The concept that we are “eating our seed corn” if we don’t do X, Y or Z to support junior scientists is completely misinformed, inapplicable and wrong.

This was super popular back when the ESI issues were being debated and the NIH was trying to justify giving special consideration to fund the applications of new comers to the system. I do happen to support continued efforts to help those who are on the short end of the NIH grant award stick, but this is mostly about the concept and how it leads to bad thinking.

“Eating our seed corn” has raised its misguided head in the Time of Corona as we are discussing University polices that have, apparently, started to slow walk new hires, pull back startup funds of recent hires, etc. There was even a little hint of graduate programs pulling offers of graduate stipends if the candidates had not responded to an offer yet, despite the deadline for response being in the future.

This is bad. Yes, it’s devastating for those individuals who are in the transition zones right now and are being denied opportunities that were in front of them. It’s devastating for departments and laboratories that were very much looking forward to securing new contributors. What it is NOT is “eating our seed corn”.

For those that have never so much as planted a food garden…. I am going to risk insulting your intelligence and to point out the obvious. “Seed corn” concerns were from a time of agriculture when a person hoping to grow a crop couldn’t just run down to the feed store and buy seeds whenever they wanted to. It comes from a time where you had to save your own seeds from the harvest time so that you could use them, about six months later after the winter snows had cleared, to grow next year’s crop(s). No problem right? Millenia of agriculture agrees- set aside enough seeds fro harvest to plant for next year. Easy peasy.

But…sometimes there wasn’t enough food to get through the winter. Seeds, of course, are also food. The corn kernels that we eat are those same seeds that can be planted to grow next year’s crops. And if you eat all your seeds to make it through this winter, you are going to have no corn crop next year. Or the year after that. or ever. Until someone takes pity on you and gives you some of their seed corn.

You can’t just make new seeds after you’ve eaten them.

New scientists are not like this. At all.

We CAN make new ones whenever we want, even if we’ve skipped several cycles. As I’ve noted in another context, if we have a department that literally closes it’s graduate program admissions for five years….they can start right back up in year six with essential zero headaches. The same professors suddenly forgot how to train graduate students? Please.

That’s because the proper analogy is more like acorns. Graduate student production is a perennial, not an annual, crop. If you have a big old oak tree on your property, it’s gonna grow acorns. Every year. We don’t chop it down to eat the tree when we get really hungry in the winter, right? It’s not edible. So next year, it’s gonna grow more acorns. And the cycle of health for that tree is really, really long. It doesn’t care if you ate 25% or 100% of the acorns it grew last year, it’s going to produce more next year. And the year after that. And after that.

If growing conditions are terrible, sure, many perennial agricultural producers may have low output that season. Some may even fail to produce anything edible that season at all. But as soon as the conditions return to favorable, that plant produces another crop. It takes a really, really bad set of conditions, sustained for years likely, to kill an oak tree. Short of devastating trauma, that is.

Sticking with the agricultural references, we are facing a water shortage and not a wildfire. We are not Little House on the Prairie where we have only ourselves on which to rely for seeds. We are most certainly not solely dependent on annual food crops. The enterprise of scientific research in the US is a perennial. It has persistence and resilience.

The ESI debate was no different. We were not then, and are not now, talking about the sort of existential emergency that is described by “eating our seed corn”. We are talking about priorities of how many plants and in what variety we can support, given a water supply that is rationed by external forces. We’re only getting so many acre-feet this year. And it looks to be less than we got last year.

The point is that we need to make rational, thinking choices about what we are going to prioritize and support. We should not panic, running all about screaming that every crop will be gone forever if we don’t water it just like it was watered last year.

Well respected addiction neuroscientist Nick Gilpin posted a twitter poll asking people about their favorite part of doing science.

Only 4% of the respondents voted for “Reading the literature”. Now look, it’s just a dumb little twitter poll and it was a forced choice about a person’s favorite. Maybe reading is a super close second place for everyone who responded with something else as their first choice, I don’t know.

However. Experience in this field, reviewing manuscripts submitted to journals, reading manuscripts published in journals, fielding comments from reviewers about our manuscripts and trying to help trainees learn to write a scientific manuscript suggests to me that it is more than this.

I think a lot of scientists really don’t like to read deeply into the literature. At best, perhaps they weren’t ever trained to read deeply.

As a mentor, I tip toe around this issue a lot more than I should. I think, I guess, that it would be sort of insulting to ask a postdoc if they even know how to read deeply into a literature for the purposes of writing up scientific results. So I take the hint approach. I take the personal example approach. Even my direct instruction is a little indirect.

The personal example approach has a clear failure point. The hint may suffer from that somewhat as well. The direct statements of instruction that I do manage to give “Hey, we need to look into this set of issues so we know what to write” is only slightly better. The failure point I am talking about is that part of reading deeply into the literature is a triage process.

The triage process is one of elimination. Of looking at a paper that might, from the title or eve the Abstract, be relevant. In the vast majority of cases you are going to quickly figure out that it is not something that contributes to the knowledge under discussion in this particular paper. To me this is under the heading of reading the literature. It doesn’t mean you read every paper word for word, at all. Maybe this is part of the problem for some people? That they think it really means read every frigging search result from start to finish? I can see how that would be daunting.

But it IS work. It takes many hours, at times, of searching through PubMed, Google Scholar or Web of Science using several variant key word searches. Of then scanning papers as needed to see if they have relevant information. Sometimes you can triage based on the abstract. Sure. But a lot of the time you have to download the paper and take look through it. Sometimes, you are just checking for a detail that didn’t make it into the abstract and finding that, nope, the paper isn’t relevant. But sometimes it is and you have to read it. But then, maybe it would be a good idea to look at the citations and follow the threads to additional papers. Maybe you should use Web of Science to find out what subsequent papers cited that particular paper. All of this work to come up with three or two or even one sentence with three surviving citations.

The person who is following my writing by example doesn’t necessarily see this. They may think I just pulled three cites at random and kept on going. They may think that somehow it is my vast experience that has all of this literature in my head all at the same time. Despite me saying more or less the above as reminders. When I say things like “hey, everybody works differently, but when I do a PubMed search on a topic, I like to start with the oldest citations and work forward from there”, I mean this as a hint that they should actually do PubMed searches on topic terms.

(I admit in early graduate school I was really intimidated by the perception that the Professors did have encyclopedic knowledge of everything, all of the time. I don’t think that any more. I mean, yes, my colleagues over the years clearly vary and some are incredibly good at knowing the literature. But some are just highly specific in their knowledge and if you get too far outside they flounder. Some know lots of key papers, sure, but if you REALLY are digging in deeply, you figure out they don’t know everything. Not the way a grad student on dissertation defense day should.)

So I’m not talking about reading the literature in a “keep up with the latest TOCs for all the relevant journals” kind of way. I’m talking about focused reading when you want to answer a question for yourself and to put it into some sort of scholarly setting, like a Discussion.

I have no recollection of being taught to read a literature. I just sort of DID that as a graduate student. I was in the kind of lab where you were expected to really develop your own ideas almost from whole cloth, rather than fitting into an existing program of work. Some of my fellow grad students were in labs more like mine, some were in labs where they fit into existing programs. So it wasn’t the grad program itself, just an accident of the training lab. Still, it wasn’t as though I chatted much with my fellow students about something like this so I have no idea how they were trained to read the literature. I have no recollection of how much time anyone spent in the library (oh yes, children, this was before ready access to PDFs from your desktop) compared with me.

So about this poll that Professor Gilpin put up. How about you, Dear Reader? How do you feel about reading the literature? Were you taught how to do it? Especially as it pertains to writing papers that reference said literature (as opposed to reading to guide your experiments in the first place, another topic for another day). Have you tried to explicitly train your mentees to do so or do they just pick it up? Is it always the case that reviewers of your manuscripts hand wavily suggest you have overlooked some key literature and they are right? or is it the case that you know all about what they mean and have triaged it as not relevant? Or you know that what they think “surely must exist” really doesn’t?