Monopolizing a field?

(by odyssey) Oct 09 2014

This just came out:

The scientists who get credit for peer review.


Anyone else find the number of reviews per year done by the one scientist just a bit worrying?


6 responses so far


(by odyssey) Oct 09 2014

Why are we okay with hiring someone who has essentially no teaching experience into a TT (research track) position at a major research university? We'd never hire someone into such a position with teaching experience but no research experience.




12 responses so far

Modern scientific heroes maybe aren't so much

(by odyssey) Oct 02 2014

I'm sure many of you are quite aware of the ongoing kerfuffle surrounding the ASBMB's president and his recent comments. If not, you can catch up on it at DrugMonkey's joint and read a great follow-up by Isis. I'm not going to talk about that per se, but rather something that struck me in a bio of McKnight here.

"Among the highlights are his breathtaking images of RNA synthesis and chromatin replication in Drosophila embryos,  his pioneering analysis of the transcription of the Herpes Thymidine Kinase Gene, his invention of linker scanning to discover eukaryotic transcriptional control signals, his groundbreaking analysis of the VP16 viral activator protein,  his discovery of the Leucine Zipper family of transcription factors, his discovery, purification and characterization of transcription factors C/EBP and GABP, his demonstration that the DNA-binding activity of circadian Clock proteins are influenced by NAD cofactors, his contributions to the concept that transcriptional regulatory proteins from yeast to mammals can be entrained by metabolic signals, and his pioneering contributions to our understanding of RNA granules, the subject of his lecture."

Okay, let's be fair and start by noting that McKnight most likely did not write that.*

Nonetheless, there is no way, no how, that he actually did all that. Maybe some, but certainly not all.

But... but... he published all the first/most important/glamzmagz publications on those I hear you say.

Yes, he did.

But not alone. Those weren't single author publications.**

Note that I am using this as an example. If you think this kind of thing is unusual perhaps you should open your eyes more often.

In science we've been all to quick to assign credit for many major advances made over the last five or six decades to individuals. Or maybe two or three people. But no more than that. A maximum of three can share a Nobel after all.***

But the reality is those people probably did little of the actual work. That's not the major role of a modern PI. Our job is to create and maintain an environment in which others - our trainees, technicians, research scientists - can make discoveries, push back the boundaries, generate new knowledge, innovate. If we get to directly participate a little, great, but that's not our primary role.

You might argue that the intellectual input of the PI earns him/her the major credit. Maybe. But if you're not allowing your lab personnel to make major intellectual contributions, then you're doing it wrong. Those "trainees" of yours are really just glorified technicians.****

Okay, so we all know this. After all, everyone lists the people who actually did the work on their acknowledgments slides and as co-authors on publications. We all recognize (I hope) that many hands contribute to any scientific endeavor nowadays. And I really, really hope all my fellow PI's do their best to let everyone know that the people in their labs are responsible for their latest successes. All their successes as a PI for that matter.

Maybe we should stop worshipping PI's as scientific heroes and recognize that they are often really more effective environment builders than hands-on scientists.


* The whole bio reads like the blatherings of a sycophantic groupie.

** Again, to be fair let's recognize that he almost certainly doesn't take sole credit. We assign it.

*** Yes, yes, I am aware that some Nobelists really did do most or all of the work they won the Prize for, but those are increasingly the exceptions.

**** Maybe that's where the riff-raff come from.


17 responses so far

#Ferguson Donors Choose Drive Part Deux

(by odyssey) Aug 21 2014

You done good folks. The original three projects were funded amazingly quickly. But don't worry if you didn't get a chance to offload some of those dollars burning a hole in your pockets. DrugMonkey has more for you to fund! Get to it. For the kids.

2 responses so far

#Ferguson Donors Choose Drive

(by odyssey) Aug 21 2014

If you've been looking for some tangible way to support the people of Ferguson, Missouri, head on over to DrugMonkey's and check out the Donors Choose options. For those that don't know, Donors Choose is a non-profit that partners with school teachers to raise money so they can buy stuff for their classrooms. Ferguson is classified as a high poverty area, so the teachers there need such exotic stuff as binders and paper. That's right, the kids don't have access to enough paper. You know you can spare a few. Go give.

2 responses so far

Scientific instrumentation

(by odyssey) Aug 18 2014

If an instrument doesn't make a cool noise, or at least ping!, it's worthless.

8 responses so far

Rule for responding to reviewers #1

(by odyssey) Aug 11 2014

When reviewers don't understand what it is you've written.

When they





Nine times out of ten it's because you just haven't done a good enough job explaining it.

The tenth time it's because the reviewers are lobotomized cretins who've made ERRORS OF FACT!!!!!11!1!1!!!!!1!!!!!!!!!!

And you just haven't done a good enough job explaining it.

5 responses so far

Something to think about

(by odyssey) Aug 08 2014

When writing a manuscript you should be writing for the audience you want to reach. That may not be the same thing as writing for experts in your sub-sub-field or your super-duper-ultra-specialized methodology.

2 responses so far

It's not you, it's me.

(by odyssey) Jul 08 2014

We had something great. It really was. Great. And productive!


I didn't pay attention like I should have. I didn't do those little things. I became... complacent.

I'm sorry.

I've changed. Grown. I've moved on. I enjoy different things.

I'm... I'm seeing different people.

You should too.

And please...


Stop listing me as a fucking preferred reviewer!

5 responses so far

REPOST: Mid-tenure crisis

(by odyssey) Jul 07 2014

The inimitable DrugMonkey just reminded me that re-reading my 2008 post on my mid-career crisis is good for the soul. This originally appeared over at my old Blogger joint.

To clarify - this was a couple of years post tenure. It should probably be titled "Mid-career crisis."

In case you're wondering, I got that grant.


Originally posted August 21, 2008:

I have a confession to make. About a year ago I had managed to put myself in a position that should be avoided at all costs. In regards to my research program, I had become...


This is a bad, bad thing that no PI should ever do. I had been cruising along for about 7-8 years working away on a system, publishing a decent number of decent papers that garnered decent citations. Then about a year ago I was sitting on a bus going from Forsaken Conference Site in New England to the Boston airport. Sitting next to me was my good friend Rising Star Theoretician. RST turned to me and said, in more or less these words, "Your research program is going nowhere and you're in danger of becoming irrelevant." This was neither easy to hear, nor easy for RST to say. But he was right. Deep down I had known this for at least two years, but things were trundling along okay, so there was no immediate incentive to do anything about it. RST reminded me that there is always incentive to tend to the future of your research program. Having a future research program is the incentive.* I will always be in debt to RST for giving me a verbal kick in the pants.

I got lucky twice here. The first time was with RST's pep talk. The second time was a few months after that. I had just read a paper written by Benevolent Bioscientist, someone who had co-founded the field I was hoping to develop my new research program in. For reasons that are still unclear to me, BB had befriended me about a year previously and so I now knew him quite well. Anyway, the predictions he had made in this paper struck a chord. THIS was where I was headed. Or at least, some part of it. So I called BB to chat about his paper and the many opportunities it offered. BB told me I should work on protein X (one of the opportunities outlined in his paper). He said "I've been meaning to work on X for 10-15 years now and, to be honest, I don't think I'm ever going to get around to it. You should do it. Let me know how I can help." I knew protein X was important and I knew this was a generous offer. What I didn't quite grasp at the time was how important protein X is, and consequently how generous a gift this was. Protein X is a key player in not just one, not just two, but numerous disease states, including mental, cardiac and immune system disorders. And it's not understood at the molecular level. Protein X is an untapped goldmine that will lead to publications that are much more than "decent." And will lead me to NIH funding (I'm NSF-funded because of the nature of my previous work).

So here we are about a year after RST's pep talk. The old research program is (in hindsight predictably) rapidly dying. I have about one more decent publication I can squeeze out of that work. The all new research program based on protein X is still in its infancy, but it's growing stronger each day. Working on protein X has meant learning a whole new set of skills (I didn't train as a protein chemist), but fortunately I'm surrounded by colleagues who are willing to help. The timing is unfortunate (purely my own fault). I had to submit a renewal of my NSF grant in mid July. Obviously it had to be on protein X (there's plenty of basic science regarding X). It's not clear I had quite enough preliminary data (protein X is difficult to make because of its interesting properties), so I may be facing a funding gap for the first time.** But I'm having a blast in the lab. In fact, I'm more enthusiastic about my research than I have been in years. Staring from scratch again has been, and continues to be, hard. But I'm having fun.


* Have a written five year plan. It sounds dorky, but it works, and it should cover all aspects of your academic career. Read it and update it often. Never let your plan fall below the five year mark. If you can't see where your research might be five years from now, start developing a new research project with long term potential. Now.

** I'm working hard to avoid this. I will put in the two page update in the Fall, although I'm well aware those don't buy you much. More importantly I'll be presenting our data on protein X at a small meeting in early October. A number of the review panel members will be there, as will at least two of the people I suggested as reviewers (NSF does use reviewer suggestions - you'd be a fool not to provide some). With the exception of a much-needed two week vacation, since July I've been busting my guts making protein X and doing experiments. Come the end of September I will have the data. I hope.


Original comments from way back then:

Goose said...
Good luck and all the best with Protein X. It sounds like you have a good plan, and I truly believe good plans are usually rewarded.

While I've fled the protein chemistry field, I still remember the odd thing and if there's anything I can do to help please let me know.
Thursday, August 21, 2008 at 10:29:00 AM EDT

JollyRgr said...
Good luck from me also.....and more importantly....I have a good feeling about this change of's right!
Thursday, August 21, 2008 at 1:13:00 PM EDT

Abel Pharmboy said...
Came by via the good folks at DrugMonkey - they are much better at finding "new" old blogs than I.

You are very fortunate that RST felt comfortable to give you this kick in the pants but also that you were receptive (and not self-deceiving) enough to act upon it. Without knowing anything about your field, my guess would be that you'd continue pumping out the decent papers you describe but that you'd ultimately have trouble getting your grant renewed.

I had a senior committee member who changed fields (or a significant fraction of the their lab efforts) every ten years. It seemed to keep them quite energized.

I admire you for taking this step - might even be time for a little self-examination myself.
Friday, August 22, 2008 at 11:00:00 PM EDT

Candid Engineer said...
Visiting/staying via DrugMonkey.

Kudos to you for being receptive to constructive criticism. It is hard to hear, but invaluable. Really nice that your friend had the balls to be candid with you. Glad things are moving in an interesting new direction.
Sunday, August 24, 2008 at 7:22:00 PM EDT
Milo said...
i'm jealous. i've been working on the same damn problem for 10 years and i don't get the choice to change.

i probably would have punched RST first, and then thanked him ;o)
Monday, September 1, 2008 at 9:11:00 PM EDT

Anonymous said...
I have always thought of things like 5yr plans were very general in nature, that is, the goals were general (to land a TT position, etc). But, as we all know, details matter.

I was just curious about your 5 year detailed is it? For example, do you plan out the number of pubs per year? Do you plan out which/how many grant deadlines to target? (All Without knowing how the data will turn out!)

Or are you more general about it
Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 3:23:00 PM EDT

Anonymous said...
sorry, i will try to proofread my posts in the future and avoid using the word "general"
Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 3:26:00 PM EDT

Odyssey said...
Good questions. I'm planning a post on five years plans. It might take a day or two or three. If I don't get around to it before the end of the week I'll post a quick reply as a comment here.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 5:32:00 PM EDT

Samia said...
Woo! Good luck! :)
Friday, January 28, 2011 at 4:03:00 PM EST

3 responses so far

Older posts »