On the scientific endeavor

I’ve been making an effort to include writings from prominent chemists to my personal reading list. My favourite source is the Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams series put out by the ACS (but now out of print.) These are autobiographical accounts of careers in chemistry, and often feature great snippets of stories about other famous chemists or bits of philosophy.

Here is a quote from the late Prof. R. Lemieux which is worth a read [for context, this quote follows a story about Johnson adding Lemieux to a publication after discovering that the two were investigating the same problem through discussion at a meeting]:

“This statement about Bill Johnson is not characteristic of many scientists, even perhaps of the majority. Especially since Sputnik, many job seekers have rendered the practice of science more of a trade than a profession. Unfortunately, many opportunists have risen above their level of competence and used every known “business” trick to stay involved. The most common ploy is a form of plagiarism based on misconstruing the contributions of others by making a vague reference to their work in a first paper, which thereafter is the only one quoted. It is remarkable that the need to survive can so condition the mentality of some scientists that they refuse to acknowledge that results presented at scientific conferences and in person or in private communication are, in fact, published (made public) results. A more serious threat to the orderly development of science is the evolution, through inbreeding, of editorial boards of prestigious journals, who do not realize that they are about the only ones who hold their publications in such high esteem. I mention these matters because I consider it best that young people contemplating a scientific career realize from the start that science is very much part of the real world and has in its ranks a full quota of stuffed shirts, flim-flam artists, opportunists, exploiters, and even full-fledged buccaneers. At the same time, young would-be scientists must realize that, to participate fully in this noble profession, they should feel free at all times to talk openly about their work. To my mind, the best part of a scientific career is to talk about what you have discovered when it is “hot,” which normally means prior to formal publication. I consider this a most precious freedom that must be defended at all times and with great vehemence if necessary.”

From – “Explorations with Sugars,” by R. U. Lemieux in Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams: Autobiographies of Eminent Chemists, American Chemical Society, Washington, DC, 1990, pg 41.

Although this series is out of print, many copies are floating around in used book shops. I use ABEbooks to dig these up, sometimes at pretty reasonable prices.

A comparison of funding in different countries per-capita by researchers (or “Let’s all move to Luxembourg”)

The state of science funding in North America is not great, and there is plenty of discussion about just what a crisis we are all in. However, one does sometimes wonder how funding really compares across borders. As a US-trained researcher now working in Canada, I’ve paid a lot of attention to the differences between funding models in those two countries. Perhaps an obvious (and difficult) question is: Which is the best system to be in as a researcher?

There are government statistics for the amount of R&D funding in many countries. Statistics Canada has some information broken down by province (as of 2009), the EU has a detailed report (2008/9), the World Bank has historical trends for many countries in total funding (up to 2010), and Wikipedia even has some data assembled for many countries. All of these stats are usually compared by absolute dollars or by % GDP. Many reports will refer to the GERD (Gross Expense on Research & Development) which lumps together business, government, and academic expenditures. Recent reports following R&D spending as a percentage of GDP have been making the rounds as the data suggest that China has started to outpace Europe and is catching up to many others.

But do these statistics reflect conditions on the ground for researchers? While the US still appears to rank at the top of lists by total expenditures, does that mean the US researchers have access to the most resources? If you work in a country that has a lower GERD but fewer researchers, is there more funding per researcher (PR)?

Lets start with that question, since it should be easy enough to calculate, and I was unable to find these types of comparisons elsewhere. Here is my calculation of funding for select countries per researcher based on GERD stats in this report:

Funding per researcher (OECD 2009)

A couple of points on these data: The US still comes out close to the top, but we see that small countries (like Luxembourg) shoot to the top due to a small population of researchers (there are about 500-times more researchers in the US for comparison). To avoid the extremes, lets just look at the top 10 most populous countries (by researcher).

Country Table (top 10)From the table, again the US is on top while still being the most populous. Canada is in the middle of the pack with approximately 60% of the funding level in the US. Germany, France, Japan and Korea are all at competitive levels with the US.

Keep in mind that these numbers combine Government, Academic, and Business funding of research. So any given segment could be very different in a side-by-side comparison. There is also no breakdown by research segment, or any inclusion of differences in funding models. On top of that, the numbers are a bit out of date – most of these are from 2009 and a lot has changed on the research scene since then (both in industry and academia). These are all topics for future posts, but hopefully these numbers are food for thought.

Eastern Blotting

For a first post, I thought I’d talk about a method that many working on post-translationally-modified biomolecules may have used (or may want to be familiar with if they haven’t!)

Most of us are familiar with the Western Blot, named by the Towbin lab in reference to the Southern blot. The Southern was named after its originator, and the Northern and Western followed suit to fill out the cardinal directions. But many a molecular biologist has wondered, what about the Eastern blot? For that matter, what about all those other directions on the compass (North-East, North-West, etc.)?

So is there an Eastern blot? The answer may range from telling you its a myth, or its a trick question you’ll find on an exam. Well, dear reader, I’m here to tell you that’s just not so. First of all, it only takes one paper to christen a new method – and as it turns out the “Eastern blot” has more than a few folks claiming to have named it. However, its probably fair to say that if the name doesn’t catch on with other authors it doesn’t really matter much.

How many times has the Eastern blot been named? At least 10 different times by my count. And are they all the same? Not really.

As far as I’ve been able to find, the first use of the term “Eastern Blot” was in 1984, though it was called a “Middle-Eastern Blot“. An earlier paper had even talked about the term, but decided to not use it. Ishikawa & Taki introduced the term “Far-Eastern blotting” around 2000, but it wasn’t until 2001 that an “Eastern blot” was defined.

Far-Eastern blotting was used to identify glycolipids, and Eastern blotting was for detecting glycoconjugates (in this case protein-glycan conjugates.)

But why stop there? Eastern blotting has been used to describe:

Its perhaps reassuring that opinions may have started to merge on what an Eastern blot is. A few recent papers seem to refer to a blot for glycoconjugates with lectin probes as Eastern blots. These may include protein or lipid glyco-conjugates. Some examples:

Its worth pointing out that we could just as well refer to an Eastern blot where the probe is a lectin as “Lectin blotting.” This term likely predates any of the uses of Eastern blotting, and seems to show up in the literature more often (and with more consistent definitions.) A Google Scholar search for “lectin blotting” since 2012 gives over 200 hits.

So – word to the wise: If you still think “Eastern blotting” hasn’t been defined, you might want to repeat your lit search.

[Full disclosure: I’ve contributed many of these references, and some commentary which has since been deleted, to the wikipedia page on Eastern blotting a while back. So, if you notice some similarities to the article, that’s why.]