Chapter eight highlights many of the challenges and problems in the biomedical field ranging from too little funding to backwards incentives.
I was particularly surprised by the difficulties postdocs face. Postdocs are people who have completed their PhD. They usually help in labs and hope to get stable research positions. Sadly, postdocs have to deal with many things including low salaries, high debt and lack of open jobs. As described in the book: “Once young biomedical students finish their PhDs, they go into a twilight world of academia: postdoctoral research.” – p.173.
Kristina Martinez is one of these postdocs, hoping to get a tenure-track job. But the chances aren’t good. The NIH (National Institute of Health) found that only 21 percent of postdocs get a tenure-track job, and that the trend was going down as the number of postdocs has been growing. On top of that, most postdocs work for five years before moving up, and if they have little to no experience, they often make under $50,000 a year.
It’s also difficult for postdocs to move up; you need to have a publication. For Martinez, “She had a lot of stimulating ideas but no polished results to publish in scientific literature.” – p.174. But, to get a publication, she needed funding. And the University of Chicago wouldn’t even consider that until she got a journal article with the results of her work. However, not any journal would do, “Martinez figured she would need into get a journal with a high ‘impact factor’, a measurement invented for commercial purposes: the ratings helps journals sell ads and subscriptions.” – p.174.
Some of these journals are Nature, Cell and Science. They have papers that are often cited and are thus assumed more important. But that’s rarely true; journals with a high impact factor instead often attract flashy work, and Martinez says her work isn’t gaudy enough. It’s hard to escape the system. Martinez says: “It just makes it scary. Now I’m in it, there’s nothing really I can do about it.” – p.174.
Publications in these papers don’t only affect funding, they also have an impact in hiring. Often, as a way to sort applications, committees will only look at people with a publication in a top-tier journal. But, more than anything else, publications have become a way to rate scientists. Gregory Petsko, a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, said “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in a review panel and someone says, so-and-so published two papers in Cell, two in Nature, and one in Science.” – p.176.
I think this is wrong. Why should a publication in a paper that doesn’t even publish meticulously done work be valued at all? I am also bothered by how hard things are on postdocs, and it has made me think about if I would ever want to be one. After reading this chapter, it certainly doesn’t seem as easy as I originally thought. However, I’m still not ready to give up on science yet.