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Interview Series: Q&A with Researcher Peter Mills

This is the first installment of iAMscientist’s Researcher Interviews. This week we spoke to Peter Mills, Researcher and Physicist.

iAMscientist – What is your view of the current system of educating scientists?

Peter Mills – The whole process of training scientists seems to be designed to suppress the very things that make science possible: innovation and creativity.

iAs – How does that impact research activity?

PM – The university system is designed as a type of “guild” and only guild members have access to research funding. A good idea is a good idea and should be judged on its’ own merits, not whether you have a PhD, a university appointment, three references and a list of publications as long as your arm.
I am not saying that experience is not a good thing, it is, but I am saying that at the pace of discovery in research today critical contributions can come from young, enthusiastic and innovative researchers who don’t yet have conventional credentials. And, of course, the pace of discovery connects directly to scientific publishing.

iAs – How does the academic environment impact research today?

PM – I am not sure how a modern scientist at the PhD level manages to do any research at all. Even for PhD candidates it is difficult because so much of your time is devoted to teaching, taking courses, writing grants and, of course getting published. As along as a researchers reputation is built on his or her publication record a disproportionate amount of time has to be spent writing papers and answering reviewers questions. In a peculiar twist, leading edge research is more time consuming and has a lower “success” rate in terms of actually being published. This drives researchers away from interesting and challenging problems that may not yield an immediate result.

iAs – From your perspective, what is happening in scientific publishing?

PM – The current system of scientific publishing is now completely obsolete. The elapsed time from discovery to publication is much too long. Researchers or their institutions pay to have their research published. The reviewers are unpaid. And yet, publishers charge high prices for knowledge that really ought to belong in the public domain to everyone’s benefit so there is little incentive to modernize the whole system.

In addition, at a time when more and more research is cross-discipline the publishing business favors journals of extremely narrow scope. This vertical targeting creates more publishing opportunities but does not serve knowledge sharing well.

iAs – What is your view of open access publishing?

PM – Scientific publishing is starting to change with the creation of open-access journals and pre-print databases such as arXiv.org. I would like to see a peer-to-peer file system designed to index scientific results (not just papers, but also software, data and multi- and interactive media). Something like Wikipedia, but for original research and shared peer-to-peer.

iAs – How do you see the current peer review process?

PM – The review process is also out of sync with the pace of discovery. Reviewers are anonymous when in fact they should be accountable. As I indicated earlier, too often the research is judged on the credentials and seniority of the researcher, rather than the content of the work.

iAs – What is happening in research funding?

PM – I have searched for sources of funding that do not require a burdensome list of credentials just to get your foot in the door. As far as I can tell until now they did not exist. iAMscientist is a much needed new and open source of funding.

iAs – Have you contributed to one of the projects on iAMscientist?

PM – I certainly did. I am supporting Stephen Glatts’ genomic project on mental disorders. This is exactly the kind of innovative thinking that the conventional funding sources don’t pay attention to. The future of innovative research depends on researchers as a community coming together to sponsor this kind of work and inspire the general public to participate.

About Peter Mills
Peter Mills is a recovering academic.  Peter first became interested in chaos theory in his second year when he was given the opportunity for independent research on chaotic scattering from Professor John Smith.  Peter credits the broad graduate thesis latitude he was given by his Supervisor Stefan Buehler for encouraging his curiosity and deep commitment to research.  The results of both of these projects have now been published.  Peter has started his own research foundation, peteysoft.org, to pursue research on climate, remote sensing and astronomy and welcomes project suggestions, collaborators, sponsorships and donations.  He studied at the University of Waterloo and earned his Msc in Environmental Physics at the University of Bremen.  Peter’s full profile can be found at https://www.iamscientist.com/people/peteymills.

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