July 7, 2015

Fund my research and win the world cup

I have been seeking a faculty position for the last few years to expand my research activities, hopefully before my current contract runs out. I'm nearly out of time, and it's a little scary. So far, it looks pretty grim. If I start to really think about the statistics behind getting a tenured faculty position, it is depressing. It is a little like becoming a professional athlete in one of the big U.S. sports (football, baseball, and basketball; or soccer in the rest of the world). Starting out in age group play is a little like being an undergraduate, and moving into graduate school and then the first post-doctoral position is perhaps comparable to moving up into more competitive leagues in professional sports. Getting tenure would be like playing in the NFL or NBA. Winning the world cup would, to carry this absurd analogy further, be like winning a Nobel prize. Fortunately, I have a way to virtually guarantee a world cup victory, and all I ask is a mere faculty position.

The reason it's so depressing to think of the chances of becoming a professional athlete (or tenured scientist)  is because virtually every young athlete dreams of making it to the big leagues but the fact is only a tiny percentage ever will. There just aren't enough teams and positions for everyone who would like to pay at that level, and it's not always the best that make it. Most young, ambitious science students might also dream of the day they land a permanent science position that really allows them to develop their research area with some degree of independence and job security, which is critical to take on risky, ambitious research lines. But as with professional sports teams, there just aren't enough positions for everyone. And also like sports, it isn't always the best that make it. Most of us will wind up doing something else after all the temporary academic contracts are exhausted and you reach an age when your CV is no longer as attractive, regardless of what you've published. The sports analogy above is something more than just an analogy for me. I paid for half my undergraduate education with a wrestling scholarship in a Big 8 conference school. I got paid to study chemistry and botany because I was good at hurting people.

Bearing in mind this odd and occasional intersection of sports and academics in my life and in my metaphors, it occurred to me recently that I may be missing an opportunity to exploit one of my lesser advertised superhuman abilities. Wherever I go, that country wins the world cup within about 10 years following my arrival. It's uncanny. I arrived in Spain in 2001 for my first post-doctoral position and in 2010, Spain became World Cup Champions in South Africa. I arrived in Germany in 2004 for a second post-doc, and Germany then went on to win the world cup in Brasil in 2014. In high stakes sporting competitions and in some biological studies, two in a row is a rock solid pattern that need not be tested further. Based on my track record, the probability of winning the world cup for a country which hosts my research program  is virtually 100% within 9.5 +/- 0.7 years (SE of 0.5 years; n = 2) of my arrival there. Not even Lior Pachter would argue with these kinds of statistics (unless he read this post). Show me a similar track record for any tenured scientist who claims to influence world cup outcomes, and I will calculate the p value and prove victory is favored by my presence.

For that reason, I would like to present this blog post as an open letter to the following national soccer federations around the world:

1. The United States Soccer Federation
2. The Football Association (governing body of soccer in England)
3. Der Deutscher Fußball-Bund (German Football Association)
4. The Swiss Football Association (the German, French, Italian, and Romansch names won't fit here)
5. La Fédération Française de Football (French governing body)
6. Union of European Football Associations (that should cover the remaining European countries not listed above)
7. The Canadian Soccer Association (wouldn't a Canadian WC victory shake things up?)

I trust they will forward this letter to the other relevant soccer associations who might be interested in supporting good science, but frankly I don't know much about soccer and can't be bothered to look them all up. My point is this: fund my research program into the metabolic control of terpenoid biosynthesis in plants with a million euro start up grant and a tenured research position and I will guarantee* you a world cup victory within about 10 years. Since the euro is about to implode thanks to a disagreement over loan conditions to Greece, I will even accept a start up grant of one million US dollars (but obviously not Canadian). This is a paltry price to pay for a world cup championship, so I expect the offers will come pouring in (Hello? Is that you Qatar? Russia?). Think of how many millions are paid to a typical player in the Bundesliga or in La Liga BBVA (yes, a bank now owns the name of the Spanish top tier soccer league). All for nothing. It really is as simple as recruiting me to your country to work as a scientist with an offer I can't refuse, then sit back and watch the world cup victories come rolling in. It does not matter that my research is in no way connected to athletic performance or sports whatsoever. Statistics are statistics, and correlations are correlations, so any one of you soccer (sorry, football) associations who would fancy a world cup victory, consider this a firm offer: offer me a tenured position with the above start up grant, and you will thank me eternally.

*within the statistical probability of an undisclosed confidence interval with an unspecified p value

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