Now that the Marles-Wright Laboratory is no longer a ‘virtual’ lab, in the sense that it isn’t just me and a laptop anymore, now seems like a good time to put out a little introduction and set out the scientific culture I’d like to foster as an independent researcher and lab head.
Since starting my Chancellor’s Fellowship in Edinburgh, I’m lucky to have found and employed a really promising RA and managed to secure funding for an EASTBio PhD student for the Autumn term. I have projects, networks and staff, now we just need start doing some serious science and start thinking about output and grant income. The culture of a lab is an important factor in determining success in these terms, as well as influencing the opportunities for training and professional development of staff and students, visibility, and atmosphere of working in a lab.
Being a lab head is a massive challenge, certainly for an early career researcher, when we are facing huge changes in the HE sector. The influence of student fees increases is already being felt in decreased number of applicants to certain courses and greater expectations of the students now that they are paying what amounts to the cost of a small flat for their course. Research funding is being cut and what is left is being directed into potentially narrow priority areas, making establishing a track record of successful funding seem increasingly difficult. The nature of PhD training is changing as we are waking up to the reality of the academic pyramid scheme where 5 %, or less, of PhDs make it into faculty posts.
We’re also in the midst of a second wave of interest and innovation in open science. New publishing models from PLOS, eLIFE, and PeerJ, are challenging the traditional academic publishers; and the cause is being vocally supported by Michael Eisen (co-founder of PLOS), Cameron Neylon, Stephen Curry to name only a few active advocates. The US and UK governments and funding bodies appear to be on board with OA, although there is some debate as to whether either are going far enough with respect to pushing open access to government funded research and how the transition to full OA is going to be managed (see this blog post from Stephen Curry on a recent Royal Society meeting on Open Access).
I am hugely excited by the opportunity I have as a new Fellow to make my own way in academic science and build my own research group. The challenges that are clearly present at the moment make that even more exciting to me. I see this as an opportunity to take some risks and do things differently to my previous labs. One of the the big lessons I have learnt from my time as a PhD student and Post-doc is that there are as any lab cultures as there are labs: each PI and group have their unique quirks, politics, and ways of doing things that look odd, and sometimes outright bizarre, to outside observers. I’ve worked in two amazing structural biology labs, one well established, the other relatively new; and in the years in them I have learnt my trade, done some great science and made some good friends. Now I have an opportunity to set up my own lab, I want to take some of the best aspects of those lab cultures and mix in my own ideas to make something different, not strictly better, but an evolution.
Open science, open access and greater engagement is something that I want to instil into the core of my lab culture. I am keenly aware of the transformative potential of science being conducted in the open, of having open access to all publicly funded science, and the potential for enhanced collaboration and engagement that should come with that. I have drunk the Kool Aid and since I have taken up my post as a Chancellor’s Fellow at Edinburgh, I have published two papers in open access journals and am experimenting with the potential of figshare, and this blog, as tools for maximising engagement and leveraging impact.
I am also keenly aware of the slow pace of change in academic science. The funding bodies might be pushing for increased openness and collaboration, but those same funding bodies are still focused on funding research that has high impact. One impression I have is that we are still using journal impact factors as lazy shorthand for impact. Recruitment panels, grant committees, and journal editorial boards still seem to be using the publication record as a proxy for looking at the merits of a scientists’ work. I’ll admit that I have definitely benefitted from this with a paper in Science, two in the EMBO journal and a JEM paper, but with the squeeze on funding and the growth in open access journals and the alternative models of the mega-journals like PLOS One and PeerJ we need a new measure of academic impact.
The argument that as academic scientists we are probably some of the only people producing something who pay both for both the production and consumption of our work and that this is unsustainable has been put much more eloquently than I can by most of those mentioned earlier as being champions of OA. It is true though, and the racket that is academic publishing is no longer sustainable in a world where funding is being squeezed by a global collapse caused people who are clearly as statistically illiterate as those who use JIFs. My colleagues in the humanities are wary of open access, but this seems to stem from a cultural problem, where they are unused to paying publication fees and fear the loss of the scholarly imprimatur by having to do something so ghastly as pay for placement. I can appreciate their argument, but I come from a cultural position where paying for placement has always been a reality. In fact, paying for open access in a traditional journal seems to amount to paying two and a half times for a piece of work. Once for the placement, once to make it open, and the half the library still has to pay for the paper copy/subscription to the still pay-walled material. How can anyone argue this is a sensible model for access to science funded by public bodies?
I want to build my laboratory culture on openness, in the sense of publishing in OA journals wherever possible (I’ll come to my caveats in a bit), but going further by running a group that doesn’t have the strict hierarchy of some of the more established labs, involving my staff in decision making processes that affect the group and their careers and not withholding information from them out of some sense of having power. I’m in a privileged position of having made it to junior faculty and have a responsibility to both my career and to some degree to the careers of the people who work for me.
Which brings me to the caveats and the tensions at the heart of my mission as a scientist. I want to do the best, most interesting science that I can. To do that I need to bring in funding; and for that, I need to publish and maximise my impact. There are people who have taken massive risks, Ethan Perlstein for one, with their careers by opening up completely and the jury is still out as to whether they will succeed on their alternative paths. I would like to think they will and the new open path will be rewarding and productive. But as a PI I have to consider the future careers of my PhD students my RAs along side my career. As long as funders and tenure committees are using JIF, or at least the perception that the imprimatur of Nature/Cell/Science gives impact, as a shorthand for academic success and only paying lip service to openness and collaboration, a junior academic has to remain cautious as to how far they are willing to take an idealistic stand on open science.
I am going to try to plot a course that steers towards openness where possible, but I am sure there there will be important compromises that I have to make to be able to stay in the game and ensure a future in science for myself and my staff. Somewhere in between, where ideals meet practical reality, is the reality of my academic science, but these are exciting times and I hope to be in a position to make some positive changes to how we do things.