This week I attended an insightful seminar by the newly announced Nobel Laureate and former ASCB President Randy Schekman. Months ago, Schekman had agreed to speak at this routine NIH seminar to be held in an obscure conference room in a nondescript government building. However, after the invitation went out, something happened in Stockholm, which transformed the Schekman talk into a major event. Well over a thousand excited scientists turned out.
Schekman told the audience how his research followed in the footsteps of another ASCB President and Nobelist, George Palade. Schekman described how Palade had been able to photograph through EM various organelles in the cell but lacked the genetic tools that came later that would have allowed him to fully understand the function of vesicles and how secretion and trafficking worked at the molecular and cellular level. Schekman recalled how impressed he'd been to hear Palade speak at the 1974 ASCB meeting in San Diego—Schekman's very first ASCB meeting—as Palade stopped on his way back from receiving the Nobel medal in Stockholm. What Schekman didn't tell his NIH audience was that he intends to emulate Palade in another way. Schekman will go straight from the medals ceremony in Stockholm to address the 2013 ASCB Annual Meeting in New Orleans on December 16.
Palade's yet-to-be-invented genetic tools finally allowed Schekman to dissect the secretory pathway, using the simpler yeast model, rather than the more complex mammalian cell model. Working with a first-year graduate student, Peter Novik, Schekman identified a mutant yeast that presented an abnormally large number of vesicles trapped inside the budding yeast cell. Schekman said that he knew at this point that he was up to something important. And, as it happens in science, step after step, he identified 23 genes, called Sec, which helped map the secretory pathway in the cell, filling in details of what Palade had seen years before through electron microscopy.
Schekman's discoveries, together with those of Jim Rothman and Tom Südhof, transformed our understanding of cellular physiology. Thanks to their discoveries, we now know how cell cargoes are delivered with precise timing to the right locations within and outside the cell. Defects in these pathways drive several pathologies that affect the brain, the immune system, and metabolism including diabetes.
Once Schekman had all the scientists in the room thinking about the marvels of secretion and autophagy, his speech, toward the end, took an unexpected turn. He said that he wanted to discuss an issue about which he felt passionate—the misuse of the journal impact factor (JIF) as a proxy for evaluating scientific papers and the scientists who write them. I almost fell out of my seat at this point, and started elbowing one of the NIH Deputy Directors who was sitting next to me. This year's Nobel Prize winner was going to talk about DORA! Spelled out, DORA is the Declaration on Research Assessment that took fire in San Francisco at the 2012 ASCB Annual Meeting when a gathering of journal editors and scientists rose up against the tyranny of the JIF. With enthusiastic support from ASCB, DORA burst upon the scientific world last summer. Now Schekman was telling the NIH crowd that the practice of giving cash prizes to scientists who'd published in journals with high impact factors was essentially bribery. It was certainly the wrong incentive to offer to anyone interested in spotting innovative scientists. DORA, Schekman declared, was the first step back from JIF madness. To make the connection clear, Schekman stopped to point everyone to the ASCB website where they could sign DORA and help push the number past the 10,000 signature milestone.
I was overjoyed to watch such an accomplished scientist use the bully pulpit of his Nobel status to change the culture of the scholarly publishing world. Last summer, DORA was met with nitpicking and stalling by those with vested interests in JIF as promotional tools. But as Schekman made his compelling case against the JIF to a key audience at NIH, I suddenly realized that the old JIF system was doomed. This is not just because JIFs are deceptive but because their time is over. More accurate and more flexible tools for scientific assessment in the 21st century are emerging. Bragging about your JIF will soon be passé and slightly tacky.
Walking back to the ASCB national office from the NIH campus, I tried to imagine a young Randy Schekman at the 1974 Annual Meeting, listening spellbound to George Palade, fresh from Stockholm. This year it will be Schekman coming to the ASCB on his way back from Stockholm. Somewhere in the ASCB audience next month in New Orleans, I predict that there will be a new young "Schekman," gender or ethnicity irrelevant, sitting there mesmerized. One day it will be that young person's turn to stop over at ASCB on the way back from Sweden. This is the beauty of ASCB. It is a fabulous wheel of great science that turns.
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