Archive for the 'Ask DrugMonkey' category

Ask DrugMonkey: Should I go over my NIH Program Officer's head?

Jan 12 2017 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, NIH, NIH Careerism

I get this question from grant applicants now and again so I thought maybe it was time to answer it on the blog. The latest version was from the Twitts:

Ok, first of all "escalate" is the wrong way to think about it. So don't do that. But you should absolutely explore the opinions and input of other Program Officers if you are unhappy with the responses (or lack thereof) that you are getting from your assigned PO.

As a brief reminder, many if not most of the NIH IC's have their POs arranged in a hierarchical structure. The smallest unit is typically a Branch, inhabited by ~2-5 POs, one of whom is the Branch Chief. The grant applications assigned to those POs will all share certain scientific properties, depending on how the Branch is designed. The individual POs in the Branch may have primary distinct roles and expertises in terms of their portfolios but there will be substantial overlap. The Branch Chief is responsible for all of the grants and applications in her Branch, obviously. These are small groups of people so, also obviously, they are closely interacting colleagues. They talk to each other a LOT about the business of the Branch. This is one practical reason you don't want to think about "escalating" and you want to approach matters carefully. The whole Branch may actually share your assigned PO's low opinion of your work. The Chief may be totally buddies with your assigned PO and not really appreciate you screaming about how she or he is incompetent, biased and shouldn't be working for the NIH at all.

Branches are collected into Divisions. I'm a little less certain about the universality of how ICs are organized on this but sometimes the Division director also functions, in essence, as a Branch Chief. She just also has the responsibility for overseeing the entire Division of related Branches.

Still with me? Take a stroll on the Organization page of your favorite IC to see what I mean if this is confusing.

Division directors are allowed to talk to God, aka the IC Director. What I mean by this is that when it comes to the hammer and tongs discussion of what is to be funded, what can possibly be picked up with exception funding, etc, it is the Division director level that is making the case. To all the other Division Directors and to the IC Director. I think they are the ones called upon in Council meetings, generally, if a specific question arises.

The point here is that the Division Director needs to know your applications too. They have a direct chain-of-command responsibility for them. And ultimately they have a responsibility for the performance of the entire Division portfolio of funded grants. They are involved.

Another thing to remember. POs get promoted up the ranks. The Branch Chief of today might be the Division Director of tomorrow. Your PO may become Branch Chief. Also, there can be some shuffling of individual POs across Branches (and even ICs as it happens).

This is why I continue to bang on about how it is in your best interest to meet POs, many of them, and to continue your relationship with them when opportunities arise (annual scientific meetings, for example).

So, back to the question. This usually arises because the applicant feels like their assigned PO is just not interested in their work. The PO may never return their calls. The PO may actively criticize their Specific Aims and tell them not to apply. The PO may be giving all sorts of unhelpful advice or just sticks to the mantra (I advise you to revise and resubmit). The PO may be refusing to push for a pickup for a grey zone score.

An obvious thing to do is to appeal. To try to get someone else.

This is a reasonably good idea. You just need to approach it judiciously. POs can be biased or they can just not "get" your work or proposal. They may have applications on their list that are higher priority to them. They may still be bitter about something that happened with your grad student advisor*!

If your PO is not your Branch Chief, that is probably your first stop. As I say above, it is possible that she knows all about your situation but perhaps she does not. So give it a try. It is also not impossible that she knows all about the limitations of PO X under her Branch but can only really act when someone complains.

When you take it up the chain, I always think the best approach is to be in a stance of seeking advice, rather than complaining about your rights.

"I don't understand...there is a lack of [feedback, enthusiasm, explanation]...perhaps my applications are being assigned to the wrong PO, would another one be better?"

That sort of thing. You can take this same approach with the Division Director. If you do this, however, you need to express doubt that the original Branch is the right one and find some key words in the description of another Branch to suggest perhaps that is a better fit.

Ultimately, sure, you can take this straight to the IC Director. Even the NIH Director, I suppose.

Your ability to get them to take your call or pay any attention to your concerns whatever will depend on your status in the world. I've definitely had senior colleagues who are in continual contact with IC directors and would for sure talk to them directly about grant matters. Things as specific as picking up a near-miss grant application for funding. If you happen to know an IC director well, sure, go for it when the situation is really critical. Other people are sure as heck doing it so why shouldn't you?

I'll close by reiterating that you need to be judicious about this. Keep entitled demanding far away from your thoughts. Keep angry complains about the bias and incompetence of the PO that is frustrating you out of your mind. Take the position of seeking information. Strike an attitude of not understanding why your experience is different from the advice you are getting to contact POs.


15 responses so far

Ask DrugMonkey: JIT and Progress Reports

Nov 10 2015 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

Two quick things:

Your NIH grant Progress Report goes to Program. Your PO. It does not go to any SRO or study section members, not even for your competing renewal application. It is for the consumption of the IC that funded your grant. It forms the non-competing application for your next interval of support that has already passed competitive review muster.

Second. The eRA commons automailbot sends out requests for your JIT (Just In Time; Other Support page, IRB/IACUC approvals) information within weeks of your grant receiving a score. The precise cutoff for this autobot request is unclear to me and it may vary by IC or by mechanism for all I know. The point is, that it is incredibly generous. Meaning that when you look at your score and think "that is a no-way-it-will-ever-fund score" and still get the JIT autobot request, this doesn't mean you are wrong. It means the autobot was set to email you at a very generous threshold.

JIT information is also requested by the Grants Management Specialist when he/she is working on preparing your award, post-Council. DEFINITELY respond to this request.

The only advantage I see to the autobot request is that if you need to finalize anything with your IRB or IACUC this gives you time. By the time the GMS requests it, you are probably going to be delaying your award if you do not have IRB/IACUC approval in hand. If you submit your Other Support page with the autobot request, you are just going to have to update it anyway after Council.

15 responses so far

Ask Drugmonkey: Call to the Hivemind on Behavioral Neuroscience coursework

A longtime Reader asks:

My colleagues and I are trying to finalize our revisions/updates to the courses we will require as part of a PhD in behavioral neuroscience. It would be helpful to get input on what others' experience is: how many credit hours of classwork are required, and what are seen as the essential items? [We're at 47 class credits currently, trying to reduce to either 41 or 38 but facing resistance to eliminating non-neuro psychology classes from requirements.]

Anyone have any thoughts on this?

I myself think that "eliminating non-neuro psychology classes" is a huge mistake and I join their local resistance. The field of so-called behavioral neuroscience already has far too many people who are insufficiently grounded in good old Behavioral Psychology.

If you take the current replication hoopla seriously, it is a bad idea to cut behavior out of the curriculum.

31 responses so far

Repost: A Conversation About the Environment score criterion

Aug 05 2015 Published by under Academics, Ask DrugMonkey

This was originally published July 21, 2010.

After NIGMS Director Berg notified me of his most recent regression analysis of the individual criterion scores, the good Comrade PhysioProf had a conversation. As is our wont. It went something like this.

Comrade PhysioProf: The most interesting thing of all the correlations was that investigator and environment are so highly correlated.

Your Humble Narrator: I'm not really surprised. I find environment to be a throw away consideration on panels I've been on. people don't generally propose to do something for which major infrastructure is absent!

CPP: On my last R01 review and my post-doc's NRSA, they waxed poetic about the fucking environment. In the applications, we went on and on about the scientific environment and named a number of specific faculty members whose expertise would be drawn upon blah, blah, blah. I think that shit can actually work.

YHN: Christ what a load of shit

CPP: Dude, it's true! We have an outstanding environment! The food trucks outside the med school are some of the finest in all of biomedical research!

CPP: How funny would it be to actually put that in the facilities sections of an application? "The "Alibertos" food truck is only steps away from our laboratory and provides a level of energy dense food that contributes substantially to the likelihood of success of the proposed specific aims."

YHN: "The "Alibertos" truck returns in evening hours at 6 and 10 pm so that trainees need not leave the lab until 12pm, thus maximizing throughput for these studies"

CPP: I just looked at the instructions for the new application format, and that would actually go in the "Resources" section.

YHN: HAHHAHHAHAAAHAH, you are such a grant geek!!!!!


Additional Reading:

7 responses so far

Is your NIH PO a little....grouchy?

Feb 27 2015 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism

Another one, paraphrased from multiple correspondents:

Dear DM: 
is it just me or are all the POs getting increasingly grouchy and unhelpful?

A. Reader

I am not certain, since I hardly have a representative sample. But I'd say no, this is probably just a bad run for you.

When encouraging you to interact with your Program Officer(s) I tend to emphasize the useful interactions that I have experienced. Consequently I may fail to convey that most of the time they are going to be unhelpful and even discouraging.

Try to see it from their position. They hear from dozens of us, all complaining about some dirty review deed that was done to our application and looking for help. Round after round, after round.

They cannot help everyone.

So take it in stride, as best you can, when you get a seemingly dismissive response. This same PO may become your best advocate on the next one*.

*and then treat you like effluvium again after that. It's happpened to me, I can tell you.

36 responses so far

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


Feb 03 2015 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Day in the life of DrugMonkey

Some people try to get into a mental frame for grant writing with disruptions of their normal workaday routine.

I tend to fit grant writing into a normal, regular old working style.

This all started because someone wanted to know what special snacks or food I use for "grant mode".

I don't.
Continue Reading »

20 responses so far

Things I should not have to point out to people and yet, here we are.

Things that I actually have to say to some people.

yes. it is bad news that there is yet another way for people to fuck themselves the hell up on stimulant drugs. yes.

No responses yet

Repost: Should I hire a postdoc or a technician?

Dec 08 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

This repost is via special request from some n00b Assistant Professor who has apparently lost access to Google.

It was originally posted 25 Aug, 2008.

The comments following a recent post touched on the newly independent investigator dilemma of who to hire first: A postdoctoral fellow or a technician? We'll leave aside the best answer ("both") as impractical because, as Professor in Training noted,

I only have enough money to pay ONE postdoc's salary for 18 months ... or ONE tech ... that's it. While that would be great for me, that's certainly not enough time for a postdoc to get more than one study done (in my field probably only 75% of a study). Is it even advisable to employ a postdoc for such a short time with no great certainty of being able to pay their salary beyond that point?

YHN tends to recommend "tech" and PhysioProf tends to opt for "postdoc"...sounds like a new discussion to me!

To define terms just a little bit for those less steeped in the biz, I covered the job category of "technician" here:

A "technician" in the biomedical sciences is an employee of the laboratory (well, actually of the University) who is not "in training" (such as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) and does not (usually) have a terminal doctoral degree. (For example long-term PhD scientist employees who are too far along to really be "postdocs" and are not PIs are not really "techs".) Most typically the tech has a bachelor's degree in a scientific major and a few will have advanced credentials such as Veterinarian Tech specialties or subject-based Master's degrees. It is not unusual for the tech to have continued her education while working in the laboratory by taking advantage of University educational repayment policies.

One of the most important parts for today's discussion is that the technician can be viewed, non-pejoratively, as 100% an employee working "for" the lab head or Principal Investigator (PI). Someone who is expected to do what is asked at all times with the goals of furthering the lab agenda. In this employment relationship the PI is unequivocally understood to be "the boss".

A postdoctoral fellow/trainee is a person who has acquired a terminal doctoral degree (Ph.D., D.V.M, D.D.S., M.D.) and is working under the supervision of an independent investigator. Here one key difference is that the postdoc is in a dual role, the balance of which is debated. The postdoc is considered a "trainee" in the sense that s/he is working in part for her (his) own benefit, to acquire skills and tools that will be required to obtain and launch an independent research career. This notion implies a degree of independence from the PI, an ability to work on stuff other than what the PI has "told" her (him) to do, possibly to work on stuff that is only of benefit to the postdoc (and not the lab or PI directly), etc. I happen to believe that the postdoc also has a responsibility to help the lab and, in essence, to do the job for which s/he was hired and to make all data generated accessible to the PI...but not every postdoc agrees with that. In truth it is also likely that some PIs either explicitly or implicitly think that postdocs are basically indistinguishable from technicians when it comes to the employment relationship. So there's a spectrum.

Okay, so why do I think a tech is more important to secure for a brand new PI?
That isn't your job anymore. Scutwork. Tedium. The stuff that is absolutely necessary to the running of your lab which is not particularly demanding in intellect and may be incredibly time-consuming. Yes, you specialized in this as a lowly graduate student and took pride in the fact that you were able to do this work as a postdoc while still doing more high-falutin' intellectual labor. Postdocs around you who couldn't find their behind with both hands when it came to the basic work were to be derided. Fine. But this is not your job anymore!!! My position is that the more time-consuming scutwork you can get off your plate the better. Since nobody likes scutwork, it is far better to rely on an employee who is paid to do a job, can be readily fired and replaced, for this sort of thing.

Your first deceptively hard question as a new PI is that of determining which tasks in the lab really do not require your input, after basic training and given that you will continue to supervise and troubleshoot. I say deceptively hard because my experience in talking with some fairly advanced postdocs and even junior faculty is that they have not really thought about this question. They get stuck in the usual traps. "It is more work than it is worth to train somebody to do this." "I only trust my own work/data/analyses." "My hands are the best." "This is too important to screwup." Etc.

All true. Being a PI takes a big leap of faith in the work of others. This is, in my view, part of the deal. For the huge increase in scientific terrain you are able to cover as a PI directing the efforts of other scientists, you are accepting the risk that someone else is not as good as you*. So get over this. Your job is to learn how to set up your management style such that you can tolerate human frailty and still make excellent progress on what interests you.

Progress and Work Ethic. Management of personnel is one of the hardest things for new PIs to learn. After all, we were motivated self-starters so we can't really understand why everyone else would bother to be doing this stuff if they weren't self-wackaloon-motivated. Sadly, not every one is just like you (ibid), new PI! Which means that you may have to evaluate an employees work effort and apply some judicious boots to the posterior. Perhaps even with threats of dismissal and actual dismissal for poor performance. It is very much easier to do this with a technician who is supposed to be working 100% at your behest.

Stability. In most cases postdocs will be transient visitors to your lab, lasting 3-5 years at best. So sure, a good one may get you through tenure. But postdocs can and do leave for all kinds of reasons. Their interests and relative focus on your stuff necessarily changes as time elapses. The tech on the other hand, can be a more or less career employee in whom your investment over time continues to pay you back over intervals of a decade or more.

Availability. Unless you are very lucky or very HawtStuff, recruiting a good postdoc to your laboratory is far from given. I've seen this from all ends, as a postdoc, peer of postdocs, mentor to postdocs , as a PI seeking fellows and as a peer to other junior faculty looking to hire. I've seen situations in which the fellow (or grad student) was very focused on joining the lab of the local BigCheez and quickly evolved to be working most closely with local junior investigators because the fit was so obviously better. The bottom line is that for a postdoc the prospect of joining a starting Assistant Professor's lab is very much of career concern.

An additional concern with availability is that it is not unusual for postdocs and PIs to come to arrangements far in advance of the actual start date. Very anecdotally, I'd say the better the candidate, the more likely this is the case. So a junior PI who manages to recruit and lock-in a highly promising candidate may have to accept that she will not be arriving in the lab for a year. That's a big hit, especially if that is the first year in which teaching loads have been reduced. Technicians are typically hired with a fairly short lead time on the order of weeks at worst.

Data Stream Strategy for the Long Haul. This one verges dangerously close to the argument over being an investigator who operates on the cutting edge at all times versus the small-town grocer. So YMMV. If, however, you have an aspect of your research program which can putter along with relatively little input from you, is of lasting importance to your scientific goals and interests and, most importantly, can support a steady stream of bread-and-butter publications I recommend getting this going. It is not necessary that the tech does all of the work up to publication-quality figures, of course, mainly that s/he is able to generate good quality and interesting data at your direction. Or the tech is capable of doing most of the work with you sailing in for the essential parts.

It is all very well and good to shoot for GlamourPubs. If you manage to get them, you are set. I get this. Not getting them is, however, excusable. In most environments, meaning that even if not in your specific department you can get a job elsewhere. Perhaps one theoretical tier down, but still a research-focused job. What is not optional is publishing somewhere, anywhere**. When it comes to most decisions that matter, tenure and review of prior progress when it comes to grant review, 0-fer is not excusable. Published articles can be debated on their merits with respect to actual impact, importance, brilliance, what have you. A lack of publication can not be debated or defended***. Admittedly the postdoc who is half-decent has a greater possibility of getting all the way to a submittable manuscript. But the bread-n-butter tech is near guaranteed to make sure the data are available to writeup when you are feeling the publication pinch.

Final Thought. It basically comes down to risk management from my perspective. If you can get a very good, hardworking postdoc right away the choice is pretty clear in opting for the postdoc. I am quite pessimistic, however, that new PIs can pull that off. When it comes down to a postdoc who will not show up for 12 months, a postdoc who is lazy, distracted or really focused on interests that are not sufficiently in line with yours...well, the technician wins every time.

Update: One thing I forgot to mention originally but was reminded of by the first comment. The chances of getting a technician working for you for free are next to zero. It is possible to get a postdoc for free, however. A postdoc may come with their own fellowship (there are many international-study type fellowships where a country funds individual fellows to go abroad, for example) or you may be able to secure a slot on a local institutional training grant for your postdoc. This is not a guarantee but these situations are considerably more likely than getting a technician working for you but paid for by some other source of support.

*almost by definition, the fact that you are a PI now means the smart money bets you were a better-than-average postdoc. Very likely you had more motivation, intellectual curiosity and, yes, better experimental hands than the average bear. Which means that on average, postdocs that come into your lab are going to fall short of the standard of you! (Yes, even accounting for an inflated view of self.) Deal.
**"anywhere" means "peer reviewed" and is environment specific. Whatever your field considers the supposedly lowest denominator or a minimally respectable "dump journal" or whatever.
***usually. I could tell you some stories. But really, make it easy on yourself and publish something already!

19 responses so far

Thought of the Day

Oct 01 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey

Some days...

I tell you, one of the most hilarious parts of this blogging gig is this.

On the one hand, any time I try to gently suggest that postdocs could work a little harder, might need to actually produce a little more, need to figure out how to close out "projects" into submittable manuscripts AND THAT THIS IS A TRAIT THAT THEIR PIs HAD AS POST DOCS.....

I get pushback.

From the hordes of Internet postdocs who are all brilliant, wonderfully productive, practically PIs themselves in all significant ways and are, sadly, only held back by their current rat bastige PIs who fail to help them in some egregious manner.

On the other hand,I have recieved a lot of commentary behind the scenes from PIs. Who tell me the most hilarious stories about postdocs who fail to produce, are completely delusional about their own efforts, accomplishments and/or levels of effort.

There is only one possible conclusion.

The postdocs who read my blog and the PIs who read my blog are entirely independent sets with no possible areas of population overlap.

35 responses so far

Older posts »