Modern scientific heroes maybe aren't so much

Oct 02 2014 Published by under Careers, Life

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

  • drugmonkey says:

    He does note that he is a "technician heavy" lab. It doesn't mean they don't *also* deserve a lot of credit but....on the whole I think that is a more honest way of doing business.

    • odyssey says:

      I'm not sure that two out of 12 personnel listed on his website counts as "technician heavy", but eye of the beholder and all that...

      • drugmonkey says:

        Ha! I just took his word for it on the other page. Didn't count staff. (And he also has two Assistant Profs that aren't mentioned in the training manifesto)

  • mytchondria says:

    You are a hateful pint of beer Od. Its because of his "he stands out not only as a scientist but as human being. A Texan through and through, he is known for his athleticism, heroism, generosity, integrity, leadership and wisdom."

    I am redoing my lab website pronto to reflect my new reality.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "Heroism"?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Can I be "known for" something that happened four decades ago?

  • ecologist says:

    "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."

    • ecologist says:

      Well, that didn't work. Before my comment posted itself, after the quotation, I was gonna say something like "JESUS H CHRIST ON A POGO STICK ... you are in the wrong line of work, my friend. I suspected that this was true in some fields, but oh, man oh man, is it sad."

      • odyssey says:

        Different fields work in different ways my friend. In this post I'm referring to the biomedical sciences.

        But let me ask you this, how much of your time do you spend doing research yourself versus working/helping your trainees with theirs? How much time do you spend writing grants, helping trainees with writing, and doing the management that needs to be done to maintain a research program? In other words, how much time do you spend doing research yourself versus creating and maintaining an environment in which your lab personnel can thrive?

  • But let me ask you this, how much of your time do you spend doing research yourself versus working/helping your trainees with theirs? How much time do you spend writing grants, helping trainees with writing, and doing the management that needs to be done to maintain a research program? In other words, how much time do you spend doing research yourself versus creating and maintaining an environment in which your lab personnel can thrive?

    These are all completely bogus dichotomies.

  • E rook says:

    As a noob with soft money appointment, submitting a grant app every funding cycle, I am still in the lab, doing experiments -- running gels, cell culture, sample prep, stainings, PCR, etc etc. even did a mini prep last week. I don't have the $$ to hire lots of staff to do these things till an R01 (or 2) hits. I have a tech who does the labor intensive things that my interrupted day (meetings, phone calls) can't handle. This isn't the version of the typical assistant prof or PI that I see on teh blogs, but we're out there.

  • RJ says:

    The author talks about treating PI's as 'heroes" that 'we' should stop "worshipping". I was in grad school over 20 years ago, but I never saw PI's treated as 'heroes'. In fact, no one said "PI". Is it just possible that the alleged worship of PI's is a very new thing, of a kind with the increased worship of rich guys in mass culture?

    I've never met or written to a person who had the attitudes criticised by this article. Even when I was a grad student, I never attributed scientific advances to individuals primarily. Even before starting, I knew that most good ideas were arrived at independently by different people.

    I know these things, and have known them since before I finished undergrad. Is it really possible that adult people, with advanced degrees, en masse support rewarding the individual primarily, in defiance of the evidence? If so, I'm sad to hear it.

    I'm not trolling or even criticizing. I'm genuinely puzzled.