Some links science-y and academic

All links in this post are via Dr. Free-Ride: here, here and here; now that the density of the readable and interesting material so high at her blog, do I have to say that you should bookmark her blog, if you haven’t already?

Who is a scientist?

A scientist is someone with curiosity. Someone who desires to know about the world, to discover mechanisms or technologies that have not been discovered. Someone who uses the scientific method to solve problems and logic to look for potential avenues for solutions. A scientist is also someone who is consistently learning and using what they learn to teach others. To teach others how to use the scientific method and how to utilize their curiosity to find answers is to be a scientist. Scientists are perpetual students themselves, constantly seeking to learn and understand more about their environment.

Hell, you know what? I like what wikipedia has to say:

A scientist, in the broadest sense, refers to any person that engages in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge or an individual that engages in such practices and traditions that are linked to schools of thought or philosophy. In a more restricted sense, scientist refers to individuals who use the scientific method.

That’s what I’m talking about. Scientists use the scientific method to explore the world around them, and engage in systematic activities to acquire knowledge. Whether that is through data collection or thorough reading of the literature, or whether it involves using the scientific method in daily life to communicate information, those people are scientists. Whether or not you have a PhD doesn’t change whether or not you have a scientific mind, and does not change whether you can use the scientific method. I may not have a PhD (yet…), but I AM a scientist.

[2] How does science work? (for non-scientists as well as scientists)

Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic.
by Frederick Grinnell
Oxford University Press

This would be a great book for the lay person who wants a better understanding of where scientific knowledge comes from. It would also be an excellent read for the scientist who wants an introduction to the philosophical underpinnings of (and challenges inherent within) the scientific knowledge-building project. For scientist and non-scientist alike, Grinnell offers some thought-provoking observations on the ways the interests of scientists and non-scientists in our society are tied to each other.

[3] What are the flaws of peer review process (for grants)?

To quote Higher Ed again:

For those who have always wondered why they missed out on that grant or fellowship, the book may or may not provide comfort. Lamont describes processes in which most peer reviewers take their responsibilities seriously, and devote considerable time and attention to getting it right.

She also finds plenty of flaws — professors whose judgment on proposals is clouded by their own personal interests, deal making among panelists to make sure decisions are made in time for panelists to catch their planes, and an uneven and somewhat unpredictable efforts by panelists to reward personal drive and determination over qualities that a grant program says are the actual criteria.

Uh huh…sure- I get this, and I believe it- it’s sorta old news, but it’s nevertheless nice to see it in print so that we know we are not crazy!!

[4] How does competition affect science?

We just got word through the grapevine that our recently rejected paper has some competition. A similar finding is under review at another journal.

So now it’s a frenzy to try to get some data nuggets of sufficient interest to warrant resubmitting our manuscript, an option the editor left open. We have a couple of these nuggets already, but the key one that should vault this paper to (some) security is missing, and we don’t know if we can get it or not.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether Competitor MS is going to be accepted at this other journal or not. We don’t have a lot of details from our mole.

That reminds me — one of my fantasies — unearthing a novel by Alistair McLean in which he talks about laboratory politics and a spy who is dispatched to the other lab to botch up their experiments!

[5] Is scientific discourse in danger?

When I started doing research, I remember being really impressed at the intellectual arguments going on all around me, and how impersonal it all was.

I really liked that. Intellectual arguments fit with my picture of academia- bookish types arguing excitedly about bookish things! And wearing tweed jackets!

And I was coming from a very fucked-up household, where everything was personal and fighting was always the nastiest hyperbole (“you’ll never amount to anything” type of stuff).

So I liked that science was vocal yet unemotional, or relatively anyway.

Lately it seems like science has become synonymous with censorship, at least in public. It’s what one of my friends calls the “Midwestern sensibility”, which is to say, you keep your mouth shut in public, and then gossip and/or backstab all you want when you’re back with your allies.

To me, this totally defeats the purpose of doing science. If we’re not going to have open discussions about the data, why bother?

[6] Why should you read those papers now rather than later (though, for some of us, the now is already, probably in the past)?:

For the love all you hold dear and sacred in the world, KEEP UP WITH THE LITERATURE.

There are many good reasons for keeping up with the literature, but the one that concerns me right now is that if you don’t, then when you get to the point where you are writing the literature review for your thesis, you are going to be in hell.

Ask me how I know.

If I have to read just one more paper on this particular topic in my field I am going to run through the lab shrieking and pulling my hair out and talking to little blue aliens so that they’ll lock me up in a psych ward where I won’t have to look at journal articles at all (although, with my luck some well-meaning lab mate will bring me papers to read so I can keep busy).

I really and truly wish I could go back in time and pull aside my younger self and say, “Dude, I know you hate reading journal articles because they are dry and inevitably bore the hell out of you but in addition to being critical to your development as a scientist and giving you insight into your own research and inspiring you to be creative as a scientist it is important for you read these papers NOW because you are definitely going to have to read these papers SOMEDAY and if you don’t do it now, one day will be sitting at your desk with piles and piles of papers sitting around you while you search for a different color of highlighter just so you can have a little bit of variety and you will be wondering how many trees you are going to have to plant in order to offset the amount of paper you have used to  print papers in the last couple of weeks.  It will not be pretty.  It will, in fact, be ghastly and you will wander around the lab moaning about how you should have been reading these papers all along until your lab mates want to strangle you.”

[7] How does scientific progress go?

Scientific progress does not always go “Boink“. Instead, it frequently goes “muttermuttermutter@!$%&*mutter”.

The thing about science is that, well, when you’re trying to figure out something new, no one can tell you the answer. There’s no hint in the back of the book, or 24-hour help line. So, if you get stuck, you may well find yourself in the scientific equivalent of a lonely mountain road with a broken axle. And no cell service. In essence, you’ve broken down in a place no one wants to go to.

But, unless you’re ready to call it quits, you somehow have to find your way out. You don’t know how long it’s going to take, or how you’re going to make it, but somehow, you’re going to find your way back to the main road. So, you keep hurling yourself at the problem, trying every MacGyver trick in your arsenal, hoping that something, anything, will work.

The thing about these periods is that while they’re about the single most frustrating and unrewarding part of the scientific process, they are also a ridiculously effective way to develop new skills. By the time you’ve tried 5 different methods of fitting a straight line to some data points, you’ve picked up a heck of a lot about statistics (or, in my case, about solving a network of partial differential equations where the time dependence of three quantities depends on the spatial variation of 1 or more of the others. Ick.).

Happy reading times!

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