Archive for the 'NIH Careerism' category

Should we continue long-funded NIH grant programs under younger PIs?

Oct 13 2014 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

In the course of discussing the infamous graph showing the longitudinal increase in the median age of first-R01 award, and the other infamous slide deck showing the aging of the distribution of all NIH-funded PIs there is something that eventually comes up.

To wit, how do we ease the older investigators out of the system, at least to the extent of cutting down how many grants they submit and are awarded?
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13 responses so far

Supporting postdoctoral training activities on research grants

Oct 10 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Jeepers.

This has to be the longest winded and most indirect way of putting it.

My interpretation (I could be wrong) is that yes, you can use R-mech research grant funds to send your postdocs to meetings, give seminars and do other postdoctoral training activities that are not directly related to the goals of the research grant.
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15 responses so far

A pants leg can only accommodate so many Jack Russells

Oct 07 2014 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

Some DAOTI asked a silly question

got the simple answer of "no", demanded data and was summarily mocked. For this he got all fronty.

because of course he already knew the answer he wanted to hear in response to his question.

This all arose in the wake of an article in the Boston Globe about the postdoc glut that contained this hilariosity.

“They really are the canary in the coal mine,” said Marc Kirschner, a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School whose lab of 17 scientists includes 12 postdocs. “They decided they’d go ahead and try to understand why a cancer cell is different from a normal cell, and here they are a few years out. They knew it was a competitive situation, and they were going to work very hard, but they didn’t see the whole system was going to sour so quickly.”

I bolded for the slower reader. My initial reaction was:

Right?

On to the point.

The world of "R1, TT" positions in science is incredibly diverse, yes, even within "biomedical" or just plain "biology". I repeatedly urge postdocs who feel helpless about the glut of postdocs to start by doing some research. Find out ALL of the people who have recently been hired all across the US in jobs that are somewhat remotely related to your skillset. Note, not your "interests". Your SKILLSET!

I follow this up with a call to do the same on RePORTER to find out about the vast diversity of grants that are funded by the NIH. Diversity in topic and diversity in geographical region and diversity in University or Department stature.

This is even before I tell people to get their "R1" noses out of the air and look seriously at Universities that are supposedly beneath their notice.

So what makes for a successful "competitor" for all of the jobs that are open? Is it one thing? Such as "vertically ascending eleventy systems buzzword biology science" training? That is published in Nature and derives from a 12+ postdoc lab with everyone busily trying to hump the same pantsleg?

"Everyone" here is, guess what? Your competition. And yes, if you choose to only seek out "R1, TT" jobs that are in a University that boatloads of people want to work in, applying techniques to topic domains that a dozen fellow postdocs are also doing right beside you, chasing CNS "gets" that a few scores of labs worldwide are also chasing...well, yes, you are going to be at a disadvantage if you are not training in one of those labs.

But this doesn't also mean that making all of those choices is not also putting you at a disadvantage for a "R1, TT" job if that is your goal. Because it is putting you at a disadvantage.

Vince Lombardi's famous dictum applies to academic careers.

Run to Daylight.

Seek out ways to decrease the competition, not to increase it, if you want to have an easier career path in academic science. Take your considerable skills to a place where they are not just expected value, but represent near miraculous advance. This can be in topic, in geography, in institution type or in any other dimension. Work in an area where there are fewer of you.

Given this principle, no, a big lab does not automatically confer an advantage to obtaining a tenure-track position at an R1 university. According to Wikipedia the US has 108 Carnegie-approved "Very high research activity" Universities. Another 99 are in the next bin of "high research activity" and this includes places that would be quite reasonable for someone who wants to be an actual teaching + research old school professor. I know many scientists at these institutions and they seem to be productive enough and, I assume*, happy to be actual Professors.

Would coming from a big lab be a help? Maybe. But often enough search committees at R1s (and the next bin) are looking for signs of independent thought and a unique research program. That is hard to establish in a big lab...far easier to demonstrate from a lab with one or two concurrent postdocs. Other times, the "big labs" in a field (say, Drug Abuse) are simply not structured like they are in cannon-fodder, bench-monkey, GlamourHumping, MolecularEleventy labs. Maybe this is because the overall "group" organized around the subject has Assistant Professors where those "big labs" have Nth year "postdocs". Maybe it is because this just isn't the culture of a subfield. If that is the case, then when an R1 is hiring in your domain, they aren't expecting to see a CV that competes with three other ones just like it from people sharing your lab. They are expecting to see a unique flower with easily discernible individual contribution to the last three years of work from that small lab. That type of candidate has an advantage for this particular job search.

So yeah. It is a stupid question to ask if [single unique training environment] confers an "advantage" for some thing as general as a tenure-track job at an R1 University.

I'll close with a tweet from yesterday:

and a followup

This all reminds me of a famous Twitter "independent scientist" jackhole who applied to a few elite Universities, couldn't get an offer and summarily declared all of science to be broken, corrupt, crowded with "diversity" riff raff and all sorts of other externalizing excuses. Make sure you don't fall into this trap if you are serious about succeeding in an academic career.
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*actually, they say so.

21 responses so far

CSR says that applications are up by 10%

Oct 02 2014 Published by under Grant Review, NIH, NIH Careerism

Again, according to the Peer Review Notes for September 2014, CSR of the NIH says that applications are up by 10%.

“Total numbers of applications going to CSR study sections have surged about 14 percent," said CSR Director Dr. Richard Nakamura. “The NIH Office of Extramural Research reports about a 10 percent increase in research project grant applications across NIH.”

The difference in the two number is because "CSR is reviewing a slightly larger portion of NIH applications (79%) now than before.", the balance are reviewed in study sections managed by ICs themselves.

Why the bump in applications?

The CSR appears to be blaming this slight increase on the revision of the policy regarding resubmitting previously unfunded applications. As you know, if your revised version (A1) of a proposal is not funded, you may now resubmit it as a "new" application, making no mention whatever of the fact it was previously reviewed.

“It’s clear a large part of this increase is due to NIH removing limits on resubmitting the same research idea,” he said. “The new policy was designed to keep alive worthy ideas that would have been funded had the NIH budget kept up with inflation.”

Obviously, success rates will go down since I see very little chance the budget is going to increase any time soon. The only possible bright spot would be if the recent award of BRAIN Initiative largesse frees up the regular funds within the general framework of neuroscience that would otherwise be won by these folks. I am not holding my breath on that one.

This bump is hitting around the time of the beginning of the fiscal year when there is no appropriation from Congress, as usual. So grants submitted in the summer (first possible after the policy change) will be reviewed this fall and sent to Advisory Councils in January. My assumption is that we will still be under a Continuing Resolution and many ICs will be conservative, per their usual practice.

So anyone who has proposals in for the upcoming Council round has a bit of extra stress ahead. Tougher competition at review and uncertainty of funding all the way through Council. Probably start hearing news about scores on the bubble in March if we're lucky.

The really interesting question is whether this is a sustained trend (and does it really have anything to do with the A2asA0 policy shift).

I bet it will be short lived, IF it has anything to do with that change. Maybe just that one round or at best two rounds and we'll have cleared out that initial exuberance, is my prediction.

20 responses so far

The new ASBMB President has words for the science riff-raff

Sep 29 2014 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism

Now honestly, this thing reads like a spoof or some top-quality trolling akin to my Boomer bashing. Albeit without a shred of actual data on which it is based (unlike my Boomer bashing).

However, you will be interested to hear the new ASBMB President's analysis of the real problem in science today.

Two or three decades ago, this system was effective, yet I now judge it to be flawed. What went wrong? I submit that the demise of the review process can be attributed to two changes. First, the quality of scientists participating in CSR study sections two to three decades ago was, on average, superior to the quality of study section participants today. Second, study sections have become highly specialized such that they narrowly define a differentiated club of biomedical research.

Hrm, hrm, I submit to you, hrm hrm, that I and my fellow Great Men of Science used to get our grants funded every time we submitted them. Now things have changed! Clearly there is a problem that is simple to diagnose. Read on.

Among all problems leading to devolution of CSR study sections, the elephantine expansion of the biomedical research complex tops the list. Biomedical research in the 1960s and 1970s was a spartan game.

Wait, what? Does this guy know it is 2014? That would make it three to four decades ago...but who is counting.

First, the average scientist today is not of the quality of our predecessors; it’s a bit analogous to the so-called “greatest generation” of men and women of the United States who fought off fascism in World War II compared with their baby boomer children. Biomedical research is a huge enterprise now; it attracts riff-raff who never would have survived as scientists in the 1960s and 1970s. There is no doubt that highly capable scientists currently participate in the grant-review process. Likewise, unfortunately, study sections are undoubtedly contaminated by riff-raff.

Hmmmm. Okay so let me just think about this. The greatest change in the population of Professor-scientists since the 1070s is....hmmm. Women? Persons underrepresented in the sciences (and academia)? Those from a less-well-off background? All of the bloody above?

Good LORD what a snob.

A second cause of the demise in study section quality can be attributed to the fact that it is a thankless task balanced by few benefits. Three to four decades ago, it was a feather in one’s cap to be appointed to an NIH study section. When I joined the molecular cytology study section in the 1980s, Bruce Alberts was chairman, and the committee included the likes of Tom Pollard and all kinds of superb scientists. To spend three meetings per year with an esteemed group of scientists was both inspirational to me as a young scientist and of tangible value to my maturation as a researcher.

Less than one decade ago I went on study section and it was considered by all of my local peers (and members of my field external to my University) to be quite a feather in my cap. I also had the opportunity to spend three meetings a year with an esteemed group of scientists in my field. It was inspirational to me and of tangible value to my maturation as a scientist.

Wow. It is almost like nothing has changed.

Finally, as study sections have become ever more dedicated to thin slices of the biomedical landscape, participants are exposed to less and less science outside of the narrowly defined disciplines covered by their individual study sections. As such, one rarely learns much of anything new by participating in an NIH study section meeting.

I can't speak to every study section but I did have the good fortune to be appointed to one with a broad mission. Broad across IC assigned for possible funding, broad in study subject population / models and broad in scientific questions being asked. From my perspective, of course. Not sure how Dr. McKnight would see it but I'm willing to argue the merits of that study section on the stats.

let’s consider what might be expected from a grant review committee composed largely of second-tier scientists with limited knowledge of the breadth of biology and medicine. I propose that these committees are equally good at ensuring that the worst and best applications never get funded. They can see a terrible grant wherein the science is flawed and the investigator has no track record of achievement. These committees are, unfortunately, equally good at spotting and excluding the most creative proposals – the grant applications coming from inspired scientists whose research is damned because it is several steps ahead of the curve and damned because it comes from an applicant not blessed with club membership.

as they say on Wikipedia, [citation needed].

Now, to the second of two evils: the evolution of scientific clubs. Back when we used to “walk miles to school,” the scientific meetings we attended had some level of breadth.

Ok. If this is an intentional troll, this is the tell right here. Right? Right?

Fast-forward 30 years, and what do we now have? The typical modern biomedical meeting spends a week on a ridiculously thin slice of biology. There are entire meetings devoted to the hypoxic response pathway, sirtuin proteins, P53, mTor or NFkB. If a scientist studies some aspect of any of these domains, he or she absolutely has to attend these mindless meetings where, at most, some miniscule increment of advancement is all to be learned.

Is it possible that science really has gotten more complex so that low hanging fruit cannot be scooped up by a generalist, gentleman dilettante anymore? I mean, it couldn't be that, could it?

Damn the fool who does not attend these meetings: The consequence is failure to maintain club membership. And why is club membership of such vital importance? Yes, precisely, there is nearly a one-to-one correspondence between these clubs and CSR study sections.

Actually, the study section I spent the most time reviewing for contained LOTS of people that tend to attend meetings that I do not attend. I met many of them for the first time on study section. So the "one-to-one correspondence" simply doesn't square with my experience. Oh, and btw, I have ad-hoc'd on panels that are related but have a more defined focus than the one I served as an appointed member. Guess what? Also a dearth of "one-to-one correspondence" with any particular scientific meetings I or they attend.

So, to wrap up, this guy has zero data for his assertions, they come from the expected direction of unearned privilege of those who got their starts in the 1960s and early 1970s and his claims about modern study section are at considerable odds with my own experiences.

I will be fascinated to see if my readers share his view on the modern study section experience.

ETA: A check of Dr. McKnight's funded grants from the NIH suggests he is no stranger to the Special Emphasis Panel.

UPDATE 10/08/14: A Nature News piece notes that McKnight 'was “saddened” by suggestions that he has any gripe with young researchers or with diversity. He meant to criticize review committees as a whole, not just young scientists, he added.'
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h/t: Some twitter troll who shall not be identified unless s/he so choses.

99 responses so far

Ask the DM Blog Braintrust: Advice on First Study Section?

Sep 24 2014 Published by under Grant Review, NIH Careerism

A query came it that is best answered by the commentariat before I start stamping around scaring the fish.

I'm a "newbie" heading to study section as an ESR quite soon...
I'd really, really appreciated it if you could do a post on

a) your advice on what to expect and how to ... not put my foot in my mouth

b) what in an ideal world you'd like newbies to achieve as SS members

Thoughts?

32 responses so far

NIH Grant Strategy: Just keep the ball in play

Sep 16 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism

We're at the point of the fiscal year where things can get really exciting. The NIH budget year ends Sept 30 and the various Institutes and Centers need to balance up their books. They have been funding grants throughout the year on the basis of the shifting sands of peer review with an attempt to use up all of their annual allocation on the best possible science.

Throughout the prior two Council rounds of the year, they have to necessarily be a bit conservative. After all, they don't know in the first Round if maybe they will have a whole bunch of stellar scores come in during the third Round. Some one-off funding opportunities are perhaps schedule for consideration only during the final Round. Etc.

Also, the amount of funding requested for each grant varies. So maybe they have a bunch of high scoring proposals that are all very inexpensive? Or maybe they have many in the early rounds of the year that are unusually large?

This means that come September, the ICs are sometimes sitting on unexpended funds and need to start picking up proposals that weren't originally slated to fund. Maybe it is a supplement, maybe it is a small mechanism like a R03 or R21. Maybe they will offer you 2 years of funding of an R01 proposed for 5. Maybe they will offer you half the budget you requested. Maybe they have all of a sudden discovered a brand new funding priority and the quickest way to hit the ground running is to pick something up with end-of-year funds.

Now obviously, you cannot game this out for yourself. There is no way to rush in a proposal at the end of the year (save for certain administrative supplements). There is no way for you to predict what your favorite IC is going to be doing in Sep- maybe they have exquisite prediction and always play it straight up by priority score right to the end, sticking within the lines of the Council rounds. And of course, you cannot assume lobbying some lowly PO for a pickup is going to work out for you.

There is one thing you can do, Dear Reader.

It is pretty simple. You cannot receive one of these end-of-year unexpected grant awards unless you have a proposal on the books and in play. That means, mostly, a score and not a triage outcome. It means, in a practical sense, that you had better have your JIT information all squared away because this can affect things. It means, so I hear, that this is FINALLY the time when your IC will quite explicitly look at overhead rates to see about total costs and screw over those evil bastiges at high overhead Universities that you keep ranting about on the internet. You can make sure you have not just an R01 hanging around but also a smaller mech like an R03 or R21.

It happens*. I know lots and lots of people who have received end-of-the-FY largesse that they were not expecting. Received this type of benefit myself. It happens because you have *tried* earlier in the year to get funding and have managed to get something sitting on the books, just waiting for the spotlight of attention to fall upon you.

So keep that ball in play, my friends. Keep submitting credible apps. Keep your Commons list topped off with scored apps.

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*As we move into October, you can peruse SILK and RePORTER to see which proposals have a start date of Sep 30. Those are the end-of-year pickups.

h/t: some Reader who may or may not choose to self-identify :-)

16 responses so far

Thought of the Day on how the Public Views Scientists

The comments that are submitted to the NPR pieces on NIH, NIH-funded science and academic careers by Richard Harris (see here, here, here) are interesting.

One of the things that is immediately picked up by the typical reader is the conceit we scientists express about having a job paid for by taxpayer funds, that allows us to do whatever we want, unfettered and without any obligation to the people paying for the work.

One example of the type:

I argue that the very presence of government (taxed) money is "free" money to scientists to indulge in directions that perhaps are pointless. When something is free, people line-up to collect it (with bad science or poor quality work). A better approach is no funding at all. Then, only the best science would be a candidate for private funding since that is money that people are voluntarily investing expecting a return.

This is what you call an own-goal, people. We cause it by the way we talk about our jobs.

We usually get into this topic most specifically when we are discussing overhead rates awarded to local Universities by the Federal process and when we are discussing the percentage of faculty salaries that should be paid from Federal grants versus the University pot of MagicLeprechaunFairyMoney.

I am the one who continually makes the point that science funded by the NIH (or DOD, CDC, FDA, NSF and a bunch of other Federal entities) should be viewed EXACTLY the same as any other good or service. I tend to get a lot of push-back on this from those of you who are committed to the argument that Universities need to put "skin in the game" and that the solution to the entire NIH budget problem lies with defunding those Universities who get more than 50% overhead.

Bushwa. Science is no different from any other good or service the Federal government wishes to obtain. Yes, the deliverables are going to differ in terms of how concrete they may be but this makes no difference to the main point. The US Federal government pays Universities, Research Institutes and the occasional small business to conduct research. That is what they want, that is what we extramural, NIH-funded scientists provide them with.

The fact that we find it enjoyable is of no importance. The folks making money off building the latest jet fighter (that doesn't work) or the latest software security package for the FBI (that doesn't work) or the latest armor for the Humvees (that we hope works better) find their profits enjoyable. The people getting paid to send plumbers and truck drivers and "private security contractors" along with our military to help pacify Afghanistan or Iraq enjoy making many times the salary they would get otherwise in the civilian world.

Know anyone in elite military jobs? I have known several in my lifetime. Guess what? They enjoy the everloving blazes out of the opportunity that they had to DO something that they find personally fulfilling. Do we question the SEAL or Ranger or TopGun type duder and ask them to do it for free just because they find their jobs personally fulfilling and the taxpayer is footing the bill? Isn't the fact that they are shoo-ins for much better paid gigs as airline pilots and "private security contractors" in their post-Federal-employment career evidence that we don't need to worry about how they are paid while doing the Nation's business?

In many of these cases, the companies and people responding to the US Government request for a good or service tell the government exactly what and how they choose to respond. They present themselves as available for the task. The Government agencies involved then select the winner via a competitive bidding process or other competitive review. Sounds very similar to the NIH Grant game to me.

The Government very frequently, if I read the newspapers correctly, ends up paying even more than the bid, more than expected, more than reasonable for that good or service. Cost overruns. Ooopsies. Progress not as expected in the wildly optimistic original bid. Stuff happens when trying to build a complex modern fighter jet. Mission creep. Is the variable outcome of a NIH Grant funding interval any different? Why should anyone expect it to be different?

I also note that it has to get really, really bad in terms of excessive payouts and utter failure to provide a semblance of the good or service before the Nation's attention is engaged when it comes to most other areas. Golden toilet seats in my era. Then it was fighter jets. Then Haliburton's war profiteering and Blackstoneriverwtfever "security". FBI software upgrade. Fighter jets again. It goes on and on.

The extramural NIH-funded science area of government contracting for goods and services really doesn't look so bad when you put it up against the proper comparison.

We generate knowledge and we publish it. Just as we are asked to do. By the US taxpayer.

The individual taxpayer may object to the US federal government asking us to provide them with a service. That's fine. I have a problem with the amount of military stuff we ask for.

But don't try to pretend we scientists are grifters, looking for a handout to do whatever the heck we want, purely on our own hook. We choose to work in a particular job sector, true. But a lot of other people choose to work in a federally-funded job sector as well.

We should be viewed the same. We should view ourselves* as the same.

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*consistent with the percentage of our effort dedicated to Federal goods and services requests, of course.

36 responses so far

NPR on the NIH Grant situation

Sep 10 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding, Public Health

In the event that you missed it, NPR has been running stories on the current situation with NIH-funded biomedical research in the US. These seem to be mostly the work of Richard Harris, so many thanks to him for telling these stories to the public. You will note that these are not issues new to this readership for the most part. The themes are familiar and, perhaps necessarily, latch onto one position and therefore lack breadth and dimension. Those familiar with my views on "the real problem" with respect to NIH funding will see many things I object to in terms of truthy sounding assertions that don't hold water on examination. Still, I am positively delighted that this extensive series is being brought to the NPR audience.

Enjoy.

When Scientists Give Up

"When I was a very young scientist, I told myself I would only work on the hardest questions because those were the ones that were worth working on," he says. "And it has been to my advantage and my detriment."

Over the years, he has written a blizzard of grant proposals, but he couldn't convince his peers that his edgy ideas were worth taking a risk on. So, as the last of his funding dried up, he quit his academic job.

"I shouldn't be a grocer right now," he says with a note of anger in his voice. "I should be training students. I should be doing deeper research. And I can't. I don't have an outlet for it."

U.S. Science Suffering From Booms And Busts In Funding

"If I don't get another NIH grant, say, within the next year, then I will have to let some people go in my lab. And that's a fact," Waterland says. "And there could be a point at which I'm not able to keep a lab."

He notes that the hallway in his laboratory's building is starting to feel like a ghost town as funding for his colleagues dries up. He misses the energy of that lost camaraderie.

"The only people who can survive in this environment are people who are absolutely passionate about what they're doing and have the self-confidence and competitiveness to just go back again and again and just persistently apply for funding," Waterland says.He has applied for eight grants and has been rejected time and again. He's still hoping that his grant for the obesity research will get renewed — next year.

Built In Better Times, University Labs Now Lack Research Funding

PAULA STEPHAN: In many ways, the research university that's evolved today is much like a shopping mall.

HARRIS: She says think of universities as mall owners and individual scientists as the shopkeepers. Scientists get research grants and then pay rent to the universities out of that money. When grant funding doubled between 1998 and 2003, construction cranes went up all over the country to build more lab space.

STEPHAN: Universities were exuberant. They thought that they could keep running this kind of scheme - where the NIH budget would keep going up, and they could keep hiring more people.

HARRIS: But that didn't happen. After the NIH budget doubled, it stagnated. In fact it's declined more than 20 percent when you take inflation into account.

STEPHAN: We greatly overbuilt the shopping malls.

By The Numbers: Search NIH Grant Data By Institution (support site for the pieces by Richard Harris)

113 responses so far

Thought on the public funding of science

Simple truth of the recentEbola hysteria and the ensuing media coverage of scientists working on hemorrhagic viruses. Approximately 85% of bioscience now wishing ill on a whole lot of people so as to draw attention to their scientific domain.

8 responses so far

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