This is a cross post from a discussion thread on my facebook, after the UC Davis pepper spray incidence. There are interesting ideas that are worthwhile to think further. It is also interesting to see that there are scientists joining the actual Occupy protests… um.. I still think the problem is not merely the lack of funding, but is a fundamental issue of the business model for the contemporary scientific research.
Fai: After seeing what is happening in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially the very recent episodes at UC Davis, I cannot stop thinking about the resemblance between the current social issues and the problems that sincere research scientists at all levels are facing. In fact, part of the problems is caused by these social issues related to business and government policy; and many of us can easily tell a few personal stories. We have been trained to be critical of our work, why can we not be critical about the system as well? For example, if we were allowed to redesign our university and research system, what should we do to ensure that we will build a sustainable system for the society, students and scientists? I am intrigued in hearing from my friends who have been contributing in the field across the world.
Abel Chun: But the fact seems to be that politics rules the world. Like in HKU, there’re many good scientists for life science but they’re “workers” under the command of professors who come from Medicine, not PhD. After all, we have to apply for grants to survive but those who review the grants are bearing lot of power, managerial levels, and even some so-called scientists (eg. from ITF). If we write a grant proposal simply for “understanding the nature”, U will never get a penny. But if U say your research can lead to drug development, can make big $, ok, here U go.
Albert Hui: Changes only ever happen top-down. See what George Soros did to advance his open society movement? First make big money.
Winnie Tong: We are too specialised. Research training nowadays is very concentrated in speacilised techniques for specific narrow subject area and often one is pretty much stuck within one research area. It just limits our choices for jobs and power for negotiation. I knew some people would not mind being ‘workers’ for life. What they hate is the job insecurity every 2-3 years for all their working life. Even the universities offer some help at the end of each contract, usually it’s just putting you on a list for other research groups. You will be lucky if they are looking for your specific skill set, otherwise it’s good bye and good luck after a few months. If I can redesign the university and research system, everyone should have at least a few weeks of sabbatical time to actually work in a completely different research area.
Fai: Abel: it’s the same (censored) everywhere.
Fai: Albert: I always want to be a philanthropist.
Fai: Winne: that is indeed the core problem! Many good-hearted, intelligent people did not realize that the business model is actually a contest. And that is often not taught explicitly at school. I don’t think merely providing time to learn new skills without a wholesale improvement if the business model can alleviate the frustration of most participants.
Fai: Abel: and you would agree much of the creativity of the whole community is wasted on irrelevant stuff because of the business model.
Winnie Tong: True. But it’s something that can be done on our end now, at least if you have a good boss. Like what google does, allowing 10% time for blue-sky development. And say two weeks is like a long conference time, long enough to actually gain some hands on experience and network to other research groups. 1-3 days is just way too short. You tend to forget and less chance to touch any buttons. It would be much easier, say, instead of small little pots of funding within individual research groups, perhaps some of it can go to a centralised place. This pool of fund can be use to hire some more permenant research staffs, who can rotate between labs and groups. This is a bit like the industry where the same scientists may be put in several different projects instead of just one. This way you can utilise the avaliable man power better for more urgent projects. It will be great if the University and funding bodies can think of a way to adopt some of this industrial approach, but that probablywould mean PIs will have to let go of their control over their own funding and it is unlikely to happen.
Fai: Google’s approach is nice and is indeed the approach for many postdocs and graduate students. You always want to try something new. However that may not be for every one. The idea for centralizing and rotating staff is interesting, but I can imagine strong resistance at the administration level. The current model is project based and the school earns money from the government by getting support for new projects. Since staff who can perform a specific skill is related to a project, it is a budgeting nightmare to figure out how to rotate some core people around between different projects. It does require a whole new way of funding and administration. In addition, given the expensive staff and the financial situation, having centralized staff may not be a sustainable solution.
Winnie Tong: I think what’s demaging is that many people are only hired and involved in a single project. I think we can start small, say, two PIs share their research staffs between their projects. If each PI has one full-time staff, it means there will be two full-time people for two projects.
Fai: Without a concomitant change in the system, this bottom-up approach can be problematic. Project time will vary, who is going to pay for the staff when one project is terminated? Also the resolution on the staff time can also be problematic… this is the fundamental dilemma between the award-based system and the desire of many who would opt for a stable life.