Arrgh Matey

(by drugmonkey) Jul 13 2015

2 responses so far

On independent scholarship

(by drugmonkey) Jul 13 2015

There was a comment on a prior post suggesting that when postdocs are funded by a RPG, this prevents them from engaging in independent scholarship.


When I was a postdoc, regardless of source of my salary (variously grants, TG and individual fellowship), I was certainly constrained by the grants funding the lab. But I felt it was up to me to add value. To leverage my own interests to pursue extras and add-one that the lab head perhaps had not thought about as a strong interest. And whaddaya know, this direction turned into a funded R01. And eventually into publications.

I have always felt that my independent scholarship, such as it was, was at liberty to develop just so long as it was within the broad scope of contributing to the RPG.

Does true "independent scholarship" require something that does not contribute in any way to the goals of the grants funding the lab?

30 responses so far


(by drugmonkey) Jul 10 2015


Lastly, there IS one way to experimentally test how much a PD is worth, at least to PIs, and you are promoting that test, whether you know it or not. And that is a PD strike. I would love to see you discussing how spoiled PDs are in between gel runs because your PD is really not there. I think 50K/yr wouldn't sound that much then.

Go ahead dudes, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

22 responses so far

The NIH removes requirement for standardized scores in pre-doc fellowship applications

(by drugmonkey) Jul 10 2015



To align with recent changes in the fellowship biosketch format,this Notice eliminates the requirement for inclusion of scores from standardized exams (e.g., MCAT, GRE) in the fellowship biosketch from the following funding opportunity announcements, effective immediately:

For reference, from PA-14-147:

Note that scores for standardized exams (e.g., MCAT, GRE) as well as a listing of the applicant’s courses and grades must be included in the Fellowship Applicant Biographical Sketch, and NOT in this attachment.

Anybody seen a rationale for this one?

The overall thrust of the Investigator Biosketch revamp seems to be to brag even more highly upon personal accomplishments, rather than suitability for the specific proposal. Also to allow people with non-traditional (non-published, say) accomplishments to brag on those.

Doesn't it seem like eliminating standardized scores works against this?

Can anyone think of why this would be a good thing for NIH to do?

Next point: I see where it says it is eliminating the requirement, not telling applicants not to include their scores. Fascinating.

First: If you have excellent standardized scores, I suggest you continue to put those in the pre-doc NRSA biosketch somewhere people.

Second: If you don't put them in there, the reviewer who is fond of such measures of your aptitude is going to assume your scores are really bad. Right?

Third: I think this is more evidence of NIH changes that will throw chaos into the system rather than really improving much.

10 responses so far

TdF News: Daniel Teklehaimanot in Polka Dots!!!!!!

(by bikemonkey) Jul 09 2015


Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot takes the climbers jersey after being on a three-rider breakaway for most of the stage.

Hope he can stay with the climbers on the big mountains to come!

4 responses so far

On justification of postdoctoral salary

(by drugmonkey) Jul 09 2015

If you have been following along, Dear Reader, you will know that I asked a very simple question on Twitter

which resulted in a lot of heat and very little light. Mostly, instead of answering the question, people loudly accused me of making a claim that postdocs did not deserve their meagre salaries. Alternately people angrily demanded that I justify my supposed opposition to some proposed raise to current postdoctoral pay. You will note that I made no claims and offered no opinion on what postdoctoral pay should be. (You will also note that my query is inclusive of professorial types that often whine about how they are underpaid relative to ....something, but this got lost in the torchlighting ceremony.)

Lenny Teytelman was one of those pointedly refusing to answer in his own words but he did eventually appeal to authority. Once again, upon query, he was unable to put an elevator pitch or bullet points together to defend his position and insisted that I read his favored authoritative recommendation for increased postdoc pay.

The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited by the Committee to Review the State of Postdoctoral Experience in Scientists and Engineers; Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy; Policy and Global Affairs; National Academy of Sciences; National Academy of Engineering; Institute of Medicine is available for download here.

The bullet point answers are to be found on page 5 and in Appendix B.
(1) indexing to contemporary college graduates,
(2) indexing to graduate stipends,
(3) indexing to newly hired assistant professors,
(4) inflation of previous recommendations, and
(5) Research Grade Evaluation Guide.

Most of these are straightforward, the last item is apparently how NIH sets federal salaries for intramural researchers. To cut to the chase, the book uses these to arrive at $50,000 as the recommended starting salary for postdocs. Let's unpack.

Federal salaries- right here we are making a bunch of assumptions. It is not clear at all that all postdocs should get the Federal rate, this is not justified. Is anybody else's salary (technicians or PIs) tied to what NIH has to pay intramural people for comparable roles? Mine sure as heck isn't. So this is, right here, the special snowflake rationale. It's the justification of "just because". I find this less than satisfying.

With respect to the graduate stipends, Appendix B includes "total cost" of which "more than for tuition and fees". So right here we start to dismantle Teytelman's claim that this is some sort of justification that should be taken seriously. Obviously the numbers depend entirely upon a set of assumptions. In this case the total cost for a graduate student is presented as being a good estimate for what postdocs should get paid. This makes no obvious sense. Under the current definition, postdocs receive education / training just like graduate students do. If this has monetary value for one, it should for the other. So we have to subtract something of this "more than half" of $51,000 that is for training to arrive at the equivalent justifiable postdoc salary. This one is worse than arbitrary because it makes no internal sense.

Indexing to newly hired assistant professors is an example of assumptions and definitions pulled out of thin air. It says in the Appendix B that average 9-mo salary for biological/biomedical new hires in public research Universities is $74,177. But, I kid you not, "Assuming a reasonable starting salary for a postdoctoral researcher to be approximately two-thirds of this nine-month amount implies ... $49,698". Why do we assume two-thirds is reasonable? Why not two-thirds of the 12 month salary assuming grant paid summer salary? Why not three-fifths? Why not half? The authoritative finding has just pulled this out of thin air to back-justify the number they had already arrived upon. Nice trick.

This leaves us with the two half-decent arguments.

Page 63 is the start of the meat of the discussion on indexing to prior stipend levels and accounting for inflation. The key part is this:

The NIH NRSA stipend for beginning postdoctoral researchers in 2004 was $35,568, which would be $43,230 in 2012 dollars (or $44,207 in 2014 dollars). Despite repeated calls to raise postdoctoral salaries, the NRSA stipend was increased to only $39,264 in 2012. In 2014, NIH raised the stipend to $42,000, which, in real terms, is actually lower than the 2004 level.

You know I love an inflation argument. This suggests there is a 5% gap in the NRSA recommendation for FY2014. This is fine. Except for one little problem. The economy and the recession.

Somewhere in the interval between 2004 and 2014, I am here to tell you, many of us academics went through a period of salary freeze. Intervals in which our annual cost of living raises (2%? 3%? pick your number) were not applied for 1-3 years. Some Universities threatened furloughs which amounted to pay *cuts* for certain years to go along with the lack of raises. I haven't followed the niceties of who actually got cuts and who got raises restored on schedule. The point is simple...many of the people postdocs rub elbows with are also down 4-5% of their salary level in 2014 compared to where they "should" have been based on inflation adjustment raises. So yeah, this benchmark makes a lot of sense in isolation but being 5% off the target just puts postdocs in the same bin with a lot of the rest of us, techs to PIs. This is another special flower argument by some ways of looking at it.

This leaves us with the argument about country-wide stats for bachelor's educated people in their late twenties. Why not the Master's or Professional bins? Who knows???? It's not stated.

The data you are supposed to be looking at is here at the US census (now updated to FY2013 instead of the 2012 data referenced in the NAS report). Particularly Table P-32, I think. Among other things, do note that women get less than men on average. Notice also, that the age bin breakdowns only offer the means whereas other tables let you match up median and means. As you might expect, the mean has a rightward skew. So this NAS report is referencing the skewed measure of central tendency.

Puzzling over these census data you have to arrive at the same query...why? Why pick any one of these numbers to say that postdocs are underpaid? Why does this reference answer my starting question about what is the justification? All it does is put a fake number on a question that requires a deeper response. Why are we different? Why should we assume we get the central tendency as our minimum? After all, the GAO found that public sector salaries are 24% lower than private sector ones. You could argue that that is an outrage. Or, you could argue that this is a reflection of the non-salary benefits and justifications people get for working in one sector versus another. I can't say I see this bullet item as being any sort of objective justification either.

For any of these five methods, one can come up with a lower or higher number just by making different assertions and assumptions about what is reasonable.

This is no answer.

183 responses so far

Credit where due: McKnight manages to get one right

(by drugmonkey) Jul 08 2015

Steven McKnight's recent President's Message at ASBMB Today focuses on the tyranny of the hypothesis-test when it comes to grant evaluation.

I lament that, as presently constructed, the NIH system of funding science is locked into the straight-jacket of hypothesis-driven research. It is understandable that things have evolved in this manner. In times of tight funding, grant reviewers find it easier to evaluate hypothesis-driven research plans than blue-sky proposals. The manner in which the system has evolved has forced scientists to perform contractlike research that grant reviewers judge to be highly likely to succeed. In financially difficult times, more risky scientific endeavors with no safely charted pathway to success often get squeezed out.

.... But how should we describe the riskier blue-sky research that our granting agencies tend not to favor?

I agree. All science starts with observation. And most science, even a lot of that alleged to be hypothesis testing or lending "mechanistic insight" really boils down to observation.

If we do this, then that occurs.

Science never strays very far from poking something with a stick to see what happens.

The weird part is that McKnight doesn't bring this back to his "fund people not projects mantra". Amazing!

No, he actually has a constructive fix to accomplish his goals on this one.

Were it up to me, and it is clearly not, I would demand that NIH grant applications start with the description of a unique phenomenon. When I say unique, I mean unique to the applicant. The phenomenon may have come from the prior research of the applicant. Alternatively, the phenomenon may have come from the applicant’s unique observation of nature, medicine or the expansive literature.

This is great. A fix that applies to the project-focused granting system that we have. Fair for everyone.

Kudos dude.

10 responses so far

The stuff a liberal arts college education stamps out of you (if you still need it)

(by drugmonkey) Jul 08 2015

A: "Strong assertion that this thing should be so!"

B: "What is the basis for your assertion?"

A: "hmmmina..hummina....umm WHAT IS THE BASIS FOR YOUR COUNTER CLAIM????"

I weep for science some days people. I really do.

28 responses so far

Grant review via web forum

(by drugmonkey) Jul 07 2015

Does anyone actually like ANY part of reviewing grants via one of those threaded web forum things?

I hate them and I really resent the thought that my precious applications are subjected to this fiasco. 


One additional twist to consider. In my most recent few experiences with this as a reviewer, I have noticed that the per-reviewer grant load is low. As in 2-3 apps compared with 8-10 for a regular face to face meeting. I suppose when the costs for adding more reviewers are low (honorarium versus honorarium plus travel, plus housing), the SRO figures that bringing in more focused expertise per-application is a plus.

This comes at the cost of score calibration, in my estimation.

22 responses so far

Will Obama's revamp of the overtime rules mean postdocs are paid more?

(by drugmonkey) Jul 06 2015

Justin Kiggins has launched the discussion at The Spectroscope.

Those postdocs who are salaried employees, however, are currently "exempt" from overtime pay if they make more than $23,660. The new rules mean that they will need a salary of at least $50,400. So if their institution is following the NIH standard, which sets a minimim of $42,840, it looks like they'll either need to get paid overtime for any work done over 40 hours or get a raise to meet the exemption requirements

Go on over and read, especially for the links to places you can comment on this rule prior to implementation.

184 responses so far

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