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.

And the new semester begins….

I am back from a week of vacation in California. My native state is as beautiful as ever. However, on the plane flight back to DC, we flew directly over Yosemite where the smoke from the wildfires was clearly visible and concentrated in the Valley. It’s a reminder of how powerful nature can be and how it’s not a given that it’ll be aligned with human concerns. The image below is from my visit to Yosemite last summer. There were fires then also.

This coming week, the new semester begins. I’m looking forward….IMG_1165





A bit about my new gig….

The summer break here at George Mason is coming to an end, classes begin in about two weeks and I thought it would good to write a bit about my new life as a plain old professor here at the Schar School. When I left NSF in January, I had negotiated my return to the University to reflect the public policy experience involved in running the Biological Sciences Directorate. Additionally, it had become clear to me that after 23 years in one administrative role after another, I wanted a change in the direction of more time to teach and do research. So when it was approved that my faculty line would be moved from the Krasnow Institute to the Schar School here in Arlington I was really jazzed. There was the additional benefit that the commuting distance would be halved.

I did start though with some trepidation. I had effectively been out of academia for more than three years—that in spite of NSF’s program for supporting rotator to stay involved with research at their home institution. That might work at the Program Director level at NSF, but it’s really not practical when you are responsible for an entire directorate. As a result, I was very rusty from the standpoint of both teaching and research—the two things I would be expected to do as a professor. Hence, it was a real confidence builder to get a grant in the first weeks that I was back and to actually jump back into teaching (rather than worrying about it).


I find that these past months have been some of the most satisfying of my life from a professional standpoint. The sheer pleasure of quiet time to think about science rather than have to instantly react to some crisis is something not to be underestimated. And I have found that my interests extend across a much wider landscape than before I left Mason for NSF. My current grant is on AI. The next one will probably be on metagenomics. Who knows what will come next!

Douthat on the Humanities and Small Liberal Arts Colleges…

Today’s Douthat Column in the NYT is excellent. My readers may know that I attended Amherst College (mentioned in the column) during the 1970’s and can attest to the popularity of the humanities there, at that time. He points out the statistics that show the trend towards the other of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. Indeed, when I was at Amherst, I very much wanted to major in political science. It was my parents who pushed me to major in chemistry.

But….it strikes me that Douthat, in despair at the moral crisis of the West, is really just urging us to return, metaphorically, to the modern version of monastery retreats, as the Irish monks did during the Dark Ages when they purportedly saved western cultural tradition.

I don’t think that this will do. Climate Change will not wait for a future Renaissance to arrive. Neither will the thousands of nuclear warheads that sit on alert. It is vital that science and engineering thrive for the future of the planet and the humanities.

Drone attacks

The Atlantic has an excellent piece about the use of drones by non-state actors for bad purposes, here. My own view is that edge computing and AI will render these technologies vastly more destructive in the future. Not in terms of mass destruction, but in terms of targeted destruction. The key is how to defend against AI-enabled swarms. Could the new 5G networks somehow be deployed in an emergency to do just that?

George Will in support of basic science

His WAPO opinion piece is here. My own perspective on the value of basic science starts with the many salient failures in clinical trials. The reason for this high rate of failure is that we don’t understand basic mechanisms in the healthy human body. For example, how can we successfully treat Alzheimer’s disease if we don’t fully understand how learning and memory work in the healthy brain?

Another point: basic science often pays off in ways that could not have been anticipated at the beginning. Certainly this is true for the new gene editing technologies which arose out of research into the immune systems of bacteria. There are many such examples. Kudos to George Will!