AI artists, postdoc scarcity, and more: THE WEEKLY RECAP (2022#35)

Back to the routine, and even though the return has been a bit hard, I still had the energy to read some interesting stuff. This week we have some links on the effects of AI art generation and surveillance, and a few examples on how rotten the academic world is (but also some measurements that could help fix it). Let’s start:


What is art?

After the publication of the generative art models in the past few months, this was bound to happen. However, that does not make the news less interesting. Nowadays, no one would even think about disqualifying an artist because of the use of photoshop or digital filters on their pieces of art. However, where do you draw the line (sorry about that one) when the whole image is based on a prompt? Interesting times ahead, that’s for sure.

An AI-generated artwork’s state fair victory fuels arguments over ‘what art is’, on The Verge
An AI-Generated Artwork Won First Place at a State Fair Fine Arts Competition, and Artists Are Pissed, on Vice

The postdoc life

So, postdoc life is hard, that is not any news. You go to a new place, usually far from friends and family, most of the time to a short-term position with lots of uncertainty. Add a global pandemic to the mix, and makes sense that many scientists are re-thinking their career paths, resulting in less candidates to fulfil the number of open positions.
What really seems amazing to me are some of the PI testimonies shown in this Nature article. I will copy a few bits:

Madeline Lancaster, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, UK, can relate to that. In July, she received a total of 36 applications for a postdoctoral position in her laboratory, many fewer than the couple of hundred that she originally expected. “I had been nervous that I wouldn’t be able to go through all of the applications,” she says. Those 36 didn’t lead to a single appointment. “I still have not filled the position,” she says. “There seems to be lots of competition for strong candidates.”

It seems to me that not making a single appointment from 36 candidates implies that you have expectation troubles, and that is one of the biggest problem the system has.

European researchers have their own struggles when it comes to recruiting postdocs. Andrea Musacchio, a cell biologist at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Dortmund, Germany, has plenty of funding to hire a postdoc. In 2020, he won the Leibniz Prize — one of the highest honours bestowed on researchers in Germany — from the German research foundation DFG. “I can make very competitive offers at a higher salary scale than you’d expect for postdoc positions in Germany,” he says. But when he advertised a recent opening on Twitter, he received only five applications, and none of them was “serious”.
Musacchio didn’t have much trouble recruiting postdocs a decade ago, when he first moved to Germany from his home country of Italy. But the stream of applicants “slowly reduced to a trickle”, he says. He thinks that potential candidates are now choosing different paths. “In Germany, a lot of people are finding jobs in industry right after getting a PhD,” he says. “This wasn’t always the case. Ten years ago, people said you should do a postdoc anyway to prepare for a job in industry.”
Musacchio also suspects that PhD recipients who are willing to take a postdoc position are increasingly looking for opportunities to learn “cool” techniques. “Basic science has lost some of its appeal, partly because of the complexity,” he says. “People are choosing techniques over topics.”

That’s a cool theory there. It is neither the lifestyle or the uncertain future, it is the fact that people are not interested in basic research anymore. LOL.

The evolving postdoctoral landscape has forced PIs to rethink their approach to recruitment. Markowetz’s lab website currently features an animated slideshow touting three open postdoc positions in his lab. The presentation notes that, in the past five years, five previous postdocs have gone on to PI positions and three others have created start-up companies. One slide shows a picture of Markowetz next to the words: “I want to support ambitious postdocs to reach the next level of their careers.” Speaking to Nature, Markowetz says, “It’s so hard to get postdocs. All of my friends here have the same problems. I have to be more proactive. I have to explain to people what they get if they come to me.”

Yeah, were you expecting brilliant people from all over the world to move around for a couple years just to have the pleasure of working at your group?

By the way, it would have actually been super cool to interview more postdocs than PI’s if you want to take a real look at the situation, Nature.

Lab leaders wrestle with paucity of postdocs, on Nature

…to remove all barriers in the way of science

Truly amazing initiative by the US government. Sooner than later, all the research papers funded with public money will be freely available at the moment of publication. And that’s a wonderful (and logical) thing.

US government reveals big changes to open-access policy, on Nature

What are you hiding?

A few months ago there were some news regarding the implementation of automatic software in you phone that would scan your pictures to check for child pornography. There was a strong backlash over this, because it is a strong violation of privacy, even if the intention is good. As usual with these kind of topics, I remember many were saying “well, if you are not a pedophile you have nothing to worry about, why are you against this?” which is the same kind of argument about surveillance practices against terrorists.
Well, here you have it. Google’s system flagged pictures that a father sent to a doctor as criminal, and revoked his account (losing over a decade of personal data). These pictures were unique, and did not form part of any database of illegal content, so the system was not just looking at digital identifiers, but really analysing ALL the images in the phone, and decided that the guy was a criminal. What a time to be alive.

A Dad Took Photos of His Naked Toddler for the Doctor. Google Flagged Him as a Criminal, on The New York Times

And that’s it for the week. Stay safe!

Featured image: Theatre d’Opera Spatial, by… Jason Allen?

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