Thought of the Day

(by drugmonkey) Feb 07 2017

I started blogging in a fit of anger about some aspect of the grant-funded scientific research career or other.

In the course of venting a lot of spleen about things that were bothering me, I met a lot of new people, virtually and eventually in real life.

These people taught me a lot of interesting stuff. Some career related, some scientific, some just plain old life.

It has been an interesting decade.

Thanks. To all my Readers and Commenters over the years.

Thank you.

15 responses so far


(by drugmonkey) Jan 31 2017

It is sort of interesting that just as my decade blogging as DrugMonkey is expiring, all this political jazz erupts.

20 responses so far


(by drugmonkey) Jan 31 2017


Indecent people do not stop because they realize they are wrong or went too far.

They only stop when the decent people stop them.

3 responses so far

Scientists' march on Washington

(by drugmonkey) Jan 26 2017


26 responses so far

The past is prologue: Political NIH interference edition

(by drugmonkey) Jan 24 2017

From a prestigious general science journal:

"Important elements in both Senate and the House are showing increasing dissatisfaction over Congress's decade-long honeymoon with medical research....critics are dissatisfied...with the NIH's procedures for supervising the use of money by its research grantees....NIH officials..argued, rather, that the most productive method in financing research is to pick good people with good projects and let them carry out their work without encumbering them...its growth has been phenomenal....[NIH director}: nor do we believe that most scientific groups in the country have an asking and a selling price for their product which is research activity...we get a realistic appraisal of what they need to do the job..the supervisory function properly belongs to the universities and other institutions where the research takes place....closing remarks of the report are:...Congress has been overzealous in appropriating money for health research".

D.S. Greenberg, Medical Research Funds: NIH Path Through Congress Has Developed Troublesome Bumps, Science 13 Jul 1962, Vol. 137, Issue 3524, pp. 115-119
DOI: 10.1126/science.137.3524.115 [link]
Previously posted.

9 responses so far

The Trump Administration is gagging science and we are next

(by drugmonkey) Jan 24 2017

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been told to stop funding grants and stop talking about scientific findings. Via Reuters:

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to temporarily halt all contracts, grants and interagency agreements pending a review, according to sources.

The White House sent a letter to the EPA's Office of Administration and Resources Management ordering the freeze on Monday, an EPA staffer told Reuters. "Basically no money moving anywhere until they can take a look," the staffer said, asking not to be named.

Via The Verge:

Also, employees have been banned from providing updates to reporters or on social media. The internal memo specifies that no press releases will go out to external audiences, there will be “no blog messages” and media requests will be carefully screened.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been told not to talk about their science. Via Buzzfeed News:

According to an email sent Monday morning and obtained by BuzzFeed News, the department told staff — including some 2,000 scientists — at the agency’s main in-house research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), to stop communicating with the public about taxpayer-funded work.

“Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents,” Sharon Drumm, chief of staff for ARS, wrote in a department-wide email shared with BuzzFeed News.

“This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,” she added.

I'm sure I do not need to lead you by the hand to realize that this is a political putsch directed against scientific entities that tend to relate data that is discordant with Republican worldviews and preferred policies.

This is just the beginning. Each successful gag/intimidation will just fuel the next one.

NIH and NSF, dear to many in my audience, are most assuredly next, people. I hope not too many of you are counting on grant awards that are due to be issued in the next, oh, six months or so. Especially if you work on scientific questions that the Republicans have attacked before. Such as HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, mental health, LGBT issues, anything to do with family structure or dynamics, much of psychology and sociology, etc. And lord help you if you work with obviously ridiculous models such as fruit flies or obviously ridiculous therapies, like exercise.

How would you like some posturing Congress Critter to de-fund your grant?

50 responses so far

Thing I learned on Twitter

(by drugmonkey) Jan 18 2017

Valid #NIHgrant review is determined only by the aspects of the application that I excel at and any other influence is unfair bias.

2 responses so far

What is a "staff scientist" and is this an attractive career option?

(by drugmonkey) Jan 17 2017

Our good blog friend, occasional commenter and behind the scenes provoker of YHN's blogging nearly on par with CPP, @superkash put up a twitt poll:

An extended discussion is going on and there are a few things of interest to me that are emerging.

What IS a "staff scientist"? Does it have a defined role? How is it used both formally by institutions and in less formal career-expectation space? How is it viewed by the hiring PI? How is it viewed by postdocs?

Is it, or should it be, a mere evolution of a postdoc after a certain interval of time (e.g., 5 years)?

Is it, or should it be, in part a job-job where a person is hired to do one sciencey thing (generate data from this assay)?

Is it, or should it be, a job where the person "merely" does as the PI instructs at all times?

Does it come with supervisory responsibilities? Is part of the deal to remove this person from ever having to consider grant-getting?

Is permanence of the job in a way that is not the case with postdocs an implied or explicit condition of the job title?

57 responses so far

Query of the Day: When did you realize publication was key?

(by drugmonkey) Jan 12 2017

This question is for those who have ever entered a doctoral program in the sciences.

When did you realize that it was really, really important for you to publish first-author papers as a graduate student?

I recall that I really thought that the requirements and goals of grad school were to pass the first year exam (which was a research project presentation), pass the qualifying exam and write and defend a monolithic thesis describing a body of independently dreamed-up and designed research that I conducted myself.

I became aware of a bit of a debate about monolithic theses versus publications in the opinion of various faculty somewhere in my 2nd or 3rd years. So I knew of the idea that some Professors thought that three first-author publications stapled together with a cursory introduction and summary material was superior to the monolithic thesis.

I sided with the monolithic-thesis types and this, I think, let me continue to mislead myself about the importance of publications for my career. I also had career aspirations (right up until about six months before my first faculty appointment started to crystallize as reality) that did not necessarily require a strong publication record from graduate studies. Finally, I had the not-uncommon realization that I was going to have to do some postdoc work after graduate school, and the accompanying notion that postdoc work was when you really got steaming on publications, that let me off the hook.

So my answer would have to be that I didn't really grasp how important first-author pubs in grad school would be until I was late-postdoc and looking to land a faculty gig (and grants). I had probably the first dawning realization midway through my first postdoc. I would have to say that I had no serious understanding of this throughout most of grad school. I had ZERO concept of this as a graduate school applicant and graduate school interviewee.

57 responses so far

Ask DrugMonkey: Should I go over my NIH Program Officer's head?

(by drugmonkey) Jan 12 2017

I get this question from grant applicants now and again so I thought maybe it was time to answer it on the blog. The latest version was from the Twitts:

Ok, first of all "escalate" is the wrong way to think about it. So don't do that. But you should absolutely explore the opinions and input of other Program Officers if you are unhappy with the responses (or lack thereof) that you are getting from your assigned PO.

As a brief reminder, many if not most of the NIH IC's have their POs arranged in a hierarchical structure. The smallest unit is typically a Branch, inhabited by ~2-5 POs, one of whom is the Branch Chief. The grant applications assigned to those POs will all share certain scientific properties, depending on how the Branch is designed. The individual POs in the Branch may have primary distinct roles and expertises in terms of their portfolios but there will be substantial overlap. The Branch Chief is responsible for all of the grants and applications in her Branch, obviously. These are small groups of people so, also obviously, they are closely interacting colleagues. They talk to each other a LOT about the business of the Branch. This is one practical reason you don't want to think about "escalating" and you want to approach matters carefully. The whole Branch may actually share your assigned PO's low opinion of your work. The Chief may be totally buddies with your assigned PO and not really appreciate you screaming about how she or he is incompetent, biased and shouldn't be working for the NIH at all.

Branches are collected into Divisions. I'm a little less certain about the universality of how ICs are organized on this but sometimes the Division director also functions, in essence, as a Branch Chief. She just also has the responsibility for overseeing the entire Division of related Branches.

Still with me? Take a stroll on the Organization page of your favorite IC to see what I mean if this is confusing.

Division directors are allowed to talk to God, aka the IC Director. What I mean by this is that when it comes to the hammer and tongs discussion of what is to be funded, what can possibly be picked up with exception funding, etc, it is the Division director level that is making the case. To all the other Division Directors and to the IC Director. I think they are the ones called upon in Council meetings, generally, if a specific question arises.

The point here is that the Division Director needs to know your applications too. They have a direct chain-of-command responsibility for them. And ultimately they have a responsibility for the performance of the entire Division portfolio of funded grants. They are involved.

Another thing to remember. POs get promoted up the ranks. The Branch Chief of today might be the Division Director of tomorrow. Your PO may become Branch Chief. Also, there can be some shuffling of individual POs across Branches (and even ICs as it happens).

This is why I continue to bang on about how it is in your best interest to meet POs, many of them, and to continue your relationship with them when opportunities arise (annual scientific meetings, for example).

So, back to the question. This usually arises because the applicant feels like their assigned PO is just not interested in their work. The PO may never return their calls. The PO may actively criticize their Specific Aims and tell them not to apply. The PO may be giving all sorts of unhelpful advice or just sticks to the mantra (I advise you to revise and resubmit). The PO may be refusing to push for a pickup for a grey zone score.

An obvious thing to do is to appeal. To try to get someone else.

This is a reasonably good idea. You just need to approach it judiciously. POs can be biased or they can just not "get" your work or proposal. They may have applications on their list that are higher priority to them. They may still be bitter about something that happened with your grad student advisor*!

If your PO is not your Branch Chief, that is probably your first stop. As I say above, it is possible that she knows all about your situation but perhaps she does not. So give it a try. It is also not impossible that she knows all about the limitations of PO X under her Branch but can only really act when someone complains.

When you take it up the chain, I always think the best approach is to be in a stance of seeking advice, rather than complaining about your rights.

"I don't understand...there is a lack of [feedback, enthusiasm, explanation]...perhaps my applications are being assigned to the wrong PO, would another one be better?"

That sort of thing. You can take this same approach with the Division Director. If you do this, however, you need to express doubt that the original Branch is the right one and find some key words in the description of another Branch to suggest perhaps that is a better fit.

Ultimately, sure, you can take this straight to the IC Director. Even the NIH Director, I suppose.

Your ability to get them to take your call or pay any attention to your concerns whatever will depend on your status in the world. I've definitely had senior colleagues who are in continual contact with IC directors and would for sure talk to them directly about grant matters. Things as specific as picking up a near-miss grant application for funding. If you happen to know an IC director well, sure, go for it when the situation is really critical. Other people are sure as heck doing it so why shouldn't you?

I'll close by reiterating that you need to be judicious about this. Keep entitled demanding far away from your thoughts. Keep angry complains about the bias and incompetence of the PO that is frustrating you out of your mind. Take the position of seeking information. Strike an attitude of not understanding why your experience is different from the advice you are getting to contact POs.


15 responses so far

Older posts »