Saturday, January 12, 2013

A New Way for Science

Out with the old.  In with the new.  This is the adage that fits the proposal that I have for a new way to train scientists.  Why, you may ask, do I think I am an expert on the training of scientists?  Lets be clear, I am no expert on scientific training, but I have been trained scientifically in various ways.  I have two bachelors degrees and am nearing the completion of my PhD, I have also worked in various laboratories that were run in extremely different ways.  This gives me some perspective on the pros and cons of these types of training. So what is this new way to teach science and why is it better?

Science is expensive.  The reagents used are costly, the personnel are hard to train, and the nature of research does not make clear and defined accounting easy to perform.  But some improvements to the system can be envisioned that still maintain the basic structure that we are used to, and it would be cheaper as well.  Here's how:

The system of training as it stands, incorporates an old way of doing things that seems to have clung on even as those in the field have begun to tout the benefits of change.  As an avid reader of the scientific literature, one may note that the number of authors on publications has increased over time. This is due to the way science was done in the past; with one scientist in charge of a small group, publishing his findings in isolation and often with just his or her (mostly his, another changing trend) name on the publications, versus the way it is done now.   Now, most scientists no longer work in isolation, they work for institutions, but somehow have maintained the 'lord of my domain' attitude when it comes to the small group of students and techs that they employ.  It is in this throw back that we find the inefficiency in the system.

It is well documented that mass production is cheaper then hand crafting items.  It is also well established that we can reduce errors by creating a more protocol oriented assembly line approach to production.  This has often been shrugged aside by the scientists of academe because the nature of research means that experiments are unpredictable.   But as institutions of science become larger, the conglomerate set of experiments that need to be performed mounts, and the techniques or assays used to get the results of these experiments are often very similar.

Ergo, I propose that in order to reduce the cost of science and science training we create a system of core facilities that are run within the institution by principle investigators, who are experts in these areas, and recruit scientists to come up with good ideas.  These ideas would then be pursued by trainees, who would in turn be asked to rotate through each of the core facilities in order to gain experience in each commonly used technique.  The trainees and their mentors would then collate the total finding, run by themselves or specialists in the core facilities, for publication in journals and so forth.  Indeed, the idea of core facilities is not new and can be found in many institutions.  But 'mom and pop' labs are also still run of the mill, with core facilities often just used to augment the old school system when a method is too expensive for an individual lab to afford. 

Medical doctors are not trained in small health clinics and private doctors offices, they are trained in hospitals, with rotations in the majority of areas that they will need to understand later in their careers.  Why can't a similar method be employed for the training of scientists?  Some might say that the career of a scientist is different from a medical doctor, that's why.  But the true measure of a scientist is his or her ability to run an idea factory; to plan out and impliment a series of experiements that leads to novel discovery.  This can still  be achieved and in a more cost affective manner using the core laboratory system. 

Does this solve all of the problems faced by scientists today?  No.  But it does allow for training of individuals in an industrial style of thinking, which also reduces the bottom line for research being performed.  Certainly, this does not work everywhere, such as in research into creating new methods that improve or supplant the old ones, so the old school labs will still have a place.  Mentors would still be mentors, and students would still be required to understand the many facets of their research proposals, but costs would be reduced and training areas would be broadened, not just in the classroom as they often are today.  And that is what needs to happen if we want to continue to have a robust scientific community in our current stretched economy.  

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