Last week, I exulted in the astonishing scientific triumph represented by the availability – already! – of vaccines for Covid-19. This week I’m going to let myself slide back into curmudgeon mode, just a little bit, because I think there’s an important way in which some folks are missing the point of the Covid-19 vaccine story.
Like a lot of posts here at Scientist Sees Squirrel, this one is inspired by several different events lining up in my head to point in a common direction: Continue reading
Image: A completely useless Gantt-chart timeline, from a grant proposal I submitted before my recent epiphany
I’ve written a lot of grant proposals in my 30 years as a scientist, and that means I’ve jumped through a lot of hoops. I can wring the most text from a specification of font size and margins. I can describe a piece of research as simultaneously novel enough to be exciting and yet, at the same time, pedestrian enough to be risk-free. I can justify the crap out of a budget. But one hoop nettles me more than any other hoop held before me: the grant timeline (sometimes called “schedule of proposed activities”).
I can jump through that hoop, of course – I can make a Gantt chart with a veneer of plausibility. But I don’t see the point. Continue reading
Image: Richard Spruce late in life. Frontispiece to Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes (1908), public domain.
Last week, I did a little ranting about what I consider the fetishization of entrepreneurship in our society. In the Replies, a couple of readers pushed back, pointing out ways in which entrepreneurship serves economic and societal purposes. I’m glad to have the pushback (especially because so far, nobody has gotten incoherently angry about the post). I’m even going to add a little pushback myself*. Did you know that entrepreneurship underwrote one of the most amazing botanical expeditions in history? Continue reading
Image: Cash, images_of_money CC BY 2.0
Last week I went up to our campus conference centre to see my 11-year old son’s display at the school district’s “Invention Convention”. I found a room full of students showing off their clever inventions, most of them bubbling with energy. They had on display, not just their inventions, but searches for prior art, pricing strategies, marketing plans – the works. It was the second such event I’d been to in a month, actually; at the school’s open house, there was a Grade Eight Marketplace where the students were actually selling the gadgets they’d designed and made. The latter event, I’ve learned, won a National Entrepreneurial Award. All this was clearly supposed to impress me and make me proud, and in a way it did. But it also saddened me.
It’s not that I object to kids learning about entrepreneurship. Continue reading
Image: Crowdfunding, US Securities and Exchange Commission (no, really), CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Sometimes I hold an opinion that I’m almost certain has to be wrong, but I can’t figure out why. This is one of those times. I need you to help me.
I’ve been watching the trend to crowdfunded science, and it bothers me. I completely understand why it happens, and why it’s become much more common. The science funding environment continues to be difficult – indeed, in many places it seems to be getting steadily more difficult, especially for early-career scientists and those doing the most basic/curiosity-driven science. At the same time, the rise of web-based crowdfunding platforms* has made it relatively easy to reach potential donors (at least in principle, and more about that below). For any given researcher at any given time, surely the science is better with access to crowdsourced support than it would be without. And several colleagues I like and respect have crowdsourced part of their work. So why am I so uncomfortable with the model? Continue reading
Every now and again, a paper is published that’s so peculiar, or so apparently irrelevant to any important question, that it attracts derision rather than citation. Perhaps it picks up a Golden Fleece Award, or more fun, an IgNobel Prize; or perhaps it just gets roundly mocked on Twitter*. Much more than every now and then, a paper gets published that just doesn’t seem to connect to anything, and rather than being derided it’s simply ignored.
Perhaps you think this kind of thing is a recent phenomenon. Continue reading
Image: The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone (1771), by Joseph Wright, illustrating Hennig Brand’s discovery of phosphorus. Collection of The Derby Museum and Art Gallery.
Warning: long-ish. If you like, skip the middle section (history of the discovery of phosphorus) or skip the opening and conclusion (open science vs. commercialization). It’s kind of two posts in one.
Last week I was working on a grant proposal, to an agency called the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation. I was feeling a bit soiled, since NBIF is unabashedly about industrial innovation and commercialization, and I’ve always fancied myself a basic/pure/curiosity-driven scientist*. A move into more applied work (mostly forestry-related) is new for me. I really struggled to write the section about how the intellectual property generated by my proposal would be commercialized – partly because I just don’t have any interest in doing so, and partly because (as a consequence) I really don’t know how.
One thing was obvious, though: Continue reading
Photos: “Mentor”, from my cherished Oxford Universal Dictionary (1933; 1955 reprint). As a very small child, I sat on this dictionary at my grandmother’s dinner table. When I no longer needed a boost in height, it provided a boost to my vocabulary instead. Yes, I’m a nerd. Longtail widowbird: Public Domain by Mohanr53 via wikimedia.org.
It’s grant reviewing season*, and that’s gotten me thinking about mentorship. NSERC (Canada’s main basic-science granting agency) refers to the students and employees a PI supervises as HQP (for highly qualified personnel), and weights both past HQP training record and future HQP training plan very heavily in its deliberations**. Although NSERC funding rates are relatively high (and the grants correspondingly small, and that’s good), they’ve been tightening somewhat, and this seems to be driving some remarkable supervisory inflation.
What do I mean by “supervisory inflation”? Continue reading
Last month I posted “Why grant funding should be spread thinly”. In a nutshell, I provided a simple mathematical model that I think supports the argument for an agency’s awarding many smaller grants rather than just a few very large ones. The discussion in the Comments section of that post was lively, no doubt because as scientist we’re heavily invested in the way society supports, or doesn’t support, our work. Our grants give us the tools we need to do the science we’re passionate about, and that passion comes out when we talk about granting policy.
My earlier post left some loose ends. Continue reading
How should a granting agency distribute the funds at its disposal? Different agencies have different answers to that question. The NSF (USA), for example, has traditionally awarded operating grants to rather few applicants, with each successful applicant getting quite a lot of money. NSERC (Canada), on the other hand, has traditionally awarded operating grants to most applicants, but with each successful applicant getting less money (a recent snapshot and some discussion here). NSERC has been moving slowly but steadily in the direction of the NSF model, with lower funding percentages, larger grants for top-ranked applications, and new categories of super-grants intended to recognize “excellence” (e.g., Vanier graduate scholarships, Banting postdoctoral scholarships, Canada Excellence Research Chairs program). Scientists have widely decried NSERC’s shift (for example, here) and NSF’s practice (for example, here and here) – but are they right? How should an agency like NSERC optimally distribute its funds? Continue reading