Defund those guys...over there...THEM. (not me)

Oct 23 2013 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

Dr Strangely Strange returns us to the usual conundrum.

What are the key issues that NIH could easily address to make the system more fair, inclusive and to encourage better science (other than throwing more money at us). ...Is there something else that we can all agree on that it would make a difference?

I had my usual, highly cynical albeit informed, response:

if the online discussions tell us anything it is that every single person insists that the "obvious", "just", "rational", "fair", etc solution to the problems of the NIH are whatever just so conveniently happen to suit their own situation or imagined near-future situation.

But here's what I think we can agree on. We need to shrink the number of people with their hands out for NIH funds. Shrink the number of people being supported as professional scientists. And by "number", this includes the notion of fractional people, i.e., those who only spend part of their time being paid by federal grant dollars.

The question is...who?

Who gets chopped?

Who is either kicked out of the system or prevented from entering the system in the first place*?

This is where we disagree. Fervently. It is an obvious truth that everyone starts with a very simple and universal principle on who should be shelled out of the NIH-supported system.

"Not Me".

What I want to suggest for today's futile exercise in getting the readership to follow their plans ALL the way down is this. Go on RePORTER. Search out some key words that are nice and broad or if you are under a smallish IC just search the whole I or C.

Run through that list and pick out something like 20% of the PIs that you would vote permanently off the island. Find 20% of your peers that you would ace without any detrimental impact on the broader scientific subfield of your interest.

I'd be interested if you come to any general set of criteria for deciding, how you did that. So maybe drop us a comment.

__
*This is a topic for another day but the "painless" solution of turning off the PhD tap is only painless if you forget senior undergraduate you when you were deciding what you really wanted to do was to go to graduate school and earn your PhD.

51 responses so far

  • Dr Strangely Strange says:

    I recall some clearly misinformed but eminent genetics prof showing up for "career orientation" day towards the end of my undergrad in the early 90's saying: "come join us, go to grad school, in 10 years half of us profs will be gone but the number of vacant positions will double because of the expansion of medical schools." Ha! When did that ever happen, ever since the mandatory retirement was cancelled they, incl. him, are all still here hanging on like grim death, writing reviews, opinions and crappy, flatulent commentaries on cell papers.

    Meanwhile the influx of newly minted naive PhD has made this situation a real disaster. I am not arguing newly minted PhD are victims but merely that this is just like any other job with a supply problem...... Lets turn off the PhD tap and open up the retiree drain and make this field of work vibrant and exciting again.... I am sure all read Rockey's blog entry, it was very good.... http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2012/02/13/age-distribution-of-nih-principal-investigators-and-medical-school-faculty/

  • Mano de Dios says:

    @DSS

    You are correct about "turn[ing] off the PhD tap and open[ing] up the retiree drain." But the PhD oversupply issue is a simple consequence of the non-existent NIH leadership in this area. According to Collins and Rockey, there is no such thing as a PhD oversupply. **That** is a the real elephant in the room.

  • charlie says:

    How about a simple test: for every scientist, we select 10 or so of their most cited papers, and have an independent group try and reproduce their results. If they can't reproduce at least half of the results, the scientist gets the axe.

  • Badger says:

    I agree with the posters above. But there is no point is discussing who gets chopped when the one that funds the extravaganza (NIH) does not even admit there is a problem.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Nobody is willing even in the privacy of their own heads to nominate a full 20% of their field for....sending to the farm?

  • Bala says:

    Thanks for all the info over the last few days; it has been really useful.

    I think that one solution is to reduce the size of each NIH grant, with no restrictions on the number of grants that a PI may hold. The award sizes for NSF are significantly smaller and arguably, each NSF dollar produces more research output (quality and quantity) than the corresponding NIH dollar.

  • Ola says:

    Simple:
    Aged over 65 - step off the gravy wagon
    Aged over 70 - jump off
    Aged over 75 - expect to be pushed off

    Every other professional career has scheduled retirement ages, but in academia we're just supposed to accept the idea that people can keep going as long as they want because they "still have a lot of contribute". Get rid of the emeritus folks, hand over their dusty old lab space and clear out all the old-fashioned never used equipment. Give their teaching/classes to people who actually update their slides. Sure, they got f***ed in the financial crisis and the "need" to keep working to build up their 401ks because it wasn't diversified enough. Tough s*** buddy, at least you get social security which is more than my generation will ever look forward to.

  • Mikka says:

    "other than throwing more money at us"

    WHAT MONEY?! There's your problem right there. By now the NIH budget is almost halved from the 2003 high mark. We can shift a few millions here to there, but the mistakes were already made and can't be undone, and the disaster is inevitable. It takes the form of the cull, the huge postdoc holding tank, and cutthroat competition that fosters sloppy science and outright fraud. Pointing at each other for defunding is part of this last aspect. I think DM once used the term "lord of the flies behavior". It won't help.

    I'm resigned to the cull, even as I hope I will survive it. But science is going to suffer: the surivors of the cull might be a race of Sardaukar-like elite scientists capable of selling the glam science that's appreciated nowadays, but kids are not stupid and the smarter ones will see the career potential of biomedical sciences and rightly stay away. We'll get fewer kids (not that we can afford to pay that many anyway) and they will be the not-so bright, the don't-know-what-to-do-with-my-life-after-graduating, and the occasional deluded passionate believer. And all of them will learn to do a science based on the flashy result, the imagination-capturing metaphor that sells the paper, and screw "incremental" (how that ever became a derogatory term I'll never know) science.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Nobody is willing even in the privacy of their own heads to nominate a full 20% of their field for....sending to the farm?

    Neuroscience of addiction can get the chop, obviously.

    On a more (semi)serious note, I've been extremely underwhelmed by the $$:payoff ratio for the flood of newly christened "-omics" fields that have been appearing regularly in recent years. The original field of genomics being the big exception.

  • Evelyn says:

    I might get killed for this, but may I suggest that science be done by actual scientists, trained in the scientific method. Allow only those holding the Ph.D. to apply as PI's. I don't even want to tell you the number of M.D.'s who do not understand what a hypothesis is, of why you need to have executable aims, of why you need to think of alternatives. Everyone once in a while, one comes along that is good, but usually they have either done an extensive research fellowship at the cost to their clinical careers or they already hold a dual degree. Yes, I understand that the bad ones do not get funded (usually), but they are clogging up the system and everyone once in a while, one or two grants sneak through, and it is just a tragedy to see that money wasted. Never mind that they hire post-docs who are basically getting mentored by the, eh, the department grant writer. Also, their salaries are astronomical compared to the Ph.D.'s and so they are always getting the top of the NIH salary scale and when that happens not a lot of money is left over for post-docs and research supplies.

    I think if you severely limit the Ph.D. tap and implement Ph.D.s only rule, we will get down to manageable levels pretty quick.

    P.S. Looking at my old field, the only way to get funded by the NIH is if you graduated or trained in one of three labs in the world. I think my field has already gone through the great cull.

  • meshugena313 says:

    Unfortunately for all of us, the great cull is the only answer. As long as quality science is being produced (which we're now under bigger pressure to do!), there is absolutely no incentive for the NIH to do anything. Honestly they have no reason to directly care about personnel issues, they only want to fund quality science that improves public health over the long term.

    So lord of the flies it is! Or musical chairs (which unfortunately for me, I sucked at as a kid).

    Or more money flowing to the NIH. Ha. Maybe in 2027.

  • RP says:

    Hmm, interesting exercise. I scanned the two institutes most relevant to me. I admit I had a lot of "that sounds cool" reactions, but was less excited when I clicked on the description. One of my biggest gripes is how much emphasis has been placed on basic research, at the sacrifice of human research. I'm not saying basic research isn't important, but it seems like NIH has drifted away from funding good human subject research.

    My solution (which fits DM's "because it works form me" model) is that each IC is required to have a certain, relatively high percentage going to human research (on human subjects, not human cell lines or whatever).

    And that center funding (P30, P50, etc) come from a specific center funds account and not the individual ICs. But that should be additional money from NIH, not shaving from what little the ICs already have.

    In the spirit of the original 20% chop question...basic research and MD PIs who are not actually doing the research, but have PhDs doing it for them. MDs who are trained in research and do the research are OK to keep their money. MD co-Is are fine. MD research training grant is also OK to keep. A MD has to be trained to practice medicine, so a scientist should be trained in research to get the big $$ to do research. And, as Evelyn alluded to above, we need to figure out something with their salaries because MDs on grants kills the salary budget!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    RP- are you saying Kill the Big Mechs or not? None of this weaselly "pay with leprechaun gold" stuff now...

  • Dave says:

    You guys are ridiculous. Talking about the "great cull" is sad and pathetic and you all look like a right bunch of twats complaining about this field and that field as if your shit comes out smelling like roses. Honestly, it's pathetic. If any of you think that a "cull" will solve the medium- to long-term problems in academia, then you are mistaken. It might mean you get to keep your job in the short term (that's what this discussion is really about, isn't it?), but it wont change anything down the road. If anything it will cement the status quo until the shit really hits the fan.

    What we should be talking about is how to use the available funds more efficiently so that every qualified investigator can get paid and do research. Let's really examine the fucked-up way in which schools have taken advantage of the NIH for many years now, and let's get scientists (yes, that means PIs) back doing science. Let's re-evaluate how the NIH funds big mechs and why they do it and let's think seriously about how PIs, post-docs and grad students are paid/funded. Until we look at all of these things and more, nobody should be talking about "great culls" as the answer to anything.

    On example: the NIDDK just announced a $40 million grant to study (again) whether vitamin D prevents diabetes. This is an absolute disgrace because we already know the answer (it's no, btw). Should that money be spent elsewhere? Is this the most efficient and productive use of $40 million?

  • dsks says:

    "What we should be talking about is how to use the available funds more efficiently so that every qualified investigator can get paid and do research"

    This is the crux of it for me. There are certainly areas of basic science research, such as mine, that would have a much greater cost efficiency if the PI was allowed time to perform the experiments instead of being stuck in the office writing grants. Grants in which the majority of the funds is required to cover the cost of hiring labor (usually less experienced) to do the experiments the PI could just as easily be doing themselves.

    Not sure how one would seek to address this. One idea is to have a specific grant mechanism for project proposals in which funding for labor is not an option. The NIH could offer a higher indirect rate to keep institutions happy (and prevent them denying tenure to PIs who go for this mechanism for want of more overhead), but money would still be saved on the salaries and benefits not being requested.

    Of course, I don't know what fraction of the whole scientific endeavor fits into this category and whether it would make a whole lot of difference to the total NIH budget. Maybe it wouldn't, I don't know. But it seems like a better place to start that a straight up cull, imho.

  • drugmonkey says:

    let's think seriously about how PIs, post-docs and grad students are paid/funded.

    IIRC, you are one of those nutters that imagines a pot of magic unicorn leprechaun fairy money will arise to replace the NIH paying salaries, right? Can you clarify that? because if so, your "seriously" is ridiculous.

    complaining about this field and that field as if your shit comes out smelling like roses.

    My position here is that the first thing to do is to imagine the cull as if it is going to come down equivalently across fields of study. There are two reasons. First, people in the field should be best equipped to determine what is superfluous (yes, yes, I know). Second, anyone with an ounce of sense will recognize the bias inherent in directing the cull only at some field of study that has nothing to do with one's own interests.

  • The Other Dave says:

    Decide which of our biomedical colleagues should get funded and which should not? Isn't that what study section is for?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Isn't that what study section is for?

    No. Study section is for recommending which of the proposals in front of it at the moment should receive the funds.

  • RP says:

    None of this weaselly "pay with leprechaun gold" stuff now...

    OK, they can stay...but what they can/cannot use their funds for gets reevaluated. (no suggestions there. I'm just thinking of two specific centers I interact with on campus; one awesome, one less than awesome)

  • drugmonkey says:

    but what they can/cannot use their funds for gets reevaluated

    Right. But it is really easy to pick a specific grant and say "hey, that's a waste of money". But how do you turn this into a policy prescription? Because that is what we are after, right? A schema whereby we can figure out which efforts of the NIH funded extramural community can be most easily dismissed.

  • The Other Dave says:

    "My position here is that the first thing to do is to imagine the cull as if it is going to come down equivalently across fields of study. There are two reasons. First, people in the field should be best equipped to determine what is superfluous (yes, yes, I know). Second, anyone with an ounce of sense will recognize the bias inherent in directing the cull only at some field of study that has nothing to do with one's own interests."

    Again, dude, this is exactly what study sections are for. People in the field decide what should get funded in the field.

    But NIH *is* also a political organization. They are re-distributing taxpayer dollars. Thus, politics and taxpayers also get a say, whether we like it or not. If they want us to take another look at whether vitamin D prevents diabetes, then, well, it's their dime. Or maybe they want more work on whether vaccines cause autism. A waste? I think so too, but hey... it's their dime. Does homeopathic medicine do anything? I don't see how, but... it's their dime.

    Smart scientists realize that we are all just humble public servants with pipettors. We read the RFAs, we talk to the funding agencies. We do what we are told. We get employed and stay employed. Anyone who doesn't understand that ... is soon not employed.

    NIH exists at all because people in the past thought biomedical research was a good use of taxpayer money. Every person who pays taxes in the U.S. pays about three bucks into the NIH budget, whether they like it or not. There are plenty of other things that taxpayer money could get spent on. Better railways? Better schools? Free healthcare?

    If you are a struggling Ph.D. and do not like the way that the U.S. does science, then consider a career in politics. Go to Washington. Become a science advisor. Run for congress.

    Or get active in education. Show the public how scientific research enhances their lives. Help them see how a better understanding of our work is inherently interesting and beautiful. Make people appreciate science more. High school teachers in my district are paid more than public school college professors anyway.

    Or get a job in a funding agency. Become a SRO, or PO. Rise up the ranks. Facilitate the process. Help make decisions about how science money should be spent.

    ...or just sit around complaining about how your grants don't get funded and NIH is run by a bunch of idiots.

  • The Other Dave says:

    "Decide which of our biomedical colleagues should get funded and which should not? Isn't that what study section is for?"

    "No. Study section is for recommending which of the proposals in front of it at the moment should receive the funds."

    I fail to see the difference. Seriously. Please explain.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I fail to see the difference. Seriously. Please explain

    You can't understand the difference between a strategical control over what class of individuals should be able to be in the system versus tactical control over what project should be funded at the moment?

    Every person who pays taxes in the U.S. pays about three bucks into the NIH budget,

    I thought it was more like $100. although maybe that is per person rather than per Federal tax-filer. If so, I'll note that *everyone* who is a consumer pays some sort of tax and money is fungible so....

  • RP says:

    is really easy to pick a specific grant and say "hey, that's a waste of money"

    Not cut the science--the "other stuff." I'm not saying staff, research forums, invited speakers, or whatever are not important, but in this time of belt tightening and scarce research funds the money should be going towards research.

    Of course, if my Univ didn't charge us to use their big poster presentation boards that would help.

  • Rylie says:

    Here's an idea for everyone to hate!

    Step 1: wait at current budget levels while attrition through decreased funding does this naturally, making a bunch of people who manage to survive miserable enough to want to leave.

    Step 2: Claw back some sequestration funds eventually.

    Step 3: Instead of feeding all of it back into the existing system, use some to fund a new sort of transition grant. Public/private partnership across diff fields. Something like partial salary support for x time. Private sector gets a chance to hire smart people on the cheap...Smart people who are looking for a way out of academia get a chance to do so using mechanisms they are familiar with (and not go to so many stupid career fairs.) Maybe company and smart person like each other so much that they make a longer term commitment. Maybe they don't, but now smart person has more than lab work on their resume, and hopefully has met a few non-academics on the process.

    Could this be abused? Sure, but by the same argument postdocs are abused (and for much longer.)

    Does it lead to cries of 'Science money goes to private companies, boo!' Of course. I said you'd hate it, right?

    Plenty argue that value of phd isn't just that technique you learned or whatever. If agencies are generating more applicants than jobs and saying that the education of the applicants is what matters (we made smart people! Smart people are a benefit to society!) find a way to feed said people back into the society they're supposed to benefit.

  • Dave says:

    IIRC, you are one of those nutters that imagines a pot of magic unicorn leprechaun fairy money will arise to replace the NIH paying salaries, right? Can you clarify that? because if so, your "seriously" is ridiculous

    You mean it's a crazier idea that asking people to go to Reporter to select 20% of their most hated investigators to cull? Puuuuulllleeeaassszzze. Fucking laughable DM. Honestly.

    I do believe that universities have ways to support research beyond relying on NIH money. That is definitely my position. Many medical schools are now using much more clinical revenue to support research labs, for example, and there is definitely more waste that can be saved and used elsewhere. Not saying they are happy about it, but they are definitely doing it here.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    RP: "Not cut the science--the "other stuff.""

    The other stuff, to some extent, is what makes science worth doing. Invited speakers are the research community. This is how we create a community.

    The community is also important at the day-to-day research level. How much more awesome is it to be doing science nearby like-minded people who can help you troubleshoot experiments, proposals, and papers? With whom actually meaningful collaborations can be formed? As opposed to being in a small pond.

    I come from small labs at big institutions, and the quality of our work has only benefited from being in the context of a larger scientific environment where we can pool our resources. I think the idea that one lab should be able to be self-sufficiently awesome is dead in practice and we should play taps for it. I would never propose that small labs aren't meaningful contributors. We study things that the big boys don't or won't, actually translational and shit. But we are the most meaningful when we can build something bigger than ourselves as part of our institutional community. In short, a small lab is only meaningful if it is at a big enough institution for it to actually produce something important.

    I mean, we expect that aerospace research is going to require a big consortium. NASA cannot be replaced by 30 R1/R2 physics departments. Is it appropriate to assume that the biomedical research performed by dozens of small departments across the country is as important and groundbreaking as the same amount of effort and money in a consortium site? So kill the small town grocer? Or maybe, kill the PI? That seems to be where The Other Dave is going with this, anyway. That investigator-initiated science is, at best, being massaged by program interests.

    In terms of assessing self-servingness of proposals, I think NIH committing to some version of thsi strategy this would pretty well fuck me for independence. I also think this is adhering more closely to what is actually happening, but not in an organized or coherent fashion. But it's possible that we could make more groundbreaking findings, and less feeling like we are all about to be axed, if we could all be working at the biomedical Bell Labs instead of pretending like we are independent entities.

  • The Other Dave says:

    "I fail to see the difference. Seriously. Please explain"

    "You can't understand the difference between a strategical control over what class of individuals should be able to be in the system versus tactical control over what project should be funded at the moment?"

    I undertand that. But based on your 7:00AM comment I assumed that people were only allowed to cull within their own field. Sorry. I misunderstood.

    I would eliminate NIDA. It's nothing but leftover 1980's drug war crap, and everyone working on that shit is counting angels on pins under unrealistic conditions anyway 😉

    "Every person who pays taxes in the U.S. pays about three bucks into the NIH budget,"

    "I thought it was more like $100. although maybe that is per person rather than per Federal tax-filer. If so, I'll note that *everyone* who is a consumer pays some sort of tax and money is fungible so...."

    Whoops. Thanks for pointing that out. I am a complete moron. There are only about 100M people who pay taxes in the U.S. So it's actually $300. Whatever. A lot of money.

    An R01 is a lot of money. It doesn't come from nowhere. It comes out of people's pockets. I don't envy Collins, having to justify to a hundred million people why they each need to pony up several hundred bucks each for what we do.

    I remember my first R01. I was like 'Holy shit! that's a lot of money!' It didn't seem real. I am still stingy as fuck with my money. I have been known to post pictures of pipette tips and centrifuge tubes -- marked with the price of each -- around the lab. I have spent 10 minutes ranting at lab meetings waving around measuring beakers ruined because they were unnecessarily used as waste containers. When I see that 'Bad Project' Lady Gaga video parody on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fl4L4M8m4d0) all I can think about is all the lab supplies being wasted.

  • Dave says:

    I have been known to post pictures of pipette tips and centrifuge tubes -- marked with the price of each -- around the lab.

    🙂

  • Joe says:

    We should stop funding NCCAAM proposals. No more alternative medicine crap.
    How much money goes to encouraging people to go into STEM fields? I'm all for diversifying the group, so that expense is good. But do we spend money to convince kids that they should be scientists?
    I do wonder if there should be more NIH-directed or organized projects. I was at a discussion about vaccine development with a couple of NIH people and a bunch of PIs in that field. The NIH people said: How should we go about coming up with this vaccine? And the PIs just argued about who had the best model or antigen. I think this is a case where none of the small town grocers will ever get the desired product and where a putting together of some of the groups by NIH to work together on the product would be required.

  • Jonathan says:

    RP: if we did that at our IC that would eliminate ~80% of our grants. Only 20% of our portfolio is investigator initiated.

  • Jonathan says:

    Joe - good luck with that. NCCAM is Sen Harkin's pet IC, and he's in charge of the Senate committee that allocates NIH's budget.

  • Grumble says:

    "Only 20% of our portfolio is investigator initiated."

    Well, that is totally re-fucking-diculous.

    It would certainly help for NIH to stop all these RFAs and other allocations of money to non-investigator-initiated projects. That would make it easier for scientists to pursue research they think is important. Of course this doesn't increase funds or reduce investigators, but with so little to go around, why micromanage the budget? Why not prioritize what scientists themselves think is most important over what some pinheads at NIH think is important?

  • Joe says:

    Jonathan, Harkin is retiring in 2014. Maybe we won't have to support that boondoggle much longer.

  • Dave says:

    Only 20% of our portfolio is investigator initiated

    I rest my case.

  • MorganPhD says:

    I know it's a bit late, but I would think that the # of MD's funded by the NIH will actually increase over the next 10-15 years, as the focus of the NIH shifts to translational science (through NCATS and other mechanisms) and getting a good return-on-investment (as perceived by Congress and laypeople, not as perceived by scientists).

    Anecdotally, my lab mates and I have discussed that doing an MD or MD-PhD might actually be a better career path for scientists in the future. I know of many current MD's or MD-PhD's who are (in part) funding their own salaries or lab expenses through clinical activities. This is a huge advantage not available to PhD scientists, not to mention a much better fallback plan if your research career falters.

  • clueless noob says:

    What about an end-stage investigator (ESI) category for researchers more than 25 years after the start date of the initial project period of their first award? These ESIs would be barred from study section membership and their R01 and P mechanism applications would be penalized during peer review and at the time of funding. What could go wrong?

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Varmus makes some news in Science today. He acknowledges the cull:

    We all know that, in a fashion nobody can be comfortable with, there's a certain amount of attrition going on

    Opposes Glamour-chasing:

    He laments that researchers feel they will win funding only if they publish in top journals such as Science, Nature, and Cell. At NCI, he is pilot-testing a way to change this part of the scientific culture: by revising the "biosketch," the summary of a researcher's record that accompanies a grant proposal. Varmus wants to replace a section that now lists major publications with a narrative describing the investigator's five major accomplishments.

    And proposes funding people, not projects:

    To relieve the constant pressure on investigators to write grant proposals to keep their labs afloat, Varmus is creating a new award at NCI for "outstanding investigators." It will give highly productive labs support for 7 years, with the possibility of renewal. Although NIH already has a long-term award for established investigators, the winners are chosen largely according to their peer-review scores for a specific project. The new award will go to researchers nominated by their institutions and will be based on their overall track record. Like HHMI awards, it will go to "people," not "projects." Varmus wants NCI to fund hundreds of these awards[emph added].

  • Eli Rabett says:

    What is needed is a way to integrate the superannuated into ongoing science. Given that they, make that we, often have annuities, pensions, retirement savings, social security, medicare, etc. the cost of supporting a senior in a lab can be very low. That means that in the proper setting the seniors could function as grandparents, e.g. taking care of the kids, helping with the teaching, etc. and doing some of the research, and, of yeah, taking a cruise, by working six months somewhere nice. In Eli;s field this is happening on an informal basis.

    Of course, there are people who need the nearest ice floe (after the Arctic melts, this method of disposal will no longer be available)

  • DJMH says:

    " I have been known to post pictures of pipette tips and centrifuge tubes -- marked with the price of each -- around the lab."

    Uh, usually the personnel costs so grossly outweigh the supplies costs that if your stunt causes even one person to lose one day's work because he was too intimidated to use fresh PBS even though the old stuff was all crusty and precipitated, this is a bad cost benefit ratio.

    DM, you don't need to posit universities paying salaries, you need to posit salaries come with only 8% overhead not 50.

  • Dave says:

    Varmus making a good case for why he should return as NIH director.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Varmus could do the people-based thing tomorrow via expanding the use of MERIT. Something I've proposed for years, btw.

    DJMH- word. One thing the 80hr work week exploitation does is pervert the PIs cost/benefit accounting on exactly this. Turns the brain-work staff into techs, and low level ones, if you aren't careful.

  • miko says:

    The drain cannot be opened because age discrimination is something that can only happen to Boomers.

    The tap can be turned off, but it won't be. As for being sad for undergrads...sure. I think you take about 5 years to turn it off, first by making it impossible to hire postdocs with research funds, then starting to scale back grad school admissions.

    This would have ended my career when I was a trainee and would maker it a lot harder for me to exploit trainee labor as a PI, so I hope I'm not accused of "othering" the pain.

    The effort to even type these suggestions is such a depressing waste given the complete lack of interest in these issues by the current NIH leadership.

  • Jonathan says:

    "I rest my case."

    Do you? What case have you made? Perhaps you think I'm talking about NCCAM? I'm not. I'd bet there's a pretty good chance you couldn't actually do the research you do without the fruits of our portfolio, but perhaps that's not true. Do any work with DNA. Dave?

  • The Other Dave says:

    DJMH: I totally agree with your overhead cap on salaries. There's no reasonable argument against it.

    As for penny-pinching strategies... You're right that salaries normally dwarf supply costs in a typical lab. But that, to me, is a sign of poor lab management.

    The purpose of a grant is to get the job done, get the data. Sometimes that means investing in people. Sometimes that means investing in supplies. Sometimes that means investing in outside services. Whatever. Whatever you 'buy', it should cost the grant as little as possible.

    People are a horrible investment for a grant. People time is a very quickly depreciating expense. You need to get personnel costs off a grant as quickly and completely as possible.

    Once you have shifted personnel costs off the grant (by hiring people on fellowships, or with institutional assistantships, or whatever), and by getting a job not in a soft-money institution, then most of a grant can go toward actually getting data. A reasonable sized lab can be extremely productive with one typical R01.

    Does this mean that I exploit people? No, not at all. Not having high personnel costs changes everything about how people are treated.

    Do I care whether a lab member is scared to do an experiment? No. I'd rather they take a week and read up about it, or visit other labs and watch real experts, or talk to me in great detail first. If I'm not paying them, time is no longer money. In fact, I'd rather they take a week vacation and come back and do the perfect experiment, rather than spend a week in the lab wasting supplies fucking around trying to get stuff right.

    Do I care about how many hours someone is in the lab? No, as long as they're accomplishing their goals, and that's up to them. Since I don't pay them, I don't care what they do with their time. I only care what they do with lab reagents.

    Does this mean that I'll let someone struggle forever doing something that could be easily accomplished with better reagents or equipment, or outsourced? No. Just because lab member's time doesn't cost me, the clock is still ticking. So I'll happy splurge for something that helps us get the project done quicker. Not paying people gives me the financial freedom to do so.

    I've been a very productive PI for over a decade, no more or less successful than the average PI at getting grants, but still have half my original startup left. And I'm not exploiting people. Every one of my trainees is still in science. Every one who has had enough time is now a PI themselves. Running a successful lab isn't really different than running a successful business. We produce knowledge that people want, and trainees. You either do it successfully and efficiently or you go out of business.

  • whimple says:

    The other Dave: And I'm not exploiting people. Every one of my trainees is still in science. Every one who has had enough time is now a PI themselves.

    I hope "still in science" does not mean "still in academic science". Please tell me you know how to make people marketable in the non-academic world and that you're not just churning out clones of yourself.

  • Molly says:

    The Great Cull is exactly what is needed in science. Thank you, DM. NIH, are you listening? Implement the Great Cull today!

    I'm tired of hearing you old fuddy duddies talk about turning off the PhD firehose. "Turn off the firehose for the good of science; turn it off for young people's own good!" Bullshit! The PhD firehose is increasing the number of trained young scientists, and presumably increasing the number of brilliant young scientists who can improve human health faster than the old people can. Why should the NIH reduce the PhDs just to protect the jobs of the old fuddy duddies that have been doing the same old shit for 30 years? I say bring on the firehose, NIH! But with that firehose, you must defund the old people, and fund the young people.

    You can probably tell that I am one of the brilliant young people, in my (unbiased, obvs) opinion. I do science that is radical by the standards of the old fuddy duddies, but is pretty tame compared to what many of my brilliant young peers and I would like to be doing. We aren't actually doing the truly breakthrough research because it doesn't get scored in the fundable range by our old fuddy duddy "peers" in "peer" review.

    We young people need to start banding together to push the older generation out the funding door. Sheesh, there are enough of us, we should be able to get this done. I don't want to get the old guys outright fired, but get them de-funded as PIs. Despite my above protestations, I love the old fuddy duddies in my department. They have great advice for me on my brilliant new science. They just don't do brilliant new science. They do old science. I'd like to collaborate with them, I'd like to have them as co-I's on my grants. I'd like to see a new world order wherein the old guys (and I do mean guys, because the old ones are almost all men) are advising the young hotshots (and their salaries paid), but the old guys are not the PIs anymore.

    Who's with me? How do we band together?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Stemming overproduction is not to save old pharts' jobs. The point is to make opportunity in a sustainable way for the young and the recently-young (postdocs) who have bad odds of transitioning to independence at the moment.

  • The Other Dave says:

    whimple: "I hope "still in science" does not mean "still in academic science". "

    Actually most are in academia. But I agree, most scientists are not academicians. And many of the best scientists are not academicians.

  • The Other Dave says:

    Molly would like to blame others for her poor career decisions. This is neither appropriate nor appreciated.

  • Molly says:

    That was somewhat tongue in cheek (or attempted to be). I meant the sentiment to be an extreme reflection of the feelings of my age group.

    What poor career decisions are you referring to, The Other Dave?

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