Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Case Against Hard Work

Science is hard work. We spend  long hours in the lab and get frustrated when things don't work out.  It's all part of being in science, and we put up with it because we love science. But I say we've got it all backwards. 

Why does science have to be hard work? When things don't work out, the solution is not to work harder and do more experiments. The most important step is to think out your experiment properly. You need to read the literature. You need to identify a problem/question that is novel and interesting. You need to come up with a good idea on how to solve/answer it. You need to figure out an efficient way to conduct the experiment within the limitations and methods that are available to you. Then you need to plan your experiment, draw up a schedule, order/book/check the equipment and materials you need, make sure everything is available ready to go. Then you need to conduct the experiment in an organised, calm, accurate, and correct way. And then, you need to analyse and interpret the results, and think about how they fit into the big picture. 
This is the beauty of the scientific process; and it’s not just about lab work. The lab work is only a small part of it, and not even the most important part. The most important part is coming up with a good question. Because you could do all the experiments in the world and then find out you’ve answered an uninteresting, irrelevant question. Or even worse- a question that has already been answered. Significant does not mean interesting. And as I was reminded in the pub the other night, contrary to popular belief: not significant does not mean not interesting.

The first problem is that as PhD students, we tend to rely on our supervisors to do that first bit for us. And we completely trust them to be coming up with questions that are novel and interesting. This is frequently not the case. We turn into lab-robots, making up solutions and doing the pipetting, but having little say on what it is we’re working on. When, at the end of it all, we find that there was a problem with the original question, it becomes our fault.

The second problem is that the way we conduct experiments is often not optimal. A lot of the time, the methods and protocols we use are whatever we’ve been taught to use. When we are focused on producing as many results as possible before the weekly lab-meeting, we end up not caring  too much whether our methodology is optimal.

The third, and biggest problem, is 'publish or perish'. If it were up to me, I’d ban this expression from the scientific dictionary. Could there be anything more negative, more counter-productive, more stress-inducing than the idea that there’s no point to any of your work unless it gets published? It just zaps all the fun  and excitement out of science. It also threatens to undermine scientific honesty and integrity. Publication is supposed to be for 1) peer review and 2) dissemination. Instead, it has become a scientist’s lifeline, and I know that that’s the system and we're not going to change it. But I do think we need to straighten out our priorities. Instead of viewing the lab as a publication-printing-press, we need to take a step back and take a critical look at the science.  It is much more important to conduct a good experiment that answers an important question. And if you do that, there shouldn’t be any problem in getting it published anyway. And you can 'publish and flourish' then without anyone doing any nasty perishing.

No comments:

Post a Comment