Submitting a grant: is perfection too much to ask?

Does your grant have to be perfect to be funded?  @Drugmonkeyblog posted a thoughtful bunch of words that addresses this question, and a little back-and-forth on twitter was summarized by The Mistress of the Animals @pottytheron here.  I’m motivated to kill more electrons on the issue because honestly, DM and PT and I really I think agree on the important point, and I want the message to be clear:  submit your damn grant this cycle.

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Silver?  Gold?  What the hell do these things mean?  @Pottytheron is spot on, there is no objective measure, only the inherently arbitrary opinions of study section.  We agree on the point that any grant submitted has a good chance of rejection for whatever reason.  And the *critical* part of academic success is to keep submitting.  Like shots on goal, you have to keep trying to win.

When I said, “silver proposals do not get fundable scores,” our apparent disagreement, I suggest, was the perception that I was referring to how “great” the science is.  Is this grant your “best” science?  I agree with DM, that question is not the most important one.  I super agree it’s not worth a grant cycle trying to improve the scientific concept of your grant.  We agree completely I think that too much time spent with tunnel vision on how brilliant your science is has diminishing returns.  What I mean by a “flawless” grant one that is holistic, that is, that treats each and every section (the budget, your biosketch, lay abstract, etc) with equal diligence.

A senior huge-ass deal PI told me once when I was a post-doc that grant proposals should be “round like a ball of wax,” and for years I could not figure out what the hell he meant.  I think his words though are key to understanding the paradox here– yes, I agree that a grant does not have to be perfect, and most importantly you should not spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make it so.  But at the same time, the grant must be large error-free.

Here is the rest of a post I had started earlier on the topic of writing a “perfect grant.”  What I point out are a few fatal flaws that have tanked grants of mine and those I’ve reviewed.

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Wait a minute, Smarty Pants…how can I, a not-quite-perfect person manage to put together a perfect grant proposal?  Damned if I know, to be honest.  But there were a few pitfalls I wanted to broadcast to perhaps prevent one of you from falling into similar holes.

Review the work of your admin.  At least two grants in my stack last week were painfully trashed because of the same mistake on their face page:  the mechanism was incorrectly filled out.  Specifically, two grant that were otherwise perfectly fine independent investigator grants had “career development” mechanism listed on their face page, clearly in error. The grants staff thought hard about whether it would be acceptable to correct this error for the PI.

Focus your grant on your strongest suit.  On the twitter, I made the comment that it was not a good idea to put in a grant on a topic that is not your strongest suit.  I was recently on study section where PIs got tepid scores, in part perhaps because their grant focus was different from their most recently published papers.  Odesseyblog in fact has an outstanding post describing his success in just such a subject matter switch.  Indeed has a super post on his mid-career research change.  Reading his post I think only underscores my point that such transitions should be undertaken with care.  OB says that he already had an extremely successful research enterprise in one area so sure.  If you already have stable grant funding for one project, and if you results are pouring in to suggest that you are mining a good data vein, then sure.  By all means, branch out.  (This is what the NIH intended the R21 mechanism to be for, in my understanding.)  The struggle I witnessed reviewing grants were PIs that were *not* yet firmly successful in one subject  area.  They came across as diffuse, unfocused.  If your main lab effort is *not* fully funded, your proposals, I suggest, should hit different facets of a singular focus, and not be shots into different areas completely, where you have no track record, hoping to get lucky.

Don’t bring coals to Newcastle.  No matter how brilliant you think your ideas are, be very very cautious about trying to “improve” a well-known area.  Specifically, I am referring in my experience to well-studied genes and molecular pathways.  As a junior investigator, I felt I had some great data on a well-studied gene, and felt that adding a “new angle” on an old pathway would be greeted with enthusiasm.  I was wrong.  This is a dicey one because new angles on old pathways *can* be huge breakthroughs, clearly.  My mistake was that as a small lab investigator, I thought that my moderate amount of interesting new data would be enough to pique the interest of those in the field.  In a well-established field/gene/pathway, novel aspects typically need to be accompanied by overwhelmingly strong data, preferably using a novel technology.  I overestimated the impact a few interesting experiments could have on jaded reviewers, and I’ve seen others do the same.  The bar for getting interest is much lower if you have a previously unknown, or under studied pathway.

Take a leap forward.  Success in an application can in the big scheme be viewed as a careful balance between innovation and feasibility.  It must be clear to reviewers that you are able to accomplish what you set out to do.  Publications are key.  Preliminary data, invaluable.  Yes, paradoxically, if your entire grant is completely feasible, then it risks being labeled “incremental,” a death sentence.  The best grants have a leap forward in there somewhere.  Reviewers want to see that if the grant is funded, the work will bring a quantum leap forward…not just tie up some lose ends.

Yes, most of these points are arguable.  These guidelines are successfully broken by senior scientists on a regular basis.  Careful though… like old F. Scott said, “Let me tell you about the very rich.  They are different from you and me.” The points above are directed at junior level investigators, and are delivered with the understanding that I am really only describing my personal experiences.  As “advice” take it with a grain of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism.   Nullius in verba, after all.

 

Reflections on loving small science in the cold room

Sorry for the delay, dear readers.  Lately, I’ve been feeling like Howard the Duck.  “Trapped in a world he never made!”  A brief chat with a colleague stirred up my ambivalent feelings about Big Science:  awe mixed with skepticism, and spurred this made me contemplative about my own start in lab…

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Saw a colleague yesterday headed off to an NIH study section convened on some kind of crazy idea to sequence single neurons from all parts of the brain.  After a briefly swinging my…knowledge base…a little bit, shook my head at the idea, “Wow, you neuro guys are crazy ambitious!”  It made me think about the contrast between modern biomedical research, and the kind of science I fell in love with.

I’ve loved learning about science for as long as I can remember, but it first dawned on me that I liked life in the lab while a college student labeling Eppendorf tubes in a cold room on 168th street. Years earlier, my 6th grade teacher Mr. Petro-Roy let me take home some beat up astronomy books he was using as bases for a ball game. I’ll never forget what he said when he saw I was assigned to his class, “how did I get blessed with you?!”  Important encouragement for a poor kid with no confidence.  In 8th grade, my science teacher, Mr. Vreeland, would have the class packed up and ready to go out the door a few minutes before the bell every day, and somehow it became our ritual that I would try and stump him with a question.  I loved that.  He seemed to too.  About 10 years ago, I heard that Mr. Vreeland had died.  I get misty thinking about him.

As a college student, I sneered a little bit at professors that admitted they got poor grades in the subjects they were lecturing on.  With irony, I confess now I am one of those teachers.  When I got to college, I had gotten in to Wesleyan University by the skin of my teeth and was a January Freshman (my roommate, with a wicked grin, for years introduced me as such).   I took Genetics along with as many other classes as I could handle and was so stoked to be finally out of a mind-numbing job and a tense home situation.  I took too many courses, and tried to cut corners by taking the Genetics lecture without the drosophila lab portion, which was listed in the syllabus as optional.  The midterm was incomprehensible, and I confronted my professor during office hours.  He told me most of the questions I struggled with were taken directly from work done in the lab, and he was astonished that anyone in class was not also taking the lab.  I got a “C” and was devastated.  Around the same time, I went to the Science Library and tried to read journals with the word “genetics” in their title.  The technical jargon was impossible to understand and in no way resembled the science I thought I loved.  So I concluded after my first semester that I was not cut out for genetics and needed a new plan.

My best friend told me he always imagined I’d be a doctor, so I figured I’d try that.  I made spending money for college doing temporary clerical work and on fateful week I spent at the Muscular Dystrophy Association helping to unpack and sort grant applications.  The head of the office on a tour of the stacks of grants asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up…”Be a doctor, I think.”  Well, to get into medical school these days, you need some research background.  He picked up the phone and arranged an interview with William Johnson a doctor doing research in Tay Sachs disease.  His goofy energy was infectious…”what’s on the docket for today?” he would ask every morning.

In his small lab, I labeled tubes, I ran gels I barely understood.  The time flew by and for a change, I felt that I was playing a small part of a worthy, scrappy effort.  Once in medical school I realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life.

Grand projects are wonderful.  They are stimulus for the economy and they energize the public for the ambitions of science.  In my neck of the woods, The Human Genome Project has unquestionably been a boon to life science and biomedical research.  But it’s critically important that Big Science is funded over and beyond a stable budget for regular science.  If Big Science like BRAINI is going to be funded by stealing money from within the current NIH and NSF budgets, then I am violently opposed.

Younger scientists need protection from the ambitions of their elders.

The practical application of science to cure diseases for example is wonderful, but a cure for any disease would generate millions if not billions of dollars in profits in our current medical care system. IMHO if the research is “translational,” maybe it should be supported by staggering profits of the pharmaceutical industry.

Anyone interested in science, in working to fight a disease, to help other people and join a team of scrappy geeks, let’s pay it forward.  Certainly, I wouldn’t be where I am now without little selfless acts.

 

How we fix the NIH

 I was on the beach in Florida with a business school prof friend of mine a couple of weeks ago and he blew my mind.  I like big ideas about how to change things for the better.

He’s always up to something interesting.  When I asked him, “what are you working on?”  he surprised me.  “Fixing the NIH grant system,” he told me.  What!?!  He gets paid as a consultant to jump in to an area he may not be familiar with, do some research, and then be the answer man.  Someone from the NIH was in a executive managment course he teaches and described the grant “problem.”  I love this guy because he approaches complex problems like such a boy scout, with an earnest optimism that any situation can be improved. Whether it be how to get our 6th grade basketball team to play better offense, or how to fix the national debt, he’ll say, “here’s what you do..” and roll out a Four Point Plan.  It’s funny…at the same time, I can’t help but play the devil’s advocate and bring up all the complexities and possible roadblocks.  But this is an important topic, so let me step out of the way and tell you what he said …

His primary recommendation was to crowd-source solutions to revamping grant review.  This is his entry for what he proposes to be an open competition for proposals on how to fix the grant review process.  His basic idea is simple, but would be revolutionary.  He proposes that projects should be categorized and evaluated in four separate research categories, based on how the work relates to existing paradigms, and that NIH funds should be evenly split amongst these bins.  This concept of research diversification is taken from the business world, and it’s designed to speed progress and limit risk by spreading support for knowledge generation across classes of research. A key element of this plan is that competition for funds be within these groups so we fund the best of each type. Based on research he did with NIH scientists, the categories he proposes, are:

1.  Pre-hypothesis or exploratory studies.  These are experiments and projects that may not claim to have a paradigm or hypothesis but are designed to gather new information.  

2.  Replication studies.  We had a discussion about this one because I don’t think anyone in science really sets out to do work replicating the work of someone else.  My friend told me that respondents to his questionnaires told him otherwise.  In any event, in a way, this is the most intriguing category to me because it addresses the crisis of reproducibility in science while at the same time giving validity to scientists who are technically adept and hard working but who may not want to compete in other areas.  no one I know in science would admit that that We had a discussion about this

3. Paradigm extending studies. This is where most NIH-funded work currently fits.  Many bemoan this “safe” way of funding research, and one great strength of this system is to limit the amount of resources that go into “incremental” work.

4. Research that may develop a new paradigm.  This is the type of work that gets the most press and that everyone vocally supports.  Fresh thinking, new ideas, etc.  It’s an intriguing and common-sense ideal to compartmentalize this type of work, to recognise that paradigm breaking is high risk and that not all resources should be put in this basket.

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A final important point of this scheme is that if it is adopted across institutes (?!) it would facilitate consolidation of bureaucracy.  By imposing a constant framework like this one, it would allow cross-institute comparisons.  And lastly, he proposes to grade the success of grantees with a new objective measure of knowledge generation.  The belief being that papers and patents are not a sufficient index of how well the money was spent.  How should we measure how much useful knowledge is generated by a grant?  That’s the big question, and he says let’s open that up to crowd-sourcing.

What do I think?   I have mixed feelings about shaking up the grant system just at the point when I think I’ve learned the game.  But, it’s clear grantsmanship is a game, and that we owe it to eveyone involved to make it more transparently about funding the best research.  The more I thought about this system, the more I can see its benefits.  The primary road blocks I see to implementing this system are lack of political will, and getting study sections organized to deal with this restructuring.  Study section culture is rigid and I’m not sure whether study sections would subclassify the grants they get or whether new study sections would be needed.  I’m really curious about what my colleagues think of this scheme.

 

Is science a polytheistic religion?

“The experimental method is concerned only with the search for objective truths, not with any search for subjective truths…An anticipative idea or an hypothesis is, then, the necessary starting point for all experimental reasoning.  Without it, we could not make any investigation at all nor learn anything; we could only pile up sterile observation.”

    –Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine

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Claude Bernard: “Oui, I’m dead…but do I look naive to you?”

The other day, I told Dr. Isis I wanted to do a PubStyleScience on epistemology, and she said, “I don’t get it… what’s so hilarious about that?” Or words to that effect. Imagine my shock and surprise!  A bunch of scientists, sitting around, drinking and arguing about the meaning of everything?  It’s the *perfect* topic for PSS!!  So, let me explain my interest in the topic…

I like to share science and the culture of science with anyone who’s interested, especially to show a relaxed side of science to younger people who may be put off by narrow-minded cultural attitudes. PubStyleScience is a science culture experiment along these lines.  Let’s open the doors and windows of the scientific enterprise!  I see many sci’s on Twitter motivated to expose and correct sexism and racism in the scientific enterprise, to promote fairness and transparency.  We can agree that there is some bullshit cultural baggage with science community, but I’m more interested in the subtle baggage that keeps us from doing the best science.  I am often surprised at how scientists embrace groupthink.  In the abstract, the NIH (for one) declares a love for radical departures and fresh interdisciplinary ideas.  And yet, as a scientists love to run in a herd, and in evaluating others, demand conformity.  Professional science should be open to a diversity of participants.  This is a moral principle, and a conviction that the progress of science will benefit from the participation of a wider range of voices.

So what I’m interested in is the *positive* side of scientific cultural evolution.  My tweeps rail against what they don’t like about the old culture…but what are we *for?*  For most of the scientists I interact with, we can easily agree on the extreme ends of “unacceptable,” e.g.sexim and racism.  But there are softer cultural values that are not clear-cut, but messy.  How should we define the differences between “good culture” and bad?  An example of the changing mores of science is the idea of “Kerning,” a word which was coined several years ago after an earnest but tone-deaf opinion piece by cancer biologist Scott Kern.  

In it, Kern lamented the erosion of a lab culture that valued working through the weekends.  His “where’s the passion?” lamentation was lambasted by Drugmonkey and Dr. Isis.  While I agree with some criticisms of Dr. Kern’s piece, e.g. science should not be closed to people with families that need to work 9-to-5, I sincerely believe that intense, clock-ignoring passion is a critical ingredient for good science.  Can we revisit the passion and hard work debate?

As the culture of science evolves, I want to understand and communicate to the next generation two pillars:  a new, open and diverse culture of science, as well as the essentials of the scientific method.  And here’s the question that I would like to discuss:  are these two pillars utterly distinct, or does diversity in science require being open to different views of the scientific method?  This is where the philosophy comes in:.  How do we separate conjecture from reality?  How can we know what is true?   Science is not set of sciencey facts or topics, it’s a philosophy, a way of thinking, an approach to understanding the universe.  I worship the scientific method, I admit.  But if science is inherently human process, Is Claude Bernard search for objective truths naive?  If the process of science is inherently human activity, one that may not lay claim to objective truth, I start to wonder:  is there a clean line between the method and the culture?

Then, my mind was blown when I stumbled on to the existence of a Feminist Theory of Science.  Being the interweb, I should have known this has been discussed before.  But it’s a radically new idea to me.  And the next obvious question:  if there is a feminist science, is there an Irish theory of science and a jewish theory of science and a South American theory of science?  Does everyone get their own science?  Hmm…not sure, but I don’t think so.  I think there should be a core set of values.  Where do we draw the lines?  This is a question of epistemology.

Is there any real-world relevance to this philosophizing?  I just got back from a new investigator meeting at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) where we were deluged with data and information about the byzantine workings of the NIH.  The NIH recognizes that URMs (under-represented minorities) are under-represented among NIH grant awardees, and that this problem is getting worse given the changing demographics of the USA.  The NCI is working to try and fix this problem , but as I was being intensely immersed in the bizarre culture of US science funding at the NIH, I couldn’t help but wonder if our narrow view of “proper” science culture is part of the problem.   The NIH also seems to have mixed feelings about “big science.”  Big versus small science deserves it’s own post, but briefly, the NIH pays lip service to the importance of individual investigator grants, and yet, they sacrifice many R01s for big science projects.  Let’s have a whiskey and discuss.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and science communication superstar

 “This ad­ven­ture is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules. Test ideas by experiment and observation; build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail; follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything. Accept these terms and the cosmos is yours.” –Neil deGrasse Tyson, on Cosmos

Want an academic job? Hold your tongue.

At our house last night we had a Hanukkah party with a mix of friends and co-workers.  We had a dozen kids over and they loved lighting menorahs and playing dreidel for chocolate hanukkah gelt.  I got joy watching kids who have never done this before having a blast too.

In the midst of the latkes and blintzes, I overheard a conversation about blogging that –while it may not have surprised my seasoned interweb colleagues– shocked me a little.   A senior scientist mentioned googling a potential faculty recruit and found the person’s blog describing the trials and tribulations of a life in science.  The faculty member said the blog, while it was to be commended for its forthright tone, was so informal and laced with profanity that the professor could not help but hold the blog against the potential faculty member.  A second senior scientist nodded in agreement.  It was the consensus that aspiring young scientists should steer clear of such activities.

“Wow, that blog sounds like any one of a number of people I know,” I thought.  Over the past year, I have made friends with a friendly group of scientist-bloggers whom I have grown to admire for their passionate activism.  The comments of my interwebophobic colleagues sent a chill down my spine.  Real negative consequences of speaking one’s mind on a personal blog.  Yikes.  Of course, people get in trouble for what they say on the internet/twitter..but yes, I am just coming to the realization that there are consequences within the science community for saying things about that community.  Community, hm.

To my pseudonymous colleagues, this is old news.  This story  only provides the “derp” for why one should take care with one’s identity while blogging/tweeting. I wanted to bring this up here for young folks starting out so they do not have any illusions about how the world may or may not be changing in terms of online communication.  If you don’t have tenure yet, use a pseudonym.

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And I’d also like to express disappointment and frustration with my old guard colleagues who saw zero problem discriminating against a faculty recruit on the basis of their personal thoughts and the tone in which they were expressed.  That’s sad.  Maybe if the blog revealed attitudes and ideas that were at odd’s with the mission of the university, OK.  Criminal activity, sure.  But filtering out faculty members for speaking their mind about the process of science seems like a stupid old guard thing to do and against the principles of the academy.

I have tenure and still feel pressure to shut my mouth.  I’m not going to because in my naive brain, the whole point of tenure is having the freedom to say what I like.  We are losing valuable insights by muzzling people before tenure.

 

“Like the Federalist Papers don’t count because ‘Publius’ wrote them?”  – my mom on people who don’t take psueds seriously.

The Glam is Dead! Long Live the Glam!

Perhaps I know something about Michael Eisen that you don’t know, that makes me very sympathetic to his Open Access (OA) cause. Michael Eisen is one of the founders of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and is a staunch proponent of full OA.  In an interview I saw, he described the experience of sitting by his mother [Corrected:] Michael’s brother Jonathan described the experience of sitting by his wife when she was sick and realizing that a large amount of information regarding her illness, which he knew to have been generated using public funds, was behind paywalls, inaccessible to doctors and scientists that might use the data to help. Eisen feels strongly that authors have a responsibility to eschew closed access journals.  He has rational philosophic reasons for his opinions, but at the base of it all is the sentiment, which I share, that the scientific publishers make money by withholding data from people who need it most.

The OA debate heated up over the past month when my friend Isis tweeted that she was preparing a manuscript for submission. Michael Eisen asked her if she was submitting to an Open Access (OA) journal, she said, no, actually, she was submitting to a glamour journal.  A…um… “spirited debate” ensued.  You may be surprised to learn that discussion on the interwebz became a little tense and personal.  Beyond the OA versus Glam debate, there was also added a dimension of privilege versus struggling junior investigators.

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The high profile science magazines use sexy science to sell themselves.

What’s interesting to me is watching the history of the OA movement crash into some new blood. Isis encapsulated her views in a widely read blog post.  Her central premise was that as a junior investigator not yet tenured, she was not going to sacrifice an opportunity to further her career based on edicts from the privileged class. In her view, Eisen and the OA enthusiasts seemed to be asking underrepresented minority scientists to make risky career choices.  To make matters worse, so sure of his beliefs, Eisen failed to inquire about the experiences of the groups he was preaching to.

My thoughts on this OA debate (also see #glamgame on Twitter and PubStyleScience)

1.  I support the Open Access movement.  Why?  I became something of a zealot, I must admit, after a particularly painful journal rejection. I chased after SCN journals for many years, but my desire to publish in glamour magazines is now gone. As tenured faculty, I am privileged to be able to say, “I don’t need this,” and move on.

While I have a number of glamour publications on my CV, nearly all of these came from working with a high-profile research group with dozens of scientists and millions of dollars in NIH funding. As a middle author on those papers, it was long my dream to eventually ascend to first or senior author position on one of the group’s SCN papers.  Some of my colleagues got their wish, and I’m happy for them. But it seemed that the path to success in the group was to be a “yes man.” That’s a role I do not play well.  My research ideas were off the central theme of the group, and were never taken up by the leadership. When I realized that my patience would not be rewarded, I amicably departed from the group.  And put aside my glamour dreams.

Where to submit manuscripts in my lab is done with consent and discussion of the first-author, and if they want to submit to a closed journal, I support them. I make suggestions based on their career goals.  The decision about where to send one’s work is not entirely rational  in my experience and is based on anecdotes and impact factors – measures I don’t trust.

2.  As @DNLee said, “The most important thing a minority scientist can do to inspire others is to stay employed.”  I agree.  And I support Isis’ decision to take her data to a high-profile journal where publication could elevate her career to a new level. The old guard should be asked to move to OA. A glamour publication for a junior investigator like Isis will allow her to thrive as a successful role model.

3.  Glamour journals are a substitute for thinking. And unfortunately, there will always be a market for such tools.  I hope that with more OA, more scientists will evaluate the literature critically for themselves, but for many many busy professionals, looking at how glossy the magazine is a surrogate for analyzing the data carefully.

4.  What about the jobs?  The OA movement seems to relish the idea of completely dismantling the for-profit scientific publishing economy.  It is disconcerting that the hundreds of people employed by this industry do not seem to factor into the OA world view.  Dismantling an economy is easier than building one, and the prolonged recession has made clear that earlier cavalier attitudes toward tech job creation were misguided.  For OA to grow, it needs to have an economic framework that it currently lacks: one that not only supports publication of the journal itself, but ideally also includes support for those currently employed by closed journals. This may require government support, for example, which is not currently on the horizon.  (After writing this, I heard Eisen describe the thriving economy of OA here)

I’m looking forward to a world where OA is a central part of the scientific publishing landscape.  But to dismantle the glamour system just as a young generation is aspiring to gain access seems cruel.  I want the old farts with tenure and tons of grant funding to move out of publishing in glamour journals. I admire Isis for her focus on advancing her career, but it stinks to see full professors acting selfishly.   Junior investigators need to demonstrate their hard work and determination. A hard-core work ethic is essential for success, and selfishness is required to build a CV that will satisfy a tenure committee.  Full professors and tenured faculty  could acknowledge they have attained positions of privilege. And they have a duty to recognize that, in addition to their own genius, they have succeeded in no small part through the support of their communities. After climbing to high peaks, they have a responsibility to give back, to help others up.  OA is one way to do that.

Some Open Access movement links:

In January 2012 mathematician Tim Gowers proposed boycotting Elsevier journals (one of the leaders of for-profit scientific journal publishing).  This grew into a “Cost of Knowledge” movement and gained wide attention.

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Brad Pitt is a Better Scientist Than You Are

After I saw the  new Brad PItt film, World War Z, I went to the web and read a dozen reviews.  I wanted to see if anyone  was impressed with the movie’s subtle but profound pro-science theme.  Nope.  Special effects, pacing, Brad Pitt’s acting…no one felt the film had an underlying theme worth noting.  Which, to me, makes the film even more impressive, because the theme is there for us in plain sight.  A summer blockbuster, popcorn entertainment, that delivered a message directly into the subconscious.  Nice.

Major spoiler alert.  Go see the movie.  It’s scary.  It’s fun.  Come back and read this.  Also, I liked the book too. I just don’t care to compare book to movie.

1.  At the crux of World War Z is a comment about how science works that is both creative and true. The portrayal of scientists and science in film is a masochistic hobby of mine.  Think Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park–a fun film certainly, but when Jeff’s character talks about science and chaos theory, I want to jab a pencil in my eye.  One of the scientists in World War Z makes a surprisingly cogent speech about science:  “Nature is a serial killer.  She can’t bear the idea of not getting the credit for her genius, she wants to be caught. So she leaves clues.  The trick is not to miss the clues.” [Script is not on line yet, so this is from memory and paraphrased.]  This idea is clever and subversive.  Pushes aggressively against the “nature as friend” trope we enjoy while sipping lattes, and tell’s it like it is: science is detective work.

2.  The brilliant scientist falls on his gun and kills himself accidentally. “Fucking great,” I thought and was pissed off that my new favorite character bit the dust unceremoniously. But… A) American science right now is in the midst of self-destruction, so to speak, funding wise; and B) the scientist’s death is vital because Brad Pittl’s character has to pick up the pieces himself and be the scientist. The initial hypothesis and plan falls apart, and at the climax of the film, Brad puts together the clues that save the day.  In the closing voiceover,  Citizen science indeed.

3.  “She disguises her weaknesses as strengths.”  This hit me in my gear box — it’s true in cancer.  Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) used to be the most feared form of acute leukemia due to high bleeding rate.  Turned out out that the PML-RARA-driven disease is hugely responsive to all-trans-retinoic acid (vitamin A!!) and the survival rates from a diagnosis of APL approach 100%.  (Yeah, we cure people).

4.  Beginning montage shows important science stories, e.g. global warming, being drowned out my popular media garbage.  We got screwed because we weren’t paying attention to the important stuff.

5.  The hope for mankind is found at a WHO lab in England.  The WHO staff are dedicated and smart.

6.  A notable absence in the film is any reference whatsoever to religion in solving the zombie problem.  Why did God let this happen?  How will God save us?  These questions just don’t come up.  A subtle nod to religion comes when a group of refugees singing Islamic prayers at an Israeli border checkpoint attracts zombie’s ire.  This made me very uncomfortable at first…the Israeli’s are portrayed as “getting it right,” and the Muslims screw things up??  WTF??  But, listening more carefully, the Israeli “solution,” very high walls, turns into a liability and that strategy fails.  And the only “problem” really with the Muslim prayers, it turns out, is simply that they sing them too loudly.  Heh.  Maybe it’s, “keep the religion volume on low, and we’ll all be fine?”

We talked about telling science stories in our recent #storymaven #IsisVSTomasson web discussion:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcPkwiKnsdg/  As scientists, we need to tell our stories with compelling narratives.  (see also: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/06/wcsj2013-narrative/)

Let’s give credit to Hollywood when they make an entertaining film that has a pro-science heart.