Project priorities – the skeleton vs the meat

In talking to many grad students and postdocs I have found that quite a few find it difficult to prioritize experiments in their projects. Creating a tree of life of a project should help some, but still, the tree has many branches, and in principle one could start with any of them to get to the root. What I found to be a simple solution was to divide the project into “skeleton” and “meat”. The skeleton is the parts of the project that really answer the key question that the project is all about. Think of it this way – would the title of your paper change if the experiment came out one way or the other? If it would, this is your skeleton experiment and it is your top priority. Continue reading

Poland’s higher education reform – new voices in the debate

I recently discussed some of the ideas presented by the Polish Science Minister Jarosław Gowin as foundations for the reform of research and higher education law in Poland. A couple of days ago, an article came out in “Polityka” (paywalled), a popular weekly journal, discussing the specific projects for the reform developed by three independent teams. The authors, Dariusz Jemielniak and Piotr Stec mostly talk about the weaknesses of these projects and the pitfalls that the lawmakers should avoid when implementing changes. I think that the most important take home message from the article is that whatever the final reform will be, it will have to be followed by a cultural change if it is to be effective. Otherwise, academics will just find ways to work around the reform and everything will remain the same. Continue reading

On the 40h work week in academia

There has been a bit of talk on Twitter and among my colleagues IRL and online about work-life balance in academia. See for example this excellent post by @TheNewPI. The gist of it is: is a normal 40h work week, which is the norm everywhere, feasible for academics? I think the answer is yes and no. It really depends on what your goals and priorities are. If you really want to develop an independent research program as PI of a lab at a decent research university or institute, then I don’t think sticking to a strict 9-5 schedule will serve you very well. The more time (up to a certain limit) you put into your work, the better you will become, the more you will accomplish. However, I think there are a few points worth elaborating on here. Continue reading

My take on preprints

I am sure you’ve heard the buzz about preprints in biology. Preprints have been a thing for a long time now in physics and math. The idea is that you submit your paper in a more or less finished form to a server called arXiv (pronounced archive), where their manuscript only undergoes very cursory approval but no formal peer review. It is then available for anyone to read and comment on. Biology took much longer to accept preprints, but the movement has been gaining momentum in recent years. There is a biological arXiv twin called biorXiv, and it has become very popular, especially among computational biologists.There are many advantages of preprints. First, you get to get your story out quicker and people can find out about it sooner. Continue reading

FUGA is dead, long live SONATINA

The report of the most recent National Science Centre council meeting is up on the NCN website. The most interesting piece of info for me was some new details of the upcoming SONATINA call for proposals. The SONATINA grant replaces the now officially burried FUGA grant, which used to be addressed exclusively to “mobile” postdoctoral fellows, who changed institutions and voivodships and wanted to seek better career prospects away from the institution where they did their PhDs. This worked out great for my new postdoc Łukasz, who got one of the FUGA grants and was able to move from Łódź to Warsaw. The SONATINA is different in many ways, but in some ways also resembles the FUGA grant. Continue reading

Can we solve research misconduct?

Just the other day I was reading a Nature opinion piece on deliberate research misconduct: how it affects the reproducibility science, and what we can do about it. The authors proposed a number of solutions, but most of them focused on punishing the perpetrators. Punishments should be more severe, they argued, the PIs should be held accountable for their trainees’ misconduct, and institutions should be forced to give back money gained by research dishonesty. I’m not sure I agree with this solution. Continue reading

Academaze – the awesome new book by Xykademiqz

The road of an academic scientist is long and tortuous. Many pitfalls await the hapless young researcher, so any advice is always a great bonus. I have been relying on Twitter and a bunch of great blogs (see my blogroll) to get my fix of do’s and don’ts in academia, and it has served me well – I now have the coveted group leader position at a major university in Poland and I use the blogroll as a constant source of information and support in my ivory tower woes. One of my favorite blogs has always been xykademiqz, written by a successful mid-career group leader in the physical sciences. The blog is filled with great advice and down-to-earth musings on the “human” side of research. That’s why I was really excited when I heard that xykademiqz is coming out with a book, which, as I understand, is a collection of her most successful blog entries organized in a way that will make for an interesting narrative. The book is here, and I got a glimpse of it as an early access reader. Let me tell you this – it is pure gold! Continue reading

Debate about young scientists in Poland

Recently, the Council of Young Researchers (Rada Młodych Naukowców) organized a debate on the career prospects of young scientists in Poland. There were a great many things that were discussed, but I would like to highlight a few things that I found interesting. The first observation I had even before the debate started was how few young scientists actually participated. The vast majority of the people who spoke could hardly be qualified as “young scientists”. The second observation that I must admit worried me quite a bit was how few women were represented. I didn’t count them, but I suspect that they represented roughly 10%-15% of the participants. Given the fact that women represent more than half of Polish scientists, and that the representation among young scientists is probably even higher, this is very worrying indeed. Now let me focus on some selected points of the debate. Continue reading

Fund the person or the project?

If you are following science-related topics on twitter, you are probably aware of the recent proposal by Ron Germain to reform the NIH funding system so that the evaluation focus is on the person getting the funds rather than the project getting funded (also see his op-ed in Cell). For new investigators, he proposes to give every institution funds commensurate with what they are getting right now from the NIH and let them distribute the funds to their new hires at their discretion. Renewals would be based on performance, but again there would be no precise “projects” being evaluated. Ron’s proposed solution to the woes of biomedical research have created quite a stir on the Interwebs. Drugmonkey has a huge discussion on his blog (here and here), with most voices strongly opposed to Ron’s ideas. Putting ad hominem’s aside I think the argument really boils down to a rather simple cost-benefit calculation. Continue reading

Can new significant discoveries be made in Poland?

Today I went to a talk by a well known Polish physicist Prof. Tomasz Dietl on whether the scientific environment in Poland is conducive to the making of important discoveries. Prof. Dietl argued that it is, but also discussed a number of obstacles that hinder scientific progress. First, he pointed out that the most common metrics currently used in evaluations of research in Poland, i.e. the total number of papers and citations, does not reflect the potential to make significant progress in science. Instead, he proposed an alternative metric – the ability of an institution or a country to attract funding from the European Research Council (ERC). Continue reading