Why did I become interested in this issue? I guess it’s similar for many of us as researchers in academia: we start off as idealists. We want to change the world, discover something exciting, help patients. At least that’s my main motivation: I want my work to be useful in the clinic one day. That’s why I chose to work on Alzheimer’s disease.
But then I became more and more aware of what has been termed the “Replication/ Reproducibility crisis“: there are many published studies that cannot be repeated or when they are repeated, they yield entirely different results. This is when I realised: Houston, we have a problem.
If we publish unreliable results, how will we ever get to a stage where we can take evidence from the literature, build on it and translate it into benefit for patients? How reliable is my own research? And is there something we can do to produce more reliable evidence?
These are the questions that led me to delve deeper into this topic. One of the eye-opening experiences for me was a course I attended at Cumberland Lodge on “Advanced Method for Reproducible Science”. It was organised by some of the most inspiring PIs in the reproducibility world: Dorothy Bishop, Chris Chambers and Marcus Munafò. It made me realise how big the gulf was between my idealist view of academic research when I started out with the PhD and the more cynical view I now held as a postdoc, so wonderfully summarised in this PhD comic.
It became quite clear to me that I had a choice now: decide that this wasn’t how I wanted to work and pursue an entirely different career or stay in academia and try to change the culture around me.
As you can see, I opted for the second option, probably because this caters to my rebel self. I’ve always been someone to challenge world views, opinions, structures and generally question whether things need to be the way they are.
And in many ways, I love academia. I love the combination of research and teaching (I wouldn’t want to be just a researcher or just a teacher). I love following my own ideas (as long as I can find some funding to do so). I love meeting incredibly talented people and having great conversations with them (although that has become a lot more difficult during the current pandemic).
Most of all, I fundamentally believe that we as academic researchers can do better and we have a duty to do better. Most of us are funded by public money. The public places a lot of trust in us and this should come with some accountability on our side. When we say that we want to tackle societal problems, we should actually do so, not just write about it in our papers or funding applications. For this, we need to change. We need to develop structures and processes that are fit for purpose in the 21st century that will allow a better return on investment than we currently produce. So let’s get started.