Emeritizing scientist issues the same unsubstantiated complaints and I am delighted

An opinion piece in The Scientist issues the same old complaints about the NIH grant review system that are familiar to my Readers. In this case, the author Les Costello (website; Research Crossroads Report) takes particular aim at the recent efforts of the NIH to prioritize funding of younger / transitioning investigators.

Moreover, the NIH policy introduces and justifies a form of age discrimination, which guarantees that grant proposals from senior investigators and longtime-funded investigators will be denied based on age, not on scientific merit. This policy will introduce, exacerbate, and even justify covert and overt discriminatory tendencies of reviewers, when it is essential to suppress such influences from a scientifically credible and objective peer review process.

I couldn't be happier.


Have I taken leave of my senses?

As a senior investigator with grant funding for 48 years, and a past reviewer on several NIH and other agencies' grant review panels, I vehemently object to this policy. I do so as an obligation to defend a 60-year history of advancements in science and medicine, which was based exclusively on funding the best science. As young investigators, I and my colleagues successfully competed with established researchers based on merit, without preferential treatment.

HAHAHAHA! w00t! Keep it up dude!

Until this problem is addressed, the number of broadly trained and knowledgeable biomedical scientists will continue to decline, as will the quality of biomedical research. Then there will be no need for NIH to impose special considerations for young investigators--there will be no high-quality science and scientists to compete against.

I'm dying over here!
Look. Here's the thing. Number one, my email box has been filled today with people sending the link to this article to me. Number two, the comments over at The Scientist are just hammering the poor guy. Making all the points I would normally make and more besides. Making it emphatically clear that he is talking out of his behind, has no data, a poorly specified and defended set of rationales and is totally ignorant of the existing data on grant reviews and awards that contradict his opinions.
I am delighted. It gives me hope that the tide is turning. Each time one of these types gets up to spout about how the NIH system is failing and it is all the fault of these new/young investigators (who, btw, are finally catching a break) perhaps someone around them will throw some data and stats and reality back in their faces. Eventually, they will (dare I hope) be shamed out of even saying this incredibly self-serving pap. The NIH will stop being led around by the nose by the circular self-congratulation of aged investigators about the "best science" and will look at the past, present and future with an informed and flexible eye.
The response to this chowderheaded opinion piece gives me hope.

23 responses so far

  • I hope when I'm a washed-up delusional old fuck like that fucking codger I have the sense to shut the fuck up.

  • pinus says:

    Have you seen this guys recent article blasting new scientists. Not only are these young fucks getting his money, but they aren't even as well trained as he and his buddies were back in the day. You know...the day when paylines were up at 40%.
    :
    The effect of contemporary education and training of biomedical scientists on present and future medical research.
    Costello LC.
    Division of Oncology/Dental School and The Greenebaum Cancer Center, University of Maryland, Baltimore, MD 21201, USA. lcostello@umaryland.edu
    During the past 50 years, major changes have occurred in the education and training of successive generations of young aspiring biomedical scientists. Have today's researchers benefited from the dramatically different education and training programs and requirements? Are today's scientists equal to, not as well trained as, or better trained than those of earlier generations? There is no statistical information to arrive at a definitive answer to this question. One can only relate experiences of the past in contrast to experiences of the present. The author argues that contemporary biomedical graduate and postgraduate programs do not produce "scientists," who incorporate their ability to conduct research with an understanding and knowledge of the context of their research, and who can apply their research to the functional relationships and organization of the hierarchy of living systems. Rather, contemporary programs produce highly specialized "researchers" and "supertechnologists" with limited knowledge and capabilities beyond the specialization. The author argues that the direction of biomedical research is overly dominated by the pursuit of narrowly focused, highly specialized molecular biology/molecular technology with little understanding and integration with organ systems and cellular function principles and relationships. The direction and funding of biomedical research is compromised by the narrow, myopic, highly specialized contemporary biomedical graduate training programs. This article is intended to expose these issues and to stimulate a serious discussion and assessment of contemporary graduate training as it relates to the biomedical research and issues of today and of the future.

  • Jesus motherfucking christ, that asshole's nearly as ridiculous as Shitlin! I've got a friend at UMB. I should ask him what the fucking dealio is with this wackass motherfucker.

  • Anonymous says:

    Well, I'll strike a contrary note here --
    "The author argues that the direction of biomedical research is overly dominated by the pursuit of narrowly focused, highly specialized molecular biology/molecular technology with little understanding and integration with organ systems and cellular function principles and relationships."
    I think this is true -- the breadth of knowledge that I see in scientists trained in the program I'm most familiar with 30 years ago is much broader than the training students are offered now. Mind you, that says nothing about the abilities of the students themselves, just the training. The causes: 1) science itself. As more is known, one needs to focus/concentrate/specialize in order to accomplish something new, as opposed to years ago when less was known. So, there's less time for general training, because that general training will be less relevant to the specific project. 2) demands on research assistant graduate students and the need for students funded off of grants to be concentrating on generating relevant data, rather than learning about the big system. 3) the more competitive environment that leaves less time for learning generalized knowledge that doesn't show up directly somewhere.
    Now, I'd want to see data to believe my gut impressions as something worth thinking on further. But, this is my anecdotal feeling after seeing qualifying exams. Take, for example, the disappearance of the "general knowledge" qualifying exam in trade for a preliminary project/research report as a perfect example.

  • The author argues that the direction of biomedical research is overly dominated by the pursuit of narrowly focused, highly specialized molecular biology/molecular technology with little understanding and integration with organ systems and cellular function principles and relationships.

    This has been a problem, but the tide is turning. At my institution, there are multiple intensive efforts to reverse this trend, and begin to integrate all of the amazing molecular and cellular shit we have learned over the last 30 years into a comprehensive approach to organ system and organismic physiology.

  • Well thanks to this "age discrimination" I have a reason to wake up in the morning and hope that maybe one day with a shit ton of hard work, and maybe a little luck I might be able to be a PI.
    PS if he is bitching about funding, he could supplement his lab with his Social Security checks.

  • whimple says:

    It's an easy mistake. Guy who grew up in the age of exponential funding growth doesn't understand the transition to steady-state funding levels. He thinks Ponzi is still alive.

  • qaz says:

    With all this talk of the old codgers (who grew up in 40% funding and now have a long track record with which to pound reviewers) and young new blood (LT 10 years, need help, let's give them a hand up), there's a group that's forgotten. What about those of us who fought our way up through the 10% funding (funding started collapsing in 2003 BTW) and are now at the second transition from new PI to established lab? I'm thinking of people going for that first renewal or that second R01. Early Stage Investigator (ESI) is 10 years "after one's terminal degree" - with 4-5 years of postdoc that gives you 5-6 years as a new investigator, leaving you without the magic "ESI" designation just at that second transition.
    I don't want to complain (and yet I do, all the time). I think it's great to give new investigators a chance, but I feel like the lost generation here, trapped between the baby boomers (that's who those old codgers are BTW) and the new hot blood they want to save.

  • In order to be an Early Stage Investigator, you have to be a New Investigator. ESIs are NIs within ten years of terminal degree, and thus are a subset of NIs. As soon as you receive your first R01, you are no longer eligible for either NI or ESI status.
    Thus, ESI is totally 100% irrelevant to "transition from new PI to established lab", regardless of how recently you received your terminal degree. Our dumbfuck whiny-ass titty-baby old codger in the Chronicle got this wrong, too.
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/new_investigators/

  • drdrA says:

    THAT was a truly horrifying read, the commenters over there are taking him to task.
    At the risk of starting an argument- bad as things are for new investigators (and they are bad)- I have to second Qaz and say there is a lost group that is struggling with their first renewals. They are, as C PP says- no longer ESIs, and don't totally have both feet in the 'Established lab' category in the eyes of the only people that matter- study section members.
    I know that is off topic though.

  • To address the concerns of Anonymous @ #4:
    While my graduate program may well be the exception rather than the rule, they still require TWO qualifying exams:
    One general knowledge exam which consists of a 3+hour long oral grill session and a second written research proposal plus oral defense. It was hell, but yeah, I got me some general knowledge. We'll see how well it serves me in the future.

  • DSKS says:

    "The author argues that the direction of biomedical research is overly dominated by the pursuit of narrowly focused, highly specialized molecular biology/molecular technology with little understanding and integration with organ systems and cellular function principles and relationships."
    Actually, I'm not convinced this is true, even though the NIH appears sufficiently convinced to implement a policy shift. I would argue that good work relating to whole systems and translational stuff has been rolling out fairly consistently, it's just that it has been, for a period, deemed less sexy than the molly bolly bandwagon that is currently starting to slow down. New techniques allowing visualization of, and real time tinkering of the inside goings on of live animals are almost certainly bringing about a change in the fashion.
    Ten years from now, molly bolly old boys will no doubt be complaining about the focus on whole animals, and how such work isn't going to get us any closer to replicating the biological transistor that will usher in the next electronic revolution. And they'll probably be right, but then somebody will do something wild, the NIH will have a cow and declare nanotech the way forward, and before you know it wearing pastel suit jackets with the sleeves rolled up will be back in.

  • Arlenna says:

    There is no statistical information to arrive at a definitive answer to this question. One can only relate experiences of the past in contrast to experiences of the present.
    In other words, "There's no way to appropriately analyze this so let's just be anecdotal according to our own biases! Surely that's a good, SCIENTIFIC substitute for analysis!"
    LOL.

  • becca says:

    On the issue at hand- LOVE how he conflates "young investigator" with "Early Stage Investigator". My main issue with him is his obliviousness to the long-term consequences of short-circuiting fledgling careers.
    Also, he's been in biomedical science for 60 years. Assuming he started college around 20, he's definitely not a boomer.
    I coulda sworn I've met this guy for lunch. He's actually quite nice to talk to, if I'm remembering correctly.
    Particularly charmingly is his optimistic (Pollyannaish?) view: "Unfortunately, regardless of the proclamations of the aims of many biomedical graduate programs, the primary time, effort, and demands of the trainee too often are to pursue and to advance the research interests of the mentor."
    But don't tell him you're in a Molecular Medicine program. Oh the horrors!
    Even if it is part of an integrative bioscience program that made you discuss motherfuckingPLANTS in your intro curriculum (take that "today's scientists don't have a broad perspective"). He couldn't get over his distaste for the MM catchphrase.
    snark
    Also, I would like to go on the record: I know who Claude Bernard is. He's that dude that wrote that incredibly tiresome book that was recommended to me. /snark

  • Julie Stahlhut says:

    Doesn't surprise me one bit. The Scientist has a history of publishing unsupported rants -- in one issue a year or two back, they handed over their editorial slot to Philip Skell for an anti-evolution tirade that was refreshingly empty of facts.
    Don't know about other life-science folks, but in my field (ecology/evolution), The Scientist has a reputation that falls somewhere near that of Fox News. Basically, it's a gossip rag filled with puff pieces and thinly disguised ads. I cancelled my subscription long ago, and have since enjoyed the benefits of less wasted time and fewer bouts of high blood pressure.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Julie, it has been called the People magazine of... in my hearing as well. Point being that plenty of other folks are saying this in the campfire chatter. Greybeards nod approvingly while youngsters (of 45!) gnash their teeth. The topic deserves an airing and I am happy when opposing views fight back.

  • Cashmoney says:

    I thought some of the comments about prior funding success rates were overblown. Check this link though....whew.
    http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=9928&page=14

  • Where the fucking fuck is Shitlington, anyway!? He should be here defending his fellow washed-up delusional dead-wood parasite codger colleague!

  • Julie Stahlhut says:

    It might be because my husband and I are both older junior scientists -- we both went to grad school at a non-traditional age -- but few things get me angrier than the pettiness of pitting old against young, senior against junior, large labs against small, or specialist against generalist. Established labs need funding to remain productive and provide mentorship to early-career scientists. Startup labs need funding to launch beginning scientists on a productive research path. Some scientists think and work best from a depth-first perspective, and others from a breadth-first perspective.
    The Scientist is practicing ants-in-a-jar journalism. Whoever is in charge of their editorial policy must really find it entertaining to pick a fight and then sit back and watch it.

  • Whoever is in charge of their editorial policy must really find it entertaining to pick a fight and then sit back and watch it.

    They must have hired a former blogger!

  • mat says:

    but few things get me angrier than the pettiness of pitting old against young, senior against junior, large labs against small, or specialist against generalist.
    I see your point but this argument is already going on. Publishing an opinion on one side or the other is not necessarily the same as an intentionally created Roman arena battle. The discussion is already happening, just behind the scenes. In many of our academic settings the people like Prof. Costello make these assertions uncontested by the untenured faculty around them because such junior scientists fear repercussions. A public airing is a good thing.

  • Horse Riding says:

    "Established labs need funding to remain productive and provide mentorship to early-career scientists. Startup labs need funding to launch beginning scientists on a productive research path". (Comment 19 by Julie)
    Julie is one of the lucky junior scientists who appear not to consider necessary to publicly discuss what is being discussed behind the scenes for some time now. Journalism is also about transparent information on topics of common interest.
    I wonder how many scientists have been trained in Prof Costello’s established lab in the past 10 years and how many of them are now deservedly funded NI/ESI investigators?.

  • Julie Stahlhut says:

    I honestly don't think that anyone here would want to silence Prof. Costello. He's made his statement; many readers have found it a WTF moment and have said so. Looks like a public discussion to me.
    Incidentally, I'm a big fan of broad training, although everyone seems to define it differently. I'm no fan at all of The Scientist, which I think reduces serious discussions to the print equivalent of sound bites.

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