Repost: Independence

Feb 13 2009 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, Stock Critique

At last check the poll over at Young Female Scientist found some 74% (98/133) of postdocs reporting that they have contributed to writing "part of all" of an R01 grant application. Commentary arising from the issue reminds me of the complex interdigitation of intellectual property in the advisor/mentee relationship, particularly when it comes to well-experienced postdocs. Placed in a milieu of increasingly complex scientific enterprise this inevitably leads to musings on academic crediting amongst members of a research team or super-group. This reminded me of some thoughts I originally posted Sept 25, 2007.


It is a StockCritique of grant review and promotion/tenure review alike.
The concern is related to the tendency we have to assume that the most senior person involved in a research collaboration is the one "really" calling the shots. The one providing the most sophisticated intellectual ideas and creativity. The one in charge. The assumption in the "independence"critique is that the person criticized may not have what it takes to succeed or excel scientifically "on their own" and is thus not worthy of promotion or the stewardship of a major grant award. Is this a valid criterion?


I'm wrestling with this issue for a number of reasons but let us focus on one domain for didactic purposes. I, as well as several other colleagues who review grants, have noticed a seemingly sharp uptick in the number of applications coming in from PIs who are more "transitioning" than "transitioned". PIs whose job titles might be something other than "Assistant Professor" and ones who are still in or around the same laboratory or research group in which they have done a big chunk of postdoctoral work. In extreme cases the PI might still be titled "Postdoc" or have trained in the same place essentially since graduate school!

Readers of this blog might conclude that this trend, which I've been noticing for at least the past 3-4 rounds, delights me. And to the extent that it represents a recognition of the problems with junior scientist's making the career transition to independence this does appear a positive step. To the extent that it opens up artificial barriers blocking the next generation of scientists- great.

The slightly more cynical view expressed by colleagues and, admittedly, myself is that this trend has been motivated by IC Program behavior both in capping per-PI award levels and in promoting grant success for New Investigators. In other words that the well-established PIs with very large research groups are thinking that grants for which they would otherwise be the PI will now be more successful with some convenient patsy long-term postdoc at the helm. The science, however, is just the same old stuff of the established group and PI.

The question for this post, however, is the same regardless of the motivation for a not-very-independent (*by appearance) PI to submit an application. Namely, why does it matter whether someone is "independent" or not? Why does this consideration figure so heavily into the "Investigator" section of the grant critique and in consideration for tenure? Isn't the goal that "the best possible science" get accomplished? If we have evolved into large groups of postdocs and semi-career research scientists laboring under a BigCheez PI doesn't this beg the question? Why does it matter who is the titular PI of a given project?

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*the question of how we demonstrate (as applicants or job/promotion seekers) or determine (as reviewers and search/promotion committee members) scientific independence is perhaps a topic for another lengthy discussion.

17 responses so far

  • whimple says:

    It would appear that it only matters if money is awarded to individuals rather that for projects, since if the project itself is really worthwhile and doable, why does it matter who does it? The NIH claims this is not the case, but everyone dinged for lack of "independence" is a refutation.

  • Becca says:

    To be blunt, some research programs will work better when managed by one person than another- so some critical consideration of the investigator's qualifications absolutely makes sense.
    That said, I can't say I'm aware of any cases where the "not-very-independent" researcher couldn't at least get the bread-and-butter work of the lab done in the event the senior PI got killed by a coconut... so, I think underestimating the independence is more dangerous (to the investigator being so judged) than overestimating the independence is to the goal of NIH ensuring reasonably good science is done. In this funding climate, I really don't think that many truly risky projects are funded at all, so the subset of risky projects where the study section said basically "this is a difficult but incredibly important problem in the field, but we know Dr. BigShot will be able to crack this nut if anyone can" are probably pretty negligible.
    I think tenure is a whole other kettle of fish. The institution needs to know that if BigCheese gets killed by a coconut, traineess will still be mentored, important networking connections that allow lucrative contracts to come in will still be there, and those pesky classes might even still get taught (well, assuming there are still BigCheeses out there who actually teach). In short, I tend to feel that the services a professor provides to an institution are more their own unique contributions than the services a scientists performs for NIH.

  • Dave says:

    Maybe 'independent' is code-word for 'in a stable position'?
    There is a reasonable argument for not giving a million and a half dollars over 4-5 years to quasi-postdocs who have no incentive to stay put and actually do the promised research.
    If someone needs training or transitioning money, there are grants for that. R01s are not appropriate.

  • neurowoman says:

    Um, Dave, how about 'soft-money' positions (RAPs, research faculty)? And where exactly is this transitioning money? K99? too few. R03, got it,done it, not enough to leverage a TT job.
    Two things really annoy me about the 'independence' critique. 1) You can bring a project idea and techniques to a postdoc lab, and people will still assume it's the PI's idea, and wonder when you are going to do something independent. !
    2) You try to do work that is independent, and people wonder why you're not working on the well-known system that your mentor is working in.
    3) (okay 3 things) I have had the feeling there is some subtle gender bias, in that I don't know how often men have their independence questioned. Sounds like perhaps men get this as much as women?

  • Dave says:

    1) yea, that sucks.
    2) that's the same as #1.
    3) maybe, but I'm not going here, because as a male my opinion is automatically invalidated.
    I'm not saying it's a good system. In fact, I think the NIH system for distributing money is relatively moronic. I'm just saying I understand the rationale.

  • crystaldoc says:

    The actual independence of the new PI, and the implicit or explicit structuring of the relationship between the BigCheez and the new PI, may not really matter from the reviewer viewpoint that good work will probably get done no matter which party is driving the research, if the grant looks to be a good one. However, it matters a lot to the junior PIs in this position, and it should matter to all of us if the point of the new investigator pickups is to help launch independent careers. These pickups are being abused if they are being used to advance the research program of the BigCheez, to the disadvantage of the new investigator.
    I have a colleague who got his first R01 a year or so ago. Although in a tenure-track appointment at a new institution, he continues to collaborate with his former mentor. The SRO of his study section pulled him aside and flat out told him that if he hopes to have any chance of renewing this R01, his former mentor should not appear as an author on the papers that derive from this grant, any of them, or else my colleague will not be seen as sufficiently independent when his renewal comes up. (Is this true of other study sections?) Now, if a new investigator is not just collaborating with a former mentor, but is basically still employed by said mentor, what are the chances that this mentor will agree to go uncredited on resulting publications? Not great. Particularly if the work in question lies squarely within the scientific domain of the mentor. So, the new investigator hasn't a shot of renewing this grant... but he's used up his one and only chance to play the "new investigator" card???

  • Anon says:

    if 'new investigators' are still riding on the coat tails of their mentors, they should not get PI status on grants.
    the problem I am facing is that in demonstrating my independence (my mentors were not involved in my grants), I am not taken seriously because I do not have a BigCheeze on my grants. The argument is, if a BigCheese is not a collaborator and since I'm new on the grant scene, then it must not be good.
    I am therefore now trying to get my mentors to be collaborators on my grants, but this has the effect of changing the direction of the projects to what they were already doing all along and thus is no longer my independent work. In other words now it looks like I'm trying to ride on their coat tails and I feel like I'm selling out (because I am).
    I'm just trying to play this stupid grant game, whatever it is.

  • whimple says:

    Nothing is better prima face evidence of independence than last author publications with no other PIs on the author line. Can you accomplish this?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    So, the new investigator hasn't a shot of renewing this grant... but he's used up his one and only chance to play the "new investigator" card???
    To make a more general point, I hear waaaaay too much handwringing about "using up" the New Investigator status unwisely. I think that people may be underestimating the value of being able to list a grant for which they were PI on the Biosketch. It is a very powerful thing, not to mention actually having money allows you a chance, theoretical independence issues or not. A chance to get some science done that is in fact your own, even if the appearances are fraught with complications. This has a way of making itself apparent to people who are paying attention.
    if 'new investigators' are still riding on the coat tails of their mentors, they should not get PI status on grants.
    Lots of people ride the coat tails even with a move and a fresh appointment halfway across the country. If you pay attention to history, at least in my field, lots and lots of our more respected senior investigators rode all sorts of coattails in the beginning.
    Anyone read Gladwell's "Outliers"? His central thesis translates to the workaday academic world you know.

  • To make a more general point, I hear waaaaay too much handwringing about "using up" the New Investigator status unwisely.

    Yeah, i don't get this either. Investigators who have the institutional authority to serve as PIs should be doing anything and everything to get themselves funded as a PI on an R01 AS QUICKLY AS FUCKING POSSIBLE!!!! There is *no* strategic consideration that can possible lead to the correct conclusion that one is better off being PI on an R01 later rather than sooner. PERIOD.
    Gladwell's Outliers is a fascinating book, although it does go on and on repetitively far longer than it needs to.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Well to be fair oftentimes the choice is over being the secondary PI of a multi-PI grant or a component/core of a big mechanism. But I still say the critical thing to ask is if the scenario permits enough window for a PI to generate data to support the next application (even if only indirectly through publications).
    When asking if that next R01 application is best supported by a technical NI status or by better/more extensive prelim data and an investigator who is already PI on a R01-or-equivalent, I'm going with the latter every time.

  • Anybody hearing any scuttlebutt concerning the disposition of stimulus funds at various Institutes? NEI has already announced an invitation for applications for administrative supplements for infrastructure support to existing R01s with at least two years left in them. I would love for the Institutes that fund my R01s (not NEI) to do something like this.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    writedit has the specifics. I don't have any inside word, but it is notable that 10% is allotted to OD at a time when there is no permanent D. Appointment is overdue.

  • Anon says:

    Gladwell's "Outliers" says that the success is due largely to luck and fortunate circumstance. in other words success is largely out of your control.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Anon, I think you may want to give Outliers another read. It was more about disabusing ourselves of the notion that success is a linear function of ability/potential all by itself.
    The whole thing was a fairly explicit plea to provide the best possible environment to the broadest swath of people, once you got beyond the way-way-way outliers he used to sex up the topic. The sports figures and the Termites and the socioeconomics factors of child-rearing were really the meat of the matter, were they not?
    Perhaps it is my bias with respect to opportunity in science that biased my reading....

  • kiwi says:

    I understand the message in Outliers as discussing the huge benefits of environment, for later being outstanding in the field, giving whoever the opportunity to trudge through - I mean- work hard at the 10,000 hours.

  • […] First, I addressed Independence of a NIH Grant PI to some extent way back in 2007, reposted in 2009. […]

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