Wednesday 11 December 2013

Who owns the ideas?

In talking about the position of women in science yesterday, I suggested that there might be a correlation between loudness and success.  It's a rather a woolly association, and I don't claim high predictive power for this hypothesis, but if you present your work with confidence and ringing tones at the annual meeting people can at least see what you're about.  If you're too diffident to do that or you mumble at your shoes or address the entire presentation to your own powerpoint slides, then you're less likely to get the job that will advance your career.  Stimmt?  There's a story of a famous and autistic physics professor who habitually turned her back on the students and addressed all her lectures to the chalkboard as she wrote her equations.  A colleague noticed this happening and explained that the students preferred to see the face of their lecturers.  The professor, clearly not stupid ("professor" after all), absorbed this idea intellectually and presented subsequent lectures as scribble scribble scribble TURN talk talk TURN scribble scribble TURN talk talk  . . .  She couldn't really see the point in the TURNs because the information content was the same; but her student assessments went up and her HoD was happy.

Back in the day I was Senior Scientist in bioinformatics for a research group that was after landing some grant money.  The Gaffer announced that, if she employed a graduate student to push back the local compute frontiers, I could supervise that aspect of the work and she could supervise a) the student b) the project.  And it was so.  When you get to a certain seniority in research, you no longer have time (grants to apply for, papers to write, meetings to attend, budgets to reconcile and probably some teaching too) to do regular work at the lab-bench.  Unless you do regular work at the lab-bench, your hands get less sure and your skills degenerate.  Technology nevertheless moves on and after a couple of years you couldn't operate the kit to save your life.  But with seniority comes longer and wider experience and your crap-detector doesn't lose its edge: you can still interpret the results that your research group shows you and suggest new avenues to explore.  Unless you pick total lemons to work for you, you can trust the youngsters to hear about and implement the latest techniques - they talk shop at meetings and over lunch and read the literature - and all you need to do is rein them in when the consumables bill gets silly.

We were at a lab meeting one day about a year after the hire when The Gaffer had a bioinformatic insight!  She didn't really speak the language, because even in her halcyon days at the bench she'd had no experience with computers, but she made a good enough stab at articulating the germ of her idea.  This tender sprout was instantly drenched in cold water by the new compute-chap who was smart, confident and ambitious. He explained patiently and in some detail why such an idea was going to be a total bust. The Gaffer absorbed all this, shrugged, and the meeting moved on.  The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.-(Linus Pauling) after all.

Three weeks later, another lab meeting (relentless progress of science here) and the compute-chap comes up with an idea which he proceeds to elaborate until he stops bemused because The Gaffer and I had just fallen off our chairs roaring with laughter. If she hadn't caught my eye, I would have been able to keep a straight face, so it was her fault. The ill-conceived, hopeless and ignorant idea from earlier in the month had been absorbed, evaluated positively and owned.  Before you think that this is a joke against the young feller or a comment on hubris, look humbly into the history of your own ideas and ask where they came from. “Any new fact or insight that I may have found has not seemed to me as a ‘discovery’ of mine, but rather something that has always been there and that I had chanced to pick up.P. V. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar - for starters. But there's also the fact that ideas are brought to light by bouncing them about between people, and then no one person owns them. Also it takes time to absorb new information and we always re-write history so that we come out looking a little better and a little brighter in our own estimation than we are seen by other others who are also re-writing history to their own self-boosting agenda. I've had three original ideas in thirty years of research. One of them came in the course of a conversation with two graduate students.  I wish that talk had been recorded (no webcams back then) because I've a sneaking suspicion that the core of the idea came from one of the students and I just adopted it.  A bit like Pallas Athene springing fully armed from the head of Zeus [above L on a vase] - it doesn't really happen like that.

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