Yay!!!! I'm at a basketball game, sitting in the ‘nosebleed’ section, where the players are smaller than what I can see on my iPhone (in simulcast!). We're doing the ‘wave’. Wait, here it comes again. Yay!!!!!
In case you've never attended a sporting event, the wave is not a bunch of people saying “hi.” (Do they do waves at soccer matches? No wait, you just have riots at those, right? No, I bet you do. Not at cricket matches, though, you'd have to put down the book you're reading.) Anyway, the wave is something called ‘metachronal rhythm’ which I think means, ‘raising both hands in the air when the person next to you does, and then bringing them down.’ Apparently the first wave was invented by Krazy George Henderson, who saw it happen accidently at an Edmonton Oilers hockey game, and then managed to lead the first documented wave at an Oakland A's game on October 15, 1981. Okay, why did someone attend a hockey game in the Frozen North and then go see baseball in California? History doesn't say, but then, his moniker was ‘Krazy George.’ Sorry, here it comes again. Yayyyyyyy!!!!!
Earlier today, I heard a seminar from a scientist, Prof. Cheetah who apparently does a lot of TV appearances, talking about viral outbreaks and how we hunt the culprits down and treat them (or plan to). I have to say, it was terrific. At the end, I thought we were going to do the wave, we were clapping so much. But there were no questions, and I got to thinking about why. Which got me thinking about biomedical research, which is something I tend to do a lot.
Many seminars I attend may lack Cheetah's style (which, I reiterate, was terrific), but as they conclude, the hands go up and questions abound. The questions lead to more questions. And when the moderator calls a halt, half a dozen folks head for the podium to engage the speaker. I think it is a sort of wave, in action. Each of us can see how what we had just learned might impact our own work, and the problems we're confronting. And as the discussion ensues, we pick up additional ideas, fueling the intellectual curiosity. We want to be part of the exploration, and by asking our questions, and considering the answers, we actually make progress. My little notebook is full of ideas that I've gotten from such public interactions (and yes, very often they lead to new experiments and results).
So when I think about Cheetah's great talk, I realize that he didn't provide anything that might initiate such a discussion. He told us about some cool tech, and regaled us with stories about odd diseases and his quest to find out their causes, but in the end, the new ideas were lacking. He didn't start a wave. Which is fine, of course, but this leads to some other thoughts.
Last time, for those who might just be joining us, we talked about a problem that may exist in what we do, this biomedical research thing (and it undoubtedly applies to other scientific endeavors as well, but hey, biomedical research is what I know about). Out of necessity, most of what we do is a group effort, and every field heads off in an agreed-upon direction to confront the problem we are addressing. Those who take a different route often find themselves frustrated that the community does not recognize their efforts, either in terms of ‘impact’ or in funding success. Like primitive hunting parties that cannot split up to go their separate ways (and still be successful), we stay the course, even if we're not rounding up very much to eat.
I had suggested that it might be useful, before setting out on such an expedition, to decide in advance (or if necessary, even when our boatload of fisherpeople are already at sea – sorry we flicked around a bit with the analogies) what set of conditions might indicate that a change in course would be warranted. When, for example, have we sequenced enough genomes (or acquired other ‘omes’) before deciding that we might gain more from putting our limited resources to another purpose?
Perhaps the concept of the wave (the one that I was doing at the basketball game, up in the nosebleeds, only now it's fizzled out) might give us a clue. We have a lot of waves in science; the example I gave of the questions at the end of a seminar is only one. Here's another: when we publish a paper, other people might cite it, and in turn, others might cite theirs (and perhaps ours again, if we're lucky). If we take an entire area of approach to a question, as a whole, we can track how we're citing and re-citing those findings. We already know what that looks like – at first there are a small number, then more, then still more, and then, either it plateaus (which would be a sort of saturation) or declines. The first case, where the wave continues, suggests that the approach is continuing to yield productive information, in the latter, where it has come and gone, it might be a signal to try something different.
I know there are a lot of problems with this. The phenomenon of the scientific ‘fad’ for one. An idea sounds cool, so we jump in as a group, and naturally try to publish as much as we can, citing each other in the process. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, we probably learn quite a bit. But it still feels like something ephemeral, so maybe that isn't a good thing (but again, I'm not so sure). On the other hand, we know that it often happens that a wave that has ‘come and gone’ may come round for another go; we ‘rediscover’ the value in a particular approach and it takes off again. Perhaps the technology had not been sufficient the first time around and new tech has lifted the prospects for new discovery in the area. And we don't want to equate what's ‘useful and important’ with ‘how many citations did it get.’ But, much as I dislike the idea, they often coincide. Especially if we define ‘useful and important’ as ‘something I'm going to work on, and cite,’ which might not be entirely wrong.
In the end, we just don't know where the answers will lie to those questions that occupy our days. But at the same time, we should be wary of the group mentality that says, ‘if others think this is the right path, maybe they know something I don't.’ Of course, it's easier to move with the herd (or hunting party, or biggest fishing boat), and it's also more likely that they will ultimately support our efforts than if we go in a completely different direction. I'm only suggesting that we take a break, now and then, to see where we are, and if it might not be worth trying a different route.
Fortunately, for many of us (and I like to think for most of us), we can have it both ways. I almost said, have our cake and eat it too, but then I'd want cake, and I want to finish this thought first. (Then maybe I'll go have cake.) We set off with the group and contribute to the joint effort as much as we can. But we're also individuals. And we can take it on ourselves to take a few chances, explore some new avenues. Sometimes, although not often, we find something unexpected, and we can decide on our own to take a detour in that direction. When we do that, we may be disappointed to find that others have not picked up on our efforts. But now and then, we present our out-of-the-box work, and we see a wave. The questions come flying at us, maybe to be followed by other researchers coming on board in time, and we've managed to set a new course. That's the sort of wave I always hope to set off. Now and then, I do.
But now I really do want to find that cake. I can watch the rest of the game on my iPhone.
- © 2016. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd