This blog is obviously defunct in all but name, so time to make it official. I have less and less to say here that isn’t better said elsewhere. Overall, I think there is some cause for optimism for addressing the ills of the US biomedical trainee system. On the other hand, other trends – the cluelessness among many at the top, exemplified by McKnight, and the push for more mechanisms to concentrate funding at the older end of the PI spectrum – are not good. We may look back only to have things like #forsymp and #fobgapt and the various RFIs used against GenX and Millenial scientists to retroactively claim there was “consultation” or “engagement” prior to those with power doing whatever the fuck they want. It’s a classic move!
Grad students and postdocs of 2015: you are, as a group, the best scientists who have ever been. That’s not a dig at past generations of scientists, that’s just how it goes. I hope we find a way to give you your due.
Common as the cold
Up for sale, never sold
Getting older and it shows
Your disappointment only grows
And no one seems to care
That you never got your share
Who said life was fair?
So smile – it’s not so bad
You lost your health
Never had no wealth
So tighten up your belt
As you gather dust upon some shelf
You lost by just a nose
But there’s no prize for place or show
Now, at least, you know
So smile – it’s not so bad
Tired out and broken down
You’ve played the field and made the rounds
Now you’re stuck in this one-horse town
Your only solace is the sound
Of melody and verse
Though your bag’s about to burst
Others have it worse
So smile – it’s not so bad
“Cell asked me” blah blah blah “solely devoted to my advice” wank wank wank. You were asked by a glam journal to engage in a one-sided, self-regarding imparting of your wisdom, so you must be a nice guy?
This is an essay that starts with “When asked to compose…” and then gets worse.
Nothing says “terrible writing ahead” more reliably than meta-musings on the piece you are about to read. So I skimmed. Here is a guy who never bypasses a 10-cent word in favor of clarity. Pomposity is not a crime, but life is short, and I get lots of good advice from senior colleagues who actually know me and recognize the differences between the structural context of their careers and mine. Supposedly generalizable platitudes about “scientific endeavors” written in a style I can only call “Victorian Tom Clancy” aren’t going to make my reading list.
But congrats on the career. Shine on, you crazy diamond.
I have only this to say about this guy: there is a fantastic community of brilliant, engaged scientists (of all ages) who are trying to get each other through some tough times for our profession and are doing BY FAR the best science that has ever been done on our planet.
If you’ve got nothing but blame and regret over how the 30+ years your generation has been running things has turned out, maybe just get the fuck out of the way.
Faking data and committing fraud is the cardinal sin of science. It’s a really big deal, and I honestly think ORI is toothless when it comes to consequences (oh you robbed a bank? that’s cool, keep it, but we’re going to pay someone to follow you around and make sure you don’t rob another one for 5 whole years). Fraud occurs for many reasons, but I think that in many (or even most, it’s impossible to say, as I’m sure most fraud is never detected) cases, senior authors and co-authors can be mostly blameless. If someone is working in your lab and gives you convincing but fake results, it can be extremely hard to detect. Even harder if they are giving you a subset of real results, just those that support a hypothesis, for example. There is a lot of trust placed in people who are under enormous stress and career pressure. It’s bound to happen at some frequency.
On the other hand, it is clear from the online discussion (and the real life of any science trainee), that there are many labs in which cheating is enabled by a system of rewards and expectations, created by the PI, that certain results are what is necessary for praise and career advancement. Data fakers are still to blame, but obviously there is some additional culpability here.
Zooming out even further, the media “witch hunts” that result from high-profile fraud cases result from the absurdity of the hype that surrounds science in the first place. If journals, institutions, and the media (and we have to admit it, us scientists too) didn’t drive this machine of fame, celebrity all the attendant dishonest bullshit that comes with it, perhaps there wouldn’t be a need for such vicious recrimination when someone we just anointed a Great Science Hero turns out to be a flawed person. Despite university press releases, the “News” arm of the glamour mags, and the growing annual cycle of Cash Prizes and Top 10 Lists, science almost never happens in stunning leaps of individual genius, and progress never depends on any one person or lab.
Fraud–faking science results–should be punished. Jobs and grants are zero sum–everyone who gets one by cheating stole from an honest scientist (or a less able cheater, I guess). It should probably end your research career. Let’s not pretend that’s a “witch hunt” or a disproportionate response. We think doping athletes should be banned, embezzling bankers should be fired and lose their licenses. What’s the difference? Why should we bother or care about “rehabilitating” Marc Hauser? He had a chance to contribute and blew it, there are many, many others deserving of that chance.
But science is done in teams. If the faker is a trainee, it’s harder to tease apart what happened, and questions inevitably arise. Mistakes and negligence should have consequences too, but these are complicated: the PI and co-authors are somewhere along a spectrum of being innocent victims of the fraudster, of having been negligent in oversight, or having actively contributed through (non-fraudulent) bad leadership or research practices. However, anyone who reads Retraction Watch knows that except in cases where it is proven that the PI actively participated in the fraud, there are essentially no career or funding consequences for them. They may take a credibility hit for a while. Is that bad? I don’t know.
For me, it raises questions about our expectations of a PI. As I wrote, almost everything said about Obokata should’ve have raised red flags instead of garnering praise. Can someone running two labs and holding an administrative position, managing perhaps 20+ scientists and staff even fulfill the minimal expectations we have for 1) Instilling the right system of values and incentives that will minimize the temptation to commit fraud; 2) Be familiar enough with the people, experiments, and data in their lab(s!) to have a fair shot at noticing when something might be amiss?
These are management roles that, in my view, cannot be delegated if 1) You are the grant holder and 2) Your name is last on the paper. The inevitable accumulation of funds and trainees that comes from the kind of reward system we have—grants beget grants in a positive feedback loop—leads to very large labs that become the epicenters of disciplines and subfields. But is it even plausible that these PIs are competently doing their jobs and meeting their oversight responsibilities?
Update: The suicide of Yoshiki Sasai is appalling. Everything here is out of proportion and almost every step in this sad saga is a crystallization of the most pathological features of how “big time” science is practiced today.
Whatever personal demons conspired with the professional fallout surrounding his role in the STAP thing, Sasai’s death is a tragedy, a human life ruined and lost over some science experiments. All authors on the work bear some responsibility for the fraud. Obokata, it seems, faked results. A supremely irrational act, given the work’s overblown promise (which preceded any actual experimental results by years) and inevitable scrutiny it would receive. Maybe she believed so much that she could only see what she wanted to—it had to be true, it had to work. That’s not science, yet obsessive commitment to an idea or theory is often portrayed as a positive quality—rogue genius is vindicated and proven right! They all laughed at me at the university, but now I’m giving a TED Talk.
The responsibility of senior authors is less direct—a responsibility to identify and not exploit the kind of obsessive ambition that leads to fraud. (Is it really that hard to spot?) A responsibility to make it clear that you want the right answer, not the most expedient or exciting answer. Not the best result for your career, the real result.
And what about everyone else? Journals, colleagues, scientists, journalists? Do we really need hero narratives? The splashy results that will “change everything”? The hype machine it is out of fucking control. We are adopting the language of biz-speak bullshit and starting to buy into these empty non-values about techno-utopian revolutionaries and lone geniuses. We all participate in the culture of valuing glam, prestige, prizes. Who gets the 8-figure grants while everyone else struggles to stay afloat? Who can I get a selfie with at SfN? Who gets to stamp their name all over the culmination of decades of work by hundreds or thousands? We’ve become cultish: around people, journals, technologies, institutions. As if these are things that matter more than the colleagues around us, or our own integrity. It’s pathetic, and we can be better.
[Repost from April 1, 2014]
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.
I remember reading some point about how humans become better at logical reasoning if you state the problem in a way that is socially familiar to them. I think I have discovered a critical exception to this phenomena, and that is when the context is a power hierarchy that has favored the subject.
That’s the only explanation I can think of for PIs who get all shirty and defensive about how they treat trainees when confronted with the systemic problems with the training and career opportunities we are offering the next generation of scientists.
A different take on passion
“Passion” has been a topic of derision in science ever since St K3rn’s epic, gassy whine set the new standard for entitled boomer-d00d condescension to young scientists. (Also, it looks like K3rn and Chuck Vacanti look for the same qualities in their trainees.) I’ve found the word funny in most contexts for years thanks to the other David Mitchell’s video below. It is funny, and perhaps not coincidentally ends with Johns Hopkins, which makes me think that K3rn’s musings on what he thinks “passion” is may have been derived from a dumb university marketing campaign! Hilarious.
But it is nice to see blogger Parklife rehabilitate the word and make it about the qualities of a great mentor rather than a patronizing scold.
Don’t be skeevy
Next, Prof-Like Substance has a really great common sense post about men hitting on women at conferences. For fuck’s sake… just don’t. See the comments for hilarious concern troll “anon” who professes to be such a hapless and helpless thing that it is impossible to ever tell if he is behaving appropriately with a female human.
Life-hack: If you are completely clueless about something—driving, handling radioactive material, cooking rice on a stove top, speaking to 52% of humans—don’t do it. Find somewhere to develop these skills where you will not cause harm, annoyance, and discomfort to others.