At the start of the World Cup: Football and the Biosciences

As the World Cup begins, perhaps there is a point of talking about Biology in the context of Football.

I am a supporter of Athletic Bilbao and, like the main character in ‘fever pitch’ I sometimes see the world, life, through the eyes of football. The problem is that football has changed and so has life and that the optics need some readjustment. Football is not anymore what you breath in ‘fever pitch’.

When I was a child, and even when I was an undergraduate, football was about the teams, about special players who could conjure up a moment of excitement that sometimes led to a goal opportunity or, occasionally, better to a goal. Coaches were there, in the background, steering the teams but the attention was on the football and the players. How things have changed! Now the talk divides itself between the manager, the transfer market, the money a player is worth, the budgets of the teams, the referees and, above all, success. Modern football is about success and football is just a vehicle for success. Somewhere down the line there are teams and players who, with the exception of a few chosen ones, are just warholian searchers of an afternoon moment of glory, spendable units in a machine built to attempt to succeed. Nowadays football is part of a complicated circus in which you can only compete in the elite, and sometimes just compete, with money which buys success and success which brings in money. Living in the UK still allows me to savour some of the old flavours because here, there is a tradition which is hard to kill, but for the most part it is in the lower divisions. And, of course, there is my Athletic which with only basque born players (I am 50% basque genotypically) has made it to the 4th place and champions league next season……..because of a coach which has put football and the team, rather than himself, first. Sometimes miracles are possible; some of you might relate to this.

So it is with Science, particularly with the biological sciences. What drove me to where I am now in the first place were my readings, as a student in Madrid, of books that posed questions, which combined metaphors with visions, which spoke of the wonders of the unknown and the thrill of probing into it. As I started into science some teachers led me slowly into it, emphasizing the value of the problem and the question. I found my way to the works of Mendel, Morgan and his group, Avery and his colleagues, MacClintock, Sanger, Jacob and Monod; with their consistency and their steadiness, these became an inspiration. And like many of you, I started my sailing through the world of research following these examples, with science at the core and the scientists –defined as those which practice the art of finding out about Nature through experiments and reasoning- as a reference. Ah, yes, there were journals! In those days, a publication was the rendition into paper of hard earned findings, which reported, sometimes small and sometimes big, strides towards knowledge. Journals served scientists and published their work. There was a hierarchy but one was in general aware of the value of ones findings and so were the editors.

Like football, this has changed, and in a similar direction, though in a narrower manner. Today Science is a way of living for a lot of people (see the recent paper from Alberts et al “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws” 2014 Proc Nat Acad Sci. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1404402111 which highlights a situation in the US but which is much more general) and the goal has changed. Noawadays, the aim is to succeed and this attracts attitudes and individuals which make research a tool for success rather than a pursue of the unknown. Science and the biological sciences in particular, has become a place in which, if you are lucky (I guess they say successful) after an ever increasing period of apprenticeship, you can set up your own business (sorry, lab) and become a PI. More often than not this means that you get a chance to apply for money, to get graduate students and postdocs to do the work that you would like to do, so that you can go to an ever increasing number of meetings to market their findings and hope that this will help you raise more money to start the cycle again. Journals have come to play a central role in this complex cycle and, for the most part, rather than serving the scientists, they have managed to turn the tables. Rather than being a tool for the scientists to disseminate our work, the scientists have become a commodity for the journals which now tell the scientists what they need to do and how they need to present it in order to survive. In this process, editors have become arbiters of the way money and influence are distributed and, conscious of this, they exert this power-you might have seen at meetings the queues to speak to the editors of the journals that ‘matter’ in the hope of catching their eye so that they will look at work and…….yes, it is like this. In the same manner than in football (biomedical research) we move away from the players (postdocs, young PIs) and the game (findings) and focus on the managers (PIs) and the influence of money (grants) which depend on the commercial enterprises (publicity/sponsors) that help this process. And the only thing that matters is success defined not by the value of the finding but by the value that the speculation in the publications market gives to your research. As in football, today Science is about money, returns, commercialism and above all, success, rather than about the essence of the enterprise.

If you are a young aspiring scientist you need to understand this, and adapt. Good science is just a start. If you want to be able to practice it you will need to intuitively develop, or learn, a number of skills amidst which the ability to influence people, in particular editors, is a must. Salesmanship is more important than scientific talent and if you don’t have it, learn it because things are not going to change quickly. As in football, there are many who start but few that make it and remember that, for the most part, the limelight is on the managers, what people want to be is a PI not a scientist (and there are differences nowadays). Two very common questions that you will get often are ‘how many grants you have’ and ‘how big is your lab’ -as if the bigger the better when what this amounts to is that a PI with a big lab (say over7/8 people) really doesn’t know what is going on and that while the lab is productive in terms of churning out results, there might be little content to it.

Will this change? I don’t know; and I do not want to despair about it because there is a lot that is good, interesting and exciting about modern science. But something has to change, something deep about the spirit of how we go about science. It would be good if we could find a way to reel in some of the values of old and blend them with some of the modern attitudes. It would be good if we could put, again, science at the center of the game rather than the hype, the marketing, the publicity and the futile pursue of a fleeting sense of success. The focus of football in success has not been that good for the game but at least, if you want to enjoy football, all you need is a ball, an open space and time. Science needs a community, to support a structure which now is, increasingly, being restricted to an ever increasing minority which is selected not on merit but on the money they can get which, of course, will lead to a winner gets all situation that will take many people out of the arena. Let us hope that we can find a way forward which will be good for science and those who want to do science.

PS. As I was about to post this I hear about events at Kings College London (http://bit.ly/Svnwov). It confirms the worst of the analogy: only success narrowly defined will suffice. Scientists are just commodities valued by what money they attract and not by what they produce (there is even a scale of value). Of course, we have been fostering this attitude and, in many ways, it is implemented by stealth when people (and this is true of many institutions) are asked for certain kinds of publications which imply two or three rounds of sterile but money draining reviews which never change the message. Only those with that kind of money have access to those journals which makes the circle: funding, research, jobs narrower and narrower.

There ought to be a way to progress out of this situation because in the medium term it does not favour creativity nor what we used to call science.

One thought on “At the start of the World Cup: Football and the Biosciences

  1. In a few decades, we’ll look back at the transition of science from free-form questions into managed data acquisition as an inevitable consequence of the application of business mentality to what is, quite purely, an inherently unpredictable pursuit of the mind. And it is our fault. The limits imposed by funding agencies (and their governments) in response to our demands ever more money and resources are reasonable for most sectors of life. Further, we willingly promised results and timelines using evermore hyperbole. We will cure disease XYZ in your lifetime. We will create new industries,wealth and jobs. In part, this has been true. Much progress has been made (usually from unpredictable sources). But business is insatiable and makes demands in return. Our mistake is in thinking that our funders are acting magnanimously “for the greater good”. Quite the opposite. They need to demonstrate and justify ever greater investments – to a public ever more skeptical of our marketing hype and broken promises.

    There will remain pockets of glorious wild flowers that sprout among the deeply ploughed furrows of science-business simply because the latter depends on the former – lets just hope that the large scale farmers recognize their livelihood actually depends on the biological diversity of thinking of these scientists.

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