Archive for the 'Ponder' category

"But you are doing fine, what are you complaining about?"

I've been seeing a few Twitter discussions that deal with a person wondering if their struggles in the academy are because of themselves (i.e., their personal merit/demerit axis) or because of their category (read: discrimination). This touches on the areas of established discrimination that we talk about around these parts, including recently the NIH grant fate of ESI applicants, women applicants and POC applicants.

In any of these cases, or the less grant-specific situations of adverse outcome in academia, it is impossible to determine on a case by case basis if the person is suffering from discrimination related to their category. I mean sure, if someone makes a very direct comment that they are marking down a specific manuscript, grant or recommendation only because the person is a woman, or of color or young then we can draw some conclusions. This never* happens. And we do all vary in our treatments/outcomes and in our merits that are intrinsic to ourselves. Sometimes outcomes are deserved, sometimes they vary by simple statistical chance and sometimes they are even better than deserved. So it is an unanswerable question, even if the chances are high that sometimes one is going to be treated poorly due to one's membership in one of the categories against which discrimination has been proven.

These questions become something other than unanswerable when the person pondering them is doing "fine".

"You are doing fine! Why would you complain about mistreatment, never mind wonder if it is some sort of discrimination you are suffering?"

I was also recently struck by a Tweeter comment about suffering a very current discrimination of some sort that came from a scientist who is by many measures "doing fine".

Once, quite some time ago, I was on a seminar committee charged with selecting a year's worth of speakers. We operated under a number of constraints, financial and topic-wise; I'm sure many of you have been on similar committees. I immediately noticed we weren't selecting a gender balanced slate and started pushing explicitly for us to include more women. Everyone sort of ruefully agreed with me and admitted we need to do better. Including a nonzero number of female faculty on this panel, btw. We did try to do better. One of the people we invited one year was a not-super-senior person (one our supposed constraints was seniority) at the time with a less than huge reputation. We had her visit for seminar and it was good if perhaps not as broad as some of the ones from more-senior people. But it all seemed appropriate and fine. The post-seminar kvetching was instructive to me. Many folks liked it just fine but a few people complained about how it wasn't up to snuff and we shouldn't have invited her. I chalked it up to the lack of seniority, maybe a touch of sexism and let it go. I really didn't even think twice about the fact that she's also a person of color.

Many years later this woman is doing fine. Very well respected member of the field, with a strong history of contributions. Sustained funding track record. Trainee successes. A couple of job changes, society memberships, awards and whatnot that one might view as testimony to an establishment type of career. A person of substance.

This person went on to have the type of career and record of accomplishment that would have any casual outsider wondering how she could possibly complain about anything given that she's done just fine and is doing just fine. Maybe even a little too fine, assuming she has critics of her science (which everyone does).

Well, clearly this person does complain, given the recent Twitt from her about some recent type of discrimination. She feels this discrimination. Should she? Is it really discrimination? After all, she's doing fine.

Looping back up to the other conversations mentioned at the top, I'll note that people bring this analysis into their self-doubt musings as well. A person who suffers some sort of adverse outcome might ask themselves why they are getting so angry. "Isn't it me?", they think, "Maybe I merited this outcome". Why are they so angered about statistics or other established cases of discrimination against other women or POC? After all, they are doing fine.

And of course even more reliable than their internal dialog we hear the question from white men. Or whomever doesn't happen to share the characteristics under discussion at the moment. There are going to be a lot of these folks that are of lesser status. Maybe they didn't get that plum job at that plum university. Or had a more checkered funding history. Fewer highly productive collaborations, etc. They aren't doing as "fine". And so anyone who is doing better, and accomplishing more, clearly could not have ever suffered any discrimination personally. Even those people who admit that there is a bias against the class will look at this person who is doing fine and say "well, surely not you. You had a cushy ride and have nothing to complain about".

I mused about the seminar anecdote because it is a fairly specific reminder to me that this person probably faced a lot of implicit discrimination through her career. Bias. Opposition. Neglect.

And this subtle antagonism surely did make it harder for her.

It surely did limit her accomplishments.

And now we have arrived. This is what is so hard to understand in these cases. Both in the self-reflection of self-doubt (imposter syndrome is a bear) and in the assessment of another person who is apparently doing fine.

They should be doing even better. Doing more, or doing what they have done more easily.

It took me a long while to really appreciate this**.

No matter how accomplished the woman or person of color might be at a given point of their career, they would have accomplished more if it were not for the headwind against which they always had to contend.

So no, they are not "doing fine". And they do have a right to complain about discrimination.

*it does. but it is vanishingly rare in the context of all cases where someone might wonder if they were victim of some sort of discrimination.
**I think it is probably my thinking about how Generation X has been stifled in their careers relative to the generations above us that made this clearest to me. It's not quite the same but it is related.

9 responses so far

Question of the Day

Jul 15 2016 Published by under Ponder

Did you have a side job as a graduate student or postdoc?
Or as faculty? 

55 responses so far

Newly funded NIH PIs

Jun 18 2016 Published by under Ponder

It would be fascinating if NIH did audits to search for who gets funded with their first grant by pedigree and productivity measures.

I'd want to see categorization of number of first and last author pubs. Of course. Some sort of measure of productivity in the time since being appointed to the independent investigator title. Mediated by JIF.

Then pedigree by the grant wealth and productivity of the pre-independence mentors.

I wonder if you can get away with crap productivity of you are tied into the network. And if you can overcome your Outsider status by generating a ton of pubs.

I wonder how likely a newb is to be funded as the years elapse from the time of first appointment without senior author publications.

42 responses so far

Thought of the Day

May 13 2016 Published by under Conduct of Science, Ponder, Tribe of Science

I think I have made incremental progress in understanding you all "complete story" muppets and in understanding the source of our disagreement.

There are broader arcs of stories in scientific investigation. On this I think we all agree.

We would like to read the entire arc. On this, I think, we all agree.

The critical difference is this.

Is your main motivation that you want to read that story and find out where it goes?

Or is your main motivation that you want to be the one to discover, create and/or tell that story, all by your lonesome, so you get as much credit for it as possible?

While certainly subject to scientific ego, I conclude that I lean much more toward wanting to know the story than you "complete story" people do.

Conversely, I conclude that you "shows mechanism", "complete story" people lean towards your own ego burnishing for participation in telling the story than you do towards wanting to know how it all turns out as quickly as possible.

35 responses so far

Jared Fogle and Prisoner Treatment

Mar 16 2016 Published by under Ponder

Jared Fogle, convicted of sex crimes involving minors, was assaulted and battered severely in prison.

Jens Foell had some observations on Twitter.

Absolutely. There is a certain segment that cheers when a little extra prison justice is meted out. I have myself been, occasionally, guilty of being a little too facile with references to prison rape (of the "don't drop the soap" variety) and, no doubt, the extra justification we seem to hold for beat downs (or killings) of people convicted of certain crimes, like child sexual offenses or serial murder.

It needs to stop. We shouldn't respond to the news of the day about Jared Fogle or even the Aurora shooter, being attacked in prison with a little frisson of pleasure. It isn't a system of law if it permits prisoners to attack each other. The idea that there is a cottage industry of consultants to prepare you for not getting seriously harmed in prison should horrify us.

I bother to say this because some twitter wag was really offended

that this should come up solely in the case of Jared Fogle.

It's a convenient excuse but prison violence happens all the time and it should not be tolerated.

No matter the crime.

8 responses so far


Feb 29 2016 Published by under Ponder

There are these moments in science where you face a decision.

Am I going to be the selfish asshole here?

Or am I going to follow the Golden Rule?

and then, if you head a lab group, you think....

I am not just acting for myself. I am a member of a team and they have their own interests. Presumably all of the staff, at the least, have interest in having a job, here, in this laboratory group or they would have left. Trainees have explicit or implicit career goals- things they would like to accomplish here in this laboratory.

Do doing unto others as I would like done to myself is perhaps not in good alignment with what my other team members would prefer done to those others. And they may not have the same short term / long term concerns that I do*.

One of those things the team may not be all that concerned about is my collection of tender sensibilities. And what I mean by that is that we all evolve a code of behavior within our profession. Some of this is trained into us explicitly or implicitly by the departments, laboratories and subfields in which we have interacted up to the present. Some of this is no doubt due to the broad experiences from parents, teachers, coaches, social influences, etc from long before we thought about starting the life of a professional scientist.

And I'm here to tell you, Dear Reader, we all differ.

You've seen it here in the comments on this blog. Many of us have very different attitudes about the proper, ethical and morally right way to be scientists. Some of these are very clearly deeply-felt issues of asserted rectitude...which other people find to be absurd pedantry and/or utterly unimportant. Some of these are issues of reaction...."those guys in our field behave like this and it is bad"....which again proves the diversity of behavior within our respective professional lives.

There is another truism which I believe deeply. We're all the asshole to somebody at some point in time. Not sure how this fits in but there you have it.

Science can be competitive. We all know that. There is sharp and pointed competition for scientific priority, for papers accepted for publication in the most highly-desired journals, for faculty positions, for grants, for graduate school admission in the right place and for a training opportunity with the right mentors.

Competition means, obviously, that you have to beat out the other guy. And science is not a time-trial. It is not just you against the clock. It is not even a pursuit race, much as we might describe it that way. Science is at the very least a mass-start race in which elbows, necessarily, are used to advantage. Some might think it is a full-contact sport in which a certain amount of checking is expected, legal and totally acceptable. Some may not like any contact.

So....what if your personal attitude is that science is time-trial or pursuit? Or perhaps it is a game of futbol that does not involve players ever touching one another, only the ball?

If that is your attitude and you are less-than-completely-correct, it's okay. You still can play. You may even be able to tolerate taking the hit but insist that you, yourself, will never throw a check on anyone else.


Also known as "the loser".

Still, we're just here to play, enjoy the game, find the beauty, eh? Who cares, as long as we still stay in the league?

Problem is, our teammates may not be so lucky. They may not be able to stay in the league if their franchise player*** refuses to mix it up. Their team might lose and fade into obscurity. Then they can't showcase their moves in the playoffs or on Prime Time teevee broadcasts. They don't get to play with the best of the best on their team, are always playing a cowering defense...and getting crushed anyway.

Point being this. I have been contemplating whether I have an obligation to play up to what the refs give me when it comes to my career. Should we be playing it physical with constant grinding defense? Should we take every opportunity to elbow and grab and hook when the refs aren't looking?

Should Reviewer #3 behavior be my watchword, instead of the Golden Rule?

It's perfectly legal.

*A trainee**, presumably, would prefer that the current short-term success of the lab is high, even if there are negative implications for the lab 5, 10, 15 years down the road.

**A technician may prefer that the laboratory is rolling in the dough now, to better facilitate raises, promotions, seniority and skill-acquisition should she or he need to jump ship in a few years.


37 responses so far

Hey Cat Fans, LOOK! You too can be just as stupid as a dog owner!

Feb 13 2013 Published by under Day in the life of DrugMonkey, Ethics, FWDAOTI, Ponder

Apparently some epic dumbasses decided that the common housecat, bloodthirsty lethal little murder-cat killing machine that it is, wasn't quite badass enough.

What. Is. Wrong. With. People?

13 responses so far

Placing PLoS ONE in the appropriate evaluative context

Jan 14 2013 Published by under Impact Factor, PLoS ONE, Ponder

As you know, I have a morbid fascination with PLoS ONE and what it means for science, careers in science and the practices within my subfields of interest.

There are two complaints that I see as supposed objective reasons for old school folks' easy complaining bout how it is not a real journal. First, that they simply publish "too many papers". It was 23,468 in 2012. This particular complaint always reminds me of

which is to say that it is a sort of meaningless throwaway comment. A person who has a subjective distaste and simply makes something up on the spot to cover it over. More importantly, however, it brings up the fact that people are comparing apples to oranges. That is, they are looking at a regular print type of journal (or several of them) and identifying the disconnect. My subfield journals of interest maybe publish something between about 12 and 20 original reports per issue. One or two issues per month. So anything from about 144 to 480 articles per year. A lot lower than PLoS ONE, eh? But look, I follow at least 10 journals that are sort of normal, run of the mill, society level journals in which stuff that I read, cite and publish myself might appear. So right there we're up to something on the order of 3,000 article per year.

PLoS ONE, as you know, covers just about all aspects of science! So multiply my subfield by all the other subfields (I can get to 20 easy without even leaving "biomedical" as the supergroup) with their respective journals and.... all of a sudden the PLoS ONE output doesn't look so large.

Another way to look at this would be to examine the output of all of the many journals that a big publisher like Elsevier puts out each year. How many do they publish? One hell of a lot more that 23,000 I can assure you. (I mean really, don't they have almost that many journals?) So one answer to the "too many notes" type of complaint might be to ask if the person also discounts Cell articles for that same reason.

The second theme of objection to PLoS ONE is as was recently expressed by @egmoss on the Twitts :

An 80% acceptance rate is a bit of a problem.

So this tends to overlook the fact that much more ends up published somewhere, eventually than is reflected in a per-journal acceptance rate. As noted by Conan Kornetsky back in 1975 upon relinquishing the helm of Psychopharmacology:

"There are enough journals currently published that if the scientist perseveres through the various rewriting to meet style differences, he will eventually find a journal that will accept his work".

Again, I ask you to consider the entire body of journals that are normal for your subfield. What do you think the overall acceptance rate for a given manuscript might be? I'd wager it is competitive with PL0S ONE's 80% and probably even higher!

49 responses so far

A question for my readers on spawning

Aug 16 2012 Published by under Ponder

A recent comment from Spiny Norman waxes unimpressed with child-care cost complaints of those in the academic pipeline.

My partner and I knew we were going into demanding, high-risk, poorly-compensated public service careers. We knew that both time and money would be limiting, and saw little point to having kids if they were mostly going to be raised by paid surrogates.

We also looked around, and concluded that the planet was/is *not* suffering from a shortage of fat, happy, high-carbon-footprint first world babies.

This makes me ponder. Continue Reading »

31 responses so far

Walking that narrow line

Jul 23 2012 Published by under Careerism, Ponder

The key to being a science rockstar, if you like that sort of thing*, is to become legendary in the minds of others while never believing it for a second yourself.

If you fail on the second part, you are just kind of a jerk.
*I don't, obv.

15 responses so far

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