Archive for the 'Tribe of Science' category

On the obsessive hobbies of scientists

This is an extension to some thoughts I posted on Twitter awhile ago.

There is a certain species of “amazing scientist who is revolutionizing everything” biographical puff piece that strikes an interesting chord about academics. These are details that come up in seminar introductions, blog posts, media profiles, institutional profiles, award nominations and obituaries.

I am referring specifically to the part where they talk about hobbies, interests and activities that are not directly related to work*.

I surmise the hobby is discussed in these types of pieces to humanize the nerd or to amaze you that their non-science time is just as obsessive and elite as their science**. Possibly both of these apply simultaneously. Typical realms of discussion are obsessive sports participation (very commonly running long distance events or triathlon competition), foodie obsession (he cooks lavish meals for his lab), wine snobbery or the arts. With respect to the arts, you most commonly hear about how the scientist being lionized plays a musical instrument in a band. Presumably this ties into our societal obsession with rock n rollers and their supposed rebel natures. We know Francis Collins plays the guitar in a band. We know Nora Volkow likes to run. I can’t remember hearing about any community minded hobbies of any of the other IC directors.

You don’t hear about how the awesome scientist pulls his (it’s usually a him) weight at home in these types of settings. Obsessive plumbing leak fixer! Soccer dad! Makes meals for his family on the regular!

You don’t hear about community stuff either. Many scientists participate in local groups for improving the schools or city governance or their faith community. Many spend their time volunteering in the classroom.

And it isn’t just the puff pieces that draw this distinction between the externally-focused activities and the obsessively internally-focused ones. Academic science actually punishes people for anything they do that isn’t self-oriented.

If one is highly accomplished in science it is okay to have hobbies as long as they are obsessively self-involved ones like running marathons. It is obvious that any sort of external activity or hobby is only okay if the science work is considered to be of the highest rank. If one is considering a middle of the road scientist then clearly they should be spending more time at work and less time training for a marathon!

Look, I get that we like to know more about people's life outside of their work. Pursuit of the personal detail fuels industries valued in the billions of dollars when it comes to famous movie stars, musicians, politicians and professional athletes. There is no reason that people in science wouldn't also have an interest in the non-work activities of the more famous members of our professions.

But still. The relative selectivity in what we choose to lionize versus criticize about our science peers seems meaningful to me. It has an effect on all of us, including (most importantly) our trainees. Personally, I do not want people in science thinking (no matter how implicitly) that obsessive, self-involved hobbies are associated with the most revered scientists and that community type, external benefit activities are the hallmark of the scientific nobody.

Perhaps we could think twice about those seminar speaker intros we give and the nature of the puff pieces we write or contribute background to.

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*Calm yourselves debate champeens. This set of observations is about which hobbies we choose to laud in a professional context and which ones we do not. It doesn’t mean you are horrible for running every day. Exercise is healthy and good for you. We should all do more of it.

**And I should also note that this doesn't have to devolve into “I only have time for work” snark, no matter the reality. I'm not criticizing hobbies and activities at all. I think that is great if you have things that make you happy. Again, this is about the type of such non-science hobbies that we find reason to congratulate or merely to note in a professionally-oriented biographical piece.

8 responses so far

Plea bargains are unsatisfying to the victims of their type of crime

Jun 11 2018 Published by under Science Ethics, Tribe of Science

Inder Verma has resigned his position at the Salk Institute before a formal conclusion was reached in their internal investigation. One can only imagine they were moving toward a finding of guilt and he was tipped to resign.

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/06/leading-salk-scientist-resigns-after-allegations-harassment

5 responses so far

MeToo STEM

There is a new blog at MeTooSTEM.wordpress.com that seeks to give voice to people in STEM disciplines and fields of work that have experienced sexual harassment.

Such as Jen:

The men in the lab would read the Victoria’s Secret catalog at lunch in the break room. I could only wear baggy sweatshirts and turtlenecks to lab because when I leaned over my bench, the men would try to look down my shirt. Then came the targeted verbal harassment of the most crude nature

or Sam:

I’ve been the victim of retaliation by my university and a member of the faculty who was ‘that guy’ – the ‘harmless’ one who ‘loved women’. The one who sexually harassed trainees and colleagues.

or Anne:

a scientist at a company I wanted to work for expressed interest in my research at a conference. ... When I got to the restaurant, he was 100% drunk and not interested in talking about anything substantive but instead asked personal questions, making me so uncomfortable I couldn’t network with his colleagues. I left after only a few minutes, humiliated and angry that he misled about his intentions and that I missed the chance to network with people actually interested in my work

Go Read.

2 responses so far

On reviewing scientific work from known sexual harassers, retaliators, bigots and generalized jerks of science

On a recent post, DNAMan asks:

If you were reviewing an NIH proposal from a PI who was a known (or widely rumored) sexual harasser, would you take that into account? How?

My immediate answer was:

I don't know about "widely rumored". But if I was convinced someone was a sexual harasser this would render me unable to fairly judge the application. So I would recuse myself and tell the SRO why I was doing so. As one is expected to do for any conflicts that one recognizes about the proposal.

I'm promoting this to a new post because this also came up in the Twitter discussion of Lander's toast of Jim Watson. Apparently this is not obvious to everyone.

One is supposed to refuse to review grant proposals, and manuscripts submitted for publication, if one feels that one has a conflict of interest that renders the review biased. This is very clear. Formal guidelines tend to concentrate on personal financial benefits (i.e. standing to gain from a company in which one has ownership or other financial interest), institutional benefits (i.e., you cannot review NIH grants submitted from your University since the University is, after all, the applicant and you are an agent of that University) and mentoring / collaborating interests (typically expressed as co-publication or mentoring formally in past three years). Nevertheless there is a clear expectation, spelled out in some cases, that you should refuse to take a review assignment if you feel that you cannot be unbiased.

This is beyond any formal guidelines. A general ethical principle.

There is a LOT of grey area.

As I frequently relate, in my early years when a famous Editor asked me to review a manuscript from one of my tighter science homies and I pointed out this relationship I was told "If I had to use that standard as the Editor I would never get anything reviewed. Just do it. I know you are friends.".

I may also have mentioned that when first on study section I queried an SRO about doing reviews for PIs who were scientifically sort of close to my work. I was told a similar thing about how reviews would never get done if vaguely working in the same areas and maybe one day competing on some topic were the standard for COI recusal.

So we are, for the most part, left up to our own devices and ethics about when we identify a bias in ourselves and refuse to do peer review because of this conflict.

I have occasionally refused to review an NIH grant because the PI was simply too good of a friend. I can't recall being asked to review a grant proposal from anyone I dislike personally or professionally enough to trigger my personal threshold.

I am convinced, however, that I would recuse myself from the review of proposals or manuscripts from any person that I know to be a sexual harasser, a retaliator and/or a bigot against women, underrepresented groups generally, LGBTQ, and the like.

There is a flavor of apologist for Jim Watson (et rascalia) that wants to pursue a "slippery slope" argument. Just Asking the Questions. You know the type. One or two of these popped up on twitter over the weekend but I'm too lazy to go back and find the thread.

The JAQ-off response is along the lines of "What about people who have politics you don't like? Would you recuse yourself from a Trump voter?".

The answer is no.

Now sure, the topic of implicit or unconscious bias came up and it is problematic for sure. We cannot recuse ourselves when we do not recognize our bias. But I would argue that this does not in any way suggest that we shouldn't recuse ourselves when we DO recognize our biases. There is a severity factor here. I may have implicit bias against someone in my field that I know to be a Republican. Or I may not. And when there is a clear and explicit bias, we should recuse.

I do not believe that people who have proven themselves to be sexual harassers or bigots on the scale of Jim Watson deserve NIH grant funding. I do not believe their science is going to be so much superior to all of the other applicants that it needs to be funded. And so if the NIH disagrees with me, by letting them participate in peer review, clearly I cannot do an unbiased job of what NIH is asking me to do.

The manuscript review issue is a bit different. It is not zero-sum and I never review that way, even for the supposedly most-selective journals that ask me to review. There is no particular reason to spread scoring, so to speak, as it would be done for grant application review. But I think it boils down to essentially the same thing. The Editor has decided that the paper should go out for review and it is likely that I will be more critical than otherwise.

So....can anyone see any huge problems here? Peer review of grants and manuscripts is opt-in. Nobody is really obliged to participate at all. And we are expected to manage the most obvious of biases by recusal.

38 responses so far

Eric Lander apologizes for toasting Jim Watson

May 14 2018 Published by under Academics, Staring in Disbelief, Tribe of Science

Dr. Eric Lander, of the BROAD Institute, recently gave a toast honoring Jim Watson at the close of the Biology of Genomes meeting. See below Twitter thread from Jonathan Eisen for an archived video copy of the toast. (Picture via: Sarah Tishkoff tweet)

Lander has now apologized for doing so in a tweet:

The text reads:

Last week I agreed to toast James Watson for the Human Genome Project on his 90th birthday. My brief comment about his being “flawed” did not go nearly far enough. His views are abhorrent: racist, sexist, anti-semitic. I was wrong to toast. I apologize.

I applaud Dr. Lander for this apology.

This comes after a bit of a Twitter storm. If you wonder why some people see value in using social media to advance progressive ideas*, this is one example.

Some key threads from

Jonathan Eisen

Angus Johnson

Michael Eisen

One of the most amazing things in all of the twitter discussion over the weekend is that there are still people who want to try to claim that Watson's decades of abhorrent ranting about people he disdains, tied in many cases to the scientific topics he is discussing and in others to the people he thinks should be allowed or disallowed to participate in science, have nothing to do with public accolades "for his scientific accomplishments".

Additional Reading:
Snowflakes Falling

We've finally found out, thanks to Nature News, that the paltry academic salary on which poor Jim Watson has been forced to rely is $375,000 per year as "chancellor emeritus" at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The current NIH salary limitation is $181,500, this is the maximum amount that can be charged to Federal grants. I'm here to tell you, most of us funded by NIH grants do not make anything like this as an annual salary.

 

Arrogant jerkwad creates meaningless kerfluffle, News at Eleven

Notorious arrogant bastard* and Nobel laureate, James Watson shoots off again, this time descending into race/intelligence minefield [Pharyngula, Zuska, denialism blog]. Consequently gets talk cancelled. The ass kick by Greg Laden here and here, pre-empts my need to get into the intelligence literature. Blogosphere and MSM goes nuts for a news cycle or two.

Famed Scientist Apologizes for Quoted Racial Remarks

James Watson: What I've Learned

Should you be allowed to make an anti-Semitic remark? Yes, because some anti-Semitism is justified....
Francis Crick said we should pay poor people not to have children. I think now we're in a terrible situation where we should pay the rich people to have children. If there is any correlation between success and genes, IQ will fall if the successful people don't have children. These are self-obvious facts.
If I had been married earlier in life, I wouldn't have seen the double helix. I would have been taking care of the kids on Saturday.

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*Call it constantly angry performative social justice warrioring if you like. Whatever it takes. Just get er done.

47 responses so far

Today's ponder

Dec 19 2016 Published by under NIH Careerism, Tribe of Science

Today's version of this was me pointing out that if you are on a "9 month appointment" of Salary X but every workplace expectation is that you will be doing University related work for 12 months, that in fact Salary X is your base 12-mo salary. The "9 month" thing is a dodge the Universities pull to turn your job into a contingency plan like selling cars.

If you sell a grant idea, you get to bonus your Salary X to the tune of those three extra summer months.

I'm sure there are a lot of fancy accounting reasons Universities pull this. There is certainly a whiff of distasteful "sing for your supper" in the underlying expectation that such Profs must acquire extramural funding to pay for themselves that I'm sure is being whisked aside with this dodge.

What I don't understand is why so many of the victims of such schemes are so amped to defend them and call me terrible for pointing this out.

Look, if there is genuinely a situation where your Professor career is a-okay from start to finish if you only work 9 months out of the year than sure. I buy it. This person's 9-month salary is plausibly a 9-month salary. I'm going to raise an eyebrow if they don't cut off your card key access and VPN over the summer but....okay, fine.

But, the second you have a situation where you are expected to work those extra three months on University related business in order to retain your job or to advance normally (see: tenure) then this is a base salary for a 12-month job.

33 responses so far

Hope

Dec 07 2016 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

I recently attended a scientific meeting with which I've had an uncomfortable relationship for years. When I first heard about the topic domain and focus of this meeting as a trainee I was amazed. "This is just the right home for me and my interests in science", I thought. And, scientifically this was, and still is, the case.

I should love this meeting and this academic society.

This has not been the case, very likely because of the demographics of the society (guess) in addition to a few other....lets call them unusual academic society tics.

This year was a distinct improvement. It isn't here yet but I can see a youth wave about to crash into the shore. This swell of younger scientists (stretching from postdoc to nearly-tenured) looks more like modern science to me. Demographically, and on many dimensions.

This gives me hope for the future of this academic meeting.

19 responses so far

Creeping infantilization of scientists

Dec 05 2016 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

I recently attended a scientific meeting during which it was made clear that their prize for young investigators had an age cutoff of 50 or younger.

Now the award was not literally titled "for Young Investigators" as so many are, but the context was clear. A guy who looks phenotypically like a solidly mid-career, even approaching-senior, was described as a "rising star" by the award presenter.

This is ridiculous.

It is more of this creeping infantilization of generations of scientists by the preceding one (Boomers) or two (preWar) generations. The generations who were Full Professors by age 40.

This is all of a part with grant reviews that wring hands over the "risk" of handing an R01 over to a 30 year old. Or a 38 year old.

I think we need to resist this.

Hold the line at 40 years of age on early-career or young-investigator awards. If your society is such that it only starts the awards at mid-career, make this clear. Call them "established stars" instead of "rising stars".

25 responses so far

Really, it's normal

Dec 01 2016 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

It's okay. It's perfectly natural and healthy. Everyone does it, you know. I mean, it's not like anyone brags about it but they do it. Regularly. So go ahead and don't feel ashamed.
Continue Reading »

35 responses so far

Thought of the Day

Nov 16 2016 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Tribe of Science

If the information firehose and intellectual go-juice of a Society for Neuroscience week leaves you mentally exhausted, you don't actually work those 60 hours a week you claim to work. 

13 responses so far

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