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How to Discourage Great Discoveries

This year’s Oscar award for best picture went to "12 Years a Slave," the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped into bondage in the antebellum South. We at Science Careers see little ethical equivalence between the chattel slavery practiced in the United States before 1865 and employment in an academic institution, but there is a coincidental connection: Seven years (the approximate length of the average biomedical Ph.D.) plus 5 years (the maximum allowable time for a postdoc supported by the National Institutes of Health, and the length of many postdocs these days) equals 12 years. 

In a wide-ranging interview with Elizabeth Dzeng at King's Review, geneticist and Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner was far less reticent than we are about suggesting an ethical connection between scientific training and human bondage. Science's traditional apprenticeship system, he says, has taken a dark turn, in the United States at least: "Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. … He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer." In decades gone by, Brenner continues, young scientists were not bound to a lab chief’s projects but had a level of independence that allowed them to "have their own ideas and … pursue them."

"Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students." —Sydney Brenner

Furthermore, today’s funding realities and other features of the academic scene are exactly wrong for helping talented young researchers do groundbreaking research, Brenner believes. In order to fix this problem, "the most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship."

But doing their own original science requires financial support and other types of assistance, which current early-career researchers have few opportunities to acquire. "The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work," Brenner says. Getting grants depends on having preliminary data, he continues, and that requires researchers "to follow the straight and narrow. There’s no exploration any more except in a very few places."

A possible solution, suggests Brenner, who is affiliated with the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Singapore, is a type of lab he has established there "only for young people," notably researchers with Ph.D.s who have studied at top American and British universities and returned home to Singapore. Instead of spending 5 years as a postdoc working on a supervisor’s project, these scientists pursue their own ideas from the outset. "They’re not working for me and I’ve told them that," Brenner says. Few people are willing to "accept that challenge," but those who do, he believes, can make important contributions.

Brenner suggests another way to support young scientists’ originality. He calls it the Casino Fund because it involves gambling on risky, unusual work. Funding organizations would "write off" 1% of the money they use to support research and spend it on unconventional projects. "You should hear the uproar" whenever he proposes the idea, he says.  

Today’s policies, Brenner fears, stifle important possibilities and would have prevented major advances had they been in effect in the past. As Dzeng noted, earlier this year Brenner wrote in Science that two-time Nobel laureate Frederick Sanger, who died last November, "would not survive today's world of science. With continuous reporting and appraisals, some committee would note that he published little of import between insulin in 1952 and his first paper on RNA sequencing in 1967 with another long gap until DNA sequencing in 1977." Peter Higgs, who discovered the Higgs boson, made similar comments about his own career, Brenner adds.

Beyond this scathing assessment of current American funding (and training) practices, Brenner has incisive criticisms of peer review, journal publishing, and the American method of training Ph.D. researchers. You can read the full interview here.

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