Friday, August 9, 2013

Book review: Start-Up Nation (with relevance for science)

In a typical airport bookstore, the shelves are populated with books on the culture of business. Business culture is discussed explicitly and frequently.

In the sciences, there is little discussion of the culture of science. Books are devoted to analyzing the cultures developed by CEO’s, but we do not turn the same lens to scientists.

Why are some labs more productive than others? Why do some heralded scientists produce very few students that become heralded, while some less-heralded scientists seem to be more successful. Why do some institutions seem to succeed despite a lack of resources, while others drown in them.

In part, our disciplines are small. Everyone is an insider. We have few outsiders or gadflies that can take a dispassionate look at the topic. You may hear whispers about someone having “So many resources, so few insights”, but it rarely extends beyond that.

Scientific culture is important. As important in the end than statistics. But there are no books devoted to this.

So, I read business books occasionally.

The most recent one is Startup Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. The authors seek to understand the business success of not a single company but a nation: Israel. Despite a scarcity of resources, an inability to trade with neighbors, and constant threat of war, for the past decade, Israel has produced a disproportionate fraction of the world’s startup companies and attracts an amazing fraction of the world’s startup capital. Almost all of the major tech companies have R&D labs here now.

Not too long ago, this wasn't even close to true.

The authors tried to understand why this is.

In the end, the authors elevate the importance of the Israeli culture as it applies to business.  That's where it gets interesting for intellectual arbitrage. Here are some of the cultural traits they emphasize...

1) Questioning. American business people that give presentations in Israel are caught off guard by how hard the questions are. Everyone asks questions and the questions are hard. Topics are constantly reviewed for every angle.

2) Flat hierarchies. There are fewer levels between the top and the bottom. Leaders even at the highest political offices are known more by their nicknames than titles. Merit and ability overrides age and position.

3) Fearlessness. There were different Hebrew words applied to different aspects of this, such as chutzpah, but the generalities hold. Everyone has a fearlessness to try something new. Failure is not a stigma if something can be learned from it.

4) Early leadership. Military service is compulsory. The number of 23-year olds that have led military missions or commanded groups is high.

5) Mashup. People from different sectors overlap frequently. Civilian and military worlds overlap frequently. Individuals can hold disparate skill sets.

6) Connections. The authors frequently mention that for one reason or another, “Everyone knows everyone.” Connections are frequent enough so that there is almost know such thing as a cold call.
Let’s stop with these six attributes. How frequently do the most successful people or labs or institutions hold these? What can we do as scientists to promote them? Do we hire people that are fearless and have less respect for tenure than merit? Do we ask students to test our ideas or work on our experiments as opposed to their own ideas and experiments? How much resource do we put into fostering connections among people?

In the end, the book was really a fascinating look into the history of the Israeli economy.

Even better, there might be some food for thought on starting science up again.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Book Review: Serengeti Story

I'm on holiday in the Inner Hebrides now. 56°N, but the warm oceanic currents allow palm trees to grow outside my window. With sheep and cattle grazing the hillsides and valleys, this feels about as far as you can get from the Serengeti.

Last year, Tony Sinclair published his book, Serengeti Story. A friend at the BBC had the book on her shelf and she let me take it with her as we left Oxford. A couple of train rides, one ferry ride, and a few long-day nights later, I had finished it.

The book was surprising. I had expected a typical late-career summary of research. Not this book. You do read how Sinclair’s scientific thinking changed over time. He came to the Serengeti as a student to study birds, but then slowly worked through a series of questions regarding the regulations of the herbivore populations there. If you keep your index finger in the appendix and read the endnotes in parallel, a more detailed scientific story emerges.

If that’s not the book, then what is it about?

Think of a state factor approach to herbivore populations. In the Serengeti, wildebeest numbers are driven by climate; herbivore competitors, predation and disease; the topography; and the soils. But over the past 200 years, humans have probably had a greater impact on them than anything.

If you ever wondered how humans could impact a million grazers, this is where the book is a gem.

Humans introduce rinderpest from Asia, killing 95% of the cattle throughout Africa. Famines decimate human populations. Buffalo populations crash, too.

Political turmoil between Tanzania and Kenya leads to lawlessness which encourages poaching.

Reductions in elephant populations that increase woody cover, providing breeding grounds for tsetse flies.

Fences, roads, climate change all have the potential to further strain the system.

Sinclair includes a number of side stories about his time there. At first they seem a bit off-putting. They might be good fun around a campfire or at the bar, but seem like a digression for a serious work.

But, page after page, year after year, you see just how hard collecting basic data on population sizes are. First hyenas try to eat you after your vehicle is stranded. Then you get attacked by buffalo. Then lions. Leopards learn to jump through roofs to eat people. Then bandits become bold and attack with poison darts. Then they get rifles. You have to smuggle fuel for your airplane. Fix flats with bandaids so you don’t get eaten or shot.

Ecosystems are complex. The human element makes them more complex. Sinclair does an excellent job laying out the complexity of decades factors that determine the fates of wildlife.

We often do not see how hard it is to collect the ecological data that shows some of this. Like how many wildebeest are in a park.

The book helps you appreciate how hard the job can be.