The new ASBMB President has words for the science riff-raff

September 29, 2014

Now honestly, this thing reads like a spoof or some top-quality trolling akin to my Boomer bashing. Albeit without a shred of actual data on which it is based (unlike my Boomer bashing).

However, you will be interested to hear the new ASBMB President’s analysis of the real problem in science today.

Two or three decades ago, this system was effective, yet I now judge it to be flawed. What went wrong? I submit that the demise of the review process can be attributed to two changes. First, the quality of scientists participating in CSR study sections two to three decades ago was, on average, superior to the quality of study section participants today. Second, study sections have become highly specialized such that they narrowly define a differentiated club of biomedical research.

Hrm, hrm, I submit to you, hrm hrm, that I and my fellow Great Men of Science used to get our grants funded every time we submitted them. Now things have changed! Clearly there is a problem that is simple to diagnose. Read on.

Among all problems leading to devolution of CSR study sections, the elephantine expansion of the biomedical research complex tops the list. Biomedical research in the 1960s and 1970s was a spartan game.

Wait, what? Does this guy know it is 2014? That would make it three to four decades ago…but who is counting.

First, the average scientist today is not of the quality of our predecessors; it’s a bit analogous to the so-called “greatest generation” of men and women of the United States who fought off fascism in World War II compared with their baby boomer children. Biomedical research is a huge enterprise now; it attracts riff-raff who never would have survived as scientists in the 1960s and 1970s. There is no doubt that highly capable scientists currently participate in the grant-review process. Likewise, unfortunately, study sections are undoubtedly contaminated by riff-raff.

Hmmmm. Okay so let me just think about this. The greatest change in the population of Professor-scientists since the 1070s is….hmmm. Women? Persons underrepresented in the sciences (and academia)? Those from a less-well-off background? All of the bloody above?

Good LORD what a snob.

A second cause of the demise in study section quality can be attributed to the fact that it is a thankless task balanced by few benefits. Three to four decades ago, it was a feather in one’s cap to be appointed to an NIH study section. When I joined the molecular cytology study section in the 1980s, Bruce Alberts was chairman, and the committee included the likes of Tom Pollard and all kinds of superb scientists. To spend three meetings per year with an esteemed group of scientists was both inspirational to me as a young scientist and of tangible value to my maturation as a researcher.

Less than one decade ago I went on study section and it was considered by all of my local peers (and members of my field external to my University) to be quite a feather in my cap. I also had the opportunity to spend three meetings a year with an esteemed group of scientists in my field. It was inspirational to me and of tangible value to my maturation as a scientist.

Wow. It is almost like nothing has changed.

Finally, as study sections have become ever more dedicated to thin slices of the biomedical landscape, participants are exposed to less and less science outside of the narrowly defined disciplines covered by their individual study sections. As such, one rarely learns much of anything new by participating in an NIH study section meeting.

I can’t speak to every study section but I did have the good fortune to be appointed to one with a broad mission. Broad across IC assigned for possible funding, broad in study subject population / models and broad in scientific questions being asked. From my perspective, of course. Not sure how Dr. McKnight would see it but I’m willing to argue the merits of that study section on the stats.

let’s consider what might be expected from a grant review committee composed largely of second-tier scientists with limited knowledge of the breadth of biology and medicine. I propose that these committees are equally good at ensuring that the worst and best applications never get funded. They can see a terrible grant wherein the science is flawed and the investigator has no track record of achievement. These committees are, unfortunately, equally good at spotting and excluding the most creative proposals – the grant applications coming from inspired scientists whose research is damned because it is several steps ahead of the curve and damned because it comes from an applicant not blessed with club membership.

as they say on Wikipedia, [citation needed].

Now, to the second of two evils: the evolution of scientific clubs. Back when we used to “walk miles to school,” the scientific meetings we attended had some level of breadth.

Ok. If this is an intentional troll, this is the tell right here. Right? Right?

Fast-forward 30 years, and what do we now have? The typical modern biomedical meeting spends a week on a ridiculously thin slice of biology. There are entire meetings devoted to the hypoxic response pathway, sirtuin proteins, P53, mTor or NFkB. If a scientist studies some aspect of any of these domains, he or she absolutely has to attend these mindless meetings where, at most, some miniscule increment of advancement is all to be learned.

Is it possible that science really has gotten more complex so that low hanging fruit cannot be scooped up by a generalist, gentleman dilettante anymore? I mean, it couldn’t be that, could it?

Damn the fool who does not attend these meetings: The consequence is failure to maintain club membership. And why is club membership of such vital importance? Yes, precisely, there is nearly a one-to-one correspondence between these clubs and CSR study sections.

Actually, the study section I spent the most time reviewing for contained LOTS of people that tend to attend meetings that I do not attend. I met many of them for the first time on study section. So the “one-to-one correspondence” simply doesn’t square with my experience. Oh, and btw, I have ad-hoc’d on panels that are related but have a more defined focus than the one I served as an appointed member. Guess what? Also a dearth of “one-to-one correspondence” with any particular scientific meetings I or they attend.

So, to wrap up, this guy has zero data for his assertions, they come from the expected direction of unearned privilege of those who got their starts in the 1960s and early 1970s and his claims about modern study section are at considerable odds with my own experiences.

I will be fascinated to see if my readers share his view on the modern study section experience.

ETA: A check of Dr. McKnight’s funded grants from the NIH suggests he is no stranger to the Special Emphasis Panel.

UPDATE 10/08/14: A Nature News piece notes that McKnight ‘was “saddened” by suggestions that he has any gripe with young researchers or with diversity. He meant to criticize review committees as a whole, not just young scientists, he added.’
h/t: Some twitter troll who shall not be identified unless s/he so choses.

105 Responses to “The new ASBMB President has words for the science riff-raff”

  1. Established PI Says:

    Sigh. I was pretty sorry to see this piece a few weeks ago. McKnight is an outstanding scientist who is entitled to his opinion, I guess, but issuing this from the Office of the President was mighty poor judgement, to say the least. This smeared a lot of ASBMB members who spend a lot of their time reviewing grants and try hard to be both fair and wise. Study sections do vary in quality and expertise, and I have certainly had colleagues return from SS equally depressed by the quality of some of the reviews as by the paucity of funding. And, yes, some study section rosters have seemed to have rather few scientists with significant accomplishments (pick your measure, I mean this broadly) that make one wonder about the collective wisdom around the table as grants are scored. And yes, I have sat in the room with someone or another trying to tear down a grant with the most moronic narrow criticism because of their inability to see the big picture. I also think that not enough of the truly outstanding scientists serve enough. At the same time, there is no going back to the good/bad old days when a small group of men called most of the shots, nor can I see why anyone would want to (except for that same, shrinking group of men).

    It is just too facile to blame the current problems at the NIH on low-quality nobody reviewers (allegedly) who hang out at highly specialized meetings. The problems are broader and deeper, and this piece unfortunately does nothing except insult the people who are trying to serve the community in this very difficult funding climate.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    It is a rather stark contrast with the approaches of the previous President of ASBMB is it not?


  3. Eskimo Says:

    Yes, this is why the ASBMB publishes such exclusive scientific journals, to keep out the scientific riff raff.


  4. kevin. Says:

    I cannot believe he actually used the term ‘riff-raff’ and repeatedly. What an entitled maroon. Makes me wonder if his grants are getting triaged and he can only blame the short-sightedness and lack of respect from those kind of idiots on Study Section.


  5. Established PI Says:

    I am guessing that Previous President may have already had a chat with Current President (are you listening, DataHound?). Or hoping.


  6. Mytchondria Says:

    This is akin to the sorority girl telling her buddies she’ll [watch it – DM] them if they don’t look prettier and score more hot doods.


  7. Odyssey Says:

    Grab your pitchfork and torch- that git needs to go.


  8. Looking him up, his publications seem awfully specialized minutia of gene regulation and not of particularly general interest. Which is fine (these details are part of the edifice of science), except from his rhetoric against specialization you’d think he was publishing grand syntheses across all subfields of biology.


  9. Established PI Says:

    You must be looking up the wrong McKnight.


  10. damit Says:

    He’s right, but not (entirely) for the reasons he gave.

    There is so much effort expended nowadays to represent everybody on panels that I wonder if quality is still the primary push..and no, I do not mean ethnic participation.

    Regions of the country have to be equally represented. Subdisciplines have to be represented. Age/experience has to be represented. I feel sorry for the SROs at times.

    Some of the crappiest reviews I have seen come from people who represent a specific, PO driven contingent who are driven to protect their little area at the expense of all else.

    Or…to kill all competition. That happens too. Some subfields are just merciless, and nitpick endlessly….

    In either case the SRO depends on those out of the subfield to speak up.

    There are two drivers that also cannot be ignored…first, nobody needs to lose sight of the fact that paylines are so low that good stuff doesn’t make the cut….that is not a SS issue.

    Second the reviewer has a hard time helping the applicant in the bullet review format. Back in the day when I was struggling I got volumes of feedback in pink sheets. Not so much now.
    There is the “comment to applicant” section which I use liberally….but most don’t.


  11. Philapodia Says:

    But weren’t the so-called superstar scientists of olde the ones responsible for training all of the riff-raff that are now messing up the system? Perhaps this points to a monumental failure on their part to do their jobs training scientists correctly in their rush to be the greatest generation.

    I’m at a loss for what McKnight’s purpose and goal for writing this article is outside of irritating a lot of people.


  12. @Established PI
    Maybe; but the Steven McKnight I looked up is in the National Academy, so he’s probably the only one with that name who could get away with up with calling people “riff-raff”, so probably not. Obviously he did good stuff, important stuff, but not exactly the cross-disciplinary stuff of interest to everyone that one would expect from someone complaining about specialization.


  13. Philapodia Says:

    And Ye, Alberts of the flowing locks and woven sandals walked blissfully into the room of Study and the unwashed masses quaked in fear and silence fell upon them. The Alberts open his mouth and spoke Truth to the assembled plebeians, and the worthy wept in awe of his glory and the 2nd tier burst into unbeing in recognition of their mediocrity like a pinkslip in the flame. And it was good.


  14. drugmonkey Says:


    Are you sure you don’t just mean that everyone that disagrees with your assessment of a pile of applications is an incompetent reviewer?


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    I think there is an upside to ridiculous stuff like what this guy wrote in his OpEd. It lets those of similar mind see how absurd it sounds when put down in writing and given a public airing.


  16. Pinko Punko Says:

    McKnight is a giant and has consistently been interesting and creative, but I almost thought that this was like is this the version of McKnight from another universe that has a GOATEE??? Because it reads like mirror universe Jeremy Berg.

    I have seen less than awesome stuff on study section, but his article was really gross. I do think that view is pretty common. It was/probably still is the view of my postdoctoral adviser. It is just tough.


  17. commentariette Says:

    It would probably be helpful to base your criticisms on hard data, rather than simply bashing his race, age, and gender. You criticize him for having ‘zero data’, but don’t present much other than PC’ism and anecdote to refute him.


  18. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Assuming you copy-pasted verbatim, fucke this fucken douche for misspelling “minuscule”. Typical of ignorant narrow minded specialized fuckes to think the word derives from “mini”. Fucken ignorant riff-raff.


  19. CD0 Says:

    The best scientists that I have known through various institutions have served many times in study sections, and virtually all have been there for an entire term.

    They may be there at earlier stages in the careers, but all of them have that in common.

    May be just my anecdotal experience, but if somebody in the study sections where I go is capricious and puts little effort on an objective review, it’s usually these old timers that got used to many years of free lunch in the past.


  20. Bunbury Says:

    “First, the average scientist today is not of the quality of our predecessors”

    This is fantastically unfounded BS.
    If we are talking about PIs, this is extremely unlikely since competition for positions today is much stiffer than decades ago and a much smaller percentage of PhDs/postdocs end up in faculty positions.


  21. odyssey Says:

    And this guy gets to represent ASBMB in talks with Congress about funding. Think things are bad now? Just imagine how they could be if he’s allowed to continue spewing this BS.


  22. Philapodia Says:

    He states in his letter that he will follow up with an article talking about what he thinks could be done about these problems. Perhaps the purpose for his hardline approach is to make what would be an unpopular opinion appear more moderate as compared to his insulting introduction to the problem? I’m not sure about it, but unless McKnight really thinks that everyone that isn’t him or his drinking buddy is riff-raff then I’m not sure what his goal is here.

    Unfortunately this whole to-do also puts Datahound in what I would imagine to be an uncomfortable position.


  23. Laura Says:

    I’m just a lowly graduate student in a riff-raffy specialized corner of biology, but I wanted to point out that at least some of the 1960s were actually FIVE decades ago.


  24. BWJones Says:

    Hrmmm… “Snob” eh? I can think of other, perhaps more appropriate descriptives that might be less polite. Soooo, I’ll listen to my Mama and not say anything.


  25. damit Says:

    DM: “Are you sure you don’t just mean that everyone that disagrees with your assessment of a pile of applications is an incompetent reviewer?”

    Nah….just the ones who score on the basis of reference formats.


  26. AcademicLurker Says:

    I’ve managed to streamline my grant reviewing by just assigning scores based on font.


  27. drugmonkey Says:

    Odyssey- do you imagine Francis Collins is any difffent? Or Varmus, Alberts et rascalia?

    They just say it less plainly…..


  28. Well, Varmus at least I don’t think is that way. Or at least he *likes* the riff-raff. That’s why he was so involved in establishing PubMed Central, PLOS, etc. He doesn’t see science as having its glory days behind it — he’s thinking of the future.


  29. Dave Says:

    I’ve managed to streamline my grant reviewing by just assigning scores based on font.

    We all know that grants written in georgia font are far superior to all others.


  30. drugmonkey Says:

    JB- I’m referring to that ridiculous editorial they published in PNAS


  31. odyssey Says:

    No, I don’t believe they’re all that different, other than McKnight was elected by people like… us. The riff-raff.


  32. DJMH Says:

    During grad school application season, I hear professors say: “Thank goodness I’m not applying to grad school now, or I would never have gotten in–these kids have so much more experience and better grades and scores!”

    During faculty application season, I hear professors say: “Thank goodness I’m not applying to be a professor these days, or I would never have been hired–I had one paper in JCN and a JNeurosci article in press from my postdoc!”


  33. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    I guess McKnight hasn’t read about people like Yitang Zhang. He fit the classification of McKnight’s riff-raff until 2012. (

    Or maybe he has, and brushed them off as one-offs. Or maybe he is so used to his privileged self that doesn’t believe in concepts such as ‘potential’ and ‘opportunity’ anymore.


  34. @Mtomasson Says:

    Shorter version: me and my pals have been running this ship for a few decades now and I think it totally sucks where we have ended up. Stupid passengers.


  35. datahound Says:

    Steve McKnight and I have very different communication styles. With Steve, you rarely have any doubt about what his opinion is although you may be unsure about the basis for his views. I tend to lead with data and analysis and be more circumspect about the conclusions that follow from them. In his first President’s Message (Down but Not Out, ), Steve noted the power of biochemistry as an engine of discovery and went on record to predict that many of the “big data” projects will turn out to be relatively unproductive. Of course, in his more recent column, Steve takes on the growth of the biomedical enterprise, the NIH peer review system, and narrowly focused scientific “clubs”. While I (of course) agree that the system is under considerable stress now (in part because of its unmanaged growth), I was surprised to see how much blame he placed on the change in the composition of study section compared with several decades ago and certainly cannot condone his use of the term “riff-raff” to describe members of the scientific community and individuals on study sections.

    Unfortunately, there are no real data that exist (or even could be easily teased out) about how peer review performs now compared with several decades ago. From my personal observations, both as a study section member and then as an institute director, the quality of peer reviewer performance is a continuum that does not correlate all that strongly with scientific stature. Some highly accomplished scientists are very good reviewers who identify potential impact from proposals clearly while others are not. The same holds for reviewers who are less accomplished or are earlier in their careers. The NIH system does have a considerable challenge staffing study sections with appropriate reviewers given the number of applications that are currently being submitted.

    The biggest problem now is the funds available is out of equilibrium from the number of applications that are being submitted. With paylines where they are now, it is very difficult for reviewer and NIH staff to pull out higher risk-higher potential impact proposals for preferential funding when so many outstanding proposals are at the funding cusp. This, in my opinion, is one of the biggest differences between now and the decades ago when paylines were higher and the enterprise was much smaller.


  36. drugmonkey Says:

    But let us be clear, datahound. McKnight and his ilk define “good” grant review as “I and the people that I personally deem to be great scientists get funding on the first try, every time.”, and “bad” grant review as “some person I don’t know and like got a grant for doing something that doesn’t interest me personally”.

    That is the sum total of the analysis. This is why it is impossible to engage with these attitudes with any sort of objective grounding.


  37. drugmonkey Says:

    BTW folks, this post by Isis the Scientist reminds us of how the great riff-raffication of NIH study sections began. Presumably.


  38. Your comparison of styles reminded me of this great FT piece from 2011. The reporter sits down to play chess with Garry Kasparov.

    Kasparov says in chess “the rules are fixed and the outcome is unpredictable”, whereas in politics in Putin’s Russia “the rules are unpredictable and the outcome is fixed”.


  39. datahound Says:

    Drugmonkey: I do not think you are being fair to Steve McKnight with your broad brush. While I have no doubt that some do approximate your “good” versus “bad” definitions of review, Steve, in my experience, is a tough critic for many and has a strong push for real scientific creativity. He was one of the first to develop tools for deconstructing promotors through mutagenesis methods, but then because quite critical of molecular biologists who did this repeatedly for no creative purpose. He has made important discoveries regarding new classes of transcription factors (e.g. leucine zippers), circadian rhythms, the relationships between oxidative and reductive phases of metabolism in yeast and other organisms, has sought and discovered compounds that have considerable potential for neurodegenerative diseases, has revealed important differences between mouse and human embryonic stem cells, and so on. From my observation, he is frustrated with proposals that he would regard as “me, too” science with very little potential for impact regardless from whom they are from.


  40. rxnm Says:

    I can’t believe anyone is defending this asshole because of his role in the ancient history of promoters.


  41. ClearlyTrolling Says:

    Did someone steal my username?

    Webpage in comic sans? A special section for short stories and poetry? 2 Assistant Professors listed as “lab members”?

    Drugmonkey, did you invent this to ensure a “Kill the Olds!?!!?” revolution?


  42. drugmonkey Says:

    It is true that I do not know him personally or professionally. All I have is what he wrote over at ASBMB and the interview you did with him.

    Perhaps if he is such a swell guy he should devote his energies to punching up, and lateral, rather than down. I don’t think anyone is missing the point that he himself is a wonderful, creative and talented scientist. Bully for him.

    In my view this is no excuse whatsoever. Sorry, but it isn’t. If you are so wonderful, you can still get your grant funding and glamour mag papers now just as in the past. Which he clearly has done. So who is he crying about? I simply do not at all agree that anyone should be awarded funding at the NIH without having to compete fairly with everyone else. It is an inferior way to do business.

    he is frustrated with proposals that he would regard as “me, too” science with very little potential for impact regardless from whom they are from.

    The notion that all work funded by the NIH is, or should have the very highest “potential for impact” as assessed at one point in time by an individual is DEEPLY flawed and you should know better than to argue this as some kind of an excuse for jackholery from the “cutting edge eleventy” crowd. It is just plain WRONG and history shows why this is the case. So no, I don’t credit his alleged “frustration” one bit.

    In particular, his post about BigData shows exactly what the problem is. He is not making calls about likely impact, he is expressing his own personal bias over what science is interesting (or understandable, possibly).

    I have also been looking over his lab website to see how it matches up with his assertions about the best science being done by modest labs with modest funding and “one technician or a graduate student”. Also how it matches up to his suggestion about how real scientists are the ones who conduct all their techniques personally in their labs.

    He is sharply condemning himself. He has not just one but two Assistant Professors listed as being in “his” lab! Along with the expected large cohort of other participating warm bodies.

    Hypocrisy does not lend credence to anyone’s arguments. Nor does it convince anyone that the argument is being made in any sort of good faith, even if expressed roughly. It rather convinces the outside observer that the person in question is creating arguments out of whole cloth and is in fact meaning something else entirely.

    I think I’ll stick with my “broad brush” interpretation of this guy until we see something to counter it.


  43. Spiny Norman Says:

    Re. Bruce Alberts…



  44. Spiny Norman Says:

    “During grad school application season, I hear professors say: “Thank goodness I’m not applying to grad school now, or I would never have gotten in–these kids have so much more experience and better grades and scores!”

    There’s a reason for that, friend.


  45. WH Says:

    Clicking around on that site led me to this one, which included a message for established academics:

    For established academics: you came up during the halcyon days of growth in science, so bear in mind that you had it easy relative to those trying to make it today. So when you set your expectations for your students or junior colleagues in terms of performance, recruitment or tenure, be sure to take on board that they have it much harder now than you did at the corresponding point in your career. A corollary of this point is that anyone actually succeeding in science now and in the future is (on average) probably better trained and works harder than you (at the corresponding point in your career), so on the whole you are probably dealing with someone who is more qualified for their job than you would be. So don’t judge your junior colleagues with out-of-date views (that you might not be able to achieve yourself in the current climate) and promote values from a bygone era of incessant growth. Instead, adjust your views of success for the 21st century and seek to promote a sustainable model of scientific career development that will fuel innovation for the next hundred years.


  46. Spiny Norman Says:

    Also, McKnight told me he really likes my work (this is true), so he must have immaculate judgment (snicker).


  47. Philapodia Says:

    From McKnight’s lab webpage:
    “If a system offers vertically ascending challenges, we attempt to build on our own science and sustain focus. On the other hand, once a discovery has been rigorously established so as to create ripe opportunities for more horizontal productivity, it is our habit to leave this work to others who might be better prepared to articulate details and expand the discovery in directions better suited to their skills and knowledge base.”

    Read as: We only want low-hanging fruit, details are for the riff-raff.


  48. Physician Scientist Says:

    Philapodia – McKnight’s verbage in that paragraph was too complicated for me. If that were in a grant, I’d triage it as I value brevity and clarity.


  49. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    That seems like a purposely convoluted way of making readers think that the McKnight group is altruistically creating a wonderful foundation and “ripe opportunities” for so many other groups to build on and parse out, whereas in reality it means exactly what Philapodia’s interpretation says.


  50. Philapodia Says:

    Perhaps I’ll throw the phrase “vertically ascending challenge” into the abstract of my next A0 and see if it increases my score. It would make me sound sophistamaketed.


  51. AcademicLurker Says:

    It’s important to disruptively leverage the synergies of your vertically ascending challenges.


  52. Stochastic Sam Says:

    Each spring, the male McKnight builds a nest from twigs and and vigorously displays his vertically ascending challenge to females in an intricate dance, attempting to attract a mate. The size and color of the challenge varies by region; challenges of the Western McKnights have soft red tufts, while Southern McKnights have delightful pink challenges that appear from a distance to resemble a curled mustache.


  53. CD0 Says:

    Redundantly pedantic. Ascensions very rarely proceed in a non vertical manner. On the other hand, one can ascend using a diagonal and still reach the top faster than following a vertical line.
    This guy has a problem expressing himself. Of course he is angry with the grant review system.


  54. damit Says:

    Yeah, but his real problem is he didn’t use the right reference format, right DM?


  55. Ha Ha. Just kidding!


  56. GAATTC Says:

    Although I’m willing to give this guy a slight break based on Datahound’s comments, I can’t get over the short stories and essays portion of his website. Does he really think that anybody cares? That pretty much sums it up for me — He insists upon himself. The previous ASBMB president was far superior.


  57. MoBio Says:

    @Drugmonkey and others:

    I know Steve well–as noted by others he has made a number of important discoveries (and continues to do so).

    The verbiage is ‘classic Steve McKnight’–uncensored–and a clear reflection of his views (as antediluvian as they are). If you were to ‘share a beer with him’ –you would find him passionate for science qua science. He’s full of ideas on how to make the collective scientific endeavor better, though many would disagree with his specific recommendations.

    I myself disagree with much of what he says specifically, but resonate with his passion for science.

    He had quite a successful career in biotech after being an HHMI investigator and now has built an outstanding department at UTSW.

    “Oy vey” is all I can say for his latest barrage.


  58. Arlenna Says:

    I’m so insulted by this tirade. It’s just no excuse being good at what he does. How can someone who thinks like that be trusted to mentor and represent us?


  59. BenK Says:

    What’s most remarkable is that science actually benefits greatly from the presence of the gentlemen dilettante; and sometimes the brazen over-selling careerist is also useful, as well as the socially challenged technologist, the fuzzy-minded theoretician, and a host of other stereotypes, archetypes and high school students. By and large, except for those so socially inept that they don’t recognize the existence of anyone else, the groups despise each other and feel that funding going to the others is misplaced. Thus the Kardashian Index, as recently published. The different groups attack based on various notions: some people are simply getting by on unearned good press, good looks, belonging to a social network, access to big pieces of equipment, analyzing other peoples’ data, monopolizing the access to data, use of specific indices of productivity in hiring, etc etc etc.

    Attaining any sort of balance or consensus is impossible (as proven in any number of political science papers about voting and committees). As resources become more limiting, the recriminations become more motivated. Further, though each type will have an ongoing role, as individual fortunes wax and wane, each individual is motivated to respond emotionally, looking for enemies and allies.

    It’s unfortunate, but putting the dispute in context rather than responding in kind is probably the most useful approach.


  60. iGrrrl Says:

    data hound said, re McNight: “From my observation, he is frustrated with proposals that he would regard as “me, too” science with very little potential for impact regardless from whom they are from.”

    Then why didn’t he just say so instead of, as DM says, punching down?

    Near as I can tell, “me, too” science is extremely hard to get funded, because even ‘riff-raff’ reviewers can spot it. And by the way, getting lateral science funded is hard, too. So by his own words, it seems McNight leaves the lateral work for others, expecting someone else to pick it up and …not get funded to do it.


  61. Philapodia Says:

    That’s part of the problem with science funding these days. Vertical ascending science (ie cool new shitte) is what gets funded, but doing the hard detail work to flesh out the systems is considered less sexy and is harder to get funded. But guess what, details actually matter! Try giving a new therapeutic to a patient without doing a lot of detail work and see what happens. Don’t quite know all of the details of how CRISPR works or targets sequences yet? No worries, let’s try it in a patient to repair a genetic deficiency and hope no unanticipated consequences occur (oh noze, why is he growing a new arm?!). Foundational science is important, but just as important is detail work. The devil is in the details is true.


  62. Philapodia Says:

    Another aspect to this is how articles like this influence the public’s perception of scientists. While we know many scientists because we work in the field, most people out there may not actually know a scientist. When the President of a visible scientific society like ASBMB writes articles like this, it promotes a negative (an unwarranted) perception of science and scientists in our society. Because we are dependent on government funding (which is paid for by the taxes of ~350 million ‘Mericans (unless they’re tax-evaders)), if the public thinks we’re all a bunch of jokers then they tell their congress critters that we’re wasting their hard-earned tax money by giving it away to a bunch of “riff-raff” and that NIH should be defunded. In the alternate reality where Congress would actually get done, they could lower NIH’s appropriations to comply with constituent pressure. In our reality, it gives people who hate paying taxes and big guvment something else to bitch about and can make our lives harder. Therefore, shouldn’t the President of a prominent scientific society have enough political acumen to understand that words actually mean things and have consequences? Just because McKnight is a good scientist doesn’t mean he has good leadership skills.


  63. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    I notice that people who know him are commenting that “its just his style”. Well, it very well might be, but when you are in a position such as this – President of a prominent society – you cannot just go about your usual style. You need to adopt a more diplomatic stance in you words, statements and actions. I am sure he is a great scientist, but maybe he isn’t ready for the public aspect of Presidential prime time.


  64. drugmonkey Says:

    Two words: Jim Watson


  65. Philapodia Says:

    Meaning that he’s a genius and has leadership skills but also kind of a prick?


  66. drugmonkey Says:

    How is he a genius?


  67. Philapodia Says:

    Watson is (IMO), but I wouldn’t consider McKnight one. Just wondering what aspect of the Great Watson you meant.


  68. drugmonkey Says:

    How is he a genius? Stole from Franklin, rode with Crick, “beat” others who were chasing the same thing. Then…..? What unique genius stuff followed that didn’t have to do with his privileges following his paper and ultimately Nobel?

    This is a serious question for people familiar with his actual, personal, unique-genius accomplishments, btw.


  69. Philapodia Says:

    hmm… Interesting point. There seems to be some reflexive hero worship on my part. Perhaps I should look into that, maybe talk to my therapist about it at my weekly session. I’m sure there’s a pill or topical cream he can give me.

    Back to the original point, could you elaborate a bit more on what you meant by Jim Watson?


  70. Dr. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    @DM – Ha, I was actually thinking about the similarity to JW as I wrote that! Heard interesting JW stories from colleagues and others.


  71. drugmonkey Says:

    Siiiigghh. It’s an actual question I try to ask every time Watson is discussed. Why is there no simple answer about what he’s actually done on his own hook?


  72. Philapodia Says:

    Perhaps his genius lies in his shameless self-promotion of his inflated sense of self-worth?

    In terms of what he’s done, probably it’s just a matter of the Great Watson being in the right place at the right time with the stars lined up just right and a smidgen of skullduggery mixed in.


  73. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    If ever there was an example of being in the right place at the right time, Watson is it.


  74. rxnm Says:

    “I wouldn’t have said it that way”

    “That’s just his style”

    Both common defenses of assholes/bullies, expressing either tacit agreement (but I’m too chickenshit to say it) or fear of the person (and I’m too chickenshit to disagree publicly)


  75. MoBio Says:

    More proof that ‘manners’ and ‘brains’ are independent traits.


  76. Philapodia Says:

    It’s easy to call someone out when you’re anonymous because there isn’t any real repercussion (unless some assehat outs you). Others who are either public or are known to the subject have to walk a finer line and be more diplomatic as they may have to interact or work with the assehole/bully in the future.


  77. MoBio Says:

    @ Philapodia

    This was not directed toward anyone here but that Steve is a good exemplar of the proof that manners and brains are independently inherited traits.


  78. Pinko Punko Says:

    Watson didn’t put his names on papers from people working in his group after some point in time, so it is likely that if followed standard author stuff, he’d have published a ton more stuff. I’m not a Watson fan, but he gets done a disservice (though he surely did Franklin a horrible disservice).


  79. E rook Says:

    The detail that comes to mind most often when I think of Watson’s book was his assertion in it that scientists don’t chew gum.


  80. drugmonkey Says:

    I am not interested in publishing conventions PiPunk. I want to know what Jimbo did, apart from reap largesse from his paper on the double helix and the subsequent Nobel. Is he a genius, as one commented suggests? Or is he an average guy who lucked into a grand accomplishment, as another suggests?


  81. science snob Says:

    Anyone who does not know of Steve McKnight should really refrain from criticizing him as a scientist. I highly doubt that anyone on this board will have a fraction of the discoveries that he has made. Now as a human being, that may be another matter. I certainly saw him say some much more controversial stuff than this when I was at UTSW. As for the riff-raff comment, maybe this is a crude comment. However, having peer reviewed many times, I can personally attest to seeing many bad actions by reviewers including people who had not read the grants, people who had no comprehension of what a fundable grant should comprise, and pure politics e.g. pushing a bad grant because of the PI. I would differ with Steve in that I would guess this went on just as much if not more in the olden days. Certainly the people I know from that era are often pretty close minded.


  82. E rook Says:

    Snob, it seems like you are writing about seeing unprofessional behavior during peer review. Perhaps this was what the riff raff comment was referring to as well (perhaps also it was the basis for the comment about his generation being better than subsequent ones as scientists). But there’s a word for behaving in a particular way while complaining about that behavior in others. There’s also a word for believing that only you and people in your in-group are entitled to behave a certain way.


  83. […] Drug Monkey and Dr. Isis (and I presume many more– just look at the comments to ASBMB post too) have very good posts all about it. […]


  84. Philapodia Says:

    We all have wonderful, groundbreaking ideas. Some of them are actually as groundbreaking and wonderful as we think they are. However, when you are a young(er) PI and have to spend 75% of your time writing grants to fund your lab, 50% of your time teaching, throw some service in there somewhere, and use your other 25% trying to train your students to not be riff-raff, it’s kind of hard to make as many stellar discoveries as McKnight has because we simply have too much to do just to stay afloat. I daresay that the world McKnight came up in had very little similarity to today’s research environment and that he may have had less challenges making his discoveries than we do today. Are we not allowed to present our opinion merely because we weren’t born 30 years earlier and have a chance to become McKnights peer? This would seem to be a variation on the argument from authority fallacy.


  85. Spiny Norman Says:

    DM, it’s damned clear that Watson’s success with Crick was more than luck. One need only consider the fact that Linus Pauling, arguably the greatest chemist who ever lived, was the competition. Read Crick’s book. Crick was unquestionably a genius; he had no doubt about Watson’s intellect.

    On can then consider the number of fantastic scientists (e.g., J. Steitz, M. Capecci, W. Gilbert) that he mentored and who, as others here have mentioned, authored their work as trainees without Watson as coauthor — he allocated the credit directly to those who did the work, a practice that might make today’s science a good deal healthier.

    Yes, Watson is a loose canon and (in many respects) an awful, sexist, racist, retrograde fool. Yes, he should have been taken out of leadership positions long before he was. But those conclusions do not force us to pretend that his scientific accomplishments are less than stellar.

    I’d also point out that he, almost single-handedly, rescued Barbara McClintock’s work from obscurity. Without that effort, it is likely that she never would have received her (well-deserved) Nobel Prize.

    The lesson is that people are complicated, and that neither good nor evil generally come to us unalloyed.


  86. Watson and Crick beat Pauling because they had access to Franklin’s diffraction patterns.


  87. Mikka Says:

    [Unless I am missing something, I’m not liking this comment – DM]


  88. drugmonkey Says:

    Read Crick’s book. Crick was unquestionably a genius

    I read the Astonishing Hypothesis and was around during a time when Crick was amazing himself as essentially a first year cognitive neuroscience grad student. I did not get this same impression of “unquestionably” from that.

    But nevertheless, my question is about Watson and his demonstrable accomplishments that support expert opinions that he was, in fact, anything special as a scientific mind.


  89. drugmonkey Says:

    On can then consider the number of fantastic scientists (e.g., J. Steitz, M. Capecci, W. Gilbert) that he mentored and who, as others here have mentioned, authored their work as trainees without Watson as coauthor — he allocated the credit directly to those who did the work,

    This just says he did not maximize his opportunities as an exploitative lab head. It says nothing about his accomplishments as a scientist that would support the ‘genius’ label. The point here is that I am asking whether we have any evidence, beyond the resources and opportunities that resulted from the DNA structure paper and the Nobel that Jim Watson was personally a scientific mind of any particular elite status. Nobody seems to be able to point to this evidence which I have always found peculiar. So I’m asking.

    his scientific accomplishments

    which are….?


  90. Spiny Norman Says:

    If you don’t think that Crick was a genius I can’t help you. He inferred the existence of tRNAs and tRNA synthetases when there was literally no evidence for their existence. He demonstrated, with Brenner, that the genetic code was read in triplets. Etc., Etc., etc.

    And the Crick book that you need to read is What Mad Pursuit.

    WRT his work in neuroscience, no one can be a genius in everything. Not even Linus Pauling.


  91. Spiny Norman Says:

    “Watson and Crick beat Pauling because they had access to Franklin’s diffraction patterns.”

    An over-simplification. Pauling was /really/ on the wrong track. Recall that Pauling’s triple-helix model (Pauling & Corey 1953, Nature) not only make the chains parallel rather than anti-parallel, but put the phosphate backbones on the INSIDE of the triplex. Those errors likely would not have been rectified by looking at Franklin’s Photograph 51.

    But it is true that Pauling was unable to see the X-ray data, because he was denied a travel visa. When Pauling FOIA’ed his FBI file he discovered the reason for the visa denail: He had been ratted on as Com-Symp by… wait for it… Ronald Reagan, with whom he served on a committee of some sort.

    I shit. you. not. Pauling told me that story himself.


  92. drugmonkey Says:

    He inferred the existence of tRNAs and tRNA synthetases when there was literally no evidence for their existence. He demonstrated, with Brenner, that the genetic code was read in triplets.

    This is the sort of easy reeling-off-of-accomplishments that I am asking for with respect to Watson.

    so you can “help you”. You just did it for Crick. You specified what you think of as the evidence for his genius.


  93. drugmonkey Says:

    An over-simplification. Pauling was /really/ on the wrong track. Recall that Pauling’s triple-helix model (Pauling & Corey 1953, Nature) not only make the chains parallel rather than anti-parallel, but put the phosphate backbones on the INSIDE of the triplex. Those errors likely would not have been rectified by looking at Franklin’s Photograph 51.

    Being ultimately right or wrong on one particular scientific chase is evidence of “genius” or the lack thereof? Sorry, but when several really smart scientists are all humping away at one question and have access to different parts of the puzzle at any given time….. the dude who “wins” does not by this act demonstrate his unique genius over the other really smart folks.


  94. Mikka Says:

    Unclutch your pearls, DM. I was only joking about something that Watson himself has often joked about, which is that he was really good friends with Pauling’s daughter, Linda, to find out what Pauling was up to. It’s not even clear that they were ever romantically involved but the dirty old man has never let facts get in the way of an outrageous story.

    (because that’s what he likes to do, btw. Scandalous pronouncements are part of his schtick. He thinks they make him look smarter)


  95. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    As far as the success of JW’s trainees, being a Nobel laureate sure helps attract the brightest trainees and obtain resources to support their work.


  96. dsks Says:

    In fairness to Watson, he never really held himself up as anything special at the time (although may have later bought into the flattery coming his way). He admits in his book that his contributions were largely in the form of providing energy, focus and tenacity (driven by no small amount of ambition) and keeping Crick on message. I don’t think that should diminish Watson’s academic ability necessarily, precisely because “genius” alone doesn’t make a good scientist. (The bars of the world are well peopled by “geniuses” who never actually got off their backsides and saw a problem through to the end.)


  97. drugmonkey Says:

    This self-deprecation in The Double Helix was actually super encouraging to me as an undergraduate contemplating doing science. And for a long time I recommended it to people for this reason.


  98. Spiny Norman Says:

    The thing that kills me is that Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize. If anyone should have shared it, it should have been Chargaff. If only because he hated W&C with such a sour passion, and it would have been awesome to force him to share the stage with W&C.


  99. […] not going to spend much time on his essay, since Drug Monkey has been tearing McKnight apart on his blog and on Twitter (also check out #riffraff). Sure, there are many problems with the current […]


  100. LincolnX Says:

    Ugh. I wonder of this group who McKnight considers to be “riff-raff”?

    Seems we’ve far exceeded the concept of “replacement” in a lab of 30+ trainees, and given his comments there’s a bit of hubris here.


  101. […] well recognized within NIH as an innovative and productive scientist although he has gone on to make some controversial statements about the scientific community) and Homme Hellinga (who was recognized as a rising star at the time […]


  102. […] for our own organization, Future of Research, also initiated a tirade of criticism (I recommend this from the Drugmonkey blog). And yet, this is a refrain that I commonly hear about study sections in […]


  103. Showmethemoney Says:

    Just revisited this after reading a grant review I just received where a reviewer cited a poorly done study found when googling the key words (I speculate this because it isn’t on pubmed and I only found it when I tried googling the key words) that has been understandably sitting on a preprint server, unpublished for 3 years, as proof that my hypothesis is wrong. Unfortunately as the first reviewer no one else took the time to refute this person or champion the grant.
    Looking at the study section there were few full professors, and few who had published in anything but low to mid tier journals.
    I’ve published in Nature, Science and Cell. I think at this point I know what I’m doing.
    Ranting here because I am resubmitting and have to be nice. But maybe Steve was correct.


  104. drugmonkey Says:

    The fact that you’ve published in CN or S means fuckall to whether you should receive special treatment at study section. FTR.

    but as far as the first point, this reminds me of the time I saw a panel tacked into a poster at an academic conference, some barely pilot n=2 type data, which explained the view of a certain grant reviewer who was denying the much more convincing and copious preliminary data provided in my application. we went on to publish multiple replications of the thing that was being denied. They did not. Such is life.


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