At the end of two conferences, some thoughts.

I’m at the raggedy end of two conferences and then being sick. I’m only just now ramping back up to full force.

Hi there! Welcome to.. what day is it? Wait, where am I?

I could write you a long post about the Austin BodyHackingCon, but others have done it better. These guys are awesome btw, read their stuff, support their work.

And, you should check out the #BDYHAX tag on twitter. Lots of good stuff archived there. My talk was decent, but my blood sugar crashed halfway through. Ryan from Grindhouse Wetware said roughly the same thing, but more eloquently and more politely. Personally, the best part was the social aspect. Talking to the presenters, talking one on one with the attendees, hangouts and micro conferences in bars and hotel rooms… The Biohack Austin meetup/bbq that happened the Monday after.

The distributed conference behind the conference.

Then there was Extreme Future Tech Fest Three! I didn’t even take notes. It was actually awesome! Lots of good speakers. I personally had one of my better, more coherent talks. It’s really starting to come together there. The new location really helped. At some point, David will get the video from the livestream up and we can all watch. Here is a link to the eftf site. Maybe you can somehow mine it for information about what actually happened. I will definitely be attending the next time. No longer will I drink myself into an early grave while we discuss giant space chainsaws for new real estate options… hopefully.

When I was in Austin, about halfway through my talk I just kinda looked around, askance, and said,

“Look. I don’t even want to be here. I want to be in a lab, actually doing work. But there is no lab. Because you guys don’t understand the barriers to getting people into labs. So, I’m here. Talking with you. Until this happens. Because someone has to.”

Therefore, what I’m going to write about today is something that has come up a couple of times in the last few weeks.

I am speaking of this article by Adrienne Graham, on the Forbes site.

I’ve been working in consulting lately, for a collection of people both here and in other countries. The number of people that expect you to work without pay is phenomenal. Yes, I know, we all talk about this at some point, regularly, even routinely. This pops up in the news roughly every six months or so.

Startup culture has taken this to an art. ‘Once you work long enough the money will come’. Guess what? The money ain’t comin. Maybe if you’re good and rich this can be your hobby. That’s great. I got bills to pay.

My experience is with science culture. Gradschool culture. It’s there too. The belief that just being working with them should be enough, to have their name attached to yours. It’s ramen and 80 hour weeks but at least you get to have a good PI. You’re told that you can get a lab if you work for tenure. Fifty-three percent of biology students pursue the tenure track. Only something like 4% actually get it. Read a big pdf here.


I will posit that biologists tend to be pretty ok with teh maths. So where does this leave us? With a culture that has developed a narrative where it’s acceptable for doing below or no pay work with the expectations of a goal which is statistically, significantly not going to happen.

I’ve had people tell me that they can’t pay me now, but that I should just wait for the money to flow forth as if from a well when we are done.

That’s great. I’m dying of thirst right now.

When did self respect and autonomy begin to mean so little to us? Or was it never really there and just the story we told ourselves?

I think we can agree , most of us are sick and tired of being thirsty. I can’t count the number of people I know that have 2 degrees and 3 jobs, and are barely making it.

If people keep wasting our time, maybe one day we’re just going to walk away. See, maybe it isn’t worth it anymore. I did it with academia. I know a couple of people that are starting to feel the same way about a lot of things like that. Look at these cool Ethereum peeps. They’re just completely fed up at this point. They’re not even going off the grid. They are building their own grid.

Every rich person that exists, exists because they have benefited from scientific expansion.

If you’re going to work, get what you’re worth in return. Spend your time building something for yourself instead of building something for someone else (This is where I would post a link to any paper written by a grad student with the PI as the primary author. So, like, most of them. Pick a paper.)

Here’s the thing. If people can’t make a living doing science and research, people will not do science and research. That means society is fucked. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to fix your toilet for the name recognition, experience, or exposure.

The bar is pretty high to do scientific work. Science requires raw materials, time, and steadfast effort. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to learn, and it’s not easy to invest in those resources.

I’m gonna wrap it up with a quote that I didn’t think was going to be a quote, from an article by Rose Eveleth, doing a follow up on that eye drop thing everyone got so thrilled about.

“I’ve talked with more than 100 interviewers, just about the eyedrops thing,” he said. “If you’re so goddamn excited, why am I still broke? Why can I not finish the project? Why is there nothing else to do? Why did I just get off a job at a kitchen?”

What do you think?

How do we, as a community, both demand, and procure access to tools and information to improve our lives?

5 thoughts on “At the end of two conferences, some thoughts.”

  1. bodyhacking needs a SuperPAC…

    to be serious tho, i dont know what could solve this problem… i wish you had the money to lobby the government and finance presidential candidates so they’ll feel compelled to do stuff for you when they get in office… that seems like the only way to change the government these days…

    maybe if bernie and hillary and the republican party all fail at stopping trump from becoming president of the US, trump will decriminalize some unethical experiments becuz he doesnt care and then science will finally do things like clone humans or let genetically modified humans get born or breed half-human half-ape beings… then maybe science will become easier to fund as long as you have a crazy idea that appeals to trump…

    aw who am i kidding trump will probably ban science from school curriculum…


  2. Has there been any more work done on the night vision eye drops using Chlorin e6? I have always been interested in if there were any long term side effects as I live totally off grid out in the mountains and it would be handy to be able to see just what it is that the dog is barking at or the horses are upset about

    1. No further work has been done since the dissolution of sfm. Jeff and I both have new projects that we are working on.
      In terms of long term effects, I’m still not having any 🙂

  3. question on point, but the answer is hardly any easier for scientists than for politicians. let me rephrase your question a little: how can the community of scientists gain access to resources commensurate with the size of the community? here’s my best go at it.

    research can be bonkers, crazy-making difficult (and sometimes not so bad); why should the community of scientists be the ones to get all the required resources (aside from the time they’re willing to give it, of course) and not, say, a more mutually exclusive community (i.e. one that doesn’t share so much ideology with scientists, which i realize is never completely mutually exclusive) like the community of musicians? or firedancers or organic farmers or …??
    aside from all the dirty (unethical in one way or another) reasons for not funneling resources to/from one community or another, the (lack of an) answer is the foundation for the abuse of this behavior, aka resource-mongering by the powerful to sustain power. truthfully i don’t know any answer that could hold its own without invoking assumptions of its own superiority. so the best we’ve come up with in america is plain old COMPETITION overlayed on the latest hierarchies; “make the case for why your pet cause is more important than others, especially mine'” says the plutocrat…
    and science is not the only religion around since, as my dad likes to say, “science will never be a full cosmogony.” (which is what’s so great about it, in so many opinions.)

    competition is the only way in this context, so scientists just need to be more competitive against each other first, then artists and financial advisors and lawyers and firedancers etc by using better PR, more formal recognition of their contribution to society, more higher education in their field (already implicit in e.g. the big push for STEM education), and eventually threatening to withhold services until we’re happy with our lot in life (maybe it’s time for another of the dark ages?), maybe establishing a professional guild of scientists like those of doctors or lawyers (e.g. shawn warren’s ideas at
    i forgot if you first showed me these or not…)
    i.e. it’s more a matter of changing where scientific values fall in the populace’s list of priority values, and i think quite a few plans are already afoot to make this change happen albeit slower than we’d like…
    …unless we plan on upending the entire system first, which i don’t think will leave much time for science for a good decade or more … (but is probably more worthwhile in the long run, which means we’ve been studying the wrong topic!)

    your solution (from what i’ve enjoyed reading here and elsewhere) is to make a big stink, take back some basic rights, stand up for what you want, go out and get it (and i agree to a large extent), but for this to progress beyond the few go-getters depends on critical mass, which depends on the community agreeing with your approach, which mostly depends on how easy it is for each individual to enact; how many scientists do you know that are willing to forego the allure of a family and a career and scientific political stability in a “real life” in order to have the wherewithal for dedicated revolution? you’re asking people to sacrifice something, so it better be small, although this begs the question of why we have to in the first place.

    isn’t it the natural way of societies in general to require the blood of some of each generation’s worthiest fallen heroes just to make a decent living? assuming so, then it’s time for the george washingtons of today’s science communities (nobel prize winners and other stars) to see about organizing a new approach for handing over the reigns to the next generation of the democratic practice (i.e. having resources distributed as popularly as possible) of science, e.g. … this approach remains to be defined… but i’d guess something like petitioning the stars to recognize their position and how they could have a major opportunity to make scientific research a lot more popular than it currently is by lobbying congress to redirect any military spending at all (maybe like 1% of the entire defense budget?!) to academic or non-profit research, by pushing their local milieu to TAKE VACATIONS, WORK LESS THAN 50-60 HOURS A WEEK, PAY OVERTIME OR BONUSES, PUNISH ABUSERS OF THIS SYSTEM BY FIRING THEM PREVENTING THEM FROM GETTING STUDENTS/POSTDOCS, ESTABLISH MENTORSHIP BEST PRACTICES, EXPAND THE METRICS OF PRODUCTIVITY TO INCLUDE MENTORSHIP/ARTICLE-LEVEL QUALITY METRICS (and not impact factors)/TIME SPENT PROMOTING SCIENTIFIC VALUES (i.e. good PR), etc…(to those at the top: “if you want to serve the customer with uniform excellence, then you must first effectively and faithfully serve those who serve the customer.” – tom peters, the customer in this case being the communities who benefit from whatever research), by giving up some of their own cushy lifestyle to open up “funding practices” in which they offer low-cost or subsidized grant-writing or some sort of funding aid to those less able to win the hearts of funders, BY ALLOWING VOTES ON WHAT THEY RESEARCH (e.g. ask their department what’s lacking, and pursue that, or ask their community, or ask their friends/family, or put it up on a local/state/federal ballot), … the point here is they’re in the spot most able to have the most impact, and pursuing their pet causes using SO MANY public resources is unfair at that volume of productivity without the public’s actual ideological support.

    on an individual level, evidence-based PR (e.g. writing and/or having conversations with friends and family about how crappy the situation is, excel spreadsheets of income versus expenditures for “open budgeting”, i.e. requesting help from anyone who could help ease any portion of budget constraints, financial or otherwise, as well as showing the public why it’s really unreasonable to expect science to be sustained on shoestring budgets of hundreds of thousands when the tools cost more than the people!), TAKING VACATIONS, WORKING LESS THAN 50/60 HOUR WEEKS, REQUESTING BONUSES, SAYING NO TO WORK THAT SHOULD NOT BE EXPECTED AT YOUR LEVEL (BRAIN ON A STICK WORK, i.e. practically technical with very little educational value, i.e. any work that lasts longer than months and months of the same thing…i.e. sorting crappy spike data!!!), associating and organizing professional societies (NOT professional meetingsworkshops, seminars…)…
    (some of these ideas hinge on there not being a ready replacement, but that’s harder to find than one might think once you’ve established your skill as a decent researcher…and it’s nice if everyone in your lab would support the same agenda, although like i said earlier about family/career/etc…)

    or could we just control our own resources in a way that forces those who push resources around to be incapacitated to do so any longer? i honestly doubt it, but i’m open to suggestions. my friend thought it would be better just to specify where our taxes go when we file each year. that shouldn’t be too difficult at local levels. imagine a kickstarter for your local freeway.

    anyway, always have gold and ammo ready! haha

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