donderdag 3 maart 2011

The scientist of the future

Forum discussion @ PCDI’s postdoc retreat 2011, Friday February 18, 2011
Panel members: Frank Miedema, Bas Haring, Ingrid Molema and Jan Raaijmakers

What would happen if you ask a dean and a philosopher what the ’Scientist of the Future’ should be like? This was exactly what was done at the forum discussion on the final day of the 2011 PCDI Postdoc Retreat, witnessed by an audience of about 100 PhD-students and postdocs.

Prof Frank Miedema, dean of the Medical Faculty of the University of Utrecht and an established scientist, shared experiences from his scientific career with us. Working at different institutes all over the world, he noticed that the arrogant scientist who dares to step out and brag about his/her work will be more successful than the hard-working shy postdoc who spends lots of time time at the bench doing serious experiments. Also he explained that (editors of) journals are not as unbiased as people might think. Unfortunately, he stated, “although a university should be an intellectual institute, it’s all about politics in the end”.

Mathematician and philosopher Prof Bas Haring agreed on the politics involved in science. But he tried to give the audience a different view by making us realize that one should always be aware of what you are actually doing, and not just try to produce as many papers as possible. Also, you have to think of what you really WANT to do, instead of doing something because other people say you are good at it. His main message was that taking time on a regular basis to reflect on your work and yourself might increase your chances on both success and happiness Only then you will be able to beat the political game and make it as a scientist.

But what about the traditional way of the curious scientist (the 14-year old boy who watches the stars and decides that his whole life will be devoted to studying them). Does this scientist exist or will “Curiosity kill the scientist” as was put in a statement? According to to Bas Haring, there may be some truth in this - some non-academically educated bachelor-students (HBO) get more done, just because they do not ask too many questions. Prof Ingrid Molema, PI and head of the Groningen graduate school GUIDE, and Prof Jan Raaijmakers, CEO at GlaxoSmithKline, who joined the forum discussion, believe that curiosity remains a requirement to succeed in science, and that it will cause a scientist to ask the right questions. But how can we perform science out of curiosity (fundamental research) as grants are mainly reviewed on applicability and relevance of the outcomes?

Are “Communication and visibility... the keys to succes”?. Should we just write down our curiosity-driven questions in the right context to obtain a grant? Molema stressed that selling your OWN ideas (not those of your PI) in the right way is indeed very important for getting funded. Haring agreed that communication and visibility are core qualities of science and vital to find the essence of your research. But how will we be able to fulfill all the criteria of our grants and still look ourselves in the eyes in the mirror when you come home at night?

“Academic institutions should allow researchers to take time to reflect on their personal development and careers”, despite the fact that universities and PI’s are not always willing to spend time and money on events like the PCDI Postdoc Retreat. That young scientists are willing to do so is demonstrated by the 100+ participants that are actively involved in the discussion and are not afraid to speak out. A fiery discussion was ongoing about the strong positions of universities and the ‘weak’ positions of individual scientists.

So, how should the sentence “The scientist of the future is someone who...” be completed? Haring described someone who is bright, self-reliant and reflective; Raaijmakers didn’t believe he or she exists, according to Molema it is someone who is, next to reflective, also a people-manager, and Miedema thought it is someone who knows how the lead the lab of the future. Different views but with one strong common aspect: we need more time for reflection and personal development. So, more postdoc retreats, coaching and professional help on people management? But how will we manage to find this so much needed time for personal development, as our supervisors rather see us working in the lab?

The discussion between the participants lasted beyond the morning planned, but it shouldn’t stop now we are back to our labs and involved in our daily businesses. Do you have answers to the questions raised? How does your “scientist of the future look” like? Please share your opinion with PCDI’s community on this blog and we can keep the forum-discussion open beyond the postdoc retreat!

- This blog was originally posted on PCDI's community blog -

2 opmerkingen:

  1. Hi Eva!
    I follow you on twitter and accidentally stumbled on this blogpost when looking for inspiration on 'Science in 2050' for a lecture I'm giving on Open Science (eXtreme Science Make-over) at Wageningen UR next week.
    I will use it as input when painting a picture of science in the future.

    To answer your question on what 'my' scientist of the future looks like:
    I think, as always, there will be different types of succesful scientists. As always you'll have the skilled people manager-scientist who can inspire others, the 'let-me-do-my-research' scientist who locks him/herself in his lab and comes with brilliant solutions to problems no one ever heard of and than there will be a new type, that will be much more common in the future than now: the scientist who shares his or her data as soon as it comes out, who collaborates using online tools as easily with collegues at his department as with scientists on the other side of the globe. Of course this is only feasible with a radical altering of the current funding and peer review system. Openness now is not a virtue, rather a sure way to have others beat you to the punch of a good publication - and funding.

  2. Thanks for your positive reaction. I also follow you on twitter!