Q&A with Professor and Incoming Editor-in-Chief of Science: Jeremy Berg

Issue Date: 
June 13, 2016

Jeremy Berg, one of the nation’s leading scientists, will assume the role of editor-in-chief of the prestigious Science family of journals on July 1. He is associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning in the health sciences at Pitt. A former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Berg is also a professor of computational and systems biology, School of Medicine, and of chemistry, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. He will serve a five-year term at Science and also remain in his roles at Pitt in a limited capacity. His prominent appointment spotlights the high caliber of Pitt faculty. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed, general science journal in the world. 

For the uninitiated, why is Science so prestigious?

Jeremy Berg

Science has a long and distinguished history. The journal was founded in 1880 with financial support from Thomas Edison and became associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1900. Unlike most journals, Science publishes papers in a very wide range of scientific fields, and many of them are quite important scientifically. For example, Eric Betzig and colleagues published a paper showing that individual molecules could be imaged using special microscopic techniques, and he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry less than a decade later. Publishing in Science is also very competitive. Only about 7 percent of the submitted manuscripts are accepted for publication. Its weekly readership is estimated to be 1 million. 

Science is also a major forum for science news and for discussions of scientific policy issues, both national and international. The journal is unusual, if not unique, in that scientists, administrators, congressional staffers, and other diverse groups read or are at least aware of Science. 

What appealed to you about this opportunity?

First, I have had an interest in science policy since relatively early in my career. Before coming to Pitt, I spent almost eight years as director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the component of the NIH that is most focused on basic science. The position as editor-in-chief of Science is a tremendous vantage point for following developments in the science policy arena and for contributing to the discussion from an influential position.

Second, I have very broad scientific interests, and this role is a tremendous opportunity to learn about cutting-edge science in many fields. 

Third, publishing, including scientific publishing, is facing many exciting challenges. For example: How can one find the right balance between wide accessibility and sustainable business models? How can one take advantage of modern media to communicate science at all levels? I will have the opportunity to work with others at Science and AAAS on these and other issues.

Finally, I am drawn to public service. This position provides a great opportunity to serve the scientific community and the public. A robust scientific enterprise is crucial to solving some of society’s most pressing problems, including economic development.  

What do you hope to accomplish during your editorship?

I do not have a highly specific agenda at this point. I need to learn more about initiatives already underway at AAAS. In addition to Science, I will be responsible for three other journals (Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, and Science Advances.) AAAS is also launching two new journals, Science Immunology and Science Robotics in the coming months. Maintaining or getting these journals on solid footing will be an important initial goal.

One theme that I expect to inform my editorship relates to interactions between different scientific disciplines and sectors. Of course, there are often great scientific opportunities at interfaces between fields such as physics and biology, for example. Yet it is also striking how different the cultures of different disciplines can be. Furthermore, there are complicated interactions between academia and the industrial sector. I would like to explore these interactions, understand them better, and, perhaps, develop some learned lessons that will enhance the scientific enterprise.

What are three of the most significant issues facing the field of science today?

One of the biggest issues is public trust. Science and scientists had been one of the most trusted groups in the country in the past. Now, scientists are often regarded as a special interest group on par with many other groups. It will be crucial to enhance the public trust in science through effective communication and handling issues within the scientific community in a forthright way.

The second issue is sustainability of the scientific enterprise. This is particularly true for biomedical science, which underwent a period of rapid growth, driven in large part by a doubling of the NIH budget from 1998 through 2003. Since then, the NIH appropriation has lost considerable buying power when inflation is included, yet large numbers of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have been (and are being) trained. The enterprise needs to transition from rapid to more slow and steady growth.

The final issue is data management. Many scientific experiments now generate vast quantities of data: images, genome sequences, analytical data, and so on. How can these data be effectively stored and shared? Should there be central repositories or should each individual laboratory or institution be responsible? These are complicated issues.  

How will you address these issues during your tenure as editor?

The most important tools for addressing all of these issues and others are analysis and transparency. The scientific method can be applied to such questions of culture and policy. To what extent has public trust in science and scientists fallen? Why has it occurred? A good example involves recent discussions that many scientific results are not replicable, which came largely from some papers from industry investigators who had difficulty reproducing published results. However, further analysis reveals that the reasons for lack of reproducibility can be varied. Were the descriptions of the experiments detailed enough so that the experiment could be repeated? Were there other factors that were not controlled well that affected the results? As with any ailment, it is important to get the diagnosis correct before deciding on a treatment. Transparency is key to this process. Science provides an important outlet for sharing the analyses, the data, and differences in interpretation or opinion to move toward effective resolution of such issues.