Passion, Silos and Friction: a personal account of free roaming between disciplines

There are grants, there are great words written, there seems to be strong support, but how working between disciplines really work? Let me tell you at least how this has worked for me. This is a long read, but if you do not wish to go at the bottom of it, my advice (sadly) is the advice I once received and did not follow (with no regrets): consolidate your career in one discipline/department/subject (silo?), then you will be free to roam between disciplines at a later stage.

Ralls_Texas_Grain_Silos_2010
Does science works in silos? (picture from Wikipedia.org, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A very early choice to work across discipline* | As a young boy, alongside sports, I picked-up electronics and computers as hobbies leading me to select scientific studies at high school. I then matured a keen interest in physics and biology. When the time came to decide which courses to follow at University, I  wanted to combine these interests, applying Physics to understand Life. However, I was undecided if to pursue this growing passion through studies in medicine, engineering, physics or biology. In a very uncharacteristic move for me, as a shy youngster from a family of non-academics and from a town without a university, I found myself sneaking into the Department of Physics at the not-too-far University of Genoa asking to speak with a scientist to get advice. I still remember that a Dr Rossi at the CNR in Genoa explained to me how I could approach my interest following different paths. While I never met again Dr Rossi and I do not recall the details of my visit, on that day and after speaking with him,  I decided to study Physics and to become a researcher in biophysics.

Here I got into the first silo | Genoa was an excellent place where to study biophysics as it was one of the towns where biophysics started in Italy and it had a mature and vibrant biophysical community. However, I got an early warning about what meant to work across disciplines. Having opted for Physics, I first had to become a proper physicist, well-grounded in mathematics and theoretical physics. As I generally did well at high school with not too much studying, investing most of my spare time in tinkering with computers, electronics and doing athletics, University was a shock. With no tutoring and no advice (today things have changed), the first two years at University were brutal for me, incapable to cope with the workload and seeing around me, not only friends that were doing well but many who were dropping out (I believe we had a 50% drop-out). Until one day, seating on the floor of the library at Physics… studying maths from a book grabbed from the shelves… breathing pages of old books… when I finally got it. I found my way to study maths, my way to study 24/7. After that mountain was climbed, I picked the few – very formative – courses related to biophysics I could and I finally completed my studies. Although University could have been simpler for me with the tutoring and help that nowadays are available,  I am grateful that I was forced to have a very strong theoretical background – no compromise allowed – and I am happy for that first choice of doing Physics at Genoa. However, the first warning was there, unnoticed at the time. To study Life with the tools of Physics, I had studied quantum mechanics, advanced mathematics, particle physics, but I had not a single course in biology or biochemistry. This, despite the fact that what you would nowadays call my master thesis was a year-long experimental work in neurosciences. The fact that I was doing biophysics in a very interdisciplinary environment,  partially concealed the fact that science (still) works in silos.

Training at the interface | My choice for a PhD was a bit more random. At the time, I knew I wanted to work with proteins (very vaguely) and I had strong training in fluorescence microscopy. While the search for a laboratory where to do a PhD should be done differently, once again without guidance except for Altavista and Lycos (read as ‘Google’ back then) I identified the first batch of laboratories working with proteins and optics. As my first initial and unplanned search landed me immediate job offers, I was attracted by a very charismatic scientist, Prof. Fred Wouters at the  European Neuroscience Institute in Goettingen. My duty was to develop biochemical imaging tools (FRET/FLIM) to study protein-protein interactions relevant to neurodegeneration. At the same time, I enrolled at the University of Utrecht, under the supervision of Prof. Hans Gerritsen, with whom I later obtained my PhD in Physics. Thanks to my struggles at Genoa, I was able to fly, build microscopes, write theory, apply imaging tools to solve biological problems and I completed a successful and productive PhD, by the end of which I was able to do tissue culture and molecular biology as well. Finishing up, on a long train journey to visit my partner who was working in Bonn (also a scientist), I asked myself what I wanted to do and the answer, since then unchanged, became clear: study how cells process information to take decisions by advancing microscopy tools dedicated to the study of biochemical pathways. In that moment I committed to work at the interface and to do both physics and biology.

Swapping disciplines and subjects, the untold dangers | The move for my first real post-doctoral experience was once again insufficiently planned career-wise. At the time, I started to be introduced at talks or in conversations as “one of the top experts in FRET” or “one of the few scientists who can handle biology and physics equally well”. Young experts working across disciplines, particularly with a background in physics and – I suppose today – in Mathematics and Computing, do not have problems to find a job at post-doctoral level. I sent two applications, got two job offers, opted for the one in Cambridge as my wife wished to apply to a lab there. The science (despite not my focus that was still neuroscience) and the environment were very interesting. My work was the attempt to falsify a homeostatic model of red blood cell infected by P. falciparum (the pathogen causing malaria).  Once again I was working between disciplines, affiliated to the Dept. of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology supervised by Prof. Clemens Kaminski and to the Dept. of Physiology, Development and Neurosciences supervised by Dr. Virgilio Lew. Once again, grateful for the training received in Genoa, I flew and I had a very successful and productive post-doctoral experience with my colleagues. However, I started to notice a few more issues.

First, despite the interest and the success, the move to malaria research was not strategic for my final goal and had potentially weakened my profile in the neurosciences. Second, the more senior you become, the more politics counts to seize a position, and without the shelter of a chosen silo (either physics or biology), one might be a bit more at risk. I looked after the former issue seizing an EPSRC Life Science Interface fellowship that I wrote to develop biophotonics tools to investigate the physiological role and interaction of some proteins involved in neurodegeneration.

An unexpected and exciting switch to cancer research | A few months into the fellowship, I was offered to move my fellowship at the MRC Cancer Unit (back then known as the MRC Cancer Cell Unit) where I became, in all effects, a staff scientist. The request was clear, refocus my work to cancer research. EPSRC agreed, and I welcomed the requests as this was strategic to achieve exactly what I planned a few years before, i.e. to study cell decisions by advancing biochemical imaging technologies. My third change of disease model, this time cancer or, more specifically, early oncogenesis, was both very good and bad for me. Very good, scientifically, as it permitted me to align perfectly my scientific ambitions to a disease model where it made perfect sense (cell decisions in cancer are very important and relevant to study). Bad, career-wise, as I once again changed subject therefore further weakening my profile. However, the offer seemed good also in terms of career progression and therefore I accepted. For the third time in a row, my fellowship was a success and productive, achieving my set goals which were, however, more related to advancing technologies while I was getting retrained in cancer biology.

The paradox of the praise of inter-disciplinary research and the silos-like organization of academia | Science works in silos, it still does. These silos communicate, exchange expertise, and they do contribute to beautiful cross-disciplinary work but they are still silos, particularly career-wise. This more or less strongly compartmentalized operation is reflected in the difficulties to review grants, papers, career progression of interdisciplinary work or people at the interface, as discussed in the many articles published on this topic. For now, let me just report a couple of specific events that describes one aspect of the problem.

One day I was at a funding workshop during which several colleagues delivered talks about inter-disciplinary science. One stated that there are excellent people who can do both biology and physics, referring to them as ‘hybrids’. He expressed his support for these hybrids and stated that, as they are rare, we have to fund collaboration between departments. After this comment – delivered by a scientist I have a lot of respect for – I was simply feeling great. Then other speakers clarified how they do not believe in individuals working interdisciplinary but they expressed the need to just collaborate across departments. This – of course – was quite a shock for me. So accustomed to read and hear praises for interdisciplinary work and striving at the interface despite the occasional hic-up and emerging ‘career frictions’, the pieces of the puzzle came together after that event.

The large majority of the Universities, as far as I can tell, are still organized in mono-disciplinary Departments. Even when individual Departments or Institutes are very inter-disciplinary, with biologists, clinicians, chemists, physicists, engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians working shoulder-to-shoulder, you should ask how much disciplinary diversity exists amongst the principal investigators, particularly the tenured academics. If the spread of disciplines suddenly shrinks to a few very related backgrounds, you would have a clearer picture of how interdisciplinary work is rewarded.

This is summarized by a comment I once heard at a conference. After a number of talks about magnetic resonance imaging at the University hospital, and the praise of mathematicians (PhDs and post-docs) who contributed so much to the progress, one person from the audience popped the magic question: “which career perspective do you offer to these young mathematicians without whom this progress could not have been achieved?”. The response was delivered bluntly, honestly and respectfully: “None. We do not have possibilities for career advancement for mathematicians but most of our PhDs and post-docs after working with us do well in industry”.

I am absolutely sure there are plenty of exceptions to what I am describing. However, I do not think I would be too wrong to warn you, perhaps a younger-me, of the risks in leaving the shelter provided by a well-established silo, at least from a career perspective. A silo where career structures might be clearer and career progression might be still very difficult but more ‘natural’.

Am I in the wrong silo? |  The last chapter of my story (for the time being) is still writing itself. More importantly for those two of you young readers landing on this page, I should clarify that it is a story were many plots get entangled. I wished to answer questions such as “how was your experience working at the interface of life and physical sciences?” or “how was for you swapping between different disciplines”. However, the longer you stay in academia, other issues arise such as reaching job security, finding a good balance between family and work, maintaining/finding/expanding resources (people, funds, space, instrumentation,…), supervising/mentoring people, finding a balance between research and other academic duties, etcetera. These and other important aspects of our work are common to any scientist, irrespective of how many disciplines or subjects they touch. However, working at the interface between disciplines adds – in my opinion – a little bit of friction to most of these processes.

I am doing biomedical research in a cancer research institute, I love it and I enjoy working with my colleagues. However, I am a biophysicist with a strong track record in biophotonics, not much track record in cancer biology. After the successful completion of my EPSRC fellowship, I was expecting to get into a tenure track position with dedicated resources. However, the new (however obvious it might appear writing it down now) condition I had to confront was to have a track record in cancer research possibly with high impact factor journals. Retreat to the ‘shelter’ of Physics departments or competing on this new ground of biomedical research on the game (that I do not even like nor endorse***) of impact factors? While the choice should be obvious, I personally focused only on the scientific ambitions, trying to establish what I like to call a “single-cell systems biology of cellular decisions” and I opted, somehow reluctantly, to play the game. I am sure that others would have handled the situation better. Personally, I enslaved all my physics/engineering/mathematics to the solution of biological questions and stopped publishing specialist work. At the same time, caving-in to peer pressure, I focused on preparing manuscripts that, potentially, might be published in high impact factor journals entering a very long cycle of ‘stashing’ data seeking to have the most solid work and the most interesting narrative (I shiver spelling it out, and I corrected this by using pre-print servers and resuming publishing specialist work).

Not only the work I excel into is invisible to most biomedical colleagues, erroneously tagging it ‘just technology or methodological’. I mistakenly reinforced this trend by starting to bury a large part of my work in the supporting information of would-be high impact-factor journal papers. Somehow, the need to fit in my environment, the expectation of peers in cancer biology, referees and panels, made me behave as if I should be ashamed of the work I am actually best known for. The issue is not my institution, certainly not the very supportive colleagues. Perhaps I am simply in the wrong silo in an academic environment that works as communicating silos. By now, however, I would be in the wrong silo in most academic silos and I shall continue attempting to prove there is a reason to have some ‘hybrids’ working at the interface between disciplines.

A war of attritions |  I shall conclude with a comment on something I believe is important for anyone that is ‘different’ in an academic environment, something I will expand upon in the future in a different context. In any very competitive environment, and Academia as I know it is highly competitive, the best might emerge. However, people of the same quality will experience different frictions. For example, even in the absence of outright discrimination, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, physical ability or even regional accent might each result in a additional friction while climbing up in career depending on the environment**.  Working at the interface between disciplines, or swapping discipline, will help to make you unique but, at the same time, it might add significant friction to your walk through Academia. While I have no regrets and I love – as a physicist – working on cancer biology in a biomedical research campus, I wished to warn those scientists willing to do the same of the possible hidden risks. Of course, this is just my story, but there is plenty of research out there showing how difficult is to work across disciplines for both individuals and teams.

You will love breaking free from the cages of disciplines. You will feel strained by the absence of a safe shelter.

So, perhaps, the solution is one I was advised a decade ago, the advice I neglected as I assumed was given for self-interest. You might want to first establish yourself within a single discipline, be either physics or biology for example. Once you will have a well-established career, you will be able to use resources across disciplines.

That was not for me, I am a ‘hybrid’ after all.

 

***

NOTES

* Be aware that in this blog-post I use various terms to refer to working across disciplines (inter, cross, multi, etcetera) I do this in a very colloquial way.

** I do not intend to compare the issue of inter-disciplinary research to the struggle of asserting civil rights! My point here is simply that in the absence of outright discrimination (for those environments where this might be applicable) unconscious bias might remain thus adding some friction to the career of people. Bias against multi-disciplinary research is well-characterized in the literature and, I argue, this bias is yet another friction that adds on to the normal challenges in academic progression.

*** I should clarify that I do not have anything against high impact factor journals. They are a business and they do it well. Moreover, they often provide a great editorial input and production assistance. However, I am critical on the use of such journals in Academia that, in practise and in many cases, slows down the discovery process.

Slaughterhouse.ac | cattle walks to the slaughterhouse happy

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cattle CC BY-SA 3.0

Although I am no expert in livestock production and food chains, I do recall debates on making abattoirs more humane by ensuring that animals are not aware of their fate. In other words, the poor bovine should not see other fellow animals being slaughtered fearing for their lives in a long and slow progressing queue towards death. Fair enough.

 

***

While travelling to London for a networking event, I was messaging over Slack with a friend, a former PhD student, and casually chatting about a number of things. At his question: ‘how things are going’, I instinctively responded along the line of ‘well, although growing tired of the slaughterhouse that is academia…’. Although I love Academia, I have been also openly critical about it over the years. However, I never defined certain processes of Academia as a ‘slaughterhouse’ before. At the same time, the definition fits so well.

***

When I was a PhD student, I thought that for those students like me, doing anything else than staying in Academia was a failure. Bovine-me was roaming the green fields of Germany and The Netherlands happily fattening (quite literally in my case). A constant flow of fellow students would join us in ever greener pastures, cohort after cohort, and many others leaving for higher hills never coming back, with a few – barely visible at a distance – growing older at one of the most remote fields. Bovine-friends say – fields where the grass is the sweetest.

When the time came, and the gates opened, we rushed to the next wonderful field. Who did not rush, was simply pushed by the flow of the pack. Despite the dynamic crowdedness of lower fields, bovine-us kept decreasing in number happily walking towards the gates opening towards those greener and sweeter pastures we always fantasized about.

Most of us, fat and strong, perfect bovines, queued for the next gate, happily walking to an even better field, one-by-one, blissfully unaware, a pop, the last memory. Others are still grazing.

***

Academia depends on the constant flow of students through their classes, and many Universities, no doubt about those I know, do a wonderful job in training them. So many committed people that are dedicated to passing and expanding  knowledge down the generations. Academic research depends on a rather large cohort of PhD student and post-doctoral scientists working hard, often paid modestly considering the years of unpaid (or worst debt-causing) training lured into the next job by promises of stability but kept in an unforgiving state of precariat. Short-term contracts after short-term contract in a job where long-term vision should be key, we are subject to a constant process of review that in the best case is rigorous and tough, but that can be often also quite random and biased.

This process is largely physiological as the academic system is very competitive. Many collogues also express no concerns about it on the basis that selection have to occur, in a way or another. However, the impact on the mental health of academic workers is now evident, and not just only on students. I believe that a more efficient and fair system would be one that promote leaving academia early as an active choice, where different career options are promoted, where there is clarity about the likelihood of promotions, and where there is no choice to be made between having a family and having a job.

Just to clarify the last point, once I was in a leadership course. A colleague asked “My husband has a tenured position at Cambridge University and we have a child. I am offered a tenured position elsewhere and I see no opportunity at Cambridge, what should I do?” The reply was: “I guess you have to make a choice between family and career”. As horrible as an answer it was, I should also clarify for those that are not aware of it that for who works in Academia this is not a choice, as if you do not progress on the ladder of academic positions, it is likely one day the gate of Slaughterhouse.ac will open for you – pop.

I hope one day, would I survive or strive in the system, I will have the tools to influence it and change it for the better. For now, I can just write about it, hoping that younger scientists will make more informed decisions than me and most of my colleagues. ■

This is what happens when you attend Focus on Microscopy for a few years…

Most of the times, I write this blog for those two youngsters that might learn something by accidentally landing here. I wished to share with you a few things that might happen when you age, at least academically speaking. This is what happens when you attend FoM for a few years…

***

I have met my PhD supervisor, Hans Gerritsen, a scientist and a man I greatly respect. Lost in memory lane, I have (re)told the story of when – while working in Goettingen with Fred Wouters – I wished to update Hans with a report on my latest theoretical developments.

Right click…

Create folder…

“this destination already contains a folder named ‘saturation FRET’ “

Well, I had discovered I had already written several tens of pages of maths for Hans, for then completely forgetting about it!!!

Which is the point? Well, I do have a horrible memory! I always had.

***

When you get older you get many stories to tell and I like to tell stories having a laugh. When I meet people I got to know in the past and that have longer experience than me, I like to ask more historical accounts of the early times of, for instance, FLIM developments. Not a long time ago, I had a wonderfully entertaining and instructive conversation with Peter So and Ammasi Periasamy walking in the historical streets of Venice after lecturing at an international school of microscopy organized by Alberto Diaspro. Lots of fun, for me at least, speaking about the various characters of the field, anecdotes,  reconstructing the ‘genealogy’ of the various innovators (how they are scientifically related to each other). And I could not resist asking the question: “who did the first FLIM image”? I suggest, Wang et al 1989, but I am uncertain as I was 14 back then 🙂

Did I tell you I have a bad memory? Well, I did not lose the opportunity to re-ask to Hans, when I met him at FoM, “who did the first FLIM image”? Possibly, Chris Morgan.

While ‘googling’ Chris Morgan I found my own paper on Lifetime Moments Analysis (LiMA), as I cited his work. Well, DID I TELL YOU I HAVE A BAD MEMORY?

I also ‘discovered’ I did write a brief paragraph as a historical introduction about FLIM, and I had a flash-back of me asking Hans in 2005 the same question, which probably places Bugiel, Konig and Wabnitz as the winners in 1989. But let me know if you really know who published the first FLIM paper 🙂

***

Here we are, a very new thing I have just noticed about what happens when you age academically. Presumably, the first FLIM paper was published in 1989, with work on FLIM proliferating during the first half of the 90s. My first paper on FLIM is the LiMA work of 2005 published in Biophysical Journal, ‘only’ 16 years after the first FLIM paper. Yesterday, my latest contribution to the field just got accepted on Biophysical Journal, 14 years later. Although I do not work full-time on it, I have contributed to the development of FLIM, in one way or another, for almost half of the time that FLIM exists. This gives me a rather strange feeling.

It is very instructive, in my opinion, for students and even for a tiny bit older ‘students’ like me to pause for a moment and look to the past of their discipline or the technologies they use. Compared to Physics, for instance, cell biology, biophysics, cancer biology are all rather recent disciplines. Fluorescent proteins are on the map since the sixties, but usable only since mid-90s not so long time ago for instance. Imagine what we might be able to do in another 20 years.

***

FoM is an occasion to meet many people, peek in the future through the talks of fellow scientists and discussions, watch back to past memories. Yesterday I barely walked three lines of posters in 2 hours, as I was getting engaged in interesting conversations every few meters with people I just met or people that I know, in a way or another, since many years. When I called back my wife, Suzan, in the evening, she reminded me of my first FoM in Australia, when I called her saying I was feeling a bit lonely and awkward as I did not know anyone.

Conferences like FoM are community, history, a boiling pot of ideas. I have been always a bit shy, and my suggestion to younger scientists is to make an effort not to be. Engage the others. Working in academia can be rather frustrating at times, and feeling part of a community can really help you in the future.

***

Fourteen years from FLIM paper to FLIM paper in Biophysical Journal. When not affected by an attack of imposture syndrome, I look back and I feel good in seeing what I have done so far. However, there is yet another thing I discovered when you age academically. The legacy one person builds is not papers. In part is the reverberation of your work in those of others, irrespective of explicit citations. In part is the comments of colleagues who tell you, even just privately,  when they got inspired by something you said, presented or published. But, growing a tiny bit older every year with FoM, it is also the younger generations coming to speak to you.

And, I would like to thank you all, because while impact factors, panels, research outcomes are the fog in which someone might lose themselves a bit too often, you are the light at the horizon signalling we are, after all, walking the right direction.

Moral hazard in academic governance (the University of Bath, emerging protests and leading changes in society)

Moral hazard

Over the last decades we have seen everything about the good and the bad of free market economy; we have learnt a lot about the consequences of moral hazard. Moral hazard is the tendency for one person to engage in riskier behaviour when the consequences of this behaviour will be dealt by others. One example might be an insured shop owner, struggling, who will not have any incentive in investing in a new fire system as, after all, a fire would permit them to collect the premium of the insurance. The insurer does not have complete information on the behaviour of the insured or their intentions, therefore will incur a higher risk than the risk of fire in itself. However, this typical example does not adequately illustrate when moral hazard occurs at the level of management.

The 2006/7 financial crisis was an astounding example of moral hazard, where many groups of people accepted higher risk they should have done (banking management, intermediaries and the recipients of sub-prime mortgages). Let’s focus for a moment on the management within financial institutions as it is a more appropriate example of what I will have to say. Before the financial crisis unfolded, executives were either aware of the problem, and they defrauded millions of people, or they were not, they were just incompetent. Were they deserving their jobs and the substantial compensation schemes they had and still are receiving? Is the market setting this compensation packages? I will come back to this point later. Either way, the initial response of Governments was difficult: bailing-out private institutions, reinforcing the possibility for moral hazard to incur in the future, or let the system fall in an uncontrolled manner? Considering the situation, most Governments decided for supporting financial institutions, therefore reaffirming that management of financial institutions may have operated under moral hazard: as the fall-out of their riskier behaviour was, in very large part, handled by States, Governments and the People.

But this blog-post is not about the financial crisis.

The University of Bath ‘affair’

Over the last few weeks, national news in the UK reported on protests of employees and students at the University of Bath on regard of the high salary earned by Dame Prof Glynis Breakwell, their Vice-Chancellor (~£468,000 and benefits). Reports were initially accurate, but they got occasionally derailed by attempts from various academics to defend high salaries for academic governance in general or Prof Breakwell specifically. Let’s clarify immediately, I do not have an opinion about how much a Vice Chancellor should be paid. Half a million may be the right number, or it may be too low or too high, I just do not know enough. But a few things bothered me in this debate: responsibility, accountability, and gender equality.

The market sets compensation schemes, does it?

I have read the commentary written by Prof. David Blanchflower and published by The Guardian, entitled “University vice-chancellors deserve more pay, not less. Here’s why”. The reasons for high salaries described in this article are clear and even agreeable at first instance. Universities have to hire their governance in a global market with competitive salaries. I have nothing to debate about this truth, but I am afraid there is another truth, not too hidden, that went unnoticed here. The protests were not a generic complaint about the high salary of academic leadership, it was a specific complaint about an almost 4% salary increase for the highest paid Vice-Chancellor. Allegedly, compensation for the governance at the University of Bath was established with insufficient transparency, with an undeclared conflict of interests and a motion from the Court of the University was hindered by those that should have left the room during a vote because of conflict of interests. This is not my opinion, but the informed and competent judgment (I suppose) of HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England. If you are interested in this story, please read their report.

Is moral hazard or the market that set salaries?

I am no economist, but my naïve opinion is that this is a typical case of moral hazard in management. As discussed, moral hazard takes many shapes and forms, but it has been identified as a dominant reason for the uncontrollably increasing compensations for executives in Industry. It is true that Academia recruits on a global market, but Academia must shape the global market both training adequately future executives and leading by example.

There is a debate, until now unrelated to Academic governance as far as I know, about the compensation of executives that appears to have become untenable, influenced by executives themselves, paying marginal consequences when their actions damage the brand they represent.

Let’s say you have the right not just to ask a pay rise, but to vote in favour or against. Let’s say that you give yourself a million pounds per year, irrespective of outcomes, in addition to a complex package of benefits that may depend on the performance of your company. After one year of work, your company goes bust and you have lost the value of your shares and options. However, you have just earned 1 million in 1 year, that is an amount of money that corresponds to 37 years of median salary. So, corporate executives raise their pays (not all of them!), constantly, to capitalise on short-term investments, possibly (even unintentionally) misjudging the consequences of their decisions as their livelihood, and those of their families, contrary to the vast majority of people, do not really depends on their productivity. This is moral hazard.

Executives are entitled to ask for an increase of income, but the procedures for these extraordinary compensation packages (from the point of view of people paid ‘normal’ wages or unemployed) shall be transparent and not just justifiable but justified.

I do not believe that this is a common issue at Universities, but how the story unfolded at the University of Bath resemble one of these cases. Let me do an example.

Dame Prof Breakwell is paid a high salary because she has to look after public relationships and take important executive decisions for a large business and an important brand. True. Complaints about the pay rise should have been expected, so a high degree of scrutiny. The Council voted down a motion of the Court requesting more transparency. In authorising the pay rise in a period of protests about wages and trying to quench the formal protest at the University Council, some (let’s be clear not all) academics accepted the risk. This was a misjudgement, and now the University brand will pay the consequences. At the time I write, Dame Prof Breakwell will retire, after six months paid sabbatical and with a written-off loan: isn’t this moral hazard?

Are Vice Chancellors paid too much?

It is not that Vice Chancellors are paid a too high salary, but the problem is transparency, respect of the opinions of your employees and ‘customers’ (the students I suppose), respect for the brand one represents and, a better understanding of societal changes. I hope that other Vice-Chancellors will be proactive, not in cutting down their incomes (this is a different matter), but in understanding and shaping societal changes.

Universities have the moral duty to shape society not to be just the mirror of it. What some people might not appreciate is that the uncontrolled rise in executives compensation (in Industry) is causing damage to business three folds: by draining resources from investment to disproportionate personal wealth, by inducing short-sighted selfish behaviour with no incentive for long-term investment in assets and people, and bad publicity to industry creating a sense of complete disconnect, distrust and unethical behaviour that damage the brands they should promote. The latter point is often neglected, but it is very important. A chancing society and pressure groups, if neglected, can cause a lot of damage to a ‘brand’. This is not in Academia but in the world of Finance and Big Industries. Are we walking the same path now? Most people will say no, as compensation packages for academic governance are far from the excesses of USA corporations (true), but as I tried to say a few times by now, the issue is not necessarily the pay level, but the process and incentives in place.

Fully justify high salaries and adopt transparent decision processes, but also do not disregard the growing intolerance for inequality. Do not speak, in an abstract manner about the market, be specific. Moral hazard is part of the market, it is an unfruitful degeneration of it, which goes against the principles of free market economy. Most Academics and University employees dedicate their lives to improve society. Sometimes we are wrong, other times ineffective, but most of us, Vice-Chancellors included, are well-intentioned and passionate to make of the future UK, a competitive global and fair Nation. Therefore, do not let greed, or simply lack of due process, to damage our brand and collective efforts.

Was gender an issue?

There is another ‘inequality’ that bothers me: gender inequality. The top-level academic world is dominated by man. I am a white nearly middle-aged man, with the ambition to become a ‘fully-fledged’ academic. However, I cannot avoid noticing that women representation among academics is still low and it pains me that to get in the line-of-fire was a successful woman. I do not know statistics about Vice-Chancellors and gender-balance, but I did check the Russel Group. I count six female Vice-Chancellors and seventeen males, ~25% female representation, a figure we are too often familiar with. I am sure that all Universities are committed to improving, we feel very strongly about this at the University of Cambridge, but the historical heritage of male-dominated academia take a while to change.

The Guardian published another letter in support of Prof. Bakewell, this time signed by several female academics of the University of Bath, which start with “Being a successful woman seems to attract a disproportionate degree of negative criticism”. I am sure that this is true, but I should clarify that gender, for me, did not matter, and also for the articles and material I had the opportunity to read. The highest paid Vice-Chancellor in the UK was, by chance, a woman. HEFCE criticised procedures that were opaque, behaviours trenched in conflict of interest. When a woman raises at a position of power is, first and most importantly, laudable because being one of the best in their area irrespective of gender. Second, a woman in a position of power in a male-dominated environment is also laudable because of the many obstacles that women still experience in career progression, particularly at the top of the scale. However, people of power should accept the increased scrutiny and the responsibilities that come with the higher salaries they are paid, irrespective of gender and background.

Leadership for the future

My hope for the future is to see inequalities of all types to diminish and eventually disappear. I hope to see more women in academic governance. Irrespective of gender, I wish our leadership will keep fighting to improve the society we live in, fight against the profound inequalities we experience even in the United Kingdom, be this income or gender inequalities. I wished we trained the economists, the bankers and the lawyers that will reach the apex of various Industries to lead change. Because the only way we can defend a free market economy is to ensure that the right checks and balances are in place, monopolies are not created, packets of extraordinary wealth (corporate or individual) do not exist (otherwise they distort the dynamics of competition as much as a monopoly).

Let’s never say “it is the market that decides” because it is always people that decide, and it is ok if we follow due process.

The ‘no asshole’ rule

Do you know when you are at the airport with some time to kill, and you go to a bookstore? Do you know that revolving shelf with business-oriented books suggesting how you will have a great career if you read them, yes, the one just near the other shelf with books on mindfulness, homoeopathy and wonder diets? Well, bear with me a moment, and I tell you about when I dared to buy one of those books (no, not on diets, silly!).

In these days, we are recruiting students, and I had the occasion to host several candidates in the labs for a non-formal chat. Unplanned but unavoidably, I find myself discussing how I have a culture of team-work and how I would not tolerate any behaviour that would undermine a good work environment, team-oriented. As rewards in academic biomedical research are rather individualistic (no one is rewarded for being a good team player, sadly), I also have to reassure people that when papers are published, I prefer to have few good papers with several people sharing authorships rather than having one person with a paper and around them… devastation. I try to discourage self-centred disruptive personalities, however bright, to work with me.

Why do I do that? I do that because the cost of handling the consequences of working with ‘assholes’ (yes, coming to that…) is far superior to the advantage of hiring sociopathic alpha females and males even when they fully deliver on the set goals, perhaps seemingly faster and effectively.

I do have witnessed the effect of various sort of bullying in the work environment, most times as a bystander. Not frequently, but I had the opportunity to see how dramatic can be the fall-out of such events on the psychology of those involved and how these behaviours can undermine efficiency and productivity of individuals, and their future careers*.

So, back to the airport. A couple of times, before a long trip and having exhausted all other possibilities, I dwelled in front of business books. A scientist can learn important things from business, but choosing a book that is not the equivalent of drinking-urine-cures-all-diseases or a specialist treaty on the economy is not trivial. I think I eventually landed on ‘the no asshole rule’ by Robert Sutton (I promise I’ll review this bit at the earliest convenience) and I try to adhere to this rule as much as I can!

First of all, I do agree with the ‘asshole’ definition, because broader than that of a ‘bully’. Sometimes people may not be recognised as a bully, but they are clearly disruptive assholes. Other times, people may seem bullies, but they are actually good people trying to foster discussion. The no asshole rules should be institutionalized so to make sure that disruptive behaviour is not rewarded, but first discouraged and eventually punished.

In the absence of a consensus on the ‘no asshole rule’, I invite you to adhere to this principle, or any other more or less colourful flagship rule, aimed to  create and support  good, efficient and productive work environments.


* I am rather happy about the team I lead, the group within which I work and the Department where I work. Now and then, here or elsewhere, however, I did see wrong behaviours. But, most importantly, even when we create good environments, we are constantly interacting with others (peers, journals, founders, etcetera). There are far too many that do consider science a tough business and therefore accept various shades of bullying as the acceptable norm. I’ll speak about this on other occasions, but here I wished to say just something about recruiting.

 

It is Crunch Time for Early Career Scientists.

In mid-2016, I read this Nature News about the payment of overtime for USA post-doctoral scientists and the possibility that this would lead to fewer positions available. This article inspired a post I published on LinkedIn, that I would like to repropose in a radically updated form. In the original post, the premise was overtime payments for post-docs in USA.

IDENTITY AND RESPECT | I am not very sensitive to titles and I am a very pragmatic person, therefore, I was never sensitive about being called a post-doc, but should you? Let me tell you a personal story.

A few years ago, I had the honour to work with Dr Virgilio Lew [1] at the University of Cambridge. Virgilio is a great scientist and a wonderful person who gave me the opportunity to taste how we should work in science, the love for the scientific question, the stories around small and big scientific discoveries, the humanity around individual researchers, the excitement of the scientific debate – even antagonistic at times –  but the preservation of the joy of science despite all the politics and over-competition of modern Academia.

I do have one regret, that I could not fully enjoy that period of my life. Back then, I was an anxious and moaning chap, distressed by the instability of our jobs, the constant mobility and the difficulties to synchronize careers with a partner, the self-inflicted hard days/nights/weekends work paid, at the time, below average UK income. In other terms, I was a post-doc, experiencing a rather normal life crisis, thrust by a very successful PhD into the space of wild competition for a PI position that I actually never cared to seek before.

When Virgilio would introduce me to colleagues, he would always say something along the line: “this is Alessandro, a [replace with a positive adjective of your choice] biophysicist who joined me and Teresa to work on the homeostasis of red blood cells infected with Plasmodia”. Or, “this is my colleague Alessandro…”  I never heard Virgilio calling me a post-doc. I think that elegance and class are in the spontaneous attention to detail. Did it matter? Well, the fact I took notice of it probably means it did at least at an unconscious level. I assume it inspired a sense of community, a sense of belonging to the academic world, irrespective of seniority. Many friends left science for many reasons, but one recurrent theme is not feeling to belong to a community.

EMPLOYEE LOYALTY AND EFFICIENCY | Of course, eventually, the word post-doc is not the issue [2]. It is very important to ensure our colleagues feel they belong to the organization they work with and the wider scientific community. As far as I understand, in Industry this simple concept is called employee loyalty and it is considered to be an important factor in boosting efficiency. Most members of staff working at Universities, at least within my limited experience, have open-ended contracts that allow them to identify with their own institution; similarly, academic staff can be loyal to their University and look after their good homes. Most junior researchers, however, are that ocean of colleagues between their PhD and a PI position – or a career change – that experience short-term contracts, high mobility, compounded with the uncertainties inherent in the scientific research. Often, this overlaps with a period of their lives when people start to build a family as well. Can we ask employee loyalty from junior scientists? Can we reach the level of efficiency that employee loyalty can offer? What about the experience we lose every time a junior scientist leave and the time we have to reinvest in training? And which are the mental health implications of the current system, asking our brightest and youngest minds to work under this level of pressure and insecurity?

I would like to work with deserving colleagues for ten or twenty years, if they do not care about changing their jobs, but we rarely can because the job of a post-doc is unsecured. Therefore, I agree with those proposing to establish more permanent posts for researchers and to establish also in Academia the role of professional scientists, a rare position. Currently, we seek efficiency through fierce competition, with post-doc ‘killing machines that will select the best’, at the same time distracting them from their primary work (doing science), giving incentives to cut corners and behave very individualistically. However, we can achieve efficiency by building employee loyalty, building teams of scientists that can dedicate themselves to the big picture, and not ‘just’ to how to solve a career problem.

One of the issues we have in Academia is that there is too much emphasis on leadership and too little on team-working and community effort. We are rewarded only if we are the first author on a paper, the principal investigator on a grant, the group leader in the lab, and this eventually leads far too many people to aspire to a leadership position and neglect the importance of working together. This is combined with the fact that to remain in Academia, we have to become leaders, otherwise, we are out. How many PIs were good scientists, but were not selected on the basis of their capabilities to manage people to then… manage people?

A NEW CAREER STRUCTURE | There will be always plenty of people that will aspire to become a leader or to climb the ladders of management, either in Academia or Industry. There are also plenty of people that are more than happy to do science at the bench and, as I have already mentioned, creating good and stable employment opportunities as professional scientists might improve efficiency and life of early and mid-career researchers. However, even if you agreed with me, there are significant barriers to establishing such a system.

First of all, while progressing in their careers, scientists become financially unsustainable certainly in comparison to a PhD student but also compared to more junior colleagues. Then, it does not matter if you wished to retain a co-worker because of their experience and expertise, you have to move on to who you can afford to employ. If we shifted our scientist base to more senior people, on average, there will be unavoidable cost implications that can be addressed only with higher budgets or fewer appointments.

Second, there are only limited positions available as post-doctoral scientists; if you are lucky and love this job, you can get a 5 years continuous appointment. To have this job for life, we could probably appoint 90% fewer post-docs, while waiting for one retiring.

Therefore, increasing the number of professional scientists in Academia will require a drastic reorganization of the sector and probably higher budgets to maintain a similar level of researchers. This will require an enlightened and competent central government working together with a united academic governance both agreeing that change is needed. I am pessimistic for this to happen, but if we cared about productivity in science (not measured by impact factors, but by discoveries that will impact society) and the mental health of our scientists, perhaps we should consider change.

FEWER AND BETTER PhDs | Another change that may be required is how we train PhD students. At least in the UK, we are under pressure to get students finishing their PhDs in 3 years and consider this just as part of a broader training. Personally, I wish a PhD student in scientific topics to be an inexperienced but bright scientist, an expert in their field by the end of their PhD. Training students to do experiments should be the duty of undergrad courses, but here I am very biased by my background in physics. In physics, at least at the University of Genova, we got trained in physics of course, but also on how to build equipment, to develop software, to interface the two, to execute experiments, to analyse data, all of this with practical courses after passing examinations in the lab, written and oral. I guess I am an old-fashion one by now, but I wished that with the completion of pre-doctoral studies all students should be capable to do experiments, including coding and hardware interfacing. Also, I wish that students were also ready for industry. The PhD, in my opinion, should be Academic-oriented (wait a a sentence or so…), taking between 4 to 5 years giving them enough time to lead to substantial discoveries. On the way, some students (or their supervisors) will notice that Academia is not what they want to pursue and they could opt-out of their doctoral studies for a lower degree, if deserving. Both students completing their PhDs or lower degrees should be offered business-oriented experiences, in order to offer a wide range of choices and facilitating the transitioning to Industry or to non-academic posts within Universities. Far too often, the transition to non-academic jobs is lived or considered a failure, where this should be embraced as one of the likely, actually the most likely, outcome after studying at University instead. Therefore, we should have srudents ready for Industry irrespective of docoral studies and there should be planned paths from doctoral studies to Industry. There is too little awareness, during doctoral studies, about the need to plan a career outside Academia and about the odds to stay in Academia. If we could train better our students at undergrad and graduate levels, avoiding to rush them on the job market, but getting them on the right track as soon as they know what is best for them, Industry will benefit from more qualified junior scientists and Academia from a more moderate pressure of intake of junior scientists towards unsecured jobs.

CAREER TALKS AND MANAGING EXPECTATIONS | In any management course, you will be taught that one of your duties is to manage expectation of those working with you. Then, often, we operate giving the illusion to junior scientists that they will become known professors, you just need to do that big discovery published in Nature, creating lots of press releases. In career talks, people provide examples of success stories – and rightly so – but rarely depicts, in my opinion, the reality that a junior scientist faces, with plenty of exceptions of course.

Once I attended a meeting where the work of mathematicians employed at post-doctoral level was instrumental in advanced magnetic resonance imaging with important implications for basic science and translational medicine. At the end of the meeting, a simple question was shot: “you discussed all these great advancements, but what career opportunities those mathematicians have?”. The Academic in charge, honestly, candidly and with clear expressions of sympathy and compassion (my interpretation) replied: “None. Unfortunately, we do not have the right career structures to support them.” A colleague, trying to rescue the situation added: “but all these people have successful careers within Industry”. Let’s be clear, sometimes you will have no prospect in Academia, not because you are not excellent, not because you are not appreciated, but simply because there is not an adequate career structure for you, in the specific case, the possibility to promote mathematicians adequately within a medical department. If this is the case, plan your career path away from Academia soon enough. But how much waste of talent from Academia which, hopefully, is compensated by big gains in Industry. But this exchange of talent might result in a net loss of efficiency in Academic research.

Another time, during a leadership course, a colleague asked: “my husband is a PI here in Cambridge, but I got a good offer in another University. We have a young child and a difficult choice to do because perspectives for post-docs in Cambridge are rather bleak”. Answer: “I understand is tough, but sometimes we need to decide which are our priorities, family or career”.

Then here it comes a career talk speaking about how difficult but rewarding it was to become a Principal Investigator at the University. Question: “if someone does not want to become a PI, but loves to do science at the bench in the academic environment, which options have?”. Answer: “I advice my people to embrace research assistant positions”

Not all of us will agree, by a system ran by smart people, often of very liberal background, often committed to social advancement, Academia, should not systematically put people in condition to decide between family and work (often penalizing women in STEM), not have the right career structures, or operate on a competition model without adequate incentives for employee loyalty.

CONCLUDING | I am not an expert in this area, but I wished to provide my view on how we should change career structures in Academia.

  1. Work upstream and invest more on under-grad and grad students at the same time awarding fewer PhDs. Fewer and better junior scientists in Academia will reduce pressure on mid-career scientists. Better undergrad students with more practical experience will help Industry as well.
  2. Value training and career options. A PhD is not a piece of paper to stay a while in Academia and then get higher pays in Industry. Other careers are great alternatives, they are respectable choices of great value for individuals and society, including being a scientist without being a leader.
  3. Work downstream, increasing investments in stable posts that do not depend on grants for senior scientists adding this as a valuable career option currently reserved to a very few. Not everyone wants to or should be a PI or a Professor. Loyal and less stressed employees will work more efficiently.
  4. Identify the appropriate career structures suitable for the age we live in, including flexible working for who has family commitments and for scientists moving across disciplines.

Failing to do this, we can simply advise our students and junior colleagues to identify not only the best possible path to a possible leadership position in Academia, if this is what they want, but also the best possible path to the best job they could aspire outside Academia. The transition to Industry should not be considered a lesser alternative choice – after some ‘postdoc-ing’ [2] – but an equally valuable choice. And, we shall always be clear about the chances anyone will have, even if good, to obtain one of those precious posts at University.

Notes

[1] Let me acknowledge the great work we have done as a team, Dr Virgilio Lew, Dr Teresa Tiffert, Prof. Clemens Kaminski and Dr Jakob Mauritz. Here, I speak only about Virgilio as I report only a personal account of our conversations.

[2] There are plenty of terms I dislike. For instance, the term ‘permadoc‘ to define lifetime postdoctoral appointments made me shiver. True, do not let terminology to bother you too much, but also do not let other to push you down by (inadvertently I am sure) defining you with inadequate terminology. If you are a post-doc, you are a junior scientist or junior researcher, you are not ‘post-doc-ing’ (for the goodness sake!) and you do not aspire to become a permadoc. You are a scientist, growing experience and maturity, looking for a stable work in academia or, of course, for a career change.

Open Access: is that… cheating?

800px-Open_Access_PLoS.svg

Open Access is established to guarantee free access, redistribution and use of primary research. Open Access makes available to the public what has been funded by the public, therefore, democratizing access to knowledge.  I support these ideas so much that I believe Open Access, in its current form, is… cheating or – at least – an insult to the original spirit of the Open Access movement.

As I see it, Open Access does not provide free access to knowledge but provide access to knowledge after the taxpayers spent a huge amount of money to fund a publishing system that is obsolete and, perhaps, unnecessary.

What is the real cost of Open Access? Not only fees but the cost of yet another new section of administration in funding agencies and universities now dedicated to Open Access [1]. Is the taxpayer getting a good deal for their money? Why should not we publish free of charge on publicly funded repositories at a fraction of the costs that we are currently supporting?

Publishers run a business and they have to be financially viable. We could perhaps be astonished or outraged about the profit level of publishers of scholarly papers, but publishers are not guilty of anything. Of course, publishers are feeding on the flaws of the scientific community at the detriment of the common good. However, in contemporary societies, the public good seems not to be a responsibility of private business [2]. Therefore, this is not a rant about publishers, but a note for the policy maker and a critique to scientists, me included [3].

The large majority of scientists and engineers are overworked passionate people that dedicate their lives to the process of discovery and translation to practice with the implicit or explicit aim to improve our societies. However, scientists are also ultra-competitive people embedded in an over-competitive system of funding and rewards that damage effective and efficient collegial work creating a huge amount of waste in the process. Because of the ecosystem in which they are embedded, scientists as a community (I am one of those, just to be clear) are not capable to self-regulate in order to maximize benefit to society.

Open Access was the solution to an actual problem, solution then rigged to preserve a very expensive and inefficient system (see the debate on reproducibility of scientific results) in order to avoid changing the rules of the current ecosystem. Those scientists that are thriving in the current ecosystem are either not willing to change it to secure their leadership or too worried to lead the change that may damage the people they employ in the short term. Of course, there are many colleagues that would support these ideas, but with change not happening, I can only assume they are not a sufficiently willing or sufficiently powerful majority.

Advising funding agencies and publishers, we have saved our idol, the impact factor, we pretend that knowledge is now freely accessible. Relax (do not remove) competition, educate a new generation of scientists about the real value of their work and you will get real Open Access, with unrestricted access to literature at minimal costs. Keep the system as it is and we will continue to waste vast amounts of public money in fees, ever increasing administration, inefficient and costly peer-review, and irreproducibility of results.

Can I do something about it? Like many early or mid-career scientists, I feel trapped in this system. I do consider impact factors when I submit a paper, I do pay for Open Access, I do act as a referee (for free) and I am an academic editor (for free) of the Open Access PLoS ONE [4]. The alternative is permitting only who does not care about this issue to go ahead perpetuating the system forever or until it crashes. If I published with the modalities I wished, I would be soon purged from the scientific community. Therefore, what I can do is speaking about the issue, debating with colleagues and occasionally on social media and following the indication of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment.

I can also try, here, to appeal to the policy maker and who amongst scientists advise the policy makers to change this vicious system. We are smart people after all and many of us have very strong values and dedication to the common good. It should not be difficult to envisage strategies to democratize science with a sustainable and efficient model of publishing; many have described possible solutions. Ideally, we would replace current incentives to full-blast competition with others rewarding collegiality of efforts for a common long-term good (not just in publishing). Is science like the financial sector pre- (well, even post-) crisis?

If we do not do it, it will be the public outrage that soon or late, will force change. And because public outrage is often followed and fostered by a selfish short-sighted populist politician, it is likely this will spell serious troubles for all of us.

Was I right to single-out Open Access in this post? I am not sure, but when good ideas, the ethical ways, are abused and spoilt, I get particularly annoyed.

Notes

[1] I have a very good opinion about the team at University of Cambridge dedicated to the administration of Open Access. My opinion is not against those that are, with conviction, trying to make Open Access working. My criticism is for those that are exploiting the system making it inefficient and wasteful in the broader sense.

[2] I believe in a responsible free market, where private companies should serve the public good. But, I leave this opinion out of my judgement of publishers as business, nowadays, operates under different rules. 

[3] Publishing is e necessity for a scientist as we need to create new knowledge and this is recognizable only when is made public. However, many of us recognize several unhealthy attitudes and practices in scientific publishing,  particularly in biomedical research. I am no better than anyone else, I feel forced to play a game, which I try to play with integrity like the large majority of my colleagues. I try, at least, to foster debate on how we could improve the system.

[4] PLoS ONE at least addresses the issue of fairness during the peer-review process; this is why I fully endorse this initiative, at least for the time being.

[4] This post was originally published on my LinkedIn page in March 2016, but edited in its current form, as I believe it is still current.

This is my opinion and does not necessarily correspond to an institutional position of the University of Cambridge, the MRC CU or anyone working with me. My critique of certain aspects of contemporary science is not based on specific experiences with current or former employers or colleagues, but the overall experience as a scientist and the numerous passionate discussions I have with colleagues, friends and peers. In purpose, I do not cite sources because I simply wished to share my opinion on this subject; clearly, it is not an analytical study of the problem and I am not an expert on this specific topic