Theoretical bandwagons are for big labs

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Small labs should avoid theoretical bandwagons. It’ll make it hard to get money, publish and do good work effectively.

In an earlier post, I described two categories of research: the development of new ideas, and the testing, shaping and fine-tuning of these ideas.

I said I didn’t like either of the categories. I’ll explain that next week, but to get to that point I need to explain how big labs are designed for bandwagons, and how labs at teaching institutions should avoid designing their work to address bandwagon theories.

A bandwagon — as I use it here — is any theory, topic, or issue that lots of people are working on simultaneously. What do I think are some bandwagons at the moment? It’s easy, just pop open a journal and look at the table of contents! In ecology and social insects, my two main fields, here are a few that are at some point in the bandwagon boom-and-bust cycle: functional traits to understand community structure and assembly; genomic approaches to understanding the social regulation of development; models of geographic range shifts in response to climate change; physiological and genomic mechanisms of task allocation. (You could also throw in arguing about group selection, but that’s more about yelling than data.)

I’m not saying that the scientific community doesn’t need this work to happen. All of these topics are very interesting, and people have chosen them because they’re ripe for discovery and progress. It’s not a bad thing that these topics are bandwagons. When great ideas come along, we need people to work on them, including both disagreements and points of consensus. This is the standard practice of science.

It’s so much the standard practice of science, that labs at research institutions are engineered to thrive while working on bandwagons. Race cars are built for speed, thermoses are designed to keep your drinks hot, and many big research labs are designed to produce bandwagon research. (Not all big labs do, but they can be easily engineered to do so if this is the goal of the PI.)

If you’re running your own small lab at a teaching institution, there are a number of major strategic disadvantages from working on the same questions as big labs. These are disadvantages because they make it harder for the lab to get grants, publish papers, have a visible research profile, develop collaborations and provide the best opportunities for students.

No matter what you do, you won’t be perceived as the primary expert on the bandwagon topic. There will always be someone who is considered to be the authority, who is more productive on the topic. This person will have a whole lab working alongside them on the same topic. Moreover, this person’s name tag at conferences will have the name of big of a research university next to their own. Does this perception as an expert matter? Sure it does. This kind of perception enables you to do better science and gives better resources for your students.

Big labs can mobilize to jump on bandwagons quickly. They can turn on a dime by having a new dissertation start on the project, or assigning a postdoc to it. (You’re thinking, dissertations don’t start overnight?! Compared to the timescale of when I start and finish projects, they do. Tomorrow is a story about a quick project done in 2008 but was published this year. That’s par on my course. The manuscript I’m editing today has has had all of the data assembled on my hard drive for seven years. And I’ve been thrilled about it the whole time, too. And – get this – it’s still not stale. It’s actually ripened.)

You don’t want to work on a specific aspect of a project when other bigger labs will get to them quickly. Moreover, big labs will work so quickly that they will exhaust it before you get finished. In ecology, for example, thank goodness I didn’t work on the mid-domain effect myself or I would have entirely missed that wave before I even submitted my first paper. I would like to work on functional traits in ants, as the ideas seem interesting, but the same thing will happen to me if I do that. My paper would be passé by the time I tried to publish it.

Big labs need big funding. Theoretical bandwagons are the things that attract dollars. They can be sold as “transformational” research that NSF is seeking to support. Most of these potentially transformative projects will end up in the dustbin of history, and a small fraction will result in big change. If you’re a big lab and you need to pay for people, then you better hop on board! If you don’t, you’ll have trouble keeping staffed. If you’re top notch, you an create your own bandwagon. But if you catch it in the first couple years, then you can still get in there for one grant cycle, or maybe even two.  Following the same principle, bandwagons are horrible for small labs because they can never compete with these big labs that are putting in proposals on the same question. They’d never survive a side-by-side comparison once you put the biosketches up against one another. Of course they’ll fund the lab that they think will get 10-20 papers out of a project when they think you’ll only get a few out of it. So stay away unless you have the record to show that you can beat the top labs riding the same bandwagon.

To be clear: I am not suggesting that scientists at teaching schools specialize on an obscure topic that nobody is interested in, that can be mined for a series of novel but inconsequential publications.

I not suggesting that you stay fully clear of theoretical bandwagons under all circumstances, but only that if you hop on it should be with a big lab that is ready to roll. You also could take an existing project of yours and sell it this way, if you wish, though that will shorten its shelf life.

Next week, I’ll share a taxonomy of research goals, which will explain how I think you can do novel and truly meaningful research without chasing theories-of-the moment.

Undergraduate research offices: what makes one work well?

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Many universities – of all conformations and sizes – have a special center or office dedicated to undergraduate research. It’s a nice idea.

On some campuses, they are tremendously helpful. On others, I’ve seen or heard that they’re more of a hindrance than a help. Some campuses don’t have one. That’s a good thing if the office would be unhelpful, or a bad thing if the nonexistent office would be successful.

The scopes of these undergraduate offices vary, depending on how well they’re funded, and what level of buy-in they have from the administration and faculty. I actually haven’t had the benefit of having the services of any one of these offices yet, though I’ve worked with colleagues at many universities who have talked to me about their experiences. (I also have mentored students from schools with these offices.)

On the whole, I’ve heard more complaints than praise, but considering that our species is wont to complain, I imagine that by the existence of praise, a lot of these offices are doing fine. A colleague of mine once got a great bottle of wine for just submitting a grant that included undergraduate research. She didn’t complain.

Here is a partial list of things that the office can do:

  • Track data and progress on undergraduate research projects
  • Provide support for undergraduates, with respect to writing, test preparation, workshops
  • Coordinate lecture series
  • Promote and facilitate grant-writing to support undergraduate research.
  • Facilitate and advertise selection of students applying for undergraduate research programs (REU, MBRS, IRES, RISE, McNair)
  • Provide support to PIs of grants involving undergraduate research
  • Support (financially and otherwise) faculty mentoring undergraduates
  • Coordinate an undergraduate research-related events (like a poster session)
  • Direct an program that funds undergraduate research projects with internal funds
  • Provide space for research students to gather
  • Provide administrative support for project coordination

Sometimes these offices are run out of, or in coordination with, the offices of sponsored programs on campus. sometimes they’re separate entities that are run with distinct budget lines. I think the latter might allow for more latitude for the center to focus on its mission. What is that mission, though?

Often, what these offices do is murky and there is disagreement about the best use of the resources of the offices. I think that these conflicts arise from fundamental differences in the purpose of undergraduate research on campuses. Sometimes, there is a disagreement about what constitutes research itself.

It is mostly established that undergraduate research enhances the educational enterprise, and coursework that includes genuine and novel inquiry results in better learning. Some administrators and faculty have this as a primary goal, as a way of increasing retention, decreasing time to graduation, and promoting “best practices.” Some, on the other hand, see undergraduate research as an enterprise to prepare students for graduate school, and as having inherent value regardless of its effect on other aspects of academic life on campus. Others see undergraduate research as a mechanism for conducting a research program, and if a the campus is full of undergraduates, then “undergraduate research” just means “research.” On some research campuses, the office might even protect undergraduates from being the serfs of their labs.

I don’t think we all can agree on a definition of undergraduate research, though such definitions do exist. I say that research means that original scholarship is being conducted. If students are involved in research projects that are not intended to make new discoveries, then these in fact are not research projects. They’re merely learning exercises.

Moreover, scholarship itself is only useful if shared with the academic community. If a student develops new knowledge but that knowledge isn’t disseminated to the community of researchers in that field, then the research project was not a success. In my view — and I recognize that this is a minority view on teaching campuses — if a student research project doesn’t eventually make it to press, then it is not clear if it was genuine research.  It was clearly research training. Keep in mind that pilots can go through stages of flight training without ever leaving the ground, and we go through earthquake safety training without having an earthquake.

So, are undergraduate research centers supposed to promote undergraduate research training, or undergraduate research itself? This is not idle discussion because it affects the decisions about how resources get allocated.

This distinction is tied to the heart of the notion of what happens on a teaching-centered institution. Is faculty research just there to keep the teaching instrument sharp, or are faculty expected to be active scholars? If it is the latter, then faculty are doing students a disservice if they’re not fully engaging them in opportunities for genuine research that are already taking place.

So how do you know if undergraduate research centers are successful? Many institutions use vague accounting, listing the number of students reported to participate in projects. More concretely, other metrics include the number of publications with undergraduate authors, the number of students employed to do research in the summer full-time and part-time during the academic year, or the long-term professional outcomes of the students. Others will count the number of dollars spent on student research; some administrators will be counting indirect cost recovery. The best metrics depend on the mission.

So, perhaps when building such an undergraduate research center, focusing on the mission is a critical starting point. You can’t get everyone to agree, but you need to clarify what the center is doing, and also why it is doing it. Consensus is always good, when possible.

If you have an undergraduate research center, could you remark on what you think works and doesn’t work? If you were in charge (or, if you are) what would you do if you could, and what would you not do?

Work on the grant or the manuscript?

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You need papers to get a grant, but how do you get the data for manuscripts without grant funding?

I don’t have this dilemma anymore, as I have enough interesting data to stun a subadult moose. But I still have to decide how to allocate my time between grants and manuscripts. I’m referring to the nuggets of time when I’m not teaching and advising.

Based on what I have in progress, I think I can get two, maybe three, papers out before the summer field season, if I suspend grantwriting ambitions until the fall (when I have a brand new set of exciting data from the summer). I have one grant pending, and I’m co-PI on another going out in a month or so. So I do have an iron in the fire, though I don’t know if the fire is hot enough to press my shirts when I remove it (that is what you do with the irons in the fire, right?).

I would much rather submit a paper than submit a grant, but I would much rather a grant gets funded than a paper get accepted. On a related note, a couple years ago I went to a Nick Hornby book signing. He was asked about the differences between novels and screenplays for movies. He said he was done with writing screenplays, because of the frustration tied to wasted effort. He estimated that a contracted screenplay makes it to production about 10% of the time. He mentioned that he finished a screenplay for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius  [loud gasps of delight fill the spacious room], and that he was convinced it would never make it to production [widespread groans of despair]. I imagine it would have been a gorgeous movie.

I feel about grantwriting like Nick Hornby feels about screenwriting. However, Nick Hornby will continue to ply his trade as novelist without writing screenplays. Without grants, my trade as a tropical field biologist will promptly wither. I’m not paying postdocs or grad students, but I do have to get myself down there along with some students. My hard drive has a number of finished grants which will never get funded. But the list of finished but never-to-be-published manuscripts is incredibly short.

So I’ll be working on the manuscript because I’m just more excited about the fact that it will come to completion and find its audience. All scientists go through cycles of grant writing, manuscript writing and data collection. I just don’t know what the optimal periodicity of each of those cycles should be to maximize productivity.