Short sight & Oversight (the ballad of Marc Tessier-Lavigne)

The Stanford president’s uncomfortable shortcomings in terms of research integrity will come as no surprise to those familiar with the dynamics of scientific career progression.

Most scientists instinctively recognise that small groups are better for science. They’re sure-footed, nimble, creative, lively…all adjectives we associate with smaller collectives working together on common problems and sharing expertise (and there’s now good evidence that they really are objectively better for all these things in scientific terms).

As American capitalism has shown though, it’s all very well being nimble, but if you have the shock n’ awe firepower of sheer scale to your advantage, then it’s very hard to compete (whether research should involve this kind of winner-takes-all competition at all is a question for a different time). The only contemporary setting in which small research groups really seem to have a fighting chance at the cutting edge is when they’re (i) extremely well-funded with (ii) access to state-of-the-art core facilities in (iii) an intellectually lively environment and (iv) little to no teaching hours attached. That kind of setting is vanishingly rare.

So instead what results is the greedy corpulence of research success. Well-received papers translate into large grants which allow extra recruitment and the gradual establishment of multiple strands of enquiry progressing simultaneously within a single group. The size of the group itself acts as a buffer against setbacks. Large groups are less productive per capita than small ones, they are more wasteful in terms of funding and quite probably also people, but they certainly help the group leader manage risk – especially when they can acknowledge all their sources of funding on every single paper that comes out (often meaning that only one strand of research need be productive at a time in order to ensure more grant money continues to roll in).

The consequences of this middle-aged spread for group leaders is well known. They become ever more distant from the bench, cocooned in their offices writing grant applications and generally becoming divorced from the day to day operations of the group.

It’s often assumed that scientists hate this, and it’s rare to find a senior professor who doesn’t loudly complain about the burden of their paperwork. But for those who crave influence, this is a natural, inevitable, and perhaps even welcome evolution. The slow divorce from the bench is a sacrifice – made wittingly or unconsciously – in exchange for greater executive power. Senior scientists may decry the time drained away by committees, funding panels, and meetings but they gain power by doing it. 

At this point, they have become administrators in all but name. They will probably be unable to do experiments at the bench (certainly not to the same standards as their postdocs or their PhD students). They will be unable to use many of the techniques the group currently employs and may not be intimately familiar with the details of hardware operation and interpretation of the data. They may even – when a group’s research has moved a long way in a particular direction – be theoretically under-equipped to handle the research data in its raw form. Their role is to lend weight to findings by virtue of their long-established research pedigree, to ensure through the acquisition of grants that the lights stay on, that recruitment is maintained, and that the fridges and freezer are well-stocked, and to provide input in a generalised way and to motivate group members, partly by virtue of their executive veto over publication. Yet it is their research output which acts as the guarantor of their reputation.

And there, in plain sight, lies the trapdoor.

A class of scientist-administrators whose connection with the bench has become so tenuous that it barely counts as an umbilical cord, probably unaware or largely incapable of fully appreciating the awful stress under which young scientists operate, yet professionally sustained by and utterly dependent on the results of those same young scientists.

The label on the trapdoor is “oversight”.

It’s a no-brainer that it’s only possible for a group leader to retain full oversight when they run a small group and are directly and closely involved in its research project and publications. Once a group expands beyond a certain point it’s not possible to keep track of everything or keep control of everything, especially not when there are all those committees, and meetings, and panels clamouring for your estimable input. It’s at this point when senior postdocs have to be trusted to assume higher levels of responsibility. 

Trust and oversight. It’s trust that lets these buccaneering Indiana Joneses step over the ever-widening chasm of oversight that the trapdoor opens before them. Trust, or complacency.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Stanford University, is currently caught – Wile E. Coyote-style – hanging over that chasm, legs furiously pumping. He didn’t fall down at the first step, or the second, but it’s beginning to look as though he’s been running blindfolded for quite a while and that gravity has finally asserted itself, despite his and maybe also his institution’s best efforts. 

For those not familiar with the details: there have been concerns raised on PubPeer about Tessier-Lavigne’s work going back over 20 years. These accusations really gained traction last month when the doyenne of data sleuths Elisabeth Bik concluded that multiple papers involving work from Tessier-Levigne contained serious image irregularities (see here, here, and here). Tessier-Lavigne was not always the last/senior author on these papers, and his collaborators have been commendably quick to fall on their swords and take responsibility for errors (which, frankly, makes you question the standards of the field…is neuroscience heading for the same scarring reckoning as cancer research? The recent scandals with Alzheimers’ research already suggests so). But that doesn’t cover all the publications that have been flagged, and for some there’s no comfortable way out.

Thus far, a key strand of Stanford’s defence of Tessier-Lavigne has been that he didn’t have oversight on these papers. This should be anathema for any practising scientist. He was happy to accrue the professional benefits from those publications, he was happy to put his name to them as senior author, he has to take responsibility and perhaps, given his senior position in the field, also offer some kind of explanation why so many of his collaborators have also been prone to publishing dodgy figures. Again, it suggests a field edging towards a crisis.

It’s obvious that what would best serve science are lots of smaller labs, with more oversight, and with group leaders with closer links to the bench. This is exactly the model that Janelia Farms so self-consciously embraced at its foundation. Because science is best served when you stop people stepping away from the bench – the greater the distance, the less the oversight…and the potential for misconduct increases as oversight decreases.

We shouldn’t bar scientists from taking on administrative burdens. Many of these senior scientists are administrators par excellence and should absolutely be encouraged to continue the activities that they pursue. Let those group leaders who hanker after esteem activities do so, but they should recuse themselves from research activities at the same time, and forswear last authorships and perhaps anything more than an acknowledgement on research papers until they’re once again able to properly oversee them. We take sabbaticals from teaching to focus on research, so perhaps we should also encourage people to take sabbaticals from research to focus on administration (it’s what many are doing already). It’s short-sighted to pretend otherwise. By expecting senior scientists to be both administrators and researchers, we’re not just being short-sighted – we’re inviting a loss of oversight. As, tragically, Tessier-Lavigne’s trajectory would seem to exemplify.

4 thoughts on “Short sight & Oversight (the ballad of Marc Tessier-Lavigne)

  1. Wow! I was ignorant of this whole story. Did I even know that he became President of Stanfurd? (sorry, I did my UG at Cal Berkeley, and we are required to refer to our arch rival school that way, my apologies to all your readers who attended Leland Stanford University). Maybe, I was aware of that. Last I recall for sure he was at Genentech, after leaving UCSF. But then I thought he went back to UCSF. It’s so hard to keep track of Scientific Superstars without the equivalent of a the National Enquirer, etc. for scientists in the Supermarket Checkout lane.

    It is kind of sad. I went to a . . . Summer Keystone mtg (so, no Skiing but otherwise, quite similar to the Winter Keystone meetings) about 1990 and heard him give a talk on his post-doc work with . . . Eric Kandel (does that sound right?). Image was on the cover of the journal “Developmental Biology” beautiful work identifying factors that cause neurons to change their migration direction. He started his how lab at UCSF, and my buddy was a PDF in the same department. Said Marc and Cori Bargmann were really the two young superstars there at the time (in a department filled to overflowing with older superstars). About 1995 he came through Toronto and I saw him give a seminar on identifying the C. elegans netrin homologs, an absolutely perfect seminar (in my opinion) for clarity, logical rigour, impact. A think of beauty. I feel like Marc was originally Canadian, (maybe?), he was collaborating with my colleague Joe Culotti (Joe had been isolating worm mutants with defective neuron migration since the early 1980s (or so), along with one of the great unsung heros of C. elegans, Ed Hedgecock).

    Sorry for all the name-dropping, that is essentially my main branding, who was working with whom, and when. Kind of geek hobby I guess. Man, it’s like once you receive that “University President” accolade things head south (thinking of David Baltimore, but I bet we would not have to dig very deep to find some other examples).

    Actually, funny story, Robert Birgeneau was a Physicist at MIT, as I recall, and was recruited to be the President of the University of Toronto (this was back when I was still on Faculty at U. of T.). He was Canadian, sort of a local boy makes good story, and then, my alma mater, U.C. Berkeley came calling, and whoops, Rob was gone in the blink of an eye. Apparently word on the street was that he just needed a little more of that patina to catch the attention of the Nobel Committee, so became the Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. While there I think he was embroiled in some controversies around issues of freedom of speech, believe it or not, and protestors in Sproul Plaza, and other stuff popularized on Social Media a little over 10 years ago. Probably not germane. Sorry for ranting, maybe I should start my own blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair point, and I wouldn’t want to speculate. Ultimately though, it’s a question of oversight. You don’t necessarily need to be President of Stanford in order to be complacent about due care and diligence.

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