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Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Was It The Publication Record?

I must say that I find Dr. Cai Mingjie's blog "A Singapore Taxi Driver's Diary" an interesting and engaging read.

It is a brutally honest account of a new taxi driver trying to make a living on the roads of Singapore.

But after reading his posts, most readers would undoubtedly ponder the question:

What happened?

How did an Associate Professor become a taxi driver?

Prominent blogger AcidFlask has a hunch; he examined Dr. Cai's publication record and found that Dr. Cai published a total of 16 papers (14, plus two more discovered by his commenters) in 16 years.

He felt that:

"With that in mind, it becomes a damning fact that Dr. Cai only has 14 publications to his name since joining the IMCB 16 years ago. Going only by that criterion of quantity, publishing less than one paper a year makes for a truly unimpressive publication record. But just about every practicing scientist knows that despite the current pressure to publish or perish, science and research isn’t (entirely) about churning out more and more papers, and the number of papers that can attributed to one’s name is not necessarily a good measure of a scientist’s productivity."

While AcidFlask acknowledges that there could be many other plausible factors leading to Dr. Cai's contract termination, one of his commenters is much, much less charitable...

#4 by i am not that great at August 19th, 2009:

"i don’t think it is that worth defending him per se. in the current competitive research environment, his publication record in 16 years probably only speaks of one thing – he is working in a very sheltered environment in which he does not have to fight for funding, and he is very comfortable in it.

i didn’t go that in depth into digging up his past papers, but my impression from his pubmed-searchable papers is that – his lab didn’t actually grow that much in the 16 years, and he does not have collaborators.

if he had worked in the states, and if he had been so comfortable with himself, he wouldn’t have survived the assistant professor stage. he probably is indeed a good scientist, but the environment spolit him. and when imcb’s culture changed, he didn’t realise it and he didn’t change, and he got killed.

hence, regardless of what measure a*star uses to judge the performance of its employees, he would still have been killed. face it, even in the US, if you are a young professor, you will have to work for money. if you apply for funding from ACS, you ought to package your work around cancer. it is a fact of life. if you work in a*star, you will have to make those guys that give you money happy. it is a different story if you are tenured, but obviously that guy is not…!"


So, was it his publication record that ended Dr. Cai's appointment?

Here at Fresh Brainz, we are outsiders to this issue.

Moreover any single case is always a "unique" case.

However, Dr. Cai was not the only Principal Investigator who was affected.

When there is more than one case, an opportunity to learn more about the truth surfaces.

In Dr. Cai's blog a commenter by the name of Xinmin (most likely A/Prof. Cao Xinmin) left this comment:

Xinmin said...

"I read your article with tears. At the beginning, I was very sad, but at the end, I was so proud of you. I admire your courage and spirit. With these, nothing can beat you. As your former colleague, another PI in IMCB, we share a similar fate. I graduated from University of Chicago, working in IMCB for 19 years, publishing >50 papers (including 7 in 2008), trained many PhD, university, and polytechnic students. All the years of hard work and teaching don’t seem to count for anything. My lab will be closed down soon. You are not the first, and I won't be the last. We have made Singapore our home, and our children have gone or will go to National Service. More importantly, we have made our contributions to put Singapore on the world’s scientific map! Isn't it ironic that when the government is putting in considerable efforts to develop life science in Singapore, we lost or will lose our jobs? I may not have the qualification to become a taxi driver, but I will do my best in my life after IMCB, whatever that will be and to be like you. Even as a taxi driver, you live in a brilliant and wonderful way. I wish you all the best!

August 18, 2009 1:00 PM"

Was the publication record a major factor?

I'll let the readers decide.


Wolf said...

Well, A*STAR comes under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which means its major objective is to make money. So in a lot of the research institutes now, performance is assessed a huge part by how much intellectual property churned out, as well as how much industry dollars brought in. Publications, conferences, teaching have become secondary to these.

Unfortunately, that means also that basic research is no longer valued at the research institutes. Make of that what you will...

Teck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Teck said...

Dr Cai's is not a unique story, whatever the reasons behind his situation.

Another scientist, Douglas Prasher, went from being a biochemist to USD$8.50/hr Toyota minivan driver. And he was supposedly *this* close to the 2008 Nobel prize in Chemistry.

He went to Stockholm in the end, as a guest of the 3 Nobel laureates.

Very *dui* leh, imo..



Teck said...

Another story on Prasher:

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Thanks for stopping by, Wolf.

I agree with you that the government considers scientific research as an avenue to make money and to become a pillar of industry; this I have understood since Day One when A*STAR was NTSB.

Years ago I have written articles in support of this direction, especially in its stated potential to create many new job opportunities for Singaporeans.

However, I've gradually realised that there are two aspects of this strategy which I don't understand:

1. Did they want scientists or business people?

2. They are making money and creating jobs for... whom?

I think I should expand upon these two points in greater detail in my next post.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Hi Teck, thanks for the links to the story of Douglas Prasher!

I find that Science article quite fascinating, especially the discussion about the cruelty of the "tournament market".

Also I find it a bit disappointing that even in science, money and social influence plays such a major role. I've been learning all the "wrong" things! ;)

AcidFlask said...

Hey there,

I've been approached with claims that there are other PIs in IMCB with even worse publication records that are still on payroll.

I have yet to verify this, but if true, it would be strong evidence to show that either

a) these people are next in line, or

b) some other factors (e.g. internal polities) are responsible.

Teck said...

Acidflask: hmm.. not so simple, perhaps? Potential of researchers; alignment of RI's research direction and their research; their salary (cheaper?); their contractual yrs left; etc..

Their performance appraisal criteria is probably not so simplistic. But you pointed out one big factor in any organisation -- internal politics. (well, there might be a typo, so this is my interpretation.. maybe u mean 'policies'? :)

Teck said...

LH: I agree! The tournament market article is a very interesting take on the economics of research.

Wolf said...

As Teck has already said, going by publication record alone may not be meaningful (in the A*STAR context).

Publication records are the most visible component of a researcher's output, since anyone can simply go through SCI or PubMed to dig this out. But things such as industry contracts/collaborations, patent and trade secret filings are often not publicly available, and researchers may not be allowed to (or they choose not to) publish the results from these activities.

So a researcher who focuses on industry projects can end up having a poor publication record, and yet be more highly valued by the institute compared to one who publishes more, but does not partake in industry projects.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To AcidFlask:

Thanks for visiting. I think that your option b is more likely; not because I have any hard facts to support it, but because when a person says that he "feels sorry for himself for having to work in that environment", I instinctively hear alarm bells that some nasty conflicts must have happened.

To Wolf:

Yes, I generally agree with your view. However, I wonder why basic scientists should be saddled with expectations of industrial collaborations/patent filings.

A*STAR already has translational research institutes like IMB, whereas IMCB is a basic research institute which I would've thought was primarily engaged in research and personnel training. Not every specialization is "technology-able" and even fewer scientific fields provide an opportunity to make money right off the bench.

Again my concern is whether the government wants scientists or business people. If they expect scientists to do high quality research while concurrently worrying about business problems such as creating new revenue streams or improving their returns on investment, who would want the job?

Maybe who they really need are business professionals who know a bit about science and have a track record of turning anything into money.

If that's the case then there will arise a scenario where hundreds of PhD-trained biologists who cannot find academic positions will face the disappointing realization that their prospects in industry are no better as companies are mainly hiring business/marketing people, chemical engineers and production operators.

I mean, how many QC biologists can one pharma company hire?

Wolf said...

The government wants scientists to make money for the business people employing them. :) Unfortunately, the business guys expect that whatever the scientists do can generate money, simply because they lack an understanding of the research work.

One indicator of this is the A*STAR job criteria - getting a job as a program officer usually requires just a BSc. And yet, these program officers are the ones that eventually take charge of research program directions, budget allocations, etc.

Ever since IMCB came under A*STAR, its emphasis has been less on basic research and more on commercialisation. Even training younger researchers isn't considered a main priority anymore, as A*STAR expects that the scholarship program takes care of that (give a kid a scholarship, they go off and learn something, then come back and use what they learn to make money through their research).

It's in the older, university-based institutes like IMCB or DSI where this change is most significant - many of the researchers in these institutes basically set up groups in basic research a decade or two ago, and suddenly overnight they're expected to come up with something marketable. The newer institutes don't suffer from this problem, simply because they were established already with commercialisation in mind.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Interesting observation, Wolf.

If you are right, then there is a potential conflict of interests; scientists plan their research strategy based on curiosity, or more pragmatically on the feasibility of publishing results of some impact, whereas businessmen plan "their" research strategy based on the potential for commercialization and the projected return on investment.

Perhaps that explains why the PhD scholarship students are given little or no business/management training at all. They are not groomed to become leaders; they were intended to be deployed as super-technicians, centrally controlled by their respective administrations which are already equipped with the business-trained leaders who will make all the important decisions.

I'll bet that not everyone is going to be happy with this sort of arrangement.

In addition, what perplexes me further is the fact that someone could think that this massive bureaucratic structure would be the most efficient platform for making money out of science.

I mean, from a purely business perspective, how are you going to recoup the cost of just one high-throughput sequencer?

We've got lots of bio-trained Singaporeans from the universities and polytechnics who are rejected from jobs in research and are running around becoming teachers and insurance agents.

Why not give them some seed funding and a cheap rent first and see how many of them can run a sustainable small business? If a few of them can actually turn a profit, then the government can step in and scale up their operations as they wish.

If none of them succeed, well, at least it wasn't very expensive. Moreover this type of practical experience would better equip them for employment in industry.

Wolf said...

That's more or less the case, yes.

Doesn't stop researchers from sneakily conducting basic research on the side though - those who are intellectually curious, anyway.

Given that such under-the-table activities take up time and effort away from their main projects, many would rather just stick strictly to their business-oriented projects.