The Ethics of Science Funding a.k.a. Murky Waters of Income Generation

I love academia. I love it for the sake of it, because the pursuit of knowledge for its own ends results in a better world. To educate and study purely with the furtherance of knowledge as a goal leads to a better informed, empowered and more innovative society. I believe that, in turn, engenders compassion, empathy and concern for the people and things that surround us. It has led and will continue to lead to great discoveries, from directed research and serendipitous leaps of faith. I have plied my trade at my current university, in one guise or another, for a decade – a decade that has seen a marked change in the higher education sector in the UK, moving towards a more commercialised model from the introduction of tuition fees to the wider market changes in the progressively more monetised arena of higher education provision. I’ve been on the receiving end of salaries from a variety of funding sources and experienced the peaks and troughs of the funding landscape first hand with a series of short-to-medium term contracts with no continuity guaranteed, often running to the final moment before any final funding decision has been made. I don’t necessarily think that this is the best way to foster scientific progress or that it is the best use of the funding council’s money that they so kindly spent on my PhD qualification, but it is something that I accepted before I embarked on this career track. I also accepted that the extremely hard work I put into requalifying in science as an older student and worker would likely go ignored in an area where that kind of dedication and obvious ability is discounted in the face of younger workers with longer publication records and no periods of career redirection. They are the lucky ones, to have found their career track straight from university and followed a more conventional route. They will be the future lectures and professors but that’s fine by me. I love getting my hands dirty and working at the lab bench and I’m quite happy to remain tied to it. I have even accepted without much rancour that my choice to have a family makes me often less valuable as an employee, again a break in my work history but a choice I am proud to have made when I realise the potential of this next generation that we’re raising. It is not until my most recent contract that I came across practices in academia that are so worrying that it moved me to blog about it.

Imagine a hypothetical university where, instead of academic research, staff are employed to service external commercial contracts, where experienced lab workers with good research pedigrees and PhDs are prevented from advising students or collaborating with staff outside the direct department. Imagine, if you will, the dystopia that would result from this lack of communication and collaboration – surely it would be an alternate world working in a completely contrary fashion to the cross-discipline environments that led to the discovery of things like DNA, where enthusiasm and engagement with a problem draws people in from the wider academic field and brings novel perspectives to research questions. It wouldn’t be much of a step from such a negative environment to predict that work could soon be locked away behind non-disclosure agreements where the university’s research time and facilities are put to work investigating scientific questions, not with a view to improving the global scientific knowledge-base, neither with the aim of high quality publications in the open research community, but instead to serve organisations that fund and have their own vested interests in the data generated, organisations who hold the ultimate sway over whether or not researchers are allowed to make their findings public. I’m sure the cry from such an organisation would be that the funders have a right to withhold information from the public as they have paid for the time, but what responsibility do researchers have to the country that trained and funded them and to the principles and ideals of universities as academic institutions not private data generating sources. Would these researchers bear some form of culpability? In the real world, I’m sure that they would be the first to acknowledge that their position is not an ideal one but often this could be the result of a choice between using their training in some way or wasting the years spent achieving the highest level of academic and technical excellence in fields unrelated to their chosen career. There may also be an element of devotion to the attempt at least, to keep academia academic, something that is impossible to achieve should they leave the sector altogether. In whose hands would it then rest and would they be trustworthy guardians?

I’m sure that this model of academic science would please our incumbent government, one that lacks an understanding of the process involved in good research and fails to understand that not everything can have a price tag attached to the end result from the outset. Their failings are exemplified in the attitude that academic research should be a business and that big business should serve as a model for best practice. I don’t wish to imply that nothing can be learnt from commerce or that academia is perfect – it has its flaws and there is a lot of good that can be distilled from a commercial model – but I do caution against the attitude that things without obvious commercial potential lack worth.

I think by now you may have guessed that this hypothetical dystopian academic world is not some kind of dismal prediction for the future but a very real description of the present. As scientists and academics, the question remains whether we will choose to accept this or whether we will fight to retain academic independence and the ideal upheld through history of academic seats of learning as places driven by the desire to forward knowledge not lock it away. I know which side of the fence I fall on.

Science on Sunday

4823926748_704b8f5f51_bTales from the Frontline: Rationale

What makes a scientist?  On the surface, it seems like a simple question.  I imagine a lot of people, in and out of the scientific field, think that good postgraduate scientists come up through the traditional path of school specialisation, degrees and not much deviation from the well-trodden route.  When you’re on the outside, graduate science can seem like an impentrable field that ‘other people’ do but that is inaccessible to ‘people like you’.  It’s an easy trap to fall into.  If you come from a background devoid of PhDs, with nary a Dr in sight, then academic science can appear to be a foreign country with strict visa regulations.  It would certainly have changed my whole academic path, had I had educators when I was younger who made it clear how accessible postgraduate study was.  I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that they themselves weren’t privy to the inside view on this kind of life.  I have a strong belief that higher education should be accessible to all who have the ability, regardless of background.  It’s an easy thing to write but a harder goal to achieve.  PhDs can seem so lofty from the outside that many potentially good candidates don’t regard themselves as such because they have an unrealistic view of what is required to complete one.  I’m not implying that PhDs are something everyone can or should do but I want everyone to be able to consider them as a potential option, to be dismissed for real reasons, rather than to never consider them at all because they seem like something other people do.  I know that real stories of lab work and of the path that people took into science bore the responsibility for setting me on the road I’m still working on.  I know that once I made it past the invisible barrier and into the lab, the barriers to higher study seemed to disappear because it became evident I could do it equally as well as many people I worked alongside as a technician.  So, in the hope of dispelling the myths of separation that science sometimes upholds, I am going to use this weekly spot to tell you some of my scientific history and a little bit of what I do every day in the lab.  I hope that someone might read this and think, ‘You know what?  I can do that too.’

The Press Box: MMR

So, this week’s news is all about MMR again.  I’m a parent.  I’m a scientist.  I vaccinate.  When the media start to tell me I shouldn’t, I go to the academic source papers and I read the actual experimental reports before deciding how much I should trust that advice.  That means I was likely one of the few people outside of the direct medical community that read the original Wakefield paper that caused this situation in the first place.  I was unimpressed, either with his credentials or with the science that was described there, for many reasons.  Most of these failings of the work, alongside Wakefield’s conflict of interest, have been discussed now (better late than never) elsewhere and I’m not going to rehash them here.  What did surprise me is that the science journalists who originally reported the spurious linkage between vaccinations and autism, the people on whom the general public were reliant when it came to dissemination of data, appeared either to have bypassed reading the original paper, taking instead the Wakefield tainted press release as a basis for their story, or to have completely misunderstood the fairly glaring failings of the work presented there.  Again though, the quality of front page science journalism is most eloquently taken to task by others and it is not my aim to make war on that here.

What I have noticed though, is the tendency to demonise the parents who chose not to vaccinate their children, to imply they are deficient or rather dumb for making a decision that many people who understand the science realise is wrong.  In a case of mea culpa, I sometimes have to stop myself from getting angry with them too, after all, when vaccinations do not always induce immunity, the herd immunity of the population that these non-vaccinating parents are endangering also endangers my child or future children should measles become prevalent again.  Then I take a step back and give myself a strong talking-to.  What I’ve learnt from parenthood is that you spend an awful lot of your time in a state of fear and anxiety over the health of your offspring.  We are not a rational bunch.  Being a scientist and in possession of a library e-journal collection, I channel that into research about potential dangers.  I wouldn’t expect other people to do that.  I had measles as a child and having suffered it and studied it as a disease, I’m fully aware of the dangers it poses.  For many parents with no memory of it as a common condition, it seems no more dangerous than a case of chicken pox.  Combine that with irresponsible press reportage and you have an anxiety time bomb.  I don’t think that we can blame parents for believing the stories that papers print.  Maybe not now, after this MMR scare has seen the light of day, but certainly before then, science journalism was seen as wielding authority, I think.  It’s not a fair assessment to blame parents for not questioning the headlines they read coming from people who, I’m sure, they thought were more qualified than they were to comment on this subject.  It is fair to blame the editors who hire these journalists and pass their work for publication for not questioning the headlines but instead launching them onto front page news space.  There are a lot of exceptional science journalists out there but MMR shows that often the voice of science is not the exceptional but the most headline-grabbing.  In a week when a respected broadsheet, The Independent, actually gave Wakefield the front page again, treating him as if he had a valid opinion on this and was not the discredited, ethically-tainted individual he really is, I think it is a good time to remind the mainstream news media that they have a responsibility to accurately and critically report science rather than to sensationalise it for front page headlines.  The news media didn’t cause the MMR debacle.  It was a perfect storm of events.  It did fan the waves and make them higher and it cannot be absolved of this responsibility if we are to prevent another ‘MMR’.

Book Reviews: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good:
Bad Science
Bad Pharma
The Double Helix

The Bad:
The Virus Hunters

The Ugly:
Farmer Buckley’s Exploding Trousers