Approaching Geezer-hood

Recently, at a small scientific meeting, a colleague and I be-moaned the loss of the good (bad?) old days of scientific conferences when questions from the floor were not quite as polite as today and would, at times, devolve into knock-down, drag’em out arguments. Knowing full well that any observation beginning with “remember…” marks you as a geezer we both were willing to admit that maybe it was we who had changed, not the meetings, and that perhaps the passage of time had altered our memories. Still, we couldn’t shake our beliefs that there was a time – we tried to create a chronology; definitely pre-1990′s – when questions from the floor were often pointed and sharp. As a student preparing to give a talk at conferences one would try to anticipate from what direction the questions would come and be ready. It was never possible. Inevitably someone always asked the question that would, no doubt about it, have you back at the bench and hard at it when you returned to the lab. We both could not remember in those days the softballing that is now commonplace. Particularly irksome is the typical remark after a rather mundane and artless presentation: “thank you for that interesting presentation…”.
So what’s our beef? It is not that we resent the kindler, gentler land conferences have become. It is that we miss the rigor of real scientific questioning. We regret the loss of standards and the new acceptance that all research is good research. We have lost something. Something important. Because rigor, and standards, and hard questions make science better.

Giving Thanks

Thanks to all the far-seeing individuals, like Mr. James S. McDonnell, who established private foundations and dedicated their personal wealth to advance the common good. I have mentioned numerous times that one truly wonderful aspect of the strong American tradition of philanthropy is that it provides for distributed decision making rather than having all support derive from a central government or a state- established religion. In the sciences this is particularly important as philanthropic dollars can provide support for those with ideas departing from the scientific orthodoxy and for individuals who may want to revisit common wisdom assumptions (particularly those based on limited data).
The individuals and families establishing private foundations did not have to dedicate large portions of their wealth to charitiable purposes. That they did so is an act we should all be grateful for – because we all have benefited, even if we may not be aware of how. Again, when it comes to the philanthropic support of science – two great traditions were essentially born and came of age together — american science and american philanthropy. I sincerely hope the great tradition continues to flourish!

A loss of discernment

Increasingly I get the feeling that foundations supporting scientific research are overly aligned by the insidious “you are either with us against us” rhetoric of academic scientists, particularly those who want to trade the aloof ivory tower for the sandbox of science policy. Philanthropy should be reluctant to yield its ‘third sector’ identity – meaning it is not government and it is not business. Even in support for scientific research – philanthropy’s value, considering its relatively small size – lies in its independent system of decision making. It has become unfashionable to question science. Any criticism is interpreted as giving to solace to the enemy – a term that in a rather circular kind of argument seems to apply to anyone who questions science. The undertone is, of course that only the far right fringe has a problem with science. Overall, defensiveness is not good for science – particularly when the issues intersect with social values, social norms, and in many cases the health, education, and self-understanding of all of us. it is time for researchers and third sector funders to have honest, sophisticated conversations on why it is that problems do or do not yield to our current knowledge. Everything should be on the table and open to scrutiny.

Getting grayer

Is it just my imagination or are junior scientists getting older and older? Certain meetings that I used to attend that were usually showcasing younger scientists now seem to be stages for those well-past even the kindest effort to classify as “young.” The fact that I have noticed this – as my age (like the price of milk; although the causal relationship has not yet been established) has also altered upwards. Certainly there is data indicating that, over the past few decades, the age when one secures his or her first major independent grant has steadily krept upwards. There are lots of reasons for this statistic – but now I am beginning to wonder if the broader cultural phenomenon of keeping one’s progeny as children untile their 3rd or 4th decade is creeping into academic science. Maybe there is something akin to “helicopter mentoring” going on? Or maybe it is that as we older members of communities infantalize the younger by witholding responsibility via the witholding of opportunities is contributing to the gray tones of academic science?