Sidney Brenner: The Trouble with American Science

Elizabeth Denzig published an interview with Sidney Brenner in February or 2014 in “King’s Review” entitled
How Academia and Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation: A Conversation with Sydney Brenner” I think there are a number of lessons–or in several cases cautions–for selling to scientists.

Here are two excerpts:

Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. That is, you go on and do something really different. Then I think you will be able to foster it

But today there is no way to do this without money. That’s the difficulty. In order to do science you have to have it supported. The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow.

There’s no exploration any more except in a very few places. You know like someone going off to study Neanderthal bones. Can you see this happening anywhere else? No, you see, because he would need to do something that’s important to advance the aims of the people who fund science.

Sydney Brenner in “How Academia and Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation

I think something similar has happened in medicine with the slavery of interns but neither may be a new problem. The places to look are where progress has stalled and where someone else might be wiling to fund efforts that promise the possibility of a better result.

I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I’ve heard from many committees, that we won’t consider people’s publications in low impact factor journals.

Now I mean, people are trying to do something, but I think it’s not publish or perish, it’s publish in the okay places [or perish]. And this has assembled a most ridiculous group of people. I wrote a column for many years in the nineties, in a journal called Current Biology. In one article, “Hard Cases”, I campaigned against this [culture] because I think it is not only bad, it’s corrupt. In other words it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all. And that’s all been done in the aid of commerce, because they are now giant organizations making money out of it.

Sydney Brenner in “How Academia and Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation

Anonymous review can mask unqualified or biased answers, risks exacerbated by editors who are not scientifically qualified. The current journal system has much to recommend it but a number of perverse incentives  may be marginalizing the quality of review and feedback.

The entire interview is worth reading, I am not sure what the right answers are to some of his concerns, but as we do more to work with and sell to research scientists I have come to a deeper understanding of Brenner’s concerns.

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