From: Labtimes 02/2011
A conversation with Peter Lawrence, Cambridge
“The Heart of Research is Sick”
A senior scientist speaks out on real lives and lies in the ‘broken’ research system. Peter Lawrence explains how current research is in crisis and why young scientists are suffering.
Lab Times: About ten years ago, you began publishing the first of a series of articles criticising the way in which the scientific research system is organised and the direction it’s taken. What motivated you to publish your first article, “Science or Alchemy?” (Nature Reviews Genetics 2001; 2, 139-42), in which you condemn the ‘alchemy of spin’ that has crept into research articles?
Lawrence: That’s an interesting question. Really, what started me on this was something else. When my PhD supervisor, Sir Vincent Wigglesworth died, I wrote an obituary in Nature together with another former student of his, Michael Locke. We called it “A man for our season” (Nature 1997; 386,757-8) and explained Wigglesworth’s approach to science and his ideas about putting research first and administration second. I was also asked to give the first Wigglesworth Memorial lecture at the International Congress of Entomology. I talked mostly about Wigglesworth’s scientific work but, at the end, I put in a ten minute section on his scientific style – how he saw what was going wrong with modern science and how he differed from the way things are done nowadays. (For example, he gave his students complete independence and did not put his name on their papers. He supervised ‘by example’ – he just went off and did his own research.)
I got such an overwhelming response, I realised that there was a need for a voice to express the frustration that many scientists felt, particularly young scientists, about what was happening to science. Since then, the trends that I picked out have continued, getting worse and worse and worse, until the whole fabric of science and the way we do things has become corrupted. There are many problems. Some are more interesting than others.
Essentially, it’s the publication process. It has become a system of collecting counters for particular purposes – to get grants, to get tenure, etc. – rather than to communicate and illuminate findings to other people. The literature is, by and large, unread able. It’s all written in a kind of code, with inappropriate data in large amounts, and the storyline is becoming increasingly orchestrated by this need to publish. We all know it. We all suffer from it. I think the changes to the scientific enterprise have been inexorable and progressive. The deterioration has been so steady that people don’t really realise how much things have changed.