Thoughts from the Director of the Huck Institutes
Nearing the end of my first year as Huck Director, I find myself pondering failure.
In a previous life, I did a lot of climbing in the New Zealand mountains. Among the climbing fraternity, well-intentioned failure was seen as the flip side of ‘no guts, no glory’. Failing was okay (so long as you stayed away from stupid). Indeed, the epic retreats, the disasters and the rescues, those became the folklore; the successes were just lines on a vitae. The folk really pushing the boundaries – the new routes, the winter routes – failed more often than they succeeded, but they changed what the rest of us did, aspired to, and even thought possible.
Science is also about pushing boundaries. Over the last year at Huck, I’ve heard a lot of stories about success, yet I can’t think of anyone telling me of abject failures. You know, the kind of thing that if it had come off, the Nobel would be in the bag, but instead it was a blow out. With very few exceptions, I hear no tales of breathtaking high-risk/high-payoff projects. I hope those projects are out there, because humanity needs game-changing science more than ever.
Bureaucratic risk aversion works against high-risk/high pay-off. In the name of efficiency and oversight, institutions carefully guard every dollar, worry about every hypothetical lawsuit, try to make every minute count. This rapidly leads to incrementalism, no more so than at the NIH and NSF. At both agencies, standard funding decisions have become so risk averse that separate schemes for high risk work have been created.
Penn State starts the new decade with a strategic planning round. I want to think more about how we can create an environment where our researchers can take major risks and be open about it. Money is some of the answer, but I think more it is about the culture. We need to celebrate those trying high-risk/high payoff. Minimally, that means enjoying each other’s tales of failure. Perhaps we need to include failure stories in future Huck newsletters.
Nobody wants everyone to gamble everything on crazy stuff. And we should all be on the lookout for the low-risk/high payoff projects. But they are rare. More common are low-risk/low payoff projects. We often need those in our portfolios to keep the lights on, but they will never change the game.
Just imagine a situation where everyone, from new grad students to professors to university administrators, could point to at least one high-risk initiative they took on. How many more high-payoff outcomes might emerge, and how much gloriously rich folklore would result from the failures?
There are endless routes to the top of the mountain, but new ones cannot be recognized until someone has the courage to envision them, gear up and have a go, even when success is far from guaranteed. What can Huck do that will be a game changer if it works, and nothing more than a learning experience if it does not?
My very best wishes for the Festive season. May your 2020 involve unsettling (intellectual) risk.
Last month, Penn State hosted SciWri 2019, a conference of 500+ science writers from all over the country. Huck was one of the biggest sponsors of the event and that meant we got to host four core facility tours, an insectary field trip, a live podcast panel, and a wildly popular Science Trivia game for the visiting community of journalists and academics.
Big shout out to Huck’s communication team, led by the irrepressible Cole Hons, for their enormous efforts. I am confident that some of the leading science journalists and writers in the country now have a much better idea of the breadth and expertise residing under the Huck umbrella.
My own immediate personal outcome of our involvement was an interview with NPR, conducted on the heels of a major new report about antibiotic resistant germs from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This was the result of a talk I was asked to present by the organizers of SciWri 2019. Even challenging title they gave me – The Evolutionary Battlefield of Medicine: New Tactics Needed – seemed not so far from what I often talk about.
But as I dusted off one of my standard academic talks it was clear that something very different was called for. Nothing focuses the mind quite like the prospect of talking to an audience of smart, curious people who know nothing about your specialty – when you also know there will be subject matter experts in the room.
I was forced to think about the very big picture of what my research group and collaborators are about, and that was exceedingly stimulating. It also made me think through what differentiates our work from the mainstream and enunciate that. To me, it’s plain as day. But it turns out when you try to explain it to an audience like that, it’s not actually so obvious. Preparing the talk also made me rethink some of our research priorities. From 50,000 feet, you can really see the forest. I began to wonder about things we had not followed up and had new ideas about new research directions we might try.
I came away from the experience convinced that more faculty should do this kind of presenting. Of course, we can’t have a Science Writers convention every week. But we do have the Millennium Café, 10 a.m. each Tuesday on the third floor of the Millennium Science Complex. There, the Material Research Institute’s ever energetic and facilitating Josh Stapleton not only gets two speakers to talk about their subject expertise, but goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure they aim their expertise at non-specialists and possible collaborators outside their disciplines.
Not all faculty pull that off (sometimes, it is amazing what some geeks think constitutes an accessible talk). But many faculty do. Invariably, I find those sessions to be more reliably interesting than expert seminars in my own specialty. (They’re also shorter talks so you are not stuck for an hour if someone is droning on). The coffee and doughnuts are good too. I go whenever my schedule allows.
In today’s frantic drive for academic metrics – grant dollars in and scientific papers out – it is all too easy to lose track of the point of it all. As a hedge against this tendency, we should all be forced to take the time to step back and take a look at our position in the world, and then explain that to others. I think the discipline of talking to curious, smart non-subject matter experts is one outstanding way to avoid incrementalism – and, at least for me, to ask whether our day-to-day work in the weeds is truly aligned with an essential goal; understanding the forest.
Communication is critical to Huck’s mission of collaborative, impactful discovery. Because, let’s face it: scientific discovery is nothing but self-gratification if stakeholders don’t know about it. That’s why we and our partners put a lot of effort into communicating science. But it’s obvious that we could all do better: there is immense scope for new ideas and experiments. So bring us your ideas. We’re up for taking risks.
I see two aspects of communication related to what we do at the Huck that are ripe for new advances.
First, human behavior rarely changes of its own accord in response to scientific discoveries*. This is problematic, because overcoming most challenges facing humanity requires people to behave differently. The global challenge I am personally researching is the evolution and emergence of so-called superbugs, bacteria that can no longer be killed by previously effective antibiotics. By some estimates, these bugs will kill more people than cancer by 2050. A big part of the solution involves using antibiotics only when we need to, but that is easier said than done. For example, physicians know that prescribing antibiotics against viral infections is worse than useless, and the government keeps reminding them, but the problem persists at scale. Why? And if advice that simple is hard to follow, how will more complex solutions life scientists produce ever have impact?
I think communication science has a lot to offer. As a social science, it has the potential to uncover strategies that will lead to behavior change when scientifically-sound advice is not enough. In this month’s Symbiotic podcast, you can hear about my forays into this realm with Erina Macgeorge of the Department of Communication Arts and Science (CAS) in Penn State’s College of Liberal Arts.
We at the Huck are so encouraged with what is possible that we want to further build our partnership with CAS. We already have two faculty co-hires and are closing in on a third with a fourth slated for 2020-21. Additionally, we are preparing to launch an NIH-funded graduate course melding life and communication science (leads: Steve Schaeffer, Biology, and Rachel Smith, CAS). Finally, we are partnering with CAS on the Communication, Science and Society Initiative (CSSI). This is an experiment aimed at bringing communication and life scientists to work together on some of the major challenges facing humanity. It is being led by CAS’s Jim Dillard. Do reach out to Jim or our lead, Huck associate director Connie Rogers, if you want to know more. In a future column, I’ll describe the exciting partnership we have with the Social Science Research Institute to expand the work still further.
The other aspect of communication ripe for advances is central to Huck’s raison d’etre. We expect major advances when traditional disciplinary boundaries are spanned – but the most obvious sign that this is actually happening is when the participants cannot understand each other. Yet when jargon, concepts, theories, methodologies and scientific cultures are foreign, intellectual dissonance can lead faculty to go back to their disciplinary comfort zones. As I learned with Erina, it takes time to build trust and to understand each other’s language and way of thinking. I really believe communication science can also help address this problem.
Increasingly, people are talking of a science of science. A major part of that enterprise should be the study of scientist-to-scientist communication. Penn State is as good at peer-to-peer communication as any university and far better than most – but we have to get even better. Solutions to the world’s most serious challenges—from food security to neural basis of consciousness—require that truly transdisciplinary teams are unleashed. That requires superb peer-to-peer communication. The institutions that can do that best will change the world.
*One of the few examples might be the lines of parents queuing for the polio vaccine in the 1950s, when polio epidemics maimed American kids.
A curious thing about the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences is that no other university appears to have anything quite like it. Think about that. Demonstrably, we aren’t necessary.
I love that. It means we exist only to make a difference. Good things, often excellent things, will happen if we do nothing; clearly, Colleges and Departments can flourish on their own. That perspective underpins everything I am trying to do as director. “If we do X, what difference will it make?” Of course, that’s also the way our game-changing staff and faculty think: “What difference am I making?”
‘Difference’, I think, boils down to impact, a hugely slippery concept. Many university administrators measure impact in terms of grant income, or financial efficiency, but of course that’s nonsense: dollars are the input. Impact is an output. My colleague Matt Thomas goes further: we should care less about outputs and more about outcomes. Scientific papers are outputs, and they really can generate outcomes. But papers needn’t be our only outputs, and infuriatingly, outcomes, even from papers, are really hard to measure. Sometimes, outcomes can be captured by citation counts or altimetric scores. But not always. If you actually solve a real world problem, it is often soon forgotten. Failing to solve a problem in an interesting way can better generate social media metrics and citations.
I think a real measure of impact is the extent to which we change the beliefs and practices of a constituency. Huck’s target constituency is staggeringly diverse. Certainly it includes our global fellow academics - a very important and exciting audience. But our constituency could also be policy makers (EPA, WHO), or the commercial landscape (Google), or those charged with human well-being (e.g. physicians, farmers), or the lay public, striving to better understand themselves and their world.
In the years to come, I very much look forward to the struggle of trying to balance that portfolio, perhaps one of the toughest challenges in scientific leadership. Right now, Huck is working on all the impact-enhancing initiatives we can construct. Bring us more. We exist to make special things happen.