The Dire State of Science in the Muslim World

Universities and the scientific infrastructures in Muslim-majority countries need to undergo radical reforms if they want to avoid falling by the wayside in a world characterized by major scientific and technological innovations. This is the conclusion reached by Nidhal Guessoum and Athar Osama in their recent commentary “Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world“, published in the scientific journal Nature. The physics and astronomy professor Guessoum (American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates) and Osama, who is the founder of the Muslim World Science Initiative, use the commentary to summarize the key findings of the report “Science at Universities of the Muslim World” (PDF), which was released in October 2015 by a task force of policymakers, academic vice-chancellors, deans, professors and science communicators. This report is one of the most comprehensive analyses of the state of scientific education and research in the 57 countries with a Muslim-majority population, which are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Map of Saudi Arabia in electronic circuits via Shutterstock (copyright drical)
Map of Saudi Arabia using electronic circuits via Shutterstock (copyright drical)

Here are some of the key findings:

1.    Lower scientific productivity in the Muslim world: The 57 Muslim-majority countries constitute 25% of the world’s population, yet they only generate 6% of the world’s scientific publications and 1.6% of the world’s patents.

2.    Lower scientific impact of papers published in the OIC countries: Not only are Muslim-majority countries severely under-represented in terms of the numbers of publications, the papers which do get published are cited far less than the papers stemming from non-Muslim countries. One illustrative example is that of Iran and Switzerland. In the 2014 SCImago ranking of publications by country, Iran was the highest-ranked Muslim-majority country with nearly 40,000 publications, just slightly ahead of Switzerland with 38,000 publications – even though Iran’s population of 77 million is nearly ten times larger than that of Switzerland. However, the average Swiss publication was more than twice as likely to garner a citation by scientific colleagues than an Iranian publication, thus indicating that the actual scientific impact of research in Switzerland was far greater than that of Iran.

To correct for economic differences between countries that may account for the quality or impact of the scientific work, the analysis also compared selected OIC countries to matched non-Muslim countries with similar per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) values (PDF). The per capita GDP in 2010 was $10,136 for Turkey, $8,754 for Malaysia and only $7,390 for South Africa. However, South Africa still outperformed both Turkey and Malaysia in terms of average citations per scientific paper in the years 2006-2015 (Turkey: 5.6; Malaysia: 5.0; South Africa: 9.7).

3.    Muslim-majority countries make minimal investments in research and development: The world average for investing in research and development is roughly 1.8% of the GDP. Advanced developed countries invest up to 2-3 percent of their GDP, whereas the average for the OIC countries is only 0.5%, less than a third of the world average! One could perhaps understand why poverty-stricken Muslim countries such as Pakistan do not have the funds to invest in research because their more immediate concerns are to provide basic necessities to the population. However, one of the most dismaying findings of the report is the dismally low rate of research investments made by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, the economic union of six oil-rich gulf countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Qatar with a mean per capita GDP of over $30,000 which is comparable to that of the European Union). Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example, invest less than 0.1% of their GDP in research and development, far lower than the OIC average of 0.5%.

So how does one go about fixing this dire state of science in the Muslim world? Some fixes are rather obvious, such as increasing the investment in scientific research and education, especially in the OIC countries which have the financial means and are currently lagging far behind in terms of how much funds are made available to improve the scientific infrastructures. Guessoum and Athar also highlight the importance of introducing key metrics to assess scientific productivity and the quality of science education. It is not easy to objectively measure scientific and educational impact, and one can argue about the significance or reliability of any given metric. But without any metrics, it will become very difficult for OIC universities to identify problems and weaknesses, build new research and educational programs and reward excellence in research and teaching. There is also a need for reforming the curriculum so that it shifts its focus from lecture-based teaching, which is so prevalent in OIC universities, to inquiry-based teaching in which students learn science hands-on by experimentally testing hypotheses and are encouraged to ask questions.

In addition to these commonsense suggestions, the task force also put forward a rather intriguing proposition to strengthen scientific research and education: place a stronger emphasis on basic liberal arts in science education. I could not agree more because I strongly believe that exposing science students to the arts and humanities plays a key role in fostering the creativity and curiosity required for scientific excellence. Science is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, and scientists can benefit greatly from studying philosophy, history or literature. A course in philosophy, for example, can teach science students to question their basic assumptions about reality and objectivity, encourage them to examine their own biases, challenge authority and understand the importance of doubt and uncertainty, all of which will likely help them become critical thinkers and better scientists.

However, the specific examples provided by Guessoum and Athar do not necessarily indicate a support for this kind of a broad liberal arts education. They mention the example of the newly founded private Habib University in Karachi which mandates that all science and engineering students also take classes in the humanities, including a two semester course in “hikma” or “traditional wisdom”. Upon reviewing the details of this philosophy course on the university’s website, it seems that the course is a history of Islamic philosophy focused on antiquity and pre-modern texts which date back to the “Golden Age” of Islam. The task force also specifically applauds an online course developed by Ahmed Djebbar. He is an emeritus science historian at the University of Lille in France, which attempts to stimulate scientific curiosity in young pre-university students by relating scientific concepts to great discoveries from the Islamic “Golden Age”. My concern is that this is a rather Islamocentric form of liberal arts education. Do students who have spent all their lives growing up in a Muslim society really need to revel in the glories of a bygone era in order to get excited about science? Does the Habib University philosophy course focus on Islamic philosophy because the university feels that students should be more aware of their cultural heritage or are there concerns that exposing students to non-Islamic ideas could cause problems with students, parents, university administrators or other members of society who could perceive this as an attack on Islamic values? If the true purpose of liberal arts education is to expand the minds of students by exposing them to new ideas, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on non-Islamic philosophy? It is definitely not a good idea to coddle Muslim students by adulating the “Golden Age” of Islam or using kid gloves when discussing philosophy in order to avoid offending them.

This leads us to a question that is not directly addressed by Guessoum and Osama: How “liberal” is a liberal arts education in countries with governments and societies that curtail the free expression of ideas? The Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison because of his liberal views that were perceived as an attack on religion. Faculty members at universities in Saudi Arabia who teach liberal arts courses are probably very aware of these occupational hazards. At first glance, professors who teach in the sciences may not seem to be as susceptible to the wrath of religious zealots and authoritarian governments. However, the above-mentioned interdisciplinary nature of science could easily spell trouble for free-thinking professors or students. Comments about evolutionary biology, the ethics of genome editing or discussing research on sexuality could all be construed as a violation of societal and religious norms.

The 2010 study Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university surveyed professors at an anonymous GCC university (most likely Qatar University since roughly 25% of the faculty members were Qatari nationals and the authors of the study were based in Qatar) regarding their views of academic freedom. The vast majority of faculty members (Arab and non-Arab) felt that academic freedom was important to them and that their university upheld academic freedom. However, in interviews with individual faculty members, the researchers found that the professors were engaging in self-censorship in order to avoid untoward repercussions. Here are some examples of the comments from the faculty at this GCC University:

“I am fully aware of our culture. So, when I suggest any topic in class, I don’t need external censorship except mine.”

“Yes. I avoid subjects that are culturally inappropriate.”

“Yes, all the time. I avoid all references to Israel or the Jewish people despite their contributions to world culture. I also avoid any kind of questioning of their religious tradition. I do this out of respect.”

This latter comment is especially painful for me because one of my heroes who inspired me to become a cell biologist was the Italian Jewish scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini. She revolutionized our understanding of how cells communicate with each other using growth factors. She was also forced to secretly conduct her experiments in her bedroom because the Fascists banned all “non-Aryans” from going to the university laboratory. Would faculty members who teach the discovery of growth factors at this GCC University downplay the role of the Nobel laureate Levi-Montalcini because she was Jewish? We do not know how prevalent this form of self-censorship is in other OIC countries because the research on academic freedom in Muslim-majority countries is understandably scant. Few faculty members would be willing to voice their concerns about government or university censorship and admitting to self-censorship is also not easy.

The task force report on science in the universities of Muslim-majority countries is an important first step towards reforming scientific research and education in the Muslim world. Increasing investments in research and development, using and appropriately acting on carefully selected metrics as well as introducing a core liberal arts curriculum for science students will probably all significantly improve the dire state of science in the Muslim world. However, the reform of the research and education programs needs to also include discussions about the importance of academic freedom. If Muslim societies are serious about nurturing scientific innovation, then they will need to also ensure that scientists, educators and students will be provided with the intellectual freedom that is the cornerstone of scientific creativity.


Guessoum, N., & Osama, A. (2015). Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world. Nature, 526(7575), 634-6.

Romanowski, M. H., & Nasser, R. (2010). Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university. Prospects, 40(4), 481-497.



 Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.


Guessoum N, & Osama A (2015). Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world. Nature, 526 (7575), 634-6 PMID: 26511563



Romanowski, M., & Nasser, R. (2010). Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university PROSPECTS, 40 (4), 481-497 DOI: 10.1007/s11125-010-9166-2

Literature and Philosophy in the Laboratory Meeting

Research institutions in the life sciences engage in two types of regular scientific meet-ups: scientific seminars and lab meetings. The structure of scientific seminars is fairly standard. Speakers give Powerpoint presentations (typically 45 to 55 minutes long) which provide the necessary scientific background, summarize their group’s recent published scientific work and then (hopefully) present newer, unpublished data. Lab meetings are a rather different affair. The purpose of a lab meeting is to share the scientific work-in-progress with one’s peers within a research group and also to update the laboratory heads. Lab meetings are usually less formal than seminars, and all members of a research group are encouraged to critique the presented scientific data and work-in-progress. There is no need to provide much background information because the audience of peers is already well-acquainted with the subject and it is not uncommon to show raw, unprocessed data and images in order to solicit constructive criticism and guidance from lab members and mentors on how to interpret the data. This enables peer review in real-time, so that, hopefully, major errors and flaws can be averted and newer ideas incorporated into the ongoing experiments.

Book cover of "Far from the  Tree" by Andrew Solomon
Book cover of “Far from the Tree” by Andrew Solomon

During the past two decades that I have actively participated in biological, psychological and medical research, I have observed very different styles of lab meetings. Some involve brief 5-10 minute updates from each group member; others develop a rotation system in which one lab member has to present the progress of their ongoing work in a seminar-like, polished format with publication-quality images. Some labs have two hour meetings twice a week, other labs meet only every two weeks for an hour. Some groups bring snacks or coffee to lab meetings, others spend a lot of time discussing logistics such as obtaining and sharing biological reagents or establishing timelines for submitting manuscripts and grants. During the first decade of my work as a researcher, I was a trainee and followed the format of whatever group I belonged to. During the past decade, I have been heading my own research group and it has become my responsibility to structure our lab meetings. I do not know which format works best, so I approach lab meetings like our experiments. Developing a good lab meeting structure is a work-in-progress which requires continuous exploration and testing of new approaches. During the current academic year, I decided to try out a new twist: incorporating literature and philosophy into the weekly lab meetings.

My research group studies stem cells and tissue engineeringcellular metabolism in cancer cells and stem cells and the inflammation of blood vessels. Most of our work focuses on identifying molecular and cellular pathways in cells, and we then test our findings in animal models. Over the years, I have noticed that the increasing complexity of the molecular and cellular signaling pathways and the technologies we employ makes it easy to forget the “big picture” of why we are even conducting the experiments. Determining whether protein A is required for phenomenon X and whether protein B is a necessary co-activator which acts in concert with protein A becomes such a central focus of our work that we may not always remember what it is that compels us to study phenomenon X in the first place. Some of our research has direct medical relevance, but at other times we primarily want to unravel the awe-inspiring complexity of cellular processes. But the question of whether our work is establishing a definitive cause-effect relationship or whether we are uncovering yet another mechanism within an intricate web of causes and effects sometimes falls by the wayside. When asked to explain the purpose or goals of our research, we have become so used to directing a laser pointer onto a slide of a cellular model that it becomes challenging to explain the nature of our work without visual aids.

This fall, I introduced a new component into our weekly lab meetings. After our usual round-up of new experimental data and progress, I suggested that each week one lab member should give a brief 15 minute overview about a book they had recently finished or were still reading. The overview was meant to be a “teaser” without spoilers, explaining why they had started reading the book, what they liked about it, and whether they would recommend it to others. One major condition was to speak about the book without any Powerpoint slides! But there weren’t any major restrictions when it came to the book; it could be fiction or non-fiction and published in any language of the world (but ideally also available in an English translation). If lab members were interested and wanted to talk more about the book, then we would continue to discuss it, otherwise we would disband and return to our usual work. If nobody in my lab wanted to talk about a book then I would give an impromptu mini-talk (without Powerpoint) about a topic relating to the philosophy or culture of science. I use the term “culture of science” broadly to encompass topics such as the peer review process and post-publication peer review, the question of reproducibility of scientific findings, retractions of scientific papers, science communication and science policy – topics which have not been traditionally considered philosophy of science issues but still relate to the process of scientific discovery and the dissemination of scientific findings.

One member of our group introduced us to “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway. He had also recently lived in Spain as a postdoctoral research fellow and shared some of his own personal experiences about how his Spanish friends and colleagues talked about the Spanish Civil War. At another lab meeting, we heard about “Sycamore Row” by John Grisham and the ensuring discussion revolved around race relations in Mississippi. I spoke about “A Tale for a Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki and the difficulties that the book’s protagonist faced as an outsider when her family returned to Japan after living in Silicon Valley. I think that the book which got nearly everyone in the group talking was “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” by Andrew Solomon. The book describes how families grapple with profound physical or cognitive differences between parents and children. The PhD student who discussed the book focused on the “Deafness” chapter of this nearly 1000-page tome but she also placed it in the broader context of parenting, love and the stigma of disability. We stayed in the conference room long after the planned 15 minutes, talking about being “disabled” or being “differently abled” and the challenges that parents and children face.

On the weeks where nobody had a book they wanted to present, we used the time to touch on the cultural and philosophical aspects of science such as Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions“, Karl Popper’s principles of falsifiability of scientific statements, the challenge of reproducibility of scientific results in stem cell biology and cancer research, or the emergence of Pubpeer as a post-publication peer review website. Some of the lab members had heard of Thomas Kuhn’s or Karl Popper’s ideas before, but by coupling it to a lab meeting, we were able to illustrate these ideas using our own work. A lot of 20th century philosophy of science arose from ideas rooted in physics. When undergraduate or graduate students take courses on philosophy of science, it isn’t always easy for them to apply these abstract principles to their own lab work, especially if they pursue a research career in the life sciences. Thomas Kuhn saw Newtonian and Einsteinian theories as distinct paradigms, but what constitutes a paradigm shift in stem cell biology? Is the ability to generate induced pluripotent stem cells from mature adult cells a paradigm shift or “just” a technological advance?

It is difficult for me to know whether the members of my research group enjoy or benefit from these humanities blurbs at the end of our lab meetings. Perhaps they are just tolerating them as eccentricities of the management and maybe they will tire of them. I personally find these sessions valuable because I believe they help ground us in reality. They remind us that it is important to think and read outside of the box. As scientists, we all read numerous scientific articles every week just to stay up-to-date in our area(s) of expertise, but that does not exempt us from also thinking and reading about important issues facing society and the world we live in. I do not know whether discussing literature and philosophy makes us better scientists but I hope that it makes us better people.


Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

Thomas Kuhn (2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions University of Chicago Press DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226458106.001.0001

To Err Is Human, To Study Errors Is Science

The family of cholesterol lowering drugs known as ‘statins’ are among the most widely prescribed medications for patients with cardiovascular disease. Large-scale clinical studies have repeatedly shown that statins can significantly lower cholesterol levels and the risk of future heart attacks, especially in patients who have already been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. A more contentious issue is the use of statins in individuals who have no history of heart attacks, strokes or blockages in their blood vessels. Instead of waiting for the first major manifestation of cardiovascular disease, should one start statin therapy early on to prevent cardiovascular disease?

If statins were free of charge and had no side effects whatsoever, the answer would be rather straightforward: Go ahead and use them as soon as possible. However, like all medications, statins come at a price. There is the financial cost to the patient or their insurance to pay for the medications, and there is a health cost to the patients who experience potential side effects. The Guideline Panel of the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) therefore recently recommended that the preventive use of statins in individuals without known cardiovascular disease should be based on personalized risk calculations. If the risk of developing disease within the next 10 years is greater than 7.5%, then the benefits of statin therapy outweigh its risks and the treatment should be initiated. The panel also indicated that if the 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease is greater than 5%, then physicians should consider prescribing statins, but should bear in mind that the scientific evidence for this recommendation was not as strong as that for higher-risk individuals.


Oops button - via Shutterstock
Oops button – via Shutterstock

Using statins in low risk patients

The recommendation that individuals with comparatively low risk of developing future cardiovascular disease (10-year risk lower than 10%) would benefit from statins was met skepticism by some medical experts. In October 2013, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a paper by John Abramson, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues which re-evaluated the data from a prior study on statin benefits in patients with less than 10% cardiovascular disease risk over 10 years. Abramson and colleagues concluded that the statin benefits were over-stated and that statin therapy should not be expanded to include this group of individuals. To further bolster their case, Abramson and colleagues also cited a 2013 study by Huabing Zhang and colleagues in the Annals of Internal Medicine which (according to Abramson et al.) had reported that 18 % of patients discontinued statins due to side effects. Abramson even highlighted the finding from the Zhang study by including it as one of four bullet points summarizing the key take-home messages of his article.

The problem with this characterization of the Zhang study is that it ignored all the caveats that Zhang and colleagues had mentioned when discussing their findings. The Zhang study was based on the retrospective review of patient charts and did not establish a true cause-and-effect relationship between the discontinuation of the statins and actual side effects of statins. Patients may stop taking medications for many reasons, but this does not necessarily mean that it is due to side effects from the medication. According to the Zhang paper, 17.4% of patients in their observational retrospective study had reported a “statin related incident” and of those only 59% had stopped the medication. The fraction of patients discontinuing statins due to suspected side effects was at most 9-10% instead of the 18% cited by Abramson. But as Zhang pointed out, their study did not include a placebo control group. Trials with placebo groups document similar rates of “side effects” in patients taking statins and those taking placebos, suggesting that only a small minority of perceived side effects are truly caused by the chemical compounds in statin drugs.


Admitting errors is only the first step

Whether 18%, 9% or a far smaller proportion of patients experience significant medication side effects is no small matter because the analysis could affect millions of patients currently being treated with statins. A gross overestimation of statin side effects could prompt physicians to prematurely discontinue medications that have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of heart attacks in a wide range of patients. On the other hand, severely underestimating statin side effects could result in the discounting of important symptoms and the suffering of patients. Abramson’s misinterpretation of statin side effect data was pointed out by readers of the BMJ soon after the article published, and it prompted an inquiry by the journal. After re-evaluating the data and discussing the issue with Abramson and colleagues, the journal issued a correction in which it clarified the misrepresentation of the Zhang paper.

Fiona Godlee, the editor-in-chief of the BMJ also wrote an editorial explaining the decision to issue a correction regarding the question of side effects and that there was not sufficient cause to retract the whole paper since the other points made by Abramson and colleagues – the lack of benefit in low risk patients – might still hold true. Instead, Godlee recognized the inherent bias of a journal’s editor when it comes to deciding on whether or not to retract a paper. Every retraction of a peer reviewed scholarly paper is somewhat of an embarrassment to the authors of the paper as well as the journal because it suggests that the peer review process failed to identify one or more major flaws. In a commendable move, the journal appointed a multidisciplinary review panel which includes leading cardiovascular epidemiologists. This panel will review the Abramson paper as well as another BMJ paper which had also cited the inaccurately high frequency of statin side effects, investigate the peer review process that failed to identify the erroneous claims and provide recommendations regarding the ultimate fate of the papers.


Reviewing peer review

Why didn’t the peer reviewers who evaluated Abramson’s article catch the error prior to its publication? We can only speculate as to why such a major error was not identified by the peer reviewers. One has to bear in mind that “peer review” for academic research journals is just that – a review. In most cases, peer reviewers do not have access to the original data and cannot check the veracity or replicability of analyses and experiments. For most journals, peer review is conducted on a voluntary (unpaid) basis by two to four expert reviewers who routinely spend multiple hours analyzing the appropriateness of the experimental design, methods, presentation of results and conclusions of a submitted manuscript. The reviewers operate under the assumption that the authors of the manuscript are professional and honest in terms of how they present the data and describe their scientific methodology.

In the case of Abramson and colleagues, the correction issued by the BMJ refers not to Abramson’s own analysis but to the misreading of another group’s research. Biomedical research papers often cite 30 or 40 studies, and it is unrealistic to expect that peer reviewers read all the cited papers and ensure that they are being properly cited and interpreted. If this were the expectation, few peer reviewers would agree to serve as volunteer reviewers since they would have hardly any time left to conduct their own research. However, in this particular case, most peer reviewers familiar with statins and the controversies surrounding their side effects should have expressed concerns regarding the extraordinarily high figure of 18% cited by Abramson and colleagues. Hopefully, the review panel will identify the reasons for the failure of BMJ’s peer review system and point out ways to improve it.


To err is human, to study errors is science

All researchers make mistakes, simply because they are human. It is impossible to eliminate all errors in any endeavor that involves humans, but we can construct safeguards that help us reduce the occurrence and magnitude of our errors. Overt fraud and misconduct are rare causes of errors in research, but their effects on any given research field can be devastating. One of the most notorious occurrences of research fraud is the case of the Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel who published numerous papers based on blatant fabrication of data – showing ‘results’ of experiments on non-existent study subjects. The field of cell therapy in cardiovascular disease recently experienced a major setback when a university review of studies headed by the German cardiologist Bodo Strauer found evidence of scientific misconduct. The significant discrepancies and irregularities in Strauer’s studies have now lead to wide-ranging skepticism about the efficacy of using bone marrow cell infusions to treat heart disease.


It is difficult to obtain precise numbers to quantify the actual extent of severe research misconduct and fraud since it may go undetected. Even when such cases are brought to the attention of the academic leadership, the involved committees and administrators may decide to keep their findings confidential and not disclose them to the public. However, most researchers working in academic research environments would probably agree that these are rare occurrences. A far more likely source of errors in research is the cognitive bias of the researchers. Researchers who believe in certain hypotheses and ideas are prone to interpreting data in a manner most likely to support their preconceived notions. For example, it is likely that a researcher opposed to statin usage will interpret data on side effects of statins differently than a researcher who supports statin usage. While Abramson may have been biased in the interpretation of the data generated by Zhang and colleagues, the field of cardiovascular regeneration is currently grappling in what appears to be a case of biased interpretation of one’s own data. An institutional review by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital recently determined that the work of Piero Anversa, one of the world’s most widely cited stem cell researchers, was significantly compromised and warranted a retraction. His group had reported that the adult human heart exhibited an amazing regenerative potential, suggesting that roughly every 8 to 9 years the adult human heart replaces its entire collective of beating heart cells (a 7% – 19% yearly turnover of beating heart cells). These findings were in sharp contrast to a prior study which had found only a minimal turnover of beating heart cells (1% or less per year) in adult humans. Anversa’s finding was also at odds with the observations of clinical cardiologists who rarely observe a near-miraculous recovery of heart function in patients with severe heart disease. One possible explanation for the huge discrepancy between the prior research and Anversa’s studies was that Anversa and his colleagues had not taken into account the possibility of contaminations that could have falsely elevated the cell regeneration counts.


Improving the quality of research: peer review and more

Despite the fact that researchers are prone to make errors due to inherent biases does not mean we should simply throw our hands up in the air, say “Mistakes happen!” and let matters rest. High quality science is characterized by its willingness to correct itself, and this includes improving methods to detect and correct scientific errors early on so that we can limit their detrimental impact. The realization that lack of reproducibility of peer-reviewed scientific papers is becoming a major problem for many areas of research such as psychology, stem cell research and cancer biology has prompted calls for better ways to track reproducibility and errors in science.

One important new paradigm that is being discussed to improve the quality of scholar papers is the role of post-publication peer evaluation. Instead of viewing the publication of a peer-reviewed research paper as an endpoint, post publication peer evaluation invites fellow scientists to continue commenting on the quality and accuracy of the published research even after its publication and to engage the authors in this process. Traditional peer review relies on just a handful of reviewers who decide about the fate of a manuscript, but post publication peer evaluation opens up the debate to hundreds or even thousands of readers which may be able to detect errors that could not be identified by the small number of traditional peer reviewers prior to publication. It is also becoming apparent that science journalists and science writers can play an important role in the post-publication evaluation of published research papers by investigating and communicating research flaws identified in research papers. In addition to helping dismantle the Science Mystique, critical science journalism can help ensure that corrections, retractions or other major concerns about the validity of scientific findings are communicated to a broad non-specialist audience.

In addition to these ongoing efforts to reduce errors in science by improving the evaluation of scientific papers, it may also be useful to consider new pro-active initiatives which focus on how researchers perform and design experiments. As the head of a research group at an American university, I have to take mandatory courses (in some cases on an annual basis) informing me about laboratory hazards, ethics of animal experimentation or the ethics of how to conduct human studies. However, there are no mandatory courses helping us identify our own research biases or how to minimize their impact on the interpretation of our data. There is an underlying assumption that if you are no longer a trainee, you probably know how to perform and interpret scientific experiments. I would argue that it does not hurt to remind scientists regularly – no matter how junior or senior- that they can become victims of their biases. We have to learn to continuously re-evaluate how we conduct science and to be humble enough to listen to our colleagues, especially when they disagree with us.


Note: A shorter version of this article was first published at The Conversation with excellent editorial input provided by Jo Adetunji.
Abramson, J., Rosenberg, H., Jewell, N., & Wright, J. (2013). Should people at low risk of cardiovascular disease take a statin? BMJ, 347 (oct22 3) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.f6123

Inspired By Snake Venom

When I remember the 80s, I think of Nena’s 99 Luftballons, Duran Duran’s Wild Boys and ….snake venom. Back in those days, I used to be a typical high school science nerd. My science nerdiness interfered with my ability to socialize with non-nerds and it was characterized by an unnecessary desire to read science books and articles that I did not really understand, just so that I could show off with some fancy science terminology. I did not have much of an audience to impress, because my class-mates usually ignored me. My high school biology teacher, Herr Sperr, was the only one who had the patience to listen to me. One of the science books that I purchased was called “Gehirn und Nervensystem” (i.e. “Brain and Nervous System”), published by Spektrum der Wissenschaft, the German publisher of Scientific American. It was a collection of Scientific American articles in the field of neuroscience that had been translated into German. I was thumbing through it, looking for some new neurobiology idea or expression that I could use to impress Herr Sperr. While browsing the book, I came across the article “Der Nervenwachstumsfaktor” (originally published in Scientific American as “The Nerve-Growth Factor” in 1979) by Rita Levi-Montalcini and Pietro Calissano.

My curiosity was piqued by this article, because I did not realize that nerves had “growth factors” and because one of the authors, Rita Levi-Montalcini, had just won the Nobel Prize in the preceding year. I started reading the article and loved it, reading it over and over again. I liked the article so much, that I did not even try to show off about it and kept the newly discovered inspiration to myself. There are many reasons why I loved the article and I will just mention two of them:

1. Scientific discovery is an exciting journey, starting and ending with unanswered questions

Levi-Montalcini and Calissano started off by describing the state of knowledge and the unanswered questions in the field of developmental neurobiology and neuronal differentiation in the 1940s, when Levi-Montalcini was about to launch her career as a scientist. They commented on how the simple yet brilliant idea to test whether tumors could influence the growth of nerves sparked a whole new field of investigation. They narrated a beautiful story of scientific discovery, from postulating a “nerve growth factor” to actually isolating and sequencing it. Despite all the advances that Levi-Montalcini and her colleagues had made, the article ended with a new mystery, that the role of the nerve growth factor may be much bigger than all the researchers suspected. The nerve growth factor was able to act on cells that were not neurons and it was unclear why this was the case. By hinting at these yet to be defined roles, the article made it clear that so much more work was necessary and I felt that an invitation was being extended to the readers to participate in the future discovery.

2. Scientific tools can harbor surprises and important clues

The article mentioned one important coincidence that helped shape the progress of discovering the sequence of the nerve growth factor. To assess whether the putative nerve growth factor contained nucleic acids, Levi-Montalcini and her colleagues exposed the “soup” that was inducing the growth of nerves to snake venom. The rationale was that snake venom (by the way, the German expression “Schlangengift” sounds even more impressive than the English “snake venom”) would degrade nucleic acids and if the growth enhancing properties disappeared, it would mean that the nerve growth inducing factor contained nucleic acids. It turned out that the snake venom unexpectedly magnified the nerve growth enhancing effects, because the venom contained large quantities of the nerve growth factor itself. This unexpected finding made it much easier for the researchers to sequence the nerve growth factor, because the snake venom now provided access to a large source of the nerve growth factor and it resulted in a new mystery: Why would snake venom contain a nerve growth factor?

In the subsequent decades, as I embarked on my own career as a scientist, I often thought about this article that I read back in high school. It inspired me to become a cell biologist and many of the projects in my laboratory today focus on the effects of growth factors on blood vessels and stem cells. The article also made me think about the importance of continuously re-evaluating the tools that we use. Sometimes our tools are not as neutral or straight-forward as we think, and this lesson is just as valid today as it was half a century ago. For example, a recent paper in Cell found that the virus used for reprogramming adult cells into stem cells is not merely a tool that allows entry of the reprogramming factors, as was previously thought. The virus tool can actually activate the stem cell reprogramming itself, reminiscent of how the “snake venom” tool was able to induce nerve growth.

Rita Levi-Montalcini was one of the world’s greatest biologists and passed away on December 30, 2012. In addition to her outstanding scientific work, she was also a shining example of an activist scientist with a conscience, who fought for education and research. I never had the opportunity to meet her in person, but I was inspired by her work and I will always see her as a role model.

Image credit: Cover of the book “Gehirn und Nervensystem” by Spektrum der Wissenschaft

The PhD Route To Becoming a Science Writer

If you know that you want to become a science writer, should you even bother with obtaining a PhD in science? There is no easy answer to this question. Any answer is bound to reflect the personal biases and experiences of the person answering the question. The science writer Akshat Rathi recently made a good case for why an aspiring science writer should not pursue a PhD. I would like to offer a different perspective, which is primarily based on my work in the life sciences and may not necessarily apply to other scientific disciplines.

I think that obtaining a PhD in science a very reasonable path for an aspiring science writer, and I will list some of the “Pros” as well as the “Cons” of going the PhD route. Each aspiring science writer has to weigh the “Pros” and “Cons” carefully and reach a decision that is based on their individual circumstances and goals.

Pros: The benefits of obtaining a science PhD


1. Actively engaging in research gives you a first-hand experience of science

A PhD student works closely with a mentor to develop and test hypotheses, learn how to perform experiments, analyze data and reach conclusions based on the data. Scientific findings are rarely clear-cut. A significant amount of research effort is devoted to defining proper control groups, dealing with outliers and trouble-shooting experiments that have failed. Exciting findings are not always easy to replicate. A science writer who has had to actively deal with these issues may be in a better position to appreciate these intricacies and pitfalls of scientific research than someone without this first-hand experience.


2. PhD students are exposed to writing opportunities

All graduate students are expected to write their own PhD thesis. Many PhD programs also require that the students write academic research articles, abstracts for conferences or applications for pre-doctoral research grants. When writing these articles, PhD students usually work closely with their faculty mentors. Most articles or grant applications undergo multiple revisions until they are deemed to be ready for submission. The process of writing an initial draft and then making subsequent revisions is an excellent opportunity to improve one’s writing skills.

Most of us are not born with an innate talent for writing. To develop writing skills, the aspiring writer needs to practice and learn from critiques of one’s peers. The PhD mentor, the members of the thesis committee and other graduate students or postdoctoral fellows can provide valuable critiques during graduate school. Even though most of this feedback will likely focus on the science and not the writing, it can reveal whether or not the readers were able to clearly understand the core ideas that the student was trying to convey.


3. Presentation of one’s work

Most PhD programs require that students present their work at departmental seminars and at national or international conferences. Oral presentations for conferences need to be carefully crafted so that the audience learns about the background of the work, the novel findings and the implications of the research – all within the tight time constraint of a 15-20 minute time slot. A good mentor will work with PhD students to teach them how to communicate the research findings in a concise and accurate manner. Some presentations at conferences take the form of a poster, but the challenge of designing a first-rate poster is quite similar to that of a short oral presentation. One has to condense months or years of research data into a very limited space. Oral presentations as well as poster presentations are excellent opportunities to improve one’s communication skills, which are a valuable asset for any future science writer.


4. Peer review

Learning to perform an in-depth critical review of scientific work is an important pre-requisite for an aspiring science writer. When PhD students give presentations at departmental seminars or at conferences, they interact with a broad range of researchers, who can offer novel perspectives on the work that are distinct from what the students may have encountered in their own laboratory. Such scientific dialogue helps PhD students learn how to critically evaluate their own scientific results and realize that there can be many distinct interpretations of their data. Manuscripts or grant applications submitted by the PhD student undergo peer review by anonymous experts in the field. The reviews can be quite harsh and depressing, but they also help PhD students and their mentors identify potential flaws in their scientific work. The ability to critically evaluate scientific findings is further enhanced when PhD students participate in journal clubs to discuss published papers or when they assist their mentors in the peer review of manuscripts.


5. Job opportunities

Very few writers derive enough income from their writing to cover their basic needs. This is not only true for science writers, but for writers in general and it forces writers to take on jobs that help pay the bills. A PhD degree provides the aspiring science writer with a broad range of professional opportunities in academia, industry or government. After completing the PhD program, the science writer can take on such a salaried job, while building a writing portfolio and seeking out a paid position as a science writer.


6. Developing a scientific niche

It is not easy to be a generalist when it comes to science writing. Most successful science writers acquire in-depth knowledge in selected areas of science. This enables them to understand the technical jargon and methodologies used in that area of research and read the original scientific papers so that they do not have to rely on secondary sources for their science writing. Conducting research, writing and reviewing academic papers and attending conferences during graduate school all contribute to the development of such a scientific niche. Having such a niche is especially important when one starts out as a science writer, because it helps define the initial focus of the writing and it also provides “credentials” in the eyes of prospective employers. This does not mean that one is forever tied to this scientific niche. Science writers and scientists routinely branch out into other disciplines, once they have established themselves.


Cons: The disadvantages of obtaining a science PhD


1. Some PhD mentors abuse their graduate students

It is no secret that there are a number of PhD mentors which treat graduate students as if they were merely an additional pair of hands. Instead of being given opportunities to develop thinking and writing skills, students are sometimes forced to just produce large amounts of experimental data. 


2. Some of the best science writers did not obtain PhDs in science

Even though I believe that obtaining a PhD in science is a good path to becoming a science writer, I am also aware of the fact that many excellent science writers did not take this route. Instead, they focused on developing their writing skills in other venues. One such example is Steve Silberman who is a highly regarded science writer. He has written many outstanding feature articles for magazines and blog posts for his superb PLOS blog Neurotribes. Steve writes about a diverse array of topics related to neuroscience and psychology, but has also developed certain niche areas of expertise, such as autism research.


3. Science writer is not a career that garners much respect among academics

PhD degrees are usually obtained under the tutelage of tenure-track or tenured academics. Their natural bias is to assume that “successful” students should follow a similar career path, i.e. obtain a PhD, engage in postdoctoral research and pursue a tenure-track academic career. Unfortunately, alternate career paths, such as becoming a science writer, are not seen in a very positive light. The mentor’s narcissistic pleasure of seeing a trainee follow in one’s foot-steps is not the only reason for this. Current academic culture is characterized by a certain degree of snobbery that elevates academic research careers and looks down on alternate careers. This lack of respect for alternate careers can be very disheartening for the student. Some PhD mentors or programs may not even take on a student if he or she discloses that their ultimate goal is to become a science writer instead of pursuing a tenure-track academic career.


4. A day only has 24 hours

Obtaining a PhD is a full-time job. Conducting experiments, analyzing and presenting data, reading journal articles, writing chapters for the thesis and manuscripts – all of these activities are very time-consuming. It is not easy to carve out time for science writing on the side, especially if the planned science writing is not directly related to the PhD research.


Choosing the right environment


The caveats mentioned above highlight that a future science writer has to carefully choose a PhD program. The labs/mentors that publish the most papers in high-impact journals or that happen to be located in one’s favorite city may not necessarily be the ones that are best suited to prepare the student for a future career as a science writer. On the other hand, a lab that has its own research blog indicates an interest in science communication and writing. A frank discussion with a prospective mentor about the career goal of becoming a science writer will also reveal how the mentor feels about science writing and whether the mentor would be supportive of such an endeavor. The most important take home message is that the criteria one uses for choosing a PhD program have to be tailored to the career goal of becoming a science writer.


Image via Wikimedia Commons(Public Domain): Portrait of Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev wearing the Edinburgh University professor robe by Ilya Repin.