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THE BLACK HOLE

The death of teaching in biomedical science

By DAVID KENT | MAR 21 2016

Over the past few months I have been doing some semi-regular teaching at the undergraduate level. It’s been a while since I have taught, aside from an odd lecture here or there. However, one thing has become very clear to me: the further I go in research, the less I’m meant to teach the next generation.

Students pay a lot of money to attend world-class institutions in order to be instructed by world-class researchers. The irony of course is that most of those same researchers have little to no involvement in actually teaching students outside of their own laboratories. The belief is that you just cannot survive in research if you do not commit your soul (and your work week) to it.

To give our readers outside of the university setting a sense of the issue, I thought I’d share two items from my own career so far:

  1. I’ve been in academic science for more than 10 years and nearly all of my teaching has been because I (sometimes with great difficulty) sought it out.
  2. I’m employed at the University of Cambridge running a research group in an academic department and I’ve only once been encouraged (and never trained) to teach students.

Just to be clear, the time I was asked, it was for a cohort of PhD students in our stem cell biology graduate program – one lecture per year on my research topic. No assessment, no penalty for a bad talk and certainly no training for how to achieve learning goals.

So how do students get taught?

For this, I thought about my own training – who taught me along the way? At my first university (Western University in London, Ont.), the undergraduate genetics program (1999-2003) was run by faculty members who had a substantial part of their time dedicated to teaching. Each member of the teaching faculty had a small lab with undergraduate and graduate researchers with the occasional postdoctoral fellow sprinkled in. Many of the undergraduates (myself included) undertook research posts in these same labs over the summer or part-time during the academic year. Our teachers performed research and they ran the lectures – their jobs explicitly involved both – and while there was no guarantee of quality, teaching was a legitimate part of their day-to-day work.

Flash forward to my graduate training (2003-2009 at the larger University of British Columbia in Vancouver) and things were structured a little differently. Many more classes were run by sessional instructors or were team-taught (e.g., a given faculty member was assigned three to five lectures in a term as part of a course rather than a full course). Very few of the top biomedical researchers gave undergraduate lectures, let alone took on a full course. Team teaching was quite common at the graduate level. From my perspective as a graduate student, team teaching actually seemed a pretty reasonable way to get the top researchers in the classroom without being too onerous and many established researchers were involved in this way (except the senior ones who “escaped” teaching due to external funding).

This was a small time commitment from individual professors and was regularly, though not unanimously, viewed as a burden or distraction rather than a responsibility to the next generation. In fact, the only senior research professor that I knew who was properly invested in regular teaching was an engineer – maybe the physical sciences still value the teaching aspect of academia? This certainly seems to be the case here in Cambridge, too, with my colleagues in the physical sciences doing substantially more teaching than those on the hospital campus (who do little to no teaching). The cynic would argue that the physical sciences simply don’t have the same level of funding to choose not to teach.

The response I always get when I broach this subject is that teachers should teach and researchers should research – major research institutions could even consider scrapping teaching altogether (and some essentially have done so). It is one thing to say, “We have more researchers and they don’t all need to teach” – I could live with that. The reality, I fear, is that we are actually saying is, “We’ll invest our money into research and get teaching done on the cheap because it’s not as important.” I’m not demanding that all researchers have a teaching component, but I do want teaching to be a protected, valued component of what it means to be a researcher at an academic institution. Good teachers who undertake research are an incredibly undervalued cadre of the workforce.

The big problem is during the training period. Imagine you are a gifted researcher with a penchant for teaching. You keep pursuing the research career because science excites you and you do not have time to build a teaching CV along the way. You end up needing to make a massive decision: pursue teaching against the advice of your senior colleagues in research or ignore teaching completely to pursue the research career. With grant funding rates low and the production of PhDs outstripping the creation of new faculty posts, the teacher/researcher combination gets squeezed out because they didn’t jump ship from academic research soon enough. It seems to me that the positions simply do not exist for high-quality teachers to do high-quality teaching and the money instead gets siphoned off from student fees to pay for more research focused faculty who don’t value teaching. Is this where we want the academic system to go?

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Kevin / March 21, 2016 at 10:57

    First, thanks for the great read David. I am a faculty member with the opposite problem to what you have described – I am sure there are many more like me. I am tasked with a relatively high teaching load ~5 courses/year and running a research lab, in a day and time where you are not only defined by your publications but also by the amount of funding you bring to the department. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching and I love research (I was trained in a biomedical science department where the professors taught little, if at all). The problem arises in that the expectations from the research side of things are just as stringent as they are with larger universities, or in biomedical sciences, where faculty members often teach much less. The unfortunate reality is that something has to give in these types of situations and often times it ends up being the quality of the teaching because it is the research that will further your career. Trying to balance both teaching and research is a common issue in academics but seems to be more of a high-wire act for some. Having said all of that, I love my job and often times can’t believe I get paid to do what I do.

  2. Paolo Gallipoli / March 21, 2016 at 16:17

    Dave, this is a longstanding problem and the only solution I can see with current climate on research funding is to create 2 separates careers. With some academic dedicating most of their time to good quality teaching and others to research. Being a worldwide successful researcher does not necessarily equate being a good teacher and teaching needs training too as you say. My brother has worked in engineering department both in the UK and abroad where this is happening already although not properly officially. It might be that this creates some disparity in financial rewards (I can see researcher looking for more money given they bring funding, although student also pay fees as you say) but as long as these are not too big, I am sure many people will accept it.
    The problem is leaving as it is will most likely mean poor teaching and a class of undergraduates having degrees from first class institution but not being properly taught.

  3. Brett / March 21, 2016 at 19:05

    This is a great article, well done David. However, like one of my wisest friends remarked, “whatever you measure will drive the system”. In biomedical science we do not measure teaching results (or value them, they are secondary), instead we look for publications and other research based metrics. So here we are, in the current state of affairs. I agree that the system needs two streams of focus, but what metric will drive the teaching stream? As long as money continues to flow from student’s tuition there isn’t a great incentive to clean up the teaching side of the business. For the record, I feel like I am one of the few biomedical researchers that prefers teaching to research, so I could be biased!

  4. Donald Forsdyke / March 30, 2016 at 14:11

    You are moving in the right direction, but you miss an important point. It is not just research vs teaching. There is a triad – grant-writing, research and teaching. If it were just research and teaching, most professors would be able to attend to the teaching, and also to the hundred and one other tasks that would make the university (and the world) a better place.

    But as you well know, many have to submit several grant applications a year and even the well-funded are similarly engaged (as insurance against future loss of funding). If there is any one factor that would change everything it is reform of the granting system. The scandalous misuse of faculty time is at long-last receiving attention in the USA (see the Rescuing Biomedical Research Initiative; http://rescuingbiomedicalresearch.org/). Among possible solutions there is “bicameral review” as described elsewhere (see: http://post.queensu.ca/~forsdyke/peerrev.htm).

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