Hubble Telescope

I know that we are waiting on the James Webb Space Telescope, but disturbingly, the Hubble Space Telescope is sitting in safe mode after a gyro failure this past weekend (hat tip to NASA watch). This is the telescope that has been the workhorse of NASA’s astronomy program.

In a sense this is the future. If we continue to send very complicated gadgets to technological edge environments, particularly in the near future with AI on-board, they are going to have to be much more resilient. Space and deep ocean are examples of such environments. There are implications for big science and DOD.

Overthrowing the tyranny of ordered authorship…

You know the drill: if you aren’t either first author or last author on a journal article in the life sciences, then you’re really not able to use that work as evidence of research independence when you come up for promotion or tenure. In this week’s Nature, Gretchen Kiser of UCSF rails against the semiotics of authorship order. Right now, I’m working on a manuscript in which all the authors are listed alphabetically with the asterisk denoting that we have all contributed equally. But that’s stuff and nonsense also: ¬†perfectly equal contributions to a work of scientific research is as rare as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.

I don’t know what the solution to this mess is. As things stand our scientific identification (usually still denoted by our names) is the coin of the realm as far as credit and priority. Team science is indeed growing more common in many fields. As with Michael Lewis’ wonderful book on baseball, Moneyball, we may need new statistics to assess scientific excellence in the future.

One proposal per year…

I’m hearing a lot about NSF BIO’s new policy of one proposal per year for each Principal Investigator. In general, I’m hearing complaints from more senior investigators and positive interest from younger ones. This is somewhat counter-intuitive for me since I’d expect junior PI’s to be quite anxious to get as many proposals as possible in within the time window of their tenure clock. But I suppose they also see this new policy as potentially reducing the competition from the old fogies (an aside, this is the same logic of those who rejoice when NSF or NIH have funding downturns because they see those as driving out the competition).

In any case, I’m agnostic about this. It is certainly good that NSF is discouraging the recycling of proposal failures. I find it annoying that I can only be PI on one proposal for the coming year–although it will incentivize me to make it as excellent as possible. I do think that the rather negative report on this new policy in SCIENCE was insufficiently nuanced and would be happy to discuss with the reporter.

fMRI leaps forward….

A fantastic paper just out about relating the cellular microenvironment to the R2t* component of the signal relaxation constant, here. The authors did two really clever things: first they related the signal from the brain microenvironment (think, the area around individual synapses) to the Default Mode Network–a signature of resting awake cognitive activity. Second, they used the Allen Gene Brain atlas to look at the interplay between this brain imaging signal and the gene networks that define the molecular biology of the nervous system.

Definitely an important result. All of this out of the outstanding group at Washington University St. Louis that has been pushing the limits in this field.

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.