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Bruce Alberts

Bruce Alberts: We need to teach science

léo ramosOver the last 20 years, biochemist Bruce Alberts has held positions of prominence in academic institutions in the United States. This has kept him away, to some extent, from the routine of a researcher accustomed to studying proteins and genes and has channeled his efforts into another one of his passions: teaching and divulging science. The start of this professional change in direction was in 1993, when he accepted an invitation to become the president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington. The new job obliged him to close his laboratory in the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), where he had been since 1976. In principle, his stay in the American capital should have lasted six years. But fascination for the work as head of the NAS led him to remain in this position for 12 years. In 1996, Alberts was one of those responsible for the creation and implementation of the National Science Education Standards, a set of guidelines for teaching sciences adopted by elementary and secondary schools in the United States. “We teach science in schools as if it were dogma. We don’t explain where the facts and ideas come from. Students are only encouraged to memorize words,” says the biochemist.

In 2005, Alberts left his position as head of the NAS and returned to UCSF as professor emeritus. Three years later another invitation took him back to Washington again, where he took over as editor-in-chief of one of the most respected scientific publications, the weekly journal Science. This time he did not exchange the west coast to be a neighbor of the White House for the long term. Since 2008 he generally spends a week per month in the central office of Science in the American capital and does the rest of his work in San Francisco, by e-mail.

Biochemistry and science teaching policy
Harvard University (undergraduate degree and PhD)
Professor emeritus at the University of California at San Francisco and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Science

The biochemist, who is also President Barack Obama’s Science Envoy, was in Brazil in late July and early August. He took part in a congress in Rio de Janeiro, visited universities and gave talks to the public. In São Paulo, he gave a well attended presentation at FAPESP’s headquarters. In this interview, Alberts talks about his work at Science, teaching sciences and the challenges of excellence in research.

What makes a scientific paper interesting enough to be published in Science?
There are extremely different types of good papers. For example, I published most of my work in biochemistry in the Journal of Biological Chemistry because they were papers that showed protein purification, step by step. There’s a lot of important science that’s not suitable for Science or Nature. Papers for these major journals are rare, they must be the end result of a series of steps and interest a large number of scientists. I must have published some 200 papers and perhaps three or four were in Nature or Science. I think that all the other papers were good, but they were a step in the direction towards knowledge. Biology is complex. You advance by characterizing one protein at a time. When you publish you don’t know how these things are going to add up and result in something. The papers in Science and Nature must have an appeal for a lot of people and deal with some fundamental concept, not just the discovery of a new protein. In Science we accept 5% of the papers that are submitted. There are many people who submit papers to us that are totally unsuitable. There’s lots of pressure to publish in high impact journals.

Can the publication of papers in high impact journals be a good way of assessing the excellence of a piece of research?
For me, using the impact factor of journals as a measurement criterion is ridiculous. It measures the journal’s impact. We need something that gives an idea of the impact of the papers. It’s always possible to publish a paper that will never be cited by anyone in a high impact factor journal. I’d like people to look more at the number of downloads of a paper. That gives an idea of the interest in the work much more quickly. It’s very easy to measure this nowadays. Furthermore, the citation indices of papers in some fields of knowledge, such as cancer and immunology, may be high. People cite some of them, but the majority of the work is rubbish. Every paper has an appropriate place for it to be published, depending on its content. In England there are biology professors today reading scientific journals and separating what they think is worthwhile. I support this type of initiative. People shouldn’t be very concerned with the journal in which papers are published. We need more efficient ways of recognizing good articles. I support the system used in the United States. When a researcher is ready to be promoted or about to be assessed they ask them to separate the five most important works they’ve produced. This is their contribution to science. No one asks for all the candidate’s work. In this way I can read the five pieces of work and assess the candidate. But it’s impossible to do this if they hand me 80 papers. In this case, all I can do is see where the papers were published. Harold Varmus [Nobel Prize laureate in Medicine in 1989] is trying to change this mentality in the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Howard Hughes Institute and several others already use this other way of assessing things. I think it’s very important that we think about how we conduct assessments in science. I have a physicist friend from the French Academy of Sciences who’s in China giving lessons and he was surprised to see that people there are publishing a lot of papers, but the work is of little value. They do this because there’s pressure to publish a lot of work. They’re not interested in doing good science, but in having the biggest number of papers possible published. They want to publish a lot. They’re always doing the same thing. They change a detail in the work, or they mention unimportant things. It would be good if Brazil had a more sophisticated system for measuring scientific production; something that makes sense. Don’t do what China’s doing.

What’s your impression of Brazilian science?
I’ve been to Rio de Janeiro several times. But until this visit I’d only visited São Paulo 40 years ago. I was in Rio now at a cell biology congress for nearly a week and I visited the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). In São Paulo I went to the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and the University of São Paulo (USP). I also know Brazilian scientific production from papers in Science and other journals. Brazilian science has been really growing for some time now. Embrapa, for example, is famous worldwide for developments in the agriculture area. In the energy sector, Brazil is the best in producing ethanol from sugarcane. In many aspects the country’s doing very well. Vaccine production at Fiocruz in Rio de Janeiro, where they’re building a new plant, is really impressive. Fortunately, you have good leaders in science occupying important positions. I’ve met deans from universities who impressed me. You have a good research system. I was in India, for example, where the deans of state universities are appointed by the governor, who changes every five years. They’re not chosen the right way. Of course, there are problems in Brazil. Researchers get a job and stay at the same university forever, sometimes without an assessment system. I was told that Unicamp has found a way to get around this problem. It’s a new university that can hire people for short periods of time, such as 12 hours a week. In any event, Brazil has great capacity, the facilities are being improved and many things are happening. There’s a lot of cooperation between labs and young students are enthusiastic about science.

After a debate that lasted months about the risk of encouraging bio-terrorism, Nature and Science recently published the papers of two groups of researchers who had created modified versions of the bird flu virus (H5N1) which could be transmitted in the air from one mammal to another. Do you think that publishing these papers was a good solution to the impasse?
In this case I think it was. I don’t believe the virus is that dangerous. There was a lot of confusion at the beginning. It was a stress test for the publication system and we saw that it didn’t work. Now we have to find a better system. In this case there were two problems. One was easy to solve. We needed to spend some time with the authors of the works to understand them better. The other is that it’s not really possible to avoid information becoming public. The virus originated in Indonesia and there were scientists from that country who had information about the mutation that was reported in the papers. We need to think of an international system that will take care of this type of situation. I hope that someone is doing that. I’m sure that in future, in five years’ time, there will be another serious case of this same type. We need to be ready for it. The people from the NIH, the National Academy of Sciences and those who deal with terrorism all believe that one day this is going to happen.

What’s your opinion about publications that adopt the open and free access system for all scientific papers?
There are several publication models. There’s the so-called ‘gold open access’. In this system the researcher pays for the cost of publication in a journal and access to the work is immediate and free to all. The problem is that scientists from some countries, like those from South Africa, can’t pay to publish their papers. So this model isn’t going to always be good for all cases. This system also doesn’t work for Nature, Science and other very selective journals. If we were to adopt this model, the cost of publishing a paper in Science would be something like US$ 20,000. In the journal we have to analyze 20 papers to choose just 1. This has a cost. We have 23 top level scientists who are editors of Science and they analyze the papers. Someone has to pay their salaries. But there’s another model that I think Science may be able to support; it’s ‘green open access’. By this system, all papers become free and open six months after publication. The Welcome Trust from England is supporting this model, which allows us to sell subscriptions to libraries and not have to charge the authors for publication. Moreover, there would also be ways of making access for developing countries immediate and free. When I was president of the National Academy of Sciences that’s what we did.

eduardo cesarLecture by Bruce Alberts at FAPESP: ways of measuring the impact of scienceeduardo cesar

What do you think of the boycott that some scientists imposed against the scientific publishing house Elsevier?
The problem with Elsevier is that you only have two alternatives: you either buy access to all of their journals or none of them at all. To have the journals you want you have to buy those you don’t want at the same time and that becomes expensive. It’s unreasonable. The issue is this: if we institute models like gold or green open access, many journals will disappear. They’re so poor that no one will bother waiting six months to read them, in the case of green access. They’ll be replaced by journals like PLoS One. I’m certain that Elsevier has a lot of journals in this situation.

Why are you leaving Science in March next year?
I agreed to stay for five years. I must leave in March or April as soon as we have a substitute. I’m getting old. I don’t want to stay at Science for another five years. I live in San Francisco and I have to spend a week a month in Washington [to edit the magazine]. Besides this, there’s a lot of work by e-mail.

Changing the subject, do you think that scientists are good communicators of science?
Some are. But many people including me complain that they write abstracts of their works that no one can understand. I’m a biologist and I read biology abstracts that I don’t understand, where I find words with three letters and they don’t explain what they are. That’s disappointing. Scientists are very parochial and they don’t realize that no one understands all the words. We have to do more work and improve scientific education. It’s not my idea, but I support the proposal that every PhD student has to write a two-page abstract for their thesis that their grandmother can understand before they’re approved. That’s a sensational idea. Scientists need to get out of their own little world. They’re doing this in some universities, like at Manchester, in the United Kingdom. Harvard’s not doing it… I don’t think the scientific enterprise can survive if communication’s not good. The public has to understand what science is in order to be able to support it. We teach science in school as if it was dogma. We don’t explain where the facts and ideas come from. Students are only encouraged to memorize words. In Science magazine I’ve tried to change how we see scientific education; I’ve tried to redefine it. Our first objective is to make people understand science, show where knowledge comes from, make them think like a scientist and learn to look for scientific evidence. This is important for everybody. For example, it’s important for people to understand what scientists are saying about global warming. Where did this knowledge come from? Every ten years in the National Academy of Sciences we publish a book about the evolution of science and creationism. We were surprised to discover that adults with university degrees saw no difference between the dogma of science, between what scientists believe, and the dogma of pastors, those who believe in creationism. People thought they could choose either of the two types of dogma, the dogma of science or of creationism. People didn’t understand how science was done, how knowledge was tested. They never learned this. It will be an enormous task to change this.

What’s the magnitude of the threat of creationism in the United States?
It’s a problem that never goes away. The United States is a surprisingly religious country compared with other nations. People go to church every Sunday and listen to preachers talking about how the world was created in days and things like that. The real problem is that they try to prevent the teaching of science in schools. Even in places where creationists can’t legally prevent the teaching of science, teachers feel intimidated, sometimes by the students’ parents. We have to keep a watch on this. Climate change has been dealt with as if it were creationism. That’s ridiculous. I don’t understand. Creationism affects your personal view; it’s very emotional. Climate change doesn’t affect these same feelings.

Who’s responsible for this situation?
Everyone who goes to university in the United States does one or two science subjects. That’s the last chance for people to learn about the subject. But science is not taught in a way that I advocate. Ultimately, the nature of science is not taught. Because of this, we created in Science a competition to encourage innovation and excellence in science teaching at universities. Every month we publish the article of a winning group in the IBI (Inquiry-Based Instruction) section. I hope this type of initiative spreads to other places and is copied.

Why doesn’t the average American believe that climate change is the result of human activity?
American readers are subject to all types of propaganda from the major oil companies and other sectors. They’re really confused. I was surprised that nothing important came out of that scandal involving the leaking of e-mails from scientists in England, the so-called ‘climategate’. There’s a lot of money from rich people in the United States who try to convince the public that climate change is an invention of scientists. This has nothing to do with the issue. It’s like the advertising that’s done to get you to buy soup or clothes that you don’t want. They’re very intelligent. In the case of climate change, they managed to sell the idea to Americans that it doesn’t exist. But I think this is changing. This case shows the vulnerability of society when people don’t understand how science is done. That’s why I’m in favor of scientific education. Children are growing up in a complex world. Everybody wants to have their vote or make them buy something. I see science education as being at the center of the progress of civilization worldwide.

Some climate change academics have said that it’s difficult to communicate the results of their research to the public. In your opinion, haven’t scientists themselves failed here?
Climate change is a long-term problem. People tend to think about what they’ll be doing next year, not in 50 years’ time. Politicians also think about short-term issues, and always with an eye on the next elections. We have to learn to be more effective in communication so that the truth is understood. Not every scientist is capable of communicating the results of their research. But we certainly need those who know how to. We need the press to be engaged. However, the problem is that the press always needs to hear both sides. So a specialist appears who believes in climate change and another who doesn’t. But the weight of these positions is misleading, because almost all scientists are convinced that climate change is real. The press can listen to the two sides to discuss what to do to avoid climate change, but not to discuss if it exists.

In addition to publishing researchers’ papers, Science and Nature also produce reports on science. What’s the importance of the journalistic sections in these publications?
I think that this is their best part. Journalism has a critical role to play. We have 100,000 subscribers to Science and many of them are not scientists. This audience is unable to read the back part of the journal [where the more technical papers from scientists are placed], but can read the front part [where the journalistic sections are]. The majority of the scientists are also unable to read the papers that are not from their field of activity. Therefore, we publish news, science problems, and what’s happening in terms of scientific policy. These issues are important to the scientific community. I think we have to have a lot more people reading this part of Science. With iPhones, tablets and the world of electronic publications we can achieve this objective. We have reading applications for these devices. We can have a system of cheap subscriptions for the initial pages of Science for people from developing countries who have this type of apparatus. We need such initiatives worldwide.

Since 2009, you’ve been a special Science Envoy for President Obama. What do you do in this function?
Nobody knew what the position meant. It’s an unpaid post. They pay my travel expenses. I was first sent to Indonesia. I’ve been there four times. Basically, what I do is connect with scientists from these countries and introduce them to good science practices. Indonesia supplies few research scholarships and there’s absolutely no domestic competition for funding in science. Along with the World Bank and the Academy of Sciences of Indonesia, we’re supporting the creation of a national agency for funding research. Today what money there is for science goes directly to the research institutes and young researchers with new ideas have no chance of competing for these funds. We also promote workshops where we bring together American scientists and the future leaders of science from Indonesia.

Why were you sent to Indonesia specifically?
The program was created for mainly Moslem countries with which we wanted to build a new type of relationship.

You like to give a lecture entitled “Learning from failure.” Do you think that scientists are ready to learn from their mistakes?
All of us make mistakes. Most of the experiments of scientists do not come out right. This question once again has to do with people’s understanding of how science is done. My main point is that everybody makes mistakes in life. Successful people learn from failure; they don’t make the same mistake twice and they try to do things in a better way. When we become older we’re wiser because we have made a lot of mistakes and have learned from them. I think this is a good way of thinking. In the United States people start three or four businesses that don’t work out well until they become successful in their fifth undertaking. Failing is not shameful. A good failure can be useful; it may not be a bad thing. Failure perhaps is not seen like this in other countries.

Why do you always say that you learned a lot when you wrote your text book The molecular biology of the cell?
 When you write a book the same thing happens as when you teach. You have to read a lot, to think and get out of your day-to-day routine. This experience was very important for my research. Sometimes scientists have a very narrow focus and don’t take advantage of all their career opportunities. But you need to maintain a balance between teaching and doing research. I think that four hours of lessons a week is reasonable. Then you have time to do research.