Top 3 wishes of 100 Materials Scientists around the world

post by Dr. Pranoti Kshirsagar

Funding, unlimited funding, stable funding – basically funding of all kinds is at the top of a materials scientist’s wishlist.

On the Under the Microscope podcast and vodcast which runs in parallel to the RealScientists Nano twitter account, we ask our guests for their three wishes to improve their research experience. We are mindful of not promising anything and yet encourage our scientists to shoot for the stars. I mean, a trip to space is on Kwasi Amoako Kwakwa’s list and Haley Harrison’s research is about sending boron nitride nanotubes into space?. I bet shooting for stars doesn’t seem unrealistic now. 😉

The top wishes of the 100 materials scientists we have interviewed so far are quite broad in nature, from quirky, fun, or cheeky to realistically serious. In this post I will try to sort the 300 wishes (three per scientist) into three categories: work conditions, resources and non-lab essentials.

More time and funding came up quite often followed closely by a wish to be a better researcher. Unlimited and easier access to resources such as microscopes and scientific literature also made it to the wishlist. 

1. Work conditions – funding and longer contracts

Funding and unlimited/prolonged contracts definitely top the wishlist. A scientist is expected to lab hop to gather experience from different parts of the world. Typically a scientist gets a Masters degree from one university, moves for their PhD and then moves again for different postdoc positions before receiving yet another time-limited contract (usually 5 years) as a group leader or similar position with more responsibility. So from Masters to becoming a group leader or equivalent, most scientists have moved several  times, often even across continents. It sounds fancy and great on the outside, but it is important to understand the downsides of moving every 2-3 years between the age of 22 to 35. Most of the time the moving costs are being paid by the scientists themselves. The exceptions are few. 

Apart from moving, a limited contract is a constant headache until the next employment is secured. So at any given time the scientist is either unpacking, getting settled in the new town/lab or packing, wrapping up, handing over lab tasks to the next person. And they are doing this in addition to planning, running experiments, data analysis, manuscript writing, attending/organizing conferences, applying for research grants, student supervision, teaching duties… the list goes on and on and on.

Time-limited contracts are also bad for science as the scientists are put under a tremendous amount of pressure to get/publish results. A lot of time is spent applying for research grants instead of running more experiments. 

I personally am not suggesting unlimited contracts for everyone. I honestly don’t have a solution but what I know for sure is that we need to find one in order to encourage people to pursue/stay in academia. Also, come on, mental and physical health is very important and one shouldn’t have to choose between a career in science and sound health. 

2. Resources – unlimited microscopes, open access, less bureaucracy

Unlimited microscopes, lab space or any scientific instrument came up quite often and being a scientist myself, I must say, I support this wish and I wish I could grant it for my guests and for myself as well! While we are at it, add unlimited funding to my wishlist. 😉

Openly accessible scientific literature is a demand put forward by the scientific community and established publishers are already finding ways to make this happen. While some journals and small publishing houses already offer openly accessible literature. In my opinion, yes open access is great if the quality of published research is maintained or improved. Research publishing is a complex topic involving multiple players such as editors, guest editors, scientists of course and reviewers. Reviewer 2 comments are a great inspiration for memes. 

Third wish under the resources category, for a change, was asking for less of something instead of more – bureaucracy. Scientists are fed up with the paperwork for everything from buying beakers to attending conferences. To the point that several guests said the bureaucracy is so annoying that they postponed reimbursement paperwork until expenses reached thousands. I should probably add my two cents here and share that when I was an active scientist then experiments always got preference over filing paperwork.

3. Non-lab essentials – informal networking, comfortable lab shoes and outreach

As the majority of the podcasts were recorded in the pandemic, scientists missed the informal coffee breaks with colleagues. Very often the guests mentioned longing to get back to campus and in person conferences. Conferences are a great place to meet other scientists in your field and usually conference social activities are where the majority of collaborations form. Comfortable lab shoes were a very practical wish so they have found a place in my wishlist as well. Science communication and outreach opportunities and training were also mentioned in the top 3 wishes of our materials scientists. 

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