James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

February 19, 2022

Things private sector jobs get right

Filed under: Life in Academia — James @ 1:18 pm

I’ve started companies. I’ve worked in academia. But my most recent experience working in the conventional private sector was a summer internship I did at Pioneer Hi-Bred all the way back in 2010. But I’ve been noticing a few interesting signs:

  1. Powerpoint. Meeting with a venture capital firm. The guy I’m talking to apologizes for having such a long slide deck. Based on my experience in academia I assumed this mean 60-70 slides.* Nope. The really long slide deck the VC guy was talking about was 12 slides.
  2. Meetings. Meeting with some folks at a company I am collaborating with. One guy shows up about ten minutes late to the meeting because of some stuff with his kids. We talk about the stuff that doesn’t need him at the start and talk about the stuff he needed to be there for once he showed up. Meanwhile in academia I frequently have days with 4-8 hours of zoom meetings scheduled back to back. Which is doable. At least it is until people at my next meeting start texting me on my cell phone to find out why I’m not in the meeting yet 2-3 minutes before the meeting is even scheduled to start.
  3. Vacations. One of the startups I helped found hired some new full time “business people” a few months ago. It is remarkable how much these folks are getting done so quickly. Part of that is the advantage of dedicated people vs one person trying to wear seven hats. Part of it is the new folks brought different skillsets (why we hired them). But what’s been remarkable to me is that, in between getting so much work done, it seems like these people are constantly taking vacations: going off to cabins, or hunting trips, or tropical vacations. Meanwhile I’m 36 years old, have been reasonably successful in my academic career by the standards of my field and my job still doesn’t provide me with paid time off (including no sick leave).

The thing is, as far as I can tell there’s no inherent reason that academia needs to do any of these three things differently (and more painfully) than the private sector. It doesn’t make us more productive. It’s largely not being imposed from the outside, it’s something we do to each other or ourselves.

*This isn’t consistent around the globe. The last time I gave an hour long talk in Germany, someone warned me to aim for only 25-30 minutes of presentation (~20 slides) so the rest of the time could be for questions and discussion. So I did that. And it was GREAT! I came around with good new research ideas, an understanding of what I was or wasn’t explaining well, and I think the people listening had a better time and took away more useful information than if I’d droned on through 45+ slides with 5 minutes for questions at the end.

February 9, 2022

The Growth of Plant Science Research In China (2009-2021)

The world changes fast. Once we form perceptions about the way the world is or works, we tend to be a bit too slow to update those perceptions in response to new data.

Last week I posted some analysis of where the scientists who publish in the most selective plant science journals work and live. The short version for those who don’t want to re-read that post:

40% of the papers published in The Plant Cell had a corresponding author based in China, 28% from the European Union plus the United Kingdom, 16% from the United States and 16% from the rest of the world (Japan and Korea are particularly well represented in this last category).

I also said that I was really surprised when I actually read through a year’s worth of issues and counted up the numbers. I would have guessed closer to one quarter of the papers came from scientists in the United States and another quarter from China. There are lots of potential reasons to explain why my gut was wrong, but a big one is that just in the length of my scientific career things have changed a lot and my perception is struggling to catch up with the current facts on the ground.

Tracking the changes in authorship of papers at The Plant Cell between 2009 and 2021. Data was only collected from odd numbered years and only from papers listed under the “Research Article” category.

I started graduate school in the fall of 2008. My first full year as a “professional” plant scientist* was 2009. At that time 7% of papers in The Plant Cell were published by authors working in China, 28% by authors working in the USA, 37% by authors working in the EU and 28% by authors working in the rest of the world. In the 12 years since that, China’s share grew to 40%, almost a 6x increase.

So what happened in that 12 year time frame? I don’t have good insight into Chinese policy and funding decisions. But at various points I’ve run into people who have told me that in China, human health research and agricultural research are treated as roughly equal priorities. And China invests a lot in funding plant science, including plenty of dedicated funding for institutes and professors. In the United States plant science is a very small slice of the research our country funds**, and much more of the funding we do have goes out as part of 3-5 year grants for specific projects. Here’s a great visualization of US federal government R&D spending from back when I was a grad student.

Anyway, I’m not sure what the key takeaways are here. I guess 1) It is possible for a country to take big steps forward in scientific discovery and innovation but only if we’re willing to pay for it 2) If you happen to live in the USA, like me, your subconscious may still be assuming that we play a much bigger role in the global plant science research community than we actually do.

The world changes. It is easy to fall behind.

*I was getting paid a bit more than $2,000/month to do plant science. It felt very adult at the time.

**Two big sources of funding for plant science when I started graduate school were the Arabidopsis 2010 project and the Plant Genome Research Program, both run through US National Science Foundation. As you might guess from the name, the Arabidopsis 2010 project ended a decade ago. Plant Genome Research is still around. However, it used to receive dedicated line item funding from congress to conduct research into agriculturally and economically relevant crop plants and the program is now funded at the discretion of the director of NSF.

February 5, 2022

Who Publishes in Competitive Plant Science Journals?

Filed under: Fun With Numbers,Life in Academia — Tags: — James @ 2:50 pm

Where in the world is important plant biological research happening today? It’s a hard question to answer. I could imagine looking at funding, or citation rates, or total papers published in the field. I can also imagine the downsides and potential for bias in all of those metrics. But I’m a strong believer that even imperfect data is better than none at all and I couldn’t find any useful data on this topic.

So let’s start with the easiest of these imperfect datasets to generate: where in the world are the home institutions of the authors of articles published in plant science journals?

I decided to start with The Plant Cell. The Plant Cell is published by the American Society of Plant Biologists, so we might expect it will have a bias towards more American authors and fewer authors from the rest of the world. One the other hand, among journals focused on plant science, and excluding journals that publish solely reviews*, The Plant Cell historically** has had the highest impact factor***, which has tended to attract a global audience of both readers and authors.

I have the breakdown below the fold, but before you look, take a moment to form your own guesses. What proportion of articles do you think came from the United States? From Europe? From China? From the rest of the world combined?


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