Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Age discrimination? Are you fucking kidding me with this shit?

Found a link to this article in The Scientist by way of a relevant post by Drugmonkey.

But I'm not sure I understand the issue. It just will not compute in my brain. So much of it is so patently ridiculous and wrong, and yet, there are some truths in here.

And perhaps more frightening and importantly, I think this wacknut (to borrow an imaginary word apparently coined by CPP) actually does represent the opinion of a substantial subset of senior faculty, although they aren't always willing to say so in public or without alcohol.

My adviser, for example, sometimes gets in these moods and starts ranting about how ungrateful and unmotivated we junior scientists are. Which always makes me have to leave the room, or risk committing a violent Tarantino-esque act of murder.

So, I'm freely admitting that yes, I am biased the other way. And yet. I can somewhat agree with some of the points this wacknut makes:

1. "A major factor is that contemporary biomedical training programs fail to train young investigators to be scientists."

I agree- sort of.

I do think our training programs suck, and we end up with a lot of misinformed people coming out of them with worthless PhDs and no idea how to work independently, much less lead a team of researchers to do anything innovative. So then we shove them into equally worthless postdocs. Great system!

However, I also recognize that I think of myself as an exception.
And since I also think of myself as representative of my generation, that creates a logical conflict that ultimately nullifies the point.

Clearly, I am biased. I agree that our programs suck, but I think that the best scientists will still manage to rise above the maddening frustration and royal waste of time that we call "training".

However, would we get more "best" scientists (to use the inane Zerhouni terminology) if our programs were better? Absolutely. Would it be a lot more bang for our taxpayer buck? HECK YEAH.

2. "They are trained to be myopic super-technologists, predominantly in areas of molecular biology and molecular technology. They lack the broad holistic background and capacity to integrate molecular events with cellular through organ-systems physiological and pathophysiological principles and relationships. "

Okay so first of all, the second sentence is a run-on. Apparently senior faculty lack the ability to use effective rhetoric.

So let's break this down into pieces.

"myopic super-technologists"

Translation? The author is a Luddite.

The part that's actually true? Graduate students and postdocs are being used as TECHNICIANS. This reinforces the tendency to be good at the details. Why is it like this? Because of the same thing that has been rotting science from the inside out for a long time now: the emphasis on High Impact Publications. It selects for over-specialization and assembly-line productivity from major labs. Which means that in order to keep the machine running, you better be a damn good cog.

I blame the senior scientists for this phenomenon. They're the ones reviewing papers (supposedly) and sitting on search committees that choose to hire only the top cogs.

"to integrate molecular events with cellular through organ-systems physiological and pathophysiological principles and relationships"

To be perfectly honest, I've never met a single scientist who could do this effectively. Because the truth is, to know the molecular events and really understand them, you have to spend a lot of years working on the molecular side. Ditto for the organ-systems and pathophysiology.

The modern way of doing science, Sir, is by COLLABORATION. If anything, Zerhouni's policies encouraged more funding and jobs for MDs, who specialize in the part you're complaining we PhDs don't know: the organ systems and pathophysiology. So we're really not hurting for specialists in these areas. And asking for junior people who can combine them- well that's just ridiculous. Maybe with 48 years of experience, we could do it. But that's what makes us junior. And maybe you're overestimating your amazing intellect. Since you're apparently a Luddite, it stands to reason that I could run circles around you when it comes to the molecular, technology side of what we do. And yet, you're not impressed by that? Why not?

3. "On the other hand, those “most accomplished, broad-thinking, and creative scientists” are penalized in the grant review process because of their experience and success. "


Um, no. That is not logical, either. Let's break this down again.

In my experience, the most broad-thinking, creative scientists are NOT the ones getting the grants. WE, the most broad-thinking, creative scientists, are ghost-writing grants for our "accomplished" and "successful" PIs. WE are not allowed to write our own grants. WE are quitting science because we are NOT ALLOWED or ENCOURAGED to be broad-thinking or creative. WE are supposed to be cogs if we want to be faculty.

If you are being "penalized" for your success, it's because you already have several grants and CAN'T JUSTIFY SUCH ENORMOUS SUMS. Or maybe it's because you can't claim to spend more than the minimum percentage required of your time for you to pretend to be involved in the project, rather than just slapping your name on the papers at the end.

Sheesh!

Having said all that, some of the comments were really good. Except for one or two, I agreed with a lot that was said.

But there was this comment: Finally, I would encourage all junior faculties to volunteer to serve on the study section. Instead of complaining about the system, try to work in the system to make it better.

This is ignorant and incorrect.

First of all, postdocs are NOT ALLOWED to serve on study sections for R01s. Typically in your first couple of years as a junior faculty member, you don't have time to travel to do this, but also it is VERY unusual to be ALLOWED to do it. People love to talk about it like it's easy to get a slot on a study section, but it's actually not. You don't get to just sign up.

There was also this:

However, there is a much bigger issue at stake. Many R01s that I have been involved in as a junior investigator, or post-doc rarely complete the aims described therein. There must be penalties for the lead PI for failing to complete an R01 according to the specific aims described.


There must? Why? How?

In some ways, I agree. It should be possible to make progress on a grant, although I don't agree that you should have to "complete" everything you proposed to do. But if you don't get anything done at all, it should be held against you. But many PIs get around this by applying to different institutes, different study sections, and as long as they are publishing something, nobody seems to even check. That is a bit ridiculous.

Also, what is said in the grant as planned experiments are rarely if ever carried out in reality. What is done in the lab on having that R01 funded are elements of that R01 together with a revised structured thinking of the PI to conduct experiments that were not even defined in the original grant application. The R01 is in essence out of date from the time it is submitted to the time the check is in the post. This has to change.

It does? Why? There is no suggestion of how that would work. Science is a moving target.

It's hard to see how this would work without majorly overhauling the system. We would need a system that could handle nearly constant updates.

Personally, I'd love to see a wiki-type science world, where everything is transparent and everyone is always updating what they're doing. But it's hard to envision how that could work in the current system.

Cheaters aren't penalized, and honest workers aren't rewarded. There would have to be a way of compensating scientists for significant contributions without rewarding only those who are most adept at exploiting younger researchers to do the physical labor and technological feats. You know, the things our Esteemed Colleague at the University of Maryland, Baltimore won't acknowledge as difficult or essential to his "success".

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2 Comments:

At 12:58 AM, Blogger Kea said...

HEAR, HEAR!!!!

... starts ranting about how ungrateful and unmotivated we junior scientists are.

This generation is the most spoilt, ungrateful and thoughtless one in the whole of human history. They were giving everything: a good education, wealth, hope for the future. They robbed their children blind, built up their empires, and generally made the world a worse place. And now they are COMPLAINING because the younger people don't want the world to stay like this.

At least we know that one day they'll all be dead.

 
At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recommend you learn to listen. Both of you have mouths that clearly are not assets to your career or capability to do research. Your rhetoric demonstrates a clear lack of discipline for which your ability to do science will suffer. Perhaps that is the older person's point when it is suggested you are not receiving decent training. You might find, if you can develop sufficient discipline to hear and communicate effectively, that people who have been around longer than you do have useful thoughts based on their experience. The first sign of wisdom is the awareness you are a fool.

 

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