Female Science Professor has been posting on a specific area of career mentoring frequently expressed to new faculty as "don't get to big for your britches, junior!". It is a familiar theme of internal departmental advice and a not-infrequent StockCritique of NIH grant review as well. In her posts, FSP has been promulgating this sort of harmful, fake helpful career "advice" that makes my blood absolutely boil. In not just one but two consecutive posts!
Even the doyenne of prof-blogging needs to be taken to the woodshed now and again...
Interestingly, FSP muses on how she was ticked off by getting this type of advice as a junior faculty member but then turns right around and peddles the same garbaggio.
I can see how it would be bad advice to say to an early career person: Sure, go ahead, write 3 or 5 grant proposals this year and take on 8 grad students, sink or swim, good luck. And it is perhaps rare for a mentor (a program officer or a faculty colleague) to know enough about their mentee to gauge how much of a research program they can reasonably manage and sustain in the first few years of their career.
Perhaps it is therefore better to err on the side of caution and advise a gradual building of a research program.
Wrong, wrong, WRONG! It is the worst sort of paternalistic nonsense to look out for the junior investigator in this way. The fact is you cannot know how much s/he can handle. The junior investigators themselves don't know how much they can handle until they get overloaded, now can they? And the worst part of this is a universal prescription when the capacity of junior investigators (not to mention competing responsibilities) vary tremendously.
This nonsense comes up in NIH grant review, most often covered over with the StockCritique of "too ambitious" but also snuck in under "This extremely well funded junior investigator", "high level of funding" or some such. There are also more-or-less explicit comments made at study section to the effect that the junior PI who has been storming the section with proposals and finally gotten her R01 funded needs to "settle down" and "work on that project for awhile". This is maddening and wrong. I had a post up awhile ago entitled "New Investigator, don't cut yourself off at the knees" but clearly I need to keep emphasizing the point.
Junior investigators need to grow their labs as big as possible as fast as possible to succeed.
This is a fundamental truth I have understood since about the middle of my last postdoc stop. Look around at the mid to senior people in your field with whom you compete or plan to compete. What size are their groups? How many techs, grad students and postdocs have they sustained over the past decade or two? How many grant $$ did that take? That is your target. That is the demonstrated basic requirement to pull off the kind of science you want to do so you had better get there as quickly as you possibly can, no? At the root of everything is money so keep those proposals rolling out.
The flip side of looking at the successful people is to look at what happens to those investigators who have marginal funding from the beginning. I have seen them operate more under obligation to BigCheez and the crumbs that drop from the BigMech. This is bad for independence and wastes time (relatively speaking) working on stuff for which someone else is going to get the majority of the credit, no matter who's work it is.
I have seen underfunded junior PIs struggling to get anything done on their own core interests because they can't afford a full time tech, full time postdoc and their own salary percentage while still having enough money for supplies. It is VERY hard to get all the pieces that are necessary from one R01. I developed my appreciation in the era of FIRST (R29) mechanisms in which it was essentially expected that new PIs would get this crippled ($100K direct per year, no more that $350K over 5 yrs) starter award. Maybe after about year three the study sections would permit you to be considered for an R01....gak. You can't do anything for this kind of money. You are begging for training grant slots to support a postdoc. Postdocs are already hard to recruit because of your newbie status but when you have to gate on US citizenship? Cannot say "yes the money is sitting in my grant award and I can pay you tomorrow" but have to screw around with the annual start date of the training grant? It makes it hard. I've seen this happen to several investigators who later went into an exponential growth phase later down the road, thereby proving they were worthy and capable and all that.
What's the risk?
Tied up in the advice to slow down, not be too ambitious and to stay humble is the implicit or explicit concept that there is some risk. That somehow the junior investigator is going to be worse off with two R01 grants than she would have been with one. From the grant review perspective, there is some implication that the second grant will be wasted in some poorly specified manner. Show me the evidence. I've yet to see a junior investigator fail out of science because she had too many R01s of which she was the PI. I'm not saying it has never happened, just I've never seen it. I have seen people give it up and go to industry or other jobs because it was too hard to get the lab up to a sustainable size whilst wasting effort on collaborative projects early on.
Too "distracted" to focus on a defined area of expertise that is necessary come time for tenure? That one's a bit more arguable. But you are damned if you do, damned if you don't. One single underfunded project may result in papers only on one closely related topic- but they are going to be few and/or of lower profile. You put all your eggs in one basket and what if the handle breaks on you? With two R01s you at least have increased your chances of payoff in any given interval. (Ideally you want projects that interact and combine key infrastructure demands but differ in scientific application.)
From the grant reviewer perspective the idea seems to be that the junior investigator will be less scientifically productive per grant if you give them two awards. I believe this rests on a common bias when subjectively reviewing the "productivity" of mid to senior investigators. The issue comes up now and again when someone is trying to promote a clearly crap proposal on the basis of the fantastic productivity track record of Dr. Greybeard. It frequently turns out that when you put together all the awards to Dr. Greybeard and look carefully at attribution in the acknowledgments of the papers that his per grant productivity isn't all that. I look at the record of the Dr. Greybeards and Professor Bluehairs and think to myself that what this shows is what is necessary to generate that kind of productivity. Not that they are so fabulous that they "deserve" that sort of money but they were able to express this fabulosity once they got the necessary resources in place. So by extension, if we think JuniorMint and Yun Gun have the scientific chops, we should be happy that they are trying to put in place the kind of resources that are needed for sustained excellence. Right?