Archive for the 'Careerism' category

Really, it's normal

Dec 01 2016 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

It's okay. It's perfectly natural and healthy. Everyone does it, you know. I mean, it's not like anyone brags about it but they do it. Regularly. So go ahead and don't feel ashamed.
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35 responses so far

Overtime rules

So. A federal judge* managed to put a hold on Obama's move to increase the threshold for overtime exemption. Very likely any challenge to this will fail to succeed before a new Administration takes over the country. Most would bet there will be no backing for Obama's plans under the new regime.

NIH is planning to steam ahead with their NRSA salary guidelines that met the Obama rule. Workplaces are left in a quandary. Many have announced their policies and issued notification of raises to some employees. Now they are not being forced to do so, at the last hour.

My HR department has signaled no recent changes in plans. Postdocs will get raises up to the Obama threshold. There are some other categories affected but I've seen no announcement of any hold on those plans either.

How about you folks? What are your various HR departments going to do in light of the de facto halt on Obama's plans!

*activist judge

56 responses so far

SFN 2016: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary

Nov 03 2016 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

As the neuroscientists in the audience prepare for their largest annual scientific gathering, I like to remind my Readers to attend to a chore which will improve their odds of obtaining NIH grant funding. This includes a little bit of homework on your part, so block out an hour or two with your coffee cup.

Part of the process of sustained NIH funding includes the long game of developing interpersonal relationships with the Program Officers that staff the NIH ICs of interest to our individual research areas. Sure, they do turn over a bit and may jump ICs but I've had some POs involved with my proposals for essentially the entire duration of my funded career to date.

Many scientists find the schmoozing process to be uncomfortable and perhaps even distasteful.

To this I can only reply "Well, do you want to get funded or not?".

A version of this post originally went up Nov 12, 2008.

One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA is to stroll around NIH row. Right? The National Institutes of Health populates quite a bit of real estate in the vendor/exhibitor section of the poster floor. If you are new to SFN, go find it once you arrive. If you are and old hand, I expect you know what I am talking about.

This blog has frequently discussed the role of Program (meaning the individual NIH Institutes and Centers which fund grant proposals) in determining which grants actually receive funding. Although the priority scores assigned by the study section review (and the resulting percentile ranks) are very, very important there is also a role for Program Officials (POs). The ICs will frequently fund grants outside of the order of the percentile ranks based on a number of factors having to do with the type of science that is proposed, their view of the quality of the review and various IC initiatives, desires and intentions. The process by which the IC selects the grants which it is going to pick up for funding outside of the percentile order is a bit opaque but believe you me it is done by real human POs with typical human virtues/failings.

Consequently, there are social factors that matter. These factors matter in deciding just which applications get picked up and which do not.

I'm sure that the official line is that the process is objective and has nothing to do with interpersonal schmoozing......HAHAHAHAAHAHA! Get real.

This is not the time to get on your high horse about the way the world should work. The annual meeting of a large-ish (like SfN or Experimental Biology) or IC-dedicated-ish (like RSA, CPDD) societies is the time for you to work with reality to nudge your current and future grant applications ever closer to funding.

So find the big row of booths which are populated by the NIH ICs at the upcoming SfN meeting in San Diego. The brain institutes will dominate, of course, but you'd be surprised just how many of the ICs have interests in the neurosciences.

Hi, My Name is....

sfnbadge2016My closest collaborator and the PI on a most critically important, albeit low-N, developmental biology study once gave some firm advice when I was preparing a slide on the topic of schmoozing NIH Program staff. It was pointed out to me that nonspecific calls to "go schmooze" are not necessarily all that helpful and that trainees could use some specific pointers. Therefore, I'll include some thoughts on somewhat more concrete steps to take for the shy/retiring personality types. Please excuse if I am insulting anyone's social intelligence.

First, you need to spend some time in the next day or two figuring out a couple of basic things. Which Institute (or Center) supports your lab? The labs in the departments around you? Hit RePORTER if you need to, it is simple to search your PI, look at the results page for the specific way your University or local Institute is described. Then go back to the RePORTER search and pull up all the awards to your University from a given NIH IC.

Second, ask your PI who his/her POs are. Who they have been in the recent past, if necessary. This is optional but will be useful to make you seem with it when you get to the meeting. If you happen to hold an individual NRSA fellowship, this would be a good time to re-check the name of your PO!

(And I simply must remind the too!!!! There is nothing more embarrassing then having no idea who your PO is when s/he is standing in front of you. Yes, I've known peers who don't know who their PO is. Also, as I mentioned, your grants can get reassigned midstream with no particular notice to you. This is a good time to recheck.)

Third, click on over to the websites of 2-3 relevant ICs. You are going to have to look around a bit for the "Organization" structure because the ICs all have different webpage designs. And I will note that some make it really difficult to do the following research (so if you are stymied it may not be you). Using NIMH as the example, you'll see a bunch of "Offices and Divisions" listed. At this point you are going to just have to wade through government gobbledygook, sorry. It is not always clear which Division is the most specific to your interests. Under each Division (the director of which would typically also have a personal portfolio as supervising PO) you will see a number of "Branches" also with a head PO (and often some additional POs) listed. As you are reading the descriptions of the research domains of interest to each Division and Branch you might want to note the ones that sound most like your areas of interest. Maybe even jot down the PO names. If you are really feeling in the zone, you can go back to RePORTER and search on a PO name to see the extend of her/his portfolio.

Fourth, if you did manage to get some PO names from your PI you may be able to shortcut this process a bit by just plugging their name into the staff directory or IC page search box to figure out which Division/Branch they inhabit. And again, maybe just search out this person's portfolio of funded grants on RePORTER.

Fifth, you can email a PO in advance and ask if they are attending the meeting and if so, can you schedule a meeting with them. This is an optional step but if you are the busy/scheduled type and/or you really need to see a specific PO this is a way to go. This is a good time to mention to the PO when your presentation will be taking place as well.

Now you are ready to take a stroll on NIH row!


The first thing to remember is that this is their job! You are not wasting their time or anything like that. The POs are there at the meeting, staffing the booth to talk with you. Yes, you. From the trainee up through the greybearded and bluehaired types. So have no concerns on that score. Plus they are quite friendly. Especially in this context (on the phone when you are complaining about your grant score is another matter, of course).

Second, the POs of a given IC will usually have a schedule floating around on the table indicating when you might find a specific person at the booth. Not that you shouldn't talk with whichever PO happens to be there, but you may want to leverage your researches to speak with a specific person.

Third, hang around and swing back by. There are going to be times when the POs are all seemingly occupied by rabid squirrel PIs, gesticulating wildly and complaining about their latest grant review. So you may have to brave up a bit or just wait for a quieter time to get the attention of a PO. Don't worry, there will be plenty of literature sitting on the tables for you to read while waiting your chance to horn in. There is usually a magazine rack full of Funding Opportunity Announcements and similar interesting reading somewhere in the booth.

So what do you say once you get the attention of a PO? Well introduce yourself, indicate who you work under and indicate that the grants you work on are funded by the IC or, where relevant, that this person is the supervising PO for one of your PI's grants. Tell her a little bit about your research interests-remember, on of the primary jobs of the PI is to tell the POs what is the most interesting current and future science!

After that, act dumb! Seriously, just lay out where you are career-wise and science-wise and say "I don't really understand much about grant support and I figure I need to get up to speed for my future career".

Or you may want to troll 'em with a few choice questions from our discussions here- ask about R21 versus R01, New Investigator fears, RFA versus PA versus totally unsolicited proposals, etc.

Remember, the goal is not solely information transfer. It is to start the process of individual POs in your most-likely IC homes knowing who you are, putting a face to a name and, hopefully, coming away impressed that you have a head on your shoulders and are doing interesting science. You are trying to create the impression that you are "one of their investigators". Yes, my friends, POs have a pronounced tendency to develop proprietary feelings for their peeps. I've been described as such by POs at a time when I didn't even hold funding from the IC in question! So have a few of my peers. If you have trained under their awards, attended "their" society meetings, maybe had a training grant or even just a travel award...well, they are going to be looking out for you when it comes time to pick up New Investigator grants or fellowships or even old-fogies' R01 applications.

I understand that this may sound pretty crass and forced when written out. I would observe it ends up being quite natural when you do it. And it gets easier with practice, believe me. This sort of thing is far from my natural behavior and I was very slow to pick it up. I've seen the results, however, of getting oneself on the radar of Program Officials and it is a very GoodThing.

16 responses so far


Oct 26 2016 Published by under Careerism, NIH Careerism


Lorsch says that he knows first-hand that Generation X scientists are not whiners: “I do not hear complaining from the people who are trying to get their first grant or renew their first grant, the people trying to get a lab running,” he says. “It’s the really well-funded people who’ve lost one of their grants — that’s who call me and scream.”

18 responses so far

Query of the Day: Career Self-Awareness

Oct 24 2016 Published by under Careerism

Aptitude for different roles in academic science is a tricky business. Until a person has been serving in a particular capacity, we never really know how well they will do. Sometimes one is very surprised, on both the "more capable"and "unexpected disaster" fronts.

And yes, I am fully aware that Imposter Syndrome gets in the way of self-assessment.

I am also aware of the Peter Principle.

Nevertheless the question of the day is whether you think about those future roles that you might reasonably be considered to fill. Do you have a firm idea of your strengths and weaknesses as an academic/scientist? Are there certain roles you could never do, wouldn't be good at? Are there other ones you just *know* are right for you if only given the chance?

I think that I do. At my stage, these next-steps are mostly leadership roles for which I am utterly unsuited. I know this about myself and there is no way I would pursue them or feel slighted if passed over for that behind-the-scenes grooming/encouraging process.

I see other people who I think are eminently suited to be leaders of larger collectives. I've been able to observe several people who ascended to power (ahem) from petty to very grand indeed. I think I know what sorts of people do well and I am not that. At all.

Of course this post isn't really about me but rather about those that do not seem to be aware of themselves. I marvel at that phenotype that doesn't seem to recognize their own skill set and the strengths and limits that they express.

This got me to pondering and of course I am now curious about your experience, Dear Reader.

Do you feel as though you have a good assessment of your suitability for various next-roles that might lie ahead of you?

39 responses so far

How do you respond to not being cited where appropriate?

Oct 10 2016 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, Peer Review, Tribe of Science

Have you ever been reading a scientific paper and thought "Gee, they really should have cited us here"?

Never, right?

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25 responses so far

Completely uncontroversial PI comment on paper writing

Sep 29 2016 Published by under Careerism, Conduct of Science


46 responses so far

Responding to Targeted NIH Grant Funding Opportunity Announcements

Sep 29 2016 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, NIH, NIH Careerism

The NIH FOAs come in many flavors of specificity. Some, usually Program Announcements, are very broad and appear to permit a wide range of applications to fit within them. My favorite example of this is NIDA's "Neuroscience Research on Drug Abuse" PA.

They also come in highly specific varieties, generally as RFAs.

The targeted FOA is my topic for the day because they can be frustrating in the extreme. No matter how finely described for the type, these FOA are inevitably too broad to let each and every interested PI know exactly how to craft her application. Or, more importantly, whether to bother. There is always a scientific contact, a Program Officer, listed so the first thing to do is email or call this person. This can also be frustrating. Sometimes one gets great advice, sometimes it is perplexing.

As always, I can only offer up the way I look at these things.

As an applicant PI facing an FOA that seems vaguely of interest to me, I have several variables that are at play. First, despite the fact that Program may have written the FOA in a particular way, this doesn't mean that they really know what they want. The FOA language may be a committee result or it may just not have been thought that a highly specific type of proposal was necessary to satisfy what goals and motivations existed.

Second, even if they do know what they want in Programville, peer review is always the primary driver. If you can't escape triage it is highly unlikely that Program will fund your application, even if it fits their intent to a T. So as the applicant PI, I have to consider how peers are likely to interpret the FOA and how they are likely to apply it to my application. It is not impossible that the advice and perspective given to the prospective PI by the contact PO flies rather severely in the face of that PIs best estimate of what is likely to occur during peer review. This leaves a conundrum.

How to best navigate peer review and also serve up a proposal that is attractive to Program, in case they are looking to reach down out of the order of review for a proposal that matches what they want.

Finally, as I mention now and again there is an advocacy role for the PI when applying for NIH funding. It is part and parcel of the job of the PI to tell Program what they should be funding. By, of course, serving up such a brilliantly argued application that they see that your take on their FOA is the best take. Even if this may not have been what was their intent in the first place. This also, btw, applies to the study section members. Your job is in part to convince them, not to meet whatever their preconceptions or reading of the FOA might be.

Somehow, the PI has to stew all of these considerations together and come up with a plan for the best possible proposal. Unfortunately, you can miss the mark. Not because your application is necessarily weak or your work doesn't fit the FOA in some objective sense. Merely because you have decided to make choices, gambles and interpretations that have led you in a particular direction, which may very well be the "wrong" direction.

Most severely, you might be rejected without review. This can happen. If you do not meet the PO's idea of being within the necessary scope of what they would ever plan to fund, no matter the score, you could have your application prevented from being routed to the study section.

Alternately, you might get triaged by a panel that just doesn't see it your way. That wonders if you, the idiot PI, was reading the same FOA that they are. It happens.

Finally, you might get a good score and Program may decide to skip over it for lack of responsiveness to their intent. Or you may be in the grey zone and fail to get a pickup because other grants scoring below yours are deemed closer to what they want to fund.

My point for today is that I think this is necessary error in the system. It is not evidence of a wholesale problem with the NIH FOA approach if you shoot wide to the left. If you fail to really understand the intent of the FOA as written. Or if you come away from your initial chat with the PO with a misguided understanding. Or even if you run into the buzzsaw of a review panel that rebels against the FOA.

Personally, I think you just have to take your chances. Arrive at your best understanding of what the FOA intends and how the POs are going to interpret various proposals. Sure. And craft your application accordingly. But you have to realize that you may be missing the point entirely. You may fail to convince anyone of your brilliant take on the FOA's stated goals. This doesn't mean the system is broken.

So take your shots. Offer up your best interpretation on how to address the goals. And then bear down and find the next FOA and work on that. In case your first shot sails over the crossbar.

It always fascinates me how fairly wide-flung experiences with NIH funding coalesce around the same issue sometimes. This particular post was motivated by no less than three situations being brought to my attention in the past week. Different ICs, different FOA, different mechanisms and vastly different topics and IC intentions. But to me, the answers are the same.

12 responses so far

The NIH has shifted from being an investor in research to a consumer of research

WOW. This comment from dsks absolutely nails it to the wall.

The NIH is supposed to be taking on a major component of the risk in scientific research by playing the role of investor; instead, it seems to operates more as a consumer, treating projects like products to be purchased only when complete and deemed sufficiently impactful. In addition to implicitly encouraging investigators to flout rules like that above, this shifts most of the risk onto the shoulders of investigator, who must use her existing funds to spin the roulette wheel and hope that the projects her lab is engaged in will be both successful and yield interesting answers. If she strikes it lucky, there’s a chances of recouping the cost from the NIH. However, if the project is unsuccessful, or successful but produces one of the many not-so-pizzazz-wow answers, the PI’s investment is lost, and at a potentially considerable cost to her career if she’s a new investigator.

Of course one might lessen the charge slightly by observing that it is really the University that is somehow investing in the exploratory work that may eventually become of interest to the buyer. Whether the University then shifts the risk onto the lowly PI is a huge concern, but not inevitable. They could continue to provide seed money, salary, etc to a professor who does not manage to write a funded grant application.

Nevertheless, this is absolutely the right way to look at the ever growing obligation for highly specific Preliminary Data to support any successful grant application. Also the way to look at a study section culture that is motivated in large part by perceived "riskiness" (which underlies a large part of the failure to reward untried investigators from unknown Universities compared with established PIs from coastal elite institutions).

NIH isn't investing in risky science. It is purchasing science once it looks like most of the real risk has been avoided.

I have never seen this so clearly, so thanks to dsks for expressing it.

38 responses so far

Professor fired for misconduct shoots Dean

From the NYT account of the shooting of Dennis Charney:

A former faculty member at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine... , Hengjun Chao, 49, of Tuckahoe, N.Y., was charged with attempted second-degree murder after he allegedly fired a shotgun and hit two men

why? Presumably revenge for :

In October 2002, Mr. Chao joined Mount Sinai as a research assistant professor. He stayed at Mount Sinai until May 2009, when he received a letter of termination from Dr. Charney for “research misconduct,” according to a lawsuit that Mr. Chao filed against the hospital and Dr. Charney, among other parties, in 2010. He went through an appeals process, and was officially terminated in March 2010.

As you might expect, the retraction watch blog has some more fascinating information on this case. One notable bit is the fact that ORI declined to pursue charges against Dr. Chao.

The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) decided not to pursue findings of research misconduct, according to material filed in the case and mentioned in a judge’s opinion on whether Chao could claim defamation by Mount Sinai. Part of Chao’s defamation claim was based on a letter from former ORI  investigator Alan Price calling Mount Sinai’s investigation report “inadequate, seriously flawed and grossly unfair in dealing with Dr. Chao.”

Interesting! The institution goes to the effort of firing the guy and manages to fight off a counter suit and ORI still doesn't have enough to go on? Retraction watch posted the report on the Mount Sinai misconduct investigation [PDF]. It makes the case a little more clear.

To briefly summarize: Dr. Chao first alleged that a postdoc, Dr. Cohn, fabricated research data. An investigation failed to support the charge and Dr. Chao withdrew his complaint. Perhaps (?) as part of that review, Dr. Cohn submitted an allegation that Dr. Chao had directed her to falsify data-this was supported by an email and a colleague third-party testimony. Mount Sinai mounted an investigation and interviewed a bunch of people with Dr. titles, some of whom are co-authors with Dr. Chao according to PubMed.

The case is said to hinge on credibility of the interviewees. "There was no 'smoking gun' direct evidence....the allegations..represent the classic 'he-said, she-said' dispute". The report notes that only the above mentioned email trail supports any of the allegations with hard evidence.

Ok, so that might be why ORI declined to pursue the case against Dr. Chao.

The panel found him to be "defensive, remarkably ignorant about the details of his protocol and the specifics of his raw data, and cavalier with his selective memory. ..he made several overbroad and speculative allegations of misconduct against Dr. Cohn without any substantiation"

One witness testified that Dr. Chao had said "[Dr. Cohn] is a young scientist [and] doesn't know how the experiments should come out, and I in my heart know how it should be."

This is kind of a classic sign of a PI who creates a lab culture that encourages data faking and fraud, if you ask me. Skip down to the end for more on this.

There are a number of other allegations of a specific nature. Dropping later timepoints of a study because they were counter to the hypothesis. Publishing data that dropped some of the mice for no apparent reason. Defending low-n (2!) data by saying he was never trained in statistics, but his postdoc mentor contradicted this claim. And finally, the committee decided that Dr. Chao's original complaint filed against Dr. Cohn was a retaliatory action stemming from an ongoing dispute over science, authorship, etc.

The final conclusion in the recommendations section deserves special attention:

"[Dr. Chao] promoted a laboratory culture of misconduct and authoritarianism by rewarding results consistent with his theories and berating his staff if the results were inconsistent with his expectations."

This, my friends, is the final frontier. Every time I see a lower-ling in a lab busted for serial faking, I wonder about this. Sure, any lab can be penetrated by a data faking sleaze. And it is very hard to both run a trusting collaborative scientific environment and still be 100 percent sure of preventing the committed scofflaws. But...but..... I am here to tell you. A lot of data fraud flows from PIs of just exactly this description.

If the PI does it right, their hands are entirely clean. Heck, in some cases they may have no idea whatsoever that they are encouraging their lab to fake data.

But the PI is still the one at fault.

I'd hope that every misconduct investigation against anyone below the PI level looks very hard into the culture that is encouraged and/or perpetrated by the PI of the lab in question.

29 responses so far

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