Science’s problems are social, not scientific

Some meandering thoughts after coming across a web site called, which has the laudable goal of communicating the value of basic research in an effort to promote the funding and public support of same. There are some odd things about the site, primarily a weird mix of idealism and sloppiness that sits wrong with me. This is in part may be due to my allergy to “messaging.” GenX grew up with the War on Drugs and the PMRC and a constant barrage of “very special” sitcom episodes. Because of these misguided, patronizing, dishonest things being shoved in our faces during our formative years, we decided that all adults and institutions are completely full of shit. I am not saying that the motives behind these things were all wrong, but because e.g. the anti-drug propaganda was so filled with lies and risible scare tactics, we felt free to ignore it. No one likes to be manipulated, especially by squares! When you are communicating, respect your audience’s intelligence and don’t try to pull one over on them. If you do, you will eventually lose them no matter the quality of your argument*.

Ok, “Thinkable.” First, their motto is “Research is Never Irrelevent [sic].” I’ll leave that. Their current video—done in a sort-of Vi Hart with high production values style—is about GFP, the poster child for “curiosity-driven research yields huge biomedical payoffs.” I agree GFP is a good example, and it is rightfully trotted out constantly. Where they go wrong is in trying to tie this into a narrative about funding young scientists—another goal I agree with. They talk about how a “young scientist” named Martin Chalfie had the idea to use GFP to label cells in living animals. Chalfie was a tenured professor at Columbia University in his mid-40s when the GFP work was done. If there is a “not at risk” demographic in neuroscience research, that is it.

Who they should be pointing to is, of course, Douglas Prasher, who did the critical molecular work on the GFP gene, then quit academia because of funding problems. But that wouldn’t fit the neat narrative of “if we give young scientists a chance to follow their passion all will be cured.” Because the system didn’t give Prasher a chance to pursue his GFP work, but we got the benefit of it anyway.

And that is the hard reality…science doesn’t depend on individuals, their age, or their career stage. For Science to work as a system that produces research, it really doesn’t matter who does the science. We could keep the Boomers around forever and they will do good research. We could hand it all over to people in their 30s and they will do good research. On average HHMI PIs have 2+ R01s. Let’s give them all the R01s and a building full of labs to manage (each!), and let’s restrict it only to coastal cities with populations > 1M. Good research will get done. Let’s ban them from the NIH and limit everyone to a 1.5 R01 maximum. Good research will get done. Let’s mandate that R01s most be doled out state-by-state in proportion to population. Good research will get done.

We wish that our choices about how to fund scientists could be guided by some objective principles of the “best” ways to do science. But of course, all arguments about the “best” way to do science are specious and self-serving. We know that peer and grant review are just noise with respect to quality, so our current system results in the loudest and most entrenched in that system holding sway. But let’s not even have that discussion: it’s bullshit anyway, even if we COULD agree on what’s best. We need to make these decisions based on what we want Science to be as a social undertaking, not how to maximize widget production: how we want to treat people, what our values are related to equality of opportunity, what we owe our trainees and colleagues, and what kind of career paths we want to offer to the next generation of scientists.

* But see also: poor Republicans

Betting on people

In the comments on my GPA post, David points out some data supporting the non-predictive nature of GPA with regard to grad school performance. I responded, but in light of the #tookachanceonme hashtag going around on twitter today, I thought I’d pull it up as a post.

And, for what it’s worth, I much prefer Dr. Isis’ formulation: #gavemeanopportunity

Here’s my comment in response to David, and as close to a PI mission statement as I ever hope to get:

That’s interesting, thanks… particularly interesting that only GRE subject test has any predicitve value. Famously, Google thinks school performance is irrelevant too

I am torn, because as I mentioned, objective criteria help eliminate bias. The problem is there are few if any objective criteria… bias and privilege are so deeply woven into our society and institutions.

I have decided that, for trainees coming to my lab, a disadvantage is a requirement. I am not particular about what precisely it is, and I interpret it broadly, but there it is. This came about when I was first reviewing grad student applications. For my own life, I had no real disadvantages except a fairly mild academia-specific one (an unusual career/education path). Reviewing applicants, I already found myself somewhat averse to anyone with something unusual or inexplicable in their CV that suggested… I dunno… dilettantism or a lack of seriousness. What I was screening out, I realized, was me. (Maybe I should have been screened out, I dunno.) But from then on, I really made an effort to examine who was standing out to me (good or bad) and why, and trying to determine whether these gut reactions were meaningful or not. (Answer: impossible to tell.) It is hard. I need to publish papers to get tenure, and I want people who will produce good work. There is a strong instinct to go for trainees that seem “safe.”

But in the end, I have no ambitions to be a big shot or win admiration within a peer/prestige system that I think is horse shit…having spent the last 5 years in a place where that seemed to be the motivation of most of the PIs, I never want to be around it again. I don’t want to calculate lowest-hanging fruit / highest JIF-potential payoff ratios. I want a lab that does solid work we can be proud of, and I want it to be a place where students like working, are happy, and can figure out what they want to do next. I work in a place where steady non-glam productivity and good citizenship seems to be enough for tenure, so in that I’m lucky and hopeful that this plan will pan out, and as the link David shared suggests, there is no evidence to suggest superficially “safe” students are any better anyway.

Scientific Legacy

You don’t matter. If you didn’t do the work you do, someone else would do it or something largely the same. Science is collective. Everyone’s voice counts, but no single person’s voice should count much. Stop making lists of who is important, or what things we are supposed to agree are interesting. Stop giving awards to individuals for the last baby step of decades of progress done by hundreds or thousands of scientists. Destroy journals. Eat the rich. Call bullshit when you see it. Shame posers. Fund the NIH. Be good to your colleagues.

Still think you’re special and want to matter in a “tangible” way? Skip cremation, get a  Mushroom Death Suit.

GPA and socioeconomic exclusion

Where I work, there is a lot of emphasis on undergraduate GPA in awarding funds for sticking around to do summer research projects. I agree in theory that having a high GPA is laudable…it demonstrates commitment, organization, and to some extent ability. Most scientists I know, however, have encountered the disconnect between GPA and performance in a lab environment. This shouldn’t surprise us…while there are certainly some overlapping skills (time management, organization), there are far more differences. Lab work is primarily manual work—you need “good hands”—especially for undergraduate students who can’t be expected to make a substantial intellectual contribution early on, and a whole host of other skills that you are unlikely to encounter in a classroom (but are more likely to find in some jobs/hobbies). I think I GPA means nothing in terms of what kind of scientist someone has the potential to be.

The reason this really bothers me is that I think the emphasis on (often small) differences in GPA as a criterion for awarding research and grad school opportunities perpetuates exclusion based on socioeconomic status. I’ve been in my faculty position for less than a year but I have seen it several times already. Undergraduates who have to keep 20+ hour a week jobs to be able to afford school, or those on full athletic scholarships (basically a full-time job), simply can’t put in the time it takes to pull a 3.5+ compared to kids who have no other commitments. And that really is the difference… a kid with a 3.2 who would easily have a 3.8 given the extra days a week to focus on coursework.

In a more nebulous sense, GPA demonstrates “preparedness.” Most A students have more or less been coached their whole lives on how to be a student. They are going from strength to strength. They aren’t struggling with suddenly going to college in a language that isn’t the one spoken at home. They often have a toolkit full of tangible and intangible support mechanisms from their parents

What do I say to two equally skilled undergrads who want to do summer research projects? One can stay on whether they get a summer award or not (something I don’t think should be allowed—if they are working in the lab and not getting credit, they should be getting paid). The other needs the award because otherwise he has to spend the summer working full time in his parents’ corner store (where he also works 20h/week during the year). Guess who is competitive for the GPA-based summer award? Guess who will, as a result, be more competitive for grad school? Guess who will be discouraged by school and by science?

I’d be interested in others’ experience with these issues… it is all new stuff for me to think about.

The Top 1,000 Thirtysomething Postdocs Who Won’t Get To Have Careers Because of Retirement Age Boomers Who Won’t Go

1 – 1000. Name unknown.

[EDIT: Yes, I know it's more complicated than that. My point is twofold: 1) Demographic realities that have nothing to do with our values related to trainees or ESIs or TDFs or cherished mentors who "still do great science"; 2) Dumb fucking lists premised on the idea that certain small sets of individual scientists matter.]

Might want to check the batteries in your warning bell

Some snippets on the STAP author, from an admiring piece before problems started coming to light:

“There were many days when I wanted to give up on my research and cried all night long,”

He described Obokata as competitive and persistent, saying the graduate student learned the cell cultivation technique from scratch and worked on experiments around the clock.

She said she spends more than 12 hours a day throughout the week at her laboratory,

I think about my research all day long, including when I am taking a bath and when I am on a date with my boyfriend,

There is a powerful, pop-culture image of the single-minded, obsessed, tireless scientist, whose personal sacrifices are rewarded by the discovery of Truth. It’s a lie. The best (and more importantly, happiest) scientists I know are people who are interested in many things, who approach all aspects of their lives with engagement, purpose and openness. I know people like the description here. They are, in my experience, sick. They are unhappy. They think in ruts. They are stubborn. They are unpleasant to work with. They are selfish. They are often single-minded to the point of being negligent. They are terrified of not living up to expectations.

We need to stop presenting and encouraging these traits as admirable or desirable in young scientists.

And what about the field of stem cells? As someone who works in a field that seems to be experience a rising tide of bullshit and tech-driven hype, this worries me:

The field was described as “a mess” by one senior researcher with 20 years experience, and as having a “very unhealthy, competitive attitude, nourished by top tier journals”, by another.

What is clear is that the senior scientists who praised, encouraged, and stood to benefit from Obokata’s obsessive and self-destructive nature will suffer few if any career consequences.

The trajectory of Haruko Obokata was meteoric.


How to know you’re ready to submit

As we all know, expectations and assessment are field-dependent. How do you know when to pull the publication trigger? A handy guide.

Cognitive Neuroscience: a voxel has p super-duper approaching 0.05

Systems Neuroscience: literally anything in a mouse’s brain correlates with literally anything the mouse is doing

Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience: antibody works

Developmental Biology: in situ has stripe-y pattern

Systems Biology: instead of making 100 careful, well-controlled measurements, you have made 10,000 really shitty measurements. But you’re happy to share them.

Connectomics: You will never publish. Maybe now you regret not just calling it neuroanatomy?

Computational Biology: You just finished a 37 hour, Red Bull-fuelled coding binge. It does the same thing as an ImageJ plugin, except it’s your code.

Neuroethology: you’ve been been painstakingly collecting behavioral and physiological data in the field and the lab for 10 years or more.

Yeast Genetics: It’s Tuesday.

Add your own in the comments!