Lab size – is bigger always better?

A ton of blog posts and a few papers have been written on the issue of the optimal size of a biomedical research lab. If you would like a nice digest, see this Youtube video by Jon Lorsch, the director of one of the NIH institutes. Jon makes a very good case for smaller labs. They allow for more diversity, better mentoring, are more efficient with their use of funds. Unfortunately, almost all incentives in academia are for group leaders to have bigger labs. The PI of  a larger group has more security in terms of funding and employment, more prestige, more negotiating power in almost any situation. Almost no one in academia looks at how efficient in terms of output per dollar a group is – they invariably look at the total output of the lab, ie. the total number/prestige/citations of pubs where the PI is senior author. Similarly, no one looks at how well the PI’s trainees do on average – they only look at the few superstars that have come out of the lab.
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Poland’s higher education reform – new voices in the debate

I recently discussed some of the ideas presented by the Polish Science Minister Jarosław Gowin as foundations for the reform of research and higher education law in Poland. A couple of days ago, an article came out in “Polityka” (paywalled), a popular weekly journal, discussing the specific projects for the reform developed by three independent teams. The authors, Dariusz Jemielniak and Piotr Stec mostly talk about the weaknesses of these projects and the pitfalls that the lawmakers should avoid when implementing changes. I think that the most important take home message from the article is that whatever the final reform will be, it will have to be followed by a cultural change if it is to be effective. Otherwise, academics will just find ways to work around the reform and everything will remain the same. Continue reading

Research excellence in Poland

Research excellence is a very common theme that comes up in any discussion of science policy. Recently the Polish Science and Education Minister, Dr. Jarosław Gowin, talked about his views on this subject in Poznań. The venue was one of a series of conferences in preparation for the National Science Congress (Narodowy Kongress Nauki) later this year, where he will present the draft of his baby – the new research and education bill, so called Ustawa 2.0. I will do my best to sum up his views and give some short commentary. Continue reading

Polish research in the spotlight

Poland has just been highlighted in a Nature feature as an up and coming contender in the international research landscape. The piece was well-researched and I think it pretty much sums up all the pros and cons of Poland as a destination for international talent. The pros are the relatively plentiful funding, and lots of newly constructed modern labs and institutes that have many vacancies. The cons are the sometimes hierarchical power structure, the resistance to change on the structural level by the established “old guard”, and the sometimes inadequate logistical support for researchers from abroad. Continue reading

My take on preprints

I am sure you’ve heard the buzz about preprints in biology. Preprints have been a thing for a long time now in physics and math. The idea is that you submit your paper in a more or less finished form to a server called arXiv (pronounced archive), where their manuscript only undergoes very cursory approval but no formal peer review. It is then available for anyone to read and comment on. Biology took much longer to accept preprints, but the movement has been gaining momentum in recent years. There is a biological arXiv twin called biorXiv, and it has become very popular, especially among computational biologists.There are many advantages of preprints. First, you get to get your story out quicker and people can find out about it sooner. Continue reading

FUGA is dead, long live SONATINA

The report of the most recent National Science Centre council meeting is up on the NCN website. The most interesting piece of info for me was some new details of the upcoming SONATINA call for proposals. The SONATINA grant replaces the now officially burried FUGA grant, which used to be addressed exclusively to “mobile” postdoctoral fellows, who changed institutions and voivodships and wanted to seek better career prospects away from the institution where they did their PhDs. This worked out great for my new postdoc Łukasz, who got one of the FUGA grants and was able to move from Łódź to Warsaw. The SONATINA is different in many ways, but in some ways also resembles the FUGA grant. Continue reading

Can we solve research misconduct?

Just the other day I was reading a Nature opinion piece on deliberate research misconduct: how it affects the reproducibility science, and what we can do about it. The authors proposed a number of solutions, but most of them focused on punishing the perpetrators. Punishments should be more severe, they argued, the PIs should be held accountable for their trainees’ misconduct, and institutions should be forced to give back money gained by research dishonesty. I’m not sure I agree with this solution. Continue reading

The geography of NCN grants

The principal Polish agency that funds basic research – the National Science Centre (Narodowe Centrum Nauki – NCN) recently published data on grant success rates and total awarded amounts divided by institutions and departments. I decided to play around with the data a little bit to see the geographical distribution of NCN largesse. The results are pretty striking: Continue reading

Salary support for technicians in National Science Centre grants

The NCN (National Science Centre) website has recently published a report from their April Council Meeting. There are quite a few interesting tidbits of information there, including plans for “mini-grants” that would support scientists that have not held an NCN grant before and who need some seed money for preliminary work or other expenses, such as conference participation. What caught my attention, however, was that the Council discussed the issue of bringing back salary support for technical staff as a legitimate expense in NCN grant budgets. In 2015 there has been a major shift as to who can receive full salary from an NCN grant. Before the change, any team member could be supported on NCN money, afterwards only the PI, PhD students, and post-docs were allowed to have their full salary/stipend included in the grant budget. This was significant, because according to NCN regulations, a post-doc must have received their PhD at most 5 years prior to being supported. Continue reading

The use and abuse of metrics in science – the Polish perspective

I have just returned from a debate at the Nencki Institute about the use of metrics in science evaluation. The debate consisted of two presentations and an open discussion with the audience. The first presentation was by Prof. Leszek Kaczmarek from the Nencki, who has had a lot of experience being a referee for both Polish and European granting agencies, and is actively involved in policymaking for the Polish National Science Centre. The second presentation was by Prof. Karol Życzkowski from the Jagiellonian University and Center of Theoretical Physics, who has also served on many review committees for Polish and International grants. Those of my readers who follow research-related blogs and the usual suspects on Twitter will not be unfamiliar with the main points covered in the discussion – the hegemony of the Impact Factor and how it is a terrible metric of the quality of science, the impossible task of judging and ranking the increasingly specialized and esoteric achievements of our peers, the heterogeneity of research fields and differences in citation practices etc. A few points discussed, however, I think, are specific for Poland, and I would like to dwell on them a little longer. Continue reading