Simone Schürle on Shaping a Sustainable Research Culture

Prof. Simone Schürle, ETH-Department of Health Sciences and Technology

The results of my discussions at the «We Scientists 2035» workshop revealed that one of the problems with scientific culture widely experienced by participants, is growing pressure. The workshop this year in Lausanne, organized by the Swiss Academy of Sciences, brought together natural scientists from different career stages to discuss novel ideas about research culture and generate concrete actions for how it might be improved.

Simone Schürle and Jacques Dubochet
Image: SCNAT

Research culture includes the values and attitudes that shape research communities, influencing career paths and how science is conducted and communicated.

For a viable academic career, ever-increasing expectations must be met not only for the volume of work produced, but on where this work is published, and hence also the nature of the results. This demand for rapid and prolific publication in journals guided by impact factor contributes to a system of incentives that can encourage false positive results among the well-intentioned and, among the less honest, can lead to fraud. If the knowledge we produce as scientists proves unreliable, too often public trust in science will erode as a consequence.

The stress that results from these demands has detrimental effects at the personal level in addition to the broader community level. A mind focused on the struggle to stay afloat is rarely a source of fresh and bold ideas; some freedom is a prerequisite for creativity. Some might argue that stress is simply a cost that must be borne to sustain the current pace of science, and indeed we live in an exciting time of rapid progress and discovery. However, taking the time to think, and reflect, and be critical is an important part of understanding and appreciating that progress, not to mention carefully considering our actions. Moreover, the stress that scientists encounter as graduate students is rapidly becoming unsustainable, as suggested by impacts observed on the mental health of graduate students (Evans et al. 2018). Because graduate education is a prerequisite for many scientific careers even outside academia, encounters with mental health difficulties are inevitable and ripple through the scientific community.

A further cause of stress is the academic funnel—the inherent paucity of opportunities that academia creates for the scientists it churns out. The possibility of creating a wider variety of jobs in academia was discussed in the workshop as a potential strategy to ease pressure while improving scientific quality. Currently, a group leader is confronted with a wide range of responsibilities, including teaching, paper reviewing, grant writing, generating research ideas, and leading research projects. These tasks demand a level of quality and attention that cannot realistically be sustained by a single person. One solution would be to divide these tasks among multiple specialized professionals, with some scientists devoting themselves entirely to teaching at the university level, which could also improve the average quality of education and learning units.

Another idea that emerged is that scientists could be trained to become professional reviewers for journals of their scientific background and interest. This could help ensure that reviews are both careful and disinterested and provide constructive feedback that helps improve the quality of published work. The current review process, while laudable in its intent, fails far too often and scientists whose reputations rest primarily on providing effective reviews could help improve incentives. Such a system would also facilitate fair and global application of systematic checks on certain best practices. Because the scientific process does not vary fundamentally between cultures, the application of these kinds of checks could act as a kind of «global glue» holding together the collective enterprise across the world. In some circumstances, perhaps it would even be appropriate for reviewers to attempt to reproduce experiments themselves.

These are simply two examples among a range of roles that could put scientific training to good use and align career incentives with the various facets of the best interests of science and the societies it serves. Moreover, the nature of the hierarchy might be shifted toward a state in which more of its participants can simultaneously thrive. That is, it could be shifted away from the model of a small number of professors who are imagined to do everything well, toward a model of shared competencies with different specialization in particular functions in the scientific ecosystem. While competition would likely still exist among those who choose to specialize in a particular role, the interplay between the various roles and the possibility of moving between roles could lead to a more supportive and collaborative scientific environment.

Any change that involves increasing the size of the academic scientific workforce would require additional funding, whether through governmental investment or through paid services offered by universities. Some roles, such as science communicators and educators could be partially funded by fees for continuing education, open science campuses, and consultations similar to a visit to the doctor. It would be necessary to offer direct and tangible benefits to the public in exchange for increased public investment, and this is the kind of exchange that could help foster transparency on the part of scientists and broader science literacy in the public.

Science is evolving rapidly. While we may think of historic figures when we reflect on how we «stand on the shoulders of giants,» it is increasingly appropriate to consider science as something done by teams rather than rugged individuals. Moreover, many such teams are multidisciplinary, forcing scientists to communicate and engage with other disciplines. There is reason to hope that future generations will produce a community of scientists that comes to increasingly reflect the makeup of the society it serves. One of the best things we can do is to encourage children, especially young girls, to meaningfully engage with scientific experiences by providing opportunities and support. We must also act as role models who can make them seriously consider the possibility of becoming scientists themselves. As scientists, we must do our part to bend the trajectory of the culture of science toward a state in which both science and scientists alike can flourish maximally. We are all seeds and must begin with our own microenvironments, making them examples of open-mindedness, critical thought, and mutual support.

You can start today—visit the SCNAT webpage from more information on the topic The workshop material will be available for download soon. Run the workshop with your community and discover together what you can do together to shape scientific culture in your microenvironment and beyond.


  • Science culture


Simone Schürle-Finke