Research Culture: Changing Expectations

(Part 1 of 2)

Earlier this week (29-30th October 2018) I attended a meeting at the Royal Society (London) with an aim of considering the UK scientific research culture - identifying challenges, highlighting best practice and considering what the future UK research culture can and should be. This meeting is a culmination of a two year programme of events and consultations (see here).

The meeting was full of inspiring speakers and great ideas and this and my next post are a really very brief summary of just some of the ideas and messages that particularly spoke to me. I have referenced speakers throughout but some of these points may be my own interpretation and opinion.

Research Culture Change - It can Happen

The conference started with a talk by Dame Julia Slingo, former Chief Scientist at the Met Office. Dame Julia’s talk was a great way to kick of the meeting. Rather than talking about the ongoing challenges or ideas for the future, Dame Julia spoke about the research culture and environment at the Met Office when she began and the changes she implemented and how they impacted the culture, e.g. by improving diversity. One key idea that rose was the idea of 20% of researchers’ time set aside for continuing professional development (CPD). This idea came up again and again, often paired with the idea of a universal research income, i.e. some small amount of money available to all researchers with or without grants.

Features of an Ideal Future Research Culture

Following this there was an interactive panel chaired by Dame Georgina Mace. The panel proposed many revolutionary ideas of what an ideal future research culture would be. Dr Eugenia Cheng proposed removing duplicated effort by removing formal peer-reviewed journals and throwing out the current grants system. Dr Adam Rutherford agreed and further advocated the increasing of GDP spend on science and innovation in the UK. Dr Rutherford suggested that a substantial increase in funding would help with diversity and inclusivity and funding for early career researchers (ECRs).

The idea of giving scientists jobs and not grant, as per Dr Cheng’s comments, were of particular interest to Dr Richard Massey, a Royal Society University Research Fellow. Dr Massey proposed an ECR structure that mirrored the UK junior doctor system - researchers fresh out of their PhD are hired by universities as ‘junior scientists’ for a set time period. During this time these junior scientists may rotate through multiple labs or projects but they have the job security and CPD time needed to develop their own research ideas, applications and professional skills.

This career structure not only solves many ECR problems, e.g. lack of job security, constantly moving city, having to look for the next job as soon as you start this one, but also supports interdisciplinary researchers at this vital career stage. In the analogy of Dr Louise Heathwaite this will help to create a combination of ‘I’s, ’T’s, and ‘X’s. ‘I’s are traditional disciplinary scientists with excellent narrow expertise. ’T’s have an interdisciplinary base but still have a focus on a narrow area. ‘X’s, where I think I sit, have an interdisciplinary base, are able to identify a narrow niche but then actively bring in interdisciplinary ideas to answer that question.

The Pitch - Competition Final

As part of the Royal Society’s programme people were invited to submit ideas that could positively affect research culture. Many ideas were submitted and the top six were invited to a Dragon’s Den-esque session. I related to one in particular - ‘Octopus: a radical new approach to scientific publishing’, one of the winning entries.

Octopus, presented by Dr Alexandra Freeman, isn’t just about making publication open access but aims to completely break away from the traditional self-contained journal article concept. The journal article was devised in 1665 - over three and half centuries ago! When developed, it fitted the bill perfectly. The natural philosophers of the time studied many areas and journal articles needed to summarise the background, details the processes and present the results in the fewest printed pages possible. Having everything in one document made sense at the time.

Nowadays a field might see new articles every day! Each of these has an introduction that summarises the same research as other papers. The methods in these articles probably mirror the methods used by others or indeed in past papers by the same authors. The new and exciting bits are often the results, analyses and interpretation.

In Octopus, Dr Freeman and colleagues hope to break the traditional journal article into smaller chunks. If a scientist has a new hypothesis, they publish just that hypothesis, citing supporting results and analysis chunks already published separately. If a scientist thinks new information can be gained from some already published data they could run a new analysis and publish only this, citing the original results chunk.

In the Octopus world, scientists publish little but often. Peer-review is done online and openly through comments and ranking. This opens up science, speeds up science and minimises a lot of duplicated effort - excellent!

Chas Nelson
LKAS Research Fellow in Data Science

An interdisciplinary scientist with a background in quantitative microscopy and bioimage analysis.