Should you ask that question? Thoughts from NSF

I’m at the Advisory Committee for the Biology Directorate of the National Science Foundation. We have just had a powerful talk by Jim Olds Assistant Director of Biological Sciences on biology generally. (Assistant Director is Director as far as I can tell; nearly everyone is interim, or acting, NSF is really baffling for titles, but it is because many of the most important people rotate through, which is good). He is interested in the origins of life, in pruning rules, in big data, in connections of all kinds, and much more. Now is time for questions. Questions are essential and can move things forward, but how? What are people doing with their questions? Here is a light-hearted take on it, including some questions not heard today but heard before.DSC03498

A taxonomy of questions:

Less helpful:

Here is something that happened to me once.

I know something from a powerful source you haven’t mentioned.

I have an important job.

I really loved your talk.

Why didn’t you talk about this?

People at my institution are not getting funding. Why?

Here is something I would have said if I were giving your talk.

More helpful:

Can you give us more information on this particular part of your talk?

I did not understand this piece of the talk.

Here is something I know that is directly relevant to your talk.

Here is something we might do to help a specific goal of your talk.

Perhaps the best questions get the speaker to tell us more than might be wise about a specific controversial topic. There are a lot more categories of questions, but the real problem is that a table with more than 10 people at it are unlikely to get all the ideas. Indeed, how many people are even paying attention? Is it a sad truth that the people with insight are not necessarily the people talking? But at least here we have a good way of calling on people. We just stand up our name tags.




About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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