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Professor of Molecular Biology, Tampere University6.10.2021
Ten per year
Not long after relocating to Finland, I recall a conversation I had with a leading Finnish scientist, about what is expected of us. 'Just publish your ten papers a year and you'll do fine', was their advice.
Since those days, we are increasingly being drowned in the culture of metrics. It still matters how many papers per year that we publish, but many other criteria have come into view, such as which journals we publish in (and their impact factors); the placement of our names in author lists; how many other authors actually cite our papers (even if they do so because of flaws or contentious interpretations); how well we have respected the rules on open access; how many international conference presentations we made; how many public outreach events we organized or participated in; how many articles we authored in newspapers or popular science magazines; on how many occasions were we invited to deliver seminars in other institutes or universities (other than those given semi-clandestinely, in search of job opportunities elsewhere); how many PhD students we trained; how many public policy advisories or directives we wrote; how many governing bodies of learned societies were we elected to; how many recommendations we wrote in support of candidates for academic promotion, prestigious fellowships or prizes; how many research or researcher assessment exercises we were invited to participate in; how many invention disclosures or actual patent applications we filed and, of course, the extent of our outputs on social media and how many followers we accrued.
In theory, the requirement to report our dissemination activities in this way is supposed to incentivize what research funders or the state regard as 'best practice'. If public money is supporting us and our research, we need to demonstrate that society is getting something back in return, in quantity if not quality. Even if most of us suspect that nobody ever reads our reports, and that our numerical returns are simply pulped in some giant recycling vat in a cosmic Ministry of Statistical Affairs. Seriously, is anyone going to remember our contribution to humanity by the number of failed startup companies we spun out, or how close to carbon-neutrality we came over the course of our professional work?
For me, all the foregoing is just a lead in to more fundamental questions about science: for what would we wish to be remembered? What would be the ideal trajectory of a research career? Why are we doing any of it at all? There are obviously different possible answers to this, and it's ultimately a matter of opinion or taste. Some of us stay focused on one problem throughout our lifetime as a PI, either cracking it or at least revealing why it's so hard to crack. Like a praying mantis that sits almost motionless, taking in a 360 degree of the landscape, they wait for their prey to come into view, then catch and devour it in one swipe. Others tend to be more akin to butterflies, visiting many flowers and sampling their nectar before moving on to the next. Insatiable curiosity lies behind each of these strategies, but major and memorable advances tend to be made by those who stay focused. Even if their focus is considered tiresome and unoriginal by some, or even domineering, in the sense that they become indissolubly associated with that one pathway, protein or process that seems to outsiders to be almost their personal property.
My own career is much more of the latter kind, that of a dabbler in the many things that have taken my fancy along the way, even though virtually all of them fall within the overall topic area of mitochondrial biology. In some ways this is a case of 'do as I say, not as I do', for I believe this is a risky way to build a scientific career, and I was just lucky that I stumbled into something interesting and noteworthy along many of the paths I wandered down. A dilettante approach like this is nevertheless frowned upon by most funding agencies that look for a clear focus and predictable outcomes that follow logically from one to the next. In Finland, however, I would say the opposite is often true, especially for high-profile Academy instruments such as their targeted research programmes or the CoE scheme, where 'renewal' and new directions are explicitly preferred, even if our work in the old direction is far from complete. In fact, lack of continuity of funding or of the research themes that it supports is a major drawback of the Finnish system, which urgently needs an overhaul to achieve a better balance.
All of which means that, for me personally, I will leave behind a large number of loose ends, projects half completed before the funding ran out or where the reward for early success was to get funded for the next big thing. It would be tedious to list all of my unfinished projects and impossible to assess which ones really would have been worth pursuing. But I am comforted by the thought that if it's really important, someone will eventually come back to it and sort it out.
In some years I have indeed come close to publishing ten papers, most of them on different topics. Despite my advice to others to chart a different course, the fact that so many of them represent only a first or second step down an intriguing path of inquiry, raising more questions than they answer, fills me with the desire to revisit many of them in the dozen or more follow-up scientific careers that nobody can have, other than in fantasy.
To sum up: my advice to anyone embarking on a scientific career is to focus your research on at most two or three clearly interlinked questions that you are passionate to solve. Don't get diverted from these unless you turn up something utterly compelling and extraordinary. At the same time, ignore all those dreary metrics that ultimately mean nothing for the future of the world. Instead disseminate your findings in ways that seem appropriate to you, and forget about the bean counters from that cosmic ministry.
Erik Bonsdorff 06.10.2021
Well put! I fully agree; getting into the hunt for ever improved/higher more or less artificial metrics rather than following your scientific curiosity (and possibly your societal engagement) is not the way forward. Good ideas do not come often, and they do not come easy, so it may be best refining the ones one eventually has.
Professor of Molecular Biology,
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