Monday, November 7, 2011

The circle of science

"There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found"

Many of you know this part of the lyrics of "The lion king". I think it reflects nicely the driving force of most scientists that I know, or at least my own. Actually, I like to think that I continue the line of those famous explorers of the the last centuries: Stanley, Amundsen, Sarmiento de Gamboa, Magallanes,...jut to mention a few. It may sound a bit pretentious. However, at a reduced scale, I believe that my excitement when opening the incubator to check the outcome of the last experiment after an overnight incubation is similar to the feelings of those great explorers when reaching the end of the journey. I enjoy the daily life at the lab, even the small things: when a cloning is done or when we construct a new bacterial mutant lacking a, hopefully, new virulence factor. But it is a long, tough, dificult process to get to this situation. I will leave for another post the description of the so-called "scientific career". Instead, for those not familiar, I will summarize here the whole process of "doing science"

1-. Get the money.
Yes, we apply for money to pay for the costs of reagents, lab space, the use of equipment, name it. And we apply for the money in competition with other colleagues. Since in most countries research is mainly funded by tax-payers the idea is to fund only the best among the best. The ratio of success is not fixed but roughly 60-70% of the projects will not be funded. Who does decide this? Its system has its own pecularities but the general common principle is to take decsions based on "peer-review". In the Spanish system, each submitted grant is evaluated by at least 4 experts who write an in-depth report on the scientific quality of the project and the capacity of the leading scientist. For the latter a key point is the publication record, quantity and quality of the papers, during the last 3-4 years. The final decision on whether the project should be funded is taken by a panel of scientists chaired by a well-known scientist. Members of this panel are the reviewers who wrote the reports without knowing each other. Panel members may spend 2-3 days to rank all the submitted projects and only top ones will get funded. If we have not been successful then we should wait at least 6-12 months for a new application. Two strikes may affect promotion, our own salary and even may lead to be fired.

2-. Get the people.
Great, we got the grant! Now we should start working on the project. A key point is to recruit the best junior scientists (graduates and postdocs) who will run the project. I strongly believe that you are as good as the worst of your junior scientists. Their work is essential for the success of the project. Actually, they do the real work!! While junior scientists are having fun in the lab, the leading scientist is overloaded by teaching, writing reports, reviewing papers and grants, attending comittees... The project is the framework where graduates will get scientific training and learn important  things such as: put always positive and negative controls in the experiments, think critically, write a manuscript...For postdocs, their work should help them to publish, hopefully, a handful of high rank papers. This is essential for the next step on their career: getting a faculty position. Altogether, the research group should work in the most efficient way to get the first results as soon as possible...before the competitors. Yes, there are always other labs elsewhere working better and faster than us. Eventually they will publish their findings before.

3-. Publish the results.
After a year or two of work, there is enough material to write a manuscript summarizing all the findings. After careful editing, the manuscript is submitted to a scientific journal. An Editor from the journal will firstly consider the work and in less than three working days will assess the impact and quality of our work. Not too bad considering that for you it has taken more than a year to put together the material. Eventually, the manuscript will be reviewed by two-three experts who will write a recomendation on our study in 20 days. Based on these reports, the Editor will reach a decision. In many cases, more experiments should be done to satisfy the reviewers and the Editor but now the time is limited (60-90 days). In other occasions, the manuscript is rejected and then we should submit our work to another journal. But, finally, we receive the good news by e-mail: our manuscript has been accepted for publication. An yes, believe it or not, we should also pay to publish our manuscript.

And...we need to renovate our grant and the whole process starts again...I guess that this circle sounds a bit crazy. We are one of the few professions that apply for money to work in a competitive basis. Further, we are routinely evaluated by the quality of the work done. Just recently a colleague told me "I believe that there is a psychiatric syndrome that affects us. We should have, at least, thousands of damaged neurons. Otherwise, it is dificult to understand why someone would get into science considering that we need to pay to do our work!!". Lately I do agree with his view and get depressed. But then a PhD student run an experiment confirming our working hypothesis and the spirit of the great explorers takes over again.