Tag Archives: Creativity

Making science (part XIII): How not to make science

A newly recruited staff in a research group has her first meeting with the principal investigator, a full Professor,  to discuss projects and tasks to carry out in the lab. During the conversation, it becomes apparent that the so-called principal investigator is nothing more than a former clinician turned science administrator that pretends leading a research group. There are no new projects coming from the mind of this principal investigator.

Go to PubMed and find something interesting to work on”, says the Professor.

Astonished, the newly recruited lab member becomes silent and after a few awkward minutes leaves the room, in shock.

“Go to PubMed and find something interesting to work on”. Now, we should point out that PubMed is the public repository of all scientific literature in the life sciences and biomedicine of the entire planet since the beginning of time. There are literary millions of papers in the repository. How does one find “something interesting to work on” there? Is this the best advice, the best guidance that this so-called senior scientist has to offer to his newly recruited lab member?

I could not believe when I first heard this, but it is a true story. It happened at the National University of Singapore, but the characters shall remain anonymous. There are likely people like that in most universities around the world.  Group leaders out there that have no clue whatsoever of what science is about, or what is to be an inspiring mentor. How their reputations survive is a total mystery.

Making science (part XII): The problem with impact factors

I have been around long enough to remember the time when there were no impact factors. (Don’t know what an impact factor is? Read HERE). We all knew that, say, Nature, was more prestigious (or sexy, hot, trendy, impactful, whatever you want…) than, say, JBC. And that JBC was better journal than many (actually many!) other (ie lower) journals. We did not need any impact factors to realise that. And of course this “intuitive” information was used to evaluate job candidates and assess tenure. A paper in Nature was very important, we all knew that, and did not need any impact factors. The problem now is that impact factors  put a hard number on what earlier was an intuitive, soft process. So, now we know that not only is Nature “better” than JBC, it is actually 10.12 times “better”. And PNAS is 2.23 times “better”. That is what has generated so many problems and distortions. The temptation to use those numbers is just too high, irresistible. For the journals, for the papers in them, and for individual scientists. And the numbers change every year. When applied to individual papers this gets totally crazy. Imagine. The “value” of a given paper can be higher (or lower) this year than, say,  3 years ago when it was published. The same paper, the same data. And let’s not get started with what the impact factor has done to innovaiton and creativity. (For a good view on this, read Sydney Brenner’s interview HERE).

Here is an idea. Why don’t we all get together and sue collectively Thomson Reuters for having commercialised (or Eugene Garfield, for having invented) this monster and caused so much havoc?

Making science (part IV): Good science, good writing

Can a good scientist be a bad writer? The answer, in my opinion, is nope. Here is the story.

The registrator office at the Karolinska Institute has recently received a request to release the full texts of several of their successful grant applications to the European Research Council (ERC) as well as the texts of their respective evaluations and referee comments. ERC grants are both generous and prestigious awards that have come symbolize the success of the European scientific elite. Under Swedish freedom of information legislation, the Karolinska Institute -which is ultimately under state jurisdiction- is obliged to release these documents, as astonishing as this may sound. (A topic that surely deserves a post of its own.) Needless to say, such a request has come down as nothing short of controversial among the scientists involved, since grant applications contain unpublished data and detailed confidential information about their future research programs. Who could have made such a preposterous request?

As it turned out, the request came from an employee from the grants office of a provincial high school (recently upgraded to the rank of university) located south of Stockholm known as Mälardalenshögskola (MDH). As the story goes, school authorities reasoned that their scientists could learn how to write successful grant applications by looking at successful proposals written by scientists from a high-profile university such as KI. Apart from the fact that MDH has not been known to have a program in biomedicine, let alone any significant biomedical research, the idea that someone could succeed with a grant proposal by simply copying another one is at best controversial and at worst utterly naive.

A successful grant proposal is invariably centered around a good idea. And good ideas come from good scientists, who also happen to write well. So MDH authorities would do better by focusing on the quality of their scientists than on imitating already funded applications. Good science requires analytic capacity, the ability to formulate ideas clearly and logically. In a grant application, as in any scientific text, analytic power and logical reasoning help taking the reader from what is known to what is unknown in a systematic fashion, what to do in order to reveal the unknown and why should one do it. These are attributes inherent to science making, not special faculties restricted to good writers. A good scientist knows how to be analytic, systematic and how to formulate research, its part of the job description. If you are a good scientist, you also know how to write well, it comes in a package. Imitating the writings of others does not help.

Making science (part III): Intuition

Intuition is as important in science as it is in the arts and any other creative activity. Intuition can allow the formulation of novel ideas or solutions to complex problems that would otherwise be difficult or improbable to reach via conventional, logical reasoning. Although the popular term “gut feeling” would appear to indicate that intuitive processes take place outside the brain, it is a misplaced metaphor, as intuition is very much a mental activity.

As in conventional reasoning, intuitive thinking computes the odds of competing ideas or solutions. Unlike the former, however, the intuitive process is largely unconscious. We are only aware of the result of the computation but not the process by which it was obtained. It is nevertheless a mental calculation like any other: it utilizes data stored in memory to deduce connections, predict missing bits of information, or generate new hypotheses.

Unlike conscious reasoning, intuitive thinking takes place off-line. However, it is possible to direct, facilitate and enhance intuitive thinking, even though the process itself will always remain unavailable to conscious, on-line processing. Intuitive computations are intrinsically soft, but can be made more robust by increasing the amount of data available to intuitive processing. In science, this amounts to acquire as much information and experience as possible by reading extensively, brain-storming with colleagues and sitting at the bench.

There is a neurobiological basis for intuition.Regions of the brain involved in intuitive thinking are likely to show some overlap with areas involved in normal conscious reasoning.Antonio Damasio is one of several scientists currently investigating this and related questions. He has highlighted the importance of emotional states, largely under the influence of peripheral organs (i.e. body viscera and such), in decision-making processes including intuitive thinking. Damasio has identified patients with lesions in specific brain areas that show deficits in risk-taking, decision-making and intuitive reasoning. It is likely that different brains are able to support intuitive processing to different extents. Do non-human primates have intuition? Proof for the evolution of intuition will clearly have to await a better understanding of its hardware. However, its important contribution to decision-making processes suggests that it may have been positively selected in humans.

Intuition is a real mental process that is crucial for creativity. It can not be completely controlled, but it can be trained and enhanced. Sure enough, not all reasoning in science is intuitive, but given the shear volume of scientific data and information currently available (and constantly increasing), intuitive thinking is an indispensable allied in scientific creativity.