January 6, 2013

So you want to have a PhD? Tell more how do you swallow this spaghetti dish..

Collection of data is becoming everyday embarrassingly cheaper. The main problem so far is the storage, the organization and last but not least the harsh process of analyzing large data sets. The comprehension of complex phenomenon that might hide behind massive data matrixes could have useful implications in several critical aspects of our every day life. Often although, nevertheless the thorough attempts, the message behind publically financed research ends up not deciphered. Massive quantities of data are everywhere in today’s science. If you are doing science today, you are probably dealing with this kind of issues.
We call this, the BIG DATA problem

Now the question is: are common scientists on top of the situation? 

Well, solving big-data requires expertise in a variety of field (especially maths), and also high-computational power.

As is usually the case does this power depend on the ability of an institution to come up with enough financial resources in order to keep up with the technological needs. Unfortunately is this power often confined to big corporations and certain governmental institutions such as defense units.
The problem with these latter is that they are too biased by market logics and geopolitical goals.
Lastly, big institutions are not everywhere and the common and/or independent scientist deserve to access to big-data solutions like everyone, without the need to rely on a big institution, or on a huge grant. 
Also me: my father didn’t give me a super-computer and an army of data scientists for Christmas. Of course, i feel so bad for this. :(

Is my request impossible? 

While I was trying to solve such empasses, I discovered that this is only the tipping point of the iceberg. The solution i found, didn’t basically fit with current rules of science world. 
In order to get a clear picture,  let’s take a look on how science works nowadays. At an academic level, we still have highly contrasting hierarchical subdivisions of the academic system. To work yourself up, one has to bridge the huge gaps that divide these different sub-levels. The track that one has to follow is hard, especially in the country where I grew up: Italy.

Brain drain from "State of World's Science" on Scientific American

Moreover, in times of crisis, the rule is be outstanding, or be not!. Outstanding research is nowadays synonymous for “impactful, innovative and applied” research. And what about those with the ambition to study the cancer biology of groundhogs, or the disease mechanisms behind malaria? Do they deserve to do so for knowledge’s sake, or not? The clear trend we see nowadays is that people are rather motivated to put their energy in developing marketable products rather than investing their time in performing breakthrough basic research. If this is the direction, science in its original meaning is doomed. It is well known how basic research leaded in the past to astonishing results: e.g. Fire and Mello’s serendipity discover of RNAi is one of many great examples. Think about great scientists like Galvani and so on. The research that they performed was considered basic back than but has found its clear-cut implications decades and decades later on. But I do not need to come up with all these stories in order to to support my opinion, since i believe that knowledge itself is worth all the money we spend each year in other silly and useless business.
My mom used to say: “You may be deprived of money, home or family, but no one can ever take away your culture”.

How can we combine together the need of profits with the right of making basic research?

Returning to hierarchies we could say that in general, from the bottom we see: internship fellow, phD students, post-doc fellows, researchers, “professors”. In the academic system, progression of science and progression of career are based on publications. Publications give you credits, social recognition and access to grants. We will discuss this later.

The following I describe is the best case scenario in Italy.

Actually, when you are an internship fellow your responsibilities are low and you are basically nobody in the system based on publications. So, let’s start from a PhD student’s position. Let’s pretend that in this position you have won a scholarship and that for the years of your doctorate your earnings are just sufficient to pay your bills. However, you work hard, you are underpaid and you are dealing with a highly competitive system. Not being able to publish within your PhD period would immediately mark your career as ended and thus the system might push you to behave in an incorrect way (like cooking data). It emerges these days that quantity rather than quality matters. This implicates as well that on each and every single topic in science, contradictory information can be found on the World Wide Web.

phD comics
As a PhD student you are not sure that your name will be written on all the papers produced by the lab, but there are chances of that. And maybe even worse is getting your name in a paper that you almost not contributed to. In the end what counts are first name publications. Of course, you will write your final doctorate thesis, but this doesn’t count as a publication. Finally, you get your PhD and possibly you became a post-doc. Your publication rate rises (It should at least). Eventually you are one of the few to win a “fixed” position as a researcher. You start to apply for grants and possibly you win some. So you are now in the position of setting up your own research unity. You start to work on your beloved project. You think you are free, but actually you still rely on the “professor” that is at head of the institution you work for, because he and the institution are probably still paying for you the technicians and the facilities. Basically you are not 100% independent. So what happens here is that on your paper, the “professor” will sign as the Principal Investigator: what equals with taking the Principal benefits!
Anyhow, lets pretend that you were lucky enough to publish an article in a high- impact factor journal as first author! Great, the only problem is that by now you are 40, still going further on contracts that last no longer than 2 years. As you can see is the way up full with curves and obstacle what makes it a never ending slow process in Italy. This is how it works.

“This is how it works
It feels a little worse
Than when we drove our hearse
Right through that screaming crowd
While laughing up a storm
Until we were just bone
Until it got so warm
That none of us could sleep
And all the styrofoam
Began to melt away
We tried to find some worms
To aid in the decay
But none of them were home
Inside their catacomb
A million ancient bees
Began to sting our knees
While we were on our knees
Praying that disease
Would leave the ones we love
And never come again”
(On the Radio - Regina Spektor) 

Yes, this is how it works, at least in my country. Remember that this is the best case scenario! 
Not too bad, but i’m wondering if these heroes don’t deserve something better?
Is there a parallel universe with another way of living science in a more meritocratic, faster and reliable way?  

As I stated above, the progression of science at the academic level is based on scientific publications. This give you credits, access to grants, and social recognition. In one word: career. 
This I described is only a tiny scratch on a big broken glass. 

We will discuss on the next posts how publication systems work nowadays, and how they are  related to the quality and the progression of scientific research.


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