Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Development Abstraction

An astute reader sent me this link and I thought it might be fun to do a spin-off for the biosciences.

Basically, this guy Joel talks about how the ideal infrastructure is one you don't have to even know about because it works so seamlessly. In his case, the ideal situation allows software programmers to just, you know, write programs.

In our case, what would we want?

1. Unlimited funding. 'Nuff said.
2. Unlimited instantaneous ordering, the sort of thing where you think of it and (some invisible and speed-of-light person orders it for you without asking you ten times exactly which thing you want because they already KNOW what you mean because they're ACTUALLY TRAINED TO DO THIS full-time) it's just THERE.
3. Unlimited instantaneous video conferencing from our laptops all around the world, so any time we wanted to ask our collaborators something, they would just be there and answer our questions.
4. Equipment that is always maintained and working and only replaced when the replacement is actually BETTER. If something gets broken WE NEVER KNOW ABOUT IT because it's someone else's job to order the replacement or better yet, they always make sure we have replacement parts on hand and keep up on whether the equipment is not longer being manufactured anymore...
5. Everything is up to code and stays that way and if it's not, WE NEVER KNOW ABOUT IT because it's someone else's job to make sure the biohazard waste and the radioactive waste and the chemical waste are all taken care of.
6. People who actually train students so we can work with them without having to teach them everything they SHOULD HAVE LEARNED IN SCHOOL.

Feel free to add to this list. What are the major sources of our headaches?

Gee, in the course of writing this, here is my thought: if Joel is right and the Roman army had a ratio of servants:soldiers that was 4:1, how would we be doing if for every actual bench researcher in the lab, we had that many people just doing support staff work (maintaining equipment, keeping things up to code, ordering) full-time?

Can you imagine how PRODUCTIVE we would be if we didn't have to do all this stuff ourselves?

And that's where we get back to the unlimited funding dream. Would we really need more money to do this? Or just allocate it differently by changing the career structure? The current academic system is set up this way for two main reasons I can think of (both valid):

1. Doing the maintenance and ordering yourself teaches you how it all works and gives you an appreciation for how much things cost.
2. It's cheaper than hiring people to do it, especially since theoretically there wouldn't be enough for them to do to keep them around full-time.

But what if neither of these things mattered because cost was irrelevant (say, if we could figure out how to make science fund itself instead of being a welfare state)?



At 6:27 PM, Blogger TW Andrews said...

With some degree of realism applied (funding of course isn't totally unlimited), you've described pretty closely the situation in industry.

At 7:10 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

DAMN, TW, that sounds gooooood!

But, I know you're wrong, at least partially.

That may be the case in Big Pharma (and I'm guessing since you work in Basel, you're at one of the Big Ones), but it's certainly absolutely totally not the case at small startups. Which is more the level where I'd likely to be hired.

At 7:20 PM, Blogger Propter Doc said...

Great post, fantastic vision for science! I want to live in this world.
In addition:
1. Universities free from break-ins and thefts. Also, being able to work with the lab doors open without worrying about yet another homeless person coming in and assulting a student.
2. No academic ego - everyone willing to collaborate and share information and experience
3. (and this is my biiiig one). A new journal: The journal of 'we tried but it didn't work'. So we could search there for experiments and not have the hassle of doing them ourselves. (or doing them differently)

At 9:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. No more tenure... the system is broken.. the elitist hierarchy is of no use anymore.

2. Limit student enrollment and Limit graduate school to five years. More accountability on mentors and thesis committees for getting their students to finish in time and making their time in graduate school productive. Five years is enough to get research done. Require two publications minimum for graduation. penalize faculty if they they don't get out their students in time.

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Propter Doc,
I'm shocked that you have to worry about break-ins and homeless people in Canada. I've worked in dangerous cities before and we had lots of locks on the outside doors. People in the know could still get in through the basement connectors, but amazingly we didn't have to worry too much. Where I am now we have mostly students or inside people (renovation contractors and the like) stealing purses and laptops.

I wish I had a magic wand to wave away the academic ego. It's interesting since I think in grad school some people have theirs stripped away, while others build it up.

There are journals of negative results popping up online. See for example this one or this one .

Anon, in my department the average time to graduate was 5 years when I started there. First of all, it's always fluctuating. Sometimes the department wants to make it a priority so they make a point of having more advisory committee meetings and pressuring the PI and the student to get on the ball. Other times it stretches out to 7, 8 or 9 years, especially if the PI is a higher-up they can't put pressure on. Second, graduating with PhD sooner doesn't really help you that much if you still have to do 3-6 years postdoc afterward to get a job in any sector. But yes, obviously I agree with you that nobody should need more than 5 years if everybody is paying attention, and obviously I agree that there should be minimum publication requiremnts enforced. I think I've blogged about those topics on here before, you might want to check the archives.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Oops, here are the links since I screwed up putting them in (too fancy for me!) and an extra one just to make up for my lame-ness:



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