Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

All scientists should read: “What’s so Special About Science (And How Much Should We Spend on It?)”

Near the end of last year the president of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science, publishers of Science magazine) wrote a great piece that every scientist should read. It concerns the role of science, and particularly basic science, in boosting GDP (gross domestic product) and providing the fodder for technological advance. A lot of great talking points for dealing with science skeptics here.

The growth in U.S. GDP per captia has been exponential since the late 19th century. Such growth is largely responsible for the high standard of living those in the US, and other developed countries, have enjoyed over the past half century or so. And what is the primary driver of this growth? It turns out that at least 50%, and up to 85%, is due to technological progress buttressed by basic science, as opposed to natural resources, land, and labor. What’s further, the return on basic science is impressive:

Many institutions, including our universities and retirement funds, accept 5% sustained ROI as a decent return. Yet investments in basic research are variously estimated as ultimately returning between 20% and 60% per year

Wowzers! If that isn’t a number to impress your friends and family, I don’t know what is. I know I always find it challenging to explain to others why it’s worth doing basic scientific research. I usually point them to the fact that green flourescent protein was discovered in jellyfish and taq polymerase originally came from thermophilic bacteria. Both have revolutionized biological science, and both came out of very basic science. But it’s nice to have some sexy numbers to back this claim up!

Another interesting aspect of the piece that is discussed is the idea of appropriability. I had not really thought about this idea before, but it is essentially the ability for the creator or discoverer of a technology to appropriate it and turn it into something that can be sold in the market. As we move into a more global and digital world, the relationship between where a discovery is made and who benefits from it economically, is increasingly blurred. 

The piece then ends with a bit that almost brought a tear to my eye:

A 2009 Harris poll (17) asked the public to name the most prestigious occupations. The answers (in order) were firefighter, scientist, doctor, nurse, teacher, and military officer. What struck me immediately when I saw this result is that every one of these, except scientist, is an immediate helper occupation. These people save us from fires, prevent attacks, teach our children, and heal us. By contrast, the value of scientists and the benefit they produce can be very long term. Yet the public perceives scientists as belonging in the same basket of high-prestige helper occupations. This tells us something. Another poll, by Pew (18), finds that the majority of Americans think that government investments in basic scientific research (73%) and engineering and technology (74%) pay off in the long run, with only small differences between Democrats and Republicans. That also tells us something.

When I ask nonscientists, “what is science good for?”, only rarely do I hear the answer that it promotes economic growth. Instead, most answers are about science creating a better world in ways not easily monetizable: enabling longer, healthier lives; protecting the planet; feeding humanity; deterring (or winning) international conflicts; bringing us resiliency to engage future challenges of an uncertain world, with climate change as one example. People also talk about the basic human need for discovery and understanding of the natural world, about the almost-mysterious power of science at engaging the natural idealism of young people, and empowering them to participate in the world in ways that they otherwise would not.

Wow! The day to day life of scientist is hard. Wrangling with data, papers, and grants. Fighting nerves to give a talk in front of peers, or for authorship…it’s a battle, no doubt about it. But knowing that people the world over put us in the same boat as fire fighters and nurses…well that just warms the cockles of my funky heart.


CV Quandary: Include Acknowledgments?

Posted: February 6, 2014 in Academia
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I’m always looking for ways to beef up my CV for eventual applications for faculty or other positions, and I’ve been thinking about acknowledgements. In my current lab here in the UK, I’ve brought an atypical skill set that is not typically present given the sort of research that is done. However, it has proven to be quite useful and I’m always happy to lend a hand to a fellow scientist. The work that I do is not typically enough to warrant authorship, but I have received several acknowledgements in various papers for helping out. So now that I’ve actually racked up a few of these, I wonder if it is worthwhile to include in in some way on a CV. A sort of “acknowledgements received” section, indicating my willingness to help my fellow pursuers of glory truth. Or does it look desperate? That I’m trying to reach too much for an edge? Hmmmm….any thoughts out there? What would you think if you saw such a section on a CV whilst on a faculty hiring committee?

Recent Nobel Laureate, Randy Schekman, wrote an op-ed piece in The Guardian back in December railing against the “glamour mag” journals of Science, Nature, and Cell for damaging science (also discussed here and here). He rightly slams the culture of using journal impact factors as a judge of paper quality, which I agree with wholeheartedly. However, I disagree with what appears to be the crux of his argument, that that these luxury journals are artificially limiting the number of papers they publish solely in pursuit of selling more subscriptions:

These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research. Like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits, they know scarcity stokes demand, so they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept. The exclusive brands are then marketed with a gimmick called “impact factor” – a score for each journal, measuring the number of times its papers are cited by subsequent research. Better papers, the theory goes, are cited more often, so better journals boast higher scores. Yet it is a deeply flawed measure, pursuing which has become an end in itself – and is as damaging to science as the bonus culture is to banking.

This is where this young postdoc parts ways with the opinions of the decorated Nobel laureate, particularly with respect to Science magazine which is produced by the non-profit American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS). I have been subscribing to the print version of Science since two years into my PhD, and I have continued to receive it here in the UK despite the $160 price tag of having an overseas subscription. Why get a subscription to Science as opposed to say, Nature or Cell? A couple of reasons:

  1. I get an additional line on my CV because I’m now an AAAS member. When I was first deciding between the two journals, this was the deal breaker for a young graduate student looking to find ways to beef up, what was at the time, a very bare bones CV.
  2. I am supporting the AAAS, an organization that I respect and is an advocate for science in the world of US gov’t policy. A subscription to Nature or Cell just lines the coffers of DutchBritish, and  German fat cats. Might as well support the boys (and girls) at home fightin’ the good fight!
  3. I supremely enjoy the content. Half of the print Science magazine is not scientific articles, but science journalism of various sorts. There are stories, policy debates, op-ed pieces etc. I typically read this portion of the magazine end-to-end. It’s generally very high quality and an order of magnitude better than Scientific American or New Scientist, magazines I was getting prior to, and during the first years, of graduate school. However, I rarely read the scientific articles unless they are interesting enough and close enough to my field that I can understand them. On occasion my sub-field gets a little bit of love in Science, and I definitely read those.
  4. Call me old school, but I much prefer a print magazine to reading things on a device. I have commuted to work via public transit for over 8 years now, and I typically just grab the latest Science mag to read to/from work. I’m willing to pay a premium for something new to take with me every week of the year (despite protestations from my spouse as they tend to pile up around the flat…).
  5. Exposure to different fields and ideas. Whilst I have no desire to read the scientific literature on archaeology or snake venoms, I quite enjoy reading well written scientific journalism on the topics. In addition, there’s always interesting articles about publishing, open access, bibliometrics etc.

Thus, there is considerable value in having a print version of Science magazine. This is not an “artificial” limitation on the number of articles that can be published in Science, as Scheckman claims. It is legitimate. There is still a significant place for print subscriptions, even in today’s increasingly digital world.

Nonetheless, it does look as if Science is already working to address, in part, the point that Scheckman makes with respect to the number of papers that are published. In the past year, Science has added a “Research Article Summary” along with the “Research Articles” and “Reports” that they publish. These summaries are a single printed page, with what is basically an extended abstract and a single figure. There is then the inclusion of a web address to access the entire article. Perhaps this is a format that the editors are exploring so they can indeed publish more papers.

Finally, Scheckman charges that Science (and Nature/Cell) tout their impact factors incessantly. I’ve never once seen a mention of Sciences’ impact factor in the magazine in the 7+ years I’ve been reading it. That’s not to say in other forums it is not touted, but it’s definitely not in your face as far as the magazine itself is concerned.

It seems to me that Scheckman, editor of the newly created eLife online journal, has his guns trained on the wrong target (along with a clear conflict of interest). The real pushers of glamour mags is funding, tenure, and hiring committees. Whilst I wouldn’t shed a tear if Nature, Cell, and their ilk went the way of the dodo bird, they are just for-profit organizations trying to make a buck the best they can within the existing culture. They don’t strike me as drivers of the culture; that lays with administrators, scientists, and policy makers.

So keep your hands off my Science mag!


Disclaimer: I never have, and probably never will, publish in Science.

Many of us have seen it, the inclusion of impact factors on a CV. I’ve even had a senior PI suggest putting an impact factor on my CV in the event that I publish in a journal that some of those in my sub-field aren’t as familiar with. I cringed when I was given this suggestion, and balk at CVs that contain impact factors. We all know how useful impact factors are (well most of us anyway), and it has been discussed ad nauseam in many places (e.g, here). So then what’s a wee postdoc like myself to do to promote how totally and completely awesome my publications are (or not…)?

Well what about adding citation statistics to a CV for each paper? Would require some constant updating, but not too much for a young chap like myself with under 20 pubs. Alternatively, a link to a Google scholar profile would do the trick as well I suppose. Such an idea is not without downfalls as it doesn’t say much about newly published work (but article views would if they were available form all journals like they are from PLoS as they accrue quite quickly and if I had to guess are correlated to a degree with later citations). This would certainly draw attention away from focusing on just where something is published as opposed to a more “objective” measure of article impact.

Of course the other caveat here is that perhaps citations aren’t the best method of judging how good someone’s work is. I don’t disagree with this point, but it’s got to be better than just using the journal name/impact factor, right? At least a step in the right direction….hhhmmmmm….

It’s nice to see an article about the plight of biomedical sciences in a major news outlet….just wish it was a little more cheery! I’m amazed there are 1300 plus comments on this!

The way I read this is: NIH, aided and abetted by naive academics, enticed thousands of bright young American’s into a hopeless career path.  Yea, let’s increase the supply of scientists but do nothing to increase the demand. Oh yea, and don’t forget to drill it into their heads that anything less than an Academic position is failure. That will keep them in bondage longer.

Oye…I realize this is a very cynical interpretation…but maybe I’m slowly starting to wake up from the academic science induced coma that graduate school put me in…not sure yet…stay tuned!

Not Loving the Bench Lately

Posted: June 21, 2012 in Academia, Post-Doc

Lately it’s been a bit of a drag at the bench. It’s a bit odd because I got some very exciting data about a month ago and am in the process of following it up. It could be a pretty sweet story too, as it makes use of a novel technique I’ve spent the last year or so working on and the data it has yielded is quite novel. So I should be excited at the prospect of starting to really hammer out a nice story, right? And I am…to an extent.

However, I find the prospect of grinding through all the nitty gritty experimental details I now need to do quite daunting. Should I use an antibody from Cell Signaling that’ll probably kick ass but cost a fortune or a cheaper one that might work just as well? Should I use this buffer or that? Is this primer’s melt curve good enough, is it efficient enough? Should I isolate cells today, or tomorrow? Why are my fucking cells dying? Blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. Fucking boring technical hoopla is what it is. I just want to get on with it! Better yet, I want to tell someone else to get on with it! If only I had another postdoc, PhD student, technician to share the burden with.

But this brings me to my bigger question: is this a good thing? In other words, is it good that I’m getting bored with working at the bench?  I would like to be a PI one day and the vast majority of PIs I’ve seen are never in the lab. So it seems that it’s a good thing not to love being at the bench since the job I aspire to consists of no bench work. I still love the science, reading articles, reviewing papers, going to conferences, presenting work etc. But the prospect of actually pipetting all day and grinding out the boring details for the next 5+ years is quite daunting. As Edison said, it is truly 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration! Don’t get me wrong, I certainly understand the need for technical competency if one is to get a lab up and running, and I have confidence in my mad skillz and the ability to pass ’em on…


So what say you internet? Is being bored with pipetting and technical BS a good sign if one wants to be a PI? Or am I just turning into a lazy ass bastard?

Whilst in graduate school I had the good fortune of having the opportunity to witness two faculty searches unfold, one of which I also got to serve as the graduate student representative on the search committee. Thus, I obtained some absolutely invaluable insight into what is necessary to be competitive to obtain a tenure-track interview (note to future applicants: do NOT print your CV in an overly large font size; it makes it look like an advertisement for the local bake sale!). So when the department I’m in here in the UK was looking to fill several positions at the lecturer/senior lecturer level (read assistant/associate professor) I was curious to see how things differed from my experience in the US…and differ it most certainly did!

The most bizarre difference was that all the applicants were invited to interview on the same exact day! There were 4-5 applicants interviewed per position (whereas in my experience in the US it was typically 3 per position) and they were all wandering around the building at the same time. When it came time for the job talks, they all sat and watched each other give talks…and then after the day was over they all went out to dinner together with some of the committee members! Crazy! What an extraordinarily awkward social situation to put people in! (I should note, when I did my postdoc interview at my current institution it was not entirely dissimilar; i.e, all four of us interviewing for the job were interviewed in rapid succession, although we didn’t see each other’s job talks…just bumped into each other while wandering around the lab…).

The other notable difference was the lack of involvement of most of the faculty members in the department in making a decision. In my US experience, all the faculty members had a chance to discuss and vote on whomever the faculty search committee recommended for the job offer at the monthly faculty meeting. Whereas here in the UK, the committee made the decision with only informal (and seemingly quite minimal) input from those outside the committee. The search committee also made their decision VERY quickly, making job offers within 1-2 days following the end of the interviews….and the decision was shrouded in secrecy so that no one outside the committee was told their decision. In addition, as best I could tell, the search committee was made up almost entirely of very senior faculty members (which is probably how they keep the inbreeding going so strong), which is a bit odd seeing as the junior faculty members are the one’s that are going to have to work with whomever they choose the longest and are the one’s that are going to shape the tenor of the department into the future. Sounds a lot like an aristocracy to me!

Some other minor differences were: 1) Prospective applicants did not have a chance to sit down with graduate students in the department. This deprived applicants of an opportunity to see the caliber of students they might expect to obtain at the institution and denied graduate students to chat with someone that isn’t too far from where they may want to be in several years. 2) The overall caliber of invited applicants was somewhat poor, particularly for those applicants that would be brought in at the lecturer (i.e, assistant professor) level. For example, out of the three applicants that would have been brought in at the lecturer level, two of them weren’t even close to being prepared to take the next step (at least based on my conversations with them and their job talk). I don’t think this is institution dependent as my postdoc school has a better ranking/reputation than my PhD school.

The only real positive difference I could see from how the search was done here in the UK versus my experience in the US is that it is much more efficient. Getting all the interviews out of the way in 1.5 days was quite impressive, although they are pretty intense full days in which it would be impossible to get much else done. Other than that, the overall faculty hiring process here (at least in this instance) strikes me as problematic, particularly the lack of offering a forum for input from all the faculty members in the department. I’d be curious to know if this is how it is commonly done throughout the UK or if it’s highly institution dependent. Either way, hopefully this post will be of use to anyone that may be embarking on searching for a faculty position in the UK and may not be familiar with what to expect…