Reporter on the road: an ode to the unsung heroes of science

24 February 2018

Despite the odd professor who, in a mid-(science)-life crisis, grabs the pipette once again, they are not responsible for the enormous load of hands-on work that goes into everyday scientific research. That being said, generals win wars, not foot soldiers. This is the gory detail of academia: at the end of the bloody battle, less than 10% of you will “survive”.

A battle doesn’t win a war
Remember that first day of your PhD work? You had your master’s degree in your pocket, found a cool lab, and you were certain you’d change the world by doing awesome research? It’s unlikely that you had this rosy outlook, but I guess the following years were a bit of a reality check for most of you. At least, they were for me. You learn a few of the practical things about science. First of all, working hard does not equal scientific output. Sometimes you need an extra pinch of luck. An idea may look great on paper, but this does not mean
the experiments will pan out in the end. And if you eventually achieved those amazing results, you were faced with your first peer-review experience. As the PhD student Winston from the lab next door once said: “Peer-review is the worst form of evaluating scientific accuracy, except for all those other forms.” It is the cornerstone of science and we desperately need it, but I think most of us can agree that the system is far from perfect. You pull yourself through months of revisions, and when you finally have your paper, you can defend. First battle won… but one battle does not win a war.

Becoming a general
A number of you will be sick and tired of it. Tired of bench work, the pressure to publish, or the world of academia. But a lot of you, despite a few battle scars, choose not to give up. You decide to pursue the ultimate goal of a foot soldier: climbing the ranks and earning your stripes. You want to get out of the mud of the battlefield and onto that horse. You want to become a general! Are you talented? Yes? Then academia tells you that you can do it.
But is that really true? By now, you are a postdoc and you should be able to count. Let’s do the math. In most cases, a general has to retire before a new general can be raised. But my general trained 6 other soldiers, and is far from retirement. So what do I do now? The longer the war takes, the more likely your fellow officers will not survive. All you can do is to keep on battling. You keep fighting your general’s war until it has been won. You started out as one of one hundred, but by now, you’re more likely one of ten.

The struggle for funding
Wartime metaphors aside, this analogy is not that far from the truth. To those of us dreaming of one day becoming professors, it feels like a battle. We soon began to realize that the odds are stacked against us, and frankly, it is frightening. How can you make sure that you are one of the last (wo)men standing? I experienced first-hand that hard work and good ideas do not guarantee impact factors, and that eventually I will need those to get a position. Even if you achieve that position, you are still confronted with the current funding climate: each year, it is getting increasingly difficult for young group leaders to secure money to actually do research. It is clear that this situation is becoming unsustainable, and we face the threat of losing out on a lot of good research.

Redefining succes in science
On the other hand, we have the ones that “did not survive”. But did they? Too often, we put forward the idea that everyone in academia needs to aspire to professorship. When I hear about my friends’ paychecks, free weekends and the cool things they do working in industry, I am not sure if this is justified. We strive to push our scientific discoveries outside of the realm of dusty academics and attract the attention of industry. At that point, shouldn’t we want our best people out there ensuring that our science is translated into benefits to society? I am not the first one to bring this up, nor do I have a simple solution to the problem. But I do know
that we have to address this issue, and we can only do this by keeping the conversation alive. First of all, we as scientists need to be vocal about the value of our work to remind governments that cutting science funding – or simply failing to increase science budgets – in our tech economy can be disastrous. If the number of scientists is increasing, why isn’t the budget following suit? Second, we as students, postdocs and professors need to be honest with ourselves and to each other. “What are my realistic options as a young postdoc? If I
will go into the private sector anyway, is a postdoc valuable for my career?” Universities and doctoral schools should play key roles in providing correct information on these subjects to prevent a further pile-up of PhDs and postdocs. Lastly, something we can only change ourselves: our mindset about academia versus industry. While there are obvious differences, at the end of the day, we all want to make the world a better place through science. Exchanging academia for industry should not be considered a failure. We should celebrate the bright people that make that leap and power the companies that fuel our economy. Without them, our work would gather dust on lab benches.​

Steven Boeynaems is a VIB alumnus who worked at the Kevin Verstrepen Lab and the Ludo Van Den Bosch Lab. Recently he traded Belgium for the Californian sun. At Stanford University he keeps pursuing his passion for science and science communication.