The curse of soft money….

UCSF’s Henry Bourne has an interesting piece out in PNAS about the boom/bust cycle in biomedical research and specifically how the most recent version played out with vast over-building of infrastructure combined with a shift to soft-money support for PI’s. The documentation of the problems is very impressive, however the notion that this can be fixed piecemeal at a few “pioneer” research institutions I think is dead wrong. To my mind, such elitism is exactly how we arrived at our current situation. And in fact, I’m pleased to report that it’s actually at non-elite institutions where the hard money regime still exists, supported by tuition and, in the case of publics, some state support.

Do I have a solution? Here’s a possibility: I urge my biomedical colleagues to take a hard look at the decadal surveys of other fields (e.g. astronomy or oceanography) where hard prioritization choices are made nationally on the basis of evidence.

Another White House science appointment…

Princeton emeritus professor Will Happer, more here.

I’ll simply note his views on climate are at variance with the global scientific consensus. His question about whether increases in CO2 result in the carbon sink of plant life on the planet is interesting.  Since the Carbon Cycle is coupled in various complex ways to plant growth (e.g. through the Nitrogen Cycle), I’d say the answer is not obvious.

The latest from NEON

NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network, is a major research instrumentation asset that the NSF has built for scientists investigating how the environment and ecosystems interact at a continental scale. Here is the latestIMG_1104.jpg from Observatory Director and Chief Scientist, Sharon Collinge. It’s really good to see that this project is coming to a successful fruition.

There’s no photo credit on the image because it’s my photo. I took it at the NEON tower at Harvard Forest in central Massachusetts. Among many data products being produced, one of the most exciting are carbon flux measurements using the eddy-flux methodology. These are important because they provide a window into an ecosystem as it essentially breathes, just like we do. And that has enormous implications for climate change.

The location of this particular NEON tower (one of many across the United States) is particularly interesting because there is also a very long time series (25 years or so) of such measurements produced by the Ameriflux Network. If NEON can take advantage of such older measurements in a way that calibrates rigorously between the two systems, the power of continental scale (3-dimensions) will be enriched by a fourth dimension, time.

Rose hip neurons specific to humans…

Putative inhibitory neurons located in layer I of cortex. They make up between 10 and 15% inhibitory cells in that most superficial layer. Story here, courtesy of SCIENCE.

What is interesting is that these cells are not found in mouse brain as determined by single nucleus RNAseq. Which raises the question about whether these cells are important to human-level higher cognition.

Link to the original paper in Nature Neuroscience here.


International science: at risk?

According to SCIENCE magazine, the NIH is taking a serious look at US funded research products (including ideas, data and intellectual property) leaking to other nations–particularly near-peer competitors such as China. This is not happening in a political vacuum: the current trade tensions between the US Administration and China come to mind. And there have been concerns from Congress even before the 2016 election.

I don’t doubt that there have been instances of bad behavior by individual scientists, particularly those with dual allegiances. But I also passionately believe that the really tough scientific questions require an intellectual approach–look at Higgs in particle physics or the various brain research initiatives. Big science requires a big tent.

I hope we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water here.

The Role of Single PI Science….

I often get the question, especially when speaking to biologists, about whether there is still a role for the single principal investigator (PI) style of hypothesis-based research that was mainly the norm for the life sciences in the last century. My parents’ neuroscience lab at Cal Tech was certainly emblematic of that approach in the 1970’s.  In such research groups, a single senior person was the PI for a grant (or grants). There were well-defined hypotheses for each research project executed by a junior person and generally cross-laboratory collaborations were rare.

I’ve written about team science, fairly recently. And the advent of Internet-enabled open collaboration technologies such as Jupyter Notebooksalong with large-scale major research facilities that produce open data are certainly driving a trend. But I do think there is still a critical role for the small-scale single PI approach.

Why? First, from the standpoint of training new scientists, junior folks tend to get more intense mentorship is such groups. At least for some trainees, that’s clearly desirable. Second, there is a lot to be said for the classic Popperian experimental design. With a falsifiable hypothesis and with proper statistical analysis, I think it’s less susceptible to p-hacking. Finally, I would argue that massive scientific teams might tend to be more conservative, missing out on truly transformative research findings that might arise in the laboratory of a courageous single-PI.