Avoiding Conflict in the Lab

ScienceBear has a fairly provocative post up over at the cave. I was struck by the last section because it touches on scientific errors and fraud. ScienceBear observed that members of the laboratory were curiously worried about arousing the ire of the Boss over trivialities:

I recently noticed we were out of a particular item in lab and asked if anyone had ordered it, the answer is always no, even though we could have been out for days. This is the same response if something goes wrong with lab equipment....
yes, everyone had noticed but no one wanted to bother Dr Boss for the fear she would be angry. I was at a loss for words. I put in work orders on the computers, placed an order for ink cartridges and alerted Dr Boss to the problems all in the same day.
This same fear of punishment for finding something not going as planned carries over into everything we do in lab. No one wants to say we are out of something or that their experiments aren't going as they should. One student actually continued a failed experiment for two months without alerting Dr Boss to the fact they were having a problem (she was not pleased that he didn't bring this up during a weekly meeting and wasted time and valuable reagents/antibodies).


A fair while ago PhysioProf detailed the story of KAL pilots and airline crashes as depicted in Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers: The story of success (Amazon).

Up until a few years ago, Korean Air Lines was plagued by a much higher crash rate than other airlines. Analysis of cockpit voice recorder data from a number of Korean plane crashes revealed that the god-like status of captains and the relative subordination of their second officers frequently led to situations where the captain was fucking up, the second officer was clearly aware of the fuckup, but the second officer was either unwilling or unable to communicate to the captain the fact that he was fucking up.

And one wonders. Nay, not wonders. One knows. If there is a scientific trainee who fears to mention to the Boss that the printers aren't working, this trainee sure as hell isn't going to mention "Oh gee, I think that figure you are so amped about from that other postdoc is totally faked". And who knows how far this PI-pleasing attitude might carry one.
Is the desire to keep the boss PI happy greater than any affection for, say, genuine data?
__
N.b. I know this is fraught with chances to be an ass with stereotypes about certain cultures. Gladwell managed to talk about differences in respect for authority without being too much of a jerk (I think). Let's strive for that standard in the comments please?

71 responses so far

  • Yeah, this shit is a fucking disaster. I make it very, very clear to all my trainees that it is an absolutely non-negotiable requirement to be a member of my lab that we *all* call each other out on bullshit, regardless of who is talking the bullshit. Like when a post-doc shows me some cool-ass new data and I just run with it--sketching out grant applications, making slides for seminar, etc--before I actually take any action on its basis, I look her straight in the eye and say: "Look at this slide/grant aim/etc. Can I say that?? Am I full of shit??" And when we discuss these matters as a group in lab meeting, the entire analysis is oriented around the question, "Are we full of shit??"
    Several years ago, one of my trainees was supervising a rotation student. The rotation student gave a presentation of her results at a lab meeting, and we had a discussion of her data, concluded that they looked like a reasonable start, and then moved on.
    After the lab meeting, I discussed the results further with the trainee who was supervising the rotater, and suggested to her that with a little fleshing out, they would fit right in with the other data in a manuscript she was preparing. She looked at me and said, "Oh, no. Those data are a complete artifact.", and explained exactlty the basis for concluding that they were, indeed, an artifct.
    I said, "Excuse me!?!?!? An artifact!?!? How could you sit there and let us discuss those data for fifteen fucking minutes and keep this to yourself!?!?! Are you kidding me!?!?!?!?" And she said, "Well, she tried really hard and I didn't want to hurt her feelings." And I said, "Feelings!?!?!?!? Feelings!?!?!?!? This is about trying to discern the nature of objective reality, not feelings!! Don't you dare ever keep to yourself what you consider to be relevant information concerning the validity of our interpretations of our experimental results! Ever!"
    That experience frightened the shit out of me, and has made me hypervigilant ever since to this kind of potential horror show. What ScienceBear describes is a complete motherfucking *disaster* just waiting to happen.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    For once CPP and I are in complete agreement. My Sith Apprentices get regular briefings on the fact that their #1 job responsibility is to call the rest of us out when (not if) we're wrong, and that goes many-more-than-double for me.
    I really don't like blowing up on people, but I do keep a good high-octane rant handy for when $JUNIOR_ENGINEER comes out with a "oh, that must be right."

  • I have seen scenarios like this a LOT - a PI is so damn psyched to see Teh ANSWER!! that they want, they are unwilling/unable/sufficiently deluded to run with it and not ask too many questions. Having been a tech at & around only Big FancyPants Universities, I would be tempted to conclude this is something more prevalent at Harvards/Stanfords/etc than at R1 schools that are less insane than Harvard/Stanford/etc.
    This seems related to another phenomenon I've seen, where PIs do not handle raw data and it becomes the responsibility of the data-collector (grad student, postdoc, tech) to give the Cliff Note version of the experiment to the PI. Of course a PI isn't at the bench doing the experiments, so of course their people bring them data to inspect, but there's a big ditch between "Cleaned Up Data For PI's Perusal" and "Fudged Data That Supports My Awesome Idea". How much disbelief should a PI suspend when their people bring them cool results? None? Some? You shouldn't have to re-inspect every single morsel of data your people generate - after all, you're training them to be scientists who logically interpret their results - but where do you draw the line between 100,000% belief in someone else's "interpretation" and snarling paranoia?

  • Becca says:

    Look, we all know how much I love calling bullshit. So why is CPP's description of his bullshit-calling-happy lab making me wince?
    Because of the doublespeak. DM seems to hint at it, but doesn't illuminate how it's going on right under our noses.
    Which of these messages do trainees hear louder?
    A) Academic science is not a Motherfucking Carebear Teaparty. SACK IT UP! There's no crying in science! It's cutthroat competitive out there and only the strong survive! Do Not Show Weakness!
    OR
    B) Academic science is about the noble egofree pursuit of Truths of Nature. You wouldn't have gotten into grad school if you weren't smart; people who aren't yet experts in a field often have fresh perspectives and insight. You have both a duty and the capacity to offer important insights into the validity of the science being done here.

  • Science Bear says:

    Thank you for the cross post Drug Monkey!
    Great point DMT. We are actually required to give hard copies of raw data as well as an overall spreadsheet summarizing our findings to Dr Boss at the end of an experiment. This is part of the reason we recently lost and undergraduate and are about to lose another volunteer. Which makes me think shoddy data collection is much more common than I had initially thought. While I seriously doubt Dr Boss has time to go through each morsel of data, I know she looks through for trends and to ensure our calculations are correct the first few times we perform a given experiment.
    I wouldn't know where to draw the line. I agree that 100,000% belief is never good, but at the same time a PI is supposed to be training us to think for ourselves. Do you do random checks of accuracy in case people get lazy with time or think they have it down from day one??? Seeing how common loose interpretation of protocol is in other labs has me quite worried about what to expect of others when I graduate!

  • Tina says:

    Part of it is a lack of confidence. There is a grad student I am working with right now who is going to have a nervous breakdown because she tries to do everything our PI tells her to do, no matter how difficult or ridiculous. She also takes it very personally when I try to point out if she is doing something wrong, no matter how kind I am about it; but wrong is bad and she needs to learn. She doesn't have the confidence yet to question our PI, or to take the criticism, but you can't be a successful scientist without it.

  • Science Bear says:

    @ #4
    I actually have: There is no crying in research, written above my desk in lab. I also have sleep after grad school and some other quote a friend made out of those magnetic words.
    We have a quote that used to hang next to the door of the main lab that said:

    "To err is human, to forgive is not lab policy."

    The quote was left by a former professor and Dr Boss thought it was funny, but when we made the move to a new building, I believe she moved it to her office.

  • New Asst. Prof. says:

    @ #5
    "This is part of the reason we recently lost an undergraduate and are about to lose another volunteer. Which makes me think shoddy data collection is much more common than I had initially thought."
    Yes, hard copies of raw data plus the final analysis are great. But who is *training* these students and volunteers on proper data collection and documentation in the first place? If that isn't happening from timepoint zero, everything is suspect.

  • anonforthis says:

    ugh.
    I recently found myself in a situation where a fellow trainee had been doing many things incorrectly. Everybody in the lab knew about it, but nobody wanted to say anything. I was trying to steer clear of the situation for reasons I cannot expand upon here. However, I was confronted directly with a method that was just plain incorrect.
    I confronted to PI and explained the situation, then I explained all of the other things. PI acknowledged that PI knew there was an issue. It got dealt with, but I think it pointed out the need to have an open environment.

  • Ashamed says:

    I'm already in a bad place in my postdoc. Do I dare to make waves?
    I'm already "teh one" who orders general lab supplies after they've run out. My boss thinks I'm the most inefficient eager-to-spend person evar. He doesn't know no one else will ask for supplies. I ask because WE NEED THEM.
    Also, I don't dare point out that the entire 1.5 hrs we spent in lab meeting discussing the most asinine project ever was a colossal waste of time and money. Because The Boss is in love with said project. Ugh.

  • Becca says:

    Given that I am currently bawling my eyes out over a broken hemacytometer cover slip, I never found the "there is no crying in science" attitude coming from PIs to be very helpful.
    Granted, any sane scientist would consider this drug-induced psychosis, and not strictly a character flaw. But the endogenous nature of endocrine communicators makes it difficult to see them as a drug.
    One of the worst parts about being a scientist is that you know how irrational you are. But you aren't necessarily any more rational because of that.
    (ok, I'm not even sure if this is meta-on-topic anymore; I'll scamper off)

  • During my postdoc, Clueless Mentor was so excited by the data given to him by one of the other postdocs that he refused to accept that the postdoc didn't know her ass from her elbow and that (1) her data was not reproducible, (2) she had "massaged" her data so much that she ended up with a sample size of 2 and (3) her stats were done incorrectly. He was pissed off with me because he had to wait a little longer for my data sets because I wouldn't give him half-assed work. He just didn't want to hear it when I told him point-blank that I had seen the way the postdoc's data had been produced, that it was extremely dodgy and that her statistics were suddenly showing a significant difference between groups which hadn't been there when I had shown her how to do it a couple of days earlier.
    Fast forward a couple of years and the postdoc is still kissing Clueless Mentor's ass, he still thinks she's brilliant and they are still shopping the shitty data to any/every journal and funding agency they can. I don't want anything to do with either of them as I don't want my name associated with dodgy data.

  • GirlPostdoc says:

    This ridiculous and thoughtless description of science
    "A) Academic science is not a Motherfucking Carebear Teaparty. SACK IT UP! There's no crying in science! It's cutthroat competitive out there and only the strong survive! Do Not Show Weakness!"
    is exactly what fosters an environment where people believe that ANYTHING goes. If the winner-takes-all belief is held up as the ideal, then it should come as NO SURPRISE that people will go to great lengths to sabotage each others work or fake their data.
    I absolutely DO NOT condone making up data.
    But if you continually ask people to "sack it up", and tell them "only the strong survive" then you are complicit in creating that intensely competitive environment. And it is this increased competition that creates a tremendous pressure to publish and obtain grants at all costs. And yes, PhysioProf, there will be a few people who will create scientific lies (re: cloned dog) especially if they can get away with it.
    As far as I'm fucking concerned, it's time for a CareBear Revolution.
    http://girlpostdoc.blogspot.com/

  • A) Academic science is not a Motherfucking Carebear Teaparty. SACK IT UP! There's no crying in science! It's cutthroat competitive out there and only the strong survive! Do Not Show Weakness!
    OR
    B) Academic science is about the noble egofree pursuit of Truths of Nature. You wouldn't have gotten into grad school if you weren't smart; people who aren't yet experts in a field often have fresh perspectives and insight. You have both a duty and the capacity to offer important insights into the validity of the science being done here.

    Wait a minute. For real? I'm supposed to read CPP's Not a Motherfucking Care Bears Tea Party diatribe as an injunction not to "show weakness"? I thought all he was saying was that if you want to be a PI, then you'd better be ready to send out 70 job applications, because that's just how it is. Or is balking at that sort of effort what you mean by "showing weakness"?
    I honestly don't get how any ambitious PI could get away with dissuading honest feedback from anyone for long. For starters, there's the reason PiT discusses. In graduate school in English, some students find themselves having to suck dick because so-and-so advisor is a narcissistic giant in X genre of literary criticism and no one can "disprove" the greatness of his or her work. But, in science, it either works or it doesn't. The data's really good, or not so much. Eventually, someone will notice, so you may as well have it out now. Right? What am I missing here?

  • juniorprof says:

    The data's really good, or not so much. Eventually, someone will notice, so you may as well have it out now. Right? What am I missing here?
    I think you've got it.

  • Coriolis says:

    I don't neccesarily see the conflict between the not a motherfucking carebear tea party view and we're the searchers for the ultimate truth view of science.
    If you're searching for the ultimate truth, then you better be ready and willing to both offer and take criticism, in the full spirit of non-motherfucking carebearism. The problem recounted at least in these cases is more of not being confrontational enough, rather then deliberatly fudging the data. And the solution is being able to speak up and having a boss who isn't a moron.
    Now of course if you take things to the extreme of anything goes, that's a big problem, and I'm not claiming that this never happens (it certaily does hehe). But at least in these cases that ScienceBear was talking about it doesn't seem like that's the problem.
    And Juniper, at least in my experience doing theoretical calculations on various molecular systems, it's often times very easy to get a "good" answer, just by plain luck or not being very careful (deliberatly or not). Sometimes the numbers just line up with what the experiments tell you, and you can make your life alot easier just by screaming Eureka at that point and not checking things too hard. And I assume the same applies in most other science where taking just a fortuitious piece of the data can support your conclusions even if all the data, taken together, doesn't.
    But of course if you're going to be serious about it, you need to make damn sure that you're really seeing what you think you're seeing and not just playing around until something clicks one time and then running off to publish it.
    Whether you'll be taken to task for being careful or not, well it depends. Alot of publications get forgotten and no one will seriously bother to take people to task, if it's not very important.

  • I don't neccesarily see the conflict between the not a motherfucking carebear tea party view and we're the searchers for the ultimate truth view of science.

    That's because you're not a whiny asshole.

  • Anonymous says:

    The data's really good, or not so much. Eventually, someone will notice, so you may as well have it out now. Right? What am I missing here?
    Not to be Captain Obvious or anything, but what you're missing is that by the time the not-so-much data is discerned as such (if it ever is), you may have already cashed in and moved on. Maybe you got your Ph.D, or a post-doc with BigCheeze, or a faculty position, or tenure. So long as not-so-much doesn't actually get you busted for fraud, it's all good, right?

  • Nat says:

    The data's really good, or not so much. Eventually, someone will notice, so you may as well have it out now. Right? What am I missing here?
    I think you've got it.

    Over the long term yes, this works. But at shorter timescales, it's a mess. So people only notice after the high profile papers are published, and the grants awarded, creating an incentive to work this way.
    Furthermore, the only people who really notice the crap early are those who are working directly in that subfield. So, the crap, if published in high impact journals, can impress more peripherally involved people. For example, how many times have you had a good opinion of someone's work, then talked to someone also working in the same sub-subfield, and learned all the dirty little ugly secrets that lower your opinion?
    And besides, "cleaning up" the literature from landmines like these is time consuming, and is not likely to win the janitor much in terms of friends or publications. So who is actually gonna do it?
    I think it's important to be proactive about preventing these landmines from being laid down in the literature in the first place.

  • Patchi says:

    Allegra Goodman has a novel, called "Intuition", that deals with this stuff. Confrontation is not always well received... like whistle-blowers.
    I always volunteer for the ordering and end up cleaning the lab most days because I just can't take the mess. I don't think I could keep quiet about major flaws, but I have a hard time getting the point across on minor flaws with some PIs. When people are stuck on a model or hypothesis it is really hard to get them to understand that the data doesn't fit. And those special projects are the worse ones to argue about.
    What I don't understand is what happened to the scientific method? We start with a hypothesis, do experiments to test it and the data either supports it or doesn't. The hypothesis is valid if it doesn't crumble under pressure, but there is no truth. Sometimes I think science is turning into religion with all this search for truth...

  • Becca says:

    "That's because you're not a whiny asshole."
    Well then, CPP, seeing as how you are a whiny asshole, you must see that yelling at people to not be motherfucking carebears doesn't actually acomplish any better truth seeking.
    So I assume you see the error of your ways and concede the point that your being a jerktastic asshole hurts science as well as the people around you? Because that would be seriously refreshing.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Becca,
    There are only two ways to do science, to be a PI and to talk to post-docs. These are CPP-way and the wrong way!

  • yelling at people to not be motherfucking carebears

    Everybody knows that you put words in people's mouths to better fuel your whining, but I still think it is worth pointing out that I have never told anyone to "not be motherfucking carebears".

  • bsci says:

    I make it very, very clear to all my trainees that it is an absolutely non-negotiable requirement to be a member of my lab that we *all* call each other out on bullshit, regardless of who is talking the bullshit...
    I said, "Excuse me!?!?!? An artifact!?!? How could you sit there and let us discuss those data for fifteen fucking minutes and keep this to yourself!?!?! Are you kidding me!?!?!?!?" And she said, "Well, she tried really hard and I didn't want to hurt her feelings."

    While I agree with the general sentiment of CCP's first comment here, I think PIs need to be very aware of mental health issues. Tearing everything down makes good science and is part of training, but, if someone has tendencies for depression, it can cause serious problems. This is on my mind because I just read the following article:
    http://chronicle.com/temp/email2.php?id=xcWnVWhCXqr9BrSrVSWrhqPQvzrvxfdv
    "I'm a very introverted person," says the former student, now a professor at a small Midwestern college. "I'm very self-critical. This is something grad school encourages."
    The content of his history program, he says, was more focused on destructive rather than constructive behavior. He says students were encouraged to rip apart arguments found in reading assignments. Classroom sessions often turned into contests to determine who could be the most damning of one another's points. ...
    And even if things are going well, depression can skew one's perceptions. During his first year, the former student says, he constantly felt inadequate despite doing well academically. And because those who are depressed sometimes cut themselves off from people who want to help them, their condition can worsen. Luckily, he talked to his adviser, who also had a history of depression. She reminded him how well he was doing — a good reality check.

    If students aren't speaking up or aren't taking criticism well, it's vital to make sure other issues aren't happening. Having tendencies towards depression doesn't mean one can't do good science, but it might mean a student needs more positive encouragement or a bit more understanding if they don't decide to speak up during a lab meeting.

  • If students aren't speaking up or aren't taking criticism well, it's vital to make sure other issues aren't happening. Having tendencies towards depression doesn't mean one can't do good science, but it might mean a student needs more positive encouragement or a bit more understanding if they don't decide to speak up during a lab meeting.

    Absolutely. The people in my lab receive a shitton of positive encouragement and reinforcement.

  • neurolover says:

    I had Becca's reaction, too, especially in the context in which DM framed this question: cultural differences that produce over-compliance. You have a student who did not take another student on because she was worried about hurting her feelings. Are you going to change the two students so that one doesn't mind hurting feelings, and or the other doesn't get her feelings hurt? Almost certainly not -- these are pretty ingrained personality traits. Are you saying that a person who cares about hurting someone's feelings can't be a scientist? Or is there some way to convey the same information n a way that doesn't hurt feelings?
    The psych-people-human-resources-management-people-people worry about communication, and how best to allow people to communicate, especially those out of power. I'm pretty sure that "And I said, "Feelings!?!?!?!? Feelings!?!?!?!? This is about trying to discern the nature of objective reality, not feelings!! Don't you dare ever keep to yourself what you consider to be relevant information concerning the validity of our interpretations of our experimental results! Ever!"" (especially with the eleven !!!!!!!!!!!) is considered effective. In science and a lab environment what it probably is effective in is selecting out all the people who don't have the same personality as you do. That doesn't have to be correlated with people who don't have the same scientific views/ability as you, but it certainly limits the scientific talent pool.

  • neurolover says:

    "is considered effective."
    "is considered ineffective", of course.
    Probably anything with 11 exclamation points would fail, too.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    One must wonder about bullshitting and bullshitters when one reads a comment from a commenter to this post that states:
    " I make it very, very clear to all my trainees that it is an absolutely non-negotiable requirement to be a member of my lab that we *all* call each other out on bullshit, regardless of who is talking the bullshit"
    when in a previous comment on a post ("Running out of grant funding") said commenter stated:
    "I had a post-doc sitting in my office today who is leaving soon, and we were discussing some of her work, and as we were talking about it--and she was demonstrating how grotesque the superficiality of her thinking was--I had the urge to stand up and shout, "You've been in my lab for five motherfucking years and you still can't carry on a satisfying discussion about your science?!?!?!?!?!? What the fucking fuck is wrong with you!?!?!?!?"
    She is technically outstanding, but she hasn't the faintest clue what her works means, why it is important, and how to move a project forward, let alone how to devise novel ideas and projects. I consider her a complete and utter failure as a trainee in my lab, and I have no desire whatsoever to populate my lab with "technical staff" like her."

    For five years this poor post-doc wasn't told that she is a failure as a trainee. Can you believe it? For five years!
    Seems to me that said commenter is the bullshitter who is bullshitting his own lab people and the readers of this blog.

  • Mu says:

    As a post-doc, I was told to "familiarize" myself with the subject, run a few synthesis, a few analysis, just get to know it. I did, presented the results to the group, and got "icy silence". Without knowing, I'd stumbled on a problem with "star grad student"'s work, just about to be published. I was actually asked who told me to run the experiment.
    A year later, after I'd left, they published the work anyway, slapped my name on the publication (so I wouldn't complain I guess) and moved on.

  • Science Bear says:

    @ #12
    You have no idea how badly what you said scares me. Do they realize publishing that could lead to other people wasting time and money chasing something that isn't there????

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Mu, it is never to late to write to the editor of the journal asking to either retract the paper or withdraw your name from it. As long as the paper with your name on it is on record and unretracted, you bear as much responsibility for scientific misconduct as the other authors who try to silence you.

  • Jake says:

    @#30
    I agree with you but this crap happens ALL THE TIME in science. I saw it happen during grad school, and I saw it happen during my postdoc - two completely different fields and different research groups, but same behavior (though to different degrees, and different journals/funding agencies involved).
    Science is so competitive that it drives many people - PIs, postdocs, students - to grasp at straws that aren't there because they are desperate for there to be something so they try to make it so.
    In some cases (like the ones I witnessed) the perpetrators never really suffer the consequences of their academic dishonesty. Maybe the project wasn't high profile to begin with so project just 'dies' a natural death quietly and drops off everyone's radar after it has run its course. The student or postdoc leaves academia anyway and so they are no longer in the game where such academic dishonesty - if called out - would ever impact them anymore. If they are called out years later they can always give the cop out that it has been so many years since the research was done they really can't remember the details....etc. etc. And maybe good journals aren't convinced so the data doesn't get published in any place significant enough to send tons of other researchers down the wrong track.
    Other times it can really come back to bite you in the ass. The worldwide public scandal of Jan Hendrick Schon comes to mind.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    The people in my lab receive a shitton of positive encouragement and reinforcement.

    Which people prone to depression will never notice. It's not just a knob you can twist; dealing with them actually requires, like, paying attention instead of running off with your own schtick.

  • @ Science Bear #30: I agree completely and Jake @ #32 is right - this isn't an isolated incident - but it's the most serious one I've personally witnessed. As I said though, I tried to make the PI aware of what was going on and he refused to listen because (1) he was pissed off with me and (2) he thinks the postdoc is awesome because she says "yes" to everything he says. The postdoc had an MD/PhD rotation student who worked with her over the summer when she/they collected the data and he has gone on to win both an institutional and a NATIONAL award for an oral presentation he did on his part of the work; he's also a co-author on the paper so this isn't just confined to the PI and postdoc. It's wrong on so many different levels I don't even know where to start which is why I want absolutely nothing to do with either of them or their tainted work.

  • sonia says:

    i did a 2 year fellowship w/ NCI (a part of NIH) and experienced the exact same culture of fear and avoidance and strange passive aggressive anger
    a pity

  • Carebear Advocate says:

    It seems to me that lab environment (A) "not a motherfucking carebear teaparty" is most prevelent in highly competitive fields, where researchers are racing to publish first. But the need for speed creates the incentive to cut corners. The common response to this is for the group to become extremely critical to try to flush out mistakes, but this just results in a stressful environment becoming a stressful and very isolating environment, where it is a personal defect to make a mistake and have someone else catch it for you. Now you have a recipe for fraud.
    But I dont think this is how research and training is ideally supposed to be done. I currently reside in a lab that subscribes to model B, a "carebear lab", where my mistakes are to be learned from but not held as a damning assessment of my potential, and where I dont worry about hiding my results from anybody. This is all probably because I have no fear of my research being scooped, though my PI is consistently pecking at my heels about new data. I dont think I would be happy in a type "A" lab, I dont think I would learn as much there because I would be afraid to ask "dumb" questions, and to take my time to really learn how to do something right.
    The need for speed may be a necessary evil in many fields, but I dont believe it is an inherent part of the art of research. If a way to relax the competition in some fields were found and affordable, the quality of work would probably improve.

  • Tielserrath says:

    If you are the boss, you have to work hard to make sure that no one is scared to approach you. One of the arts of staff managment is to handle people who have ballsed up badly in such a way as to get across the point, but leave them confident that they can approach you with problems in the future.
    A good boss also doesn't leave people working unsupported for long periods of time. A good boss is INTERESTED in what their staff is doing, excited by their successes (however tiny), sympathetic when something hoped for doesn't work out.
    As a boss you develop antennae for when someone is sliding into a hole, but that development takes a lot of hard work. I've always believed that I should cope with my own work plus a minimum of 30% of what each of my junior staff do. That way I know who will come to me with a problem, and who needs to be (metaphorically) pinned to the wall until they 'fess up. And who needs me to come in quietly behind them and check exactly what they've been up to.
    If you can't manage staff then don't take those kinds of jobs.

  • leigh says:

    a big factor here is the grad student-mentor relationship. it takes a while for that kind of thing to grow, it's not an instant working relationship. my boss is great, but getting through that interpersonal thing took us some time. after 5 years, i'm totally cool criticizing the boss's ideas. (fortunately for us, the boss has some damn good ideas.)
    now think back to your first couple of years as a grad student. (yes, i'm generalizing here.) they sucked! your experiments probably didn't work quite the way they should yet, you were running through lots of ideas to try to establish a project, you watched the senior grad student show new data almost every week in lab meeting while you stewed in your own lack of self-confidence. how in the hell does that lead one to call out total bullshit on something?
    the "science is not a motherfucking care bears tea party" mantra is absolutely valid. but it means you gotta speak confidently and carry a big stick. younger grads don't really have that equipment yet. i was told at my qualifying exam to learn how to swim with the sharks, and to do it quickly.
    it took me a few years to reach the point where i stand now, but at this point i'm nearly ready to move on to the next thing.

  • Leni says:

    I work in a cGMP compliant lab, and while I see a lot of the same "afraid to tell the boss" kind of behavior, we also have near total transparency and a great deal of QC and QA review.
    Thus, while it's not impossible to fake data, it certainly wouldn't be easy.
    Periodically we get people who have transferred out of academia. They generally do very good work and eventually adapt, but they seem to have the most difficult time adjusting to level of oversight and tight controls. They often have problems complying with even trivial things like documenting sample storage. Why should I have to tell a PhD to write down that he put the damn sample back into the deep freezer after he used it? I hate to say it, but I think it's because he's Dr. Asshole who thinks no one should question him. Even though it has nothing to do with him and everything to do with simple transparency and reproducibility.
    I don't have experience in academia, so I probably have a completely biased opinion. But some of the people I see come out of it have incredibly bad documentation skills and a not much appreciation for personal accountability regarding their data and the state of it. I have had the thought on more than occasion that you all must have labs that border on total chaos.
    Part of me wonders how much of this could be avoided if there was simply more and better oversight on the part of PIs. If everyone must adhere to the same standards, then there is nothing personal about telling someone their data is unusable.

  • Well then, CPP, seeing as how you are a whiny asshole, you must see that yelling at people to not be motherfucking carebears doesn't actually acomplish any better truth seeking.

    Blah, blah, blah, blah. I realize that PP has already commented that he never told anyone to not be a motherfucking carebear. On that note, I am going to say, don't be a motherfucking carebear.
    I see this all the time in students -- the inability to separate their self worth from their data or experimental success. If an experiment yields unexpected results or does not support a hypothesis, they feel as though they have personally failed. Data is data and everyone has a responsibility to ensure its quality and the quality of its interpretation. PIs have a responsibility to plan their research knowing that a student may fail technically or make an error, knowing that not every experiment will be successful. If you're going to cry over every broken coverslip, you're going to have a tough career.

  • How bizarre. I'm coming from a group where communication is open, group meetings are for discussion and critique of one another's work, and people tell it how it is. More and more I'm finding that it is *not* necessarily the typical experience in the sciences. Grad school was stressful enough, and all of my energy and time went into my research. How unproductive I would have been if I had been hiding things from The Boss, potentially sidetracking not only my own project but that of collaborators.

  • paul says:

    Since different PIs have different management and working styles, students can get confused about their roles and responsibilities - especially when it comes to saying or doing things that they know may make the PI upset yet seems to be necessary for them to carry out what they think their duties are.
    the first lab I worked in the PI was laid back and let us (the students) have a lot of free reign and he also insisted we present our work often to public audiences which included 'important' visitors like grant monitors or industry sponsors. So I very early on got used to talking with "big cheese' people and feeling confident around them. The second lab I worked in, however, the PI did not want ANYONE but himself to talk to grant monitors or industry sponsors and got extremely upset when he saw me talking with the grant monitor when he came to visit our lab. The PI totally freaked out at me. He thought I was jeapardizing the entire lab's program because I might say the wrong thing (about my own research) or whatnot. Or it was purely an egotistical "Me - big boss. You - lowly pion who should not be seen or heard" mentlity. I remember being very stressed because the PI was so angry that I had spoken with the grant monitor he said he was going to kick me out of his group. But how was I suppose to know that this was a Sacred Rule of his, since my previous PI was the complete opposite and always had the students and postdocs talk to visiting grant monitors.

  • steve says:

    This is a fascinating series of posts. I think it reveals as much about the machismo of science as it does about the difficulties of maintaining high standards.
    It's often true that professional pressures lead us to focus on the better side of our data, and researchers with different incentives may interpret that rosy optimism as dishonesty. It should go without saying that objectivity is an important ideal; but it is worth pointing out that we rarely know for certain the origin of a particular result. That uncertainty means that the people who speak out are often the most strident, most quick to form opinions. That has a certain bravado, but there is no reason to think that this approach is the only one that leads to good science. For many very talented students, open discussion in more safe, less public setting will provide a deeper understanding of what is going on in the lab.
    Encouraging open discussion is important, but the tough-love approach isn't going to make intimidated trainees any more likely to come to you with problems. It does, however, make it easier for the PI avoid responsibility for the error. If we are going to avoid bullshit, let's recognize that the sink-or-swim attitude embedded in the no-forgiveness, no-feelings, no carebear tea parties talk is a delusion that allows a PI to avoid the more difficult task of managing diverse people. This delusion encourages mediocrity -- it elevates those who recognize flaws but haven't moved on to the more advanced task of making a balanced appraisal of data, ideas or co-workers.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    let's recognize that the sink-or-swim attitude embedded in the no-forgiveness, no-feelings, no carebear tea parties talk is a delusion that allows a PI to avoid the more difficult task of managing diverse people. This delusion encourages mediocrity
    I think you folks are seriously misunderstanding the "carebears tea party" thing..."no forgiveness, no feeling" ?? really? is that what you think this is about?

  • Terry says:

    Keeping the PI happy has become more important if you 1) want to graduate, 2) get another job, 3) get a decent reference.
    Certainly not machismo, it non-gender specific tail tucking and brown nosing, which it seems is what many PIs prefer. And as long as some underling is responsible and they never "knew" - plausible deniability, and if no one ever finds out there was bad voodoo in a project, then it gets published, and the PI looks golden.
    And we in the US wonder why we are falling behind., particularly in academic sciences. True talent leaves academia early, as it is far more about being a brilliant brown-noser and PC bureaucrat than being a brilliant scientist. Funny how a system that is based upon and adversarial model to get at truth has become all about everyone getting along. And hum - not so much truth getting got to...

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I think you folks are seriously misunderstanding the "carebears tea party" thing..."no forgiveness, no feeling" ?? really? is that what you think this is about?

    Who knows? CPP's SNR is so low that deciphering it would be worthy of a Randi prize.

  • Nat says:

    Yeah, I can't remember if the CBMFTP comment was a value judgment-free description of science as it's practiced, or whether there was an implicit endorsement of the system therein.
    Frankly, I read it as a "idealists should suck it up" type comment. Perhaps that's not how it's meant, but that's how I take it.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Frankly, I read it as a "idealists should suck it up" type comment. Perhaps that's not how it's meant, but that's how I take it.

    Except that "idealists should get practical" is one of the sentiments that CPP unloads on elsewhere. My working hypothesis is that reading a CPP post is like consulting the Magic Eight Ball.

  • Nat says:

    Actually, going back to the original CBMFTP post, I remember now that it really was a "suck it up" sentiment I took away from it.

  • neurolover says:

    "If you are the boss, you have to work hard to make sure that no one is scared to approach you. "
    This is the big deal for me. And how scared they are depends on them as well as you -- the culture personality thing. Making sure, for the sake of science, that people can approach you depends on how you behave as well as how they behave. If people don't come to tell you something because they think that it will mean yelling, at them, or at someone else, just telling them to deal with the yelling will *not* work. People will still be afraid to approach you, and mistakes and fraud will still occur under your radar. We "carebear" advocates may be advocating for the environment we personally prefer, but we're also advocating for the only one we think will produce transparent science.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I have been dismissed in the past for being part of the old generation of scientists who are longing for the old ways of doing science, before the "mighty" dollar has changed our priorities and standards. Yet, it is absolutely clear to everyone who reads the posts on this and many other Sciblogs, including the responses of commenters, that science today is all about 'how to assure a scientific career any which way you can.' Of course, we read from both posters and commenters about the ideals of science and scientists, however, the silver lining throughout is the survivability of the fittest (richest) PI. Grad students, post docs, teaching and mentoring, these are all simply tools the PI uses to prop up his/her career. Surely, an ego is an inseparable part of a successful scientific career, but a successful science is the ultimate goal. Today, that goal is secondary to the goal of survival as a scientist in a profession that measures success through quantitative standards that have nothing to do with good science. It would be wrong to blame the PI alone for the way s/he operates in the existig system, a system that has flurished over the past 3 decades to become all about $cience rather than science. At the end, science today is a reflection of our society and its culture of greed and ego, traits that trump any other value, including honesty and fairness.
    One can only hope that the lessons of the failure of our economy, due mainly to the above-mentioned traits, will be learned quickly enough to turn science back to what it once used to be - an endeavor that enhances our knowledge and understanding of the world around us.

  • Coriolis says:

    Eh, I doubt such problems will be removed, simply by removing the personalized money from science - although I'm personally for that, because spending time writing grants as opposed to doing research sounds about as much fun as watching paint dry.
    I'm reminded of the story Feynman recalls on his first meeting with Bohr (I believe this was when Feynman was a lowly grad student, in any case long before he was famous). After Bohr's talk, he had his son bring Feynman in so they could talk about the physics. And they had a vigous discussion including calling each other crazy, and so on. At the end Feynman left with Bohr's son and asked him why his father asked to meet with him. He said his dad told him 'Bring this guy to talk with me, he's the only one here who's not scared of arguing with me'.
    Grad students being scared to talk with their bosses isn't going to dissapear but I don't see what the alternative to open frank discussions really is. And it requires both to the advisor to not be a ass, and us grad students to not be too scared.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Uncle Sol says: Yet, it is absolutely clear to everyone who reads the posts on this and many other Sciblogs, including the responses of commenters, that science today is all about 'how to assure a scientific career any which way you can.'
    If by 'any which way you can' you include the caveat "while still retaining your ethics", sure. You seem to miss this point because you seem to think that any step one takes to secure funding (other than, what, exhibiting your CV or something?) and to obtain tenure is ethically dubious.
    You are wrong on this. The two are only related insofar as ethically dubious behavior can, in some cases, have career benefits. This is not equal to saying that anything one does that benefits career is therefore ethically dubious.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM,
    When the university's most important criterion for hiring a new Assoc. Prof or Prof. is how many dollars s/he has, regardless of the science s/he produces, it is clear that the science is secondary to the money. I am willing to bet with anyone that an Assist. Prof. having two NIH grants, each worth $1,000,000 and 5 publications in IF=3 journals will be the winning candidate of an opening for an Assoc. Prof position at any university over an Assoc. Prof. having one NSF grant worth $250,000 and 50 publications in IF>7 journals, let alone over an Assoc. Prof. who ran out of grant money, but with 100 publications, all in C/N/S or comparable journals.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    S. Rivlin@#54- Whether your supposition is correct or not, this says absolutely nothing about the respective scientific ethics of your three candidates. You constantly insinuate or state outright that paying attention to the importance of grant funding in the current climate is equivalent to being a fraudulent unethical scientist.
    Or did you mean something more benign, yet still somehow objectionable, by "any which way you can"?

  • Dave says:

    You constantly insinuate or state outright that paying attention to the importance of grant funding in the current climate is equivalent to being a fraudulent unethical scientist.

    I don't read Sol that strongly or cynically, DM. I think his opinion -- one that's come through on many posts over many threads -- is that a scientist should be evaluated on his science rather than his fundraising. Ideally, great science and great funding are perfectly coupled. That's why it's easy for people a bit outside the field but with a vested interest (e.g. deans) to judge scientists based on funding success. But of course we all know that funding & publishing success are not perfectly proportional to the greatness of the science. The premise of your blog, after all, is that great science is not enough.
    Which is a shame. But hey -- welcome to the real world, right?

  • bsci says:

    I think Rivlin is wrong in this case. Universities really care that a scientist is self supporting. If someone has a million dollar expense account with little to show, that person is less likely to be self-sustaining than someone who can put out 50 publications in top journals on a quarter of the budget.
    Beyond being self sustaining, universities do care about total income, but someone with a record of glamour mag articles and the ability to wine and dine donors is much more valuable than the fraction of income the University gets from grant money.

  • bsci says:

    Dave, I think the issue is that funding IS a measure of scientific quality. It's not a perfect measure, but it's a way for people to assess whether the quality of your science is better than other people's. It would be nice if all good experiments were funded, but that's not the case now and it never has been.
    The biggest difference now is that more people have the education and training to be able to do good research making competition for limited dollars harsher. While I'd prefer more money, I still prefer this to a time when a much smaller group of people has the training and access to do good science.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I think the issue is that funding IS a measure of scientific quality.

    Only in narrow regions. Funding is also topic-specific: it's a whomping lot more expensive to do particle physics than it is to do abstract mathematics. If you compare particle physicists and mathematicians on funding [1], you will never have tenured mathematicians.
    [1] I know of one university where the engineering college has explicitly made tenure a race for the dollars, essentially putting a price tag on tenure. Several (excellent) faculty then left, since they couldn't compete with the ones who needed whole new buildings for their work.

  • Beth says:

    @ Isis the Scientist (#40)
    It's all well and good to tell students not to take their failures personally, but when as a young student you've proposed the project and designed the experiments and they don't work, precisely where else do you expect the blame to fall? Learning to deal with that is something that takes a different amount of time for different people, and sometimes people just need "fucking Care Bears" for a little while. Hopefully they'll learn to pick themselves up, but you don't want to push a promising scientist out the door because they don't like being yelled at. Maybe that's the next Lynn Margulis or Bruce Alberts you've pushed away.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM,
    You insist on taking my points out of context, insinuating that I meant that rich scientists somehow are unethical ones. I believe Dave understood where I'm driving at. Nevertheless, money, unfortunately, is corrupting and greed is a human fault that is usualy stronger than other, more positive traits. The greed on Wall Street brought down many of its institutions. I anticpate that with the economic crunch a number of academic institutions will be shaken by financial scandals over the next two to three years, and I won't be surprised to witness some recognizable names of science popping out as those scandals hit the public domain. In my career, most of it at one institution, I was privvy to information on how money and power had corrupted both scientists and administrators, costing the university millions of dollars in legal fees and compensatory expenses, mainly aiming at silencing any public exposure of wrong doing. I have no reason to believe that other academic institutions do not experience similar incidents at a similar frequency. One can expect this frequency to increase as the economy continues to tank.

  • DrL says:

    I agree with steve @43 comment about the "machismo" of the academic culture.
    let's recognize that the sink-or-swim attitude embedded in the no-forgiveness, no-feelings, no carebear tea parties talk is a delusion that allows a PI to avoid the more difficult task of managing diverse people. This delusion encourages mediocrity
    to which DM replies @44
    I think you folks are seriously misunderstanding the "carebears tea party" thing..."no forgiveness, no feeling" ?? really? is that what you think this is about?
    DM: I do not know why you get defensive on this. From this discussion and other posts I get exactly the same idea as steve@43. But I lack the words to describe it as eloquently as he does. I also get the impression of "no-forgiveness, no-feelings", and lack of people management skills of the person who endorses such attitude. I am sick of hearing about PIs who treat their trainees as "data production machines" and deny any responsibility of treating them as humans, deny responsibility of open and transparent communication, deny responsibility for problem solving and for supporting for people who need support.
    Maybe to you the "carebears tea party" is an allegory of something else than we were discussing here? If yes, then what exactly do you mean by that? I get that this might be different to how CPP understands it, but still I wonder what it means to you, if you think that what steve@43 describes is not true.

  • also get the impression of "no-forgiveness, no-feelings", and lack of people management skills of the person who endorses such attitude. I am sick of hearing about PIs who treat their trainees as "data production machines" and deny any responsibility of treating them as humans, deny responsibility of open and transparent communication, deny responsibility for problem solving and for supporting for people who need support.

    None of this has the slightest relationship to what I originally meant when I coined the infectious "academic science is not a motherfucking care bears tea-party" meme. Perhaps you all need to refresh your memories concerning what I was talking about:
    http://scientopia.org/blogs/drugmonkey/2008/06/academic-science-not-a-care-bears-fucking-tea-party

  • DrL says:

    CPP: Thanks for the link. I will now create those memories from last June, as I was not even aware of science blogs existence back then. So forgive me my ignorance about the history of the concept, I only know how I perceived it in the context of the above discussion.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    So forgive me my ignorance about the history of the concept, I only know how I perceived it in the context of the above discussion.

    That's the only meaning that matters. Anything else is like arguing that your dictionary doesn't define "gay" the way it's being used around you.

  • Cashmoney says:

    Are you really this obtuse DC? All the references were to PP's usage of the term and interpretations of what he was trying to convey in that post. So of course the original usage is an important starting place.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Are you really this obtuse DC? All the references were to PP's usage of the term and interpretations of what he was trying to convey in that post.

    CPP is a big boy -- if he wants to communicate clearly, I'm sure he's capable of it. (See Dr. Stemwedel's recent post on the subject.) If he wants to refer people to a specific definition of a term, he's quite capable of including links to that definition, just as many technical publishers require that acronyms be defined the first time they are used in an article.
    If he chooses not to do so, it's anyone's guess what he's thinking about. Maybe "Motherfucking Jameson." Most of the time, the SNR is too low to be worth the trouble of digging up a suitable interpreter of goat entrails.

  • Cashmoney says:

    Dude, you are seriously wacked. The Care Bears reference pops up all over the blogs, I'll grant you. But it is almost inevitably tagged to PP. It takes no genius to think there was perhaps an original reference to which all subsequent ones refer.
    Lord knows bloggy-insider shit can be annoying sometimes but you should at the least be able to recognize it when you read it....

  • Moneyclip says:

    Most of the time, the SNR is too low to be worth the trouble of digging up a suitable interpreter of goat entrails.

    This is at least the second time you have remarked that Comrade PhysioProf's "SNR" is too low to be worth your trouble. If you genuinely believe this to be the case, then why do you obsessively respond to his posts and comments? Sounds to this observer like you are totally full of shit, and you just don't like what he has to say.

  • JP and Coriolis-- thanks for your responses.
    So long as not-so-much doesn't actually get you busted for fraud, it's all good, right?
    Sure. But you would know. You would know that your work is bullshit. Is there really such a dearth of starry-eyed academic scientists who want to die knowing that they contributed something real? (It's not like they're paying you erstwhile Wall Street salaries. . .) Because that would make me sick, "cashing in" on data I knew to be fucking bullshit. It would make me feel fake and stupid, forever. And I can't stand feeling fake and stupid.
    You are free to make fun of me, of course. I'm just an English major. And I'm a lot more humble than I used to be.
    This is at least the second time you have remarked that Comrade PhysioProf's "SNR" is too low to be worth your trouble. If you genuinely believe this to be the case, then why do you obsessively respond to his posts and comments?
    P-L-A-Y-A H-A-T-I-N' . . .
    (I'm sorry, DM. I really am. I just couldn't repress it anymore.)

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