Promises, Promises

Ok, this article about the dangers of scientific predictions1 is well written—but it is not saying anything hundreds have not said. Scientists make crazy promises. Hubris causes us to assert that we know what is right as though we have not been bitten by unintended consequences many, many times. But…there is plenty of blame to go around. Patients demand cures for complex diseases as though merely stomping your feet and demanding cures is enough. Scientists respond by looking for cures with artificial models that barely approach real diseases. Scientists have been abandoned by their institutions and turned into money-scroungers with no choice but to turn to the tricks of marketing.

What if we stop writing and saying these things and take it all seriously? Is anyone really ready to give up the game?

Susan Fitzpatrick
James S. McDonnell Foundation
St. Louis, Mo.

Dire predictions by...

But timelines depend heavily on funding. The science can be great, but if it is not funded, then the accuracy of predictions can fall short. But the notion of not painting a clear picture of alternative futures would be a big mistake. Scientists need to be more involved in charting a path into the future, not silent and uninvolved.

John Toeppen
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Livermore, Calif.

Of course, the most famous prediction of all was Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s prediction of a long-tongued hawk moth based on an orchid with a very long nectar spur. The hawk moth was discovered in 1903, decades after their predictions were published.

Charles Goodnight
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vt.

1. S. Blackman, “Promises, Promises,” The Scientist, 23(11):28–34, November 2009.
Right Your Writing

Thank you for these excellent tips on how to improve scientific writing.1 I have read George Gopen’s book2 and recommend it wholeheartedly. I disagree, however, with the advice to write the introduction after the discussion. I recommend to start writing the introduction as early as possible, after you know what your paper is going to be about.3

Hubris causes us to assert that we know what is right as though we have not been bitten by unintended consequences many, many times.

The advice is wise for two reasons: 1) it is risky to find out about other people’s work after the research is completed, so this step takes place early. Why not write these introductory parts—context and scope of research—as early as possible, while the information is still fresh in the writer’s mind? 2) When introductions are written late in the writing cycle, the original excitement of working on an interesting problem or hypothesis has somewhat dwindled by the time the results are ready to be discussed. Memory loss (a writer’s and reader’s curse) leads to introductions that are dull and overly short. Again, a good case for writing a punchy introduction early.

Jean-Luc Lebrun
Consultant, scientific communication

I, too, am a George Gopen “graduate” and have used similar suggestions to guide first-time writers in my laboratory and department. I would respectfully disagree with the suggestion to write the introduction early. If your scientific group has held weekly laboratory meetings to discuss recent results and what is currently in the literature, then the writer should be on top of her/his field. I have found that writing the introduction at the end leads to a much more focused and readable section. I have also found for first-time writers that encouraging them to begin with the Methods & Materials section is often an effective way to “break the inertial barrier.”

Jeffrey Dawson
Duke University School of Medicine
Durham, NC

1. B. Grant, “Right Your Writing,” The Scientist, 23(11):65–67, November 2009.
2. G. Gopen, “The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective,” Longman, January 18, 2004.
3. J-L. Lebrun, “Scientific Writing: A Reader and Writer’s Guide,” World Scientific Publishing Company, April 6, 2007.
For Women, it’s Family vs. Science

The fact that many proposed solutions to help women stay in science1 point to programs that will allow women to take time for mothering and a career (though this is laudable) serves to illustrate the bias that makes this decision so tricky (and so gender-specific) in the first place. How about paternity leave as well as maternity leave?

Men don’t have the same dilemma simply because they aren’t expected to be a parent full time, or if they are, “bringing home the bacon” covers their duties. It’s an economic reality that both parents have to work, and there is no reason why the burden of parenting shouldn’t also be shared. Policies need to be in place—in every industry, not just academia or science—that reflect those realities and support mothers and families.

Jessica Speer
The Baron Edmond de Rothschild Chemical Dependency
Institute, Beth Israel Medical Center
New York, NY

There are also many examples of women/families who have balanced careers in academe, a successful scientific record, and great families. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but these stories are rarely told.

If young scientists, especially females, only see these types of articles that imply a choice must be made or that the consequences of trying to juggle parenting and professional positions are great, then perhaps this contributes to the problem.

Shouldn’t we be providing examples of positive role models?

Diane Husic
Moravian College
Bethlehem, Pa.

1. E. Zielinska, “Family versus science,” The Scientist NewsBlogs, November 11, 2009.
When does oversight overstep?

Part of the job of research scientists is to sell their ideas to granting agencies to obtain research grants. When you get the grant, what is the obligation to pursue the original intent of the application?1

A fundamental question that should be asked is: Would the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine have funded the research if the new direction was actually the primary direction in the application? If the research goes off on a tangent that is of no interest to the agency’s charter, it should be cancelled!

I agree with others that scientists should be able to pursue serendipity, but I don’t think getting the grant is a blank check to do any kind of research. I see no difference in using the funds to pursue unrelated research and using the funds to buy a BMW.

Terry Iorns
Iorns Consulting, Inc.
Mesa, Ariz.

I agree with Terry. There is a difference between a research grant (emphasis on project-supported) and a research fellowship (emphasis on individual-supported).

How to remain true to the completion of the original goals of a thoroughly vetted project while maintaining innovation is one component of effective PI management. When faced with a new and exciting direction, the role of the PI is to find the ways to make that happen in addition to the original goals. The PI should be evaluating personnel and projects to ensure that all can be done within budget. Most of the time, the PI should be immediately thinking “new grant proposal,” as this represents not only a research opportunity but a funding opportunity. If the argument is that the project is not sufficiently developed for funding, then I think that answers the original question about why some agencies, like CIRM, take a dim view on jettisoning the original study aims for the new direction.

Fred Schaufele
University of California, San Francisco Diabetes Center
San Francisco, Calif.

1. J. Akst, “When does oversight overstep?” The Scientist NewsBlogs, November 16, 2009.

Errata: In the Best Places to Work: Academia, the story listed the Mayo Clinic as being located in Rochester, NY. The clinic is based in Rochester, MN. Princeton was listed as employing 2,034 full-time life science researchers. The correct number, 203, represents only those researchers who received federal funding for life sciences at Princeton. The Scientist regrets these errors.

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