September 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?
*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.