What I talk about when I talk about science
One of the comments on the last post raised the question of whether scientists mostly sit around talking about:
1) technical problems
2) asshole colleagues/advisors
3) publishing & competing
4) big ideas.
Technical problems: the good and bad of talking about it constantly
Talking about it usually means you'll get advice & commiseration. This might make you feel like less of a loser, and you might learn something that fixes your problem.
It might give you the break you need to head back into the lab and try again.
I love giving advice to others when I know enough to be helpful. I find it satisfying to pass one what I've learned and save other people the trouble of learning the hard way.
I try to be supportive when I can't be useful.
I think if you don't like talking and hearing about technical issues, you shouldn't be in science. Period. This is the bread and butter, day-to-day, one foot in the front of the other. It's how research gets done.
The devil really is in the details.
Sometimes you get conflicting advice, and that can be confusing.
Sometimes people will be judgmental and it will make you insecure about asking for help again.
Sometimes people are no help, and then you wonder whether you're working in the wrong place, surrounded by people who don't care or don't know anything useful and won't teach you much, or if you're attempting something impossible and wasting your time on a dead-end.
Sometimes I give advice and people don't listen. I've blogged about this before because it's one of my pet peeves. The people who whine and want shortcuts and think it's easier to do it the "easy way" but that doesn't work and then they have to go back and do it all over again. My way might seem "harder" at first but it works, and in the long run that's actually faster. But sometimes I get tired of people asking me and not respecting what I have to say enough to talk to me about why they think it might not work or to just admit they're too lazy.
Assholes in science
I was talking to a grad student the other day about whether there are more assholes in academic science than in other careers. I think there are. She says there are assholes everywhere. I told her I used to believe that, actually had someone tell me that, back when I was in college and debating about whether to pursue a science career.
Now I'm not so sure. I think academic science selects for assholes and cultivates assholishness in otherwise decent people. I've watched it happen. Otherwise decent people, put under enough pressure, become angry starving dogs backed into a corner. They will bite you.
I'm not sure it was always this bad, but it's how it is now.
So yeah, we complain about it. All. The. Time. On blogs especially.
And I've reached a point where I'm just sick of it. I'm sick of working with jerks and I'm sick of hearing about other people being trapped working with jerks. I'm sick of lacking for constructive solutions.
At first, you treat it like just another type of problem-solving. You read all the books on communication and negotiating and you try to out-manipulate the manipulators. For some people, this works, usually in combination with other approaches like mentoring and string-pulling from family & friends.
But I get the feeling that if you need to read books about it (like I do), you're not going to make it through.
After a while, it's boring. It's frustrating being completely powerless and not knowing how to marshall enough support to stand up to these people or maneuver around them (notice the root of these words, man-ipulate and man-euver.).
And then it's like, well I can advise you up to a point but after that, don't ask me. I couldn't figure it out. Just for the love of god, please quit whining to me about it. I tried every iteration I could think of, but it just wasn't working out for me.
Publishing and competition
Truthfully, when I was just a new student who had never done anything myself worth publishing, I never cared about which journal, which author, which institution, or who did what first.
In school, I met people who cared a lot about which journal. My thesis advisor had ideas about which journals were "appropriate" for my work when we went to publish. I had ideas about which journals handled figures well and which ones tended to make them small and unreadable. That was my biggest criterion. Did they present the material well? No? Then I don't care how famous they are. It's not a journal I'd want to be reading.
Then there was the whole authorship thing. Like the collaborators who let us do all the work and then demanded at the end that their student be made co-first author after I had already written the entire manuscript. How was that fair? I realized I wanted people to be citing ME and not her. I did not want someone else to put their name on my writing.
Not having worked at too many different places, I still don't know what I think about the "which institution" question, but it does affect things. I remember sitting in one journal club, listening to the spoiled brats from the richest labs complaining that the authors of a paper from a third-world country hadn't done enough expensive controls. I tried to explain to them what it's like to work in a poor lab. That you have to choose carefully the most important controls that will tell you the most, because you simply can't afford to do them all.
And I remember slowly realizing how much money matters for how much you can do. That it costs about a million dollars to do a Cell paper's worth of work, by the time you pay for everything and everybody's salary who worked on it. And realizing that most labs simply can't afford to do that. And sometimes even the richest labs go through periods when they can't afford to do it for more than one paper at a time. And that paper might not be yours. And it might have nothing to do with which project is the better project. It might have everything to do with who the first authors are and whether the PI likes them more than anyone else.
And realizing how the competition aspect of everything just poisons the atmosphere. Turns people into dogs trying to eat other people they view as competing dogs.
Yeah, I talk about all of that a lot with my science friends. How it's too bad so much good science never sees the light of day because someone else did it first and that supposedly means it's better, when in fact the better stuff often just takes longer. How timing has superceded quality on the list of priorities and how I think that's a terrible thing for science. How timing often comes down to who gossips the most, who fakes or manipulates data, and which famous authors are on their paper. How perhaps it's the famous authors who fake and manipulate and gossip the most. How we all thought science would be less about fame and more about ideas. How we wonder if it was always this way and whether it always will be. Or whether science might implode if things continue on this way.
So do we talk about big ideas? Sure.
As much as I'd like? No, not at all.
For quite a while now, I've been very isolated from other people who had similar interests. I talked more about big ideas at meetings than I ever did at my home institution. That was part of why, in the last few years, meetings were the most fun for me. My department was full of people who worked on different big ideas, or who debated endlessly about useless minutiae instead of coming up with ways to test their pet hypotheses. Or who did exclusively "me-too" science. One trick ponies.
At first, I tried to interject. And then I gave up. I would just sit back and let them debate amongst themselves. Sometimes I would try to redirect the conversation to the larger point, to ask, like a broken record, "Yes but how would you TEST that?" But often they would turn to look at me and then go right back to obsessing about which famous guy was right about their ugly cartoon model of their favorite mechanism.
It was hard for me to articulate why I thought even the best cartoon model of their favorite question wouldn't really clarify anything, much as they wanted to know, it wasn't going to move the field forward in any significant way if they weren't doing the right experiments.
But I couldn't figure out how to tell them that productively and have them really hear me. I knew it would just hurt their tiny, insecure feelings.
Also, if I viewed them as my competition, it was easy to see how it was better to let them obsess about something insignificant. Like the Princess and the Pea. If they wanted to think the pea was important, that was fine by me. I would rather that they were exhausted and unable to focus.
Meanwhile, I was sleeping soundly and thinking clearly.
But in general, I always liked the idea that we need both kinds. We need people who care about ideas and people who care about details. I want someone else to do some kinds of nitty gritty and I'll take care of the parts they can't see. That's fine. Ideally, there would be room for everybody.
Yes, when I talk to my friends who are scientists, we talk about the future of science and what the next big discoveries might mean for what we can do sooner or later, and how much later. And why do we have to wait. And can we get our hands on some of that new stuff, can we collaborate.
We talk about what we would do differently if we were in charge of everything. We talk about whether we're helping patients and how can we get our colleagues to think differently, to see what we're saying. How to deal with our own doubts by testing, testing, testing. And how to anticipate our colleagues' skepticisms and be most persuasive.
But mostly, we talk about how tired we are of all the nonsense that gets in the way. How much more we could be getting done if only we had the resources. How un-scientific the academic science hierarchy is. And why nobody seems to want to make the radical changes that would be needed to fix everything that needs fixing.