Major Journal Calls for Synthesis in Neuroscience

Nature Neuroscience’s editorial board posts a call for a change (doi:10.1038/nn0406-457) in the incentive structure of neuroscience in favor of funding initiatives that foster synthesis.

A quote from the article:

“To shift the emphasis toward quality rather than quantity of scientific results, funding agencies could support specific integrative initiatives, such as large-scale meta-analyses in unresolved areas or experiments to tackle particularly contentious conflicts in the existing literature.”

It goes on:

“Simply having more time to think and interact with colleagues could foster consolidation and conceptual breakthroughs. Unfortunately for many academic researchers, such ruminating might carry the stigma of inactivity or, worse, speculation. However, science is largely a creative process, and the minds of scientists are ultimately its greatest resource. Legitimizing time for creative synthetic thought through funding might be an inexpensive way to shift the current incentive structure.”

This could be the beginning of an important change in the culture of the field.

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10 thoughts on “Major Journal Calls for Synthesis in Neuroscience

  1. This from a journal whose editors have wasted everyone’s time by sending my Perspective manuscript out for three(!!!) rounds of review over 6 months. Talk about a need to create “time for creative synthetic thought”. Its a “Perspective” for a reason…

    — Bitter Brad

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  2. I often say that Neuroscience is undergoing a fragmentation as people drill down into systems without ever looking at the big picture. If anyone is going to take this seriously, it will be good for neuroscience, but I’m not certain the current scientific and political climate will favor that…

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  3. Yeah I agree with y’all. I think the fields of A.I. and neuroscience would both be well-served by more “integrative work”, “consolidation”, “rumination” and “speculation”. However, like you, I am not optimistic for this to happen.

    Seems to me that all competitive systems will penalize this sort of thing. All competitive economic systems skew reward not just towards progress but also towards more easily measured forms of progress. I think the only really effective mechanism for encouraging people to do risky or long-term work that we have is tenure; and “tenure-like” situations like Howard Hughes which “support the researcher, not a particular line of work”.

    This stuff is a good start and should be encouraged, but it still underutilizes the creativity of everyone in the field who doesn’t have tenure. Since many people don’t have as much time for work after they get tenure, due to childraising or exhaustion or whatever, this is problematic. In addition, the tenure-granting process has a big selection bias in favor of people who aren’t interested in “ruminating”, people who prefer to focus on relatively tangible, short term research programmes.

    The only solution I can think of is to give tenure earlier, which would make a larger proportion of people in the field tenured, and which would attenutate the selection biases of the tenure process (since the tenure decision would be made on the basis of less evidence, it would be noisier, hence the noise would reduce the impact of its inherent biases).

    But I doubt the powers that be will go for that anytime soon. Also, since I don’t have tenure, it’s always possible that I am confusing what would be best for me with what would be best for the field (for example, if tenure makes people slack off more than I think it does, maybe it should be minimized, not maximized).

    Another, less effective route is simply to shift the social norms of the science community so that more respect is given to speculative ruminations. This will be less effective because it goes against the inherent biases of competitive economic systems, but at least it’s something. So in that sense, this editorial is exactly what we need.

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  4. Re: PDP++ and SOAR: this points out another systemic bias in competitive economic systems; “not invented here syndrome”. I think these integrative efforts aren’t given as much attention as they should be; that is, people aren’t exactly rushing to help integrate their own work into these integrative frameworks. Why? Because you get credit for your own initiatives, not for helping out with someone else’s initiative.

    Again, I think the best remedy is to reduce competitiveness with tenure.

    The second best remedy is to change social norms to reward “helpfulness” more and “working on your own projects” less (since reward is relative under a competitive system, you can’t reward one thing more without rewarding something else less). If NeuroWiki ever takes off, I think that may help; on wikis, people tend to notice and respect other people who help out with synthesis or who contribute insights to conversations that other people start, even if they don’t start their “own” new conversations.

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  5. After writing those comments, I wrote an
    essay about those “systemic biases” that I think are at the root of this, and why I think earlier tenure could help. What do you think?

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  6. The need to compete, and not to be scooped, results in everyone using different species, at different ages. This results in a huge mess.

    A few weeks ago I proposed that all scientists (especially grad students) take a month of sabbatical a year, to learn new perspectives/techniques, share information, and reduce the fragmentation of neuroscience… what do you think? Shall we rally universally for travel?

    I got started in neuroscience when my undergrad advisor sent everyone to different research groups for a month. In some sense, that was a really great idea for each person in the lab, and led to many new bridges and links being formed.

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  7. > The need to compete, and not to be scooped,
    > results in everyone using different species,
    > at different ages. This results in a huge mess.

    I totally agree. Jim Watson gave a talk here recently and had similar comments about how people haphazardly choose model animals for experiments.

    The 1mo/yr idea is wonderful. I can guarantee you that it would make scientists much more productive when they return. As for making it happen… that might be hard… 🙂

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  8. I love the month of travel idea.

    (of course I’m sure there’s a few people who I’m sure won’t want to travel for a month some years (like people with two small kids), and they shouldn’t be forced to, but I think it would be an excellent idea for most of us to do that)

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  9. I feel, we are breeding a community of scientists, who “know more and more about less and less”. Actually, ‘we'(the scientific community) must try to encourage projects encompassing a particular topic in its entirety. A team should be designated responsibility of the entire subject. Subgroups of this scientific group would address different aspects of the same problem, meet & discuss their work & problems at regular intervals, exchange members of the group regularly. This will offer fresh minds with wider perspectives to the same arena. The element of competitiveness would be minified and the idea of co-existence and TEAM work would be engraved in their actions.

    We have been prey to the number game (Statistics) far too often. We must raise our efforts above the clutches of the numbers and concentrate on the ‘essence’ of the matter. Only if WE try, this will happen.

    The ‘moneylenders’ have an entirely different perspective and will never propagate this idea.

    Sabbatical breaks are definitely re-energising for an ‘ever busy’ mind; akin to the ‘fallow land’ left undisturbed by the farmer every few years allowing it to replenish its resources.

    Warm Regards!

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