Thought of the Day

Mar 05 2015 Published by under Anger, NIH Careerism, Tribe of Science

This is about the cognitive dissonance involved with realizing your part in a collective action.

It is about the result of a slowly evolving cultural hegemony.

It is about the tragedy of the commons and the emergent properties of systems that depend on the decisions of individual self-interested actors.

It is not all about Snidely Whiplash figures intentionally committing egregious, knowing acts of thievery and sabotage.

We need to be very clear about this or it devolves into useless fighting about personal responsibility for things that are not the direct result of highly specific individual acts.

20 responses so far

  • physioprof says:

    You'd think grown adults wouldn't have to be told this over and over and over and over. But, yeah.

    Witness the total USian whitey shittenuttes flipout over some very mild reminders that, hey, USian whiteys burned alive their fair share of black USians as part of the system of white supremacy. And there, it's not even an accusation that the system as currently constituted with living USian whiteys participating in it did this shittio. But whiteys just flip the everloving fucke out anyway.

  • Science Grunt says:

    [Continuing this from the previous thread, don't know if it's appropriate]

    "So sad. This is *such* a great career for the practicioners and for society. When it works, that is. I want to unbreak it. I want you all to help unbreak it."

    In the spirit of "stop teh blaming and find solutions", let's look at the problems:

    1) There isn't enough money

    Solution: Get more money by lobbying. And lobby smart, stop polarizing. Help your PO and Sally and your congressman defend us. Stop telling Republicans they are dumb for hating science and start telling them about how HIV is now a chronic disease and Cancer's death toll has reduced and all that jazz. You know why they fund NASA? Because they understand rockets going to Mars. The fact they don't understand Drosophila is our fault, not theirs. Remember people, we work for the public and the fact that the public is cutting our salary is a sign we're doing something wrong.

    2) There aren't enough positions for everyone

    Solution: Reduce the number of people. Do a better job at training people for alternative careers and constrain new entrants, because the market is saturated.

    3) Careers are unstable.

    Solution A: Don't accept a soft money position (not a 15% guarantee one, anyways). Start-up a company and write-up SBIRs instead, while working as a part time lecturer. Or take a position in a "lesser institution" or a teaching institution. Or go work in industry. Or go be a postdoc in someone else's grant.

    Solution B: Think very carefully about the number and the quality of trainees you hire. Think very carefully about the potential of a new trainee candidate and consider that and advise them accordingly. Be brave enough to discourage people from this career if you think they will fail, because every kid that gets into a PhD program thinks he's a genius. If you just need a body capable of doing some very specific task, hire a tech.

    Solution C: Postdocs should unionize and think of themselves as the workhorse of the scientific complex, PIs are their managers and NIH/taxpayer is the stakeholder.

    [Side rant: I love the "it's a disaster for science if current trainees are running away" spirit, but you all academic fucktards need to understand that when you push people that are smart enough to be an accountant making 80K salary into a career that leads him to 42K you are an asshole, no mater how idealistic you are. People that smart should be able to start a middle class family by the time they are 35. You're holding them back. And yeah, money isn't everything until you are married and have a child and the joint household income is 90K and you both know that, had you become a programmer or accountant or joined a biotech after your PhD, you'd be better off. /end of rant]

  • Philapodia says:

    This academic fucktard thinks that some very smart people would like to do more with their life than counting other peoples money. The system ain't perfect, but overly simplistic solutions won't fix it.

  • Science Grunt says:

    I'm not worried about the very smart people, those will be fine no matter what. I'm worried about the "smart enough" ones, the ones that in grad school are the average dudes. The ones that have the 3.2 GPA, and worked in a lab for a year.

    Things are REALLY bad out there for the them. So bad that I've changed the "follow your dreams" advice I used to give to incoming grad students. It's not a "follow the money" but a "It is a great career you work really hard, as in top 20% across all PhDs hard. But make sure you do that, or at least be open to internships during grad school because otherwise it will suck and you'd be better off as an accountant."

    I was once young and naive and thought I wanted more than counting other people's money. But now, when my loan payments+housing+groceries leave me with a total of $300 disposable income a month because I'm saving $500 a month, I wish I was counting other people's money. Literally. I'm studying to become a CPA and leave this nightmare.

    And it's not just me. Go to an "alternative careers" fair. Or google "why I left academia" posts. Or read the comments from the other thread:

    "If I could identify an alt career that would pay me 70% of my current salary, take advantage of these skills I have worked hard to develop, but allow me to walk away from this fucking grant game, I would be all over that shit. "

    "Ditto. Except my salary is 43k."

    "Yeh me too. If I'm honest with myself I have gone from a seriously die-hard, would-do-anything-for-this-career type of person, to someone who is completely and utterly disillusioned by the whole game. (...)"

  • drugmonkey says:

    Are you concerned about science itself if the really smart people avoid careers in it?

  • yikes says:

    "Solution: Get more money by lobbying. And lobby smart, stop polarizing."

    This is a great point. Much better than a lot of the 'do it to Julia' under-bus-throwing infighting rants.

    "I'm not worried about the very smart people, those will be fine no matter what."

    But even they may hate the stress and demoralization associated with the low pay lines. The success rates are so low that even smart folks will struggle. So I agree, DM, these hits on QOL will lead some potential paradigm-shifters into other fields. Like banking.

  • Hermitage says:

    "Solution: Get more money by lobbying. And lobby smart, stop polarizing."

    Ditto to the +1. I continue to be confused why Head Research Honchos do not seize upon the small business owner spiel to describe working scientists. It is tractable to the general public, and Republicans have beat the story into the ground for the last two decades so it's not like we even have to come up with new talking points. Add in some folksy "all we want is for our trainees to have more successful careers than we did" and teaching for the love of America for flavor.

    The only way we're going to make progress in the current political climate is to systematically challenge and smash the stereotype of effete, latte-sipping, librul elitists lording over everyone. We're in a democracy, and that means convincing people who think you're dumb to instead think you're awesome. And that is usually not achieved by calling said people stupid.

  • BugDoc says:

    "Get more money by lobbying. And lobby smart, stop polarizing."

    For sure we should do this. But in reality, I think there has been quite a lot of lobbying going on at many levels for many years. More money won't solve our problems without major systemic reform.

  • qaz says:

    BugDoc - why do you say this?

    First, in fact, there hasn't been real lobbying by the scientific community. Compare DOD to NIH in terms of their lobbying arms and in terms of their PR arms. Even DARPA is better at publicizing their science than NIH.

    Second, the lobbying we see has never been one of investment in science as infrastructure. It's always been "pay us and we'll cure disease". (Which causes a problem when the cures are a drop of cancer deaths by 1% per year [source that terrible silly Sally Rockey video], not a sudden no-more-cancer breakthrough).

    Third, we haven't seen proportional investment in the sciences compared to the Golden Ages of the Baby Boomers in my academic lifetime. It's quite possible that if there was enough money to fund 25% of the proposed projects (so the paylines really were 25% each cycle), then it might well solve most of our problems. Part of the problem is that when people talk about "fixing the money problem", they're talking about adding a few percentage points (enough to move us from 8% to 10%). That's not the change that has to happen.

  • Grumble says:

    "Even DARPA is better at publicizing their science than NIH."

    NIH is downright terrible at trumpeting itself. What I'd like to see is an entire office within NIH devoted to aggressive, effective public relations: producing ads that show clearly how NIH research has led to tangible improvements in people's lives, and buying airtime to run them; writing op-eds and running online and magazine ads; having a well-publicized website dedicated to nothing but science for laypeople, highlighting cool results and how they have ended up influencing medical treatment, or how they could have such an effect... all the stuff that successful PR entails.

    Of course, Congress doesn't want taxpayer money spent on PR, and if NIH isn't prohibited from doing this sort of thing already, all they need to do is try it and Congress would start screaming. What's needed is for the industries that benefit most from NIH-funded research to step up and promote it to the American people (and to Congress). I'm not sure why biotech and pharma companies haven't gotten together to aggressively sell increased NIH funding: it's something that can only help them in the long term, and a steady decline will end up hurting them badly.

  • DJMH says:

    I don't think small business owner is how we want to describe ourselves, because every other business owner in the country will immediately snark that *they* don't get free dosh handed out by the gummint to start-up and run *their* businesses. It would send exactly the wrong message.

    Better PR and lobbying sure, but again it can't come from the NIH, which is legally enjoined from lobbying.

    But basically, we get $30B. It's a good chunk of change. If we ourselves are unhappy about how a lot of that is spent, let's try to fix our own house before asking for more money. Because we all remember how the doubling solved our problems.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Contractor. THAT is the key. The NIH is a Federal entity contracting for a good or service. We provide it.

  • Science Grunt says:

    "Are you concerned about science itself if the really smart people avoid careers in it?"

    That would be bad. But I doubt the really smart people will be gone because these folks tend to do what they want in life and science tends to be the thing they do. Science already pays less than most other careers and yet they are pursuing.

    I am aware that I am defending the end of shotgun science (value in numbers) and love that principle. But the "bodies in the beach" can be seen in the number of disgruntledocs. If science provided a decent paycheck career to the AVERAGE scientist (hint: I'm talking about the 5-10 year experience postdoc, not the midlife faculty), I'd be all over defending science. Right now, I'm concerned about the people.

  • zb says:

    "Contractor. THAT is the key. The NIH is a Federal entity contracting for a good or service. We provide it."

    It really isn't, unless the science contractors are willing to be a lot more specific about what they are being contracted to provide and the metrics of deliverables.

    There might be examples of contractors who are providing vaguer deliverables (as opposed to, say a gadget that the department designed or computer services), but they struggle too.

    The battle science as an enterprise is fighting is the same that the education lobby faces -- the provision of a collective good (advancing human knowledge/educating the population) whose impact is collectively enormously, but only in the long run, and, in any individual case (a single grant, a single discovery, a single child educated) usually not a easily explainable impact.

    I see more money for science only when there's more money for everything (i.e. the economy is doing better and tax revenues are up, and cost cutters --ie Republicans-- are not in control).

  • former staff scientist says:

    "I'm not worried about the very smart people, those will be fine no matter what. I'm worried about the "smart enough" ones, the ones that in grad school are the average dudes. The ones that have the 3.2 GPA, and worked in a lab for a year."

    The very smart ones are still going to have to fight like hell to compete against other very smart ones. The average dudes may as well immediately retrain to do something else after receiving their PhD.

  • qaz says:

    But as we well know, it's not the smart ones who survive in these high-competition games, but the privileged. (See statistics on probability of going to college.)

    Yes, there are smart and privileged. But what we REALLY want is to provide enough resources for both the smart and privileged and the smart and unprivileged to make it and contribute to science.

    And, again, we don't want to bring the privileged down. We want to bring the unprivileged up. How do we do that?

  • Science Grunt says:

    "And, again, we don't want to bring the privileged down. We want to bring the unprivileged up. How do we do that?"

    In a zero sum game, two players cannot win. Distribution of resources is a zero sum game.

    In any case the problem in privilege isn't {smart privileged > smart unprivileged} unless all players are smart (they are not). The problem is {dumb privileged > smart unprivileged}. How to solve that? A simple solution is to have more F/T grants where NIH can directly employ affirmative actions, and give leeway to POs to use "diversity enhancement" as criterion to correct for low grades due to "othering", when picking which R grants to fund. Yes, that will never happen, but that is what it would take.

    In any case, privilege is a much harder, different problem.

  • MoBio says:

    Another perspective (and one I've not heard yet): with Congress filled with 'smaller government advocates' (especially the House) the problem is less about advocacy and more about having Representatives and Senators who would be favorably inclined to listen and then act when hearing from advocates.

    In the last election 36.6% of the electorate showed up to vote and only 13% of the voters were less than 30 years old (presumably those with the most 'skin in the game with regard to the future'; ) .

    The real problem here is that those with the most stake in the future (which presumably would include the future of science and health care research) don't vote.

  • jmz4 says:

    "And, again, we don't want to bring the privileged down. We want to bring the unprivileged up. How do we do that?"
    -Making up the pay differentials would be a good start. If you're from an affluent family, unburdened by college loan payments, etc, its a lot easier to stick it out as a postdoc in a big city environment (likewise for junior-mid faculty too, I assume).

    Or we could just go back to the days when all scientists were the eccentric sons of minor barons and wealthy merchants. None of this riff-raff floating about.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The problem is {dumb privileged > smart unprivileged}.

    Yes, this is the problem for scientific advance with constrained resources.

    However, the fact that mediocre privileged always beats out mediocre unprivileged is the larger issue for diversity of opportunity. Making sure the very best of the unprivileged (a small number) get into the mix with the mediocre mass of the privileged is what we have now and it is not enough. Disparity will persist until the benefits of privilege are reduced all across the distribution.

    One of the ERA personalities had the pity quote about this but I can never remember the source or exact phrasing. Something like "when women only have to be as good as the worst man in the position, then we will have real equality". You can translate that to any axis of privilege/disadvantage.

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