Scientific research culture: winners and losers in the laboratory rat race

Ottoline Leyser

Ottoline Leyser, Deputy Chair of Council and Professor of Plant Development and Director of    the Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge



I have just reread The Double Helix, James Watson’s story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. What struck me most about it is the strong theme of raw and naked ambition running through it. Of course Watson is excited about the biological implications of the double helical DNA structure, and also by its elegance as a solution to a longstanding conundrum. But my overriding impression is that his main motivation was to win the race, to be the first and to beat the opposition. It would be foolish to deny that this is an important motivation for many people, driving them to do all kinds of things – climbing mountains, sailing round the world, founding companies, and for scientists, discovering previously unknown things about life, the universe and everything.

For most researchers there is a complex mix of factors keeping them in the lab late at night, or preoccupying their thoughts as they do the washing up. Answering how and why questions is profoundly satisfying. The solutions being sought are often very beautiful, and of course it is exciting to be the first to know. Beyond all this, the knowledge is likely in the near or distant future to be useful in making the lives of people better. These motivating forces bring people into scientific research, and they should also protect the research process from corner cutting, misconduct and out and out fraud. There is no satisfaction in being the first to propose a flawed solution, a flawed solution is not going the help improve people’s lives, and if your solution is flawed, sooner or later you will be found out.

But there is growing concern that the culture of scientific research in the 21st century is working against these ethical research ideals. Competition has always played a role in science, but now it is fiercer than ever, with the growing number of researchers, the escalating expense of cutting edge research, and a squeeze on funding. The process of deciding who should receive the funding essential to maintain a research programme has become increasingly dominant, and the mechanisms for deciding have evolved in parallel. More and more, the assessment focuses on the recent performance of the researcher. Have they published their research in “top-flight” journals? Have they won prestigious prizes or fellowships? Does their research have a high public profile or potential economic or social impact? These assessment measures are increasingly taken as defining “good” research. But do they really support high quality ethical research, or do they encourage hyperbole, corner cutting, selective reporting, secretive data hoarding and even fraud?

Assessing the quality of research is a very difficult business. It is not about whether the ideas are right or wrong- being wrong is an important part of science. Falsification of hypotheses is how science moves forward and when exploring the unknown, wrong turns can be extremely informative. Before the Watson and Crick paper of 1953, the double Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling published a triple helix model. It is often not possible to tell how significant a new idea is until it has been tested and examined from many different directions, and short-term utility is no guarantee of long-term impact. Watson and Crick did not win their Nobel Prizes until 9 years after they published their double helix solution for the structure of DNA, and in publishing it they were explicit that it was an untested proposal that needed rigorous assessment.

Today we have launched a survey to gather the opinions and experiences of all those engaged in scientific research in the UK. We welcome responses from researchers at all stages of their careers. In addition to the survey, a series of events across the UK will take place this summer to discuss with scientists and other stakeholders their views on these issues. As well as researchers, we are interested in hearing from university managers and support staff, professional bodies, funders of research, editors and publishers of scientific journals, science communicators, social scientists, relevant policy makers, and NGOs and campaigning bodies concerned with the practice and conduct of science. We will use the information we gather to help identify the pressures and challenges currently experienced by researchers, and consider how this affects the behaviour of researchers and the production of ethical, high quality research. The findings of the survey and events will be published towards the end of 2014.

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