Interview with Lynn Kamerlin, Part 1

Drawn into the Plan S debate, this scientist's main concerns are about science

Interview with Lynn Kamerlin, Part 1

Lynn Kamerlin’s name may be familiar to you if you’ve been following the Plan S debate. She’s known for spearheading an open letter outlining what her research community — chemistry — discerns as problems with Plan S, including its complete ban on hybrid journals, its violations of academic freedom, and its one-size-fits-all approach. Her open letter may have already had an effect, with the first round of implementation guidance shifting away from a complete ban on hybrid journals to a more reasonable (but still flawed) policy.

Of course, nothing in the OA space gets discussed without ad hominem attacks, so Kamerlin and the signatories to her letter were accused almost immediately of being in the pocket of publishers, indicating yet again how some view a policy debate as a blood sport.

Because exceptional people and their important work and aspirations can get swamped in the furor of OA debates, this two-part interview focuses on understanding more about Kamerlin as a researcher and scientist. We also discussed the Nobel scandal, Open Science initiatives, research ethics, the changing research funding landscape, differences between US and EU (and global) research and funding trends, the role of societies in supporting scientists, and more.

Part 2 of the interview will be distributed tomorrow to subscribers. Free summaries are also being distributed more widely each day.

Your lab (Kamerlin Lab) describes itself as a “computational (bio)chemistry group, located in the Biochemistry Program of the Department of Chemistry (BMC) at Uppsala University. . . . highly interdisciplinary, using the tools of chemical physics to understand the chemical basis for complex biological and mechanistic problems.” Can you review how the Kamerlin Lab came to be? Also, how do you ensure the work is interdisciplinary? What does “interdisciplinary” mean to in the context of your lab?

I started my first independent lab in the summer of 2011 at Uppsala University, having obtained a special “Forskarassistent” Fellowship from the Swedish Research Council (these were 4 year junior faculty level fellowships intended to help you set up your first independent research group, and covered salary and contributed to lab start-up costs). Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral researcher with Arieh Warshel at the University of Southern California, with a brief period at Stockholm University in between the two positions.

In the context of interdisciplinarity: by training I am a computational organic chemist, and the title of my PhD thesis was “Catalyzing Phosphate Ester Hydrolysis”. Following from that, I moved into first computational structural biology in my first postdoc, and then computational biophysics in my second postdoc. My first independent group started out in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at Uppsala University, where I remained for 7 years before recently having moved to the chemistry department at the same university. This has of course affected my choice of research topics, which span fundamental physical organic chemistry through to understanding complex biological systems. I also have a broad range of collaborators from very different disciplines (bioinformatics, computational biology, molecular biology, structural biology, molecular evolution, among others) which expands the scope of the problems my lab can address computationally, and also provides my group with excellent opportunities to visit experimental labs and learn new techniques. This is what I mean in the context of interdisciplinarity.

What are the research foci of Kamerlin Lab these days? What kinds of things intrigue you and your teams the most?

There are several problems I am interested in at the moment, but a big overarching theme in our research that we come back to again and again is trying to understand how proteins evolve: both how existing proteins evolve to gain new functions, and how new proteins evolve completely de novo. This is interesting from a biochemical perspective, but it is also of importance to biotechnology, because if you understand how proteins work and how they evolve by themselves in nature, you can mimic this in the laboratory (or on the computer) to produce new enzymes with tailored biochemical functions, both for use in chemical industries as environmentally friendly biocatalysts, but also, for example, for developing new biotherapeutics. I like solving puzzles, and protein evolution is like a massive million-piece puzzle to me, which means my lab and I have a lot of work ahead, but it’s really fun when you start seeing at least bits of the puzzle pieces fall into place.

You’re currently participating in Nobel Week in Sweden. The Swedish Academy, home of the Nobel Prize, was recently rocked by scandal. How has the scientific culture in Sweden changed, both before the scandal and subsequently?

It’s been a tough period recently, because in addition to the scandal that rocked the Swedish Academy, and thus affected the Literature Prize, there was also the Macchiarini scandal at the Karolinska Institute, which led to the Committee for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine asking two members to resign. There were also calls for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to be temporarily suspended, with the money going instead to the families of Macchiarini’s victims. What has been positive in all this is that both cases caused substantial discussion and debate in Sweden, not just within academic circles but also outside of academic circles in daily newspapers and on Swedish radio. Clearly, they have been issues that have been of broader interest to the general problem, with concerns also about how this may tarnish the reputation of the Nobel Prize. Both committees have taken the matter very seriously, and have been working also to rebuild public trust. While it doesn’t undo the harm that has been done, I am glad to see that there has been a strong response and clear demarcation of what is considered to be unacceptable actions, both in terms of research fraud, and in terms of personal behavior. I am hoping this leads to increased awareness of these issues as well as action being taken much more quickly in future to avoid these problems from being repeated.

You’ve certainly been aware of changes in the research landscape, from the rise of China as a research power to various changes in funding approaches and support. What are the biggest differences in the research system you’ve seen?

In Europe, the funding landscape has changed dramatically. The European Research Council (ERC) in particular has played a big role in funding frontier research, but also big initiatives from a number of national funders. Research has become much more competitive, and, as you mentioned, the rise of China as a research power is very visible on the research landscape. For example, when reading the tables of contents of well-respected journals, more and more papers from Chinese labs appear all the time. In general I consider this a positive development, as science is global, and having more countries emerge as research powerhouses is only a good thing. However, at the same time, a problem for my colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic is a (real or perceived) drop in percentage of successful grant applications, which puts a lot of pressure in the system. Calls with single digit success rates are no longer a rarity, and for example, looking at success rates for Horizon 2020, the EU’s research framework program, in the current program they have been at 14% for the first hundred calls, compared to 20% for the entire previous period. This puts of course tremendous pressure on the research landscape and leads to unhealthy models of researcher evaluation for grants, and is a very serious problem we need as a community to address.

You were a postdoc at the University of Southern California, and you retain close ties to colleagues and research in the United States. You also collaborate with people around the world. What kinds of contrasts do you see between the US and EU scientific cultures? What about the two research economies? Any other observations about trends globally you’re seeing?

One of the obvious differences is the size of US research budget. The fiscal year 2018 budget for the just the NIH (before including other federal funding agencies and private funders) was $26.9 billion, where the entire Horizon 2020 budget was €80 billion, for a six year period. This does not include national European funders, but still gives a feeling for the difference in magnitude. My colleagues in the US are also expressing the same concerns about grant success rates as we are in Europe, but nevertheless this major commitment to funding research is really important. The US has also been very successful over a long period of time in attracting outstanding researchers from across the globe to the US to conduct their research there. The research environments I have worked in in the US have been fast-paced and dynamic and really great to be a part of.

On the other side, one personal difference I notice is that in Europe, we have a big advantages that distances are quite close, and we are very well connected in terms of flight and train connections, so we can travel quite easily to see each other. There are outstanding researchers in Europe as well, and while we are perhaps not quite as international (depending on country and institute) at the individual institution level, we are well connected in terms of pan-European collaborations.

I would of course strongly welcome more mobility between the different systems, not just for early career researchers but also for faculty at later career stages, in order to be able to share best practices from both systems across the pond (and also between Europe/North America and other parts of the world, including but not limited to China, Australia, India and Latin America, all of which are or are becoming major players on the research landscape in their own rights). Science is global, and I believe the global research ecosystem benefits from international mobility.

As a young researcher now with a thriving lab of your own, how do you see publication in journals and books fitting in with your research and career activities? Does the system seem to be working? Or is it dysfunctional in some way?

Different disciplines have different publication practices. While I have co-edited a book, in my discipline we primarily disseminate through peer-reviewed journal articles, although in other disciplines peer reviewed conference proceedings are very important, and in humanities, monographs play an important role. I have so far published over 100 papers in a wide variety of journals, although in recent years I often come back again and again to the same few journals as venues to disseminate my research. My choices of publication venue are driven by: (1) the quality of the journal: is it a reputable trusted journal, with rigorous peer review? (2) the scope of the journal and how well that aligns with the scope of the manuscript I am submitting. Who is going to be reading the work that I submit? I have noticed that while researchers get information on specific topics of interest from a wide range of sources, nevertheless, I and many of my colleagues still read specific journals, so choice of publication venue is quite important if you want to reach a broader audience.

Recent years have seen an explosion in the number of journals one can publish one’s work in. I have seen a lot of discussion about the explosion of low-quality journals, but on the other end of the spectrum, there has actually been also a large increase in the number of high-quality journals to use as venues to disseminate one’s research. I think this is a great step forward, in particular because of the constant increase in the volume of research being published. However, the “publish or perish” culture is still alive and well, having been amplified, as described in 2013 by C&EN News with a new problem: “be found or perish.” The sheer volume of research being published puts tremendous pressure on the communication of knowledge, on the peer review system that has to provide quality control for this research, and also on researchers themselves that end up being overloaded with information. There is also the “reproducibility crisis” in chemistry for example, that has been the topic of much discussion. We clearly have a dynamic and changing landscape, and we have a lot of work ahead in terms of how to shape this into something that works for the whole global researcher community (and for those outside the research community who want access to the research). For me, quality control is the most important issue, in a rapidly growing and evolving scholarly communication landscape, how do we ensure that the majority of published research is trustable and reproducible?

Tomorrow, Part 2 of the interview will discuss the role of societies in the development of scientists and scientific communities, issues Kamerlin sees with Plan S, the role of preprints, and research ethics, among other topics.

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