When science meets freakonomics

I subscribe to a couple of podcasts, and usually use my long runs to catch up with some longer episodes. As I am a slow runner, yesterday I was able to listen to two new episodes of different podcasts, and listening to them in sequence made me think about the connection between them.

The first podcast was Science Disrupt. This particular episode I’ve listened was about building the science startups of tomorrow (very interesting one). But a peculiar thing about this podcast is that after every interview, the hosts always ask the same question to all guests: “Thinking about the science ecosystem as a whole, what else do you think in science still needs to be disrupted?” – and they always get very interesting answers! The other podcast was the second episode of the Earth 2.0 series from Freakonomics Radio. This series is supposed to answer the question “What if we could remake earth? What would you change?

As I was listening to this Freakonomics episode, my mind just wandered around replacing the word “economy” by “science“, and I was amazed how the discussion still seemed pretty pertinent (in my mind). They asked A LOT of questions along the podcast, but I’m just going to go over a few of them. I’m going to try to describe the parallel here, and hopefully it will make sense on paper as much as it did while I was running…

  • “If we had the chance to totally reboot our economic system, what would that new system look like?. That seems like an unanswerable question – both economic and science-wise – and why we bother to discuss this?

Abhijit BANERJEE: I think that doing things consciously with thought, asking lots of questions; not doing them because this is how we’ve always done things, this is our tradition, this is the normal in the world … Asking questions: “Why do we do these things?” “Is this the right thing to do?” “What is the actual evidence for it?” That’s key. We won’t have a blueprint for the world. But we will have a better way of building a better world.

Applying this to science, it is easy to say that a lot of things need to change in our science system, regarding the way scientists are hired, funded, evaluated. Along those lines, our publishing and peer-review system also needs some evaluation. However, can you propose a real and feasible strategy that will make our scientific system work better? Paraphrasing Paul Ryan re: health care reform, “it’s a lot easier to oppose something than to be for something.”

Still, scientists should still reflect about the system and not simply do things automatically only because it’s how things are done. Are you happy with the current system? No, so what can you do to change it? If you don’t know where to start, the article How Scientists Can Influence Policy has some interesting suggestions. Figure out what is already happening. Expand your readings. Write letters, emails. Pick up the phone!

  • “What should be done about income inequality?”

KANTER: To make things work well, inequality doesn’t help. If you have a lot of people who feel left out of the system, well, they do get angry, and they sometimes surprise you with their feelings. But also, they often go passive. They think nothing could be done to change anything. And because of that, they’re not very motivated, and nothing does change.

Yes. Inequality doesn’t help in science either. Every time that I see a list of grants /prizes awarded, there’s a pattern there. You always see a lot of money going towards the big institutions and less or even no money awarded to small Universities. You can say that money comes to big institutions because they do better research, but how can small institutions do better research if they are underfunded?

I believe some researchers may become angry when thinking about the current funding climate, but most of them fall into the later category: go passive. As a salesperson that sells expensive laboratory equipment, I talk to many professors on a daily basis. Many times, when I suggest that they could apply for a equipment grant, or group with other researchers to get a multi-user equipment, they just sound so… unmotivated. Almost like “why bother to write a grant for that, if I know that it will be rejected?”.

I know government funding for research has never been that low, but there are alternatives. Ryan Bethencourt (Program Director and Venture Partner at IndieBio) suggested on the ScienceDisrupt podcast that researchers should start looking at partnerships with the private sector – partner with biotech companies to raise additional money and bring your research forward.

  • “Why North America has been more successful economically than South America?”

Tyler COWEN: Whereas, say, the Spanish colonies were more likely based on the idea of extracting wealth from other people, or taking a lot of the resources out of the ground and not investing as much in human capital.

Why some research groups are more successful than others? Is because of the institution that they are located? Or it’s because they research a topic that’s more appealing to the grant funding agencies? Also, this question made me think about all the team supporting a research group. Graduate students, postdocs, technicians. When a PI is training a GS or a PD, does it make a difference if they are just interested in their skilled labor, or if they are really training them to be better scientists? I truly believe so.

As much as a lab PI is supposed to be the leader, the mentor of its group, a successful lab still needs to be a group. And it’s the PI’s job to make this group cohesive and motivated to science! It is important to take your time and teach your group what takes to be a successful scientist. Also, keep in mind that not all GS (or even PD) will necessarily go towards an academic position. Knowing your group, understanding the goals and limitations of each one of its members can really make a difference!

  • “If you want to think about building the perfect economic system, there are so so so many elements to consider. Money, for instance. What is the optimal form of money?”

SURI: The biggest two findings are that mobile money improves financial resilience, which is the ability to deal with bad events. Basically, we find that it has an effect on poverty; it’s going to reduce poverty. (…) You’re saving more because you have the ability to save in your phone, and so people are able to do these things.

What is the currency of academia? Publications and grants. Not only number of publications, but also the impact factor of the journals on which they are published. Publications are part of the measurements of a researcher’s success, determining if they are going to get hired, funded, and be successful in their careers. The podcast suggested that the use of mobile money could decrease poverty, and I wonder if academia could somewhat change its currency to be more fair to all researchers.

  • Is the World Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income?

CAPLAN: Saying, “Let’s give everybody free money no matter what. People perfectly able-bodied. People perfectly able to take care of themselves.” That seems crazy at the outset. But more importantly, if you do a small amount of math and realize how much would it cost, the cost is enormous. Right now, the welfare state — we’re able to keep the cost down because we don’t give money to everybody.

So, with all bias and problems regarding grant funding, what about if we just gave some funding to all researchers to do their research? I certainly don’t believe this would be a good idea, as there are so many researchers from different fields, all requiring different amounts of money to perform their research. Along those lines, a new grant funding system was proposed by Johan Bollen at Indiana University where scientists would just give each other money: “Self-organized fund allocation” (SOFA). Unfortunately, I don’t believe this would work either, as the bias (and pressure) towards funding your own friends would be enormous, and also making things even harder for junior researchers.

I don’t have an answer to most of these questions. But it was nice to reflect on those issues, economy and science-wise. One of the conclusions of the Freakonomics podcast was that it’s hard to build a good economic infrastructure without a good political infrastructure. I do truly believe we have a lot to learn from economics!

Decisions, productivity, and the power of habits

I thought it was just me, but it really seems that no one likes to make decisions. I’ve just listened to the Ted Radio Hour podcast episode called “Decisions, decisions, decisions” from March 10th. In this episode, they discuss a lot how making decisions is hard, and not only big decisions – but also small decisions like what to eat for breakfast (or what spaghetti sauce to buy!). But more importantly, they discuss how most people simply do not make a decision unless they are “forced to”. The example they cite is how organ donation varies among several countries in Europe. It turns that the “decision” to be an organ donor has little to do with consciousness – but with the fact that in some countries the DMV has an option “check this box if you want to be an organ donor” versus “check this box if you DO NOT want to be an organ donor” when you apply for your driver’s license.

This past week I also started listening to the Advanced Selling Podcast. Of course, they cover a lot of specific selling tips and advices, but they spend a lot of episodes discussing productivity. Knowing where and when you should spend your time and energy. Learning how to differentiate something that will turn into a sale from others that will just waste your time. After taking a critical look at my current prospects, I realized how I was spending a lot of time (and energy) in opportunities that definitely were not going to turn into real business any time soon. Although this was put through the specific goal of selling your product, I believe this can be transferred to other careers, and even to other aspects of your life!

At first, these two topics may seem unrelated. You might ask, what decisions have to do with productivity? That brings me to a third interesting thing that I’ve started doing this week. I was invited by TheNewishPI and Veronika Cheplygina to join an Habitica group. I am still a newbie in the “game” and trying to figure things out, but basically this is an online task management application. You add your habits, daily goals, and to dos – and receive bonus and rewards for completing them. It may seem silly, but it seems to be working for me! There’s the reward component of gaining (virtual) gold medals and going to a new level. But also, and more importantly in my opinion, because it prevents you from making decisions!

I’ll explain. We all have habits we want to keep. Eat healthy. Exercise. Read more. Several, many more. Or others! But whenever it comes to the point where you are going to perform those habits, there are always two or more options. Should I eat salad for dinner or just pick up some junk food on my way back home? Should I stop by the gym or head to the bar for a beer? Sometimes you make the *right* decision and avoid the fries and the beer – or you go to the bar AFTER you’ve exercised 😉 But my point is, if you have previously decided what habits or tasks you want to achieve, it is just like the European DMV form – the default option is your desired one, and you don’t have to think about it! Does this make any sense?

One example I can bring from my life has to do with running and exercising. I’re recently run a half-marathon and believe me, I am no professional runner. Overweight and in my 40s, it took careful planning. I researched online, I talked to many other runners – and I finally came up with an excel sheet with a training plan for about 2 months or so, with activity, mileage, and intensity. Of course there were some hiccups, but in general I was able to follow it pretty closely. Even if I was tired or not feeling like it, it was in my schedule, and I didn’t really think about it, I’d just go and do it. Now that I’m not training for any competition I spend way too much time deciding if I’m going for a walk, a run, or to the gym. Meh, I’m too tired and have too much to do, so I’ll just skip it for today.

So here is my take home message: set up your personal habits and goals in a way that prevents you from having to take a decision on a daily basis. Set up your desired goal as your default option, and you’ll have to think and actually check that little box, deciding NOT TO do it. Realizing this has been working for me so far, and I hope it does for you too!


Disclosure: I don’t have my shit together (yet?)

Just left #sfn16 and as always it was lovely to have the opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones. This was my 14th SFN meeting, and the second I attended after I left academia. I still get a lot of “how are you enjoying your new job”, but this year I heard from more than one person that I seem happy. And lighter.

And they are right. I am happy, but overall, I am a happy person and I do my best to adapt to new situations. And I was particularly happy to have this break from all the election’s anxiety. But during this meeting, a couple of people reached to me looking for advice, comfort, or to discuss leaving academia. Met a few listeners from our #RecoveringAcademic podcast and that was great! It is really rewarding to see that we are making a contribution to the field, and to those academics that are struggling to find a direction to go.

But that made me think: Who am I to give advice to those people? I’ve been there before, so I can share my experience, my history (and I’m happy to do so). But part of me feels like I don’t have my shit together (yet?) and make me feel like an impostor. Last week after the election results I’ve spent a good time looking for jobs abroad. After giving some thought, I realized I shouldn’t leave and give up everything I fought hard to get. I’ve been in the US for 9 years, and despite being extremely sad, disappointed, and afraid – running away is not the best option. Attending to SFN was a bittersweet experience. This year I tried to do more networking related to my actual job, but still had my itinerary filled with posters from my past research. When I’m there in the middle of a poster session from the topic I’ve worked from 20 years, I just can’t avoid feeling a bit nostalgic. Also, another part of me feels pathetic for still wanting to attend to those meetings, as if this is a frivolous attempt to hold to a life that’s not mine anymore. I am happy with my job. But I also miss neuroscience and everything that is involved with that.

Now I traveled to one of my company’s training and the anxiety of having to face my (mostly) republican co-workers is killing me. I’ve thought about giving an excuse and not attending. But I have to be professional, I have to attend, and I will have to work hard on my poker face during this meeting. It’s not going to be easy, and part of me feels it’s going to be a real test to see if I can keep going on this path or if I should made this a layover towards something else. Let’s see.

How are things going? 1 year post-academia update

I know I’ve been way too negligent with this blog. I think about cool things to write about all the time, but either they don’t seem that cool anymore after a while, or I don’t take the time to write about them. But on July 1st I celebrated one year working outside academia, and a lot of people has been asking me: how are you doing? How things are working for you?

I wrote a blogpost about six months ago about how things were going back then: “There’s life after academia: 6 months update“. Things changed a bit in the following 6 months. In fact, work started to become much easier than in the beginning. I acquired experience on how to talk to professors in order to understand their research and their equipment needs, make quotes, and everything else involved in the process. I actually feel like I know what I’m talking about! (most of the time, at least). Of course, I still need help, but things are much easier now.

On one hand this is pretty amazing, but on the other hand I must confess that I started to feel a little bored. I work mainly from home, and I started to miss human interaction. I’m on the phone about 4+ hours per day, but this is definitely not the same as interacting with people, physically. I’m a people person, after all!

So I started to “force myself” to go out more often. Visit more professors, interact more with people that were not really planning to buy any equipment from me, but people that are worth meeting (and that are willing to meet me, of course!). I also started some side projects. My old PI asked if I could share some tips with the graduate student that is still in the “lab”. I’ve been acting as a consultant, helping the GS with guidance and suggestions mainly. And it’s great to have an excuse to go to campus, so I can still visit other labs once I’m there. Although it feels really good to help and to share your knowledge, amazingly this didn’t make me miss academia, or made me want to come back. I’m happy where I am now!

I also came back to be more active on Twitter. After my crisis of not knowing who I was on Twitter after my career move, (you can read more about it here) I think I finally found my new place there and feel comfortable tweeting again. I’ve lost some followers, but gained lots of new ones! I’m still mediating our #DiversityJC once a month with Emily And Ian. This Diversity journal club reads literature & holds Twitter discussions relevant to #diversityinSTEM every 3rd Friday of the month (for more info, take a look at our blog). I must confess that at some point I thought about giving this up, but now I’m so glad I didn’t. It’s really gratifying to make part of it.

And now we are about to launch our Recovery Academic Podcast, along with Amanda and Ian. This project required a little more work and preparation, but now that things are ready to go, it’s super fun to record the episodes. It feels like we are having a beer among friends and discussing that “there’s sunshine outside the ivory tower”. I’m super excited about it! All those things make me busy, and by being busy I don’t have time to feel bored anymore – and life goes on 😊.