March 3, 2017

Experience vs. enthusiasm

Recently the BGI was interviewed by a Nature blogger on the subject of why it has such a relatively youthful workforce. Jun Wang, the BGI's Executive Director, gave a surprising statistic that the average age of all his 4000 staff was just 26 years old, with the scientists averaging even less at 23 years old. The company trains all its own staff, Jun says, taking them straight from university and putting them into real-world projects from day one.

Personally I have to wonder what this does for the quality of the science. There is no question about the BGI's ability to perform huge sequencing experiments and churn out new genomes daily with all the requisite papers and analyses, but this is production-line science. Training junior staff to turn the handle and crank out data is relatively straightforward but how much depth is there to their understanding of the results produced or the biological implications of making various decisions about quality cutoffs or parameter configurations? They certainly seem to do pretty well on the standard tasks that a production-line approach like this would enable, but what happens when data fails to conform to expectations or an unusual question is asked?

At times like that, there is no substitute for experience. Only someone who has spent a long time in the field (or an occasional rare genius with unusually perceptive insight) will be able to spot the subtle nuances that are causing an experiment to go not quite the way they were expecting. At the very least you would expect to find a person of this level at the head of each individual research group to give the more junior members guidance and advice, but Jun says that at the BGI they have quite a few project team leaders who are only 26 themselves, some in charge of teams of 100 or more.

The article's author suggests that the BGI model is like that of a startup or dotcom company, where the drive and innovation that stems from young, enthusiastic staff carry the company forward quickly. I would add that an over-abundance of cautious, conservative, battle-hardened, experienced staff can prevent the truly innovative ideas from getting off the ground because of aversion to risk. A balance must exist where the ideas are free to flow and risks allowed to be taken, whilst in parallel sensible decisions are made to ensure that the company continues to be able to pay the rent of those whose ideas it depends on.

Jun appears to support this idea, and he is quoted as saying “In the past, people emphasized too much about experience, but forgot about the creative parts, or the strengths of the young scientists. It is also very dangerous to also focus on the young scientists, and you lose all the competence, experience, and intelligence of the senior ones.” But this quote doesn't really support the demographics of his employees - a balanced well-qualified scientific workforce comprising so many thousands of people would have an average age in their 30s at least, if not 40s, but definitely not as low as 23.

What is BGI doing then, to ensure quality of results and service, if they cannot rely on hard-won practical experience to guide their researchers? They are certainly successful in terms of publications and sheer volume of work produced at present, but I have heard on several occasions vague unofficial rumours and mutterings that the quality of the work may not always have been as good as it could. For longer-term sustainability and a steady increase in the quality of its output, the BGI will need to start upping the average age of its scientists a little, taking on staff who have got things wrong enough times in the past to understand better how to get them right every time in future.

Topics: Bioinformatics