Lessons to Young Investigators

From the Foundation review process, from Stage one to Stage two,  I learned some important lessons that younger PIs starting out lab might want to consider. Careful for those on a low-sodium diet, because this is both bitter and salty:


  1. Peer review membership. I sat on CIHR panels continuously for ten years, both operating and focused RFAs, I ran two annual HSC competitions for ten years, I sat on NIH study sections. This means up to six full panels a year. These are tremendous learning tools, and should be taken very seriously, but do not expect any actual recognition in any way for this work that will affect your support. All this had literally no impact with reviewers. I advise to do this, but no more than once a year, on years of funding. Keep in mind doing a proper peer review job at a panel, with discussion face-to-face, is over 80 hours of effort (really), this time is much better spent applying for funding or publishing. This is why some reviewers who agreed to review in Project and Foundation did not bother to return any reviews at all, and why instead of minimal seven opinions, we are lucky if we see three.
  2. Publications. Publish everything, everywhere, quantity certainly is more impactful than quality. For the review process, it’s easier to count than to read. One senior CIHR Foundation investigator listed over 840 manuscripts in a 30 year career. That’s one paper, every two weeks, without break, for 30 years. These are games we play in science. Of course, this is the exact opposite of what Nobel Laureates will suggest, as they point out zero correlation of publication numbers or impact factors with actual practical impact on scientific progress. These metrics are gamed (notice a lot of free Nature journals in your inbox? that affects Impact Factor).
  3. Knowledge Translation and medical translation. This is an important concept: that it is pointless to write template letters to MPs to increase support when the taxpayer in Canada does not know anything about what is going on with their money, nor does a typical MP. However, I now quote Princeton Professor Harry Frankfurt, who wrote the NY Times best seller treatise: “On Bullshit“, a book given to me by Professor Emeritus Allan Tobin, of the UCLA Brain Research Institute:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, as Harry Frankfurt writes, “we have no theory.”

Bullshitting is not lying.

Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner’s capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

The result of this in science with KT and medicine is there is so much of this on proposals, any real KT or medical translational efforts will be simply regarded as more bullshit. This is not fraud or lying, it’s crafting the language institutions seek with buzzwords and new methods, terms like: inter-disciplinary, knowledge translation, innovation.

For the record, I have given ~30 lay lectures in HD Families at National conferences or local HD chapters, and this is a fantastic experience, as is being the External Scientific Editor of HDBuzz.net. I will continue to do this for as long as anyone asks. My trainees all attend HD family days, and write articles for HD Buzz since 2011, in what is true knowledge translation, but what was referred to as “no evidence of knowledge translational activities” by my peers.

4. Applying for Grants. The most successful CDN scientists apply to every grant competition, every time, whether they need the money or not, because at most CIHR panels a few high impact manuscripts could snowball into 2- or 3 CIHR grants, whether there is 2-3 times the productivity or not. Unethical? certainly, but these investigators then get rewarded with massive Foundation awards and merit increases. Will anyone seriously check to see if you actually completed aims from the last support period? Nope. Sure, a report is filed years after the project has concluded, but I have yet to see any evidence this is actually read.


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