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Posts Tagged ‘scientist perspective’

“Happy New Year!” We wish it to each other, in many languages, in a form or another at the beginning of every year. Around the same time, millions of us also make personal resolutions (set goals for the year), possibly in an effort to enhance our happiness… This seems a good time of the year and reason for all of us to ponder – again – on the subject of “what is happiness?” At the beginning of last year we investigated it, mostly in relation to one’s work parameters, w/specific data about science-intensive work places, but also suggested general themes (“Where do you find ‘happy scientists’? and what makes them feel that way?”)

One possible immediate reaction to this question is to just dismiss it: why bother? Happiness is hard to define, or very personal (we may all define and experience it differently); however, should you agree the answers might help us better understand ourselves and others and set goals to enable our constant progress toward happiness, here is a selection of insights from the candid responses brought back by an amateur international team who participated in a year-long field exploration of “what makes people happy around the world”, to the “expert opinions” on the nature of happiness from scientists, psychologists, economists, and Buddhists. Please feel free to add your own.

Macro photograph of coca cola bubbles (image via Wikipedia)

The 3 young “happiness ambassadors” comprising the international team of the “206 expedition” just returned from a year-long field research into the subject of “what makes people happy around the world”. Despite their initial plan, they actually only visited 186 of the 206 countries where people drink Coca Cola, the project sponsor (by the way, no relation to me, I do not drink Coca or any other cola). Nonetheless they had traveled 273,204 miles to collect a large sample of international opinions and brought back many of their own new impressions. What I thought was very powerful was their conclusion that around the worldPeople definitely have more things in common than differences”, also demonstrated by the sharing of main reasons to be happy worldwide:Family and friends, food, sports, music, health”. Interestingly, money was only mentioned as important if it enabled people to travel more or spend more time with friends and family. To watch various testimonials collected all over the world see here. Among other impressions solicited during the interview, Guy Kawasaki also asked the question: “Which country has the best looking women?” The 206 expedition team offered the following verdict: “The eastern European countries definitely have some of the best women in the world.” May I suggest finishing reading this post before booking a trip?

The more money does not make one happier message is consistent with the “Easterlin’s paradox”, formulated by Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics, based on data collected from several dozen countries. This theory is not without opponents. Says sagely my main economic advisor (my son) “economics is not an exact science” (gasp!): ”one can always collect and analyze the data in ways that will support their personal beliefs.”

Happy Mattieu Ricard

Some refer to Matthieu Ricard as the “happiest man in the world” – apparently a scientific classification based on results of intensive brain clinical testing performed at the U of Wisconsin. He is actually a molecular biologist (Ph.D.) from Pasteur Institute, later turned Buddhist monk. Ricard says happiness is “life’s most important skill” so we all have to attempt to understand and define it and, thanks to our brain’s plasticity, we can all work to attain it or increase it further by training our brain to be happy– see his TED talk (funny Ricard should start it by mentioning a Coca Cola team being present on top of Everest, as evidence of globalization – a nowadays version of “shared experiences?”). He teaches us that happiness comes from inner serenity. Anger, jealousy, hated, or obsessive desire are detrimental to our and others happiness. Ricard illustrates the danger of basing our happiness on fleeting pleasures by reminding us that even the best things at some point lose their ability to make us happy, e.g., the first serving of chocolate cake is delicious, the second “no so much, the third is disgusting.” OK, that specific number may be debatable for some, but we can all get the point. Instead of focusing on the object of our positive or negative emotions, which result in reinforcing these every time, he advises we should instead focus on the emotion itself. Just like a menacing storm cloud when seen from up close, anger will prove to be just mist…

Possible option

Also mentioning chocolate’s relation to our happiness, Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology from Harvard is “Exploring the frontiers of happiness” in another TED talk. In a simple experiment looking at perceptions of happiness, scientists gave subjects a bag of chips and asked them if they will be happy to eat them one minute later. They were, unless a box of chocolates was also in sight. So, while the intrinsic value of the chips, their taste or availability, did not change, their desirability – hence their ability to make those who were about to eat them happy – was eroded through the simplecomparison with the possible” (the subjects were not actually offered the option to eat some of those chocolates).  As Ricard had pointed out, this experiment also illustrated the relativity of the happiness based on appreciation of an object of desire. Furthermore, Gilbert says we are generally happier when we are not given the option to take a decision/change our mind (i.e., when we are stuck with a specific option), because we manage to convince ourselves that’s what we actually wanted, something he calls “synthetic happiness”. He describes it as a sort of “psychological immune system” we all have, which allows us to adapt to the environment, i.e., like what we have. See another talk where he elaborated on this notion. I can see where this phenomenon may explain a range of synthetic happiness in personal and collective situations when people are unaware of other potential options.

Less is more

On the relation between free choice and happiness, Barry Schwartz, another psychologist, also illustrates why having too many choices does not actually make us happier (The paradox of choice”). In such cases he says, facing the need to take decisions we get analysis paralysis. Schwartz states this is mostly a problem of affluent societies, “we don’t have freedom of choice, we have paralysis” (of decisions). Then, when comparing many options it’s easy to see all the attractive features of those we didn’t chose, and most times we end up regretting our choice and hence being less happy. Sounds very apropos to the current state of the health care bill? It seemed to me that this applies with a couple of major caveats: a) one should not know any better (indicated by Gilbert), b) one should be indecisive or risk-adverse. There is a reason for which some are leaders and the others are happy to follow. According to Barry Schwartz, the secret of happiness is to “Lower expectations.”  I’d add: if you can’t make a decision, be happy with what someone else you trust had decided for you! In any case, the conclusion of all these potential comparison studies reminded me of the old song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you are with”… Is visiting former Eastern bloc countries still one of your 2011 resolutions?

Ok, getting us thinking about the subject of choices and decisions that can make us happy seems a good pause point and a premise for a future post of New Year resolutions.

What makes you happy?

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In a recent, widely anticipated decision that pertains to rights to some of what makes us us, a federal judge ruled in favor of patients, medical societies, and researchers, who were suing Myriad and the Utah University research foundation, owners of the patent on the two genes whose mutations had been associated with increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Their ownership had allowed them to retain complete rights for these widely prescribed diagnostic tests, which have remained prohibitively expensive for many patients (currently at more than $3,000).

Interestingly, in taking the decision to invalidate such patents, the Department of Justice differs in its opinion from the US Patent and Trade Marks Office (USPTO). Meanwhile the status quo will be maintained. The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the organization that lobbies for the pharma and biotech companies, has been arguing since the beginning of the case that preventing patenting of human genes will literally impede life science innovation and had stated after the court’s decision that carrying this one out would: “undermine U.S. global leadership and investment in the life sciences”. A variety of people have spoken for and against the decision. The New York Times just wrote an article citing several of them.

The US government filled a “friend of the court” (or “Amicus curiae”) opinion entitled: ”BRIEF FOR THE UNITED STATES AS AMICUS CURIAE IN SUPPORT OF NEITHER PARTY” (you can read the pdf here ). As expected with these types of opinions (see Wiki)- and indicated by its title – the intent was not to support either of the parties. The last point listed in the government’s opinion constitutes a good summary: “Isolated Genomic DNA Is Not Patent-Eligible Merely Because It Is Useful Or Requires Investment To Identify.”

As someone who has dedicated her life to improving human health: I understand the need to recognize and reward discoveries, so that they may continue to advance the available diagnostic and therapeutic interventions. At the same time, in my opinion, a balance needs to found – or maybe a line needs to be drawn. Otherwise, these innovations will remain out of the reach of many patients who need them. The exact balance may not be easy to figure out or accept by consensus.

To what point should we own things we just happened to be the first to discover/figure out? Should various entities (researchers, universities, companies) own pieces of everybody’s proteins, DNA, or maybe their constituent atoms, electrons or the even more ephemeral particles and their interactions? These are all things that make us us. Or, going in the opposite direction, should each disease/syndrome or epidemic have owners that need to be paid before we could proceed with curing them? Am I right to assume that in such case, arrangements and payments would need to be exchanged between the owner of the gene and the person who had discovered the disease, with corresponding arrangements with those who had patented the smaller molecular or atomic pieces of the puzzle? How are we ever going to navigate such complex territorial and legal claims? Maybe Google could develop maps of the human body charting out the parcels to indicate ownership? I am on the opinion that we should only own things we create ourselves. In relation to this specific discussion, I think it is appropriate to own the rights to a new method to test or to control a gene, or a newly created molecule that could be used for diagnostic or therapeutic effect.

I know patients who were unable to take advantage of the BRCA test because of its prohibitive price and who knows how many more cases we might have failed to diagnose and treat because of these legally imposed economic barriers. Can you imagine that currently the actual cost of performing such a diagnostic test is only a few dollars? Would it be possible to compromise by assessing limits on the profit margin of diagnostic tests? I feel that we need to ensure that the initial intent – or what many say is – of our efforts to improve human health is not compromised.

What is your opinion? Should those sequencing one of the genes we all share – and its mutations – gain the exclusive rights to any diagnostic or therapeutic intervention that is related to that gene? Do you know who owns YOUR genes?

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Have you seen the new movie “The Social Network”? This brought back into the limelight the issue of “simultaneous invention”, which is analogous to “simultaneous discoveries” (i.e., several people having a similar idea at about the same time) related to the creation of the wildly popular social online network Facebook.

“Tracks and Sky,” Hank Conner

Some quick research on the subject revealed that there have been many significant simultaneous discoveries and inventions we all know about, which had been conceived independently by several people, many of whom we (I) did not previously heard of. What I got to wondering about is mainly how best to deal with the moral issue, also highlighted by the movie, which is: “to whom is the credit due?” and “why?

The initial work of William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, who put together in 1922 a list of 148 major simultaneous discoveries they called “multiples” is summarized in many other works, but I found a free access article by Malcolm Gladwell (“In the air”). Familiar simultaneous discoveries include: decimal fractions, calculus, conservation of energy, evolution, or sunspots. “Multiple” inventions of familiar things range from the typewriters and thermometer to steamboats and color photography. For an additional in-depth look, see a recent article in the Wired magazine interviewing two people who wrote books on the subject of the history of innovation, arguing that ideas do not come from solitary minds (“Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson on Where Ideas Come From”)

Many of us have heard of, or probably personally experienced, the simultaneous creation of new knowledge or technology during our careers in business or science, which I am referring to as parallel thinking. If one thinks of it, this should not be surprising as we are all riding on the same waves of knowledge and technology and thus the horizons might become simultaneously, yet independently, clear to several from the top of the wave. At least when a patent is filed for an invention, establishing precedence is more clear-cut, as it is indicated by the date when the author disclosed the invention. More fuzzy is the case of discoveries and scientific work that does not get patented and the only claim to priority may rely on the date of a peer-reviewed publication describing the discovery, the proverbial proof of being seen in “black and white”.

Publications are the lifeblood of science, and they can make or break a scientist’s career, from ensuring his/her ability to secure from laboratory funding to recognition for the Nobel Prize, which had been frequently split among independent thinkers recognized for related work. A lot of background research goes into that specific process. Thus giving credit where credit is due is especially important for scientists. A practice I noticed more and more frequently is for journals to publish simultaneously peer-reviewed articles addressing similar questions submitted by independent scientific groups. This seems to be a better way to deal with the potential of being “scooped” even by days only when reporting on important work. Did it happen to you? It happened to me (more than once) that the reviewers of our manuscript commented that our work was either no longer exciting enough to warrant publication or that it now needed to be significantly changed because someone had just published (or about to publish) similar experiments/results while our manuscript was still under review (and thus we were actually unaware of their work or findings). Thus by allowing independent groups to communicate simultaneously their analogous work in peer-reviewed publications could help even the playing field, or would it?

For those not familiar with the “peer-reviewed” term, original scientific work needs to be examined anonymously by people considered experts in the area (or “peers”) before it can be published or funded. The process requires that such reviewers remain anonymous (for good reasons). Thus, the current system requires one’s work to pass the scrutiny – and meet the approval! – of people working in the same field, likely on the exact same scientific problem, and thus effectively competing for the same source of funding or career opportunities and public recognition. Can you perhaps imagine Google waiting for Yahoo to approve their new search algorithm before making it public? A thin line for parallel thinking and walking! Take for instance the story a close friend shared. One of his manuscripts had been under review for almost a year, with each round taking months instead of the promised weeks, seemingly to satisfy the lingering comments and reservations of one of the three reviewers. While attending a national meeting, he was told by someone who claimed to be close to one of his reviewers that the reviewer was feverishly ramping up similar experiments. My friend was puzzled by the breach of reviewer’s confidentiality (especially in conjunction with his attempt to duplicate the work) and lack of actual proof, and thus decided to classify the information as “gossip.” Imagine his surprise when, after finally getting a positive decision for publication, he found his article following  another one reporting similar experiments and findings, co-authored by the same person he had been warned about. The submission dates indicated that his manuscript had been received first but held back longer, the other one was an expedited communication. For those not clued in, the work had been “simultaneous” and likely forever would be regarded as such. My friend asked for advice on what should he had done when he was warned and when the information was confirmed. Do you think it was even worth worrying about doing something?

“Parallel lines meet at infinity.” If so, are there better ways in which we could recognize parallel thinking and even leverage it for innovation? Maybe it would accelerate some… “trains of thought?”

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The post was triggered by reading about the concept put forward by AM Shneider proposing that the evolution of science depends on being driven by four main “flavors” of scientists  http://bit.ly/cBQoTV.

The first scientist personality style is very much the “big picture” type, someone able to see a pattern where others had not, seeking new concepts without much concern about clarifying all the details or being afraid to make mistakes. A very useful quality of such scientists is not being prone to giving up easily in face of regular criticism for their out-of-the-box ideas. The second scientist type, usually the closest collaborator of the first, is essential in “translating” the fuzzy-ness of the initial idea into doable experiments, many times spearheading the invention of new techniques that allow carrying out the first experiments needed to test a new hypothesis. The third type of scientist – usually associated with the next stage needed for the development of a new scientific area – is more methodical, going after the thorough testing of the initial hypothesis, then asking more questions and deriving follow-up hypotheses. Finally, the fourth, most methodical, type of scientists obtain a lot of data, many times have encyclopedic knowledge of previous research, like to chronicle discoveries, but rarely produce some themselves.

This scientist type classification might be an oversimplification, but I think serves the higher purpose to highlight that ALL these four types offering different abilities and using different styles have been needed to create scientific knowledge and to move any field forward. I.e., new concepts cannot see the light of the day without having scientists who challenge the status-quo and are persistent at it, neither could we have gotten it “right” unless other scientists did not challenge and find ways to test such early concepts.

I understand Shneider’s attempt at classification was found controversial by some. As a scientist, I like assessing new hypotheses in general and such I found his idea intriguing (apparently I’m not so much bothered about lack of details or potential specific exemptions!), which in turn triggered my thinking on how it may be tested, and I willing to immediately volunteer myself as a first test subject. I was even able to see where I might fit into his classification. Also, I could continue to “assign” types to many of the people I have worked with in various stages in my scientific life, although most of us likely display a combination of some of these four types. I could then extend the same paradigm to characterize the overall “personality” of a lab or an institution in which I had worked, and even was able to gauge how the group personality had evolved as a function of it ratio of scientists representing various types, due to the turn-over characteristic to most academic and scientific labs in general.

A main reason for which I found the article interesting is my increasing interest in understanding what the best ways are to foster professional interactions between people with different thinking/personality styles.  After being part of, and leading several different scientific and other professional teams, I believe the most productive – and the most fun! – are the ones combining various professional expertise, diverse thinking and work styles, such as those possibly described for scientists by Shneider. However, working with a very diverse team is not without challenges, thus it is very important to not only fully understand our own perspective, but gain insight also how we could better mesh it with others to leverage the overall team performance. While classifications may upset some people, I think there are many precedent systems, some widely used to help identify one’s work style, personality, aptitudes, etc. (e.g., Myers Briggs), see a description of some at http://bit.ly/AefdT I myself took a few of these, and while many “findings” were merely confirming my own impression of myself, I found the most useful insights were gained about how to best interact with others with very different style.

I currently suggest that there should be an active effort to share this type of “personal” information that could be used to put together and run highly functional professional teams that take advantage of diversity.

What do you think of such classifications, could you identify yourself with any of the styles? Could be this a way to optimize interactions with very different people?

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Personally I firmly believe that achieving creativity and innovation in science and beyond requires diversity… of thought! If you agree with this statement, let’s see if I can maintain your attention (I know, merely hearing – again – the ‘Diversity’ word might have turned you off!)

From my experience, most of us are not intentionally biased, yet in the same time not immune to the various cultural influences that have shaped our choices, including whom we feel “comfortable” associating with in our personal and professional relationships, or whom we might subconsciously stereotype or avoid. Also from experience, the best way to “cure” this is to have the opportunity to interact directly and learn first-hand from people who are different, then, by engaging in a more sustained and purposeful interactions with those with whom we discover common interests – which in my experience always had a positively innovative effect on what ever problem was at hand. To get started, one can always find at least one common denominator with almost anybody else on this planet: whether it is some of the shared personal or professional experiences or interests, stage in life or career, common acquaintances, hobbies, etc. I can always talk to other parents about our kids, other scientists about their own experiments, or anybody about countries they live(d) in and I might have been fortunate to visit, etc., etc.

Let’s try to define diversity. Statistics related to diversity usually capture data in terms of the “visible” (explicit) differences between people, e.g., gender, race, ethnic background, orientation, so this is what we have to rely on in terms of citing numbers. While these characteristics constitute a strong basis for diversity, i.e., people with different life and educational experiences may be likely to think, be motivated and act differently, I will however submit that these do not tell the whole story. Personality traits also play a major role, e.g., some of us are more creative or more analytical, “big picture” or micromanager type, while other are more directive or sensitive, direct or indirect, etc. So while we might look very different we might think alike, or might look very similar but have a very different perspective and approach to problem solving. These characteristics, I believe very important in shaping interactions and results, remain less acknowledged probably because they are more difficult to measure (assess and capture). However, making a conscious effort to engage people who represent several of these is important in creating a strong innovative team characterized by diversity of thought! My favorite kind of “constructive interference“…

Coming back to statistics, recent numbers provide evidence that while the situation might be slightly improving, gaps continue to exist between the demographics of talent diversity both in the USA and all over the world, and the higher in the hierarchy the less of it. These differences are true both in academia and in the industry (see list of references, incl. articles from “The New York Times” and “The Economist” and several statistics). One of the top reasons identified for the gap is the lack of role models, i.e. having in senior/high-profile positions people with whom various minorities could identify themselves. Seems to me this is a typical “chicken and the egg” type of problem: can’t attract/groom diverse people unless they can have access to role models, and you can’t have role models unless you had groomed or attracted them to join… How could this diversity ball get rolling???

Three main avenues could be explored for finding “cures” for this potential issue:

  1. Official/Institutional initiatives: aimed at designing programs and allocating funds for education and operational support
  2. Grass roots initiatives: creating “spontaneous” support networks, that provide a critical mass
  3. Personal initiatives: “upstart” individuals willing to get started “alone”, learn all the hard lessons and then pass on the learnings to willing newer recruits.

Diversity is a wast subject so I will try to focus on just one of the facets captured by statistics and recently highlighted in a few articles, likely because it is still March the “women’s history month”. Here are some published and personal experiences related to the situation of women in the work place.

  1. In the category of “official” initiatives,The New York Times” writes about the current status of women faculty at Harvard, which had attracted a lot of attention not too long ago due to the remarks of then president Larry Summers who said: “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude,” which he said are reinforced by “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” By making this single comment, Summers helped with the status of women at Harvard more than could ever dreamed of! He single handedly brought so much public scrutiny that upon his resignation, Harvard appointed their first woman president (Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust) and instituted programs aimed at increasing representation of women faculty, specifically in previously seriously underrepresented scientific and engineering departments (for more details see original reference, below). The rest of academia and the private sector are not doing much better, especially in terms of women representation at the higher levels (see statistics for USA and Europe). In the USA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is prohibiting employment discrimination, however this is not universally applicable (see link for details). European countries have similar programs and have been passing additional related laws that aim at the next level of employment equity, including mandating that 40% of the corporate board membership be female. An article recently published in “The Economist” points out these measures would address the symptom but not the cause: not enough professional women to choose from for leadership positions! The article emphasizes that the best way to ensure an increase in the number of women on boards is to take steps to enable access of more women to the right experiences down on the corporate ladder. As with everything else, the human “talent pipeline” needs to be strong to generate a great output. My personal view on such initiatives is the while very useful to “keep us honest” and provide financial incentives and support, they are many times not very popular, especially with those who can not identify with the need and or the potential bias.
  2. The “grass roots” networks are by contrast those people choose to create and support. A truly great support system is created by people who are “like” and “unlike”, whether in terms of personal or professional characteristics (real diversity!) but are willing to understand, learn to appreciate differences and help widely. A person “like” me is able to share with me similar experiences, their “pain” and their tried strategies and successful solutions. “Unlike” people and professionals can help me understand the others’ perspectives and approaches. These represent a great opportunity for all of us to prove we are not biased. Such support networks can provide access to information via various sources (the best is directly from willing mentors!!) but also connect individuals with other education and work opportunities, including identification of collaborators. Also from personal experiences, the best mentors were those whom I had personally identified and approached for help, not the ones who have been “designated” to me via official programs.  In an effort to create support opportunities, I have startedMy Lab Your Lab” , a global online scientist professional community whose essential mission is to enable member-driven support. We encourage our members to reach out to seek and offer assistance from and to all.
  3. In the personal support category, I include individuals who have the courage to join work teams which are constituted from essentially different people to learn how to “survive” and actually thrive among them – diversity goes both ways! These individuals can become agents of change and the heart of the talent diversity snowball that allows it to form and get bigger… I think this works best when they voluntarily assume that role, because it is not an easy thing to do, requiring courage, extra time and effort, potentially at the expense of other professional goals. However, rewards could be great both for the person and the work place that facilitates such efforts. This is a very important point: the work environment needs to be supportive. No matter how accomplished and willing to help, such individual efforts will lead nowhere, just as the soil needs to be prepared, or else even the most exceptional seed will not survive.

One of my proudest contribution to diversity is related to my experience as a female and “biomedical” (medicine) faculty member joining a graduate program at the Georgia Institute of Technology: 100% male and 100% engineering. I think it helped that I am generally “gender blind” myself in work situations and I had been already operating for several years in another male dominated field, the world of academic cardiology. Yet, the first thing I thought of (because it was so obvious!!) and articulated to the people who had hired me was: “Next I will help you recruit some great female faculty”. Indeed they were on board with it, and together we proceeded to attract and hire two more women. Within a couple of years we became the “go to” place for female graduate biomedical engineering candidates, to the point where by the time I moved several years later, the student graduating class was 100 % (!) female. When asked why they chose Georgia Tech over other potentially more established programs, our graduate female students said that seeing several female faculty in the program helped them envision the possibility of academic success and increased their confidence that they would be able to relate if needed. Our ‘girls’ did not turn out to actually request or need much gender-specific help from us, the mere existence of female faculty had worked! My take home lesson was that it was worth taking the risk to be the first “one of a kind,” and getting involved in supporting efforts to attract and build a basis for more diversity which in turn engendered positive change and innovation.

So, several ways we can all get this ball rolling!

References:
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission http://www.eeoc.gov/employers/index.cfm
Lewin, T: “Women Making Gains on Faculty at Harvard”, The New Your times, March 13, 2010 http://nyti.ms/9QZyyX
Schumpeter: “Skirting the issue: Imposing quotas for women in boardrooms tackles a symptom of discrimination, not the cause” The Economist, March 11,m 2010 http://bit.ly/9rs8VA
EUR (2009) She figures 2009: Statistics and Indicators on Gender Equality in Science http://bit.ly/4QWnk5. EUR 23856 EN EUR 23856 EN (160 p.)
Leadley J (2009) Women in US academic medicine: Statistics and Benchmarking Report 2008-2009 http://bit.ly/8mB3e6. (34 p.)
AWIS (The Association of Women in Science) web page with links to various data sets http://bit.ly/97O2nF
“The Scientist” salary survey by gender and ethnicity http://bit.ly/d81RKP

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Great quality life sciences fuel medical innovation, but great science usually requires “happy scientists”. Where are they now, and what can we learn about that makes them happy? Are they different from other people?

From the beginning I need to say that I can’t claim to have the definitive answer to this question. However the subject has been interesting to me as an educator and manager of scientists, and here are some personal comments triggered by looking at the 2009 surveys published by ‘The Scientist’, a magazine specializing in the life sciences, as well as other independent studies I had found on the overall topic of work and personal happiness. In case you can’t tell, these contain information that pertains to the factors that make scientists (and other working people) happy…

In their 2009 annual survey of “Best places to work” in academia, they listed the ‘top ranked 40 places’ in US and the ‘top 10 ranked internationally’ (you can see their surveys and methodology here). As someone with a scientific background would instinctively do, as soon as I saw data, several potential explanations immediately came to my mind (as well as more questions, that generated hypotheses I think would be nice to test…) But let me start with the data collected and made widely available thanks to ‘The Scientist.’

What makes an institution a great place to do science?
Venture some guesses? I will make the assumption that overall the responders’ sense of satisfaction for their place of work is related to its listed strengths. Those most often cited by all top ranked 40 US academic institutions were: ‘Research resources’ and ‘Infrastructure and environment’ (17 times each), also ‘Job satisfaction’ (11 times) and ‘Teaching and mentoring’ (9 times).

At my very first inspection, as one would expect, what caught my eye were places I am very familiar with (two of my previous home institutions). More specifically, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia made the list within the top 5 (at #5), while Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, MA came in at #39. The strengths listed for Emory were ‘Peers’ and ‘Job Satisfaction’, while for Brigham and Women’s these were ‘Management and Policies’ and ‘Infrastructure and Environment’.

Interestingly (I think) the ‘Pay’ category is cited as a strength only for 10 out of the top 40 institutions, and only once in the top five (University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, OK). Furthermore, the specific example that struck me when looking at the other survey about salary levels, was the observation that the average pay in the state of Georgia is lower compared to other US states, with the sole exception of the state of Ohio. Of note, another Georgia institution, the Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, GA also made the top 40 list in 2009, at #14. Again, I’m making the assumption that the “happy customers” of the first survey were the same with those paid less than the average US academic pay (a ‘side thought’ that came to mind was: ‘they might become less happy after seeing this US salary survey!’). Thus, based both on overall weight and the specific case, the pay per se did not seem to dampen scientists’ enthusiasm (at least not for these two GA work places!) One factor that was important was “job satisfaction”, which might be harder to define, yet there is information available on what motivates people and makes them feel they had a “great work day” (including later in this post).

Also, worth noting are the specific reasons for which some institutions are top and/or climbed really fast in the ranking. The institution ranked as #1 in the US, is Princeton, very small with only 203 full-time life scientists, which helps foster – indeed forces! – interdisciplinary collaborations/relationships. Max Planck’s Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Germany which ranked as the top institution internationally, also encourages strong cross-field collaborations and social interactions between scientists, strongly supported by their unusually democratic leadership system. Interestingly a common theme that lifted the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in the US ranking from 30th to the #4 place and brought the University of Groningen (in the Netherlands) directly at #4 in the ‘top 10’ world-wide, was their focus on recruiting and supporting young talent.

Thus, the 2009 survey results seem to be consistent with the fact that scientists are happiest when they are able to do the best possible science. This requires not only passion, curiosity, resilience, dedication, hard work, from the researchers themselves, but also a supportive environment, specifically enabling interdisciplinary collaborations through appropriate institutional policies and infrastructure. Hopefully administrators, regulators, and others with the power to influence the enviroment (of universities and other science-driven institutions) are paying attention to this type of feedback.

Do these findings surprise you in general/ do you work in any of these places? Any additional insights?

What makes people happy with their work in general?
This refers to the ‘job satisfaction’ definition, but also to the question whether things that make scientists happy are any different from those important to other professions?

For instance, the results of these scientists’ surveys seem to challenge the conclusion that ultimately “work IS about money”, as Susan M. Heathfield had drawn from her own research about what motivates people at About.com Guide, yet they likely do not surprise many of us. We all know many great (even if not famous) scientists who think more about giving through their work, rather than obtaining something from it, unless one would say they obtain the satisfaction of being able to figure out things that will ultimately “save the world”? Ms. Heathfiled does indicate – seemingly in an effort to recognize that some people have different motivation that: ’Some people work for love; others work for personal fulfillment. Others like to accomplish goals and feel as if they are contributing to something larger than themselves, something important. Some people have personal missions they accomplish through meaningful work. Others truly love what they do or the clients they serve. Some like the camaraderie and interaction with customers and coworkers. Other people like to fill their time with activity. Some workers like change, challenge, and diverse problems to solve.” Nice summary of why most scientists do their work, don’t you think?

An older theory known as the “Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory”(or the “two factor theory,”) suggests that job satisfaction and dissatisfaction are determined by different factors. This already indicated that the salary per se is not a positive motivator, but rather a “hygiene” factor.

  1. Factors that are work ‘motivators’ include challenging work, recognition, responsibility which give positive satisfaction, which arise from intrinsic conditions of the job itself, such as recognition, achievement, or personal growth.
  2. The work ‘hygiene factors’ which Herzberg suggested do not trigger positive satisfaction, are related to the work environment (e.g., company policies, supervisory practices, or wages/salary), and not necessarily related to the work itself, include: status, job security, salary and fringe benefits. However their absence leads to dissatisfaction, hence the name “hygiene” (its absence is hazardous).

What defines a ‘great work day’?
A Harvard Business Review study published in the latest issue (Amabile, T. M., Kramer, S. J “What really motivates workers”, HBR Jan-Feb 2010) concluded that the biggest factors in defining a workday as great was the perception of “making progress” and collaborations.

The authors underline the important role of the manager in making workers feel they had a great day. In the scientific slang, in an academic, as well as biotech/pharma laboratory, this personal might be refered to as the Principal Investigator (PI).

What a leader/manager should do:

  • Clarify goals
  • Use glitches as learning moments
  • Cultivate a culture of helpfulness, including rolling up own sleeves to pitch in
  • Recognize real progress (otherwise praise loses value)

The top three things a manager should avoid doing:

  • Changing goals autocratically
  • Being indecisive
  • Holding up resources

What makes people happy: common denominators and “diversity” in happiness

This is not off the topic, but it’s rather considering the whole person’s “happiness” as a combination of personal and professional aspirations.

In studying how personal/individual factors contribute to the overall human feeling of happiness, another report revealed that in fact both women and men share the two main sources of happiness: achieving professional/financial aspirations and… being married! (Plagnol and Easterlin, the Journal of Happiness Studies). These authors also discovered an inter-relationship between gender and age and happiness. Their conclusion was that… “Women end up less happy than men” because they feel less able to achieve their life goals. Women begin life happier than men but the difference wears off and by 48 yo, men are in average happier that women. Here are some age milestones that stood out from the gender comparison:
o 41: Age at which men’s financial satisfaction exceeds women’s financial satisfaction
o 48: Age at which men’s overall happiness exceeds women’s overall happiness
o 64: Age at which men’s satisfaction with family life exceeds women’s satisfaction

Harvard experts cited by Physics.org suggest the following rounded approach is most likely to create overall (lifelong) happiness:

  • Eat thoughtfully, exercise often, have daily ‘quiet’ time,
  • raise your children well, teach them to be kind!),
  • stash a few bucks away,
  • and ‘stop thinking it’s all about you! ‘ Giving money away creates lasting happiness compared to spending it on oneself which only creates a ‘buzz’, the kind of happiness that wears off quickly

What makes working couples happy?
Sharing responsibilities for paid (professional) and unpaid (house chores) work apparently works well in making working couples happier and more productive. For more insights see “Power couples”, The Scientist 2010, Volume 24 (1): 55.

What makes YOU happy?

 

References:
• ‘Best Places to Work 2009: Academia’, The Scientist Volume 23 (11) Page 43, 2009-11-01
• Heathfield, Susan M. ‘What motivates people’, About.com http://humanresources.about.com/od/rewardrecognition/a/needs_work.htm
• The ‘two factor theory’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motivator-Hygiene_theory
• Plagnol, Anke C. and Richard A. Easterlin, “Aspirations, Attainments, and Satisfaction: Life Cycle Differences Between American Women and Men.” 2008, Journal of Happiness Studies, http://www.springerlink.com/content/4j11681jx415315k/
• Wiens Carl, ‘Power couples’, The Scientist 2010, Volume 1: 55, 2010-01-01

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I just returned from the NIH where I was invited to lecture on translating science into therapies. I had presented my science there before and I was not quite sure how interesting they might find my broader perspective, which I had entitled: “The long course from ‘the Aha!’ to cures: can we do better – together?“

The standing room only audience provided a first clue that emphasis is evolving at the NIH… During the Q&A and in talking individually to several people, I could sense their intense interest and excitement regarding the many challenges – and opportunities – created by the translation of basic science into positive health outcomes. Several independently pointed out that Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., took no break from being confirmed to making his first appearance as the new NIH chief where he announced what he hoped to accomplish during his term. The overall underlying message was clear: no time to spare!

For those relying mainly on the funding that comes from the NIH to carry on science, it is very important to understand what the change at the NIH helm might mean for its future directions and priorities to increase chances of successful funding. In the bigger picture, all of us will be affected as the NIH-sponsored research is a major – if not the major – source for the new ideas that become one day life saving treatments. I dare to say that the success of these ideas is in no small measure due to the fact that the NIH, throughout various administrations (maybe in spite of?), has been one of the original and perennial implementers of innovation models, yet not even themselves might think of it that way. For instance, the NIH has a signature initiative called an “RFA” (requests for applications), where they invite independent researchers to submit proposals related to specific scientific and health questions, and they fund the winners. Isn’t this a classic case of “crowd-sourcing”, implemented way before the term was coined? The NIH also has an “RFP” (request for proposals) mechanism by which they contract projects with the various independent winners and create the network needed to sustain the project – isn’t that what is called elsewhere “out-sourcing” and “open innovation”?

I could not find a script of Collins’ speech, but I watched it for you! Here is a short run down of what he announced as his top 5 priorities for the NIH during his term:

  1. Apply new high throughput (“comprehensive”) technologies (e.g., nanotechnologies, genome wide-scans, proteomics) to understand fundamental biology questions as well as causes for different diseases.
  2. Emphasize translation of basic sciences into treatments, making “discoveries amenable for public benefit”
  3. Put science to work for the benefit of the heath care reform: “inform the conversation based on scientific evidence not on prejudice” by performing comparative effectiveness studies (e.g., study effect of life style changes vs. therapies for treatment of diabetes)
  4. Put greater focus on global health, including AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other major diseases in developing countries, by working with them in research and helping them develop their own capabilities
  5. Reinvigorate the biomedical research enterprise by making sure that funds are available to support younger investigators, increase work force diversity, encourage risk taking and innovation.  

I for one, cannot but applaud and embrace all these goals. Even as an academic researcher, I have always sought to “begin with the end in mind”, or how I like to refer to it “going back to the future”. In my case, this means starting with examining the real life case (the patient) to formulate the questions to take back to the lab for study in detail, increasing the chance that the answers from our research would be used to alter for the better the patient’s health in future

Some of the more hard core basic researchers might not entirely feel comfortable with the emphasis on translation. I agree that there is a fundamental need for fundamental research: the pursuit of questions that are so “out there” that no one can really tell where they might lead us or what they might connect with. Yet, after putting a lot of bright dots on… the blue sky, some need to concentrate on seeing patterns and be able to connect them, yet others will need to start figuring out how we might touch upon the new dots and patterns. I see the issue of translating science not as an imposition on fundamental research, but as an invitation to an open intellectual dialogue between basic, applied and clinical scientists, as well as product developers, regulators, and the public, where all can contribute with their own proficiency: the “constructive interference” effect. It is still not easy most of the times, as many places still operate based on narrow definitions of expertise and make make others feel as strangers in a stranger land. Thus, making scientific innovation happen for the benefit of humankind will require skilled, open-minded, and maybe fearless translators who can make sense of various intellectual languages and lands

Here is a list of related links:

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., inaugural address to the NIH

About Translational research

The NIH Overview

In Wikipedia

Nature Medicine: In the land of the monolingual

NIH Funding opportunities for translational research

NIH-RAID (Rapid Access to Interventional Development 

NIH Translational research meetings

The NIH Roadmap

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