Tag Archive | "biology"

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Don’t Understand New Media? Maybe You’re Not Old-Fashioned Enough

Yesterday I wrote a post contrasting Twitter with the ancient honeybee “waggle dance” that is used by a single forager bee to signal where food resources are located to the hive. It was my little metaphor to explain the larger point that the instinct to tell a group of people that a cafe you got to first doesn’t have wi-fi, or that the line at the nightclub is too long so we should rendezvous somewhere else is an ancient as, well, humans. Sure, cavemen applied it differently (probably more like bees – “Big. Animals. There.”) but it’s the same instinct.

Well, a newcomer to the Government 2.0 space, Strategic Social (who I am an advisor to as they are “leveraging the social web for national security”), is actually studying this notion more formally. In a recent post on their website, they outline a new project in which they will study online “tribes” of people in combination with anthropology studies in South America and Africa. I wholeheartedly believe in their approach:

“The key to understanding the power of Web 2.0 communication tools is the application of an anthropological approach. Strategic Social firmly believes that social media represents just one more arena in which we can conduct field research.”

New media is not about “new” and not really about “media” either (see Gary Vaynerchuk’s vlog on the latter point here). It’s about behavioral communications, instincts that pre-date man. As a behavioral neurogeneticist I studied some genes that are very similar in insects and man, and indeed virtually all animals, that similarly affect behavior instincts. This stuff is old-fashioned.

What is new is the shiny objects in the so-called “TGIF Revolution” (Twitter, Google, Internet, Facebook). Yes, the tools are new. They are exciting. But what we do with them is not.

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Animal Behavior: How Microsharing is Like the Honeybee Waggle Dance

Some of my readers may know that my background is in scientific research, and more specifically on the neurogenetics of animal behavior. One of the projects I was fortunate to be involved with was the International Honeybee Genome Project, within which I analyzed a family of proteins that likely underlies some of the social instincts that species exhibits. One behavior that honeybees perform is the “waggle dance,” in which a forgaging bee leaves the hive in search of a food resource, finds it, and then returns to the hive to report the good news via dancing. The speed of the dance is inversely related to the distance to the food, and the angle at which the dance is performed is directly related to the placement of the food in relation to the sun’s place in the sky (amazing, right?). Honeybees have been doing this for a long time, long before humans invented these “new” social media tools. Twitter and similar microsharing services like Identi.ca perform the same basic function. Twitter caught fire at the SXSW conference, where people would report that a certain afterparty was awesome, or too crowded, and attract or repel others to/from the location with the “resources” (free booze). Is this really so different from a waggle dance?

I had an interesting discussion about digital communication today at the international marketing and communications firm Fleishman-Hillard (thanks Rachelle Lacroix!) today, and one thing we discussed was why so many people seemingly still know very little about social media, generally speaking. Related to that, I’m fascinated by people’s fascination with the fact that I’m a scientist who’s gotten interested in social media and Government 2.0 – to me it just makes sense. It’s just one big animal behavior problem.

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The Fuller Fellowship: Advancing Conservation Through Science

WWF-US is pleased to announce the availability of Kathryn Fuller Fellowships for 2010. For nearly 50 years WWF has committed to delivering science-based conservation results while incorporating the latest research and innovations into our work. As part of its commitment to advancing conservation through science, WWF established Kathryn Fuller Fellowships to support PhD students and postdoctoral researchers working on issues of exceptional importance and relevance to conservation in WWF-US priority places.  This year, the Kathryn Fuller Science for Nature Fund will support doctoral and postdoctoral research in the following three areas.

Fuller Doctoral Fellows receive either $15,000 or $20,000 allocated over a period of up to 2 years to cover research expenses.

Fuller Postdoctoral Fellows receive $140,000 to cover a stipend and research expenses over a period of up to two years as well as $17,500 to cover indirect costs at the host institution over the two-year fellowship period.

Citizens of any nation may apply. Applicants for Fuller Doctoral Fellowships must be currently enrolled in a PhD program. WWF staff, directors, and their relatives as well as current Russell E. Train Fellows are ineligible to receive Fuller Fellowships.

Deadline for applications is January 31, 2010.

For more information on complete eligibility requirements, selection criteria, and how to apply, please visit the Fuller Fellowship webpage.

Or you may send your questions to fullerfund@wwfus.org.

WWF-US Priority Places

Amazon – portions of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname

Arctic – Arctic portions of Canada, Norway, Russia, Sweden, United States (Alaska)

Borneo and Sumatra – portions of Indonesia, Malaysia

Coastal East Africa – coastal and marine areas of Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania

Congo Basin – portions of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Republic of Congo

Coral Triangle – coastal and marine areas of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Timor Leste, Solomon Islands

Eastern Himalayas – Bhutan, Nepal

Galapagos – Ecuador (Galapagos Islands)

Mexico – State of Chiapas, Chihuahuan Desert , Gulf of California, Mesoamerican Reef of Mexico, Monarch Butterfly Reserve, State of Oaxaca


US Northern Great Plains – portions of the states of Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming

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At the corner of 13th and Franklin Streets in downtown Oakland, a worn bronze plaque hangs on the wall of a two-story parking garage. Easy to miss, state Historical Marker No. 45 identifies the spot where, 140 years ago, a California miracle began. Here the University of California spent its infancy, occupying a two-story Victorian that had housed one of the state’s first colleges. In 1873 the university – after graduating an original class of 12 – migrated to Berkeley and began its rise as a land-grant college dedicated to teaching agriculture, mining and the mechanical arts.

The enterprise, of course, has endured, and then some. Under the stewardship of some great leaders, and with the support of alumni like you and, for that matter, all of California, the University has grown from its humble origins to the point where it now stretches all across the state, from Merced to Santa Barbara, Riverside to San Francisco, Irvine to Santa Cruz, San Diego to Davis, Los Angeles to Berkeley – 10 campuses, five medical centers, three national laboratories, 225,000 students, 55 Nobel Prizes and 1.6 million alumni.

It is to that great army of alumni, along with other friends and beneficiaries of the University of California, that we write today, and we do so with a sense of great urgency – to ask you to become engaged as never before in building legislative and financial support for this great institution.

This is a time of peril for the University we all love.

The UC model – providing universal access to a top-notch, low-cost education and research of the highest caliber – continues to be studied around the globe among those who would emulate its success. And yet, this model has been increasingly abandoned at home by the state government responsible for its core funding.

In the past 20 years, the amount of money allotted to the University through the state budget has fallen dramatically: General Fund support for a UC student stood at $15,860 in 1990. If current budget projections hold, it will drop this year to $7,680.

Moreover, it now appears likely the UC system, in this current fiscal crisis, will be ordered by Sacramento to absorb yet another $800-plus million in additional cuts. Its 2009-10 core budget will be reduced by an estimated 20 percent. This will bring the amount of state investment in the University down to $2.4 billion – exactly where it was in real dollars a decade ago.

In the same time frame, by the way, funding for state prisons has more than doubled, from $5 to $11 billion. It’s been reported that, based on current spending trends, California’s prison budget soon will overtake that of the state’s universities and community colleges.

And so, our work is cut out for us. As one Chairman of the Board of Regents steps down and another takes over, we are asking you, as stewards of UC, to step up and help arrest this slide of support, as quickly as possible. It’s often said that it takes 40 years to build up a great university, but only a few to tear one down.

Elected officials in Sacramento who control our core budget must be asked to re-examine their priorities when it comes to future higher education funding. They also need to understand that a fiscal crisis is precisely the wrong time to be putting the pinch on education. Consider what Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote in a recent column:

“… The country that uses this crisis to make its population smarter and more innovative – and endows its people with more tools and basic research to invent new goods and services – is the one that will not just survive but thrive down the road. We might be able to stimulate our way back to stability, but we can only invent our way back to prosperity. We need everyone at every level to get smarter.”

The core money UC receives from taxpayers, via Sacramento, goes to the nuts and bolts of higher education, everything from paying professors to lighting laboratories. But it also establishes the institutional foundation needed to attract the research grants and endowments that enhance the mission and burnish the University’s international status.

Over time it’s been money well-spent. Of the more than 4,000 higher education institutions in the nation, only 60 research universities, public and private, have been judged worthy of membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities. The UC has six members. No other state system has more than one.

In turn, the University has given back to California, not only by educating generations of high-achieving Californians, but also through its triumphs of research. From better ways to grow tomatoes to the birth of biotech, from viticulture to cancer treatments, UC campuses have been incubators of countless scientific and product breakthroughs that add quality to California life and invigorate its economy. For 15 years in a row, UC has developed more patents than any other university in the country.

This is what’s put at risk as state support shrinks. In the end, there are two choices: excellence or mediocrity. While a mediocre UC might cost less in the short term, over time it will enforce on society its own ledger of taxes. Top professors and researchers will begin to drift away, taking with them the best students. Pools of grant money will recede. The engines of invention will sputter.

To those who complain the university has been bloated, wasteful, we say this is a new day. In the last few years, we have seen the institution reform itself. Under a new administration, it is setting new standards for transparency and leadership. We’ve worked hard to maintain strong bond ratings, cut spending in the Office of the President by $60 million, and taken additional cost-cutting measures at the campus level. But there is only so much that can be cut. We are no longer chopping at fat and muscle. With the new cuts, as proposed, we soon will be slicing into bone.

And so, there is much at stake and the threat is real. Now is the time for alumni and other supporters and beneficiaries of the University to spread the word that UC excellence must be preserved and nurtured. Please, do whatever you can. Take time to write a letter or an e-mail to your political representatives. Or lend whatever support possible to the UC system or to your preferred campus.

The message – not in just this current crisis, but into the future as well – must be clear: A just-good-enough University of California would not be good enough at all. Mediocrity is not an option. It’s time to start fighting back for the UC.

Richard C. Blum, Immediate Past Chair, UC Board of Regents
Russell S. Gould, Chair, UC Board of Regents
Sherry Lansing, Vice Chair, UC Board of Regents
Mark G. Yudof, President, University of California

Mark Drapeau is a 2003 graduate of UC-Irvine (Ph.D., Biological Sciences).

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Trend Preadaptation and Bandwagon Warfare

Life is a series of bandwagons, especially if you’re a successful person. Environments that you operate within change constantly, and if you don’t evolve with them you’ll probably go extinct. Working as an academic scientist for about a decade, I saw such environmental shifts all the time. Most professors, especially if they wanted spending money, worked on topics that they could obtain federal grant money to support.  Sure, other topics were important and interesting, but the realities of running an expensive laboratory cannot be forgotten. 

Trends in funding different topic areas come and go. Have you heard about research in “translational medicine” lately? That’s a hot topic. What about “functional MRI”? Sure, that’s hot too. Okay, how about “anatomy and physiology”? Yeah, thought so. It’s not that there aren’t any important questions left in anatomy and physiology, it’s just that it’s not perceived as cutting-edge anymore.

Some researchers follow these trends and evolve with them, and some don’t, with consequences to either choice. People who are great at exploiting trends in science funding often band together into collaborative packs, sharing data with each other, recommending others for panels at conferences, peer-reviewing each others’ work, and generally being collegial. It’s tribal behavior. It can certainly be hard to become part of a new tribe being the right person in the right place at the right time; but when you are it allows you to do more research than you could previously.

Meanwhile, have-nots without great research funding are noble loners without a powerful tribe. They’re doing equally good work perhaps, but feel overshadowed by more trendy researchers. And so often a good dose of spite separates these two sets of tribes. But why? The first group is mainly doing good science that Congress, the National Science Foundation, and so on feel is important now, and the latter group is sticking to their traditional topic and has maintained an academic freedom to pursue it. There really is no productive reason for warfare between these bandwagons. Yet it exists.

In my experience, people who exploit a changing environment successfully are often preadapted to it in some way. In science, people may have already been reading widely on the topic, interested in it for some other reason besides funding. Perhaps one lab fortuitously collected speculative preliminary results when a grad student rotated through the lab for three months, and those results proved critical to a later grant application. Rarely do I think a professor of physical chemistry wakes up in the morning, sits in front of his computer with a cup of coffee, sees new funding for breast cancer research, and starts carpetbagging on their turf. It just doesn’t work that way – you’ve “gotta have the chops” to go up against the competition.

Of course, none of this is limited to the practice of academic science. I would postulate it is unlimited because humans have banded together in tribes based around ideas for as long as recorded history. Lately, I’ve been writing a fair amount about the now-trendy topic of Government 2.0, or how emerging Web technologies are changing how government operates. And as this writing has garnered attention it’s also been implied that I’m carpetbagging the field rather than being a practitioner of its topic matter. In an interesting bit of co-evolution, even as an increasing number of people are finding my writing and public speaking useful, a bandwagon has formed to critique the bandwagon of people who have published “pop” writing about Gov 2.0 - and there has been a tiny bit of tribal bandwagon warfare.  

I don’t remember Gov 2.0 being a trendy topic in April 2008 when I started working on it. To the contrary, in my travels to Web 2.0 events of all kinds that started over a year ago, no one from government was there, and very few attendees at events outside the DC area knew anyone from the government, never mind someone who wanted to hear about their start-up company. My partial bridging of that gap led to writing some interesting articlesand allowed me to network with other thought leaders both inside and outside government who have certainly taught me a lot. Like the scientist with fortuitous preliminary data, I was preadapted to the new-found Gov 2.0 craze facilitated by an exciting presidential election season last fall.

This week, the hot topic around my office is pandemic flu. Why? Because it turns out that my research center distributed wildly successful pandemic flu preparedness posters in 2005 and a planning guide to operating a large organization during a pandemic in 2006.  A few months ago, I designed and printed a new poster that summarized the best of what we knew and made it more graphically palatable. Now, in the middle of a seemingly global swine flu outbreak, a lot of people suddenly want it. Am I again carpetbagging for personal gain, strategically moving from exploiting Gov 2.0 to exploiting pandemic flu? This hypothesis would be amusing if it weren’t so ridiculous.

The problem with bandwagon warfare is that it doesn’t help anyone. It annoys the trendy without affecting them, it satisfies the criticizers while effectively wasting their time, and it doesn’t do anything for the greater good; in the case of this article, that greater good involves citizens who want scientists conducting medical research, a military that puts an end to insurgencies, and a government that communicates better with them on health issues. Not unlike old arguments about the logic behind nuclear warfare, tribal bandwagon warfare is a useless stalemate that shouldn’t escalate. But when it is so easy to write something harmful online, what is the deterrent?

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Individual Incentives for Transparent Data

There are many group incentives for having more open, participatory, and collaborative work environments.  In private business, powerful leaders can impose new information-sharing systems, with the primary group incentive being increased revenue.  What’s the individual incentive for an individual in this situation?  If there is one, it’s often some kind of profit-sharing, a chance for more rapid promotion, or similar.

Academic information-sharing needs different incentives, because professors don’t directly profit from research, and there’s generally nothing to be promoted to.  Rapidly sharing raw experimental data with the world offers advantages to the community of medical researchers searching for disease genes.  But there is a counterbalancing advantage to cheating and withholding data to make it proprietary to a certain laboratory and a small cabal of collaborators.  What’s the incentive for an individual professor or laboratory director to share data?  In this case, with genome sequencing and expression data for instance, the community decided that sharing would be a prerequisite for publication (the lifeblood of academia) – so everyone complies.

What about transparent, open sharing of government data?  There are at least three parallel issues here: sharing within government, between government and contractors, and between government and the people.  David Stephenson organized a thought-provoking discussion about group-level incentives for sharing government information at the recent Transparency Camp in Washington, D.C.  But individual-level incentives were hardly discussed.

What’s the incentive for an individual government employee to make the effort to change the status quo, if they’re not currently a “transparent government cheerleader“?  I don’t have an answer to this question.  But finding that answer requires a fresh look at the human resources of the government – How are they recruited, trained, incentivized, compensated, and retained, and how does this influence their day-to-day work? People do not always do what’s best for the group.

Technical problems with open, transparent, and participatory government have recently been highlighted in the mainstream press. But from a holistic standpoint, this is far more than a technology problem.

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Business Adaptation and the Biology of Failure

I’m not a professor, but here’s my business school metaphor for adaptation and survival: Wear a business suit and act calm at all times; evade local detectives, the FBI, and Mexican gangsters while you assassinate a heavily guarded Asian badguy inside a nightclub blasting Paul Oakenfold (in Korean, no less); do this while you hold your own chauffeur hostage;  catch flight home at LAX. But most businesses are far more complacent than the adaptive, erudite character Tom Cruise portrays in Collateral.

Traditional newspapers in major U.S. cities are filing for bankruptcy under selection pressure from the changing environment they failed to adapt to: increased media outlets, more online readers, and less advertising revenue.  Jeff Jarvis recently noted the stark differences between a modern company like Google and a failing one like the San Francisco Chronicle in a blog post he aptly named “Time Travel”.

As economist Paul Ormerod points out in his excellent book, Why Most Things Fail, patterns of business extinction and species extinction are very similar, with long periods of stability interrupted by large spikes of failure (a.k.a. “punctuated equilibrium“). One of Omerod’s theses is that while the future can be quite difficult to predict, experimentation in the present can help adapt to an uncertain future.  The benefits of genetic diversity in living organisms operate on the same theory, and are useful in practice.

Just the opposite of experimenting, media coverage of newspaper failure focuses on giant office buildings filled with cubicles and landline phones, lists of addresses where employees hand deliver products daily, and disruptions of pension plans and workplace friendships. But in biology and business, the nimble, innovative, and adaptive do well in turbulent times. Somewhat ironically, this line from Citizen Kane sums it up: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher, I just try everything I can think of.”

Unfortunately, most things fail. Nearly all of the species that have ever existed are currently extinct. The Rocky Mountain News was published for nearly 150 years, making people sentimental about its demise. Past success is irrelevant to survival, however. Dinosaurs roamed for millions of years, but their extinction made the rise of mammals possible. So too will new companies fill niches abandoned by failed ones.

Students should ask why business schools offer so many courses on economic theory, operations management, and accounting principles that teach about “doing” business, but don’t offer many courses about “thinking” business. Here are some of my suggested topics: (a) ecological niche theory, (b) coevolution, cooperation, and competition, (c) genetic diversity and adaptation in fluctuating environments, (d) network science and emergent behaviors of complex systems. Does your business school make Darwin required reading?

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