Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Some thoughts on the UCL “Is Science Broken” debate

[Disclaimer: This was written the day after the event, and I took no notes. If I have misrepresented the opinions of any of the panel members then it is a result of my poor attention during, and poor memory following, the debate. My apologies to those involved if this is the case.]

For those that weren't aware, UCL hosted a talk and debate last night entitled “Is Science Broken? If so, how can we fix it?” Chris Chambers (@chriscd77) gave a talk about the recent introduction of Registered Reports in the journal Cortex. This was followed by a broader panel discussion on the problems facing science (and psychology in particular) and how initiatives, such as pre-registration, might be able to improve things. Alongside Chris, Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee), Sam Schwarzkopf (@sampendu), Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) and Sophie Scott (@sophiescott) took part in the debate, and David Shanks chaired.
First, I found Chris’ talk very informative and measured. Words such as “evangelist” are often bandied about on social media. Personally, I found him to be passionate about pre-registration but very realistic and honest about how pre-registration fits into the broader movement of “improving science”. He spend at least half of his talk answering questions that he has received following similar presentations over the last few months. I would guess about 90% of these questions were essentially logistical – “will I be able to submit elsewhere once I've collected the results?”, “couldn't a reviewer scoop my idea and publish whilst I’m data collecting?” It is obviously incumbent upon Chris, given he has introduced a new journal format, to answer these legitimate logistical questions clearly. I think he did a great job in this regard. I can’t help feeling some of these questions come from individuals who are actually ideologically opposed to the idea, trying to bring about death by a thousand cuts. Often these questions implicitly compare pre-registration to an “ideal” scenario, rather than to the current status quo. As a result, I feel Chris has to point out that their concern applies equally to the current publishing model. I may just be misreading, but if people are ideologically opposed to pre-registration I’d rather they just come out and say it instead of raising a million and one small logistical concerns.
On to the debate. This worked really well. It is rare to get five well-informed individuals on the same stage talking openly about science. There was a lot of common ground. First, everyone agreed there should be more sharing of data between labs (though the specifics of this weren't discussed in detail, so there may have been disagreement on how to go about doing this). Dorothy also raised legitimate ethical concerns about how to anonymise patient data to allow for data sharing. There was also common ground in relation to replication, though Chris and Neuroskeptic both cautioned against only replicating within-lab, and pushed for more between-lab replication efforts, relative to Sophie.
Where I think there was disagreement was in relation to the structures that we put in place to encourage good practice (or discourage bad practice). On several occasions Chris asked how we were going to ensure scientists do what they should be doing (replicating, data sharing, not p-hacking etc.). Essentially it boils down to how much scope we give individual scientists to do what they want to do. Pre-registration binds scientists (once the initial review process has been accepted) to perform an experiment in a very specific way and to perform specific statistics on the data collected. This should (though we need data, as pointed out by both Chris and Sam) decrease the prevalence of certain issues, such as p-hacking or the file drawer problem. You can’t get away from the fact that it is a way of controlling scientists though. I think some people find that uncomfortable, and to a certain extent I can understand why.  However, what is key to pre-registration is that it is the scientists themselves who are binding their own hands. It is masochistic rather than sadistic. Chris isn't telling any individual scientist how to run their experiment, he is simply asking scientists to clearly state what they are going to do before they do it. Given the huge multivariate datasets we collect in cognitive neuroscience, giving individuals a little less wiggle room is probably a good thing.
Sophie pointed out at the beginning of the debate that science isn't measured in individual papers. In one hundred years no-one will remember what we did, let alone that specific paper we published in Nature or Neuron (or Cortex). This is a reasonable point, but I couldn't quite see how it undermined the introduction of formats such as pre-registration. I don’t think anyone would claim a pre-registered paper is “truth”. The success (or failure) of pre-registration will be measured across hundreds of papers. The “unit” of science doesn't change as a result of pre-registration.

Where I found common ground with Sophie was in her emphasis on individual people rather than structures (e.g., specific journal formats). Certainly, we need to get the correct structures in place to ensure we are producing reliable replicable results. However, whilst discussing these structural changes we should never lose sight of the fact that science progresses because of the amazingly talented, enthusiastic, nerdy, focussed, well-intentioned, honest, funny, weird, clever people who design the experiments, collect the data, run the statistics and write the papers. The debate wonderfully underlined this point. We had five individuals (and a great audience) all arguing passionately about science. It is that raw enthusiasm that gives me hope about the future of science more than any change in journal format.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The academic parent #4 - things wot I learned

A brief list of things I have learnt in the space of less than a week:

  1. Looking after your child on a daily basis is tiring. One day, it's a doddle. However, several consecutive days on your own and it starts to get to you. Both my wife and I have been shattered this last week. She has been adjusting to life back at work and I have been adjusting to the life of a full time carer. Hopefully we'll have a bit more energy this week and not have to go to bed at 9pm every night.
  2. You're constantly thinking several hours ahead. When should I feed next, is it time for a nap, if I go for a walk now will she fall asleep and therefore not nap at home? Get your timings right and everything works wonderfully. Get them wrong and you end up spending 6 hours straight with a grumpy baby and no backup to help you out.
  3. Trips to the shops are now the best thing ever. You get out the house and your child gets some fresh air and visual stimulation. Even if it's just walking down the road to buy some milk it can break up an afternoon into two more manageable chunks of time.
  4. Don't sit down and have a cup of tea at the start of a nap. Before I knew it about an hour had gone by and I had been staring at the ceiling. I try to get straight on the computer so I can at least catch up on a few emails (whilst drinking my tea). That way I feel I haven't completely wasted my free time.
  5. It's great. Try it.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The academic parent #3 – the return of paternity leave

Today I am back on paternity leave. My daughter is nine months old and my wife has returned to work. Rather than send our daughter straight to nursery, we thought it might be a good idea if I look after her full time for a month. We have done this for several reasons, which I will explain below. I had toyed with the idea of taking time off for a while (in addition to the paternity leave I took immediately after she was born), but it was a chance meeting at a conference dinner that really got me thinking. I was chatting to a lecturer who had returned to work following maternity leave, and she was explaining how her husband was taking 3 months of paternity leave. I explained I would like to do something similar, but given I’m currently a postdoc who is thinking about future jobs and perhaps needs a few more publications under his belt it wasn't the best timing for me. This was obviously crap, and luckily she called me out on it. There is never a “convenient” time to take paternity/maternity leave. There will always be an excuse. Since then the plan has been relatively set in stone, at least in my mind.

So, why take leave now? First, because I want to. I want to experience at least a small part of what my wife has been through the past nine months. It won’t be the same, it will be easier for me, but it will be close enough. More importantly, I want to spend more time with my daughter when she is still a baby. Second, because I can. I have an understanding boss and work in a supportive department. I may not be in this situation again so I should take these opportunities when they present themselves. Third, because it makes financial sense. Rather than take official paternity leave, I’m essentially taking all my annual leave in one go. I don’t think I have ever used up my allotted annual leave in a year. Most academics probably don’t. For this year at least that is what I am doing. This means, after a few months of statutory pay, my wife and I will both be on full pay for a month without nursery costs. This will help a lot. It would not have been financially viable for me to take official paternity leave, and therefore not be paid during this time, as we would not have had enough income between the two of us to cope. Fourth, because going back to work after nine months of maternity leave is a big deal, and having to cope with the emotion of leaving your child at the nursery seems like quite a lot to handle all at once. This way my wife can be at work knowing I’m looking after our daughter, at least for a few weeks.

Finally, because more men need to take time off work and look after their kids. I've had very mixed reactions to taking (only) one month off. Some have sounded shocked, others have asked what I’m going to do with my time (answer: look after my daughter). It’s that mix of reactions that made me realise it was the right thing to do on top of all the personal reasons listed above. If it’s still a shock that a man might take time off work to look after their child (and I reiterate, it is only one month so it really isn't that significant) then we live in a pretty weird society.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The academic parent #2 – work-life balance

A recent article in Nature nicely highlighted some of the difficulties associated with juggling both work and parenting responsibilities whilst trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. Needless to say, it isn’t easy. Whilst I found the article to be an honest and frank assessment of the trials and tribulations of parenthood and academia, I couldn’t help feeling that part of the discussion was missing.

We are introduced to several research active scientists who plan weeks ahead, call on friends/colleagues/parents to help with child care, work into the evening once their child has gone to bed, all in the quest to maintain their pre-child levels of work. For instance, during maternity/paternity leave one couple “planned to use [their child’s] nap times and evenings at home to work on data analysis, manuscripts and grant proposals”. Another example tells of how the “couple typically works side-by-side in their home office for three to four hours” after they have put their daughter to bed.

It’s great that these individuals are managing to find time to be a parent and be productive at the same time – although their social life seems to have suffered somewhat. However, my issue with the whole article is it presents two options (1) maintain previous work patterns and be a bad parent or (2) change work patterns but maintain the same working hours and be a good parent. At no point is the concept of working fewer hours brought in for consideration. I’m not saying this is the correct solution, but surely it is a viable option? Everyone agrees that academics can work long hours, reviewing papers in the evening, spending all night finishing a grant application, collecting data on the weekend. Given this common agreement, why is it not remotely conceivable that one might want to cut down on these hours once one has a child?

My issue with a lot of articles on “work-life balance” is actually that exact phrase. The word “balance” seems too positive a term for what is essentially a decision about what to sacrifice in your life. The above examples from the piece in Nature have, although not explicitly stated, sacrificed their social life in order to maintain work hours whilst spending time with their children. That’s fine, but this sacrifice should be explicitly acknowledged. Personally, I work slightly fewer hours than I used to (trying to be more productive with those hours I am in the office) and go out with friends a lot less. I have also sacrificed any time to myself in the evening. Once my child is asleep I spend time with my wife, as we rarely get time alone during the day. I consider this a relatively “balanced” life considering how much upheaval a baby causes in one’s life, but I have had to sacrifice quite a bit to reach that balance.

The point I am trying to make is that a lot of talk about “balance” is directed towards cramming more stuff into the same number of hours. Instead I think we should talk more openly about what is and what isn’t important. What we can give up and what we need to maintain. Only then should we discuss how we can use the finite number of hours allotted to us to carry out the tasks that we have prioritised.