Doing or Managing Science?

The appreciation for management and raising money vastly exceeds that of doing research. The result: many talented young researchers leave academia.

Many good PhD-students leave science for a job in industry nowadays. Some do, because they really want to explore the big world out there. But others do, because they know the path to a permanent research job can be a frustrating money hunt, with little time for the real fun: use your brilliant brains and do the science yourself. These considerations made me draw a sketch last week. Please have a look below. Apologies for my bad handwriting!

Science is top sport

The left diagram illustrates that both branch 1 (doing) and 2 (managing) are legitimate ways to obtain nice scientific results. But it seems the appreciation for the latter vastly exceeds that of the former nowadays. Because – as the big arrow in the right diagram shows – if you choose to follow branch 1, it implies a big detour towards a permanent job. Hence, already at the end of their PhDs, students are pushed to write grant proposals or take a course on this. And we know: due to likely repetative failures this costs a lot of time. So, these bright brains are not optimally used for what they are good at: doing science. This is, in my opinion, very sad. Science is top sport. Did we ask Rafael Nadal to become a tennis coach after his first Roland Garros win? Did we ask Mathieu van der Poel to become the manager of a cycling team after his glorious win in the Amstel Gold Race? I’m very glad we didn’t.

Struggling statisticians

My own field, biostatistics, faces an extra hurdle when trying to obtain a grant. It is interdiscipli­nary by definition. I like that a lot! But satisfying two communities in one proposal (damn those word counts) is superhard, because the biologist says: “this is too technical, you should focus more on applications”, whereas the statistician says: “you need to give more details on the methods”. I have been lucky to strike the right balance a few times now, but it has taken me a while to find it. I am happy that I was given the time to develop my own ideas and gain experience on where I am in the spectrum.

Granting time

I really hope that we are moving back to a system in which that valuable time is also granted to nowadays young scientists. I put my hopes on Robert Dijkgraaf, formerly at Princeton, now minister in the Dutch government. I’m pretty sure that he values branch 1 as much as branch 2.


Main image:;

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Mark van de Wiel

Statistiek. Voor veel onderzoekers een last, voor mij een lust.
Medische data sets: ze worden steeds groter en complexer, maar: meer meten is niet altijd meer weten. In mijn blogs wil ik de statistische uitdagingen bij dit soort data uitlichten en veelgemaakte denkfouten rechtzetten. Ik put hierbij uit ruim 20 jaar ervaring met analyse van medische data.

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