Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Support basic science

The promised injection of £2 billion into the UK science ecosystem is without doubt a good thing. However, there is some uncertainty as to how it will be handed out.
Since this is taxpayers’ money, there needs to be a demonstration that the money has been “well spent”: the big question, then, is what defines well-spent science funding? In the event of the government not opting for the “give it all to John Tregoning” option, I wanted to make a case for the funding of basic science.
Translation versus inspiration
While all science involves repeated testing of ideas, we artificially split the world of scientific effort into two very broad areas: basic science (pure research, learning about stuff for the sake of learning); and translational science (testing things like drugs, chemicals, devices, bridges and computers to improve the quality of human existence).
To those with a commercial mindset, the translational approach has the greater value. You put money in, you get better stuff out. So why invest in pure research?
Essentially, basic science underpins translational research: the ideas about how to make stuff better come out of pure research. Lots of modern engineering depends on us understanding how gravity works, but Newton’s aim wasn’t to put rockets on the moon. While the results are not immediately tangible, basic science underpins technologies that are the foundations of billion-dollar industries – for example cancer immunotherapy, lasers, the internet, GPS, fluorescent and luminescent proteins.
I strongly believe that we need both: funding translational science at the expense of basic science may pay off in the short term, but it damages advances in the long term.
The home of basic research
I also believe that in the current research ecosystem, universities are best placed to deliver the pure research and companies small and large are best placed to develop it into real things.
Companies utilise (and often contribute to) the basic research being performed by academia, but rarely initiate basic research programmes by themselves: though there are exceptions, the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory (which has gained two Nobels) has just celebrated its 60th year and the AT&T Bell labs earned 8 Nobel prizes.
If universities are initiating the research, it raises a question about who financially benefits from the basic research, as the money may not seem to come directly back to the originator. But it will trickle back in tax revenue, employment, better medicines, cleaner cars and other indirect benefits.
This is a strength of bringing Innovate UK and RCUK (Research Councils UK) into one umbrella organisation, enabling the flow from academic basic science to small and medium enterprise led innovation (ie, by any firm with up to 250 employees) to large company implementation.
The other benefit of basic research is the teaching and training element.
The economy needs people with science backgrounds. A PhD provides the student with very much more than just the ability to move colourless liquids around – it gives them problem-solving, teamwork and analytical skills, tenacity, flexibility and independence. But just as no one expects doctors to train without ever seeing a patient, the best way to learn science is by doing science.
Basic research delivers this apprenticeship in science. To quote the National Science Foundation in the US: “Basic science is a gamble because it deals with the unknown, but a sure thing because it always leads to improvements in knowledge.”
Reap what you sow
The good news is that the public have repeatedly demonstrated support for basic science: a 2014 survey by the British Science Association reported that 8 out of 10 people questioned supported research with no immediate benefit. So please include basic research in the mix – not to the exclusion of work with an immediate pay-off, but as part of a long term strategy to further develop our scientific excellence.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: we choose to do the research we do, not because it is easy, but because it is hard; we choose to do basic science because it is there and new hopes for knowledge are there and we are going to climb these mountains.
Surely that is as uplifting a message as we can hope to end 2016 on.
This article was first published on the Times Higher Education Supplement 31/12/16

Monday, 19 December 2016

I need space to breathe, to create

Creativity – probably the best PI skill in the world

What is the most important skill to become a PI? An eye for numbers, an ability to perform repetitive tasks accurately, optimism in the face of relentless failure, the ability to play nicely with others, sheer bloody mindedness, self-belief? All of these skills will strap you into the driving seat but once there, you’ll need to press the pedals yourselves. The most vital skill is creativity; the ability to see new connections — linking old data in new ways and using what we do know to interpret what we don’t.
Creativity is the most nebulous, ephemeral, and elusive of qualities and often feels at odds to the scientific process, but without creativity, you ain’t going nowhere.
In my experience there’s an arc to developing an idea. It starts with staring in despair at a steaming pile of mismatched data that has recently been deposited onto your desk. After the initial shock, you might begin to see strands of a story coalescing. You start to sew it together, ambitiously demanding new datasets and proposing experiments that will never be undertaken.
Finally, you pull all of the ideas into a shining gem of scientific writing, polished to perfection for your dream journal, only to have it crushed by some faceless, nameless, and possibly soulless reviewer and have to begin again. However, these steps are extremely tricky and involve a lot of tea, pacing round the office and crumpled sheets of paper. Here are some things that may help you to have, and then develop your ideas.

Be receptive

Ideas come at the most inconvenient of times — at 4 in the morning or when you have no access to pen/paper/internet. Accept this and provide yourself with tools to mitigate it: keep a pen besides your bed; use the notes feature on your phone; carry a notebook everywhere.

Stand on the shoulders of giants: read

There are no new ideas. Everything is a development from something else: this makes it both easier and harder. Easier because you can read around and adapt ideas from other disciplines; harder because someone else has no doubt had the same idea, reducing its novelty, impact and therefore marketability.

Follow your dreams

Allow yourself periods of not actively thinking about an idea — when you come back to it the problem will often be clearer. A lot of the heavy lifting can be done by your subconscious; give it time to do the groundwork and feed it by reading around the topic. But try to keep it focussed, as it is prone to drift off to the land of chocolate (mmmm. Chocolate).

Work the problem

“My subconscious is working on my grant” is a great excuse, but doesn’t get you funded — you do actually have to do something. Even if all you have to show for it is a bin full of crumpled paper; sitting, thinking and writing are all needed to add substance to any idea. I’ve spent many mornings going round in circles stuck on a particular issue, but you need to put in those miles in order to achieve breakthroughs. The trickiest part is knowing when to push and when to stop.

Take a (mind) dump

Even short breaks can help. Archimedes had his Eureka moment in the bath, Newton was chillin’ by a tree when he got beaned by the apple good, and programmers have been communing with rubber ducks for 17 years. The first two probably didn’t happen (and the third, bizarrely, does). And there are other small rooms where water displacement and inspiration are linked  — stepping away from your desk can often lead to moments of clarity.

Don’t overthink it

Ideas are strange ephemeral things and in their earliest stages, they are staggeringly easy to destroy: direct scrutiny is the death of creativity. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, the brain just edits out them out, like a blind spot: your only hope is to catch them by surprise out of the corner of your eye. There is a difference between coming up with an idea, when you need to be creative, imaginative and think of the big picture; and developing an idea, when you need to be critical, analytical and focussed on the details.

It’s good to talk (but only sometimes)

It can help to discuss your idea with someone else as advice is always valuable, but you need to find the right person. Some people are good at giving unstructured support. Others are more critical, which can make your ideas stronger, but it can also kill them stone dead. Be clear with what you need when approaching someone for advice.
The timing of the discussion is critical. At their inception, when I can’t even find the words to describe the ideas to myself, there is no point trying to describe them to others; I get tongue-tied and frustrated while the person I am talking to just stares, bewildered. As the ideas become more formed, my excitement increases, but they are no less fragile.
When they’re developing, but not complete, the ideas (and I) both need unconditional praise to develop further: detailed questioning can make me doubt my idea, lose enthusiasm and bin the whole thing, including the good bits. Finally, only when fully mature, do I feel robust enough for ‘instant feedback’
The single best thing about academia is that you get to have ideas and test them, no matter how crazy they are. But you must feed the beast: it takes more than one good idea to sustain a career. Yes, a “break-in” idea might get you your first PI job, but maintain a stream of ideas at various stages of development from half-baked plan devised in the pub to rejected grant. So get out there and start thinking.
This article first appeared on Nature Jobs Blog on 19 Dec 2016.