Monday open thread: Is tool development slowing down?

My institution is on the hunt for a new neuroscience faculty member or two and the past two weeks have seen ten candidates come and go. All of them are doing awesome science, but what struck me was the lack of people making new tools or techniques. The institution I am at likes to think of themselves as quite cutting edge, so I had assumed that I was going to report to everyone on what the hot themes and tools were. Instead, only one candidate was working on a new tool. I’m not even looking for something fantastically new, really: a new statistical analysis or a new take on an imaging set-up (SPIM?) would have made me happy.

After seeing plenty of new things in faculty talks the last few years, I have to wonder: is tool development slowing down? Were the last few years the tail end of a transient boom of channelrhodopsin etc? Are we in the ‘exploit the tools’ cycle before another round hits? Or was my observation just a fluke?

Oh, and if anyone was wondering, apparently 50% of all neuroscientists live in Cambridge, MA. Who knew?

6 thoughts on “Monday open thread: Is tool development slowing down?

  1. I’m perhaps slightly out of your area, but are these tools useful? Seems like every week there is some new neuro-opto-clarity thingy in the works. They often sound interesting but I’m reminded of my tool drawer at home that has a dozen different screw drivers. All designed for some specific purpose, but in the end I can’t really build much with them.

    • It’s fine with me if they’re not broadly useful, but I’d hope they’re at least useful for the researcher who built it! And maybe one or two others…

      I’m not really expecting the sexy, clarity-level stuff, just something that can further their research project. One of my advisors, for instance, came with a tool that let him do some worm imaging that had been difficult for other people. Now, no one else at my institution is using it – but we can use it to answer questions that we couldn’t otherwise. (My other advisor is much more explicitly a computational techniques-driven lab.)

      I just expected to see more of that because that tends to be who my institution invites for interviews, for better or worse.

  2. My impression, after watching the field for about 25 years, is that tool development is happening faster than ever. But it was always a minority enterprise, and I’m not too surprised that 0/10 candidates are involved in it. Most people prefer to exploit existing tools.

    • That’s fair. I’d say most places I wouldn’t be surprised with 0/10 candidates doing some measure of tool-development. But my institution prizes that sort of thing – in the past few years I’ve always seen more; I guess that’s why I expected to see more at this particular set of interviews.

  3. I think that we have been in a golden age of tool development for the past ~10 years…it is well-funded and respected even without stuff like the BRAINI RFAs. Not everyone needs to do it, and now is time for the relatively unglamourous task of getting existing tools into as many hands as possible.

    I feel like I see a lot of new/fancy tools used stupidly or arbitrarily. I am much more impressed by someone who actually finds out something with ANY tool (an elegantly designed screen, a technically difficult recording, a well-controlled longitudinal study) than with “I showed that DA from the VTA makes mice happy… but I did it with a new kind of LED and Optothing v32.7.”

    I think tools have a wow factor, both for scis (after all, we all fell in love with working in labs) and for gee-whiz press releases. But I don’t think they should be the focus of most labs. In my PhD lab, everyone had to have a “tool development” side project, but that’s what it was. Your main job was to find stuff out.

    • Yeah, I normally get bored during techniques-only talks, or talks that use techniques but don’t advance the science substantially (sadly, I think that particular talk is going to be the top candidate this year. FLASHY.) I thought one of the best talks was just a rigorous, old-school electrophysiology project.

      I think in terms of career development, having a ‘tool development’ side project is one of the best things that a postdoc can do… many R1 research institutes want someone who can do ‘something new’ or something that is difficult for other people to do. In terms of filtering, if you have 10 great candidates, but one is great and can do something new that other researchers can’t yet – well I know which candidate they’re more likely to choose. That’s kind of why I was surprised there weren’t more candidates like that.

      I guess this is our micro-Great Stagnation (relying on the ripening of past technologies for the low-hanging fruit.) I wonder if there is a way to get data on whether there really is a boom-bust cycle of: Large Boom in Tech Development -> filters out slowly -> Next Large Boom

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