Mary’s Manifesto: 4 Actions San Diego Life Science Professionals Need To Take Right Now

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Image courtesy Flickr user fischerfotos

A few years ago, a frustrated San Diego entrepreneur named Brant Cooper published what’s been become known as “Brant’s Rant” outlining issues with our startup community. Because I have been in the local biotech industry for 17 years, founded the SDBN and interact regularly with other vibrant life science communities, I am also sometimes disappointed with the “status quo” here. I’ve always wanted to do a “Jerry Maguire” type of manifesto delivery, complete with scooping out the goldfish and exiting dramatically. This list of actions I am urging San Diego life scientists to take, so that we can not just survive, but thrive, is the closest I’ll get, so here goes:

  1. Get Up From Your Bench or Desk. Guess how many networking events I went to while I was a postdoc at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI)? Well, if you don’t count the “in the middle” happy hours, which were basically a pizza free for all, the sum is a big fat zero. In my defense, there were fewer ways of self-organize back then in the 70’s (kidding), but organizations such as AWIS and ACS definitely existed. Why didn’t I network? I’m not sure, but it’s likely I wouldn’t have pursued that elusive tenure track job so fruitlessly if I’d known a more diverse group of life science professionals. Now, I engage with great scientists through social media and new types of events and I’m learning more about science communication, innovation, and policy. I am inspired by colleagues who are motivating scientists to innovate in Los Angeles (Ryan Bethencourt) and San Francisco (heard through Jun Axup)*. Locally, the efforts of Bio, Tech and Beyond and The Wet Lab, as well as more formal accelerators at Janssen Labs and EvoNexus, are exciting as well.
    *We’d love to work with a group on organizing a Science Hack Day, contact us if you’re interested!
  2. Get Involved. As we’ve discussed, support for scientists and funding has not fared well over the past decade. As a corollary to #1, scientists need to become more aware of their surroundings and these trends and to help “turn the tide” in our favor. There are an estimated 50,000 people employed by the San Diego life science industry?can you imagine the impact if just 5%, 2500, of these people engaged in more outreach? There are many ways that you can engage with the public to improve their opinions about science, and thus funding for it. For example, we help the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center with their “Two Scientists Walk Into a Bar” outreach program that is taking off, piggy backing on the popularity of the local craft beer movement. We support groups that work with children as well such as the San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering and the League of Extraordinary Scientists and Engineers. Outreach is great, and there is an even more powerful way to get involved: support the politicians who DIRECTLY impact our funding situation. Our September 22nd Networking Town Hall is aimed at this goal, we’ll have a discussion with Congressman Scott Peters about his continuing efforts to push for more scientific funding.
  3. Toot Your Own Horn. One difference we see in San Diego, compared to other geographic regions, is that local scientists are reticent to promote their work outside of peer-reviewed publications. If you want to see a vibrant community of science communicators, including current scientists, follow the #scicomm or #sciox hashtag on Twitter and check out the related ScienceOnline organization which is based in North Carolina. I think that in San Diego, there is a tendency for people to think that “people who do good science don’t need to talk about it.” This sentiment results in almost a negative connotation to science communication. Tell that to Ethan Perlstein, who has promoted his work on Twitter and raised $2 million in funding, or David Shiffman who’s built a fantastic following based on his shark conservation work and who is interviewed regularly by top news outlets on the topic. The open access and related altmetric movements may lead to an era where scientists are successful ONLY when they self-promote. In San Diego, we know of a handful of blogs and encourage anyone who can write a scientific paper (oh, hey, that’s you!) to pick up blogging, Twitter, ResearchGate, or whatever tool that suits you to promote yourself (check out my life science social media presentations or invite me to speak to get started). Ideally, it would be FANTASTIC if all the local research institutions could set up every lab’s website with a blog. Companies are easier, slap a blog onto your website and tell the world (and us) that you’re sharing valuable content and news on it. We’ll also be making changes to our website soon to accommodate more blogging and sharing of local blogs, contact us if you’d like to participate.
  4. Start Something. The SDBN was started in 2008 based on just a few conversations I had with people who felt the same way I did, that the region needed more opportunities for networking. Back then, websites were a bit more labor intensive to build and my network could only be reached by email. Today, many life science professionals can easily reach hundreds, or even thousands, of their colleagues through LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. What cause are you passionate about? We’ve seen and helped great groups like the San Diego Entrepreneur’s Exchange form during our tenure, and we hope that there is an explosion of life science groups in the coming years/months/days, which we will happily support.

Manifestos are often presented in situations in which one person considers that a change is needed, while others don’t, and this “wish list” is no different. While we live in a fantastic environment for science, I see local scientists and organizations struggling daily and it’s hard for me to sit back and watch as many don’t realize that our future is in our own hands. Indeed, one of our most prestigious institutions, TSRI, is obviously struggling greatly financially, and it may be a harbinger for more trouble ahead. Shouldn’t we be making dramatic changes to prevent the loss of funding that has caused these problems? While I don’t expect you to make a drastic change in your career resulting in blatant requests for money, I hope that you can help me, to help you by considering my pleas. Also, realize that now, more than ever, you’ve got the power to help yourself the most.