Science Interviews

Interview

Mon, 15th Aug 2016

What do scientists actually do?

Professor Stephen Curry, Imperial College London

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Guardian blogger and biologist Stephen Curry shares the ins and outs of his Deskday...

Stephen - The radio clicks on at 6 am and I lie in bed snoozing for about forty-five minutes. I find that’s the least problematic way to absorb the Today programme on Radio 4. I shower and gobble a bowl of cereal. A bus, a train, a tube, and an hour later I’m in my office at the university, attacking email.

At 10:15, I meet my PhD student for coffee. It’s a semi-social occasion – normally, we chat about weekend stuff but today, we’re discussing the final segment of her thesis. She’s almost ready to submit and the conversation turns to the next chapter in her life: how to stay in academia.

Forging a career in research is a competitive business and carries big risks. Only about 1 in 200 PhD students ends up as a professor. My student has two options really – apply for a fellowship, which would give her a measure of independence, or for a postdoctoral position to work, for now, in someone else’s lab.

Fellowship and grant applications are arduous work. You’ve got to fill out lengthy forms, box after box describing your past achievements, and the merits of your proposed and explaining how it will impact society and so on... There’s a fine balance to be struck between putting forward an exciting but risky project, and reassuring the funder that the plan of investigation is feasible, so that their money won’t be wasted. It’s a tricky game.

And fresh-faced postdocs need to be prepared to play that game over and over. It was hard enough when I started over 20 years ago, but the competition for funding is even fiercer now.

And that’s before you start thinking about the pressure to publish in leading journals – because that is, unfortunately, how most research is judged. Our systems of assessment have too much emphasis on where rather than what you publish.

This pressure puts young scientists like my PhD student on a treadmill almost from day one. A former postdoc of mine once described the academic publishing culture as “a pissing contest”. I wonder whether my student will be able to sustain her evident enjoyment in research.

I don’t have a solution for her just now but I suspect that people like me, old guard, have to do more to ensure young scientists get the recognition they deserve.

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