This is an essay that I originally wrote for the Oxford Biotech Roundtable’s Annual Science Writing Competition in March 2013. The topic was ‘Major issues facing scientists today.’ It was not chosen for the short list.
Through thinking, experimenting and troubleshooting, artists naturally build up large bodies of work over their careers. They may carry out periods of making art about one particular subject before a significant event (moving cities, changing jobs, having a family, perhaps reading an influential book) casts their exploration off on an alternative path. Ultimately, these periods are connected by an underlying urge, interest and passion for one major question that comes from being human and, more importantly, from being an individual.
Scientists are no different. Ask any scientist why they chose to do what they do, or what it is that gets them up and out of the house each day, and they won’t say “money”. They do it because they couldn’t think of doing anything else with their lives. Scientists are driven by an innate desire to understand more about the world and about what makes us human. Like artists, each scientist has a deep burning question, although not always conscious, that they will spend their whole career chipping away at. They will spend years toiling away in a selection of different labs, learning appropriate skills and experiencing what each has to offer. They will choose to attend conferences based on likely speakers and attendees, placing themselves in the best position for that invaluable conversation which might lead to a fortunate opportunity or collaboration, all with the ultimate question or subject in mind.
James Watson didn’t always intend to be involved in determining the structure of DNA, but a childhood love of birds drove his fascination with genetics, leading on to a PhD in Zoology at Indiana University. Here, he became interested in the multiplication of bacterial viruses (bacteriophages), and his graduate research examined the effect of X-rays on this organism’s ability to replicate. We now understand that X-rays promote the formation of mutations in DNA, likely hindering cell division. As a postdoctoral researcher, Watson was awarded a fellowship, enabling him to travel to Copenhagen to gain further skills to study the fate of bacteriophage DNA, and onto a symposium in Naples where he met Maurice Wilkins for the first time. This meeting had a profound influence on Watson’s research direction, and led him to work on the structure of nucleic acids and proteins at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. Here, he met Francis Crick, and their partnership eventually led to the award of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Watson, Crick and Wilkins for their work in determining the structure of DNA.
The 2010 UK spending review saw the beginning of the government freeze on science funding, equating to deep cuts in real terms after inflation. Universities invited applications for voluntary redundancies from senior members of staff, and funding available for PhD students and post-doctoral researchers experienced a noticeable squeeze. Many funding bodies have cut their provisions for equipment, leaving researchers wondering how they will replace worn-out equipment.
Although there is in no doubt difficulty in securing jobs or funding in this country, forcing many researchers to leave academia for the private sector or to seek employment abroad – the latter branded as the ‘brain drain’ by the British media – perhaps a more important issue for scientists managing to hold on to a research career in the UK is the continuity of their work. Upon completing a PhD, a scientific researcher typically spends around six years working in several different research laboratories to gain sufficient skills to apply for a fellowship to set up their own research laboratory. Not only does the scientist need to remain in employment through successful acquisition of a series of relatively short-term contracts, they need to be in relevant laboratories, gaining appropriate skills, and above all, yielding a consistent number of publications in several high-quality journals. Perhaps fortunately James Watson was single when he completed his PhD, enabling him to leave the US in search of important skills and collaborators. Add in personal commitments: a partner, a partner’s career, dependents, financial concerns, all of which can make it difficult to be able to re-locate in search of those much-needed skills, and it begins to become clear why so few individuals beginning a PhD will succeed in becoming a Professor or indeed remaining in science.