Steven Miller: How did you come to work with Nature with your background in molecular neuroscience?
Noah Gray: I did a post-doc after my graduate work with Karel Svoboda for three years and I got to the point where I wasn’t quite done with the bench. But, I felt like I needed a break to recharge the batteries and try something else before I went on the job market because I thought I wanted to stay in academia. There was a job opening at Nature Neuroscience that I happened to come across while reading Nature and I thought it was a great fit for what I was looking for. It was like a mini-sabbatical to get away from the bench but not out of science–keeping that foot in the door. I figured I had about a year before academia would reject me. The plan was about nine months in, I would start looking for a second post-doc. But, I enjoyed the job a lot, I enjoyed Nature Neuroscience. The job at Nature opened up while I was in this point where I had to make the decision of closing the academic door. I got that job and now I have been at Nature for over five years. It was almost by accident but I like it.
SM: You think it has been too long for you to go back to the bench if you wanted?
NG: That is just my impression. As everybody knows it is really challenging to get a tenure-track position these days. So, if a decision is between me who is two-years away from the bench who had publications a couple of years earlier and another scientist who has similar publications but is at the bench now… I feel like I just had a very short window of leave to be able to come back and be forgiven. If I wanted to go back and do bench work now, I could go back as a technician, I could go back as a staff scientist or something. But, getting my own lab would most likely be a failed endeavor. I probably wouldn't find someone to hire me. That’s what I mean by that short window.
SM: I had a really interesting conversation with Allan Jones of the Allen Institute for Brain Science and he said how he does not like the position of post-doc. He thought that it shouldn't exist and that our scientists should be able to come out of a PhD program being able to run a lab. Dr. Jones also said that the position was started over 30 years ago when there was a similar job market to now–very limited assistant professor positions available.
NG: I agree. I am a big fan of maybe trying to do create something like that again, some kind of new position. I don’t know the European models or Chinese models that well but I feel like there are other options other than a lab head in other countries. In the U.S. there are unique individuals who carve out a unique position within their institute, whether they call them research scientists, staff scientists, or super post-docs, you name it. Some people don’t want to have their own lab, they don’t want to worry about grants, they just want to do bench science and I think that is a valuable resource for any number of us. People would kill for that. But the problem is that those positions aren't supported by the university because those positions by definition should be a staff position at the university. When they’re linked to the lab it could be a little dangerous for the person because if the lab leaves or it loses its funding then that person is out of a job. Whereas if it were a staff position, you could find another lab that could support your salary and find work. I feel like we are at a position where with the number of scientists we’re training that we need another evolution. We need another position at the university-level to do this kind of thing for the people who just want to do good science and let the people who want to write the grants, write the grants.
SM: I had an interesting conversation with the BrainFacts.org team regarding what the friction might there be for attracting viewership to science websites. Do you think the friction for types of jobs you mentioned and their lack of support from the academy might be due to an attitude problem?
NG: I don’t know. I guess like with anything… we have our debates about open access, now new debates about data deposition, the culture needs to change. It’s a chicken and egg problem. The funding agencies need to say we are going to offer funding modules for these positions and universities can apply for the funding. Or the universities can take the position to say we are going to start hiring these individuals and our scientists will start building new modules for these positions into their grants. I don’t know who needs to do that first but somebody needs to make a move in order to make something like this to happen as long as there is a market for it. I’m speculating that there is a market for some alternative within academia that isn't PI. There’s enough people out there that like being in academia but their only option is to be a PI and they just don’t want to be a PI. And, there’s nothing wrong with that but there’s no other option.
SM: If NIH provided the opportunity to apply for this kind of funding, people might adapt to this idea as they would be able to lead the way as one of the primary sources of grant money.
NG: You could make an argument too that this could all link together with discussions about how science is assessed. Right now there is a big debate on whether post-publication peer-review is the future. There’s an argument that it is not really being taken up by scientists so that must mean they don’t want to do it or don’t find it of value and that’s not the case. Right now there is no value in doing the common post-publication review because you don't get any credit for it. Hiring committees and tenure committees should spend the time to review and give credit for these contributions to science. Faculty do their teaching, they do their service to their university, they bring money in with grants and they have their publications. It would be great to have a fifth thing in there that is determining what contributions you have brought to your field in general. Usually that is assessed by how many talks were you invited to give, how many papers you published. There’s no reason why your contributions to the post-publication peer review process couldn't be a part of that whole oeuvre of work as a scientist in order for the universities to determine whether you merit tenure, or hiring or whatever. You could imagine those positions of staff scientist or bench scientist where they don’t have to write grants could instead make a valuable contribution to the post-publication review process. It’s not that they don’t have good ideas; they just don’t want to write grants. They wanted a more relaxed scientific career. Being a PI is very stressful. Writing grants is very stressful–especially right now–and these people did not want that but they wanted to stay at the bench. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think these things could help other areas that there’s a debate in. If there were positions in academia that would allow for post-publication peer review to grow, maybe these staff scientist positions could offer that opportunity.
SM: Maybe Nature should offer an award for people who do that frequently.
NG: Ha ha ha. That’s above my pay grade but I can make that suggestion.
SM: Speaking of funding, there’s been some talk on NIH going anonymous in their grant review process. Do you think that should be done–especially with the challenge in terms of how many grants are available now?
NG: I think it should be done only because I've heard enough anecdotal stories on both sides of this coin. One of the most common stories being, ‘Well… I don’t know who this guy is so I don’t know if he knows how to do this kind of assay, so I’m a little skeptical.’ That’s fair enough but you have to allow someone to produce a track record and produce preliminary data as well. If the preliminary data doesn't look that good then you’re rightfully–and should be–concerned about whether or not the person is capable of pulling off this project. But, you cannot make decisions based on who the person is simply because you don’t know them.
On the flip side I've heard anecdotal stories that there are labs that at times, in certain study sections, where they say, ‘Well that guy is at Howard Hughes, he doesn't need any more money, so let’s give the money to someone else.’ As you can imagine in this scenario, that converges into a middling type distribution of grant money where perhaps some of those Howard Hughes investigators–well-funded people–have other great ideas and there’s arguments to be made that they should get more money to pursue those ideas. This should be done instead of giving this to a lab that doesn't have a lot of funding, but they just have an okay idea. There could be an argument that you could make the meritocracy work a little better if you don’t know who anyone is. I’d be a proponent of the NIH doing this, my caveat is that I’ve never sat on a study section, I don’t know what it’s like. But, I feel that this change could have significant value.
SM: I loved your blog post on Donald Trump and his interview where he spoke on autism and vaccines.
NG: Oh, thank you.
SM: His interview was very… interesting.
NG: Yeah. Those kinds of things are what irritate me most. I used to blog a lot more earlier on in my editor career. I’ve kind of fallen off of it. Probably because I do twitter too much…
SM: Ha ha ha, I love your twitter account, by the way. It is fantastic.
NG: Thank you, thank you. I’ve got to say that there are certain things that really kind of razzle me. One of them are these kinds of miscommunications of science to the public, especially when you have somebody where, even if people dislike him, he is still known by a lot of people. It doesn’t matter what your feelings are. He’s getting to a lot of people’s ears. You have networks like Fox and those who are willing to put him on air to say these things–and people can say these things–but it’s nice to have a counter. So, I felt obligated to have a counter and say, well at least consider the science. You have to consider not only the initial report–and people aren’t even aware unfortunately that it has been retracted–but that there is a controversy on this topic, even before it was retracted. And, so I think people need to be aware of where these things sit in the community and that’s why I felt I had to write that because it gets me upset. It’s so simple to provide links to PubMed articles, people wouldn’t even have to read the full paper, they could read the abstracts, which are right there and available. And most of the information in those abstracts would negate almost everything Donald Trump said in these interviews.
SM: I completely agree with you. It was highly irresponsible of him. Especially, as you said, with so many parents and people affected by this disorder and that becomes emotional. And, to do that to those people, I was pretty upset as well.
NG: Yeah, and that’s a really good point. You can’t always blame the people because it is really emotional. They’re struggling with dealing with this disorder and especially if they don’t have a significant science background.
SM: If you hear something that sound reasonable, like the fact that we’re all vaccinated and there are also so many people with autism, it might sound reasonable–as you said–to someone without a science background.
NG: Right. Exactly. The thing is, I have to say is, if we didn't have the science behind it to suggest that there aren't any problems with the vaccination schedule that we have it does sound kind of scary that you do x number of shots. And, for a non-scientist to say, ‘Woah, why are we sticking 30 shots into my kid within the first six months of life?’...
SM: What’d Donald Trump call it? A ‘monster shot’?
NG: Ha ha ha, oh yeah! With all the shots in one. But again, science has reported that these mercury-based preservatives in vaccines are a problem. But, we got rid of those. And when we find problems with additives and such, there are a procedures in place for science to correct that. Again, that’s based on science.
SM: And, it is reasonable that mercury-based preservatives would have negative side-effects because mercury is very, very toxic.
NG: Exactly. So that’s the issue. Without these counterpoints out there, if Fox had run a simple ad saying, ‘For more information on autism and vaccines, click here,’ the public isn't going to know that there are people who disagree with this opinion. The problem is that a lot of sites that are notoriously known for pushing this connection between vaccines and autism are one-sided in the science they list. Journalists are in a good place because they have an objective view to say, ‘Here are all of those sites with this opinion on autism and vaccines but you should also take into account all of these sites,’ and let people get informed. And if they still aren't informed after you give them everything then there’s not much more you can do. But, if you don’t give them the opportunity to inform themselves then you can expect them to believe whatever Donald Trump says because you are hitting an emotional button. You’re looking for something, you’re angry, you’re upset because you want the best for your child. So it’s like, ‘Ah!’, let me point the finger at vaccines. So, I understand it, but we need to stay better informed.
SM: Maybe Fox should hire you as their scientific consultant.
NG: Alright, this is actually my interview for them.
SM: Ha ha ha. Well, I actually work for Fox.
NG: Ha ha ha. Where are the hidden cameras?
SM: Ha ha. Another reason I really enjoyed that article is that it is an obvious reflection that you have your finger on the pulse of science news and a broad understanding of science skepticism. It’s a healthy thing to have skepticism of science news. I think this is an issue for people new in their training. It is kind of a white elephant in the room, there’s so much literature out there, how are they going to become so informed? What would you recommend to people that are new in their training as far as habits for staying informed and more up-to-date on their field, et cetera?
NG: There are lots of options right now. And, more so than when I started out in grad school. You pretty much had ‘e-talks’. Everybody got emails of the table of contents of journals that they liked. They went after that, they’d read through and find the papers that you thought were kind of important, you read those. Now we’re in an era where PLOS ONE is extraordinary and publishing 30,000 articles a year, I don’t know if that number is exactly correct but they’re in that ballpark. And just getting an e-talk of PLOS ONE fills up your inbox. I feel like you should still do the old-style way of selecting those few journals that are relevant to your particular specialty, maybe pick out some more general journals like Nature, like PNAS, or PLOS Biology that also cover a variety of topics and see what they’re publishing. But after that, I’d recommend things like Altmetric, PubPeer, and crowd-sourcing options that’ll bring your attention to not only science to your particular field but as a trainee I think it is always valuable to mature your scientific thinking and it doesn't necessarily have to be about your field. I think you can read a lot by reading through a debate–even if it is not in your field–between smart people on how to interpret data because that is something as a trainee, you always need that. Even a PI, you never stop evolving the way you think about science.
SM: Just like journal club: a broad exposure to science outside your small field.
NG: Exactly. So now we have online-journal clubs basically. We have journals like PubPeer, which brings things to the forefront and all of these other options that I mentioned. I think F1000 has options like this. Let’s just see what other people, who are savvy about science are thinking about and I think you’ll learn from it, even if it is not in your field. Find a couple of those websites and hybrid with the old school e-talks. I’ve moved on to–and I guess this is still old school–RSS feeds. I don’t get the emails anymore. I go to my RSS readers and that’s how I get my tables of contents.
SM: Speaking of new students and training, do you think someone early in their career should aim for higher impact journals or publishing sooner so they can get funding and get their name out there?
NG: So, that’s a challenge. That’s a difficult question. I feel that the sooner a trainee can get some experience with writing a paper and dealing with the review process, the better. If you have a paper where you’re not sure if two years from now it’s going to evolve into something really great, try to get it out. But, this is also specific to the PI or the mentor. The mentor might have different plans for the publication schedule than the trainee. But, if the trainee has some strong inkling or some strong input into the publication schedule, I would probably push for sooner. You know, there’s nothing like being part of this engagement with your peers. I can’t tell you how much I learned from actually chatting with reviewers, reading the reviews and responding to them. I think that’s an invaluable experience to start engaging with your peers, meaning your reviewers. Getting feedback on your work because there’s nothing like sitting in the lab for four years and not getting any feedback. It’s nice to know that what you’re doing matters to somebody else and it’s kind of exciting to get out there. I feel–and this may only be my opinion, I may be absolutely wrong–that publication record has less of an impact on how you get a post-doc. We know it’s well-documented that it’s critical for getting a faculty position at this time, if that is the route you’re choosing. But, it seems that people are making their decisions on post-docs on fit between personalities, fit between interests, fit between the academic goals, and you know, you can’t tell from somebody’s publication record how good they’re going to be with their hands in the lab. So, I feel that post-doc decisions are made much more smartly, more soundly than tenure because you can’t predict anything from the publication record. You don’t know if that person was first-author but, you know, did they really do all of those experiments? Was there a technician that was just acknowledged and not even put on the paper who really was the work horse or the hands? It’s invariable that as a post-doc that you can’t move on until you get some stuff done in the lab. So if you go on to this new lab and you’re not bringing your technician with you, you have to use your fumbley hands again, you know? And, since you can’t predict that, you have to go with these other things I mentioned, right? I feel like, of course the mentor will look at the publication record; of course they do. But, I feel that it is not as important on the final decision on who is going to get interviewed or who they’re going to consider for the post-doc. With that in mind, publishing sooner gives you so much more to be evaluated on that I would go for that.
SM: Do you think that models like F1000 has where you can publish your poster online is something students should use?
NG: As long as everybody who is a part of the project is on board for getting the data out there in a public format I think that would be great. There’s F1000, there’s the new bioRxiv that Cold Spring Harbor Lab Press just put out. You’ve heard of arXiv, the physics e-print server, well this is a play off of that to support biological sciences and allow a place for biologists to post things online as well. You can post full papers, not just posters. They’re quickly assessed by a panel of scientists to make sure that what’s posted is science. And, then it is available for people to engage with, comment on, and discuss. These–I believe–are going to be citeable; they’re going to get document identifiers. So again, for things like this, as long as everyone is on board with it then I think it’s a good thing.
We should also understand a bit of the history of these things. The history of biology-based pre-print servers is not a good one. There have been a number of them including a product produced by Nature that was operational for five years from 2007 to 2012 called Nature Precedings. Ultimately the engagement flat-lined quite early in the project and never really came back and then stopped accepting submissions. The take-up by biologists hasn’t been good but that’s not a reason to stop. I still think Cold Spring Harbor is making the right move by having this bioRxiv. F1000 is making the right move because you cannot just throw something out just because it doesn’t get picked up because we’re in a new technological age. You could argue that well, maybe that was too soon. Just like certain things with paper commenting and different forms of peer review that was tried in 2006 things by Nature and some others that were deemed a failure, that people didn’t care to do them. But, maybe people weren’t ready. The culture is changing to where we engage online, discuss things online and now these conversations take place regularly online. It’s now a natural thing to discuss science online whereas maybe in 2006 it wasn’t. So, when someone back then tries it out and goes, ‘Woah, this is odd’ and they don’t pick it up. Now, it’s an obvious thing because you’re so used to clicking ‘like’ and things that now it’s part of your work too. And, why not? I would encourage it.
SM: Do you think the friction or resistance of the academy to models like that might be the fear of scooping?
NG: Yes, absolutely. For most people that don’t want to put it out there, that would be the number one reason. If not, the only reason. Most of these archives are really good about updating and informing people when the papers get published. They try to track them or encourage the authors to write back when the papers do get published after the pre-print so that they can immediately link to the final paper. So as long as those kinds of links stay fresh and you have a paper trail then I don’t see that as a problem. The fear of scooping is field-dependent. If you’re working on an awake-behaving monkey for two years it is going to be hard to catch up and scoop that study. But, a lot of molecular techniques like PCR or even data analysis–with the newest push for putting source data online–might be far easier to scoop. There are a lot of fields where computational analysis of data sets will get you a paper. If you have somebody else’s data set out there that you can use because they put it on a pre-print server you might be kind of selling off one of your papers. And, you don’t know if you would’ve come up with the idea without that data but that’s part of the argument as to why we should put data on pre-print servers. Let the crowd figure out and put the best science out. But, until it’s mandated I think people are going to be pretty reluctant and hold on to what they perceive to be their intellectual property.
SM: Right and you made a great point of how fast can someone reproduce your data is proportional to how fearful you are of scooping.
NG: Scientists are extremely paranoid individuals. And again, this is the culture that we’ve created. I completely understand it and it’s definitely not a knock on the field because if you need to have a Nature paper in order for a hiring committee to even consider you, then you should be paranoid. That’s why I’m glad to see all of these pushes because the more we can change a culture that goes beyond, ‘You’re only defined by your x, y, and z publications,’ the better for science in general. To help de-stress people and to allow for more sharing. To allow for people to place data out there and say hey, ‘Well if someone gets a paper off of this, then great but it is not going to ruin my career.’
SM: I actually heard some offline comments this year at the meeting where people were discussing people potentially doping in science just to stay awake long enough to get more experiments out. And, to be able to get those kinds of publications that would get you hired into the old-school tenure track.
NG: That’s actually an interesting point. Nature actually covered that from the perspective of undergraduates in college and not necessarily people in the lab. That’s actually quite interesting.
SM: If you think about it, they’re the ones spending a lot more time in lab that at some point is poor for their health.
NG: Again, that’s interesting and I wouldn’t be shocked.
SM: Me either which is sad.
NG: I haven’t heard it myself but it is definitely sad. And again, it all relates back to the cul-… the intense pressure that we’ve created.
SM: Did you almost say ‘cult’?
NG: Culture, ha ha. But I guess, same thing–the intense pressure that we’re putting on people for the crunch for positions and the crunch for funding which is one of the key things.
SM: You’re obviously a highly skilled and experienced writer. I’m curious what you think of your writing now compared to when you started grad school? How has it changed?
NG: I think that the more I have read excellent science writers like Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Virginia Hughes, people like that and Helen Pearson is another one that I learned a ton from. She is the Chief Nature News features editor. She used to sit by me in the office and we would discuss certain topics that we were considering for features. Maybe she wanted my feedback, maybe I’d pitch a topic to hear and see if she wanted to find a freelancer to take it deeper. I learned a lot from her on how to put together a narrative to keep people’s eyeballs. When my writing started with science, there’s a certain type of technical writing that everybody does and I think that my style when I actually do write something–which I don’t do much anymore–reflects what I’ve learned from these writers about the narrative. There’s always a precipice where you have to maintain that balance between not letting the narrative take too much of the forefront but letting the science and the narrative walk hand-in-hand together to engage the audience as opposed to only the technical side or only the narrative. The danger of the technical side is that you lose your audience right? Everybody stops reading. You know nowadays people are click-happy and with one scroll, they’re gone. But also, if you let the narrative get too far in front, then that’s when we see things that are criticized for being put out in mass media where the science is not quite there. And you had let the narrative run away it. You have to be careful to make sure you are constantly keeping both hand-in-hand. I think that’s how my writing has evolved by seeing what these other writers have done and try to emulate that style and make it fit with my values of making sure the science is always upfront as well and they do.
SM: You’re speaking in terms of writing a non-technical article; not a primary article.
NG: Right, science writing–popular science articles. But for manuscript-writing there’s a similar process. For manuscript-writing, there’s not less of a narrative but it’s a different narrative. What you might talk about in a story for the popular audience might be based on some kind of human angle, something non-scientists can relate to. The narrative in a manuscript is trying to captivate your scientific audience and usually you captivate them by having a nice, clean, well-told story. That’s not necessarily how the science always goes, right? It’s messy. I think from the time from when I was a grad student, I had two good mentors both in grad school and from when I was a post-doc who were great writers. They took care to make sure that the message smoothly flowed and that you didn't try to over-hype your results too much. You let the audience decide on what to think. You make suggestions to lead people down through their thinking process but I think it’s always important to let the audience make up their mind. That’s something we do at Nature. We know what our readership is, how large it is and we’re a big spotlight. So, if a paper doesn't have anything to do with autism and the author has, ‘… and this might be interesting for autism,’ then we’ll remove that because it is important to make sure that the facts drive the way. And in a discussion of a manuscript, everybody knows that you can get a little looser. I think I had great training on keeping it to the facts and letting those suggestions find a way to the discussion and lead from there.
SM: Where do you see yourself in ten years with Nature?
NG: Wow. I have no idea. I enjoy my position in the community right now in which I am engaging with a lot of smart people; I am discussing great science. I’m at a great interface between scientists and great science communicators, like journalists and other media-savvy people. Whatever I’m doing, whether it is at Nature, whether it’s somewhere else, I want to have that type of interface. I like all of these communities. I have a great engagement and interaction with scientists and I like being able to be a bridge to bring the groups together. I really hope whatever I’m doing in ten years, I still have that interface between popular science communication and the hardcore science. I really don’t feel like I want to drift toward one or the other too much. I want to stay at the interface and interact with both. That’s the best I could do on that one.
SM: That’s a great answer and it’s always interesting to hear people’s answers to that question.
NG: Ten years is a long time. It’s been a little over ten years since PLOS was founded and there have been massive changes with the way that the internet has driven science communication and scientific debate. I can’t even imagine what another ten years will bring. You could argue just since PLOS ONE, there have been exponential changes and even the fact that everyone knows now what paper commenting is. You don’t have to explain to them what post-publication peer review is. We're at a place where things are rapidly going up and who knows what the next ten years is going to give us. It’s exciting.
Indeed, our field of neuroscience and more generally, the field of science is quite exciting! Some of the news I covered at this year's Society for Neuroscience, along with my interviews of the people was an amazing part of the meeting that I was able to experience. I'm always happy to meet like-minded people that are passionate about science communication and making sure the public is informed about what scientists are doing and what it is that we do. Noah Gray's ability to communicate to the public reminds me of what my mentor from my first lab would say concerning your education, which is that if you have such a specialized and advanced education, it is your duty to educate. Not only because for most of us, the public subsidized a large portion of our education but because information like Noah provided on his blog post about the facts of autism and vaccines can literally save lives. Thanks again to Noah Gray for what I found–and hope you all find–to be a fascinating conversation that I had at this year's meeting.