October 28th, 2016
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
For example, while studying the epidemiology of HIV and tuberculosis, one of us (T.O.) realized that many people with these infectious diseases in urban areas also have non-infectious conditions, including hypertension and obesity. Hardly anyone was examining how and why, or investigating strategies for integrated prevention and management. Her proposals to research these topics were not well received by peer reviewers, who commented that she had not asked such questions before.
We, the authors of this Comment, met earlier this year, having been selected by the World Economic Forum as part of a group of scientists under the age of 40 who “play a transformational role in integrating scientific knowledge into society for the public good”. Through hours of discussion, we realized that we share many challenges, despite the recognition we have achieved and the diverse disciplines and geographical regions we represent.
Most striking are the barriers to achieving impact. Our research often led us to questions that had greater potential than our original focus, typically because these new directions encompassed the complexities of society. We realized that changing tack could lead to more important work, but the policies of research funders and institutions consistently discourage such pivots.
…This challenge is not new. Physicist-turned-structural biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who is president of the Royal Society, worked for several years in a job with funding that was contingent on a steady stream of publications. This forced him to ask safe but incremental questions. To pursue what became his Nobel-prizewinning work (on the structure of the ribosome), he moved to another institution where he could ask the questions that interested him, irrespective of the chances for publication. As he describes in his Nobel biography, the decision required an international move and a large pay cut.
For every story like this, there are too many where investigators have made a rational choice not to pursue areas outside their core expertise. We spend so much effort trying to find our way that we risk losing the drive to apply skills to the broader world, and stick instead to the less-fulfilling security of ‘productivity’.
More bold is Eva Alisic, a psychologist and senior research fellow at Monash University Accident Research Centre in Victoria, Australia. Earlier this year, Alisic began studying how refugee children from places such as Syria cope with trauma. Her institute has supported her so far, but this research is not the safest choice for a conventional career trajectory. She told us that she would rather give up an academic career than end this line of study. If we feel that we must leave academia to better contribute to society, the scholarly endeavour is compromised.