Archive for November, 2014

Science is Broken: How, Why and When?

Monday, November 17th, 2014

The title of this blog post is something that has been discussed a lot in the last months. The scientific system is broken everywhere and there is no easy solution to fix it. Well, three years ago, in 2011, I wrote a blog post after an Interview to the scientific journal Nature Medicine (see my interview here “Brazilians lured back home with research funding and stability”) about differences on how to do science in the United States and Brazil. At that time, I was in a limbo and stayed there until now. (For my entire blog post check out “My thoughts on Biomedicine in Brazil”). At that time, things were already shaky and federal funding was collapsing with cuts from budgets and the economic crisis in the United States. Brazil had a good economic prognosis and growth. Guess what? I am back to Brazil after working as a Post-Doc, Research Scientist, etc, etc in the United States. I am back not because things in Brazil are or have been better in Academia or Science, because they are not. I am back because the United States is in a huge scientific crisis. A recent article in the Boston Globe discusses (check the entire article entitled “Glut of postdoc researchers stirs quiet crisis in science”) that the lives of humble biomedical postdoctoral researchers was never easy mainly because of the obscurity in a low-paying scientific apprenticeship that can stretch more than a decade (exactly the timeframe I spent training in the United States). The long hours of work are not worth it for the expected reward and the chance to launch an independent laboratory and do science that could expand human understanding of biology and disease is slim nowadays. There is a bulk of very well and smart post-docs with Ph.D.s in Biomedical Science that are getting stuck in the eternity of a “Post-Doctoral Fellow”. And if the person is lucky to have funds from the government, the laboratory they work or from family donations they can do science. If they do not have it, they are in a limbo. In my case, I am very thankful for the Maeve McNicholas Family that lost a daughter with a brain tumor and have donated resources and money for 7 years to maintain my research in Chicago (for more on the Maeve McNicholas Memorial Foundation and also to donate click here). Matt and Denise McNicholas are the most wonderful people I ever met. From a very sad and burdening fact – loosing a child – they created a Foundation under their child’s name and also constructed a park with Maeve’s name. This makes a big difference now that federal funding is getting slim (check this NPR piece on the situation right now “Top Scientists Suggest A Few Fixes For Medical Funding Crisis”). Foundations such as The Bill and Melinda Gates, The Michael J Fox, and others can and will make the difference right now. I am not sad because I left the United States and will start my career from zero in Brazil. I am just frustrated for a generation of young investigators that cannot share their ideas in a totally closed system from the Medieval times. Science is broken and needs a fix right now! I also created a group on Facebook named “Science is Broken” to help reshape this broken system. Things are so bad right now that a group of scientists even wrote an article in PNAS (a well respect journal from the United States Academy of Science) giving suggestions for fixing the broken scientific system since they see lots of bright people leaving science to pursue other careers. A whole generation of very bright and smart people will choose not to go in a scientific and academic career because all they hear is that scientists, especially Post-Docs, are struggling and will struggle for a long time. The authors of the PNAS piece (for the entire article check out “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws”) discuss that the long-held but erroneous assumption of never-ending rapid growth in biomedical science has created an unsustainable hypercompetitive system that is discouraging even the most outstanding prospective students from entering our scientific profession and making it difficult for seasoned investigators to produce their best work. The authors suggest that all the scientists; especially the ones with well-established laboratories, should rethink fundamental features of the whole biomedical research ecosystem. Specific suggestions are: 1) Planning for predictable and stable funding on science and 2) Bringing the biomedical enterprise in sustainable equilibrium by educating graduate students early on, by broadening the career path for young scientists, by changing the way post-doctoral fellows are trained and using more staff scientists. They also suggest a new way of evaluating the performance for scientific accomplishments of well-established researchers with more teaching and web-based tools. In addition, they question that the whole grant submission and analysis system needs to be changed. I believe the situation is really bad and complex. Since Medieval times science is done the same way. We need re-evaluations and changes that will impact now and not for future generations of researchers. The way things are going on in Academia, there will not be a next generation. People have lives, families and hobbies. Science is a devotion like religion for some, but things are changing. We, and by we I say all young scientists, have bills to pay and a whole life in front of us. We deserve respect and better paychecks! We deserve better opportunities! Science is broken but I will not follow this path. I am back in Brazil and will start a new life. Thank you America for these ten years of training at Harvard and Northwestern Universities and for not offering me a decent academic job in your land. I still have hope that this is not a goodbye forever. Changes are needed and time will tell if I will be back to the United States of America. For now, I will enjoy the weather and the summer in Brazil and fight for science here. (Photo by Toban Black)