Being a scientist can be a demanding job, and it is important to have strategies for stress alleviation. I exercise, which experience has shown is quite effective in taking my mind off of the next grant deadline. Still, at times it’s difficult to motivate myself to get up at the crack of dawn to exercise before work. That’s when I remember the burgeoning literature that shows exercise is also good for my physical health.
Of particular interest to me is a recent article that suggested a mechanism for the positive metabolic effects of exercise (Nature, 481:511-15, 2012). Surprisingly, this study linked it to autophagy, or the recycling system by which cells engulf and degrade parts of their own cytoplasm. Autophagy has also been linked to the age-slowing effects of reduced calorie intake (Adv Exp Med Biol, 694:47-60, 2010). This latter work indicated that when the body is under caloric stress, autophagy kicks in to convert preexisting cell mass to nutrients.
It would be good to find a healthy way of dealing with what is stressing the scientific research community these days.
In the case of exercise, the damage that occurs during a workout triggers autophagy to recycle damaged cellular components. As a side product, parts of the cell that wear out during normal cell aging, such as mitochondria, could also be turned over. In other words, cellular damage that slowly occurs during aging could be removed as part of the response to exercise. So as a side benefit of muscle regeneration that occurs during exercise, other parts of the cells get regenerated as well.
This got me thinking. Stress is normally thought to be a bad thing, but in small doses, it can be quite helpful. Perhaps dealing with the stress that seems to be part and parcel of the current scientific experience could have some positive side effects as well.
It would be good to find a healthy way of dealing with what is stressing the scientific research community these days. We scientists have to deal with a shortage of available jobs, increased competition for spots in the best journals, and uncertainty about how to best advance our careers. Of particular concern is the tight funding that threatens the careers of all scientists.
An example of a beneficial pressure that could help relieve the current stress would be getting rid of scientific deadwood, such as investigators who no longer are actively engaged in research yet still hold positions, or scientists who are putting out research that has no significant impact.
But for stress to be useful, it must be controlled—just as in exercise, the aim is to pressure the system enough to induce productive regeneration without injuring it. If the scientific community responds appropriately to the current stress, we can avoid long-term damage as well.
The most important regulators of the health of the scientific enterprise are the funding agencies. Their decisions about who will get funding dictates which areas of science will thrive, and which will wither. If funding decisions were to be made according to a strategy that seeks to reduce the deleterious effects of aging on the system, then funding should be shifted from more conservative to more innovative research. Science needs to be regenerating its intellectual focus to continue moving forward.
Unfortunately, many funding decisions are strongly influenced by more established scientists who are not necessarily motivated to shift funding away from traditional areas of research. There is a real danger that the increasingly stressful funding situation will eliminate the very elements that we need for renewal, instead of reducing less-productive but long-established parts of the scientific community.
Funding for new, innovative approaches to biology should have priority over more traditional research areas. Otherwise, the stress we are experiencing could end up accelerating our aging rather than our renewal.
H. Steven Wiley is lead biologist for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.