For nearly two years, Casey Greene, PhD, has been working to change the culture of science with the help of a lamprey statue with magnetic mouthparts.
The parasitic sea creature is a prize in the Research Parasite Awards, for which Greene, an assistant professor of Pharmacology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, is the lead organizer. The awards are granted annually to two scientists, one junior and one established, for research that finds novel insights from reusing and analyzing other people’s data.
The idea originated with a controversial editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January 2016 about the promise and perceived perils of medical researchers reusing data they did not generate themselves. “There is concern among some front-line researchers that the system will be taken over by what some researchers have characterized as ‘research parasites,’” wrote Editor in Chief Jeffrey Drazen, MD, and Deputy Editor Dan Longo, MD.
Greene was troubled by that characterization; he routinely reuses other people’s data sets in his own lab developing algorithms to model biological systems. “The description of a research parasite sounded exactly like the description of a scientist,” he said. And Greene was not alone in that displeasure.
ProPublica reported that “criticism was immediate, fierce, and widespread — probably more than for anything else the journal has done in many years.” Amid that resounding backlash, Iddo Friedberg, PhD, a computational biologist at Iowa State University, tweeted, “I propose a new science award: ‘The Research Parasite Award is given to those who used someone else's data to do some really cool sh*t.’” But he didn’t really expect anyone to do it.
Nevertheless, Greene did it. The second annual Research Parasite awards will be granted in January 2018 at the Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing—and so will the first annual Research Symbiont awards.
Whimsical though the awards’ concept may appear, Greene is serious about the meaning behind them. “We want a research ecosystem that celebrates and rewards those who contributed each component of a scientific discovery: Data generators for building and sharing data sets that can reveal something new, and those who analyze the data to derive insights from it,” Greene said. “To tackle the tough problems that we face in medicine, we won’t be able to do one without the others.”
Look for information about both awards at ResearchParasite.com and ResearchSymbionts.com.