Big Love for Big Science?

With continued federal funding woes many researchers are forming science collectives to get their projects funded with collaborations that can involve huge numbers of scientists across disciplines. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education touts some of the benefits of a team/interdisciplinary approach to science in the current academic environment.

While big science sounds like a great idea, and would certainly go a long way toward the goal of generating “translational research”, will it really work?

One thing that scares me about the push for translational research and large collaborative projects is the homogenization of research throughout many institutes. When we are all studying things that are obviously linked to HIV, cancer or stem cells, it is difficult to make those surprising basic science observations that lead to new entirely new approaches and branches of research. While searching for fellowships recently, I found that every non-government fellowship was related to a syndrome and even the government ones want some obvious disease benefit. No one funds something as silly as “cell biology” anymore. If we narrow our focus to translational research too much, I worry that we will trade the rarer “big” mind-blowing discoveries for many small incremental increases in knowledge. Surely both are needed?

The collective approach to research may also require an overhaul of the current academic/tenure system (though many would argue that that’s not a bad thing).

I wonder for instance, in huge collaborations whose name is listed first on the paper? Last? I worry about the junior faculty trying to make a name for themselves whose name ends up lost in the shuffle. After all, who wants to be name #345 on a paper with 2349 authors? For this reason I agree with the article that if team science were to work, institutions would have to change their current tenure rules. Perhaps North American institutions will gradually shift to a pyramid model more similar to that operating in Europe in which a patriarch/matriarch functions as head with other faculty below them, all contributing to a research theme.

I dunno, maybe I’m just too young in my career and eager to get out there and do my thing. I just can’t help feeling that an overhaul of the current system toward big/team/collaborative/collective science would leave many of us feeling as though we’re just a cog in the machine with little more control over projects and ideas than we currently have as postdocs. I’m sure the one or two senior scientists at the top would love the idea though.

Maybe I’m just too ambitious and greedy to be a “team science” player….

UPDATE: “even the government [funding agencies] want some obvious disease benefit”

This is not the case for NSF in the US, for which I’m not eligible. More specifically I’m speaking about CIHR in Canada that requires that research be health-related. Additionally, during graduate school the only provincial funding had to be either health and/or cancer-related.

While some federal funding agencies claim that research needn’t bear a direct impact on health, there is a clear bias in what is actually funded and something sexy like “HIV” will get funded over something like “HAV” everytime…

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