Archive for the 'Tribe of Science' category

Why bother fighting with a chap who calls most scientists "riff raff"?

Oct 13 2014 Published by under Debate and Discussion, Tribe of Science

Well, for some perspective I offer three older posts that addressed a different issue but tend to apply.

Weekend Diversion

Once a person has convinced him or herself that s/he is correct, or has a pretty good take on the world, the notion that s/he is a sap, fool, tool of advertising, subject to the laws of behavioral conditioning, biased, mistaken, illogical and the like is outside of the Overton window. Consequently, anything that suggests to them that they are mistaken, etc, must be flawed, illogical, unfair, below-the-belt, not-cricket, uninformed and/or meaniepants.

How to Argue Part II: On name-calling and ad hominem attacks

This is when it is occasionally necessary to call someone a nasty name and attack their person, as opposed to their argument.
Okay, okay, calm down knickers-knotters and sphincter-ratcheters. We are not talking about the tactics of a specific venue and whether it is in fact better to call someone an asshat straight out (dorm room bullshit session, pub, etc) or elocute around it semi-politely in such a way as they know exactly what you mean. I still maintain that tactically the best approach is to address the act, rather than the person but I allow for exceptions. Nevertheless you need to make some things explicitly clear.
You do not agree that the two of you are on the same side, that you are working for the same goods and that this person is one of the good guys. Rather, you believe that this person is on the bad side and in your estimation closer to the people you both agree are on the bad side, than s/he is to the people you both agree are on the good side of an argument.

How to Argue Part III: Sometimes, it's just time for a good fight

So why get in these fights? Is it a moral flaw? Some might see it that way. A bullying personality? Perhaps, although I'll return to this in a minute. A variance in entertainment preference (sure) similar to those who enjoy boxing, hockey or dogfights (ummm....)? Blowing off steam? Cry in the wilderness? Staking a claim? Street theater?

Happy reading. Make sure to check out the comments from my always perspicacious readers.

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McKnight doubles down on "riff raff" on NIH grant review panels

Oct 08 2014 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

We recently discussed a President's column at ASBMB Today by Steven McKnight in which he claimed that NIH grant review panels are contaminated with "riff-raff" who are incompetent to properly review proposals.

A Nature News piece published today notes that McKnight 'was “saddened” by suggestions that he has any gripe with young researchers or with diversity. He meant to criticize review committees as a whole, not just young scientists, he added.'

Very interesting. He was saddened, apparently, that not enough scientists understood he was calling them riff-raff! It is not only the junior scientists, it is also everybody else that he despises.

“A level of mediocrity has crept into the grant-review system,” he said. He recalled that earlier in his career, grant-review committees were packed with well-known scientists with established credentials. “Now when I look at the list, I’ll know zero names. Five or six of them will be people from fly-by-night biotech companies.” He said that he hasn’t done any quantitative research on this trend, “but I think I’m probably right”.

Let's just unpack that "I'll know zero names" business. There is an alternative hypothesis here, which is that perhaps McKnight doesn't "know" the names of people that he should.

Leaving aside whether or not McKnight actually performed any review of scientific quality per se, let us recall what happens in any age graded social situation. For my US readers in particular, I will remind you of who you "knew the names of" when you were a Freshman in High School or College versus who you "knew the names of" when you were a Senior in those respective environs. I submit to you that, as was my experience, when are looking up the social ranks, you know a heck of a lot more people than when you are looking down the social ranks.

This squares entirely with my direct experiences with my older peers in science. It is not infrequent that I refer to someone I think of as a hot Young Gun of science and the oldster has no idea who I am talking about. Even when the oldster has been impressed by the work that person has done in OtherOldster's lab but still mentally tags it to the OtherOldster. It is only with time, repetition and further excellence from the Young Gun that my acquaintance oldsters come to "see" the name of the Young Gun.

Note, this can be well into said Young Gun's independent career as an Assistant Professor.

I am not trying to excuse McKnight's snobbiness here at all. I am mentioning a common social experience that has to do with the accident of age and relative stature and has essentially nothing to do with relative merits of the people one "knows the name of".

Given that this is so common, however, you might think one would be hesitant to bray on about people's merits as a scientist based on whether your rapidly aging (and clearly not the most socially tuned) brain happens to recognize their name.

Note: Just for grins I'm reviewing the panel rosters in the
Integrative, Functional, and Cognitive Neuroscience IRG [IFCN]. These eight panels review a lot of Neuroscience grants. Admittedly I scanned quickly, and did not review the meeting rosters for ad hoc members, but I found zero individuals from biotechs. I also note that the Universities are heavily dominated by the R1s and the non-University Institutions represented are very well known Med schools and Research Institutes. I don't think I am even above the mean (or 25th percentile, frankly) in being able to recognize names across all of neuroscience.....but even scanning quickly I saw some big names all across these groups.

This may not be comprehensive data either but it sure as heck overmatches McKnight's "I think I'm probably right" comment.

56 responses so far

Something is funny at Science Magazine

Since many of you are AAAS members, as am I, I think you might be interested in an open letter blogged by Michael Balter, who identifies himself as "a Contributing Correspondent for Science and Adjunct Professor of Journalism at New York University".

I have been writing continuously for Science for the past 24 years. I have been on the masthead of the journal for the past 21 years, serving in a variety of capacities ranging from staff writer to Contributing Correspondent (my current title.) I also spent 10 years as Science’s de facto Paris bureau chief. Thus it is particularly painful and sad for me to tell you that I will be taking a three-month leave of absence in protest of recent events at Science and within its publishing organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

sounds serious.

What's up?

Yet in the case of the four women dismissed last month, no such explanation was made, nor even a formal announcement that they were gone. Instead, on September 25, Covey wrote a short email to Science staff telling us who the new contacts were for magazine makeup and magazine layout. No mention whatsoever was made of our terminated colleagues. As one fellow colleague expressed it to me: “Brr.”

Four staff dismissals that he blames on a newcomer to the organization.


I think that this collegial atmosphere continued to dominate until earlier this year, when the changes that we are currently living through began in earnest. Rob Covey came on board at AAAS in September 2013, and at first many of us thought that he was serving mostly in an advisory capacity; after all, he had a reputation for helping media outlets achieve their design and digital goals, a role he had played at National Geographic, Discovery Communications, and elsewhere. I count myself among those who were happy about many of the changes he brought about, including the redesign of the magazine, the ramping up of our multimedia presence, etc. But somewhere along the way Covey began to take on more power and more authority for personnel decisions, an evolution that has generated increasing consternation among the staff in all of Science’s departments.

New broom sweeps?

(In addition, according to all the information I have been able to gather about it, Covey was responsible for one of the most embarrassing recent episodes at Science, the July 11, 2014 cover of the special AIDS issue. This cover, for which Science has been widely excoriated, featured the bare legs [and no faces] of transgender sex workers in Jakarta, which many saw as a crass objectification and exploitation of these vulnerable individuals. Marcia McNutt was forced to publicly apologize for this cover, although she partly defended it as the result of “discussion by a large group.” In fact, my understanding, based on sources I consider reliable, is that a number of members of Science’s staff urged Covey not to use the cover, to no avail.)

Remember this little oopsie?

This will be interesting to watch, particularly if we hear more about the July 11 cover and any possible role that the individuals Balter references in this statement, "The recent dismissal of four women in our art and production departments", had in the opposition or approval argument.

4 responses so far

A simple question (or two) on training graduate students

Sep 13 2014 Published by under Postgraduate Training, Tribe of Science

This one is directed at my Readers who have supervised graduate students through the PhD in their laboratory.

Have you ever, at any point, thought that you should not train more than replacement value (n=1)?

If not, why not? What influences in your life have shaped your decision to train graduate students? What is YOUR purpose here?

69 responses so far

Soundtrack for getting your Reviewer #3 on

No responses yet

On making progress

90% of the progress on my manuscripts and grants takes place during 20% of the time I am ostensibly working on them.

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The Birds and the Bees, academic version

Some guy has written a blog post asking "Is it morally acceptable to hire postdocs?"

This is not an absurd question on the face of it and one of his points appears to be that hiring postdocs is done in preference to hiring longer-term staff-scientist type people.


Hire permanent researchers instead of postdocs. This I think is closer to a fundamental resolution of the problem. Rather than hiring a short-term postdoc by dangling a future faculty job in front of them, it is far more fair to hire a researcher permanently with a salary and benefits adequate to their experience. Although the current funding system is not particularly suitable for this – obviously, permanent researchers should be paid by the university not by grants – it can be done. A permanent researcher also becomes a great asset for the lab as they accumulate valuable skills.

I agree that if you can manage to do this, in preference to a series of 3-5 year cheap 'trainees' doing the same job, this is a morally superior place to be. Totally.

The blog post starts, however, with the following figure

sourced from Schillebeeckx et al (2013) in Nature Biotechnology.

See how the production of new PhDs each year leads to an ever-increasing disconnect between the number of available PhDs and the number of faculty jobs? So yes, there is an increasing body of postdocs being exploited and not being able to get the faculty jobs that they started graduate training to obtain.

BUT THEY DIDN'T GET DROPPED OFF BY THE STORK OF SCIENCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

They were made. Intentionally. By faculty who benefit tremendously in their own careers from an inexpensive, unbelievably hard working, young and less-distracted, deluded and optimistic workforce.

Faculty who, as it happens, are unbelievably motivated to come up with excuses why their continued overproduction of PhDs year in, year out, is not any sort of problem.

You know, kind of like any sort of Western subpopulation which advocates family sizes of 8, 15 or whatnot can't find any sort of problem with overpopulation.

And kind of like the US Baby Boomers stopped talking about overpopulation the second they realized their comfy retirements were gonna depend on a lot bigger working population behind them, paying the taxes that they couldn't even be bothered to pay in their own heyday.

But I digress.

The point is, that this blog post contains a big old howler:

One might object to this: Isn’t there the same problem with PhDs as with postdocs? In my view, the problem is not the same. I believe that entering a PhD program in natural sciences is not a commitment to an academic track, whereas entering a postdoc is, in most cases. Most jobs outside of academia do not require a postdoc experience, so a postdoc definitely narrows down one’s options. In contrast, a PhD generally widens the options. So, in my view, most PhDs should not go onto the academic track. But in general having more educated people in the non-academic world is good, especially given how many people do not believe in evolution or what idiots oversee science in Congress. A more detailed discussion of this subject is a topic for another day.

HAHAHAHAAH!!!!!!

Riiiiiiigghhhhhttt.

Bog-standard excuse making that I hear from every damn participant in a graduate program that simply cannot bear to see that their habit has been to exploit cut rate labor. At first they simply refused to admit that there was any overproduction whatsoever. Then, when the evidence became overwhelming, they clutched the excuse of "alt-careers" and "general good" like a man going down for the third time grasping a life-saver ring.

It's laughable and pathetic.

One might even venture, immoral.

__
p.s. I don't blame people directly for participating in this crappy system we are in. It demands that PIs exploit people to survive in the grant-funded rat race. Having a lab based exclusively on the work of ever more expensive career TurboTechs and Staff Scientists is a path to disaster. I grasp this. But for Glory's sake people! Stop pretending it is something it isn't. Stop pretending that your lab's arrangements are totally free of exploitation but those other aspects of the system, over there, are immoral and evil.

56 responses so far

Oh, you aren't alone in your teeth clenching

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PSA: Keep your age assumptions about PIs to yourowndamnself

Jul 01 2014 Published by under Gender, Tribe of Science, Underrepresented Groups

I realize this is not news to most of you. But the Twitts are aTwitt today about the way youthful appearing faculty are treated by.....everyone.

From undergrads to grads to postdocs to faculty and administration there is a perception of what a Professor looks like.

And generally that perception means "old". See Figure 1.

Google Image Search for "Professor"

Figure 1: Google Image Search for "Professor"

So if you look in some way too young for the expectation, junior faculty are occasionally mistaken for postdocs or grad students.

This effect has a profound sex bias, of course, which is why I'm bringing it up.

Women are much more likely to report being confused for nonfaculty.

This has all sorts of knock on bad effects including how seriously their peers take them as scientists and peers, their own imposter syndrome battles and their relationships with trainees.

My request to you, if you have not considered such issues, is to just remember to check yourself. When in doubt at a poster session or academic social event, assume the person might be faculty until and unless they clue you in otherwise by what they say. Hint: When they say "my boss" or "my PI" or "my mentor" then it is okay to assume the person is a trainee. If they say "my lab" and don't further qualify then it is best to assume they are the head.

In most cases, it simply isn't necessary for you to question the person AT ALL about "who they work for".

I have only two or three experiences in my career related to this topic, as one would expect being that I present pretty overtly as male. They all came fairly early on when I was in my early thirties.

One greybeard at a poster session (at a highly greybearded and bluehaired meeting, admittedly) was absolutely insistent about asking who's lab it "really" was. I was mostly bemused because I'm arrogant and what not and I thought "Who IS this old fool?". I think I had ordered authors on the poster with me first and my trainees and/or techs in following order and this old goat actually asked something about whether it was the last author's (my tech) lab.

There were also a mere handful of times in which people's visual reaction on meeting me made it clear that I violated their expectations based on, I guess, knowing my papers. Several of these were situations in which the person immediately or thereafter admitted they were startled by how young I was.

As I said, I present as male and this is basically the expected value. Men don't get the queries and assumptions quite so much.

One final (and hilarious) flip side. I happened to have a couple of posters in a single session at a meeting once upon a time, and my postdoctoral PI was around. At one of my posters this postdoc advisor was actually asked "Didn't you use to work with [YHN]?" in the sort of tone that made it clear the person assumed I had been the PI and my advisor the trainee.

Guess what gender this advisor is?

51 responses so far

Clarity

Jun 26 2014 Published by under Conduct of Science, Mentoring, Tribe of Science

This sentence gave me cold chills.

Younger scientists need protection from the ambitions of their elders.

22 responses so far

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