Stephen Curry is a member of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London and serves as the Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion. He’s also a science presenter and chair of DORA, the Declaration on Research Assessment, dedicated to applying scientific rigor to the assessment of research.
People can make valuable contributions to science, but they can also have the weekend off. They can spend that time with their families and have a life outside the lab. @Stephen_Curry #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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If you’re thinking about a career in science, go for it. All it takes is boundless curiosity. Curiosity will drive you to do the work and master the theory and techniques you need. @Stephen_Curry #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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85% of the people we surveyed agreed: Scientists should be sharing their results more often. How can the scientific community be more open with the public… and with each other? We’ll examine the issue on this episode of Science Champions.
Welcome to Science Champions, I’m Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
Scientific progress relies on sharing knowledge: Building on each other’s successes and learning from others’ failures. How, where, and when scientists publish their results can make a serious difference in how widely-read those results are, and how useful they are to guide further research.
It’s an issue with wide-ranging implications, from how easily students can access relevant research, all the way to career scientists’ work-life balance.
To help unpack the problem, we’re talking with Dr. Stephen Curry. Dr. Curry is a Professor of Life Sciences and the Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at Imperial College London. He’s also a Chair of the DORA, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, dedicated to applying scientific rigor to the assessment of research. Stephen, welcome.
Can you tell us a little about how you got to where you are today?
Stephen Curry: Yes, so I was born in Northern Ireland, and grew up and went to school there. And I guess I'm a child of the 60s, so I lived through the troubles in that time. And then I went to university in London, actually to Imperial College, where I am today. Although I have left it for a few years. I haven't been here continuously since then. And I started out doing a physics degree. And at the end of that physics degree, I did a couple of courses which focused on areas of physics, so techniques, and methods, and ideas could be brought to the study of systems. And that was what really caught my attention.
So when I was then thinking about doing a PhD, my focus shift really into a more biophysics program. And, actual fact, my PhD was largely kind of what people would think of as biochemistry these days. I studied the interactions between general anesthetic molecules and an enzyme called bacterial luciferase, which is an enzyme that catalyzes the light-emitting reaction in luminescent bacteria that you find in the oceans of the world. And this was a model for understanding the mechanism of drug action.
And so I did lots of assays, and seeing how different anesthetic molecules inhibited this enzyme. And this was to try and support the theory that general anesthetics interact directly with protein molecules in the nervous system to induce unconsciousness. There had been a longstanding theory that they actually dissolved in the lipid membranes, and that disruption of the membrane structure somehow impairs neurological function and leads to unconsciousness. And that had been a very powerful theory for a long time, because there's a correlation between the potency of an anesthetic and its solubility in olive oil, which is obviously a lipid-like substance. So that was a powerful idea.
So even though anesthetics have lots of different shapes and sizes, you know, how could a protein account for a sort of vast range of potency? And, you know, how could one protein bind a whole range of different molecules? And, well, it turns out that it is possible now.
Clearly, bacterial luciferase has nothing to do with the central nervous system, but it was an important model system that helped to support that idea. And doing those kinds of experiments where I was sort of trying to infer what the enzyme might look like from comparing how well or how badly differently shaped molecules bound to it, you're then sort of thinking about, "Well, what does the structure of the protein look like?"
And I did, actually, happen to do my PhD in a group that was doing protein crystallography. So when I was then looking at post-doctoral experiences, I made the shift into structural biology. And so, as a post-doc, learned how to do protein crystallography, and have sort of used that approach throughout my career. I've still kept in touch with protein drug interactions. So, basically, most of my post-doctoral years, I was working on the structure of viruses and viral proteins. And that's a theme that I continued when I became a principal investigator in my own right. And I was recruited back to Imperial College as a young lecturer in 1995. So I started my own lab there.
Jayshree Seth: Structural biology, that’s a fascinating field. Can you explain for our listeners what exactly you’re studying there?
Stephen Curry: Yes. Okay, well biology is obviously the study of living organisms. And biologists study living systems at very many different scales, all the way up from a whole planetary ecosystem, and all the way down to the molecules that sustain life. And so a structural biologist is someone who basically spends their time trying to figure out what the molecules of life look like. And primarily amongst those are proteins, which are, you know, there are thousands of different proteins encoded by the genome. They have many different shapes and sizes, and they have many different functions inside the cell. And structure is a very powerful way to try and figure out how a protein works, and what it actually does.
And it's a way of relating genetic and biological information then to chemistry, in order to have a really fundamental understanding of how molecules work. So it's about, you know, figuring out what molecules look like so that we can then figure out how they work. And in the case of virus proteins, then sometimes that means that they are potentially targets for drug intervention.
Jayshree Seth: I understand your primary work has been with diseases, looking at drug interactions and mechanisms, right?
Stephen Curry: So I have worked on things like foot-in-mouth disease virus, and human neuroviruses, and studied aspects like how the virus gets into the cell. And then also how the translation of the viral genome is initiated, and how it hijacks the resources of the cell to do that, and how some of the viral enzymes, and primarily the protease, are involved in sort of processing the viral proteins and aiding with the virus replication. So we're studying infection by a couple of very important diseases at very much a molecular level. And that's where most of my work was focused, but that work then also does have some implications for thinking about how you might intervene therapeutically, either to develop synthetic vaccines or to think about how you might develop drug therapies to combat viral infections. And I sort of, you know, carried that on all the way through my career.
I have reached a stage now where I'm actually winding down my research lab, and I've made a conscious decision to move into other areas, university management, but also thinking about the culture and practice of universities, and the culture and practice of science in general.
Jayshree Seth: Of course, that leads right into your work with DORA, the Declaration of Research Assessment. What issues is the declaration looking to address? What caught your attention?
Stephen Curry: Well, I had been writing a scientific blog since about September 2008, I think I started, so over 10 years ago. And through that, had been getting into thinking about, you know, many of the sort of different aspects of the scientific life beyond just, you know, getting into the lab, and doing experiments, and writing papers. Some of which involved thinking about how we publish our data and how we share it.
And I got involved in debates around Open Access, which is a movement that's aiming to try and make all of the scholarly literature free to read to the whole world. And part of that has got me involved in debates about how we evaluate science and how we evaluate scientists. And at the minute, in academia, we have a culture where an awful lot of prestige and a large premium is placed on where you publish your results. And so it's seen as a huge accolade to get a paper in Nature, or a paper in Science, or if you're a life scientist, a paper in Cell. So these are seen as the top journals, and if you get a paper in there, then that's extremely good for your career.
And there is this hierarchy of journals, which is ranked by a thing called the impact factor. And, very crudely, that's a single number that tries to estimate, or that gives a measure of, the average number of citations that a paper in those journals will attract over a two-year period. And people pay very close attention to these impact factors, and they think that it's terribly significant whether or not a journal has an impact factor of 40, or 30, or 20, or 10. And we have allied ourselves to become a little bit obsessed about judging scientists based on where they've published. And so that then becomes the way that people think about our work. It's about where you published, not primarily what you published.
And so DORA is an initiative that's trying to address that by drawing attention to the problem, and then suggesting some mechanisms whereby different stakeholders, researchers, universities, funders, publishers, might take action in order to find a way to a better system of research evaluation.
Jayshree Seth: And how did you get involved with the initiative?
Stephen Curry: I was one of the first people to sign the declaration, and I did try to, you know, talk about it, and write about it on my blog, and promote it. And, you know, I always thought it was a very good initiative, but I did see that when I was going around to various universities and different places talking about science communication and publishing, every time I asked the room, "Hands up. Who's heard of DORA?", it would only be a handful of hands. And that's because the initiative was really running on a shoestring, and it was being done as a sideline out of the offices of the ASCB. So a few years ago, there was a group of us kind of got together and said, you know, kind of recognized, "Okay, there is a problem here. We're not really getting the traction that we would like."
And so we managed to drum up some funding from a number of supporting organizations, you know, including ASCB, but also the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, eLife, for example, [inaudible 00:24:09]. And that has allowed us then to hire one full time member staff, who's Anna Hatch, who works out of the office, the ASCB offices in Washington. And we redesigned the website, and we now have a much more active steering group that's really trying to drive progress. And so I became chair of that, I guess, just under a couple of years ago. And so, you know, it's been my privilege to really try and help promote the initiative. And now that we have a bit of funding behind us, we're really trying to be much more proactive about raising the problem, but also then working with different organizations to find good solutions to it. Because, you know, the fixation with impact factors and with journals causes a number of different problems in the way that we do science.
So, for one thing, it slows down publication. Because what people do, because it looks so good on your CV to publish in the top journals, then people will send their papers to those top journals. They'll try Nature. And if they get rejected by Nature, they'll try Science. And if they get rejected by Science, they may try Cell, and then they'll work their way down the hierarchy. And it can take months and months before you even get a journal to agree to send your paper out for peer review. And all of that time, you know, you have written the paper, you've done the work. And most serious scientists, you know, they've done a really good job of it. And so even though it's not peer-reviewed, you know, there's a tremendous amount of useful information in there.
But we're slowing down the process of disseminating that, and so we're actually slowing the progress of science.
And so, as a tool in assessment, it's driving bad behavior, and that can lead to, you know, the undermining of trust in the whole scientific enterprise. And to me, as someone who's campaigned to protect science funding, I think our relationship with the general public and the taxpayers is really important. And I think we have a very strong duty to make sure that the science that we publish is reliable. And so, you know, that's one of the things that DORA hopes to achieve as well.
Jayshree Seth: So the way that scientific results are published is actually slowing down the process of getting those results reviewed, published, and out there for the rest of the scientific community?
Stephen Curry: So there was an interesting case study a couple of years ago, I think in the run up to the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, in which there had been...you will have heard of reports in the press about the spread of Zika virus infections in South America. And there was a concern that there was a potential link between Zika virus infections and microcephaly in newborn infants. And there was an initiative, I think it was spearheaded by the Wellcome Trust, but involved other funders and major publishers, in which they said, "We want researchers who are working on Zika, everyone, to share their results immediately so that the whole community can work the problem, and we can really try and figure out, 'Is there a link between Zika infection and microcephaly?' And if so, what can we do about it?"
And that was to give researchers the confidence that if they shared the results early, they would still be allowed to submit it to a journal. Because some journals have a standing policy, you know, if your research is already published, even in an incomplete form on the internet somewhere, then it's published and they won't consider it. Okay? And so the publishers, to their credit, said they're not going to treat it as a prior publication, and they would consider any manuscript. And with that, then, that did accelerate the release and sharing of information. And it allowed, then, a much quicker establishment of a real link between Zika infection and microcephaly. And so there's a real public benefit there, addressing a real public health crisis.
But if that's what it takes to address Zika infections, then to my mind the obvious question is, "Well, if you do that for Zika, why aren't we doing it for HIV infections, or for TB infections, or for [crosstalk 00:29:23]?" These are just infectious diseases that affect many more people than have ever been infected by Zika virus. And equally, what about studies in climate change, or studies on technologies to help us decarbonize our economy? These are matters of scientific and technological import that are, you know, very important to the public at large. And so why is our publication system allowing researchers to delay publication for their own career benefits, when that directly harms the public interest?
But I think it's to our discredit as a community that we have allowed ourselves to get into this situation. Now, it's not a situation that anybody designed. It's not an evil plot by a university, or a publisher, or a funder. But it is a situation that is, I think, extremely concerning. And, you know, that's why I've supported DORA. That's why I support moves to enable Open Access. That's why I support publishing pre-printed research findings, before they are peer-reviewed, because I think it will accelerate the progress. And I think, you know, the human race faces enough challenges. So everything that we can do to help accelerate any scientific or technological investigations that will help with that is all for the good.
Jayshree Seth: Absolutely. And how can scientists better communicate with each other and the public? How can we start to solve that problem?
Stephen Curry: Well, communicating with each other, you know, Open Access enables that. I mean, most scientists working at a well-funded university will have reasonably good access to the literature, and so they can read it. But actually, increasingly, I find that, you know, some universities can't afford the subscriptions to all the journals that they would like. And even Harvard University, which I think must be one of the wealthiest universities on the planet, has said, you know, "We can no longer afford to subscribe to everything." And that's one of the reasons I think we have to try and move to an Open Access model, because that helps to foster also interdisciplinary research. Because, you know, your university may not subscribe to all the disciplines that you might be interested in. So that opens it up, certainly within the academic community. And Open Access, of course, makes it publicly available too.
There is a certain strand of echinate thought that sort of says, "Well, what's the point of that? Most people aren't ever going to read it. They're not smart enough to read it. They're not equipped to read it. They're not interested." And that is probably true of most members of the public. But I think it grossly underestimates the ability of many, sort of, different groupings within the public. And one of the most prominent among them, I would say, are patient advocacy groups, who are often really interested in understanding the latest research on particular diseases that have affected their families, and loved ones, and friends. And often, have a very sophisticated level of engagement with the medical research literature, and are often actually collaborating with medical journals and with medical research charities to help frame the questions and sift the research. And I think there's a spread of that kind of engagement. We certainly see it in environmental science as well.
And also, I think, with the rise of citizen science, you see there's a whole segment of the population...it might be that there's hobbyists, but in many cases, and the Galaxy Zoo is a prime example, you get tens if not hundreds of thousands of people joining these projects, because there is a huge appetite within the public for science, and what it needs us to do, and even, you know, looking for opportunities to get involved. And even if you get a small taste of it, even if all you're doing is helping to scan through photographs of deep space to see, "Can you spot where there's a galaxy?", or, "Is that light smudge not a galaxy?", that does stimulate further interest and engagement. And I think it's also important for scientists to be involved in those kinds of things, because I think it shows them that, actually, you don't need a PhD necessarily to make a useful contribution to the scientific enterprise.
And, certainly, my own experience of engaging with the public has taught me, not only is there a huge appetite, but actually sometimes the public, and this is particularly true of children, they really ask brilliant questions. And they ask questions that scientists wouldn't ask, because we're so immersed in the norms. And children and members of the public come at you from left field, and can easily leave you scratching your head with their questions, because they're very good at asking the big questions. And sometimes, in the day to day business of just getting through the project, and writing your paper, and writing your grant, actually, you can lose a little bit of sight of the bigger picture. So I think there's a very healthy scope for interaction with the public. I think it's good for the public, but also good for the scientific community too.
Jayshree Seth: Oh, absolutely. We can always use fresh perspectives as scientists, even from the general public. Well, to wrap up our conversation, I'd like to talk a bit about your role as the Assistant Provost of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion at Imperial College. What inspired you to take on that role?
Stephen Curry: Well, it was kind of a couple of things. One is I turned 50 about 5 years ago, so I'm 55 now. And my wife laughs at me for sort of counting the years. But to me, that was a little bit of a Rubicon. You know, you get a sense of your mortality in that you only have a certain number of years left. And I had a sense that, you know, I had enjoyed running a group, and doing the research, and writing the papers, and looking at virus infections, and protein structures, and whatnot. But I was then looking for a new challenge. And because I had, by that stage, spent quite a bit of time writing and thinking about many of the sort of political and cultural aspects of the scientific enterprise, I realized, actually, I was more interested in that side of things now than I was in running my own lab. So I made a conscious decision to sort of, you know, shift away from lab work and then look for another opportunity.
And so when this position came up at Imperial, Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion, then I applied for it. And I see it very much as an evolution of thinking about, you know, "How does science work?" And is the way that we do it, and the intensely competitive nature that we do it, and the way that we assess people...? Which does then tend to favor the status quo in many ways. And the status quo in many branches of science is, you know, a white man being head of the lab, or head of the institution. And I think, you know, we have a system that has grown up, that privileges that group, who are the dominant group, certainly in the UK, and certainly, of course, in the United States. But there's a whole area of talent that we have thrown up barriers to. And so, for me, it was an opportunity to see what I could do to try and remove the culture. [crosstalk 00:36:38] higher education in the UK, internationally. To me, it matters, kind of, "What do they do with DORA as well?" Which is, you know, really thinking about, "How do we enable people to focus on what's important to them?" Which is, very often, trying to do a piece of research that they think is valuable to the world, and might even help to make it a better place.
So at Imperial, this position is a new position, and I think it reflects a growing awareness of the need to be, actually, much more proactive about addressing the structural inequalities that affect women, that affect black and minority ethnic groups, that affect LGBT+ staff and students, and that affect disabled people working and studying at universities. And there are some commonalities to those barriers. All of these groups are subject to various forms of stereotyping. And it's really about trying to provide an atmosphere not just to support people who face these barriers, but to actually try and change the system itself, and educate the dominant groups about sort of seeing the problems that probably aren't apparent to them. And a lot of assumptions are made these days, that, "Well, we have equalities legislation. We live in a post-racial society." We have come a long way from the bad old days, when there was a lot of gender stereotyping and whatnot. But actually, you know, we still have a long way to go.
And if you look across Europe and the United States, just on gender alone, for example, if you look at the senior levels, typically, in most countries, and there is a bit of variation, but in most countries and disciplines, you're looking at about 25%, 30% of the professorial level is women. And, of course, that doesn't reflect the underlying population. That arises because there are stereotypical perceptions. Men and women of equal capabilities are judged by different standards. And then there's also assumptions made around where the duty of family responsibility is most likely to fall, and the presumption is still that that will most often fall to women. And therefore, there's a presumption that perhaps they will be less productive than if I hire a man, and so there's an inbuilt benefit there to male scientists.
So, you know, it's all of a piece with thinking about, "What is the experience day to day for people working in universities and research institutes? And how are they evaluated?" And it's really about seeing people as individuals, and, you know, judging each person on their own merits. But at the minute, although a lot of people like to think that science is a meritocracy, it's not a functioning meritocracy. And the numbers show that as plain as day.
Jayshree Seth: Sounds like a rewarding role, for sure. Do you think we're making progress with equality in science, either at your own institution or just science as a whole?
Stephen Curry: I think we are making progress, but I think many of the people who are affected by it, so women and ethnic minority people, for example, would probably tell you that it's not happening quickly enough. And so it is a rewarding role. I have enjoyed getting to grips with it. But it's an extremely challenging role, and it's one where I kind of assume that I am destined to fail. Okay? Because I don't think, in the time I have left in the job, that we will have reached true equality. But I think, you know, there are signs of progress. The numbers are shifting slowly in the right direction.
But I think there are still a number of important barriers that it's proving difficult to pull down. And one of the really difficult ones is the intrinsically competitive nature of scientific research. You know, you get rewarded for making a discovery. And whoever comes first gets the prize, and there's no prize for second place. And it's hard to square that kind of reward system with, you know, highfaluting aspirations about providing everybody with a sensible work-life balance. And that is something that, you know, personally, I have struggled with throughout my own career. But it is something that, I think, is intrinsic to the scientific endeavor. And I think what we need to do is really, actually, recognize that it isn't. Science isn't really largely driven by the hero scientists who make the big breakthroughs and win the Nobel Prize. Okay?
Because an awful lot of the work that's done in science is really about, you know, shoring up the reliability of some of those breakthroughs, because some of them may be a little bit shaky. And it requires an awful lot of additional work to shore them up. And some of them will stand the test of time, and some of them will eventually crumble. And, you know, that's how we eventually make progress. But I think we need to think about how we reward that, and how we can, you know, say that, you know, people can make a very valuable contribution to science, but they can also have the weekend off. You know, they can spend that time with their families, and have a life outside the lab.
Jayshree Seth: It’s amazing how far-reaching the implications are of these systems we’ve built — that the way journals publish research could affect scientists’ day-to-day quality of life. Well, I’m glad we have people like you working on the question.
But let’s lighten the mood a little: What’s one thing you learned in your career in science that surprised you?
Stephen Curry: I think one of the things that surprised me is actually how funny and broad-minded many scientists are. They're great company. I've always enjoyed going to conferences and getting to know the communities that I work in. And I have lots of great colleagues here at the university, who are just great fun to be with and really interesting people. You know, they're not only interested just in their own research project. But, you know, they're musicians, or they're comedians, or they're interested in art. I knew a guy who works in California. He has his own winery, you know, so he knows how to make wine. So it's just the real sort of breadth of the scientific community. I think that's one of the pleasing things.
Jayshree Seth: What a wonderful answer, and I absolutely agree. So besides the fact that scientists are fun and you should definitely be friends with a few in real life: What else would you like to tell the public about science?
Stephen Curry: I would encourage them to realize that, actually, scientists are people too. And, again, this is one of the things that came out of some of my interactions with school children, because they tend to assume that all scientists are geniuses, and that all scientists have a reasonable chance of winning a Nobel Prize. And, of course, the vast majority of scientists will tell you, "No, I'm not a genius. And, no, I don't have a hope in Hell of winning a Nobel Prize." And yet, you know, they lead rewarding lives, and they can do it.
And so my message to the general public is, you know, "If you're interested in science, you know, if you're a young person and thinking about a career, then go for it, by all means. All it really takes is the boundless curiosity. And it's the curiosity that will drive you to do the work, to master the theory, and master the techniques that you need. There's nothing, nothing special about being a scientist. It's a fantastic job, and it's a great privilege to be able to sort of tinker with and study interesting aspects of nature as your work. And I really, truly believe this. I want anyone who's curious enough to put in the work."
Jayshree Seth: Well said. Very well said. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me today.
Access and inclusion are two major issues for this generation of scientists. How we choose to address these issues will largely determine what the next generation will look like, and what work they will be able to accomplish.
Science belongs to everyone, and anyone can be a scientist. These ideals can help light our way as we seek to ensure access and promote inclusion in every field of research.
Thanks for listening to Science Champions. Learn more about the current state of science at 3m.com/scienceindex. And subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.