On the propagation of eXtreme nonsense

In the modern time, not quite like when I was a graduate student, the use of any non-model species (and “model” was not a word when I was a graduate student) requires “eXtreme” justification. Any use of a “wild” plant, one that has never been domesticated and is not edible – and may even (God forbid) be growing in the actual wild – has to be preceded by some reference to global climate change, or warming, or drought or salinity or heat. It is certainly not enough to say that it inhabits an interesting environment or has an interesting physiology. And that justification so often also has to include something about how we need to increase food production by 50% in the next 25 years (or whatever) in order to feed the rapidly growing population. Of course, it must also be touted as a “new” model system.

Draba spp. – A yellow Arabidopsis look alike that could be the next model system to explain the entire subalpine ecosystem. Not.

If this is presented in a grant proposal, a manuscript or a conference presentation, after a while (and that while is long past) it sounds like eXtreme nonsense. There are idiomatic expressions for this in all languages, I imagine, and many of them are associated with equine excrement. At least from my experience in physiology and plant molecular biology, and in editing for journals, I can say with confidence that virtually never does the paper or the research have anything in it that will even marginally contribute to the solutions to the problems cited. In the worst, but eXtremely common case, it is far from clear that the research contributes to anything.

Why is this? The simplest explanation is that the research is being done by graduate students, post-docs or PIs who have no imagination and poor training in the broad field of plant biology (or even of plant physiology). Students may well have been assigned a topic by a professor (likely also lacking broad training) in need of publications or what they hope will be “prestige”; they learn a bunch of common techniques (or hire them out), apply them in a boiler-plate fashion, and write a paper following a boiler-plate outline. For some reason, it gets published and then it gets indexed and then someone, probably the original authors, cite it. Their parents, perhaps, are impressed, but it contributes essentially nothing to anyone’s scientific understanding of plants, global change, stress tolerance or anything else. If journals were honest about it, it drags their Citation Indices down.

Until of course, the authors have enough papers to write a review citing them all. Journals love reviews because they get cited. It doesn’t matter if the review was well done or not. It doesn’t matter if the original research was well done or not. There is no requirement that reviews actually review literature beyond the authors’ own.

Poorly prepared authors love reviews because they can cite them to support whatever weak point they wish to make. Unfortunately, it seems possible to do this without either reading the original papers or even the review itself. I, for one, am appalled at how often the statements credited to me are ones that I would never ever have made; and I would be prefer to be ignored rather than be misused in such a cheap way.

But returning to my central point, poor, unimaginative research will only clog up the libraries; it will never solve the problems the world is facing now. And, poorly trained “scientists” lacking experience in the natural or agricultural world will never be able to produce better than poor, unimaginative research.

Thus, there are two lacks to be overcome: poor training and lack of experience outside the lab. I could complain about this for hours, but I can also see why this is the status quo:

  • grad students and post-docs are the minions of very important (as self-defined) professors
  • there is no time or money to rigorously train minions
  • training time pulls minions away from the bench and reduces professors’ “productivity”
  • breadth of knowledge makes essentially no difference to someone who just grows Arabidopsis in a Petri dish
The subalpine ecosystem where the Draba was found.

To remedy much if not all of this, plant biologists need to decide if they like plants or not. If not, then go away. Bother someone else. If yes, remember why you are studying plants and where you came from intellectually. In 2018 a group in Edinburgh, largely engineers, published an article in Nature on the physics of dandelion seed flight. In my imagination, they came up with this study while they were lunching on a dandelion covered hillside outside their labs. Be like them! The lesson is THINK OUTSIDE! (no box required).

I could never claim that things were truly better in the 60s or anytime up to the invention of Arabidopsis. I know that even then, Pooh-Bahs in ties strutted around meetings and the halls of NSF to assure that their subfields (and in particular they, themselves) were highly – nay, most – respected. With more scientists and less money to go around, the Pooh-Bahs have become even more overbearing and the minions have become more disposable. This, I am sure, reflects the state of our scientific culture throughout the world. I can only hope it ends before the culture does.

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