Tuesday 9 August 2016

Does size matter?

At the turn of the century I was hired, to my considerable surprise, to work in one of the first 10 labs funded lavishly by Science Foundation Ireland. I was not the smartest chap in the room but could make a contribution partly because I'd been on the planet longer than anyone else including The Gaffer. Native intelligence doesn't always do it; experience is also handy and general knowledge was also an asset.  Wikipedia was launched in the 2001 but took several years to get populated and finding stuff out required a trip to the library to read books and journals . . . with pages . . . of paper. If you knew things and were happy to share, nobody had to trek to the library to answer such questions as "Is a snake a vertebrate?".  I've written about how, by acting as a neutral sounding board, Bob the Scientist helped one of the really smart guys in the lab to solve a confounding puzzle.

About a year later, the same guy applied for a job in NUI Maynooth, was interviewed and offered the job. Shortly after that, he interviewed for another job back in , slightly more prestigious, TCD and got that two. He was flabbergasted, back home in Spain it would have inconceivable to secure either job without being somebody's mistress, nephew or graduate student. As he prepared to start his own lab, I gave him some advice: hire some people who are socially adept even if their CVs are not awash with awards or publications. In the lab where we worked together, at least half the team were well along on the spectrum and were hopeless in many social situations: unable to organise a piss-up in a brewery or make eye-contact or understand where their colleagues were coming from. They were also kind of helpless in explaining their brilliant ideas in ways that ordinary folk could understand. Such people are likely to get a tenured lecturing position solely on the basis of their research record and be desperate at the task of . . . lecturing.

I've just read an analysis of the optimum make-up for a successful science lab by Chris Woolston in Nature. It's all about the numbers. This attempts to quantify success [defined as # of publications or # of pubs in high-impact Nature / Science / Cell] as a function lab-size [defined as # post-grad students +/- # post-doc researchers]. Heck that's what science journalists do, they reduce the conundrum to things that you can count. Unquantifiable aspects of science are mere noises off stage in the analysis:
  • like people who don't on with each other; 
  • or senior males who get on all to well with younger female researchers; 
  • or the trying to integrate the school-run with a lab schedule; 
  • or making labs accessible to wheelchairs
What it comes down to is that size really does matter: larger labs generate more publications especially if the personnel include post-docs who are no longer learning the basics. But it also seems that the ground-breaking papers that we all aspire to are as likely to be driven by the younger graduate students. That's another thing that wasn't quantified in the article by Woolston: it may not be about people but rather about person-hours. If you're young and single and driven, you work all the hours that god sends and this graft may be enough to get to the interesting stuff quicker. Maybe post-docs are juggling other aspects their lives - diapers, elderly parents, tennis, theatre - and less committed to hacking at the frontier. In the end, it's partly a matter of preference: as a PI do you want to spend your days managing your people and the invoices or would you prefer to do more science with a smaller group. But it's also a matter of contingency, I was let go at the end of 2012 partly because the boss had a succession of unsuccessful grant applications and the lab was shrinking for want of funds.

What boggles the mind is that principal investigators, having been appointed to their established position on the basis of their capability as researchers are expected also to be competent teachers, effective human resources managers and be able to balance the accounts with an annual burn-rate of $500,000. About 10 years ago, UCD, the other Dublin University, appointed a super-dynamic new Dean of Research. He called a meeting of all the researchers to introduce himself and ask the workers at the coal-face how the University could most help them do better research. One point that came up multiple times was that good researchers knew they were not-so-good as managers.
IF they had even 1/3 of a person to
  • file the invoices, 
    • pay them on time, 
  • source the cheapest-best equipment, 
    • negotiate a better price with suppliers, 
  • know where Jill left the key to the prep-room before she went on maternity leave
  • provide continuity when the boss was on the conference circuit
they would be way less stressed and quite a bit more productive. But everyone in the room knew that appointing a class of lab-managers out of the University's existing budget was never going to happen, no matter how cost-effective that might be in the long run. It's not about the numbers, it's about individual quality in positions where their skills can be leveraged to best advantage.

No comments:

Post a Comment