Unlocking the mysteries of the brain’s neocortex
efJf Hawkins’ 2021 book A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence, focuses on the neocortex and how it helps us to understand the world around us, before examining the future of artificial intelligence, based on what we already know about the brain.
In this final episode of Tales from the Synapse, a 12-part podcast series about neuroscience, Hawkins describes how his book finishes on a philosophical note, by covering the future of humanity in an age of intelligent machines.
Hawkins is chief scientist at Numenta, a research company he started 17 years ago in Redwood City, California. He career started in the semiconductor industry but his interest in the theories underpinning brain science was triggered by a 1979 article in Scientific American, written by Francis Crick.
“I realized that I don’t think there’s anything more interesting or important to work on, because every human endeavour is based on the brain. Everything we have ever done in the arts and the sciences, and literature and humanities and politics. It’s all brains,” he says.
Hawkins’ search for an academic career in theoretical brain science proved fruitless, prompting a return to industry and the founding of both Palm Computing and Handspring. In 2002 he established the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, now based at the University of California Berkeley.
Tales from the Synapse is produced in partnership with Nature Neuroscience and introduced by Jean Mary Zarate, a senior editor at the journal. The series features brain scientists from all over the world who talk about their career journeys, collaborations and the societal impact of their research.
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Culture clashes: Unpicking the power dynamics between research managers and academics36:27Before launching his own consultancy in 2021, Simon Kerridge worked as a research manager in UK academia. “We’re the oil in the cogs,” he says of the role, adding: “Obviously, it’s a service profession, but we have to be careful not to be subservient.”But how empowered do research managers and administrators based in other countries feel, particularly those working in nations with rigid hierarchies, or where the profession is less established?Allen Mukhwana leads ReMPro Africa, a research management professional developement programme based in Nairobi. Some professors don't understand why a “lowly research manager” has the audacity to stop their study for ethical or regulatory reasons, she says. “They feel that research managers and administrators are adding extra layers of bureaucracy to their research.”Tadashi Sugihara, a research manager at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, says a Japanese government scheme to develop the research manager role envisaged that postholders would have a PhD, as he has. Having a doctorate can help build trust between administrators and academic staff as the “customer”, he adds.Kerridge says the research management career pathway is most established in the US, with perhaps three generations from the same family joining the profession. Meeting a project proposal deadline or collaborating on a successful grant application at a research-intensive institution, he adds, will often result in a bottle of wine or box of chocolates from an appreciative researcher. But the pressure on them to increase their research income often results in huge power dynamics, says Kerridge, who cites instances of bullying and of academics setting unreasonably tight deadlines to submit a project proposal.
This alternative way to measure research impact made judges cry with joy31:49The UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) collects research outputs from UK universities and is used by the the country’s government to distribute around £2 billion in research funding. But its focus on publications to measure outputs has drawn criticism. The Hidden REF, set up in 2020, looks at alternative measures. Simon Hettrick, its chair and director of the Software Susaintability Institute at the University of Southampton, UK, explains what can be submitted, and why publications are excluded. Gemma Derrick, a former member of the Hidden REF advisory committee who studies research policy and culture at the University of Bristol, UK, talks about its “hidden roles” category, and why some entries moved judges to tears. Kevin Atkins, who has worked as a site engineer at the University of Plymouth’s Marine Biological Association for 32 years, was highly commended in the category. He describes a typical day, and how his work contributes to the wider research enterprise.Another highly commended entry was Growing up on the Streets, an international co-produced research project led by the University of Dundee, which focuses on around 200 young people aged 14 to 20 across three African cities: Accra, Bukavu and Harare. Lorraine van Blerk, a human geography researcher at the university, explains how six young people in each city were recruited as researchers, and how their roles were recognised and celebrated.
“Just get the admin to do it.” Why research managers are feeling misunderstood34:32In the first episode of a six-part podcast series about research culture and team science, research managers Lorna Wilson and Hilary Noone describe how their skills and expertise can help deliver better research outputs, particularly when their contributions are better understood and valued by academic colleagues.Noone, research and innovation culture lead at the funding agency UK Research and Innovation, recalls the discomfort felt all round when an academic colleague tells a meeting: “Just get the admin to do it. That’s what they’re there for, to serve you.”Wilson, who is head of research development at Durham University, UK, describes being overlooked during an external meeting with collaborators where attendees were asked to introduce themselves. She was the only woman and professional services representative in the room. “It was a really disappointing moment for me. Until that point I loved working with my academic colleagues and had felt valued, but then I experienced that,” she says.Wilson, who chairs the UK Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA), says many of her colleagues have expertise in public policy and research impact, so a more positive research culture with parity of esteem between the two teams will result in more funding proposals and higher-profile research outputs.In 2020 an ARMA research culture survey led by Noone identified that many of its members felt there was a “them and us” mindset in the workplace. She and Wilson describe what the organization is doing to address the findings.Team Science is a six-part Working Scientist podcast series, a collaboration between Nature Careers and Nature Index and is sponsored by Western Sydney University. Each episode concludes with a section looking at how it is helping to champion team science.
7. A funder's guide to tackling setbacks and winning grants31:27In November 2021, Maria Leptin became president of the European Research Council. After a long career in biological research, Leptin admits that starting the process of closing her lab at the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) before taking up her new role, was difficult. “You win some you lose some,” she tells Nature careers editor Jack Leeming of this new career step. “It's painful, but that's the decision I've made.”Leptin shares some advice for early career researchers writing grants and how researchers can advocate for more funding of science from politicians. She also speaks about the different types of research that deserve to be funded. It doesn’t all need to be ground-breaking, she says, adding: “Just because it's incremental and is not another breakthrough, doesn't mean it's not important. It's extremely important.”This episode is part of an ongoing Working Scientist podcast series about funding in science.
Sexual harassment in science: tackling abusers, protecting targets, changing cultures33:02In late 2021 a BuzzFeed investigation revealed a catalogue of sexual misconduct incidents at the Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). Ecologist Sarah Batterman, one of more than a dozen women to speak out about their experiences, describes what happened to her and the impact it has had on her career.Batterman, who filed a formal complaint to the institute in 2020 after being contacted by other women with similar experiences of harassment and abuse at STRI, tells Adam Levy: “It was almost 10 years of a lot of pain after what happened, which made a lot of my research really difficult. I estimate that I lost three of the 10 years in productivity.”Josh Tewkesbury joined STRI as its director in July 2021, five months before the BuzzFeed story broke. He describes the measures taken to safeguard scientists from sexual harassment and assault since its investigation concluded.“We have been working with the people that came forward for the BuzzFeed article, engaging them in the process of how we make STRI a more safe place. ” he says. “We’ve been just overwhelmed and really thankful with the degree to which those individuals have, have been willing to engage.”This episode is part of a Working Scientist podcast series about freedom and safety in science.
Bullying in academia: why it happens and how to stop it20:27Morteza Mahmoudi witnessed bullying behaviours during a series of lab visits following his PhD in 2009, and now studies the topic alongside his role as a nanoscience and regenerative medicine researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing. In 2019 he co-founded the Academic Parity Movement, a non-profit which aims to end academic discrimination, violence and bullying across the sector.In the seventh episode of this podcast series about freedom and safety in science, Mahmoudi tells Adam Levy that bullying is triggered by workplace power imbalances and is particularly prevalent in academia with its hierarchical structure, often causing targets to stay silent.Bullying can cause a range of physical and mental health problems, he says. Perpetrators damage individuals, institutions’ reputations and wider society. He outlines steps to take if you find yourself bullied, and how academic institutions can tackle the problem.Mahmoudi is joined by geoscientist Chris Jackson, who left academia in 2022 for a role at engineering consultancy Jacobs, based in Manchester, UK. Jackson welcomes the fact that bullying harassment and discrimination in academia is now more talked about, but says its root cause is an individual’s inability to put themselves in someone else’s position and identify with their personality and experience.
Magical meeting: a collaboration to tackle child malnutrition in Bangladesh14:48As a child of the Space Age, Jeffrey Gordon dreamed of becoming an astronaut and discovering life on Mars. Instead he found fascinating life forms and interactions closer to home, inside the gastrointestinal tract.The microbiome researcher, winner of the 2023 Global Grants for Gut Health Research Group Prize, tells Julie Gould about his research focus and the workplace culture in his lab at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri.Gordon also describes the “magical meeting,” that forged a longstanding collaboration with physician Tahmeed Ahmed, executive director of the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b), and their investigations into how immaturity of the gut microbiota contributes to malnutrition.The two researchers explain how the prize money will help to further strengthen an ongoing two-way knowledge exchange between the US team and their colleagues in Dhaka.This episode of the podcast is sponsored by the Global Grants for Gut Health, supported by Yakult and Nature Portfolio. Learn more about the current call for grant applications and how to apply at this link.
How to deliver a safer research culture for LGBTQIA+ researchers44:27A professor invites colleagues and their partners to a Christmas party but reacts negatively when a young gay researcher asks to bring his future husband along. A Black carnivore researcher conceals their bisexuality and pronoun preferences when doing fieldwork in sub-Saharan Africa.These two experiences are among those recounted in this Working Scientist podcast about the challenges faced by researchers from LGBTQIA+ communities.Paleantologist Alison Olcott, who co-authored a 2020 study of 261 LGBTQIA+ geocientists and their experiences of fieldwork, tells Adam Levy how some academic institutions are changing fieldwork policies in light of the study’s findings.They are joined by Florence Ashley, a bioethics and legal scholar whose research on trans youth care at the University of Alberta, Canada, has resulted in death threats and accusations of grooming.This is the sixth episode of a seven-part podcast series about freedom and safety in science. This episode and the five earlier ones conclude with a follow-up sponsored slot from the International Science Council about how it is exploring freedom, responsibility and safety in science.
Trolled in science: “Hundreds of hateful comments in a single day”43:34Atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe realised she was the only climate researcher in West Texas when she joined Texas Tech University in Lubbock, 15 years ago.Within a few months she was being asked to address community groups about climate change, but also a growing number of posts from social media trolls who disagreed with her, many of them misogynistic in tone.The situation has worsened since October 2022, she says. This follows amendments to Twitter’s free speech policies after the platform changed ownership.“It used to be that I would receive that hate via letters or emails, or phone calls, or official complaints to my university. And those certainly still arrive. But now the deluge of hundreds of hateful comments in a single day that the internet facilitates, whether it is on Twitter, or LinkedIn, or Facebook, or even Instagram, the volume is just 100 times more than it would be without the Internet.”Hayhoe and Chris Jackson, a geoscientist who was extensively trolled after becoming the first Black researcher to deliver a Royal Institution Christmas lecture, describe how employers can protect scientists facing both online and in-person harassment, alongside they personal strategies they have adopted to protect themselves.In the fifth episode of this seven-part podcast series about freedom and safety in science, they are joined by Alfredo Carpineti, a science journalist who chairs Pride in STEM, a UK charity that supports LGBTQIA+ scientists and engineers, and Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit to help environmental scientists in the United States who find themselves under fire.The first six episodes in this series conclude with a follow-up sponsored slot from the International Science Council about how it is exploring freedom, responsibility and safety in science.