What would you ask Sally Rockey?

Feb 26 2015 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey

Apparently Sally Rockey, NIH Deputy Director in charge of the Office of Extramural Research is on some sort of University tour because I have received several queries lately that go something like this:

Dear Drugmonky:
Sally Rockey will be visiting our University soon and I have the opportunity to ask a question or two if I can get a word in edgewise between all our local BigWig voices. Do you or your Readers have any suggestions for me to add to my list of potential things to ask her?
A. Reader

I have my thoughts and suggestions, of course, but mostly my Readers know what those are.

How about you folks in the commentariat? What would you ask Sally Rockey if you had her in a small room with your peers?

57 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    Who does your hair? It's fabulous!

  • Are you bitter at not getting the Nebraska job?

  • datahound says:

    I would ask:

    What do you hope to get out of your blog with regard to comments from the community? When you ask for input, get a strong reaction, and then proceed in the opposite direction, it conveys an interesting message.

  • meshugena313 says:

    Wow, datahound. That's definitely the question to ask, but ain't no one gonna ask her that... I'm impressed that you lasted as long as you did at the NIH!

  • Philapodia says:

    What, if any, plans does CSR have to try and increase the representation of coffee and muffins at study section meetings?

  • DJMH says:

    "Do you follow DrugMonkey? Relatedly, have you noticed an uptick in applications using Georgia?"

  • meshugena313 says:

    Do applications written with Georgia (and Arial for the figure legends; natch, CPP) have a higher success rate?

    I, for one, welcome our serif-font overlords.

  • drugmonkey says:

    What is the average age of scientists you have taken advice from ( not merey listened at) in the past three years?

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Have you ever seen the old BBC sitcom, "Yes Minister"?

  • Dave says:

    Are you a massive internet troll?

  • Physician Scientist says:

    I'd ask her how a person with a single 3rd author publication on their CV feels qualified to be the 2nd in command of the largest biomedical research enterprise in the United States?

    Given that she's never run a research group and never had a research group subject to the NIH ups and downs, why should the biomedical science community have confidence in her leadership?

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    How did you become so captured by the culture of government bureaucracy and lose all perception of the extramural reality that you supposedly manage?

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    She actually talked at a local alternative career fair today. I'll have to track down someone at my old institution who went to the talk and ask what she said.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    omg - I just read her CV. I mean, wow.

  • K99er says:

    She spoke at a conference I attended a few months ago. Her answers to the questions were so rehearsed and carefully worded that she actually said nothing. Just a waste of time.

  • drugmonkey says:

    ....you dudes are harsh.

  • yikes says:

    @K99er - reminding me of a bit from Asimov's Foundation:

    ""That," replied Hardin, "is the interesting thing. The analysis was the most difficult of the three by all odds. When Holk, after two days of steady work, succeeded in eliminating meaningless statements, vague gibberish, useless qualifications – in short, all the goo and dribble – he found he had nothing left. Everything canceled out. Lord Dorwin, gentlemen, in five days of discussion didn't say one damned thing, and said it so you never noticed. "

    http://www.sffworld.com/forums/showthread.php?24426-Asimov-Foundation-A-long-agreement-that-meant-nothing

  • babyattachmode says:

    I'm surprised nobody wants to ask her if she thinks the dress is gold and white or black and blue.

  • louis says:

    I guess that she is trying to recruit postdocs and New Investigators for a career at NIH. At least, this is what the title of her speech at Drexel University suggests:

    “Being a Fed – A love story” by Sally Rockey, PhD

    Professional and Career Development Series, Drexel University, September 2014

    Her love story (I didn’t hear it) might be about more than half professional life working in a federal government office. And according to her latest move that qualifies her to look for a high-end academic position (President, Chancellor or whatever of that type) in spite of the fact that SHE DOESN’T HAVE the MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS or EXPERIENCE to compete for such a job.. Totally delusional.

    The question I would ask her is pretty obvious.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Does Rockey actually influence policy? I thought her job was mainly communication.

    I haven't been inclined to be too harsh on Rockey because I thought her position was a bit like being Entertainment Director on the Titanic. She didn't steer things into the iceberg, but her job is to point out how delicious the buffet choices are and don't worry about that ice cold water you feel sloshing around your ankles.

  • Grumble says:

    Here's my question (inspired by AL): "Do you actually have any influence on policy? If not, what on earth is it that you get paid to do all day long?"

  • drugmonkey says:

    See, now this is why you people don't have any friends.

    ---StarLord

  • Jonathan says:

    Neuro-conservative: in my experience the only two people who have seen Yes, Minister at NIH are me and my (also) British branch chief.

  • Dave says:

    I'm surprised nobody wants to ask her if she thinks the dress is gold and white or black and blue.

    hahahahaha my wife pulled that on me last night. Weird.

    Given that she's never run a research group and never had a research group subject to the NIH ups and downs, why should the biomedical science community have confidence in her leadership?

    Great point. I'm too scared to look at her CV.

  • @louis
    Although she was one of the final few candidates at Nebraska, so perhaps years of being a bureaucrat is *exactly* what universities are looking for in terms of a leader...

  • louis says:

    "years of being a bureaucrat is *exactly* what universities are looking for in terms of a leader..."

    That's very depressing JB ! (if that were to be the case, in general). I have been fortunate not to see that happening.

  • Science Grunt says:

    Saw one of her recent talks aimed at alternative career fair.

    Didn't feel it was as out-of-touch as people here are making her to be. She stated clearly that she's a govt bureaucrat, but defends the importance of her position for science (I don't do research but I'm part of the research ecosystem and that's how you should be thinking of yourselves). There were nice graphs of the bleak labor market. She encouraged people (postdocs in the audience) into non-tenure-track careers in research and hoped that we would stop feeling ashamed of having "failed". Standard advisor chiding as well.

    She rightfully (IMO) stated that the low morale is tied to the long time it takes to independence and addressed the opportunity costs that the postdocs have paid for (if you had been an engineer or a lawyer of a chemist you'd ve been much better of). She made it sound like the NIH executive goals right now on this perspective is to encourage old folks to retire and to reduce the time gap between PhD and first award.

    The perspective there seems to be simple. If you get independence withing 5 years of your PhD, you should be good to go. Then you keep renewing that independence grant. If you weren't able to, you should've seen it coming and bailed sooner, thanks for your 10-12 years of dedication to the NIH cause. Yes we would've loved to give you falks a stable career that you were promised but the money just isn't there.

    Her Julia in the "do-it-to-Julia" scenario is the disgruntledoc/unfunded prof. I'd have preferred if she said something like "from now on, no more postdocs or grad students on R funds, only techs. we will pump up T and F grants to compensate for that and regain control of the labor market since you PIs can't seem to stop yourselves from flooding the world with biomedical phds like the other fields do."

  • BugDoc says:

    A colleague who attended one of her town hall type of discussions mentioned that Rockey said it would be highly unlikely that they would limit postdocs or grad students to T and F grants, since the logistics would be difficult. As in it would stop the flooding of the world with biomedical PhDs.

  • Davis Sharp says:

    I would ask Sally Rockey why anyone should aspire to be a PI in biomedical research.

  • newbie PI says:

    When I last saw her speak, someone asked her about why the NIH isn't reducing or better controlling indirect cost rates. She gave a long spiel about how the rates are heavily negotiated and she claimed that the amount spent on indirect costs has held steady for many years and has not gone up. I just don't see how this is possible when the ID rates at most universities only seem to go UP. Coupled with the fact that grants seem to be going more and more to the most prestigious places with the highest rates, I just can't see how what she said was correct. Am I missing something here? Anyway, I'd ask her about that.

  • Datahound says:

    newbie PI: Based on my analysis (see http://datahound.scientopia.org/2014/05/13/indirect-cost-distribution-analysis-fy2013/ ), I think she is correct (although I wish NIH were more transparent about this). Rates do go down as well as up. The administrative component has been capped at 26% for many years. The outlier rates are at free-standing research institutes (which tend to have high facilities costs) and free-standing hospitals (which are not subject to the administrative cap) but these do not contribute very much to the overall average.

    In any case, there are several reasons for the tough funding climate, but I believe that increased on indirect cost expenditures is not one of them.

  • physioprof says:

    Regardless of whether indirect cost rates go up and down, NIH has zero ability to move the needle. As far as I understand, this is out of NIH's hands as a matter of Federal law, both in terms of negotiating F&A rates and in terms of the decision to pay F&A expenses. Again as I understand it, NIH lacks the legal authority to decide, e.g., that F&A rates should be capped at a maximum of 50% or that it isn't going to pay indirect costs on PI salaries.

    If I've got this wrong, Datahound will surely set us straight!

  • rxnm says:

    "Rockey said it would be highly unlikely that they would limit postdocs or grad students to T and F grants, since the logistics would be difficult."

    So is that just a lie or is she using "logistics" as a euphemism for "we don't want to"?

  • datahound says:

    Physioprof: You are correct. Indirect cost rate policy and implementation is managed by the Office of Management and Budget. NIH could push for changes, but they do not have much authority of "move the needle" as you say.

  • datahound says:

    rxnm: I think the statement that the "logistics would be difficult" is an understatement. I do not believe that NIH has the legal authority to do this. Workers on research grants are employees paid to do the work. I do not see legally how NIH could block postdocs or graduate students from filling these roles. They could make graduate student tuition not an allowable expense that would significantly increase the cost of graduate students on research grants (as tuition would have to be handled by other mechanisms or with other sources of funds). Without Congressional intervention, I do not think NIH could do this (even if they wanted to and I am sure that stakeholder communities would have a range of ideas about this).

  • drugmonkey says:

    How would you hire any doctoral degreed staff on a grant, rxnm? How could you make sure they weren't a "postdoc" and what else would they be? What would be the definitions?

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    BTW, it is a testament to Rockey's inability to speak in any language other than hedging keep-your-head-down degenerated bureaucrat gibberish that she couldn't even bring herself to say "we don't have the legal authority to do that", rather than "the logistics would be difficult".

  • Eli Rabett says:

    If Ag can limit F&A why not NIH?

  • Rib says:

    when has anyone in govt, other than a political appointee, admitted publicly that something was outside their legal authority?

    Agency lawyers would not let you say it, even if you could prove it without their help.

    I've always assumed it was perceived as lobbying, but maybe it is just the Iron law of institutions and all.

  • Science Grunt says:

    "How would you hire any doctoral degreed staff on a grant, rxnm"
    This may sound crazy, but I'd like for NIH to forbid the use of postdoc title on grant paid staff (along with forbidding tuition on fellowships). That would make "postdoc" a prestigious title for people that have their own fellowships and grants. Sounds shallow but that would paint a much better picture of what the labor market is like, and will also be an early signal for the snowflake PhD that no, unless he gets his own grant, he isn't that important.

    "They could make graduate student tuition not an allowable expense that would significantly increase the cost of graduate students on research grants (as tuition would have to be handled by other mechanisms or with other sources of funds)."

    But that's a desirable outcome. Making other people (student, university, etc) shoulder the costs will keep people away from getting on research track. For a business case on how the market corrects for excess labor when there education costs are considered, look at the ongoing decline in Law School application rates. Pre-law students understand that they will get out of school with 100K in debt and horrible job prospects. I'm not sure Biomedical PhD students understand that they are leaving 500K in opportunity costs over the next 15 years from the beginning of grad school (I think this was the number Sally Rockey showed), because they're getting education for free (even if that education will be useless in most sectors of the economy). I mean, drugmonkey's thread on GPA/GRE for incoming students says it all, right? If 3.0 students are getting fellowships and a promise of a career... are we doing right by these students?

  • Science Grunt says:

    (apologies for the several typos above, I pressed publish thinking I would see a preview)

  • Joe says:

    "They could make graduate student tuition not an allowable expense..."
    Tuition remission has always seemed like an accounting gimmick. At my MRU, PhD students do not take classes after year 2 (after qualifying exam), yet the uni still extracts tuition money from my grants and puts it in a fund that supports all grad students. I love humanities PhD students as well as anyone, but I still think that NIH is getting ripped off with the tuition remission funds transfer.

  • Davis Sharp says:

    YMMV, but when I was a grad student, I was considered a 50% employee of the University - enough to be paid but not enough to get employee benefits. I was also enrolled in "thesis credits" after year two, which allowed me to remain on student health insurance. If that were not the case, I could imagine it being a hardship for grad students who had or wanted to have children..

    Barring post-docs and grad students from research grants (if legal) would have a huge impact on the labor market. To maintain the labor force, NIH would have to re-allocate a large amount of the budget away from research and into training. So R01 payline would drop and the large research conglomerate universities would be at a huge competitive advantage for T32s . And in the end, NIH would be paying anyway.

  • DJMH says:

    But they don't need to LIMIT postdocs and grad students to F and Ts, they just need to move more funds to F and T grants, and remove some from other slices. De facto, more students and postdocs will be on independent grants at that point. You'll never get 100% but not even sure that's desirable, let alone feasible given the citizenship limitation. If you could even get to 50%, you'd free up a lot of money and also diminish the stranglehold power that some PIs use to abuse their trainees.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I'd like for NIH to forbid the use of postdoc title on grant paid staff

    My Uni doesn't use it formally but people nevertheless use the term postdoc to refer to such folks. Changing the formal title doesn't really accomplish anything.

    that would paint a much better picture of what the labor market is like

    how so? unless you couple it with some sort of demonstration that people who had independent fellowships were tremendously more competitive for jobs than those who were always paid on research grants. all else equal of course.

    To maintain the labor force, NIH would have to re-allocate a large amount of the budget away from research and into training. So R01 payline would drop

    What DJMH said. Take the labor costs off of the R mech and labs need fewer R-mech dollars to accomplish the same task. No reason that paylines have to change in any systematic way.

  • physioprof says:

    Note that a major shift from funding personnel on Rs to T and F would also impose massive involuntary cost sharing on universities, as F&A rates are capped at 8% on Ts and Fs. There is a range of opinions on whether this is a good or bad thing.

  • […] many discussions including a recent one at Drugmonkey, issues around the role of the NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research (DDER) (a position […]

  • Science Grunt says:

    "Changing the formal title doesn't really accomplish anything."

    I think it would. It's, like, just my opinion, but if your ID said "Research Staff" and your independently funded friend's ID said "Postdoctoral Fellow", hopefully you'd get a message that you're not exactly in a great position. And maybe you'd stop thinking about how great R1 PI you'll be in 5 years and start thinking about joining the Research Staff Union and fight for maternity leaves and vacation time.

    "how so? unless you couple it with some sort of demonstration that people who had independent fellowships were tremendously more competitive for jobs than those who were always paid on research grants. all else equal of course."

    I don't know how to prove it, but for me that is logical. Being more competitive in science means more capable of getting your research funded through grants. Almost every grad student and postdoc I've seen that isn't international applies for NIH/NSF fellowships. So it's somewhat safe to assume that the ones not on fellowships failed at getting them at least once. So we have a very early indication on the grantsmanship of the individual.

    In my scenario, with expanded F and T fellowhips, these grants won't be as selective, so most of your bright students in your university should get it. But now NIH knows exactly how many new PhDs they are directly feeding into the system, and they can't blame overproduction on anyone else. This will also be a great market signal: students, universities and agencies will know exactly where the candidate stands in the one fitness function that academic science cares about: being able to write fundable grants. Diversity type issues can be funded with targeted T funds or affirmative action policies in F grants - PIs suck at doing that anyway.

    The ones that aren't funded can (a) foot their own bill if they strongly believe in themselves or (b) "master out" of their program and do their alternative career transition while they are still in their mid 20s. This won't happen though because the NIH (and the taxpayer) benefits from having these folks going on a 5-10 year ride because they produce science. This overflow of PhDs is great for universities for the same reason immigrants are great for California farmers. The ones who suffer are the postdocs trying to figure out how to become a science writer in their mid 30s.

    And yes, I'm sacrificing the coachable/naive 20 year old that would've been a great researcher and didn't get that experience during undergrad. But as you know, someone needs to be the Julia.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Berg sent me this link to a Rockey presentation

  • drugmonkey says:

    Why is that "sad"?

  • Philapodia says:

    I'm being facetious. So serious, DM...

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    DM -- You should throw your hat into the ring to fill the vacancy!

  • drugmonkey says:

    You dudes know this is a job that requires tact, circumspection and restraint, right?

  • Dr Strangely Strange says:

    Good Idea DM! Lead us on. I am willing to sign a petition.
    On the plus side your blog has already been more informative than the Rock Talk. You are a natural, look I am already being sycophantic

  • Jonathan says:

    I would pay good money to see Drugmonkey spend a year working as a red tape merchant at NIH. 😀

    Today marks the end of my tenure there, and I cannot describe the relief I feel.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Thank you for your service to the enterprise, Jonathan. Good luck with your next work and career.

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