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Peter Higgs says he wouldn't have predicted the Higgs boson in today's academic climate

Times are tough for young researchers.

FIONA MACDONALD
27 OCT 2016
 

On the eve of receiving his 2013 Nobel Prize, famed physicist Peter Higgs told The Guardian that he wouldn't be productive enough to get a job in today's academic system, where researchers are expected to constantly pump out research.

Higgs, 87, said he has never sent an email or made a mobile phone call, and published less than 10 papers after his groundbreaking 1964 prediction of the Higgs boson, which outlined how the Universe got its mass.

 

"It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964," Higgs told Decca Aitkenhead.

Now a new survey of young researchers by Nature suggests that things have only gotten worse since Higgs' comments, with researchers today under even more pressure with less resources, and less job stability.

"In September, Nature put a post on Facebook asking scientists who were starting their first independent position to tell us about the challenges that they faced," writes Kendall Powell for Nature in a special issue on the plight of young scientists. "What followed was a major outpouring of grief."

Within a week, the journal had almost 300 responses from scientists around the world.

"I see many colleagues divorcing, getting burnt out, moving out of science, and I am so tired now," one anonymous Belgium researcher admitted.

"It’s stressful when you don’t have money, and stressful when you do have money, because then you have to deliver," said another, materials scientist Eddie López-Honorato. "It’s my fault if anything goes wrong."

 

The stress that young researchers are under today isn't exactly news. The way that research jobs currently work has established 'publish or perish' system, where those who constantly put out 'new and exciting' research will be given the best grants and the best jobs - regardless of whether or not their research is verifiable and sound.

This has led to a 'reproducibility crisis' in modern research, where no one is fact-checking other people's work anymore - a vital part of the scientific method - and as a result, many influential studies have failed to stand up to verification.

In fact, a study back in September used computer modelling to predict what would happen to science if nothing changed, and they found it would evolve into something shoddy and unreliable, thanks to the "natural selection of bad science".

From researchers' point of view, the struggle comes down to the fact that there are more and more PhD graduates competing for less funding and the same number of jobs. The number of people with PhDs in the US has doubled over the past 20 years.

That means they're forced to spend more and more time chasing funding and applying for grants, as well as racing to publish their work as soon as possible in order to secure the new round of financing.

This means that young researchers are working longer hours, but often spending less time actually doing research - with more pressure to get publishable results out of that research time. 

The Nature survey revealed that most researchers only actually spend around 38 percent of their time doing research - the rest is a mix of admin duties and teaching responsibilities, which are usually essential to getting a job at a university. And we wonder why there are no modern Einsteins or Feynmans.

There's also the age issue. With not enough jobs to go around, young researchers are losing positions to older and more experienced academics. 

"In September, Nature asked on Twitter: 'What are the challenges facing young scientists?' 'Old scientists,' one respondent shot right back," Powell writes.

As depressing as the situation is, the good news is that more and more people are now talking about the issue, and trying to figure out how to change things for the better. 

Many researchers are now bypassing peer-reviewed journals altogether and instead choosing to publish their work on pre-print sites to be poured over by their colleagues, and others are setting up initiatives that help support and nurture young scientists, as well as make them aware of the realities of the career before they graduate.

Hopefully these changes will lead to more young scientists spending time where we need them - in the lab. Because it's not just an issue for researchers, but anyone who wants to world to progress thanks to accurate and well thought-out science... just like the prediction of the Higgs boson back in 1964.

"We've got to reward people who do something differently," Bruce Alberts, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, told Nature, adding that the current pressure on researchers encourages "mediocre science".

"It’s not about fairness. It’s about how to get the best science for the dollar," he said. "We’ll get much better science by funding young or old people to do innovative things."

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