Where does research come from?

Part I: Not Your Primary School Labs

It is practically impossible to avoid all exposure to reports about research whether from a 24-hour news channel or a magazine in your Dr.’s office you read out of boredom. A theme of this blog is exposing how almost all such sources distort the findings of any given study. Even reading the actual studies, however, doesn’t really tell you what goes on behind the curtain. Who are these mysterious people in white coats (sometimes even masks)? How does a research project become a single published study- or does it? What kinds of groups are behind published studies and how are they organized?

In this post I’d like to say a bit about university labs, as this is where most research comes from (particularly that published in peer-reviewed journals). What do I mean by university labs? To see a few examples, take a look at the “labs, centers, and programs” at MIT for neuroscience and for nanoscience and nanotechnology.

X’s Lab: Standard Lab Organization
Among the links found for neuroscience is the Moore Lab. Like many research labs, it is headed by a single individual (called the “principal investigator” or PI). This individual almost always has a PhD, years of experience, and many publications under her or his belt. Other lab members are usually mostly graduate students. Post-doctoral researchers (other PhD’s) may work in that lab, but often work “with” in addition to several others (there are various ways in which this can work, but the important thing is that the graduate students are the lab members most bound to some PI’s lab while post-doctoral researchers move around more freely).

The “Caffeinated Center for Intra-Afferant Nonlinear Neuronal & Hemodynamical Networks & Heterostatics”
or
“Intro to Research Centers Institutes, and other larger research groups”

The next example I’ll take from MIT’s nanoscience link: the Center for Materials Science and Engineering (CMSE) . Like many research centers, institutes, groups, etc., the CMSE is an interdisciplinary research center. Most such research centers are interdepartmental, meaning that faculty members (i.e., professors) from various departments are involved to varying degrees (many actually involve departments from different universities!). Each one is a bit like a PI in a lab like the Moore Lab in that they have a number of graduate students they work with and/or whose research they oversee. Interdisciplinary research centers, though, are more flexible. The PIs often have their own, individual labs that are separate from the center as e.g., Dr. Jarillo-Herrero does: Jarillo-Herrero Group. Interdisciplinary centers/institutes/etc. also often have various “sub-groups” or are otherwise compartmentalized according to more specific research focuses. Finally, the graduate researchers are frequently not listed among the “people” associated with the center; rather, they are listed perhaps on a project page or as members of a lab run by a faculty member associated with the center. The advantage to interdisciplinary centers & institutes is that they can pull resources and researchers from multiple departments (even multiple universities) and obtain outside funding sources more easily.
Funding
I must emphasize how important the “funding” part is, regardless of whether or not a lab is associated with or a part of some interdisciplinary research group. Costs can vary considerably depending upon things like the kind of technology needed, but the following generalizes fairly well:

Funding for research is a major issue for anyone embarking on a career in science, and the ability to attract significant research funds is a major part of the whole process of science. A midsized research team in a university (say three academic staff, five postdoctoral research assistants, six PhD/MSc students, and four technical staff) might easily cost in the region of a million pounds a year to run when salary, overhead, equipment, and consumables are considered. 1

In case you were wondering, the researchers generally make anywhere from nothing to over ~$150,000. Researchers making over $100,000 a year at a university are almost always tenured faculty. In 2013, The Scientist published an article “Best Places to Work: Postdocs 2013”. The top ranked “best place” was the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research where “postdocs earn starting salaries of $50,000”. Academic researchers with specialties in the sciences that could allow them to work in the private sector can expect to earn at least $30,000 or so less than they could earn outside of academia. Basically, precious little of the millions a “midsized research team” might require is going into the researchers’ pockets.

Great, but what do they do?
So how do we get from some research lab to a study published in Science or The International Journal for Quantum Alchemy and Computational Numerology? Research labs are organized around individuals (or programs/groups/etc. within some larger research center/institute) for a reason. Whenever you see a report about some study coming out of a university lab or some academic research institute, chances are the head researcher or researchers have already published similar studies. Typically, most work done in any given lab at any given time is for 1-3 research projects, such as my cousin’s work on genetic engineering solutions to glyphosate resistance in plants. Such a project could result in 0 publications, or a dozen. Research projects in a lab tend to be pretty specific, but thanks to the incredible specificity of research questions answered in peer-reviewed studies, you’d be amazed how many millions of dollars, years, and resulting publications are behind a question such as “how much observed global warming can be attributed to exploding stars and other stellar phenomena?” 2. So whenever you read some article about X amazing finding by Y researcher or research team, it’s never new. Even if it is the first publication by that research group, they have spent a great deal of time running pilot studies, cancelling similar studies because e.g., the results were inconclusive or the question to general, running results by collaborators and associates, analyzing data, etc. Most of the time, it isn’t the first publication and the study is based on earlier work some of which is already published.

Research Websites: See for yourself
Almost every university with a website and research labs will have a link “research” on the homepage. Pick a few “big name” universities and maybe some smaller ones you happen to be familiar with, then click on the “research” link. Spend some time looking at the websites for X research center, Y research institute, or Z’s lab. They typically have links to an “about” page, to view the people involved, to view publications, research themes/projects, etc. You can learn a lot about the nature of the sciences and scientific research simply by cursory examinations of these pages. You can also learn things that might surprise you if you spend a bit of time exploring. For example, I don’t think most people associate the University of Alabama at Huntsville with research. They might be surprised to find that, of the ~$100,000,000 of outside research funding received in 2013, 20% came from NASA and over 50% came from the US Dept. of Defense. These are both funded taxes, and thus over 70% of this hundred million dollar budget comes out of tax payers’ pockets. Also, if you don’t feel like taking the time to track down major and minor research labs in universities across the US (let alone internationally), there’s also government sponsored programs such as NIH’s Intramural Research Program “the largest institution for biomedical science on earth”. You can even explore corporate relationships with higher education as with Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP). This research project involves dozens of universities around the world, is a leading source for climate research, and is sponsored mostly by ExxonMobil (all the other major sponsors are corporations too, such as GE). Basically, there’s a lot to be learned about how research is produced simply by visiting websites and without reading any research at all.

1p. 34 of Nicholl, D. S. T. (2008). An Introduction to Genetic Engineering (3rd Ed.). Cambridge University Press.

2Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs) are suspected to play a non-trivial role in climate trends via cloud dynamics, specifically high-energy GCRs. While these do not all come from supernovae, most GCRs of relevance come from exploding stars in the Milky Way Galaxy (see e.g., Svensmark, H. (2007). Cosmoclimatology: a new theory emerges. Astronomy & Geophysics, 48 (1), 1-18.). Perhaps the main research into this phenomenon is the CLOUD experiment at CERN. It started almost a decade ago (although its origins go back farther to work particularly by Dr. J. Kirby in ’97-98), has involved dozens of researchers from research centers in multiple countries, consists of multiple individual projects, has been funded by at least four governmental or similar sources outside of CERN’s funding, and has so far resulted in 3 publications.

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