A psychology professor at the U.S. Naval Academy on why professional guidance doesn’t always work out as planned

B.R.J. O’DONNELL JUL 28, 2017, The Atlantic


Mentorship is often cast as a positive experience. But for every scientist whose mentor enabled a research breakthrough and every high-school student whose mentor was key to receiving a college acceptance letter, there are people whose professional relationships were counterproductive or even damaging. And despite this reality, the potential pitfalls of mentorship are not as often discussed as the benefits of it.

For The Atlantic’s series “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with W. Brad Johnson, a professor in the department of leadership, ethics, and law at the United States Naval Academy. Johnson talked about how his career came to focus on understanding mentorship, how these relationships can unravel, and what can be done to salvage them if they do. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

B.R.J. O’Donnell: What do you see as the most critical element to get right when it comes to mentorship?

W. Brad Johnson: Intentionality on both sides really matters. If there is one variable that shows if mentorship relationships are likely to take off or not, it’s frequency of interaction during the first several months of the relationship. I find that very often mentors are so busy that they may notionally commit to mentoring somebody and then never follow through. And I think an absent mentor, somebody who never responds, can be profoundly toxic. It may unintentionally convey to the mentee that they are just not that worthy or important.

O’Donnell: Some would say that the mentee should just be persistent in a situation like that. When faced with a distant mentor, should they just keep pushing for a response?

Johnson: Sometimes mentees view their mentors as being so accomplished that they have trepidation about approaching them, and they are hesitant to reach out. So if both of those elements are present, what you actually have is two people who just never interact, and that isn’t mentorship.

O’Donnell: In your experience, what is the biggest source of conflict in these relationships?

Johnson: I think if expectations are not aligned, you will often get conflict. If the two parties work to align their expectations around what the relationship is going to be about, and what functions a mentor is going to provide—how they will work together, what the mentor’s role will be in the life of the mentee, and how often they meet—then this is a pitfall that can be sidestepped.

O’Donnell: When mentorship isn’t going as planned, what can improve the situation?

Johnson: Too often, in any relationship where there is dysfunction, the two people don’t talk about it transparently. I would say that basic communication is essential. A mentor can avoid an awful lot of that simply by bringing up their concerns. It can be as straightforward as saying, “I’ve noticed that you don’t drop by anymore. Am I contributing to something that’s problematic? Help me understand.”

Also, self-awareness is key. If I’m a busy mentor, and I travel too much, and I don’t follow through with mentees, and that leads to hard feelings, then I have to solicit that feedback. And then I have to reflect. Perhaps the way I say things or the way I communicate is tricky and off-putting. If my own personal life is not going well—maybe my primary relationship is on the rocks, and I’m getting needs met, subtly, by mentees, and that’s uncomfortable for them—I’ve got to have self-awareness about that. I think the mentor has got to take responsibility.

O’Donnell: You’ve found romantic attraction to be a problem in some of these relationships. If someone does find themselves attracted to the person on the other side of the desk, what would you say to them?

Johnson: Occasionally, mentors have trouble with ethics and boundaries, and I know that is an issue in academia. It’s certainly an issue in corporate contexts. You will find people crossing boundaries, being intrusive, folks initiating romantic relationships. And those things that take away from the focus on the mentee’s career trajectory and personal development are toxic, and they can definitely lead to conflict.

I think mentors also need to come to terms with the idea that all of the things that lead to better mentoring may also lead to some attraction at times: self-disclosure, an increasingly bonded, trusting relationship, some measure of increase in warmth. Good boundaries are essential. Just like a mental-health professional might recognize that they have feelings of attraction towards a client, that doesn’t give them the green light to act on those feelings. In fact, in the field, there are very clear ethical guidelines prohibiting that, and for very good reason. In my view, it’s never going to be in the best interest of the mentee to sexualize or romanticize that relationship. So I put that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the mentor, to accept but not act on attraction.

O’Donnell: What is the most effective way to approach building these relationships, especially with people who are different from you?

Johnson: I really encourage and counsel humility, and this often comes up in the case of mentorship across differences in gender, differences in race, culture, sexual orientation. You need to be really careful about approaching someone with a different set of experiences from your own, with a sense of humility and a learning orientation. And for me, that goes beyond situations where there is conflict or dysfunction. I would say that humility is one of the hallmarks of really good mentorship in general.



By Maggie Kuo Jul. 18, 2017


The rich have been getting richer in the biomedical research enterprise, and the system favors those who are already doing pretty well, according to a new analysis of National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant recipients.

The top 10% of NIH grant winners (by total award) received about 37% of NIH funding in 2015—up from the 32% the top group got in 1985, but down a bit from a peak of 40% of total funding in 2010, according to an analysis published last week by researchers at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

In contrast, the bottom 40% of principal investigators (PIs) won approximately 12% of the pot in 2015, down from 16% in 1985 and not a dramatic change from 11% in 2010.

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The analysis also found that the amount of grant money PIs in the top and bottom echelons had varied dramatically. In 2010, the median funding of PIs in the top 10% was $1.45 million per PI, whereas the median funding of PIs in the bottom 40% was $140,000 per investigator.

The results were similar when viewed by university. In 2015, the top 10% of grant-winning universities received 75% of the NIH total, whereas the bottom 40% won only 0.6%. That’s only a slight shift from 1985, when the top 10% of universities won 70% of NIH funds, whereas the bottom 40% won 1%.

To produce the numbers, researchers tracked the amount of money NIH awarded to grant recipients between 1985 and 2015, as well as publications and patents related to the awards. Lead author Yarden Katz, a fellow at the center and in the department of systems biology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, says they were interested in examining the relationship between NIH funding and metrics widely used to indicate scientific quality and determine career advancement, such as publication, citation, and patent counts.

The skew in NIH funding that the researchers found is not surprising—NIH has noted the inequality in its own analyses. But the new study serves as a reminder that the inequality has persisted for decades, says Chris Pickett, executive director of Rescuing Biomedical Research in Washington, D.C. The data show “why you can have people at universities where the university ranks 30th or 40th in total NIH funding coming in, and they feel like they’re barely scraping by,” Pickett says. “It’s because there’s a lot of money concentrated in the top institutions.”

Strong funding corresponds to other metrics as well. For instance, PIs in the top 20% of NIH funding had more publications and more citations than those lower on the funding tally. But there were noticeable differences even at the top of the pile: PIs in the top 90th percentile had nearly 1.4 times more publications than PIs one step down in the 80th percentile.

PIs publishing in high-profile journals tended to have more funding, too, the study found. For example, the median funding level of PIs publishing in the biomedical publishing world’s big three—NatureScience, and Cell—was in the 80th percentile, with many clustering around the top 90th funding percentile. The median funding level for PIs publishing in journals with lower impact factors—such as PLOS ONE and the Journal of Biological Chemistry—was not much lower, about the 70th percentile, but the distribution of funding brackets was more diverse.

For new PIs, those who started strong in winning grants tended to stay on top. Within the first 8 years of their career, PIs whose first grant landed them in the top 10% of NIH funding stayed in that top rung for an average of 5 years. In contrast, PIs starting in the bottom 40% stayed in that rung for 4 to 6 years, on average, before transitioning out, which could include moving up or dropping out. That stagnancy suggests that where early career researchers start on the funding ladder “may have an important effect on their career,” Pickett says.

Patents—a favored metric for scientific innovation and another source of income for institutions—were also concentrated in the hands of a few: Ten percent of institutions hold 80% of the NIH-funded patents. That might be because many universities don’t have the financial and legal resources necessary to pursue a lot of patents, Katz notes. But “if we’re saying patents are required to show that you are an innovative scientist or to get funding, then again this will … privilege this small minority of institutes,” he says.

The study comes in the wake of an NIH decision to drop a controversial plan to cap how much grant funding an individual investigator can win from the agency, in part to free up funding for more early- and midcareer researchers. Katz, for one, was disappointed by the decision, which he sees as the result of strong resistance from biomedicine’s better-off elite. But he says he’s committed to staying out of the metrics race. For example, since 2014, he says he has published only in open-access journals. The fixation on prestige publications and citation numbers for career advancement takes away from the creativity and diversity in science, Katz believes, and he says “I’m not going to ruin my time in science trying to optimize these things.”

By Phyllis Kahn | 06/08/17


The combination of science and public policy seems to have greater relevance today. We saw the increased interest of the public as evinced by the recent March for Science events in D.C. and in many localities, including St. Paul. Also important is the creation of a new political group, 314 ACTION, designed to encourage scientists to seek political office.

We are also seeing increased political polarization of scientific issues such as global warming, emphasized now by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord.

Scientific and technological advances have been an important part of human development ever since the first Neolithic farmer started to analyze conditions necessary to improve her agricultural practices for increased crop production leading to better nutrition and survival. As human interactions have increased in complexity and become dependent on more political interaction, science and technology have become increasingly important to each part of our political system; legislative, executive and judicial and at each level of government, federal, state and local.

What is it like to try to do science in the political scene? In my first election, rather than emphasizing the women’s issues that had sparked my interest in politics, I concentrated on the importance of having someone with an understanding of science in office. (My credentials include a B.A. in physics and a Ph.D. in biophysics and some years of research in molecular genetics.) In the past election, both Ph.D.-credentialed scientists in the Minnesota Legislature were defeated.

A noted authority on science policy once wrote, “State and local governments employ science and technological knowledge in much the same way as the American populace employs the English language — on a daily basis, unquestioningly, and at less than technically attainable standards of performance.”

The tendency toward a short-term view

A traditional politician often takes a rather short-term view of most public policy issues. It becomes difficult for that politician to consider issues which may not be significant in 10 or 20 years or perhaps a millennium, when the next election is in six months. In addition, the immediate consequences of actions are always awarded a higher perceived importance than any possible long-range problem.

It is not surprising that the general public feels uncomfortable in areas requiring scientific knowledge and that the politician reflects this discomfort to an even greater degree. The pressure of making a wrong decision on a subject he or she knows little about and understands even less appears to be an avoidable risk.

Folks on each side point out the inability of anyone without years of training in complex sciences to comprehend the full ramifications of any such decision. It is argued that it is far better and safer to political bodies to do nothing and to let the experts — i.e., the regulatory agencies on one side or tobacco companies, chemical companies or drug manufacturers — decide.

A part of the problem is that the hopes of society have been raised, and scientists have appeared to promise more than they can deliver. We are all familiar with the “man on the moon” speech, some variation of the plea that the same talent that put a man on the moon could get him to work on time, keep him out of jail, end pollution on earth and so on ad infinitum.

Local, regional, state issues

The additional complication is that these problems are often the province not of the federal government but of some murky intermediate stage of city, county, regional or state government. Local levels of government face an increasing number of problems with heavy scientific and technological content in the areas of health care, land management, pollution, nuclear power and other energy problems, waste management, transportation and even social issues in either rural or urban settings.

The scientists, in the public view, take on conflicting roles. One is that of the neutral technician who produces the knowledge and lets others use it. Tom Lehrer expresses this in one of his songs:

Once the rockets are up
Who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department
Says Wernher von Braun.

At the opposite pole are the scientists who think of all knowledge residing with themselves. The solution then appears to be to find a broker and translator to the public policy makers and relieve the decision-makers of the responsibility of evaluating technical competence. In this simplistic model, the best minds are assembled; they ask thoughtful questions; they reach solid conclusions and resolve the conflicts between any conflicting technical views. The public decision-maker then adopts as policy the wisdom so delivered. These are models for the implementation of scientific decisions mainly conceived by scientists and so far unused in the real world as a replacement for the traditional political process.

Different processes

Government uses and needs science, and even appreciates its need for science, but the basic principles of running government have been derived by people trained in law with little understanding of the scientific method and thought processes.

The political-legal mind must make a decision even with inadequate data — and in the absence of reason, will settle for ideology, a comparison of alternatives, political acumen or even “gut reaction.” However, the scientist without data will most often remain silent or feel that she has forfeited her credentials to speak as a scientist. This fundamental difference in the decision-making process is perhaps the most difficult for either the scientist or the politician to understand.

The situation becomes even more complicated for the politician when confronted with conflicting scientific advice. Disagreement can occur from basic scientific evidence or from the implications imputed to this evidence, or even the political orientation of the scientists producing the data.

With the issue of climate change, we see even the small minority of climate deniers given scientific credence because it fits into someone’s personal agenda.

Only part of the puzzle

How can we integrate sound science and public policy decisions?

Even if we become expert at distinguishing cases of sound science from cases of junk science, in the public policy arena, scientific evidence is only part of the policy puzzle. Public officials will also want to factor in social, economic, financial, logistical and political information into the decision-making process. Most frustrating to many scientists is the situation that just because the scientific evidence is sound doesn’t mean it will be the sole determinant of the direction of public policy.

Part of the problem is diverse public policy opinions on the appropriate responses to science and technology policy issues, concerning the best strategies of balancing health, safety and environmental concerns against economic considerations, or the cause of productivity decline and the most effective means of stimulating innovation.

The necessary creative dialogue requires better education for its participants at all levels. There is a strong arguments for judges to understand the subject matter of any dispute they are to resolve. The courts should understand the technical issues well enough to convey the implications of their decisions to the professionals in the agencies. This is also true of the responsibility of legislators for their statutory enactments. Since executive agencies are usually the repository for informed experts, the current administration’s attack on the science-based executive agencies all the more alarming.

The scientific and industrial establishments have delivered the message that American scientific and technological advances have built the American way of life. Yet there is also the realization that we face serious problems in maintaining this way of life — including the need to establish new safe energy supplies, with attention to the problems of climate change; to dispose of solid or hazardous waste; to protect endangered species; and to enhance economic development while maintaining international competitiveness.

Public retains faith in science and tech

Despite some disillusionment, indications are that the public still retains great faith in science and technology and even still naïvely believes that technological fixes can be found for almost all the ills of the world. Our citizens, believing in participatory democracy, want to control the important forces serving their lives — thus the desire to control science and technology.

The imposition of public controls on science and technology must be done within a democratic social ethic. This means by lawyers, scientists, engineers, farmers, government officials and academics. We have an enormous job in both mutual education and translation on our hands.

Phyllis Kahn represented Minneapolis District 60B in the Minnesota House of Representatives for 22 terms. She has a B.A. in physics from Cornell, a Ph.D. in biophysics from Yale and an M.P.A. from the J.F.K. School of Government at Harvard.


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