Sydney Brenner on the trainee exploitation scam of science.

In this interview, Nobel Laureate Brenner says:

Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. That is, you go on and do something really different. Then I think you will be able to foster it.

But today there is no way to do this without money. That’s the difficulty. In order to do science you have to have it supported. The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow.


I saw some comment that he was bashing peer review but if you look carefully, you'll see he's talking about the GlamourGame with professional, not-working-scientist, editors:

I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I’ve heard from many committees, that we won’t consider people’s publications in low impact factor journals.


In other words it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all.

18 responses so far

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    Always count on Sydney Brenner to remind us where we *should* be in science. The man is incorruptible and incorrigible. Long may he live.

  • He's also romanticizing fantasy shit that never existed. When was there ever a "way to do [science] without money"? Brenner started his scientific career when there was an exponential post-war growth phase of governental support for science on both sides of the Pond, and the only people competing for that money were a small number of privileged white dudes. I'm sure it seemed to him like he and his buddies were doing science "without money", but that is just because it was being spent on their behalfs with such a complete absence of effort on their parts that they didn't even notice it was being spent.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I am in agreement with CPP on this. In a growth phase, there were jobs for everyone and everything was new.

  • David says:

    From the interview, I think it's pretty clear Brenner is saying that he managed to do his early work without having to _worry_ about money or support, not that he did it for cheap or without money. It's the standard argument (which Brenner has been making for decades) that funding is too conservative now and won't support risky projects like he and his contemporaries (the interview is nominally about Sanger) were doing.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    It's sad to say, but I needed to read that. I sat through an alternative career symposium yesterday. One of the speakers actually had the gall to look into a room of 100+ postdocs and say that we'd probably have to do an internship to get into the biomedical industry in our area. In their words, sweat equity is almost the same thing as a paycheck. I don't remember what they said after that because I decided to go to my happy place instead.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "Internship" as in "unpaid"? And by area are you referring to a geographical location or a topic domain of science / skill set?

  • queenrandom says:

    Crystal Voodoo I've had similar experiences. Our PDA (in which I'm involved) periodically hosts speakers from industry and yeah, they almost universally say that postdocs need to do [usually but not always] unpaid internships at least 15-20 hours a week [during daytime work hours!] to break into biotech. To answer DM's question in our case - they meant in our geographical location (midwest biotech 'hub') - and we've been told to probably not even try other locations because they all have local postdocs and rarely want to pay A) to fly someone in to interview and B) relocation expenses. Anecdata from individual postdocs who have tried job searching the coasts while working in the midwest back up that assertion.

  • Mikka says:

    I don't get this "professional editors are not scientists" trope. All the professional editors I know were bench scientists at the start of their career. They read, write, look at and interpret data, talk to bench scientists and keep abreast of their fields. In a nutshell, they do what PIs do, except writing grants and deciding what projects must be pursued. The input some editors put in some of my papers would merit a middle authorship. They are scientists all right, and some of them very good ones.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Professional editors are ruining science.

  • @Strangesource says:

    With all due respect Mikka...are you stoned?

  • @Strangesource says:

    P.S. Another major factor that has changed is the nature of the economy outside of academia. Back in the day, it was assumed that science and technology skills would continue to be vital for a modern society to thrive. A discussion of the training scam is not complete IMHO without noting that for the past dozen years, the US has been gripped with an anti-Keynesian hysteria. If the leaders of this country had their head screwed on, they would realize that the government should, in addition to funding research, be spending money on infrastructure and other projects that would synergize with the private economy and would require and support robust and diverse STEM employment.

  • Mikka says:


    I wish I was (it's friday). What did I say that made you think that? That's my experience with editors. I also find it funny that people will complain about the editors when they yield to pigheaded reviewers (and I would agree that it shows lack of spine), but then complain that editors make arbitrary decisions when it was your peer, and not the editor, who just torpedoed your paper.

    Vicious reviewers with an axe to grind, people that offload peer review on their postdocs, people that half-ass their peer review, those are a much worse threat to the scientific enterprise than professional editors. And we are putting the cart before the horses: we can't change publishing and hope that everything will get fixed automagically. We need to change the way scientific output is evaluated. Simply getting rid of professional editors would change absolutely nothing about our problems, it would just shift the decision making to people who are a million times more likely to have a conflict of interest (I'm looking at you Shekman).

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    Yes, unpaid. And I meant geographical area (US Gulf Coast). There are approximately a hundred small-medium biotechs (5-few hundred employees) in the area, but they all require ~5ish years experience to get a job. Her suggestion was to move to one of the big pharma hubs, intern for a few years, and come back. Theoretically Big Pharma is making movement into the area, but that is at least five years out.

    Between her and the motivational speaker blowing smoke up our butts about "only doing what you love" I was ready to psychically murder someone. There was not nearly enough beer at that networking mixer.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    professional editors are not scientists" trope = Henry Gee, Nature's well paid assistant Charon. All aboard

  • Eli Rabett says:

    FWIW Eli knew a passingly prominent chemist who decided in the 1980s that he could make a lot more money blowing smoke up people's butts and gave up tenure at a R1.5. Seems to have worked well judging from his list of clients

  • The Other Dave says:

    Sydney is a swell scientist, but CPP is right. Science always took money, it was just easier back in the day. Why is it harder now? Because people like Sydney Brenner, and people like him, founded giant scientific pyramid schemes from which they benefitted:

    I am tired of hearing old guys complain about the system that they created to make themselves successful.

    And let's stop blaming science journal editors, shall we? They are just picking articles for their magazines. It's us scientists that are putting all the twisted meaning into where and how often we need to publish. Just. Stop.

  • erickttr says:

    How on god's green earth do you do a 15-20 hours' work for 5 years, unpaid internship as a fracking adult with responsibilities (or miniature human beings to feed and shelter)? That is worse than grad school. Aren't there laws against unpaid "internships" now? What self-respecting adult would accept such working conditions? Do you do your "internship" during the day, then go barista or bartend at night? Because you damn well can't keep an academic career above water under those conditions.... that sounds absolutely absurd. I am an assistant prof (struggling, yes) at a coastal biotech hub, and my undergrads seem to get jobs as lab techs in the local biotech biz easier than PhD scientists. I recognize the economics behind this .. but 5 years unpaid internship post-PhD is madness that no one should accept.

  • mytchondria says:

    I have heard/read grand fathers of neuro and biochem-la-la land (Britton Chance, Arthur Kornberg, Sol Snyder, Axelrod, Krebs, Rakic) all speak directly that funding was never a concern for them because A) shitte was cheap B) the university department heads of clinical groups had so much descretion on training paths and funding that getting money from NIH was considered a 'nice perk'. Pasko Rakic went so far as to share a cute story about how NIH thought the $3,000 he asked for to fund his whole study wouldn't be enough so they gave him more money.
    There are scads of old white dood MDs (Snyder for example) who was allowed to just play in a lab for awhile (he has much more colorful language to describe the experience that would scare the bejabus out of anyone who has to do an IACUC protocol). Laurete Eddie Fischer at UW told one of my buddies just last week that he would never be able to do all the grant writing he sees young faculty having to do now.
    For NIH based folks back, another Nobel winner, Arthur Kornberg describes in his "For the Love of Enzymes" a lack of 'mentoring' the way we currently understand it. He gives huge snaps to his time as an NIH scientist to its director James Shannon who increased the NIH budget 15-fold (!!) from 1955-68. That is some bad arse money right there. If we are all working on grants, the assumption is that we will produce the experiments in the grants which will cramp anyones style who hasn't been part of developing the grant....

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