There has been a growing concern among scientists on how to train the next generation of researchers. This last month I came into contact with an article by Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall in Microbe magazine titled Reforming Science as well as the editorial Next-generation training in Nature. As a young researcher just beginning what I hope will be a lifelong career in the sciences this article hits on so many areas that need to be addressed. Three points in this article stood out to me and I wanted to address them from the perspective of someone who is just starting out and looking for training opportunities that will prepare me to work in the modern scientific field. These areas are the broadening of the scope of knowledge of new PhD trainees, a realignment of the culture to support quality of work over quantity, as well as the call to generate more flexible career pathways for young scientists in order to prevent attrition from the sciences.
Both of these articles make a strong case for the broadening of scientific training for students beginning their careers. The idea of returning science to a branch of philosophy by increasing the amount of training in logic, epistemology, and ethics is a wonderful idea that I would be more than happy to undertake as a student. Ethics does already get some coverage at the coursework level but is often left with little emphasis after the course has finished. Additional training in ethics with an emphasis of learning how to observe our work through an “ethical lens” at all times could lead to better conduct and experimentation. Both articles also make an argument for increased instruction into statistics and probability. This is also a wonderful idea as a better understanding of statistics would lead to better experimental design and interpretation of results, leading to fewer retractions. Additional areas where PhD training could be strengthened are the computer sciences, bioinformatics, and professional development. Of these, professional development is critical for the modern trainee. Many students who complete the PhD process are not fully prepared for careers after graduation outside of academia. This could be remedied by seminars and workshops for graduate students and postdocs designed to strengthen skills in areas such as management, basic economics, and communication. Today’s students are clamoring for more diverse training opportunities as our futures after school are increasingly uncertain and we must be prepared to take on any of a variety of roles depending upon where our careers take us.
The realignment of scientific culture in order to promote quality research and work over mere quantity must also be given sincere consideration. Even with my limited amount of experience as a graduate student it is quite obvious that the “publish-or-perish” mentality that is so prevalent in academia is contributing to a highly toxic environment for researchers. Nuanced, time-intensive, and in-depth projects are passed over for those that are very concise, short-term, and ultimately more fundable even if they offer a smaller contribution to the body of knowledge. By divorcing promotion and tenure from strict publication counts and grant dollars obtained we could begin to institute a system that rewards investigators for non-research related but valuable activities such as teaching, outreach, mentorship, and support of other investigators. By rewarding these “soft” activities we can begin to create a culture more focused on the quality of research and training, not just mere quantity. It would allow us to foster more collaborative work and give credit to the increasing amount of collaborative publications that make up modern scientific literature. These are concerns that do need to be addressed as this is a systemic problem that contributes towards a toxic environment that does not foster good science.
The final point that I wish to touch upon is the generation of more flexible career pathways for the next generation of PhD students. This concept was outlined in Next-generation training in terms of the current British approach, which I believe could be successfully expanded upon and implemented in American graduate institutions. The author states up front that “the reality is that most Ph.D. students will not end up running an academic laboratory” and I agree with that sentiment even though I myself am working towards the day I do have my own lab. However, much of our training is geared to prepare us for this exact future and very little outside of it. Even those of us who do manage to carve out a successful space in academia will have to confront a variety of different tasks for which we have little to no training for such as teaching, administrative responsibilities, fiscal responsibilities, management, and public engagement. Training in these areas would not only increase job options for new PhDs, but allow for smoother transitions from academia into different fields of science. This concept dovetails nicely with the general expansion of training for Ph.D. students and will result in more flexible career options that will help prevent the attrition from science that is becoming all too common.
These reform movements are critical for strengthening science internally and externally. As Fang and Casadevall state, “Bad science is bad for society” and I could not agree more. We’ve already seen the dangers inherent in bad research making its way into the public consciousness with the recent unsettling drop in vaccination rates due to a faulty study published in the Lancet. Even though this paper has been summarily retracted and disproved; the anti-vaccine sentiment still persists among the public with real heath consequences. Bad science does not stay in the lab and must be combated by comprehensive reform just as these two articles stated. It is especially important that young researchers such as myself have a voice in this process as these changes will ultimately impact our careers and shape the scope of our lives.
Reforming Science by Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall
Next-generation training in Nature Reviews Microbiology