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An open letter to Claudio Stern

Posted by , on 25 May 2022

Dear Claudio,

I read your article just now, it is so perceptive of where things have gone in ‘Embryology’. The problem with us oldies is that we compare approaches, but the new generations can ignore us saying we have rose-tinted glasses about the past. And that may be true, but it is not an argument and your article provides real arguments. One core theme running through the article is that the balance between data collection and experiments that are designed to understand has gone completely wrong over the last few decades.

It is so comforting to find someone else who sees this as clearly as you do. When we began our work, Wigglesworth was my mentor. His style was careful observation, then a question (how? why?), then a series of simple and direct experiments to answer it. I have always tried to follow this approach, and with genetics, specifically genetic mosaics, we have had powerful (although not so simple) methods to do this.

I don’t think our papers have changed fundamentally in this long time, we still try to get at mechanisms by carefully designed experiments and I submit that they meet high standards of technique and rigour. But we can’t publish them in major journals as we used to, indeed we don’t even try. I submit this is because they don’t meet the new criteria. You explain what these criteria are in your article. To put it cynically, I believe that success goes to those who put in so much fashionable data that no reviewer can fault it, they are almost ‘drowned’ into submission.  When we showed that a cell could have two opposite polarities, in vivo and in situ, depending on inputs from its different neighbours, I naively thought it would be of great interest as it challenges many of the decades-old perceptions of planar cell polarity. It was published in eLife and the evidence is so clear. But it created not even a ripple in the field. That, more than anything, showed me that developmental biology has moved into a new landscape where slag heaps of fashionable data interfere with sight lines (and thought). Just as you put so nicely in your article, thank you for writing it.

Peter




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One thought on “An open letter to Claudio Stern”

  1. Dear Peter,
    I have read the letter that you have written to Claudio on the occasion of his essay in Developmental Biology. In more than one way, and given that you concur so clearly with Claudio, this letter is for both of you.
    What a disappointment!. As neither of you follow Twitter (which Claudio deems a waste of time and focus), you may not have heard about the response that the commentary produced. Claudio had some good points but they were buried behind a negative tone, highly scornful of the current world, blind to the opportunities that many of us see in it. People like you and Claudio should not be ‘panning’ the rich environment that you helped establish. Instead you should be building bridges with the traditions that you know well and that we need to be kept alive to build the future and advance our understanding of how animals develop and evolve. The response of Alex Schier was superb and it is good to know that he is preparing a scholarly appropriate reply for publication. The essay also had the effect of rallying most people behind what Claudio criticised and you support.

    In the end, what comes across from both of you is not an articulated criticism of the current situation but a lament for a past which does not exist and, thankfully, has moved on. You seem to complain about your voices not being heard. All mixed with laments about journals, publications and forums to which you once had easy access but don’t any more. This makes all seem more an articulation of personal frustration with being out of fashion than anything else and sends the wrong message to young people because it suggests that to be seen is more important than to see.

    One of the good things of today’s world is that there are more ways of letting your findings be known than there were before, and the two of you can and should use them to publish your findings.

    Something that comes across from both of you is a lack of appreciation for the fact that we are in a transition period, very similar to what happened in the 70s with the appearance of molecular biology in the stage that you want to protect so much. You may remember that, at the time, some people were very reluctant to accept what it brought to the questions that we had at the time and that these people rejected the findings, the methods and their insights as trivial, data, superficial information. I remember some of this very well. And yet, molecular biology transformed our understanding of development and provided an understanding that is the foundation of today. Part of it was because developmental geneticists and embryologists embraced it with enthusiasm and helped create a wonderful blend that continues today.
    Something similar is happening today with the entrance of physics, mathematics and big data and while I sympathize with the challenge that this represents for many of us, who don’t have the right background and grew in times of less information and more ignorance, I also notice that young people are as comfortable in this world as you and I were with clonal and genetic analysis in the 80s. Our job should be to remind them of the questions we have not answered and help them have a go at them with the modern methods. If we don’t do that and Developmental Biology becomes just data collecting, we (you, Claudio and me) will have failed as scientists, because Science is a tradition where individuals matter less than progress and findings. Breaking that tradition by shutting the door to the future represents failure.

    Fortunately the four articles that Claudio cites at the end of his essay do not, as he says, support his views. On the contrary, they see a bright future on a thriving present.
    Like many I bemoan the pessimistic message that the two of you are trying to pass on and that this will be what young biologists who don’t know how you inspired many of us in the past, will remember you.
    Remember what Jean Rostand said ““Le biologiste passe, la grenouille reste” (The biologists pass, the frog remains).
    With best wishes
    Alfonso
    PS I thought Claudio’s comment mocking discussions about ‘life-work balance’ were, after the last two years, insensitive and reflected, as the rest of the essay, a profound lack of understanding of the times in which we live and the current mettle of our trade.

    162

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