Hoary Crapola From A Towering Giant

October 31, 2009

David Hubel has an opinion piece in the current issue of Neuron that is a total complete pile of hoary bullshit whiny-ass moaning and groaning about the “good old days” and how today’s PIs don’t perform “the real science”. Here is but a small sample of the steaming pile of tedious glurge:

I have no illusions that biological science is likely to return overnight to the system that prevailed a generation ago, but I believe a start could be made in that direction. If I were 40 years younger and a group leader and found myself imprisoned in an office most of the time, I would adopt a 5-year plan to change my scientific style. I would choose a project to share with one partner, put aside a lab bench that I could call my own, and submit a research proposal to fund that project. I would encourage any postdocs in my lab to do the same, with their own funding and independent projects. I would give advice gently and sparingly, realizing that strongly worded advice from a senior person can be hard to ignore and that in science making one’s own mistakes can be an important part of learning. I would limit my committee assignments to one or two and encourage my more senior postdocs to do the same. (I vividly remember asking George Wald, of visual-pigment fame, how he managed to avoid all the wasted time on committees. He answered: “It’s simple: I accept all committee assignments, and never show up for a meeting.”) I would make it a rule that a name on a paper means that one has actually sat at the bench twisting the dials. I would continue to teach because I enjoy teaching and think I do it well. One has to learn to teach and to develop one’s teaching style, and for that reason I would give everyone in my group the chance to try it. [emphasis added]

Yeah, only knob-twiddling counts as real science. What a fucking joke. You’d think a scientist as distinguished as Hubel would have taken a scientific approach to his naked assertions, and presented some motherfucking evidence that science practiced as he lionizes actually works better than the current model. It is also disconcerting that Neuron wasted page space on this kind of completely unsupported blithering.

20 Responses to “Hoary Crapola From A Towering Giant”

  1. Spiny Norman Says:

    “…and there was less distinction, if there was any, between group members.”

    That just makes me fucking want to scream. I fucking hate all the Boomer motherfuckers who like to spew made up shit about how egalitarian science was back in the day. Talk to them a bit more, especially with the aid of truth serum (alcohol), and of course it’s easy to find out that that entire fucking spiel is a convenient fucking fiction. The same motherfuckers like to talk about how little money they got by on (compared to today’s trainees) when they were grad students or (if they had to do one at all) postdocs, and how small their first grants were. All the while not one of these motherfuckers knows how to think about money in constant dollars.

    Vomit.

  2. El Picador Says:

    Low. Hanging. Fruit.


  3. What is fucking wrong with Neuron wasting motherfucking journal space on this motherfucking asswipe’s ideas on good motherfucking science!!!11!!

    He should get his own motherfucking blog asshole to write that kind of shit.


  4. Uh, if he were 40 years younger and paylines were not in the 40%iles like back then, he’d be doing the exact same thing we’ve done/are doing.


  5. Excellent advice to junior faculty:

    1. Choose one trainee to torture, allocate an entire bench to myself and simply write a proposal to fund the work.

    2. Tell/encourage postdocs to get their own funding and projects.

    3. Leave my trainees to fend for themselves with little/guidance or advice.

    4. Refuse to accept or fulfill any committee assignments.

    5. Do the odd spot of teaching here and there.

    I’m guessing this guy is already tenured and more than a tad delusional about the current state of science.

  6. LadyDay Says:

    Not kidding about this, but my current “mentor” has a policy that you only stay in his lab if you’re funded (and he doesn’t pick you up on his grants). Also, he’s so senior that he never does bench research anymore, just delegates projects. I could go on, but won’t lest I lose anonymity by revealing too many details.

    Anyway, his policy makes the yearly battle for grants *that* much more stressful.


  7. I read this and actually found it quite sad. It seems like the lament of a guy later in his career wishing he had spent less time in his office and more time at his bench.

    I remember a very wise men telling a mutual friend of ours that at the end of her life she’d wish she spent more time with her family and not more time at work. Perhaps this is an example of a man wishing he’d spent more time twisting dials and less time in committees.

  8. pinus Says:

    Wow, I just hope I can have this guy be on my tenure review committee!


  9. Dude lost it. The scientific landscape has changed, less pie, bigger forks (costs), and more folks trying to snag a piece. I hear people also bitch about what happened to single author papers (except for reviews), um I’m pretty sure science has become a team sport. You want to take sole credit, go play golf.

  10. Ben Says:

    Yes its a much better system for PIs to sit in their office writing grant proposals and putting their names on papers because they provided bench space and edited the manuscript rather than had an actual intellectual contribution or got their hands dirty. If you can’t come up with a reasonable project and trouble shoot it yourself you’re a fucking hack, fuck off back to grad school where someone can hold your hand and tell you that you’re a unique snowflake.

  11. TreeFish Says:

    Hey, PP.

    I’m late to the party on this one, but I read it as soon as it came out a couple of weeks ago. Reading the brief summary, I figured it would be filled with ‘at that time’, ‘in my day’, ‘founding fathers’, etc.

    I wasn’t disappointed! It sounds like a crotchety old man upset that his younger colleagues manage the lab, act as PIs by inspiring future PIs, and embrace the need for visibility/availability among the non-science partners in the research/academic community.

    As a side note, his anecdote about Vernon Mountcastle is hilarious. Mountcastle was a cantankerous jerk! It reminds me of the stories about Eccles, staying up for 48 hours recording from cat spinal motor neurons, and then taking the next three days off to sleep and work on his garden. These motherfuckers were bad-ass, but they were also petty, conniving jack-asses! Just ask Llinas and Wilfrid Rall!

    Bench time is extremely important, particularly for younger PIs (thanks, Tom Cech!). Perhaps this bench time for the more established PIs is also important, but history tells us that they get a little too attached to their ideas, and are less apt to hear dissenting/contradicting views (dendrites aren’t active you fool!).

    Perhaps when ‘the modern PI’ is procuring funding, thinking up experiments, surveying the literature, managing an active research lab AND being a part of the larger university community, they gain perspective that makes them comfortable with the idea that they might be wrong sometimes. I’ll take that any day.

  12. BKProf Says:

    As an almost-baby-boomer myself, I agree with Spiny Norman that this notion of egalitarian science back in the day is a load of horse hockey. However, he is just plain wrong about the monetary stuff. Students did get paid way less a generation ago than they do now. I just plugged my 1982 grad student stipend (from a large public medical school) into a US inflation calculator, and in today’s dollars, it works out to be just under $10,000. I have a hard time imagining many of today’s students working for that kind of pittance.


  13. Oops, somehow missed this when you posted it. Look, if we ignore the diktat that one must twirl the dials to earn an authorship, what I read is a suggestion that PIs might enjoy returning to the bench. He’s sad when he sees current PIs “imprisoned” in the office because he would have hated that. Isis is wrong, Hubel spent his career doing experiments. Because he liked it.

    I think all he’s really saying here is that it would be nice if it were an option for PIs to run their labs like this nowadays, rather than having the expectation that they’ll run little fiefdoms. And I agree.

  14. drugmonkey Says:

    I ran the inflation calculator on the first google hit and my first grad and first postdoc stipends were lower than 2008 grad and post-doc stipends in adjusted dollars. of course, both of those numbers came from before the big jump the NIH put into their NRSA stipends in the mid to late nineties.

  15. Nat Says:

    I think all he’s really saying here is that it would be nice if it were an option for PIs to run their labs like this nowadays, rather than having the expectation that they’ll run little fiefdoms. And I agree.

    I also agree. I don’t mind if there’s a group of PIs out there who feel doing rig science is a waste/boring, and either prefer or are better at directing a lab. What I object to is a system that appears to force PIs to do it that way.

    I know lots of PIs who would like to do at least some rig science (to the point of having a rig in their offices), but cannot do so. On balance I think that’s a shame, not because of these poor little whiny ass titty baby PIs, but because when I’ve had the luck to do experiments with them, I’ve learned a HUGE amount. To neglect that accumulated experience seems a waste.

  16. Eurodoc Says:

    The thing I don’t get about these occasional moans from the old guard, is that you can still run a group their way. There are two options: 1) be a genius and get a job at Janelia Farm or LMB or some other institute that adopts the “small group” model, or 2) get a job at a good university, and then run your group as they suggest. That’s what I’m doing. I don’t want to run a group of twenty and I do want to do experiments as often as possible. So I do.
    It’s only an issue if you want to be a big-swinging-dick PI who tours the world comparing your C/N/S papers with other dick swingers.

  17. Nat Says:

    It’s only an issue if you want to be a big-swinging-dick PI who tours the world comparing your C/N/S papers with other dick swingers.

    That’s categorically not the case with the PIs I mentioned. Now, I’ll admit that I don’t really know the reasons why they didn’t keep doing their own projects. But it does seem like it was something they would have liked to do more of.

  18. Eurodoc Says:

    Of course, I don’t know their situation. But I do know it’s tempting to sit in my office dreaming up experiments for my already very busy postdocs to do, when I could go and do them myself. It’s not just The System that causes PIs to become “directors”.

    That said, many of the BSDs I’ve met seem to have wanted to get out of the lab as soon as they could. So my jaded opinion must be true. I have anecdata.

    It’s also easier to work to your own model once you’re tenured, of course, which Hubel kind of glossed over.

  19. Nat Says:

    It’s also easier to work to your own model once you’re tenured, of course

    So you agree that though the system doesn’t prevent PIs doing their own hands on research, it doesn’t make it easy?

    But regardless of whether the system enables or discourages PIs from being able to do their own project, I’m interested in why you do it. Do you just like it, do you think it helps with other aspects of your science (that you don’t do hands on), etc.? You’re one of the few PIs I’ve come around who does still do their own stuff, so I’m curious.

  20. Eurodoc Says:

    Partly it’s habit. I was basically left to my own devices as a postdoc (my dream supervisor – pointed me at a rig, and then asked about my results if we happened to meet at coffee), then got a fellowship to start my own group. Published a couple of single author (experimental) papers, but then got in a couple of postdocs and students on grants. That was enough to get me tenure.
    I do actually like doing experiments, so I’m happy. I’ve never published a paper that hasn’t had at least some of my experimental work in it (usually a few controls, or the really technically tricky stuff), so I meet Hubel’s “knob twiddling” criteria.

    But. Unless I stumble upon something epic, I can’t see myself ever joining the ranks of PIs who publish in C/N/S regularly and head up the talks in Gordon conferences year in year out. I simply can’t generate data fast enough.

    So, it’s probably true that the director-types have a much bigger profile, and become the model to emulate for hyper-ambitious young turks. I just don’t understand why Hubel seems to think *everyone* should do it his (my) why. You can just make that decision for yourself if you like, and let the BSDs get on with their stuff.


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