Monthly Archives: April 2016

RESEARCH SCIENTISTS MUST ASK MYRIAD QUESTIONS! 

 

Asking questions and seeking answers is vital for science! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Asking questions and seeking answers is vital for science!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Researchers ask themselves numerous questions while they are designing studies, conducting experiments, analyzing data, deciding on conclusions, and composing research reports.  These queries often are outnumbered by many other questions concerning the business of being a scientist.  Questioning is such a routine activity for scientists that being a researcher basically is the same as being a big questioner!

This essay discusses some of the questions commonly considered by faculty researchers.  This will mostly be of interest to scientists researching at universities, but also should be illuminating for non-scientists trying to learn how research operates and what scientists worry about.  It is based upon my own experiences working as a faculty scientist.

Questions in the beginning! 

When initiating a research investigation, junior faculty scientists typically have already asked themselves many questions about what subject(s) will be studied, which technical approaches will be used, who in the lab will work on different aspects of the project, what length of time can be used for each segment of work, etc.  These questions concern practical aspects of doing research, and are answered in the corresponding grant application.

As results begin to be gathered, the Principal Investigator (i.e., the grant holder and boss of the lab) asks himself or herself if modifications are needed in the original plans.  It is not unusual that changes in practical matters must be made; these can result in getting better data, obtaining larger amounts of results, adding other experiments to the project, saving precious time, changing the work schedules, etc.  All the foregoing questions concerning the conduct of the research project are normal, useful, and quickly answered.

Questions arising later! 

After portions of the project are nearing completion, another type of query arises.  These questions are directed to such operations as presentation of abstracts at annual science society meetings, submission of manuscripts reporting the research results, evaluation of progress accomplished by graduate students and postdocs, planning for renewal of a research grant, etc.  Typical examples include: (1) Do the experimental results gathered answer the selected research question(s) in a solid manner?  (2) Are there enough results to publish now, or is more work necessary?  (3) Are the present conclusions convincing or will they be controversial and not readily accepted by other scientists?  (4) Which of 2 possible deadlines for applying for grant renewal should be used?  (5) Does a grad student now have enough results to construct a strong thesis (i.e., is the glass full or only half full)?

Such questions all are necessary, and require making value judgments.  If errors are made, it will be the fault only of the Principal Investigator.  Progress in research work largely depends upon ongoing evaluations and making adjustments.  Rather than do this once or twice a year, it is better to schedule these considerations every month or 2, so that constructive intervention can be made before any more valuable time is wasted.

Questions about business and research grants! 

Probably more time is spent by today’s academic scientists worrying about research grants than is used for producing research results.  Nowadays, even Nobel Laureates never can be really certain that their next application for grant renewal will be fully funded.  Questions about business and research grants usually are not so easy to answer with confidence because they involve the personal opinions of other scientists (e.g., department chairs, review committees, research leaders, grant reviewers, etc.), and those might be biased, competitive, ignorant, jealous, overwhelmed, or underwhelmed.

Questions about composing a new grant application always are particularly difficult to answer.  Should the proposal be directed towards this or that aspect of research (i.e., which has a greater probability of being funded)?  Should a new research instrument be added or should we just continue with what is presently being used?  Can 2 new postdocs be strongly justified, or only one?  What will reviewers think about a proposal for work on a new research question that is very different from the current subject?  These kinds of questions cause hairs to turn gray or fall out, and answers never can be certain.  Sometimes it is valuable to examine these queries with colleagues you can trust.

Answering questions about preparing a revised application for a research grant also are never easy.  Difficulties arise because it is not always clear exactly what criticisms or viewpoints damned the original application, and it is not known which new members will be added to the review panel (i.e., the chief reviewer(s) of the original application might no longer be sitting in judgment).  Again, it often is very useful to discuss these difficult questions with an experienced colleague that you can trust.

What is the most general question? 

The most frequent questions asked by academic researchers begin with the phrase, “What if … ?”.  Questions of this type are mental examinations of experimental protocols, data interpretations, and other research operations; they often arise from curiosity and creativity.  Typical examples include: (1) What if I change the amount of chemical-X in the protocol for my chief assay?  (2) What if this result is only a placebo effect?  (3) What if this complex new equation actually is wrong?

What is the biggest question? 

In my opinion, the very biggest question  that can be asked by a faculty scientist is, “Am I succeeding in becoming a renowned scientist?”.   Traditionally, the answer was based upon the quality and significance of a scientist’s published results.  Today, the situation of research at modern universities is so distorted that the biggest question asked by faculty scientists now is, “How many research grants have I acquired, and how much money have I been awarded?”.  The answer is a number and it is never enough!  Fortunately, high quality research reports still have a major impact upon the reputation of all scientists; publications in science journals remain important for determining who rises to the attention of other scientists and who becomes a research leader.

Concluding remarks! 

Asking questions and forming answers is truly important for all faculty research scientists.  Everything and anything can and should be questioned!  To be a good scientist is to be a good questioner!  Progress in science and career depends in part upon comparing your own answers to those given by other scientists asked the same question!

 

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CURIOSITY IN YOU AND IN SCIENTISTS! 

 

Quotations about curiosity (see: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes) (http:dr-monsrs.net)
Notable quotations about curiosity, from:  http://www.goodreads.com/quotes !    (http:dr-monsrs.net)

 

Curiosity is a common term meaning to have a desire to know more about something.  It is an innate character for humans, and is well-expressed in all children.  The classical example of childhood curiosity is taking a clock or toy apart to see what is inside and what makes it work.  Unfortunately, curiosity tends to decrease or disappear in adults due to the many restrictions on exploring and wondering imposed by education, laws, and society.  Curiosity arises naturally without conscious intention; amazingly, it simply happens!

What about scientists?  Do they have or need curiosity? 

Curiosity is prominent in almost all scientists!  When asked why they have so much research interest in whatever they work on, many younger scientists will answer, “I just am curious about that!”  Their older counterparts might give various different answers, but often will designate curiosity as what drove them when they were much younger.  Many faculty scientists I know, whether they conduct research on chemistry, physics, or bioscience, were fascinated by various forms of life in nature when they were children (e.g., birds, chipmunks, insects, snakes, tadpoles, etc.).

Scientific research is not so easy, since it always is risky, expensive, and takes lots of time to complete.  Hence, curiosity as a motivation for doing research must be quite strong in scientists.  For most individual scientists, curiosity is always expanding and changing, since answering one research question generates other related questions. Scientists must learn to focus their extensive curiosity, or else they would never get anything done!

Is curiosity alone enough to make a scientist become successful and renowned?  No, because much more is needed in addition to an ongoing curiosity.  Scientists also must have good abilities for business and finance, communication, creativity, dedication, determination, hard work and sweat, imagination, patience, resistance to distractions, technical skills, understanding at levels of both trees and forests, writing, etc.  Nevertheless, curiosity in scientists also must always be there!

Can curiosity be taught?  Can curiosity be bought? 

I believe that curiosity is not able to be taught because it is an inborn attribute.  However, it can be increased by encouragement and intention.  Thus, children usually have oodles of natural curiosity, and will happily share that with parents, teachers, and other children.  Even for adults who left their curiosity far behind after starting to work, curiosity can be re-awakened and encouraged.  Curiosity often is associated with exploration, fascination, imagination, personal interests. and wondering; it usually is a strong part of daydreaming.

Some adults are so busy with their job, family, sports, social activities, church, etc., that they feel they have no time for curiosity or exploring (i.e., “I did that when I was little, but not now!”, and “I just don’t have time for that!”).  Sometimes even professional scientists will become so short of time that their research becomes mechanical and routine.  In such cases, scientists can buy curiosity in the form of having students, collaborators and visitors, postdocs, research technicians, etc., in their lab; with any sort of luck, the questions, ridiculous proposals, and new ideas based on the curiosity of those workers will stimulate and help the overly busy scientist.

What does curiosity lead to?  What good is curiosity? 

Curiosity typically leads to such personal actions as closer examination, reading, asking questions, wondering “what if?”, seeking more detailed knowledge, and developing a wider understanding.  These explorations all are wonderful ways to use our large cranial computer to find out and know more about something.  But, sometimes curiosity can be problematic (e.g., persons are labelled as troublemakers because they always are asking too many questions) or even dangerous (e.g., a child innocently investigates what an electrical socket is).

For children, curiosity directly leads to increased understanding of the world around them.  For adults in the public, curiosity will make their life much more interesting and stimulate development of their mental capabilities.  For scientists, curiosity furthers fascination with their research subject(s), and, helps create new ideas and new research questions.  For everyone, curiosity creates wonderment, and can be much fun!  Thus, curiosity is quite good and useful for all people!

Concluding remarks! 

Curiosity is a large part of most scientist’s specific approaches to whatever they are researching.  Just as curiosity helps children to know and wonder about the big world, and aids adults to develop more interesting personal lives, so also is it invaluable to scientists in their search for new knowledge and the truth.

 

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GETTING RID OF RESEARCH GRANTS: HOW PAUL G. ALLEN IS DOING IT! 

 

Quotations about scientific research from PAUL G. ALLEN! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Quotations about scientific research from PAUL G. ALLEN, who knows what needs to be changed! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

The co-founder of Microsoft (1975), Paul G. Allen, has just made a large donation to start a dramatic new research program in biomedical science, the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group.  My recent dispatch about this dynamic man briefly summarized his life interests, global activities, and accomplishments with supporting science and research (see: “A Dramatic Individualist, Paul G. Allen, is a Major Benefactor of Scientific Research!”).  The present article presents how Allen’s newest philanthropy for science is organized, explains what he is aiming for, and applauds his insight into what is wrong in science at modern universities.

The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group [1-3]! 

The new Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group has 2 mechanisms for sponsoring research.  The Allen Discovery Centers provide $30 million to support productive research groups where ground-breaking investigations going into the future of science are underway.  The first 2 awards will go to Tufts University (Boston) for fundamental investigations on the genesis of organ and tissue structures, and to Stanford University (Palo Alto) for systems-level computational modeling of immune cell interactions with bacteria.  This portion of the Frontiers Group will fund up to 10 Discovery Centers.

The new Allen Distinguished Investigators are professional scientists working at various institutions around the world, and  can be either junior or senior researchers showing the potential to dramatically reinvent entire areas of science.  The awards of 1-1.5 million dollars for up to 25 selected scientists enable each to initiate unrestricted new directions for research in their respective fields.  The Distinguished Investigators receive 10 years of support, thereby encouraging studies of very large previously unapproachable research questions.  The freedom provided allows the Distinguished Investigators to study unusual subjects and use unconventional approaches.  These possibilities are particularly needed for breakthrough studies into the complexities of biomedical science.  Initial selection of 4 research scientists has just been announced; for details about their investigations, see “Video: Launch press conference: The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group” .

What will be the influence of the Allen Frontiers Group on science [1-3]? 

The Allen Frontiers Group is revolutionary because it has several very distinctive features.  (1) The new awardees all are located outside the several large research institutes founded by Paul Allen in Seattle; thus, the influence of his philosophy for high quality science now will spread more widely.  (2) Awards in the Allen Frontiers Group all supersede the traditional approaches used to support science with research grants; the awardees can jump over the usual step-by-step progress made by individual scientists via using new and unconventional ideas for research that are too risky to be funded by research grants.  (3) The large amount of time university faculty scientists now need to waste dealing with research grants (see “What is the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?” ) will become available for actual experimental work in their laboratory; federal grants will not be needed by the Distinguished Investigators.  (4) The awardees have a very unusual amount of unrestricted freedom for creativity and innovation; this encourages making advances in knowledge for topics and questions that are complex, difficult, and important.

The changed atmosphere provided by these factors should act to return university scientists toward finding important new knowledge through basic research, instead of chasing money from research grants.  Thus, research by investigators in the Allen Frontiers Group will have a large impact by greatly advancing their fields in bioscience.  Paul Allen is liberating faculty scientists to do better science, to investigate very difficult research questions, and, to once again have fun with their work (see: “Why are University Scientists Increasingly Upset with Their Job?  Part II” )!

Paul Allen must perceive exactly what is wrong with today’s university research! 

The classical belief that research scientists should be creative, inventive, fearless, and unhindered is increasingly not evident in modern universities.  The current research grant system is destructive and hinders bringing new ideas into basic research.  Freedom is missing to take chances on making research breakthroughs by using unconventional experiments.   Novel ideas must be repressed due to worries about not getting a grant renewed.  These widespread restrictions unfortunately limit research progress for all faculty scientists at universities, medical schools, and research institutes.  The improved working atmosphere in Allen’s design for research includes the freedom to think new thoughts and go against the flow, collaborate with teamwork instead of unbridled competition, and, develop unforeseen new concepts .

Other philanthropists also act to free faculty scientists from bad problems with the research grant system! 

I recently highlighted another remarkable philanthropic effort to rescue science from its present malaise by James E. Stowers, who established and generously endowed the Stowers Institute for Medical Research (see: “A Jackpot for Scientific Research, Part II” ).  His large new research institute has some similar features to the Allen Institutes, including that most financial  support is provided internally.  At least 2 different billionaires thus perceive the important advantages for science of using philanthropy to substitute for the perverse research grant system (see:  “Research Grants Cause Both Joy and Despair for University Scientists!” ).   In fact, several other megaphilanthropists recently have initiated support programs which strikingly advance university science [e.g., 1].

Concluding remarks! 

Paul Allen clearly recognizes the negative effects the current research grant system has upon scientific research in universities.  A key feature for investigators in the new Allen Frontiers Group is their liberation from the restrictions and distortions imposed by grant-supported research; they now have the freedom to make important research advances using creativity, innovation, and initiative while daring to take chances!

After reading my previous reports about the Stowers Medical Research Institute, many concluded that sponsorship of high quality scientific research by private philanthropy is NOT realistic because nobody else would donate the large sums of money needed.  Several other big donors show that they all are very wrong!  

It is easy to predict that the outcome of the new Frontiers Group generously sponsored by Paul G. Allen will be nothing short of wonderful!  He should be praised by all research scientists for recharging and improving scientific research at universities!  He truly is a hero in sience!  Hooray for Paul Allen!

 

[1]  Allen Institute, 2016.  “Press Release: Paul G. Allen Announces $100 million to Launch The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group” .  Available on the internet at:  https://www.alleninstitute.org/what-we-do/frontiers-group/news-press/press-resources/press-releases/paul-g-allen-announces-100-million-launch-paul-g-allen-frontiers-group .

[2]  Cha, A. E., 2016.  Philanthropist Paul Allen announces $100 million gift to expand ‘frontiers of bioscience’.  The Washington Post, March 24, Section A, page A2.  Available on the internet at:  http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/washingtonpost/doc/1775298386.html?FMT=FT&FMTS=ABS:FT&date=Mar+24%2C+2016&author=Ariana+Eunjung+Cha&desc=%24100+million+to+fund+exploration+of+biosciences&free=1&pf=1 .

[3]  The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, 2016.  “Video: Introducing The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group” is available on the internet at:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bkLKuJigpY .

 

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A DRAMATIC INDIVIDUALIST, PAUL G. ALLEN, IS A MAJOR BENEFACTOR OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH! 

 

Quotations from Paul G. Allen, a most dynamic and revolutionary thinker and doer! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Quotations from Paul G. Allen, a most dynamic and revolutionary thinker and doer! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

The co-founder of Microsoft (1975) , Paul G. Allen, has already given over 2 billion dollars to establish several far-sighted new research institutes.  He is a free-thinking man with numerous activities and widespread interests, ranging from music to professional sports and spaceflight.  This dispatch briefly summarizes the remarkable scope of Allen’s dynamic activities, and then discusses how his philanthropy is benefiting scientific research in a big way; a following article will discuss the very novel features of his latest innovative program for stimulating the progress of scientific research.  (POSTSCRIPT on June 5, 2016: readers should note that there is a followup posting about Paul Allen (see: http://dr-monsrs.net/2016/04/14/replacing-research-grants-how-paul-g-allen-is-doing-it/ )!

Background about a vigorously independent individual: Paul G. Allen [1-3]! 

Paul Allen is an author, business owner and investor, entrepreneur and industrialist, explorer of history and geography, founder of several museums, inventor, moviemaker, owner of several professional sports teams, promoter of urban projects in Seattle (his hometown!), rock guitarist, supporter of education and the arts, technological visionary, yachtsman, and, one of the world’s leading philanthropists.  In addition to working with his sister, Jody Allen, on many of those activities, he has utilized his Allen Family Foundation to greatly benefit several universities in the state of Washington, start the Allen Distinguished Educators program that rewards particularly creative and effective education developments by teachers in primary and secondary schools, support a non-governmental organization, Elephants Without Borders, to further the conservation of wild elephants in Africa, establish the Paul G. Allen Ocean Challenge as a public contest for improving the health of our oceans, along with stimulating a variety of other programs, projects, and personal explorations.  Most of this is carried out by his company, Vulcan, Inc.; one of its many activities is Vulcan Aerospace, a division  including a collaborative space exploration project with the noted engineer, Burt Rutan (see: “Stratolaunch Systems, A Paul G. Allen Project” ).

Tying all these many explorations together is Paul Allen’s extensive curiosity, diverse personal interests, determination to make ideas flow into new knowledge, affection for going where no-one has tread before, and, his optimistic belief that anything is possible.  For him, the future can be opened right now!  In 2005, Paul Allen published an autobiographical book, Idea Man, A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft, recounting his experiences in co-originating Microsoft; 10 short videos based on this book graphically illustrate his youth and development of operating systems in the early days of personal computing (see “Idea Man Part One: Roots” ).

Paul G. Allen has advanced scientific research in revolutionary ways [1-3]! 

For trying to push science and research beyond all their usual goals and practices, Paul Allen founded and funded the Allen Institute for Brain Research in 2003, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in 2013, and, the Allen Institute for Cell Science in 2014.  These research centers in Seattle feature technologically advanced experimental research by scientists and engineers, and involve such very large and complex research questions as how does the brain work (i.e., how do some 86 billion neurons interact to furnish memory and reasoning?), what can artificial intelligence do for humans (i.e., as individuals and as society?), and how do our cells conduct their varied functions (i.e., in health, disease, and regeneration?).  These giant research investigations at these Institutes all are in the realm of “big science”.

The goals of Paul Allen are nothing less than to revolutionize science and speed up the progress of research.  To do that, he brought the practices of industrial research to bear at the Allen Institutes; these feature numerous doctoral specialists working as teams supported by a large staff and advanced research instrumentation facilities.  At the Institutes, there is little of the problems characterizing science at universities (i.e., massive individual competition, constant worries about continued research grant funding, and, doing niche studies needing only shorter periods of time).  Jumps of discovery are encouraged by creativity, innovation, and interactive teamwork.  Output of these large-scale science projects is made available as internet resources for use by other researchers throughout the world; examples include several Allen Atlases for the mouse and human brains in adulthood and during embryonic growth, the Allen Brain Cell Types Database, the Mouse Neural Connectivity Atlas, and The Animated Cell, a multiscale virtual model that integrates all knowledge about cells and can predict changes in their behavior.

The vision, organization, and goals of these research institutes mostly come from Paul himself.  He sees that science and technology can make dreams become real; he values unconventional new ideas that stimulate groundbreaking findings and jump into the future.  All this aims to benefit the entire world and all people.

Concluding remarks! 

Paul G. Allen is a most dynamic individual!  He deserves admiration for using his own money to benefit science and engineering, the arts, Seattle, Africa, oceans, wildlife, museums, and people everywhere.  He clearly is making a big difference in the conduct of scientific research, by promoting a new design for research on very fundamental large-scale questions.  It is easy to predict that the outcome of his vision of what science and research should be doing will be nothing short of wonderful!

VIDEOS:  Many videos about Paul G. Allen both inside and outside science are available on the internet!  For a glimpse of the man himself, I recommend the following 3!

(1)  “Paul Allen on Gates, Microsoft” by CBS (2011); this presentation involves a hostile interviewer!

(2)  “Stratolaunch Systems: A Paul G. Allen Project” by Vulcan, Inc. (2011); turning ideas into reality!

(3)  “Paul G. Allen on Art” by Vulcan, Inc.  (2015); presents Allen’s many activities to make good art available to the public!

 

[1]  @PaulGAllen, 2016.  “Home page” .  Available on the internet at:  http://www.paulallen.com/ .  NOTE: explore the different headings!

[2]  Allen Institute for Brain Science, 2013.  “Allen Institute for Brain Science: Fueling Discovery” .  Available on the internet at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HclD7T9KFg .

[3]  Allen Institutes, 2016.  “About” .  Available on the internet at:  http://www.alleninstitute.org/about/ . NOTE: explore the variety of headings indicating the diversity of Paul Allen’s many activities!

 

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