Pages

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Newspaper "De Volkskrant" trashtalks the Dutch research funder NWO

Headline: "This astronomer took a photo
of a black hole, got famous, and has no
research funding now.
Update: there are two articles, one a news item and the other the interview. I uphold my comments here. They are clearly co-published and should be seen as one event (another intended pun).

I find it very disturbing what role newspapers have in the selection of research to fund. Of course, most of this is indirectly, but claiming that a newspapers decides what is fundable and what is not, is crossing a line. It all started with this interviewWaarom de Nijmeegse astronoom die een foto maakte van een zwart gat nu zonder geld voor onderzoek zit, or 
Deze astronoom maakte een foto van een zwart gat, werd wereldberoemd en zit nu zonder onderzoeksgeld. Interestingly, headlines change arbitrarily and De Volkskrant frequently changes headlines for, I can only assume at this moment, clickbait purposes. This article at least had two headlines, something I will come back to later.

At first, I ignored the article. It is just an interview and the science corner of De Volkskrant frequently has opinions, columns, etc, and the amount of science news is too low anyway (IMHO).

But then there was apparently an uproar on Twitter, which I had missed, by a tweet from Daniël Lakens caught my eye (update: this tweet replies to a tweet about the interview, not the news item; despite both are published in parallel, closely linked, I disagree with the argument that the two are not connected because they are different genre):

As said, it's not a news item, but an interview. By putting it is new Science corner of the newspaper, it is upgraded to news. And Daniël is quite right: not getting a grant is not news. And then we get to the git of the uproar: why is this rejection so special that it deserves to be so prominently published in a national newspaper. Apparently, the research is too big to fail. The change of success too high. The research internationally too glossy to not get funded.

And that puts De Volkskrant in a new role: not covering news, but lobbying for a certain Dutch research agenda. Of course, it's a public secret that this is how it works, but you can be honest about it. Falcko's research is world famous because the newspaper made it.

Now, the reason why this prominent place of this interview is disturbing is a bit complex. The issue at hand has many angles, and the aforementioned positioning of an interview as news is one of them. I will try to cover a few more of them.

The grant model
First, Falcko is not the first to see "excellent" (sic, see this) proposals rejected. It is common knowledge that this is how it works. There is not enough research funding (The Netherlands has been underspending for years now, compared to international agreements, tho this problem is bigger). Research is not done efficiently. Etc, etc. But just an excellent research proposal is not enough anymore. Only a percentage of excellent proposals get funded (I guess about ~10-15% overall, while at least ~20% (rough guess) of all proposals is not significantly different from the top-ranked proposal). That's a fact, and I leave it as an exercise to the reader to look up the appropriate primary literature. De Volkskrant could have done that. I'm looking forward to their investigative journalism article about that.

In this respect, the interview makes a superb sensational story of what research life is nowadays. Not just Falcko, but basically every researchers in The Netherlands. A recent study showed that most researchers work overtime. Personally, I have been working as much as a full professor while only having a assisting professor position. Fairly, part of that goes into outreach, but how else do you have get "headhunted" by a newspaper as being, well, what, important?

Red flags
The interview has a number of red flags for me. Things that trigger some frowning about the necessity of this interview. I'll put in some quote, translate them to English, and comment.

".. qua werkdruk en stress de heftigste periode uit mijn loopbaan"

English: ".. in terms of stress the toughest period in my carreer". This is not news. This is a known problem, and the reason why we have #WOInActie in The Netherlands.

"Want zonder geld om – bijvoorbeeld – jonge onderzoekers in dienst te nemen, kun je geen wetenschap beoefenen."

English: "Because without funding to - for example - hire young researchers, you cannot do research." Also not new, but that's not why I bring this up. Because this is sad and something where we are currently in a crappy situation: everything seems to be based on grant proposals. Why does the interview seem to trash the Dutch research funder NWO, where it could also just as well have trashed the Radboud University for not providing the group with funding and make him dependent on low-chance external funding. This too is a long story, but when I did my chemistry degree and PhD in chemistry after that at this same university, each group always had (at least, as far as I could see) a PhD candidate and post-doc. You could do research without grant funding, but simply not as much.

"de vorige drie aanvragen die we voor dit project hadden ingediend, waren door NWO ook afgewezen."

English: "the past three proposals for this project were also rejected by NWO." Now, that's something. But again, not new. Ever since I started research, more than 20 years ago, this has been the world I have been living in. Some research topics are hot, others are not. The fact that black holes were hot in the past (no pun intended), does not entitle any researcher for unlimited funding in the future. Hotness of topics come and go. It is disturbing that De Volkskrant seems to claim it can decide what it hot and what is not. In fact, of course, they do: put something on the front page, and it becomes hot. But De Volkskrant has not reason to complain if a research funder disagrees.

That is disturbing, a newspaper that decides what is important and what is not. At best, the newspaper presents cases in a proper context, and leaves the conclusion to the reader. Pointing fingers at a funder because your pet project did not get funding this time. Very disturbing. I have only to look at the UK where that ultimately leads.

"Waarom zou je de bal dan afleggen op iemand die (nog) niet in scoringspositie staat?"

Okay, I'll translate this to the meaning, instead of literally. Translate the full paragraph to see where this context came from. English: "Why would one fund research that does not (yet) have a chance of succeeding?" This quote comes from the interviewed researcher directly. This is very naive of this seasoned professor, if you ask me. It degrades him to a whining boy, because the teacher in kindergarten said that now it was time for someone else play with the toy too.

But there is a second dimension to this, one that has been discussed for years and years, and it is unbelievable the interview cannot respond with something better than "Can you explain?". Of course, what I'm hinting at is the "winner takes all" approach which greatly reduces the diversity of research. There is no sound evidence this is how you innovate or benefit society. We all know that many research breakthroughs were not predicted, resulted from chance, etc. Very complex question.

However, the bottom point, any serious funder like NWO knows, is that you need to fund also promising research. In fact, the European Research Council was set up specifically for that. The newspaper knows that and Falcko knows that. This schwalbe is also disturbing and very bad journalism (pun intended).

"de koevoet die we nodig hadden om serieus te worden genomen door onze Amerikaanse collega’s"

English: "the lever we needed to be taken seriously by our American colleagues". I don't think I have to explain the problems with that. Again, there is zero news here. Yes, international collaboration is important. Yes, many Dutch researchers with international collaborations also see grants get rejected. No, the prestige of your collaborators is a thing but does not make your research more important. Etc, etc. This line of trash talk against NWO goes on (how dare they not fund this international collaboration):

"We zitten aan tafel met topuniversiteiten als MIT in de VS"

English: "We are sitting at the table with top universities like the MIT in the U.S.A.". Again, nothing new. Many Dutch researchers collaborate with people at top universities. But it is totally irrelevant. There are so many angles here, that that perhaps explains why a nonsense quote like that made it into this article. First, these top universities. "Top" here is subjective (enough literature about that). Partly, they are "top" because they are "large". Then you see the problem: working with the largest comes easy: there are simply many researchers there to work with, and all of them are eager to work with you, because it adds to their prestige (it makes them even larger).

Size matter, you can argue. This argument has been frustrating research funding for many years now. Where grants are rejected because your IF scores are not large enough, because your list of publications is not inflated because you have many people working in your group. Etc, etc. This is a can of worms so large, YOU CANNOT SPELL RED FLAG BIG ENOUGH.

And that recursion. Oh, sigh. Now, just for a second, couple this argument (no, not really) to the previous one. It effectively says: if big it should get bigger and if it is not big (yet), why should it get bigger. Well, there is enough written in economics about diversification, and I am not an economist, but I hope you see my point.

Okay, there is so much more, but I got grant proposal to write on my Sunday, just like every other researcher in The Netherlands. One last one, related to this:

"Een goed voorstel schrijven voor de EU is iets waarmee je twee maanden fulltime bezig bent."

English: "Writing a good EU proposal takes two months fulltime." I cannot disagree with that. Been there, done that. With a success rate of about 15% this means a year of full time writing for a grant. Falcko should feel himself lucky he has a position where he can take this risk. Most ECRs that are fighting for funding to continue their groundbreaking research do not get the opportunity to free up their schedules. That explains why research money, results in more research money (see that recent study on the NWO grant system).

Nothing to see here. Keep calm, and move on.

Oh, George van Hal, I hope to meet you at the next #WOInActie strike. I can introduce you to a few friends who also regularly work hard, on Sundays, and also see proposals rejected. Van Hal, maybe you found this interview news, but I find it hard to say "even goede vrienden", because this framing of a rejected grant hurts science, and therefore you hurt me. I hope this post explains a bit why that is the case. I'd love to continue talking about it, even if I am not a hotshot black hole photographer.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

new paper: "The metaRbolomics Toolbox in Bioconductor and beyond"

Forget about Python being the prime data analysis platform: there are plenty of alternatives and R has been one of them. With CRAN, rOpenSci, Bioconductor (doi:10.1186/gb-2004-5-10-r80) the platform has three efforts where you can publish your R work. I think of them as scholarly journals: the peer review is strong with them. Anyways, over the years I did my share of R coding (a good bit of my PhD is written in R) and contributed to a few R packages. Nowadays I don't do a lot of R coding anymore.  (Sorry, genalg users: I know this package needs some serious love, and a huge thank you to those (like Michel Ballings) who have picked up the package!!)

But regarding the packaging, I still contribute my bits. For example, with rWikiPathways and BridgeDbR. So, I happily accepted the invitation to contribute to a paper that was published this week and outlines a ton of R packages that are used in the data analysis of metabolomics data: The metaRbolomics Toolbox in Bioconductor and beyond (doi:10.3390/metabo9100200), led by Jan Stanstrup and Steffen Neumann. And many R packages it discusses indeed! The paper is like an atlas, showing you around in a adventurous world of metabolomics, as clear from this dependency graph of Figure 2:

CC-BY. Figure 2 from the article.

But there is more ongoing. The article, being CC-BY is being rewritten as a book, and I have some work left to do to add BioSchemas to Bioconductor R package web pages, get more packages to use BioSchemas in their package vignettes (so the ELIXIR TeSS can automatically pick them up), and there is some more awesomeness being discussed. Well, that's not there yet, but you can start reading this metaRbolomics bible.

Thanks to everyone involved!