It's coming from inside the room

(by drugmonkey) Oct 18 2018

Several recent experiences have brought me to ponder a question this week. And in one of the several formulations in my mind it reads: Is it more effective to drive change of large systems from a position inside of the room or from a position outside of the room?

In one way of defining this, I am wondering if change happens with large institutions (the US government/polity, Universities, NIH extramural granting activities, you know, the usual targets) most rapidly and assuredly if it is driven by the barbarians at the gate or by the insiders.

To a first approximation this also means something about the tone and the approach to change. We are more likely to get inside the room if we align ourselves with the powers that be. We are more likely to get inside the room with an approach and a tone and a personality that is compatible with (read: similar to) the already-empowered folks.

I exist in what I think of as a duality that does a half-assed job of being inside the room and a half-assed job of being outside of the room. To a certain view, I’m a NIH extramural funding insider. I was trained in at least one stop around people who were very successful grant getting folks. I started my faculty position around folks that were not only good at getting grants but were themselves more than usually powerful. Leaders of societies, editors of journals, people that went on National Advisory Council of NIH ICs. People who were able to just phone up an IC director at will and have that person take their call. I have been awarded NIH grants as a PI on more than one occasion. I have served an appointed stint on study section and still get invited to review with enough regularity for me to maintain continual-submission privileges most of the time. My institutional affiliation commands respect in some quarters although of course that is down to all the other folks who do and have worked for it, not to me.

Particularly when it comes to NIH granting matters, I am often inside the room. Or, at least one of the anterooms. This gives me the opportunity to influence things. I have a direct role in review of proposals and in voting for scores of proposals. I can contribute to the discussion of grants, potentially affecting not just the outcome of that grant but the way other reviewers approach review*. My comments reach the ears of Program Officers, giving them (my words) the opportunity to effect change**.

The reach of these opportunities is limited in scope. I only reach so many folks.

I also have the opportunity to rant from outside the room in several ways, most pointedly through this blog and the online academic community. As you know, I do so. But in addition, in real life, there are many scenarios in which I am not in the room. As you ascend the ranks of the NIH ICs to where the RealPower lies, I’m definitely an outsider. I have maybe one Director that would take my call but it is not the the most useful IC for me, under most circumstances. My work is not good enough to command attention all the way to the top. I am not empowered within academic societies or journals. My institution has never really liked me much.

Many of us exist in these diverse roles with respect to the insider/outsider status. It is on a spectrum and it is highly fluid. And, as we know from broader discussions of privilege, it is nigh on impossible for real humans in academia to see their own insider-ness for what it is. And, more specifically, for how it appears to everyone who is just outside that particular door of power.

What is more effective? I don’t know. Take the example of careers that are shaped in large part by the success of the individual under the NIH grant scheme. If I’m on study section I can fight hard for good applications that are submitted by African-American PIs. I can even choose to review as much as I possibly can, such that my fighting has the chance to reach as many applications from black PIs as possible. That’s nice and sober insider guy behavior. I can, if I choose, make occasional oblique or pointed comments that refer to the Ginther report finding on discrimination and bias. Maybe it will counter an implicit bias here or there. Maybe a reviewer or a PO will start trying to counter such biases themselves. Slightly more shouty, but still insider-dude stuff.

Or I could rant and rave and bring Gither up at the slightest excuse. I don’t tend to do this inside the room. I think that would be less*** effective…but I really don’t know.

From outside the room in my social media life, as you know Dear Reader, I cast a few more stones and shout louder. I keep Ginther refreshed, seven years later, in the minds of my fellow travelers. (I have other issues as well). I hope my ranting reaches new audiences, since we have new people finding the online science community daily. I yell at the NIH Director’s twitter account but that’s mostly street theatre for the crowd, I know ol’ Francis Collins isn’t really paying any attention.

By this point you are getting the feeling that I think that the best thing to do is to pursue both avenues. And you would be right. I do think that the best and most assured way to effect maximal change of ponderous systems is to both gain insider power and to continue to shout and rave from outside the gates.

The example I used is one person on an agenda but most typically this involves different people pursing the same agenda.

I call it the Martin and Malcolm scenario, if you will permit. This requires a certain cartoonized view of the Civil Rights era in this country but I think it suffices even if it polarizes the two men (and their movements) in a way that is historically less than accurate. We lionize Martin Luther King, Jr. as the personification of the pacifist approach that worked within the system in sober and solid ways. His movement essentially shamed the powers that be into doing better. Or argued the powers that be into doing better. And this was much more effective than the aggressive, even violent, approach of Malcolm X and his movement.

Or so goes the tale of the insider crowd. The more educated ones even try to point out how Malcolm X moderated his position and became more conciliatory later on.

My view is that the Martin approach only gained traction as a more palatable alternative to the scenario raised by the Malcolm X type approach.

And I think you can see this interplay reflected in countless historical struggles in which political solutions to imbalances of power were reached. Quite often history credits progress to the sober efforts of working the levers of the insiders. It may be work done by actual insiders or by people patiently and quietly trying to move the insiders. It may be people working slowly to become insiders. But my reading of history says that structures of power only relent and start to negotiate with the sober, insider crowd because they are in existential fear of the barbarians at the gate.

This analysis, however, doesn’t answer the question in any sort of fine-grained manner. On any given issue, at any given time, are we more in need of anger? Or are we in need of a greater emphasis on sober, staid, insider-club efforts? When has the ground been sufficiently prepared to suggest now is the time for sowing and nurturing seedlings?

To this very month I struggle with how shouty versus sober I should be in trying to improve the way institutions behave. To return to the above example, anytime I am on a study section I have to moderate my behavior. When do I speak up and what do I say? When do I have an opportunity to help advance what I think is the best thing to do and when are my goals best served by shutting up? And given that DM is such a poorly kept secret at this point, to what extent do my opinions expressed on social media compromise my efforts inside the room?

And, to bring it to a fine point, I see my colleagues and friends out there who are trying to effect change in science, academics and professional life grappling with these issues daily.

It is not always comfortable. I’ve been trying to describe my own duality here, this is the easy version. I think I’m a pretty good dude and I respect what I’m trying to do. So shouty-me isn’t too mad when insider-club me misses a trick, soft-pedals when I might kick more tail, acts diplomatically and accepts slow and incremental over the dramatic. Insider-club me understand whole heartedly why shouty-me is angry and totally supports it. Insider-me might tell shouty-me to tone it down a bit and wring the hands a bit over efficacy (see above) but in general is on board. Outsider-me understands the while insider-me has a certain standing inside the club, this is tenuous and hard won and does not convey the power that it may appear to convey to other outsiders.

This isn’t so easy when the insider and the outsider are not the same person.

Outsiders are quick to view the insider who is putatively on their side as a quisling if they do not slay all the dragons right now with extreme prejudice.

Insiders are quick to castigate the outsider as a counter-productive, self-aggrandizing egotist who is hurting the shared cause more than helping it.

We see this in Democratic party politics. Bernie supporters versus Hillary supporters expressed some of this dynamic. We see this in intersectional feminism.

We also see this, I think, in solving the Real Problems of the NIH. And of Open / Paywall publishing. And of career trajectories of trainees.

And we see this in the fight to reduce sexual harassment, sexual assault and sex-based discrimination that occurs in and around academic science careers.

I think we need both voices. We need people inside the clubs. We need people who are really, really angry shouting loudly from outside of the room (and sometimes inside of the room). I do not support confidence that either position, quisling apologist versus enraged pure soul, is obviously correct, right or most productive. I don't think that history supports such a conclusion on either side.

We need both.
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*Just this month a friend was recollecting something I had said at a study section meeting when we first met, something over 10 years ago.
**Which may not be in the direction I would desire, of course.
***I’m already enough of “that guy” who people roll their eyes at. I don’t need more of that baggage, I suspect.

8 responses so far

Science trainees and the NIH Doubling

(by drugmonkey) Oct 14 2018

Most of my Readers are aware that the NIH budget allocation from Congress plays a big role in our careers and how they have unfolded over years or even decades.

One of the touchstone events is the "doubling interval" in which the Congress committed to double the size of the NIH budget over the course of 10 years. This resulted in large year-over-year increases from 1994 to 2003 after which the NIH budget was essentially flatlined for the next dozen years. This is in current dollars so, as we've discussed on this blog, inflation means that the NIH budget shrunk in purchasing power over the post-doubling interval. ARRA stimulus funding in Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010 were mere blips, which alleviated acute pain but did little for the longer term issues.

One interesting thing about being me is that my NIH geekery has limits and I don't always appreciate everything fully the first time I see it. Sometimes it is because I am, like many of us, blinded by a sort of confirmation bias. I am by no means alone in seeing confirmation of my positions in data and statistics about the NIH that others view entirely differently. Sometimes it is because an earlier trend gets fixed in my minds and I don't always see the way five or ten additional years worth of data may change my thinking.

One of these issues is related to the data showing the production of PhDs each year by US domestic degree granting institutions. Our good blog friend Michael Hendricks posted this graph on the Twitters today. He, as I usually do, interprets this to show the evils of the doubling interval when it comes to regulating the size of the workforce. The first half of the doubling interval did indeed correlate with a steep increase in the rate of annual biomedical PhD generation without a similar trend for doctoral production in other areas. I typically use this steep increase in PhD production as part of my argument that our current stress in staying funded is related to too many mouths at the trough. We generated all these PhDs during the late 90s onward and gee, shocker, lots of these people want faculty level jobs competing for a fixed amount of NIH funding. Retirement and death of the existing pool of NIH PIs has not kept pace with this production, from what I can tell.

My usual eye tends to skip over a couple of key facts. The steep increase in PhD production started several years before the doubling even started. It was in full swing during a time just prior to the doubling passing Congress when the faculty were crying loudly about how horrible the NIH grant getting had become. I know because I was in graduate school in there somewhere.

The year-over-year PhD production actually stabilized during the latter half of the doubling interval. This was followed after the NIH budget flatlined by another increase in the rate of year-over-year PhD production!

So I think Michael Hendricks' current view, and my prior view, on the meaning of the PhD production numbers and how it relates to major changes in the NIH budget allocation cannot be true.

Sustained increase in the NIH budget actually produced stability in PhD numbers. It was the stressful times in which NIH grant getting was perceived to be ruinous and terrible that led to increased numbers of PhDs being generated by the US doctoral institutions.

There are probably many reasons for this relationship. I would not be surprised in the least if bad general economic times led more people to want to go to grad school and booming economic times led to fewer. These general trends are very likely related to the willingness of the Congress to give NIH more or less money.

But I would also not be surprised in the least if stressful grant funding conditions led the professors who participate in graduate training to be even more fond of this source of cut rate labor than they are in flush times.

11 responses so far

Please help MeTooSTEM launch as a nonprofit organization

(by drugmonkey) Oct 12 2018

This post is to ask you to consider donating to a fundraiser to launch MeTooSTEM as a charitable organization.

I know I do not have to belabor the obvious for my audience but we have a problem with sexual harassment, sexual assault, sex based-discrimination, and occupational retaliation against people attempting to ameliorate the effects of these events.

The National Academies of Science convened some investigations and issued a report, if you need a starter source.

The #MeToo hashtag was joined by a related tag specific to the issues of harassment and assault in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, #MeTooSTEM.

As this has unfolded, Professor Beth Ann McLaughlin has been doing heroic work to foreground victims, bring their stories to light for those who are unaware and to hold institutional feet to the fire to do better. This has resulted in gains that range from the basic decency for victims who finally have been heard, to clueless people in academia finally seeking the problem, to major policy changes of institutions. Famously, the RateMyProfessor organization was called to task and decided to discontinue its rating for "hot" professors.

We still have much work to do.

Academic societies are only haltingly developing new policies that permit them to remove members who have been determined by their own institutions to have engaged in sexual harassment, assault, discrimination or retaliation. You would think this would be a no brainer but thanks to the efforts of Dr. McLaughlin we are painfully aware of how many societies claim to have no mechanism for removal of their members, elected fellows and other hoi polloi.

We still have famous journals of science that will publish Letter to the Editor type defenses of a colleague proven to have engaged in sustained misconduct. We have editors of famous journals of science that I respect tremendously that still cannot see how damaging it is to let those sorts of letters persist on the internet.

This is why I am asking you to consider a donation to the fledgling MeTooSTEM organization. No donation is too small, if you can manage $5 or $10 it is welcome. If you can only manage communicating this fundraiser to your friends, family, or social media followers, it is welcome.

From the fundraiser text:

MeTooSTEM Needs Your Help To Take Our Organization NonProfit and Provide Resources to Graduate Students, Post Docs and Women Who Have Been Hurt by Sexual Harassment.

MeTooSTEM Started as a grassroots movement by students and professors frustrated by the inaction of national organizations and government funding agencies to protect women. Men guilty of sexually assaulting trainees, ending women's careers and retaliating viciously were still on campus, getting national awards, serving on study sections and going to conferences where they intimidate and retaliate against survivors.

2 responses so far

Cannabidiol is still, yes still, a Schedule I drug. Epidiolex notwithstanding

(by drugmonkey) Sep 27 2018

Yes, the DEA still continues to keep cannabidiol (CBD) on the list of Schedule I drugs. I took this up in December of 2016 and the issues continue.

The new-ish bit, I suppose, is that the FDA approved GW Pharma's cannabidiol product Epidiolex for Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, which involve uncontrollable seizures. This all flows from the "Charlotte's Web" phenomenon, which was desperate parents seeking help from a specific CBD-dominant strain of cannabis.

This meant that the DEA had to reschedule CBD as a compound with medical application. The reporting from CNBC says Schedule V:

Epidiolex will be classified as a schedule 5 controlled substance, the lowest level, defined as those with a proven medical use and low potential for abuse. Other drugs in this category include some cough medicines containing codeine.

But. However. Not so fast. Apparently the DEA has decided to re-schedule CBD ONLY in the context of FDA approved products. From the same report:

The rescheduling applies to CBD containing no more than 0.1 percent THC, in FDA-approved drug products. Though this allows GW Pharma to sell Epidiolex, it does not broadly apply to CBD.

emphasis added.

This is getting increasingly ridiculous. It is really, really, really clear that CBD does not have the fun recreational drug properties of good old delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. It is hard to find much effect of this compound at all*, despite all the quack remedy type products that are illegally on sale in the country at the moment.

I don't understand how CBD got on the Schedule I list in the first place, nor why the DEA didn't take this convenient opportunity to re-schedule it altogether.

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*The anti-seizure properties seem solid.

N.b., As per my usual disclaimer, I may have held, hold, or be seeking to hold research funding involving CBD. Please read my comments with that in mind.

One response so far

Fear of being pilloried for your past sexual misbehavior

(by drugmonkey) Sep 21 2018

This one is for the guys who are looking at the accusations against Trump's latest nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. You dudes who are standard issue American heterosexual male-identifying people of at least minimal success with satisfying your sexual proclivities. You. You who are now worried that some incident in your past might have been perceived then, or eventually, as somewhat other than you perceived it by the target of your dubious affections.

Yes, you.

Please consider this is post in need of a Trigger Warning, it's going to be about sexual assault.
Continue Reading »

27 responses so far

The R01 Doesn't Even Pay for Revisions

(by drugmonkey) Sep 11 2018

Hard charging early career Glam neuroscientist Kay Tye had an interesting claim on the twitters recently.

The message she was replying to indicated that a recent request for manuscript revisions was going to amount to $1,000, making Kay's costs anywhere from $100,000 to $10,000,000. Big range. Luckily she got more specific.

One Million Dollars.

For manuscript revisions.

Let us recap.

The bog standard NIH "major award" is the R01, offered most generically in the 5-year, $250,000 direct cost per year version. $1,250,000 for a five year major (whoa, congrats dude, you got an R01! You have it made!) award.

Dr. Tye has just informed us that it is routine for reviewers to ask for manuscript (one. single. manuscript.) revisions that amount to $1,000,000 in cost.

Ex-NIGMS Director Jeremy Berg cheer-led (and possibly initiated) a series of NIH analyses and data dumps showing that something on the order of 7 (+/- 2) published papers were expected from each R01 award's full interval of funding. This launched a thousand ships of opinionating on "efficiency" of NIH grant award and how it proves that one grant for everyone is the best use of NIH money. It isn't.

I have frequently hit the productivity zone identified in NIGMS data...and had my competing revisions criticized severely for lack of productivity. I have tripled this on at least one interval of R01 funding and received essentially no extra kudos for good productivity. I would be highly curious to hear from anyone who has had a 5 year interval of R01 support described as even reasonably productive with one paper published.

Because even if Dr. Tye is describing a situation in which you barely invest in the original submission (doubtful), it has to be at least $250,000, right? That plus $1,000,000 in revisions and you end up with at best 1 paper per interval of R01 funding. And it takes you five years to do it.

The Office of Extramural Research showed that the vast majority of NIH-funded PIs hold 1 (>70%) or at most 2 (cumulative >90%) major awards at a time.

NIGMS (and some of my fellow NIH-watchers) have been exceptionally dishonest about interpreting the the efficiency data they produce and slippery as otters about resulting policy on per-PI dollar limitations. Nevertheless, one interpretation of their data is that $750,000 in direct costs per year is maximally efficient. Merely mentioning that an honest interpretation of their data ends up here (and reminding that the NIGMS policy for greybeard insiders was in fact to be about $750,000 per year) usually results in the the sound of sharpening stone on steel farm implements and the smell of burning pitch.

Even that level of grant largesse ("largesse") does not pay for the single manuscript revisions that Professor Tye describes within a single year.

I have zero reason to doubt Professor Tye's characterization, I will note. I am familiar with how Glam labs operate. I am familiar with the circle jerk of escalating high-cost "necessary" experimental demands they gratify each other with in manuscript review. I am familiar with the way extremely well funded labs use this bullshit as a gatekeeping function to eliminate the intellectual competition. I am perhaps overly familiar with Glam science labs in which postdocs blowing $40,000 on single fucked up experiments (because they don't bother to think things through, are sloppy or are plain wasteful) is entirely routine.

The R01 does not pay for itself. It does not pay for the expected productivity necessary to look merely minimally productive, particularly when "high impact publications" are the standard.

But even that isn't the point.

We have this exact same problem, albeit at less cost, all down the biomedical NIH-funded research ranks.

I have noted more than once on this blog that I experience a complete disconnect between what is demanded in peer review of manuscripts at a very pedestrian level of journal, the costs involved and the way R01s that pay for those experiments are perceived come time for competitive renewal. Actually, we can generalize this to any new grant as well, because very often grant reviewers are looking at the productivity on entirely unrelated awards to determine the PI's fitness for the next proposal. There is a growing disconnect, I claim, between what is proposed in the average R01 these days and what it can actually pay to accomplish.

And this situation is being created by the exact same super-group of peers. The people who review my grants also review my papers. And each others'. And I review their grants and their manuscripts.

And we are being ridiculous.

We need to restore normalcy and decency in the conduct of this profession. We need to hold the NIH accountable for its fantasy policy that has reduced the spending capability of the normal average grant award to half of what it was a mere twenty years ago. And for policies that seek to limit productive labs so that we can have more and more funded labs who are crippled in what they can accomplish.

We need to hold each other accountable for fantasy thinking about how much science costs. R01 review should return to the days when "overambitious" meant something and was used to keep proposed scope of work minimally related to the necessary costs and the available funds. And we need to stop demanding an amount of work in each and every manuscript that is incompatible with the way the resulting productivity will be viewed in subsequent grant review.

We cannot do anything about the Glam folks, they are lost to all decency. But we can save the core of the NIH-funded biomedical research enterprise.

If you will only join me in a retreat from the abyss.

32 responses so far

Ask DrugMonkey: How do I make those bastards pay for not citing my paper?

(by drugmonkey) Sep 07 2018

This is a highly stylized version of a communication I get in the blog email box now and again:

Dear DrugMonkey,
I love your blog, first time writer, long term reader, etc, etc.

Some bastards have published a paper claiming utterly novel findings and have TOTALLY IGNORED our published paper! How can we make these assholes pay seriously for their crimes?

thanks,
Academic Scientist

...like I said, highly stylized. But it gets at the gist.

I get it.

As we all know, citations of our published papers are hella important for our careers, in the medium to longer term. And citations of our papers can have feed-forward consequences to engender even more citations. When you read a paper you tend to look at the papers it cites. If they are relevant to your work you tend to cite them in a subsequent paper. Maybe often. Maybe they become your go-to methodological or "foundational paper" citation. Do you always do an exhaustive search to make sure that you are citing the first observation*?

So when someone fails to cite you when they should** it costs you something. And particularly for people relatively early in their publishing careers, the cost seems very high. That's because you have few papers and the insult affects a high percentage. The career implications before getting a permanent job, tenure or that first grant may seem to be extremely pointed.

I understand the anger.

I understand the desire to get your deserved credit.

I understand the desire to make those bastards pay for their crimes against you. Sort of.

But you need to sit back and think about what steps you can take, what is the likely upside and what is the likely downside for you.

The bottom line is that you cannot force people to cite you in academic work. You can't force*** them to decide your work is most relevant or deserving of recognition in their own papers. You can't.

The high water mark of direct action is going to be getting a Letter to Editor type of thing published. In which you say "waaah, they should have cited us" or "they claimed priority but we published some thing vaguely similar before". Maybe, I guess, you might get an erratum or correction from the authors or the editors. If the field at large notices (and they mostly won't) they just roll their eyes at the authors. Maybe, just maybe, it results in one or two extra citations of your prior work. Maybe.

Again, I feel you. My work has gone uncited numerous times when it should** have been. This has a material effect on my h-index. My h-index has, at times, come into play in a very direct way in the furtherance of my career and indeed my salary, benefits, retirement, etc. Citations are potentially that important.

I. Get. It.

I also understand that we all can spin this same sort of yarn. And in a lot of cases, someone else in our field can "prove" that we screwed them by not citing their papers when we should** have. It's a normal and relatively impersonal situation in many cases. In the case of intentional bad actors, or people who feel compelled by career pressures to act badly, there is not much we can do about it.

Personally I try to take the medium road and the high road.

The medium road is the sort of semi-defensible record correcting you can take in your own papers. "As we first showed in...". "Doe et al confirmed/replicated our prior finding...". You can also do this any time you are presenting your work orally, from the platform or at poster sessions. In the latter, you just need to be careful about how much of this you do and how hard of a downbeat you put behind it. Don't look like a whiny baby, is my advice.

The high road is to make sure to minimize citation offense in your own publications. Like it or not, we have a priority convention. So cite the first paper, eh? What could this possibly cost you? This leaves you plenty of room to cite 1) your own vaguely related work and 2) whatever are the best citations for the point, regardless of priority, JIF or other convention. The high road also suggests you should cite those folks who you feel have not cited you the way that you deserve. Try to take pleasure in your high-minded scholarly approach. It can be enough.

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*the citation of pre-prints is going to be an extra fun issue with respect to proper priority citation

**"should". Even the convention to cite the first paper to observe something relevant to your reason for citing is just an arbitrary convention.

***nope, not even in peer review. You can keep saying "reject" but that paper is eventually going to get in somewhere without citing you if the authors really don't want to do so.

17 responses so far

On the obsessive hobbies of scientists

(by drugmonkey) Aug 29 2018

This is an extension to some thoughts I posted on Twitter awhile ago.

There is a certain species of “amazing scientist who is revolutionizing everything” biographical puff piece that strikes an interesting chord about academics. These are details that come up in seminar introductions, blog posts, media profiles, institutional profiles, award nominations and obituaries.

I am referring specifically to the part where they talk about hobbies, interests and activities that are not directly related to work*.

I surmise the hobby is discussed in these types of pieces to humanize the nerd or to amaze you that their non-science time is just as obsessive and elite as their science**. Possibly both of these apply simultaneously. Typical realms of discussion are obsessive sports participation (very commonly running long distance events or triathlon competition), foodie obsession (he cooks lavish meals for his lab), wine snobbery or the arts. With respect to the arts, you most commonly hear about how the scientist being lionized plays a musical instrument in a band. Presumably this ties into our societal obsession with rock n rollers and their supposed rebel natures. We know Francis Collins plays the guitar in a band. We know Nora Volkow likes to run. I can’t remember hearing about any community minded hobbies of any of the other IC directors.

You don’t hear about how the awesome scientist pulls his (it’s usually a him) weight at home in these types of settings. Obsessive plumbing leak fixer! Soccer dad! Makes meals for his family on the regular!

You don’t hear about community stuff either. Many scientists participate in local groups for improving the schools or city governance or their faith community. Many spend their time volunteering in the classroom.

And it isn’t just the puff pieces that draw this distinction between the externally-focused activities and the obsessively internally-focused ones. Academic science actually punishes people for anything they do that isn’t self-oriented.

If one is highly accomplished in science it is okay to have hobbies as long as they are obsessively self-involved ones like running marathons. It is obvious that any sort of external activity or hobby is only okay if the science work is considered to be of the highest rank. If one is considering a middle of the road scientist then clearly they should be spending more time at work and less time training for a marathon!

Look, I get that we like to know more about people's life outside of their work. Pursuit of the personal detail fuels industries valued in the billions of dollars when it comes to famous movie stars, musicians, politicians and professional athletes. There is no reason that people in science wouldn't also have an interest in the non-work activities of the more famous members of our professions.

But still. The relative selectivity in what we choose to lionize versus criticize about our science peers seems meaningful to me. It has an effect on all of us, including (most importantly) our trainees. Personally, I do not want people in science thinking (no matter how implicitly) that obsessive, self-involved hobbies are associated with the most revered scientists and that community type, external benefit activities are the hallmark of the scientific nobody.

Perhaps we could think twice about those seminar speaker intros we give and the nature of the puff pieces we write or contribute background to.

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*Calm yourselves debate champeens. This set of observations is about which hobbies we choose to laud in a professional context and which ones we do not. It doesn’t mean you are horrible for running every day. Exercise is healthy and good for you. We should all do more of it.

**And I should also note that this doesn't have to devolve into “I only have time for work” snark, no matter the reality. I'm not criticizing hobbies and activities at all. I think that is great if you have things that make you happy. Again, this is about the type of such non-science hobbies that we find reason to congratulate or merely to note in a professionally-oriented biographical piece.

8 responses so far

The NIH Director Talked to Congress About Scientific Inspiration

(by drugmonkey) Aug 23 2018

The Director of the NIH went to testify before Congress today and one of the tweets from the @NIH account summarized a point he was making thusly:

In case there is any trouble with the auto post of the tweet, it reads in part:

And, now, on to my favorite: Scientific Inspiration. I can assure you that researchers funded by #NIH come to work every day full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those ideas through.

It is, of course, very likely true that on any given day of the year there are at least two researchers (he did use the plural) who come to work full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those idea through. Given the size and scope of the NIH funding mission (let us assume he meant extramural, not just intramural, funding) this is statistically obvious.

What is not true, however, is the broader implication that all or even most researchers who are funded by NIH extramural grants have the wherewithal to see their many innovative ideas through. If this is what he conveyed, intentional or not, he misled Congress. I was going to say "lied to" but I really have no idea whether Francis Collins legitimately believes this false notion to be true or not.

The @NIH twitter also pointed out that Director Collins bragged how they were focusing on, and increasing, the number of funded young investigators:

In an environment where the NIH budget has been essentially flatlined since 2004 (with a resulting decrement in purchasing power, due to inflation) you cannot increase the number of funded investigators without decreasing the amount of grant funding each of the investigators enjoys, on average. As we know, the purchasing power of the full modular R01 (the workhorse award) has declined substantially, it is now something like 61% of what it was in 2000.

Ever increasing numbers of applications resulted in decreasing per-application success rates all through the 2000s. Data from the NIH website show that success rates of under 20% have been the reality for the past 7 years.

At last report from the NIH, most investigators held one or two major awards from the NIH at any one time. The reality of poor success rates has meant that maintaining consistent funding with one or two awards across time is very uncertain. Even the ability to competitively continue an existing award given reasonable progress has essentially disappeared. PIs have to put in competing continuations early and many of us realize that we have to have overlapping "new" awards on the same topic in order to have any decent chance of continuity of a research program.

The loss of funding can have dire consequences. It means technicians, students or postdocs may have to be let go. New staff cannot be brought on board until funding is re-acquired. There will be a significant delay until postdocs and graduate students can be recruited (up to 12 months is not unusual). And as Datahound analyzed, the cumulative probability of a lab regaining funding after a gap was 20% within 2 years (in 2012) and reached an asymptote of about 40% within 5-6 years in prior Fiscal Year data.

I have been around approximately continuously NIH grant funded PIs for about two decades now. I have engaged similar folks in online discussion for over a decade, broadening my experiences beyond my department and subfield.

It is simply not true that the majority of NIH funded scientists enjoy some sort of halcyon period where we all "come to work full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those idea through". Most of the time, we come to work fearful that we cannot maintain the wherewithal to keep the laboratory functioning in a minimally healthy way with reasonably good expectations for a continuously funded future for the duration of our careers. And we spend too much time strategizing about how to maintain the wherewithal.

Admittedly, it isn't all terrible all the time. I would estimate something on the order of 20-25%ish of my time as a grant funded PI has indeed been great. I have had extended intervals of time in which I did have the wherewithal to come to work focused only on the scientific ideas I wanted to pursue. It is AWESOME to have these intervals. Really. I totally get it. I appreciate it. I love(d) these times.

But it is not the constant reality of the vast majority of NIH funded PIs that I talk to. It has not been my consistent reality.

The fact that the very head of the NIH does not seem to understand this is dismaying. It means that nothing will change. And, in fact, given his glee at creating yet more mouths at the trough this aspect of NIH funded science will continue to get worse under his Directorship.

6 responses so far

Your Manuscript in Review: It is never an idle question

(by drugmonkey) Aug 22 2018

I was trained to respond to peer review of my submitted manuscripts as straight up as possible. By this I mean I was trained (and have further evolved in training postdocs) to take every comment as legitimate and meaningful while trying to avoid the natural tendency to view it as the work of an illegitimate hater. This does not mean one accepts every demand for a change or alters one's interpretation in preference for that of a reviewer. It just means you take it seriously.

If the comment seems stupid (the answer is RIGHT THERE), you use this to see where you could restate the point again, reword your sentences or otherwise help out. If the interpretation is counter to yours, see where you can acknowledge the caveat. If the methods are unclear to the reviewer, modify your description to assist.

I may not always reach some sort of rebuttal Zen state of oneness with the reviewers. That I can admit. But this approach guides my response to manuscript review. It is unclear that it guides everyone's behavior and there are some folks that like to do a lot of rebuttal and relatively less responding. Maybe this works, maybe it doesn't but I want to address one particular type of response to review that pops up now and again.

It is the provision of an extensive / awesome response to some peer review point that may have been phrased as a question, without incorporating it into the revised manuscript. I've even seen this suboptimal approach extend to one or more paragraphs of (cited!) response language.

Hey, great! You answered my question. But here's the thing. Other people are going to have the same question* when they read your paper. It was not an idle question for my own personal knowledge. I made a peer review comment or asked a peer review question because I thought this information should be in the eventual published paper.

So put that answer in there somewhere!

___
*As I have probably said repeatedly on this blog, it is best to try to treat each of the three reviewers of your paper (or grant) as 33.3% of all possible readers or reviewers. Instead of mentally dismissing them as that weird outlier crackpot**.

**this is a conclusion for which you have minimal direct evidence.

5 responses so far

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