Subtractive Criterion

Currently I’m in the process of writing an application for a Very Fancy Fellowship (VFF). Probably several thousand other folks are also doing the same and it’s extremely competitive, but with a very high payoff. Yesterday, a senior faculty in my university who used to be in the scientific board of VFF was kind enough to meet with a group of faculty that are applying for VFF to give us some insight into their review process. One thing he said that they look for is whether an applicant passes the subtraction criterion. Which is basically this: If you were to suddenly drop out of science, would it make a difference to the field? Who would notice? Have your contributions been so essential that the field would be impoverished if they were missing?

This is a very harsh criterion and a very high bar. I don’t think that I would pass this at all. And its not because I don’t have a productive lab, publish in good places, and steadily contribute to my field. But rather because I think to pass this bar you either need to work on something so transformative and so essential that if your papers were never published, the field would be severely depleted, or that you are very good at making yourself ubiquitous at all the key conferences and talking at all the right places. And I don’t think I would necessarily fit into those categories. And maybe that’s the point of this VFF, that they want the tip of the creamy tippy top crop.

How about you? Would you survive the subtractive criterion?

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16 Responses to Subtractive Criterion

  1. kevin. says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the committee decided that science would be tangibly better if I was subtracted.

  2. Jim Thomerson says:

    We interviewed a guy who was a smell physiologist. He said he had gone to an international meeting of smell physiologists. There were 26 in attendance, so, at worst, he was 26th in his field.

  3. I’ve heard the same thing about the same VFF, and it’s bullshitte. There is nothing in science that wouldn’t have arisen in a few years anyway, even if the supposed “genius” didn’t discover it when she did.

  4. Gerty-Z says:

    gonna agree with CPP. i think vff wants to believe that without them science would be totally hamstrung. this is full-on bullshitte

    • namnezia says:

      True. But like everyone else who is eligible I will be applying… What seems more onerous apparently is the grilling one gets if you make it to round 2.

  5. DJMH says:

    Actually I don’t think it’s a bad criterion. In my mind it’s not about being a lone genius, it’s about carving out a relatively unique niche for your research program. Which I’ve always been told is a good thing to do anyhow….

  6. DrugMonkey says:

    The people who are doing obscure stuff that not everybody’s uncle and PP will get to eventually are the only ones that really fit this criterion. They are also the people who would never in a thousand years of solitude be thought of as VFF material.

    • namnezia says:

      Well sort of. Some VFF labs are so huge that aside from cracking out trendy pubs that would have been done by someone else if not by them, they are also cranking out large amounts of more mundane but solid basic stuff. In many subfields, almost all of what we know is due to one or two VFF labs cranking out all the papers, both in fancy and in non fancy journals. While this factory style output is not good for the trainees, it does produce a lot of knowledge.

    • DJMH says:

      Disagree, depending on what you mean by “eventually”. In another 10 years, yeah ok maybe? My grad lab had VFF and I think a major reason why was the focus on a corner of the nervous system that was seriously neglected. But we published in decent journals, so “obscure”? not really.

      • drugmonkey says:

        if it was indeed seriously neglected than it was obscure. because the assumption is that it would go right on being neglected. perhaps your threshold for “neglected” is different from mine.

  7. Pascale says:

    We will all suddenly drop out of our fields one day, if for no other reason than we die. I cannot think of a single field of inquiry that would become seriously impoverished by the loss of a single investigator.

  8. drugmonkey says:

    I cannot think of a single field of inquiry that would become seriously impoverished by the loss of a single investigator.

    Oh, mine would when I kick it. for sure.

  9. cackleofradness says:

    Can I hug the people that called bullshit on the subtractive criterion? Thank you….

  10. Tara says:

    Whoa I think I’d pass this test. Although it’s not as glamorous as it sounds since there are probably only about 8 people who care about what it was that would be different in my field if I had not existed… But I don’t know which VFF this is!

  11. Wow, I have never thought about this criterion before. As peon in academia (grad student, here), I surely wouldn’t pass the sniff test on this one. I wonder how much room is left for potentially transformative candidates who have stellar training, a consistent pub record, and excellent communication/interpersonal skills. Clearly this is more of a gamble, and there are probably other VFF suited towards this end. That criterion is a bit of a cop out, though. There are some cases where the scientific community hasn’t realized that a particular line of thought/research is transformative until decades later. Another way of saying this is: who are we to think that we are so adept at science and research that we can point out the transformative/salient research the moment it is published?

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