Various Lies

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Science is a Voyage

I’m the son of a sailor. My father served 35 years at sea. My uncle was a sailor too. I grew up listening to stories of adventure, both real and fictional. My favourite nautical hero is C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, likely because we share many of the same characteristics . Thanks to Forester’s meticulous attention to detail by the age of 10 I knew the names of all the sails on a ship of a line. I knew the difference between ropes and sheets (which are also ropes). I knew how to use an old sail to fother a shot below the waterline, when to run the guns out, and how to quell a mutiny. Most importantly I knew how to pronounce forecastle without being laughed at. In addition to this theory, my father taught me all the knots I’d need for my imaginary career on the high seas, and I still count time in bells to confuse my friends sometimes (7pm is 6 bells in the dog watch, for example). I’ve always had a taste for adventure and was exploring Europe with friends by my mid-teens, and had visited northern Africa before I was 21. When I was 23 I moved to the US and embarked on my greatest adventure to date.

In Nathanial Philbrick’s outstanding historical biography “Sea of Glory” we learn of the epic voyage of the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-42. Although it ended in ignominy and is little known nowadays, this awesome 87,000 mile trans-global voyage officially “discovered” and first mapped Antarctica, they also created detailed maps of many of the islands of the South Pacific, and charted the Columbia River in today’s Oregon and Washington states. Finally, and vitally, their voyage lead to the establishment of the northern and western borders of the United States. In addition to these feats, in the aftermath of the voyage the US gained the US Botanic Garden and the National Observatory in Washington, D.C.

I find it not a stretch of the imagination to use these brave and foolhardy young men in a science metaphor. The seamen are the most junior scientists in this experiment. They are the graduate students and talented undergraduates. The men acting in roles we would refer to nowadays as non-commissioned officers, the First Mate, the Purser and so on are the techs – stolidly toiling away keeping the ship running, the sailors fed, the laboratories working. The junior officers – the first and second lieutenants, are the postdocs. Working under the command and direction of the Captain, they yet have tremendous latitude to advance their careers and the mission underlying the expedition. A ‘bad’ captain, think perhaps of Hornblower’s nemesis Captain Sawyer, like a bad Professor can create a terrible working environment and ruin the careers of the lieutenants working under him. A good captain, like Captain Pellew for example, can strongly advance the mission, while working to secure the careers of his trusted junior officers.

A major focus of both Philbrick’s book and Forester’s novels is not just with the adventures of the men aboard the ships, but also with the politics, the funding, the hard fought backroom battles that lead to a mission’s existence and survival. I miss being part of the voyage of discovery. I miss the excitement of the chase, the hint for the elusive result, the image, the data, the understanding. I gave that up for a corner office and a pay rise. Now I am one of the faceless suits that directs the voyage. It is on my whim that you set sail on your voyage, or languish in dry dock while your purser frantically looks for money to feed the men before mutiny sets in.

One of Hornblower’s most trusted friend’s is William Bush, who remains a lieutenant while Hornblower moves from strength to strength during the course of the novels. It is Hornblower, not Bush, who has the connections and the luck to further his career. Much like the postdoc who gets the right project under the right professor, he got his CNS papers and secured himself a tenure-track position. I was once a First Lieutenant working under a Captain who might be best described as a cross between Sawyer and Pellew. The good days were good, the bad days were terrible and it was obvious fairly on that I would never get to command my own ship. I would never be a Hornblower and couldn’t face being someone’s loyal Lieutenant Bush for ever. So I changed the rules of the game. To extend my Hornblower analogy, I went to Their Lordships at the Admiralty and asked if I could side-step that whole messy career at sea and just join in with them. To my surprise they said yes.

One day in the middle of my second postdoctoral appointment I went to the Vice Chancellor for Research and asked for help. I explained that I wasn’t going to get on the tenure-track and I knew there was little to be gained by wasting everyone’s time in applications that wouldn’t be considered. I loved science (and indeed still do). She was able to procure me an interview with someone looking for a project manager and I managed to talk my way past their hesitation and into the position. Their hesitation was obvious and they can’t be faulted for being reluctant to recruit a failed neuropharmacologist to a biomedical informatics project manager position. But with due diligence and great deal of hard work I made the job work and I remade myself from bench scientist to administrative scientist.

Now I have that corner office and healthy salary it would be easy to get complacent and become one of the dreaded Administrators of science that so clutter the Ivory Tower. I am very aware that people like me can make the life of the ‘real’ scientists incredibly difficult. We're the ones that demand you re-do your IRB, re-file your IND, we form endless committees and have endless meetings all to regulate and guide your work. Our efforts stifle your creativity and freedom. We remove the flexibility you need to explore the bounds of your imagination. Ours is a tie that binds – our endless red tape forms the Gordian knot anew.

I don’t want it to be like that. It was the vision of a few powerful and talented leaders, among them the Secretary of the Navy and President Jackson, that found the funding to get the unpopular U.S. Exploring Expedition started. If that had been modern academe it would never have happened. Too risky. Too “blue sky”.

No guaranteed return on investment.

I want to be the kind of administrator that helps drive projects to completion. I want you to succeed and I want you to be free from as much of the mundane nonsense as possible – that’s really what I’m paid to do – I’m not paid to stifle research, I’m paid to administer research. We’ll explore that in the next post (which will likely contain fewer tortuous nautical metaphors).