Charter 19

If you feel that this charter matches your values and is worth to fight for, you can sign it. If you wish to do so, send an email to roswitha.schmickl [a] natur.cuni.cz, marek.slovak [a] savba.sk or lafonplc [a] natur.cuni.cz .

In 1977, Czech activists opposed to the communist regime wrote a charter, named “Charter 77”, criticizing the regime and its violation of human rights. Started as an informal civic initiative, the charter was signed by 242 influential people including the future first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel. Often underestimated by its powerful neighbours and invaders, and at the same time being the central playground of political strategies in Europe, Czech Republic has always nurtured a culture of pacifistic revolution throughout its history.

Inspired by this heritage, there could be no better place than Czech Republic for the present charter. This charter is meant as an informal civic initiative promoting pacifistic yet firm resistance against the turn that knowledge building and transmission is taking. This direction is a symptom of the broader worldwide context, namely out of hand capitalism and productivism to the detriment of critical thinking, humanism and wisdom. While the impact of the present document on human rights is surely less dramatic than Charter 77, the future of what makes human civilizations priceless, namely the building of knowledge and insights via sciences, arts and philosophy, as well as humanistic core values that extend not only to humans but also to our environment, is nevertheless at stake.

While some of the principles claimed herein are concrete and can be achieved by simply making a decision, others are meant as a path to take, not goals that can be achieved immediately. The authors of this charter do not claim to have reached these goals themselves. Failure along this path will certainly happen, but this is not a problem: challenging ourselves, taking risks and being wrong is part of this path, and part of science. The most important is self-acceptance, including the acceptance of our own mistakes, learning from them, solving the consequences that can be solved, taking responsibility for one’s actions and decisions and above all, holding the course in the middle of the storm.

 

Charta77

Charter 77 members attempted to express their opinions in Olomouc, Czechoslovakia on 1 May 1987 during a Labor Day parade. The sign reads “Charter 77 encourages civic spirit”.

 

1. Conducting science

1.1. By all means, one should seek for acquiring true scientific self-esteem. By true scientific self-esteem, we mean that one’s evaluation of self-worth is not dependent on putting others down or being better than others; instead one should accept unconditionally one’s skills and limitations. Unconditional acceptance does not mean that such skills and limitations are unchangeable. Instead, with acceptance, one can stop feeling as a victim of external and past conditions.  Also believe in one’s strength to be able to broaden skills and diminish limitations in the future, which will give strength and trust in one’s ability to face challenges when they come. Acquiring true scientific self-esteem is an absolute requirement to be able to have true scientific debates; to be able to cooperate with fellow scientists, who are otherwise perceived as competitors and enemies; and to be a fruitful and benevolent team leader. Scientific self-esteem also promotes integrity and taking one’s responsibility over one’s role to play in the course of actions. This leads to one to make ethical decisions without threats of punishment and to stop hiding behind excuses to explain failure, such as blaming students for the failure of a project or for deficiencies in their education. If failing at acquiring true scientific self-esteem, or failing at least at aiming for it, one may perform science driven by fear, which leads to haste, mistakes, dishonesty and unnecessary harm done to others, which is not acceptable, especially when harm is done to people under one’s power. Also, science driven by fear suppresses the joy to explore and take risks in exploration, and thereby hinders new scientific discoveries.

1.2. To acquire true scientific self-esteem, one should above all make sure that one is acquiring true personal self-esteem. Critically reading books and attending training courses in the field of psychology or philosophy may be helpful to reach this goal since, as we mentioned, this is the basis for performing scientific research. As a start, we advise all who aspire to be scientists to read “The six pillars of self-esteem” by Nathaniel Branden. 

1.3. The scientific method is: observation and exploration of a natural phenomenon, formulation of hypotheses to explain this phenomenon, testing these hypotheses, formulation of new hypotheses based on the results of this test, and repetition of this cycle iteratively. Each of these steps needs to be present in any research program. The first of these intellectual steps, observation, has been disregarded as “descriptive science” while “hypothesis-driven science” is highly valued. This is especially true in biology. This imbalance has sometimes created scientific works that are based on no observation of natural phenomena, leading to poor and shallow hypotheses, if any. This has been accentuated by the recent affordability of techniques such as high-throughput sequencing, which, paradoxically, frequently leads to purely descriptive science based on no observation of natural processes. “Descriptive science” cannot exist without “hypothesis-driven science” and vice versa. Focusing exclusively on one or the other can only lead to poor thinking skills on a long term, and consequently bad scientific work.

1.4. New ideas (the so-called “out-of-the-box” type of science, which is highly valued these days) require intellectual stimulation, both scientific and extra-scientific, rest, leisure, and most of all, time. This is certainly not compatible with the current, popular state of mind that ‘more and faster publications is better’. This is why one should not surrender to it, but rather do all it takes to produce novel ideas and bring science forward. If one is scared of “losing the game”, one must remember that we make the system, and not the other way around, even if no change seems to come in the short term.

1.5. As mentioned in article 1.4, the generation of new ideas requires extra-scientific intellectual stimulation. Therefore, one must be sure to stimulate oneself with intellectual activities of one’s choice. In addition, as group leader, one should promote such extra-scientific stimulation within one’s group and if possible, one’s institution, and in general anytime possible.

1.6. One must present one’s results in articles, at conferences and in discussions with honesty, rather than overstating the reach of such results. As one becomes aware of and accepts one’s limitations with true self-esteem, it becomes easier to present one’s results strongly but honestly, as it becomes easier to face criticism. Presenting one’s results as absolute, especially when one is well-known, has greatly hindered the quality of scientific debates, and this must change.

1.7. Science is about humility, as the processes one studies expand far beyond one’s own limited life and vision. Thus, one should not overestimate the importance of one’s research, results, articles, career and should instead confront them to their actual relevance in time, society and the universe − a drop in the ocean.  This shall bring a fruitful relationship to science, and also a healthy and peaceful environment for oneself and related people, be it personally (family, friends, …) or professionally (team, fellows, collaborators, …).

1.8. Sharing data used for published works is a duty, not a favor.  Refusing to do so and/or demanding any kind of reward (authorship, …) in return is highly unethical.

1.9. As mentioned above, scientific self-esteem both builds and relies on self-responsibility. Independently of where one is in one’s scientific career, from a student to an established professor, one must feel responsible for the success of a scientific project and related aspects. This certainly implies hard work.

 

2. Mentoring in science

2.1. One’s duty as teacher or supervisor should always be to allow our students to achieve up to the full capacity of their abilities, independently of one’s opinion on the student’s “value”. In this sense, we propose in the next articles some measures to reach this goal.

2.2. When choosing students to supervise, one should not slavishly use the standard criteria by which the “best” or most qualified students are traditionally identified. One should also include students that will require more time, more work, and more supervision than a “better” student to reach the same results. It is our duty to educate the widest possible range of students. It is one’s duty to do so as one’s salary and research is paid by a society (and strictly speaking, tax money), and one owes it to serve society. Making the convenient choice of working only with good students that require low intellectual and time investment and efforts to bring results is unethical in this respect.

2.3. It is important to spend significant time and effort on supervising students. Students are not cheap scientific labor. Students deserve to be educated, as it is, once again, one’s duty. The same way as a parent cannot leave his/her child to grow up alone with no direction or education, one cannot leave a student do his/her thesis with little or no supervision aiming at providing the tools to become a scientist. Otherwise, few students will make it as good scientists (the “best” ones), while most of them will grow as medium- or low level scientists. Argued as “students have to learn by themselves”, such a method is instead a passive way of selecting for the best students, which is, again, against one’s duty. 

2.4. Consequently, one should not supervise more students than one is able to supervise properly, and this number may be adjusted according to the relatedness of projects within the team. This is also incompatible with the current “more and faster publications, the better” state of mind. Such a state of mind does not encourage proper performance of one’s duties as a supervisor, and should therefore be eliminated. Once again, if one is scared of “losing the game”, one should remember that we make the system, and not the other way around. Not only universities, but also research-based institutes are concerned, as they also have the duty to transmit knowledge, which includes supervising students. Avoiding this by not supervising any student and hiring only postdocs is not a solution, as it is merely escaping one’s duty. We believe the lab “ecosystem” is healthiest if it is diverse, with young and more advanced students (undergraduates and graduates) as well as postdocs, and therefore recommend that any team should include at least one PhD student. 

2.5. By “properly supervising” PhD students, we mean that at the end of the PhD, the students should be able to (non-exhaustively): formulate hypotheses based on the thorough observation of a natural phenomenon, propose experimental approaches to test such hypotheses, reflect on the impact of obtained results, identify and not hide flaws, accept them, not be afraid to make mistakes, enjoy and participate in scientific debates, in general acquire scientific self-esteem, acquire a structured way of thinking, write a scientific article, present and teach scientific concepts in a clear way. By all means possible, one should help the student reach these skills and if the student fails to do so, one should be aware that the fault may lie equally or even more in the quality of the supervision provided, than in the student’s behavior or abilities.

2.6. As a PhD is a full-time job, one must provide enough money for the student to live decently, as it is unfruitful and unacceptable that the student may need to have a job on the side in order to survive. Giving a PhD student a salary may make some group leaders think of PhD students as employees, but we must remind ourselves that despite this in-between student/employee situation, PhD students ARE, first of all, students and therefore have the right to receive a proper education as mentioned above. The fact that PhD students are paid on one’s grant does not mean they are paid on one’s own money. Getting a grant is indeed not being given money, but instead, being given the right by a government to manage tax money to put to good use. In case of PhD students, putting tax money to good use means bringing the best possible education. Therefore, a PhD student spending time this way (such as attending courses) rather than working on a PI’s research program cannot be in any way a waste of the PI’s money, as it is not the PI’s money and PhD education is what a government subsidizes for. Certainly, PhD students in return have the duty to conduct their PhD program as well as they can, but as we shall mention, they are aware of it most of the time.

2.7. One should not consider a priori a student as lazy, unmotivated, or needing some form of punishment to move forward in the work. Doing so will send the message that one does not trust the student in his/her sense of responsibility and deontology, which will certainly lead to produce an unmotivated student needing punishment to move forward. The a priori expectation should therefore be the other way around, i.e., that the students are motivated to do the best they can, unless proven otherwise. Lack of motivation is very often caused by removing responsibility from students or not treating them as equals, and can easily be solved by reversing one’s behavior. By “treating students as equal”, we mean that the only difference between oneself and a student is knowledge and experience, nothing else, and therefore one does not deserve more respect than anyone else.

2.8. In the same line, what keeps students motivated is challenges. Giving challenges to students, and believing they can overcome them, will certainly boost their (scientific) self-esteem and motivation. By challenges, we do not mean here a way to test a student’s ability in order to evaluate if he/she is “good” (in case of success) or “bad” (in case of failure). Instead, the challenges should always be considered as a way to help the students improve him/herself, independently of the success or failure, as along the path the students will certainly learn a lot.

2.9. Concerning postdoc mentoring, one should not see postdocs as potential future competitors. This surely should not happen if one acquires true scientific self-esteem. Consequently, one should do as much as one can to help the postdoc grow towards becoming a future potential scientific leader, giving him/her all the tools to do so.

2.10. At their foundation, the aim of universities was to bring an educational background to the elite (understood to be the rich) and more recently, to a much wider part of the population. Such background includes notably critical thinking. With such background, a better society can rely on educated citizens who have better tools to face challenges of life and understand scientific, social and political contexts. One needs to understand that the education in critical thinking is a strength of university education, and one should raise the awareness to universities that giving in to the demands of the job market, such as proposing educational programs targeted towards specific economic trends, may often come with the cost of not developing one’s critical thinking skills.

 

3. Human aspects

3.1. When it comes to social aspects, science should be about teamwork, healthy debates and joy. As a group leader, one has the power to create such an environment or alternatively, lose the opportunity to do so or even to destroy an already-existing nurturing environment, and therefore, should be aware of it and act accordingly. The ultimate aim is to build a community based on friendship, of which pillars are, non exhaustively, benevolence, support, constructive criticism that does not aim at harming personally, healthy challenging of oneself as well as others, independence, critical thinking.

3.2 A research team only works fruitfully if it brings the best of every member. Bringing the best of any member, including technical staff, administrative and temporary employees, involves valuing their work, respecting, challenging and affording them opportunities for advancement, even when it means losing the person from the team. In practice, it means mutual respect independently of one’s position.

3.3. In the same way as one should seek for acquiring true scientific self-esteem, one should promote and help anyone to do so. Setting an example is the first step but ultimately, one should go further. If necessary, one should remove by any means possible any factor that prevents oneself or others from acquiring such self-esteem, especially low self-esteem driven decisions and actions aimed at hindering others.

3.4. One should promote healthy and fruitful scientific debates within one’s group, institution, and beyond. Healthy debates include presenting one’s results honestly, but also openly voicing disagreement. Indeed, proposing scientific hypotheses with their own errors, limitations, and people who disagree is part of a constructive scientific debate. People who disagree should not be one’s enemies, but rather game partners, just like in any sport. To promote such a culture, one should set the example first, and secondly bring a trustful and warm environment where it is ok to be “wrong”.

 

4. Environmental concerns

4.1. Given the global climate changes we are currently facing, it is irresponsible to use scientific meetings and collaborations as ways to perform tourism. We certainly acknowledge that meeting in person favors scientific stimulation, but a conference should not be chosen based on its remote exotic location, as carbon-footprint-wise, the price to pay for participating is not worth the scientific value. Some of us restrict our scientific travels to their own continent, but one should decide for oneself to what extent one is ready to sacrifice scientific tourism.

4.2. One should prefer low carbon footprint modes of transportation, such as train, as often as possible, rather than planes. Within-Europe travel is perfectly doable with such modes of transportation. One should promote such views in one’s team and beyond.

4.3. If not already implemented in one’s institution, one should do everything necessary to implement and improve chemical waste policies in order to reduce environmental impacts of research.

4.4. One should critically assess and be honest about how one’s application for public grants calls in relation to environment, climate changes or “feeding the world” can really address these questions. Namely, one should assess honestly whether the purposes are only for the sake of one’s career or the reputation and power of one’s institution.

 

We particularly thank Jeff Doyle and Jordan Koch for helpful comments.

 

Signatories (the signatures are personal and not meant to be on behalf of institutions), by alphabetic order:

Rita Batista, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

Tomas Herben, Charles University, Czech Republic

Jordan Koch

Clément Lafon Placette, Charles University, Czech Republic

Anis Meschichi, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

Emma Morgan, Charles University, Czech Republic

Hélène Robert-Boisivon, CEITEC & Masaryk University, Czech Republic

Roswitha Schmickl, Charles University & Czech Academy of Science, Czech Republic

Marek Slovák, Charles University, Czech Republic & Slovak Academy of Science, Slovakia