issues to be addressed.

It takes a long time to build a career and there is a difference between long term and short-term support and funding. There seems to be a tendency to get weak results from hot topics, but that is not always a good way to go about long-term career building.
A key question that was asked, but for which there was no obvious answer was related to how to ensure continuous support for core members of a research team, i.e. postdocs, junior researchers, etc.

Interdisciplinary communication needs to be addressed and make sure people work together. In that respect, it was agreed that communication and policy are important and that it has to be remembered that they are two-way processes.

Support for families and women were another issues discussed. It was very disheartening to hear someone say that ‘the worst thing that happened to their career was to have kids’.

It is very important to provide mentoring at critical states for first postdocs or recent PhDs and it has to be done by the right people. In that sense, there is a lack of training available for early stage scientists, for example, training to write grant applications at an early stage is very important. A lot of people end up being trained by peers after they have managed their first breakthrough.

Doing science and creating knowledge is a contribution to society itself. Having an opportunity to talk to other scientists about the issues we are facing is great and I hope that the funding body representatives as well as editors and policy makers present do take note of some of the views and opinions that were presented in this event. Let us continue working to provide the right environment for Tomorrow’s Giants.

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