In which we’d like to acknowledge what’s-his-name

It is human nature to feel that you’re at the center of the universe, with all of life and experience revolving around your fixed point of view like a lazy orbit of galaxies. On a larger scale, this biased perspective can influence groups of people, and indeed entire countries. Most of you are probably familiar with the light-hearted maps of Daniel K. Wallingford from the 1920s, showing particular cities and their skewed view of the rest of the world, which have been used as inspiration for dozens of similar efforts since that time (The Saul Steinberg cover for the March 29, 1976 issue of The New Yorker being possibly the most well-known example).

Scientific culture, in particular, can be incredibly parochial, especially if you are fortunate enough to do research in a country regarded as ‘world-class’. I have noticed a particular attitude amongst some American scientists, for example, whose words and behaviors can sometimes betray elitism. “Real” science is done in America, you see, whereas other countries are just mucking about and possibly filling in some useful blanks.

A great example of this was the reaction I experienced as PhD student in Seattle, when I was fortunate enough to secure my first post-doctoral position with one of my heroes at the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute. Expecting universal excitement and approval from my professors, I was instead treated in many cases to puzzled looks and bewilderment. I will never forget the words of the most censorious: “It’s all very well and good to do a post-doc abroad, but you do realize it won’t count, and you’ll have to start over with another post-doc in America.”

I don’t know what was more shocking: that this guy would say this to my face, or that he would actually believe it in the first place. (For context, the person in London I was going to be working with was about a hundred times more well-known and famous than this guy. A quick Google search, incidentally, reveals that this censorious professor dropped out of science many years ago, whereas my first post-doctoral supervisor is now a Fellow of the Royal Society. Despite this, the memory of his opinion of the scientific calibre “abroad” still has to power to raise my blood pressure in a swift flash of remembered anger.)

There are of course many other examples of this. You’ll sometimes see American open-access crusaders making – unconscious, I assume – statements implying that all peer-reviewed papers are paid for by American tax payers. We’ve also heard stories about important findings in faraway countries that are not celebrated until a prominent Western lab rediscovers and publishes the same thing in a bigger journal. Even Sarah Palin’s incredulity about “Fruit fly research in Paris, France” is channeling some deeper anxiety about self and other.

But it’s not limited to Americans – I want to stress that this sort of bias occurs in every place, on every scale. When I worked in the Netherlands, my entire universe seemed to shrink to a tiny nation six feet below sea level, and suddenly the lab heads at the Netherlands Cancer institute were perceived to be the top dogs, looming much larger than overseas celebrity scientists, whereas my own situation at the University of Leiden was considerably more lowly. Within Leiden, our biotech environment was looked down upon still further by the surrounding academic labs. Here in London, I sometimes get the feeling that some of my colleagues view the rest of the United Kingdom – aside from Oxford and Cambridge – as being somewhat less lofty. The joke is, of course, that the true beacon is still America, even here: there used to be a joke circulating amongst British PhD students that you really needed a BTA (“Been To America”) on your CV to be taken seriously in your future academic job stakes.

Perhaps the parochialism that most infuriates me is the habit of geographically biased name-checking during scientific seminars. I’m sure you’ve all heard this: Joe Bloggs up on the podium, attributing every background finding to specifically named (typically American or local) lab-heads, until he gets to one particular nugget of information that is attributed to “a Japanese group”. The underlying implication is that this person is no one you need to know about or remember, because he or she performed the research in a faraway place where labs are indistinguishable from one another. But again, it’s all relative. At a recent conference I attended, a British speaker name-checked American and British authors, but referred to “a French group”. A few talks later, a French speaker name-checked French and German lab heads, but dismissed another finding as being from “The Chinese”. And so it goes – each person in his or her own universe, carefully drawing lines between self and other, between tribe and not-tribe, between those belonging in the inner named circle, and those doomed forever to anonymity.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Careers, Nostalgia, Scientific thinking, The profession of science. Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to In which we’d like to acknowledge what’s-his-name

  1. Stephen Moss says:

    I remember first hearing about the BTA in 1986 when I started my post-doc at the CRUK London Research Institute (then known as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund), but I was also aware of many stories of BTAADWT (been to America and disappeared without trace). Undaunted, towards the end of my post-doc I too did the ‘grand tour’ of US labs fully expecting to add the BTA to my own CV, when an unexpected job offer persuaded me to stay in London. Many others did take the plunge, and several of my generation are still out there somewhere, doomed to lives of generous research funding and inexpensive gasoline.

  2. It’s heartening to know that it takes more than a BTA to make it in British academia. I wonder if attitudes have shifted since then? (I first heard about the BTA in the early 1990s.)

  3. Stephen Moss says:

    To be honest I don’t remember if it was called the BTA in 1986, but its importance in career development was universally acknowledged. The problem with going to the US, and the risk for UK scientists, was the loss of those useful everyday contacts and interactions that can pave the way to academic posts.

  4. “particular cities and their skewed view of the rest of the world,”

    “Here in London, I sometimes get the feeling that some of my colleagues view the rest of the United Kingdom – aside from Oxford and Cambridge – as being somewhat less lofty. ”


    QED, and all that.

    The reflex London-centricity of most people in London (and I should say that I don’t mean you, Jenny) is a source of continual annoyance outside the South-East of England. And politics and the media are far, far worse than academia in this respect.

    If they let the regions of the UK have a referendum on regional autonomy, like the Scots are going to have, I reckon the vote here in the North-West would be overwhelmingly for every last bit of devolution as was on offer.

  5. rpg says:

    I’m all for regional autonomy. Especially as I understand London gives about 20% (economically) more to the rest of the country than it gets back…

    Anyway, yeah, my supervisor (in Oxford) insisted I did a BTA. I didn’t, and have disappeared into obscurity. Mind you, he’s now a head of department in a South African university, and I turned down a permanent position at the MRC-LMB, so it’s difficult to tell who was proved right.

  6. Bob O'H says:

    Havign worked around Europe I know preciely what you mean. One nice thing about when I was in Finalnd was that it was seen as exotic, in a way that Frankfurt isn’t (“oh, I’ve never been there but I did go through the airport”).

    The same thing happens subject-wise too: sopmetimes I get the impression that ecologists – people who work with real live organisms in their natural environment – aren’t considered real biologists.

  7. That’s a great insight, Bob, that fields can also be parochial – and sub-fields. Cancer researchers can certainly perceive themselves as the top dogs of the biomedical research community…but spare a thought for the guy who’s studying the sexual habits of barnacles.

  8. Bob O'H says:

    If you know anything about barnacles the you should feel sorry for the guy studying their sex lives, as he’ll constantly be feeling so inadequate.

  9. “BTA” isn’t a term I’d heard before, but I once worked with a visiting Australian student who told me that Aussies with a postdoc in Europe or (North) America would be seen much more favourably for permanent positions back home. Not sure if that’s true now (or to be honest, was then), but it came as a surprise to me. Maybe rpg can comment?

    A small part of the “Chinese group” or “Japanese group” might also be related to cultural differences in names, as well. I find it surprisingly difficult to remember the names of Japanese and Chinese authors, even colleagues, sometimes. I put this down to not being immersed in the culture and language, and thus finding the spelling and pronunciation unfamiliar. I suppose there could be all kinds of other subconscious reasons as well, along the lines that you’ve alluded to, but I hope not.

  10. There is a very simple solution, Richard – cite the paper on the slide that mentions the background info you’re talking about, so everyone can see the names – and look up the reference if they’re interested. Just a small font line next to the bullet point or published figure you’re emphasizing.This is good form anyway – and if it’s up there on the slide, you won’t forget the name. Maybe you’ll butcher the pronunciation, but that’s not the end of the world. (My surname is only four letters, but about 80% of people pronounce it wrong.)

  11. rpg says:

    Richard, any small country (in terms of population–Australia is as big physically as the continental US) is going to suffer from isolation of some form, and needs to bring in talent from outside. A good way of doing that is sending progeny abroad and tempting them back.

  12. I should stress, in case it’s not obvious, that I’m all for scientists BTXing all over the place – I think it makes for a more well-rounded person. I just don’t like the assumption that foreign placements in some places aren’t as valuable as others – the caliber of the lab should be judged independently from the country or city in which it’s located.

  13. rpg says:

    Absolutely. People who spend too long in one place tend to become stale and eat their own brains.

  14. rpg says:

    –and I’d wager that the people who diss work done in other locales are the very ones who have been too long in their own little universe.

  15. dozenoaks says:

    Just wanted to to weigh in as I’m a Post-Doc in the middle of my ‘BTA’, I know I’m under qualified to comment compared others here, but just to add:

    1. I was strongly encouraged to move abroad at the end of my PhD to broaden my horizons, I looked to wherever the labs I was interested in were. I ended up in America, but that wasn’t the only country I considered. Not the only reason, but a critical one for the choice – many American cities have a high enough density of research labs that both of the disperate scientific interests of myself and my husband could be accommodated without either of us having to make any sacrifices in our career plans.

    2. Of the the four other PhD students in my PhD Lab, three are now also doing Post-Docs in America and they are the three who want to continue in academia (the fourth is moving to industry). Of my PhD ‘year group’ there are even more who moved outside the UK. It’s still very common and still something that is actively considered to help your career (if you do well in your post doc, obviously).

    3. The Wellcome Trust acitively encourages this behaviour with the Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowships – you can go anywhere in the world as long as it’s the best place to go, and you have intentions to come back to the UK after your done.

  16. Thanks for your thoughts, dozenoaks! Again, just to stress that I highly approve of post-doc mobility. I only despair at the sorts of people who would judge an entire country’s science as mediocre without acknowledging that there are good and bad labs everywhere.

  17. dozenoaks says:

    I realise – I just wanted to point out that it’s still a very prevalent phenomenon. Also the emphasis where I was, was on moving to cater for your specific interests, rather than moving to America for the sake of it. My friends picked labs to go to rather than regions. I hope that’s true generally.

  18. Yeah, definitely. In fact it’s very clear to me what American labs can offer the rest of the world. The problem is more the reverse – Americans who go abroad can be discriminated against in their future American academic careers for choosing to do a stint somewhere considered “suboptimal” for no logical reason other than “it’s not America”. Or at least that’s been the experience of a few people I’ve known. Perhaps this will change or is already in the process of changing!

  19. Steve Caplan says:

    Great post, Jenny! I would love to add a related point here, but am afraid I will need to send it to you privately by e-mail…

  20. Wow, Steve….I just got your email and I have to say I am, as the British say, completely gobsmacked!

  21. Steve Caplan says:

    Yes, the stories about someone always being lower on the food chain are pretty grim. I think “The Life of Brian” addresses that to some extent with the radicals bickering about the “Popular People’s Front” and “The People’s Popular Front” arguing about who they hate most as the focus becomes narrower and narrower and that they eventually hate everyone who isn’t in their own group and even get mixed up on which group they are actually in. Hatred/fear of the “foreigner” can be a very relative thing…

  22. rpg says:

    You’ll sometimes see American open-access crusaders making – unconscious, I assume – statements implying that all peer-reviewed papers are paid for by American tax payers.

    Actually, that’s another thing. It’s not just that non-American tax-payers pay for research, it’s that in the US and Europe, fully two-thirds of R&D is paid for by industry. Now, much of that doesn’t result in papers, but a fair whack does.

    I told you about my boss in Oxford who wouldn’t talk to me for a week after I told her I had got a job in industry, didn’t I?

  23. Steve Caplan says:

    @rpg Only a week? For going over to the “dark side?” That should be a life sentence…

  24. rpg says:

    You’ll notice I didn’t say what she said subsequently…

  25. Yes, industry, and charities as well. But my point was more that some people think of the scientific literature and assume it’s all done by American authors.

  26. rpg says:

    Yeah, I know, but it’s part of the same ‘not invented here’ mindset. Non-American, non-academic—same thing.

  27. Steve Caplan says:

    What makes that even more remarkable is that you can see huge numbers of “American” papers with author lists containing exclusively non-American (born at least) names. And this is not relegated to a single foreign country.

  28. Stephen says:

    I’ve not hear the BTA acronym before but was aware of the phenomenon. In the UK, the USA is definitely seen as a good place to come back from. I think I certainly benefitted from my 2 postdoc years in Boston (thanks to a Wellcome fellowship that paid for 2 yrs abroad plus 1 back in the UK – a scheme designed specifically to lure you back).

    However, the particular national destination isn’t so important. More relevant for future career prospects is to make sure that your postdoc experiences are productive in terms of publications — to demonstrate your ability to see a project through to an end point. And that actually can make the USA a difficult choice because there are high-powered labs over there that will throw postdocs like so much cannon fodder at a difficult problem. For the PI the risk is mitigated because as long as one or two such postdocs get results, the PI wins. But the cost to the postdoc can be enormous. I therefore chose my destination lab with care, getting to know the PI and the lab ethos and making sure that, although there was a high-risk/high excitement element to the project, there was also a back-burner project that was likely to get results.

  29. Grant says:

    rpg wrote: “Richard, any small country (in terms of population–Australia is as big physically as the continental US) is going to suffer from isolation of some form, and needs to bring in talent from outside. A good way of doing that is sending progeny abroad and tempting them back.”

    Ditto for New Zealand, which is smaller physically and population-wise. I’d think it’d be fair to say it is also more isolated than Australia.

    I’d extend on this theme but am reluctant to for fear of rabid reprisals from my fellow countrymen 🙂 (I’m kidding, obviously, but more seriously small countries do have more than their share of internal politics in my opinion.)

  30. I think this is true of Canada as well (good parallel with Australia, both in terms of size and population). But I wonder if it’s true of, say, small European countries. Denmark jumps to mind – small both physically, and in population.

    Jenny – “Rohn” may be hard to pronounce, but “Wintle” is impossible to spell. I have hundreds of data points to support this observation. 😉

  31. Grant says:

    Rinchard Wintle – I suspect the key point is the isolation of the nation from the wider community, rather than the size of the nation.

  32. Grant – possibly, but Canada is hardly isolated from the wider scientific community.

  33. NatC says:

    I love this! It echoes my experience. The incredulity happens even when people *know* you’re going to be better off career-wise by leaving.
    I moved from Australia (where everyone is pretty clear that there are few top dogs) to the US, where there is much more research money and research community, and I STILL got asked why I was going to the US.

  34. rpg wrote:

    “I’m all for regional autonomy. Especially as I understand London gives about 20% (economically) more to the rest of the country than it gets back…”

    Eyy lad, yon’ll be nobbut a memory once us starts selling thi’ dried-oop Southerners our water. Think on’t.

  35. rpg says:

    *looks out window*


  36. Yes, I did hear rumours that the drought in the South was proving surprisingly un-dry. Not to mention decidely soggy.

  37. rpg says:

    As I said elsewhere, it reminds me of Sydney. (without the murderous wildlife)

  38. Bob O'H says:

    Oh dear, poor weather? Sunny and 30 degrees here today. Down to 23 tomorrow.

    Tuesday is a holiday, so it’s promising to piss it down of couse.

  39. Frank says:

    Coming to this conversation a bit late. I think you shouldn’t feel so bad about perceived parochialism. If you step back a little and look at science what impresses is its huge global reach, and the fact that it is such an international activity. A shared project or research interest can link a handful of labs in different continents more closely than mere proximity.

  40. Xenopus Galore says:

    Back in the mid 90s I was advised that a Stateside postdoc would give me the important Been To America qualification; I didn’t hear the BTA abbreviation back then.

    Looking back at what people have written above and what some of my friends have also said, it does seem a truth universally acknowledged that if you’re interested in something for a postdoc, you should seek out the best place in the world to it. Clearly anyone who doesn’t isn’t serious about their career.

    But those of this view have delighted us long enough. I don’t remember Paul Nurse flying off to Seattle when he read Hartwell’s papers. He just moved to somewhere good in Scotland to do something similar in another sort of yeast.

    I don’t think it’s true that to do the best science, you have to learn from those currently doing the same thing. I admit that this can be efficient and it’s also true that selection committees value such experiences highly. But if you want to be original I don’t think it helps.

    It will be interesting to see where fresh PhD grads head for their postdocs in 15 years time. Transcontinental travel could be fiercely expensive by then!

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