Repost: Fakin' it

Gee, I dunno why was thinking about this old post today. It was a small one, didn't really have much to say... Oh Yeah. The stimulus nonsense. The upcoming flood is going to require rummaging around in the shed for the proper bucket to stick out into the torrent. What do you have that will hold some water, DearReader? This one went up on the old blog Aug 14, 2007.


A comment on a recent post from Orac
busting on the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) suggests that one should just say whatever to get the money out of NCCAM and then go on to work on real science. NCCAM, for those not aware, is not viewed fondly by most of the NIH extramural PI masses who believe it to be pseudoscience at best. Me, I like their prior interest in "natural products", "traditional medicine" and "herbal remedies" but I really have no idea whether or not they support going after the underlying pharmacology and there doesn't appear to be any current interest. I've also been known to suggest that one should write grants that are "One Aim for Programmatic Interest and Two Aims for me, sounds good!"
Anyhow, the comment reminded me of a recent query from a colleague who wanted to know if I've yet just "faked up" a grant application. In the sense of starting out with the twin questions of "What is really fundable?" and "What can I do (read: make a plausible argument for my PI capabilities) to address this?" instead of "What is the most interesting next thing I want to do?". Dear Reader have you faked one up yet?


I haven't. Not yet anyway. Despite the fact that I believe in my heart of hearts that this would be a good approach. And despite the above snark. I just can't seem to do it. The first issue is practical in that I have plenty of grant ideas to write up that I both find interesting and can convince myself are somewhat fundable. The second is that I always find myself getting interested, even when I have Aims or experiments that are initially a bit outside my main interest. By the time I get done thinking about it and designing a decent experiment, well, I get interested. Finally, it just seems too damn hard to pull off. I dunno. Maybe I'll try it some day...
Another way to look at this question is a bit more troublesome. I'll often have Aims or experiments that I know aren't going to fair well in review. I know this. But this is the bloody way to do my science. And a lot of times it is the way to do everyone's science. A lot of times it boils down to a bunch of exploratory experimental proposals- "well maybe we'll look at these manipulations or those, but really we won't know which to prioritize until we get through Aim 1 and 2". The subtext here is of course that I have a difficult time with the lying- the pretense that we can know all the experiments that need to be conducted over the next 5 years, no more, no less. Here we come back to "fakin it". I should do this. I should just say "I know for certain guaranteed where things will be in Year 4 and this is the exact experiment to perform". I know I should and I pay the price for not doing it. Dammit.

6 responses so far

  • I should just say "I know for certain guaranteed where things will be in Year 4 and this is the exact experiment to perform". I know I should and I pay the price for not doing it. Dammit.

    I can't bring myself to do that shit, either. Fortunately, as my career has progressed--and I gain credibility as a PI who makes shit happen--I get dinged less and less by study section for not going on about "expected outcomes, possible pitfalls, and alternative approaches".
    My most recently scored R01 application contained very little experimental detail in terms of stupid shit like what concentration of motherfucking sodium chloride is gonna be in some fucking buffer. And it didn't contain a single fucking word about what I would do if some shit doesn't work. The study section didn't say a single fucking word about that, and addressed the science with the assumption that we are all competent scientists and not like some kind of fucking third-grade schoolteacher.

  • Pinus says:

    @CPP
    Unfortunately, that kind of stock criticism is something us 'unproven' folks get BLASTED on. Or so I hear.

  • Dave says:

    I second CPP that once you've proven yourself, many technical details can be left out; reviewers will trust you can do the stuff. But I think DM is toying with a dangerous approach. You can't leave out "expected outcomes, possible pitfalls, and alternative approaches". By way of example...
    Here is part of a summary statement from a recent unfunded R01 proposal of mine:
    "This is a very nicely written proposal from a very successful investigator. The topic
    is fascinating, and the preliminary data (largely drawn from published work) shows an excellent example of how..."

    Another reviewer added:
    "Dr. [Dave] is a talented and productive investigator with very high quality work coming from his group in [my location]. His group certainly has the knowledge and skill to carry out the experiments proposed in the application."
    But look what killed me:
    "...there is a consistent lack of effort to discuss alternative possibilities..."
    And from another reviewer...
    "The weaknesses are that the grant does not consider whether..."
    Oops. I clearly screwed up.
    And as a result:
    "The strengths and weaknesses are nearly balanced."
    So what to do? I obviously need to better discuss "expected outcomes, possible pitfalls, and alternative approaches." Luckily, it's first submission.
    "The investigator is excellent and the proposal is very well-written and a revised more in-depth application may be very exciting indeed."
    So: Don't do it, DM. The lack of criticism probably just means there's nothing to criticize. It doesn't necessarily mean it's not important.

  • neurolover says:

    "I know I should and I pay the price for not doing it. Dammit."
    Indeed. Part of the problem, of course, is that some people get away with this and others don't. I think that this critique is one of the reasons that established PI's get "surprised/frustrated/angry" when naive/junior investigators ding their proposals on (alternatives/details/sufficient attention to the literature) grounds. And, to some extent, they're right. Do you really have to tell someone the sodium concentration when you've gotten it to work in the past?
    If you pick 3 time intervals for monitoring something, how far do you have to go to justify the picking of the three? You know, in practice, that you're going to pick three, based on your gut instinct, and change them if you're wrong. That doesn't work for some things (for example clinical studies, where you don't get to change things as you go along). But, even then, you could go through a big literature search trying to justify the 3 you've chosen, but, it's probably still a guess.

  • DM says:

    Thanks Dave. I love hearing more StockCritique variants!

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    When I serve on study section, I must admit I spend more time mocking my fellow reviewers than listening to the apps I know little about (and thankfully am not on). My personal favorite time wasting activity in section is making a fortune teller (you remember those little paper things with numbers and colors on them?).
    I then proceed to jot down as the fortunes, the inane, idiotic things stated by other members of the study section when criticizing applications. Now I do speak up when someone says something stupid, so I am there to defend the applicant when needed. However, most regular members of the study section wait to see if I will write down the inane comment in the fortune teller....
    Common inane coments?
    "Didn't cite me."
    "That can't be done, because I couldn't get it to work in my lab."
    "Fishing expedition."
    "Not hypothesis driven."
    "Descriptive."
    Less common?
    "The study they cited used rats and they said mice, and I dont appreciate that!"
    "I know the experiments aren't very well designed, but its a great lab."
    (Picture in a spanish accent:) "Thees ees one of the best grants I have ever read....I give it a 2.2"
    After the fortune teller is filled in, it is respectfully handed to the SRO, so that he can weed out of the ad hocs that made the inane comments to protect people in the next round....
    BTW, is this off topic?
    Doc F.

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