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Let Researchers Try New Paths

Writing for Nature journal, scientists and professors Tolu Oni, Fabio Sciarrino, Gerardo Adesso, and Rob Knight, discuss an issue researchers have been facing a lot lately. The scientific enterprise is stuck in a catch-22, they say. Researchers are charged with advancing promising new questions, but receive support and credit only for revisiting their past work. They say that often times while examining one thing researchers are able to uncover several other important things, but deviating from the path is something frowned upon for various reasons among the industry. From the article (condensed): 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. When reviewers assess grants or academic performance, they focus largely on track records in a particular field. Young scientists, who must focus on developing their careers, are thus discouraged from exploration. Our own experiences provide a glimpse of the well-intentioned forces that can keep researchers from trying other paths. 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.

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