07 April 2021

Gratitude



I’m grateful that:

  1. I had a book in me that I thought was worth writing.
  2. Pelagic Publishing gave me a chance to write it.
  3. I made it through a pandemic to see it in print.

I hope people find it helpful.

03 April 2021

Why “descriptive” science is downplayed

On Twitter, Rejji Kuruvilla asked:

I’m sorry, but WHY are descriptive studies a problem in grant or ms review? If you don’t provide the 1st description or visualization of a biological process, how do you provide the basis for hypothesis or mechanism-driven science?

Oh, I feel this. I complained about this since my grad school days. One of the biggest scientific endeavors that closed out the twentieth century, the human genome project, was pure description. I love this from Niko Tinbergen, in his most famous paper (1963):

Contempt for simple observation is a lethal trait in any science(.)

Here’s what I think is going on.

First, I suspect “descriptive” as a critique might mean any one of three things.

  1. Not hypothesis driven.
  2. Not investigated by controlled experiment.
  3. Studies only a single level of organization.

The bias against description is a symptom of the fact that basic biological research is has been supported by medical agencies. In the United States, the budget for the National Institutes of Health dwarfs that of the National Science Foundation. (Interestingly, this isn’t the case in Canada.)

Medical agencies aren’t funding science for science’s sake. They are not interested in making discoveries that broaden our understanding of the natural world. They have sick people they want to make better. They want treatments. They want results.

To their credit, most medical funding agencies recognize that investing in basic science pays dividends. That’s why they support it at all. But their priorities are not those of curiosity-driven science.

So it is no surprise that such agencies would strongly favour hypothesis-driven research. Because as much as I love basic description and serendipitous discoveries, I absolutely recognize that hypothesis-driven research –  particularly strong inference of pitting competing hypotheses against each other – is ferociously efficient at generating new knowledge.

I don’t think hypothesis-driven research is enough. But even I have to say that I don’t think any other approach generates knowledge as quickly or as consistently.

If you get the “too descriptive” critique, you can’t fix it just by working in the word “hypothesis” into your proposal at every opportunity. The “descriptive” critique is not necessarily about whether you have a hypothesis at all, but whether you address a hypothesis that is actively investigated by your research community. 

You can have a perfectly hypothesis driven project, but is the hypothesis doesn’t addresses what the community cares about, it will still get called “descriptive.”

Another aspect of the critique is that “descriptive” studies are contrasted against “mechanistic” studies. Again, I think this is a symptom of the “medicalization” of research funding.

This semester, I was unexpected assigned to teach part of a course in human pathophysiology. This is way outside my expertise, and I’ve been forced to learn about medical topics more than I ever have before in my life. And after a few months of digging into bone, muscle, and hormonal disorders, it’s surprised me how often developing treatments drill down to understanding molecular interactions. 

A description like “There’s too much hormone” is necessary. But treatments are often based in, “This drug blocks the receptor to this hormone” and “This drug blocks synthesis of this hormone.” In other words, the research spans multiple levels of analysis. When people talk about “mechanism,” they usually mean that they are looking for a level of analysis that is at more finely grained, by at least one step. 

If you are studying an organism, they want an explanation at the level of organs. 

If you’re studying organs, they want an explanation at the level of tissue.

If you’re studying cells, they want an explanation at the level of molecules.

(At least in biology, we usually stop there and don’t require explanations at the quantum level. Thank goodness.)

So seeing the challenges of the problems and the successes gained from these these molecular approaches helps me see why funding agencies like them. They have a proven track record.

I’ve also found that many students struggle to articulate hypotheses. I wonder if early career researchers writing their grants might also be struggling with this.


References

Tinbergen, N. 1963. On aims and methods in ethology. Ethology 20(4): 410-433.

24 March 2021

NSF GRFP award skew in 2021

Matthew Cover pulled numbers I was going to look for on this year’s graduate research fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF):

Congrats to the 13 current Cal State University students who were awarded NSF GRFPs!! For context, that is fewer awards to the largest 4-year system in the country (0.5million) than Stanford- 81, MIT- 76, Princeton- 34, Northwestern- 30, Yale- 26, Chicago- 22, Rice- 22, Duke- 20

I’ve been talking this a few years now, so why stop?

You know, there are some problems in academia that you recognize are going to be slow to fix because they rely on cultural changes.

This is not one of them. 

The NSF could dictate how awards are going to be distributed. But the agency seems unwilling to have that conversation.

Update, 5 April 2021: Megan Barkdull ran some numbers for this year’s awards. She focused on institutional “prestige” and found, unsurprisingly, that the Ivy league universities and their peers gobble up most of the awards. Her full analysis is here.

Related posts

The NSF GRFP problem, 2020 edition
Fewer shots, more diversity?
The NSF GRFP problem continues

External links

NSF Graduate Fellowships are a part of the problem

 

 



23 March 2021

Tuesday Crustie: Cinnamon Toast Crustie

The scandal of the day on Twitter: Jensen Karp asking why there appear to be bits of shrimp in his cereal.

Cinnamon Toast Cruch with apparent shrimp tails

The company claims they couldn’t possibly be shrimp, but those sure look like a telson and uropods to me.

28 February 2021

Australia’s CSIRO expends welfare guidelines to include decapod crustaceans

The Crustacean Compassion website is reporting that Australia’s major government research agency, CSIRO, will now be requiring ethics approval for research on decapod crustaceans.

I’m searching the CSIRO website, but can’t find the specific policy.

External links

Professor Culum Brown on protecting decapods in scientific research

24 February 2021

Austin bats: A case study in successful science communication

Bike rack in the shape of a bat from Austin, Texas
Check out the bike rack on the right. It’s a picture I took in Austin, Texas. People in Austin love bats now.

They didn’t always.

The podcast 99 Percent Invisible just dropped a great episode that looks at how the bats under an Austin bridge went from being viewed as terrors that needed to be eradicated to a major tourist attraction.

Lessons for science communication?

The key advocate for bats, Merlin Tuttle, was no carpetbagger. He moved to Austin and became part of the community he wanted to change.

He built a team. It wasn’t just Merlin – he had started a whole conservation group.

He got the right visuals. He didn’t photograph bats while echolocating because their mouth was open and they were showing their sharp teeth. He photographed them so they looked like they smiling.

Perhaps most important, he was patient and never called people stupid.

This is an incredible success story for conservation. It should be a case study in classes on science communication.

External links

The batman and the bridge builder

23 February 2021

It’s my birthday but you get the gift

Yes, I have successfully completed another trip around the sun. Rather than a birthday present, you can do me a favour: pre-order my book!

Better Posters book cover

The Better Posters book is currently scheduled for release in mid-April, 2021. The exact date is hard to say, because the COVID-19 pandemic is still creating delays and uncertainty in the production and shipping process. It’s been a long journey, to say the least. 

30% off
Pre-orders help books tremendously, and I would like to sell enough copies to have to write a second edition. You can pre-order from the publisher here and get a big 30% discount by using the code “POSTERS30” at check-out.

You could also recommend your university librarian purchase this!

Thank you for your support!

External links

Pelagic Publishing site for Better Posters