Friday, October 16, 2009

Data envy

It has been too long since I've had an interesting result that actually made sense. I'm in the fog part of the project, where all I can do is keep moving forward and hope that eventually I'll reach dry land.

Meanwhile, I'm finding myself wanting to know more about other people's results, even when I don't care about their projects very much. Just because it's nice to see things falling into place, and remind myself that it can be done.

But sometimes this backfires and makes me think, why do I bother asking? Maybe I just shouldn't even try to talk to anyone.


Case in point: I had a really disturbing conversation today with a professor.

This person was going on and on about consulting with other people in the field before proposing or embarking on new research projects.

Here was the list of concerns this person had:

1. To avoid scooping them
2. To avoid competing with them
3. To potentially collaborate

(in that order).

Here is was what I was thinking as I listened to this:

1. I'd be more worried about them (or you!) taking my ideas, since I have no interest in theirs (or yours!)

2. Who cares if we compete, and besides it's unlikely that we'd be doing exactly the same things in exactly the same ways. But why should I drop what I'm doing in the rare case where you happen to be doing something similar? Fuck that.

3. Why would I want to collaborate with you, when you sound so much more concerned with being nice than with actually doing science?? Look at all the science I got done while you were worrying!


I mean, I don't pretend to be a super-nice person, but I don't deliberately try to be an asshole, either (sometimes I can't help it, the assholishness just leaks out...). I used to really admire the super-nice people. Some of them seem to be really good at getting what they want using niceness, and I thought well, it doesn't come naturally to me, but it's something I could work on.

But lately I have less and less patience for the super-nice types. It seems to me that most of these people just waste a lot of time.

Case in point: our lab had a problem recently that affected almost everyone. However, nobody wanted to test the most obvious variable because it equated with blaming human error. In the end, of course it was human error (most things are!), but nobody wanted to say anything because they were terrified that feelings would be hurt.

And yet, to me, the real tragedy is how much everyone's science suffered in the meantime. Lots of time and money wasted because of this super-niceness bullshit. Over something trivial. A mistake that anyone could have made (and which ultimately came down to the PI being absent too much and the lab being too big).

Me, I want to work with adults who know that everybody makes honest mistakes. I want to work with people who are willing to say, "Hey, I'm having a problem with that thing." And I want the other people to say, "Okay, let's try to fix it." And perhaps more to the point, I want to work with people who appreciate that I already do that for everything, every day.

I guess this means I want to be the queen of fantasy-land.


I really like the phrase I heard from someone else who was talking about jealousy and competition in science: Eyes on your own plate.

My eyes are on my plate. I don't particularly care what other people in my field are doing, and I don't particularly want them to know what I'm doing (until I'm pretty darn close to being finished).

My field seems to be populated by people who spend all their time worrying about making sure they dress the right way so the popular kids will like them. Nobody is even trying to be creative and come up with something new to do.

This is yet another reason I find myself seriously thinking about quitting science. Because most people's science bores the shit out of me.

And I'm sick of people trying to offer me cookies in exchange for copying my notes. I don't want your fucking cookies.

Eyes on your own plate. I know you're a shark in nice clothing.

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At 11:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the professor you know who consults with everyone before even proposing or embarking on a new project - to me it doesn't sound like he's trying to 'be nice' rather it sounds like he knows he's too uncreative/unintelligent/lazy to come up with his own research ideas or is incapable of critically evaluating which of his ideas should be invested in. Hence he wants to consult with everyone so they can do his thinking for him. Or, by collaborating, to piggy-back on someone else's research and their funding. either that or he's trying to ingratiate himself with others which is a purely political move and not the same thing as being nice for the sake of being nice.

At 11:52 PM, Anonymous former govt lab postdoc said...

I also think it's ridiculous to check with other people to make sure you are not going to be competing with them. sure there's times when it's unwise to compete with others (if they are much stronger in this area than you are and thus you have no chance of getting the grant funded or renewed). But that is totally different from actually getting their permission before even proposing or embarking on your project. I've certainly seen papers published that followed closely the work I had published years ago, yet no one ever asked my 'permission' to do their project nor would I ever expect it.

I did my postdoc in a national lab. Translate to - all the ridiculousness of academia PLUS the ridiculousness of entrenched governmenty bureaucracy, combined. I was allowed to compete for internal funding along with the PIs (provided I put my advisor's name on my proposal and it was officially "his" proposal). My advisor however, refused to allow me to submit my proposals on the grounds that so-and-so other PI in the institution was "thinking" of maybe perhaps someday in the far future doing something remotely similar so I'm not allowed to submit my proposal as it would be seen as stepping on their turf.

Hello??? How can I be stepping on their turf when they're not even doing anything remotely similar at the moment? simply because they have a vague thought to at some point in the future do something somewhat similar, they own the patent on the entire field for all eternity? So anyway I was not allowed to submit my proposals - I had more than one - because the general field, which could be something as ridiculously broad as all of condensed matter physics, was already 'staked out' by some other PIs in the institution and thus my proposals would be seen as "unnecessary duplication of effort" and thus would not be approved by management. I was told that if I really wanted to propose or embark on those projects, I would have to approach those other PIs, the ones who are not actually doing anything related but say they are, and get their permission. What bullshit is this. I submitted my proposals anyway. And yep they got shot down because they were seen as encroaching on someone else's turf even though they weren't doing anything remotely similar to what I proposed.

At 3:16 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

either that or he's trying to ingratiate himself with others which is a purely political move and not the same thing as being nice for the sake of being nice.

LOL! This is academic-nice. Not the same thing as actually being nice.

former gov't lab postdoc,

This is exactly what makes no sense to me. It seems very childish. It reminds me of the kids who wanted to change the rules after we had already started the game. And who seemed to get away with it in other parts of their lives. And who were surprised when we caught on and told them no fucking way.

I just wish we could do that for science. But I think it is probably too late.

At 6:52 AM, Blogger Rosiecat said...

This post makes me so sad. If this is indeed a field-wide attitude, I don't know what more you can do beyond sticking to your belief that your ideas have merit and it's worth putting those ideas into action in the lab. I worry when fields become crowded with a lot of people working on extremely similar projects. On the one hand, it's good validation for a hypothesis to see that multiple people in multiple labs came up with similar results. On the other hand, what a waste of time, money, and effort to have 3 or more labs doing the same work!

As for being nice, I think the only way you can really be nice and generous with people is if you believe that there is enough for everyone. I feel this way about science and other areas of my life. And creativity and generosity go hand-in-hand to create enough for all of us!

At 7:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just want to let you know I've had a different experience in my lab. We have over 10 students, but everyone helps each other out with techniques and people frequently take the fall when they fuck up. No one is exempt from human error. The only similar "niceness" is that when we work together, people will distribute the work according to known abilities. For example, one person in the lab is really chemical sensitive so any steps that are done out of the hood or involve dumping waste go to someone else. Or, one person is not very good at fine motor control so someone else will pipette into the 96-well plates.
I agree with anonymous on the consulting - that sounds absurd and like fishing for validation.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger yolio said...

This must vary a lot across fields. But in my experience, I do think that dividing up the turf is a good idea. This is because I work in a field where there are far more urgent problems than people to work on them, and it is just wasteful to double up efforts. So consulting your colleagues has its place.

But then again, it is also about playing nice. In my field, nice counts for a lot. Too much. My perception is that the bulk of truly interesting science is done by a minority of really bright people. Meanwhile, the majority of successful scientists are there as the result of collegiality, hard work and luck.

I do think that those traits have their place in science. But I don't think letting science become a glorified country club is really contributing all that much to the public good.

At 2:05 PM, Blogger JaneB said...

Field differences arise again - I work with material from specific field sites, and the world has a finite supply of suitable sites, plus collecting field material is expensive. So I personally do check in with a few people when I am considering new projects - to check that I'm not duplicating work (especially work being done by a grad student which will inevitably be done slower than by me or a post-doc), and to see if samples already exist which I could work with and save the funding bodies the costs of getting new material. I have many more ideas at any one time than I can work up into grants, and grants are very competitive, so it only makes sense to not waste anyone's time. But where there aren't these specific sorts of research-material-related issues, I can see it would be very frustrating.

Re: niceness. The problem is maybe not niceness alone, it's the coupling of nice with spineless - it's perfectly possible to nicely insist that all the basics are checked when problems arise or that work is done - it's a matter of not making any problems personal, about personal competance or failure, I think, about treating people as individuals with strengths and weaknesses - and responsibilities. My last head of department was nice-but-spineless and I much prefer the more ruthless person we have now as Head of Department, though I'd be much less inclined to invite him to a party!

At 11:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Weird. I find my field fraught with the opposite problem - ubercompetitiveness with zero concern over "niceness" and very "not nice" behavior that even crosses into unethical.

I think I also struggle with the opposite problem regarding my own niceness. For whatever reason, I want to be nice. Too nice. I like to make people happy, I'm a people pleaser. Which would probably be great if I wanted to be support staff my whole life, but I don't. So I constantly try to force myself to not care about the niceness. Care about ethical, care about fair, but not care about niceness.

Of course, science is a political place, but dealing with politics is very different from being nice for the sake of making people happy. Political is all about the end result, i.e. be nice to that person because they have something you need and it works. Be a jerk to that person because that's what works on them. I'm still learning how to be political, but still like myself at the end of the day.

At 5:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just heard someone talking about this at a conference, they had a relationship with another group that did highly highly overlapping work, where they'd routinely check in before starting new stuff up. This wasn't because they were stupid, or lazy or couldn't think of new things, or anything you're accusing this poor guy of. They did it because in our field each experiment is extremely expensive, and to get to the end and find out someone had run the exact same thing would be horrible- you could easily waste all the research funds from an entire small-medium grant. They'd basically just check in to see the other group was running that or not. I'd imagine that they'd decide to collaborate if they were both about to start the exact same thing. It was a mutually helpful relationship in which niceness and being collegial actually saved a bunch of people from wasting time and money- doesn't sound that terrible to me...

At 1:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"they had a relationship with another group that did highly highly overlapping work, where they'd routinely check in before starting new stuff up. This wasn't because they were stupid, or lazy or couldn't think of new things, or anything you're accusing this poor guy of. They did it because in our field each experiment is extremely expensive, "

if they are doing work that is so "highly highly overlapping" then by definition it is NOT being creative and is not thinking of new things (unless they are thinking of the same new things that other people in the field are thinking of, LOL as to the irony of that). if they have to keep checking in to make sure they are not being redundant, they might as well all be in the same group or be formal collaborators working on one common program together

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 5:26,

Yes, funding can severely limit your options for creativity AND competition.

However, this particular person- NOT "a poor guy". Not a guy, actually (but two of you assumed that when I wrote "this person") and has no funding problems.

Anon 1:54,

Yup, that is exactly it. "the same new things as everybody else" = not new in my book. I think researchers should be able to see a little bit farther... eye on the horizon, people.

At 1:37 AM, Blogger Carolyn said...

My name is Carol.

It's a little absurd to me that people are discussing "nice" and "competitive" in the same post.

There's only two things you really need, good ethics and common sense.


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