Push the fledglings out of the nest

Dec 08 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

This paper (pdf) from the National Bureau of Economic Research, titled "Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?", and summarized here, got a fair amount of publicity when it came out about a year ago.  Aside from the fact it supports everything DM has to say (uh, see here but also see here for other issues of entitlement), there is additional value to understanding the study. I think that the analysis of the results suggests another course of action for PI's.

So what does the NBER paper  say? It is a data-driven analysis of publishing rates in life scientists. They looked at folks who died in the saddle at the height of their prowess, what they called super-stars, but I think of as Big Dogs. They measured changes in publication rates of Big Dog collaborators vs. non-collaborators of  over the time period that included the death of the big dog. They found that publication rates of the collaborators dropped, and of the non-collaborators increased. They also implied that the papers of the non-collaborators are "disproportionately likely to be highly cited".

From their conclusions:

Overall, these results suggest that outsiders are reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive and that a number of barriers may constrain entry even after she is gone.

[note: love the use of "she" in the quote]. So what is your average, run o' the mill PI to make of this, beyond confirming what we have always suspected?

I think it suggests a strategy with respect to trainees. I think it suggests moving them on as soon as you can. Now if you are a Big Dog, the data implies they do better with you and co-authoring. But! You might die! You might get hit by a bus, get a glioblastoma, or pancreatic cancer or all of these. What then? Your poor little trainees will be in terrible shape, and suffer more than the amount that they will from just missing you. If you care about their success (an if, I know), they will do better the sooner they are on their own.

But what, I hear you say, what if you are not a big dog? Ah. I am not a big dog, although I am old. I suppose if I was a serious scientist, if I was a good scientist, a serious scientist, really smart and really good, I would be a big dog by now. But alas, alack, I am not. Any of those things. So, for me, small dog that I am, what does this tell me? That my trainees will not necessarily benefit from my co-authorship. But, and this is an extrapolation, they will be poised to benefit more from the death of the big dogs if they are out there on their own.

Actually, this paper suggests nothing of this kind at all. It does not look at the children of little dogs, nor does it separate the children of little dogs from the older little dogs themselves. And actually, when push comes to shove, I am not so much a little dog as a meerkat or an ermine living in someone else's burrow. But that's an aside.

This is a thought about trainees, in general. In general, I think that trainees benefit from being pushed out of the nest. From being pushed to think of their own stuff and develop their own programs. Of course! It is so damn tempting to keep that incredible student or postdoc. They do well. They make your lab not only run, they make your lab HUMMM. But that is about *you* oh mammal of intermediate size. Think about them. Think about what is best for them. And getting them independent, getting them on their own, finding some new trainees for yourself: everyone will benefit. Whether your trainees will be able to challenge the dominant paradigm, publish more or less, and whether in the end the rate of publishing, beyond a threshold really matters, are all things we have and will continue to debate for the near and distant futures. But meantime, independence is the goal of our training, and we are making more type II errors (not seeing independence when it exists) than type I (seeing false independence when it doesn't).



11 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    Isn't this more about whether you have trainees that leave ("independent"!) *but who continue to publish in your subfield with vaguely similar theoretical orientations?

    Giving this up is part of what keeps small dogs small.

    • A Salty Scientist says:

      Now you are making me think not only about the impact of self citations, but also citations by the labs of the F1s and F2s.

      As an aside, it was impossible for me to read this without thinking about Sue Lindquist, a beautiful big dog who didn't bite.

      • potnia theron says:

        While size may tend to be correlated with biting, it is not an absolute determinate.

        On the other hand, every PI who has multiple grants and multiple trainees, is to some extent, stealing from other young 'uns who can't get those resources.

      • drugmonkey says:

        Of course creating a fleet of science descendants is important to citation metrics and perceived importantance of the parent lab. Yet another lasting harm created by the failure of youngsters to flourish. A scientist of x capability is now likely to produce a quarter or tenth as many faculty descendents as a similar quality scientist was in past generations.

    • potnia theron says:

      I doubt it is as clear cut as the authors of the article make it seem. I do not think there is a binary same field/ different field distinction, but an actual range.

      This is only one aspect, one axis, one part of being big or small.

  • wally says:

    I'm only 6 months into my postdoc, and I worry about this a lot. My mentor isn't old (mid 60s) - but she is a superstar and is an amazing match for me, which I feel is just so serendipitous and am very grateful for her presence in my professional life. I just want to make sure I soak up everything she has to teach me before I move on. And I hope she is healthy and engaged for many many more years, as I know I will need her in some form or another.

    • potnia theron says:

      ahaha. Mid 60s is old, depending on your perspective. Lots of GenX'ers think that mid-60s folks ought to hang it up.

      • wally says:

        In her field (she and I are in diff fields), it's not uncommon for people to get their PhDs in their 40s (or later) - so I don't think anyone is hoping she will retire. She takes on so many junior faculty to mentor, if something happened to her - it would be a gigantic loss for a lot of people.

  • EPJ says:

    You just seem to forget that there are two existing problems that make the current situation in the USA and in science kind of like at odds with everything that made them important and constructive:

    1-The increasing national debt and its relation to the monetary and economic system, so that no matter what advances take place, and even applied, what should be in return for the effort is minimal, and that is a maybe.

    2-That there are people saying and documenting that the USA has not being an independent country for a long while, and that the legal status of the citizens is that of slaves.

    Could that explain the issues? and if so, what shall it be done? why waste anymore time to fix that and therefore make the reorganization of Science reflect what it should?

    • potnia theron says:

      I am not sure what this has to do with training people? Do we give up? I can see differences my work has made over time. I can see things that my trainees have done that make a difference over time.

      The "slaves" comment is at best gratuitous, but likely wrong. At worst it is insulting to those human beings who in the past in the US, and still in other countries are truly bought & sold and have little control over basic life choices that most of us enjoy. This is not the same thing as perfect, but slaves? No.

  • EPJ says:

    Hello Potnia, thank you for your gracious reply.

    First of all, I fully agree with your view on the trainee status, and that the best situation for everyone involved should be that of encouraging independence, particularly when some people demonstrate that even at early stages of training by the ideas expressed and by actions that in turn favor the physical growth and ideological expansion within the field and sub fields, which is consistent with what is thought of Science, and interpreted to be expected of its community.

    # 1: Since I also, somehow, share the frustration, I have sketched a tentative explanation for that and extended it to other aspects in which it actually fits. Usually the pressure of available money defines the number of participants in an activity of the science community, and likely across the ladder or pyramid, and maybe it impacts how the rest of things eventually turn out to be there, as well across the rest of society ladders and pyramids.

    So that though management and budgeting is kept tight and correct there is a limiting pressure to keep it like that. It may explain also the trainee situation, so the reality is different from the expected and the ideal because of that money parameter. It eventually adds to the reality of national debts and all that is gong on, which also ends with a negative correlation to the efforts by a given community, its organization, and the actual produce. That is frustrating, and maybe somewhat comforted, in some cases, by the reward of money and status.

    I think it is a valid and sorry interpretation of the times we are living in. But keep in mind that that is a human-made system, so it ought to be changeable.

    #2: I also found in the internet the comments-supported by legal citations-that the country runs under a different scenario than the one that is constantly informed about. And the consequences would be analogous to the slave condition of the past (no saying, no tangible benefits, just food and lodge, maybe some fresh air and sun if the environment is cared for).

    I rather that #1 and #2 are not related at all, but wonder about it since the population is going through so many difficulties that seem unchangeable. And you find that situation everywhere.

    If that is 'fixable' by changing the parameters of that critical aspect f society, it will have a positive effect on the science community and organization. It will be constructive rather than destructive.

    Thank you for reading the good intention into my comment.

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