I’ve been watching an interesting discussion unfolding at DrugMonkey, prompted by a post at Science Bear’s Cave, about whether not irritating your lab group’s principal investigator ought to be your highest priority. As DrugMonkey notes, such a strategy can have bad consequences:
If there is a scientific trainee who fears to mention to the Boss that the printers aren’t working, this trainee sure as hell isn’t going to mention “Oh gee, I think that figure you are so amped about from that other postdoc is totally faked”. And who knows how far this PI-pleasing attitude might carry one.
Is the desire to keep the boss PI happy greater than any affection for, say, genuine data?
The discussion in the comments covered some familiar ground about the general unpleasantness of the experience of science as gladiatorial combat, the relative powerlessness of the scientific trainee relative to the PI or even the most favored postdoc, the need to believe in your own results (even if, objectively, you should not) in a climate of shrinking funding, whether science is or is not a tea party peopled with Care Bears (and if so, what exactly that would entail) …
For some reason, reading this exchange, I slipped into my committee-chair mindset. (Of course, this is very odd, seeing as how my current sabbatical has included a break from committee service. Could it be that I miss it?) I thought to myself, “The people here have rational reasons for the ways they’re behaving, even if those behaviors lead to predictably bad results. Are there any easy-to-implement changes that would make it rational for them to behave in ways that probably bring about better results?”
Then, I slipped into pedagogy mode (since I’m also on a hiatus from teaching) and thought, “Students focus on learning the things you test them on, not the things you say are important for them to learn. And when you don’t give them any sensible information about what you’re evaluating, or about the basis for evaluation, they will become bundles of hate, fear, and frustration.”
At this point, I had a flash of insight to a change that I think has potential. I can’t guarantee that it would work, but I think it would be foolish not to try it.
What if scientific mentors (who are engaged in the dual projects of producing new scientific knowledge and producing new scientists) routinely articulated their expectations of the scientific work and of the trainees participating in that work? What if being a trainee didn’t feel like an n-year examination (written, oral, and lab-practical) for which the grading criteria were a closely-guarded secret?
Would this be more likely to create lab groups in which people shared information about what’s gone wrong with experiments, or about problems working up the data, or about crucial information from the literature found later than one would like?
Would it foster an environment in which people were less likely to try to bluff their way through interactions, more likely to ask for guidance when they needed it?
Could it create conditions in which the task of becoming a grown-up scientist was understood as a shared project in which trainee and mentor each need to shoulder part of the burden?
Might it make more obvious the separation between the two projects — for example, the possibility that one’s skills as a scientist can grow even as one’s attempts to get a particular research project to work are thwarted?
Undoubtedly, there are PIs out there now who are reasonably open about their expectations and fairly hands-on in interactions with trainees around their shared scientific inquiries. My sense, though, is that they are rare enough that students may find themselves asking, in the presence of such mentors, “He says he wants X, Y, and Z from me, but what does he really want? Will X, Y, and Z be enough, or is there some extra thing that I’m supposed to be smart enough to figure out that he wants, too?”
If the normal state of affairs were to lay all cards on the table (at least within research groups and training relationships), would members of research groups be able to spend more time focused on the project of building scientific knowledge and less time playing against each other?
If so, how do we shift the normal state of affairs from where it seems to be at the moment?