Eye on the Prize…

June 13, 2007

There’s been some interesting hoopla in the last couple of days sparked by Zuska’s post examining gender discrimination in academia by way of excoriating those who ignore their own inherent privileges. The ensuing discussion became vehement and led Rob Knop to post his own examination of privilege and, more importantly, the strategy of demonizing one’s natural allies that some perceive in Zuska’s approach. I’ve also been reading Chembark’s little rant suggesting that poor stewardship of the public’s (grant) money verges on ethical misconduct. And YoungFemaleScientist expresses a common enough frustration with the dismal prospects for scientific transition. There’s an older one from Adventures in Ethics and Science on gender equity in science too. Finally, the situation at MIT with the tenure denial of James Sherley (tip to Dynamics of Cats) has been picked up by both Nature and Science in recent issues.

All of this has me thinking about agendas, advancing the same and styles of discourse and approach. Your Humble Narrator must confess to agenda, really, who doesn’t have a series of agendas? In terms of the future and present conduct of biomedical research science, most specifically in YHN’s chosen field, I have…opinions.

One boils down to this:

  • I believe that my science is best accomplished by getting the “best of the best”, meaning the smartest and most motivated people to participate.
  • The only way to get the best of the best is to cast a wide net.
  • Therefore diversity of opportunity is a GoodThing.
  • Systematic blocking of opportunity, on any grounds, is counterproductive.
  • Thus I’m generally in favor of efforts toward diversity and fairness in scientific transition to independence and grant awarding.

Careful readers will have noted that there are some areas in the NIH grant review and funding process that bring YHN close to the ranting stage. Indeed, I’ve been known to rant quite a bit in person. In essence I think that the deck is stacked in favor of the well-established investigator and against the newer or untried investigator. In a way that is not clearly justified by a legitimate attempt to get at the “best possible science” and is not consistent with the idea that each and every application is judged on its own merits. This stifles the opportunities for young scientists to become independent investigators and thus violates the opportunity to cast a wide net round-by-round when it comes to funding decisions. It is my sincere belief that we cheat our science when we use any systematic means to block a given category of investigator from bringing a grant proposal to the table. Interestingly, it occurs to me that issues of gender and racial balance in science would be greatly addressed by a re-balancing of the senior/junior investigator success in awarding grants.

But what I’ve really been pondering is style of approach and how to have a real impact for the issues you favor. Be they gender participation, opportunities for scientists in training, opportunities for ethnic minorities or what have you. Ranting feels good but it just DOESN’T GET THE JOB DONE! Take my current soapbox. Readers will have noticed that I participate in grant review. No biggie, many people do. But in this position, I have the ability to have a direct effect. Not by fiat, of course. There’s a room full of people voting on grants and for the most part only the three assigned reviewers’ opinions affect the score. However, I have my pile of grants with which to work and I can choose to work in such a way to systematically rule out bias in favor of senior investigator grants and then attempt to convince the panel of the correctness of my view. At the least, my presentations get others to think about they way they view things like an implicit bias against new investigators. At best, I manage to “save” a grant or two (and yes, I think I have demonstrably done so for at least once currently funded grant) from what I see as unfair treatment by the current system. This is not, obviously, because I personally vouched for the proposal but rather because I showed the panel the strengths that were already there! Thus this observation is not to brag. Certainly I will lose the argument, so to speak, more often than not. The vast majority of the time, senior investigator proposals are better anyway so I’m not even motivated to push up a junior investigator application. But at least I’m in a position to make an argument in the good cases…in position to try to advance the agenda.

The essential point is this. Getting into a position to be effective is better than just shouting. Keep your eye on the prize. Postdoc hell? Making tenure as a woman in male-dominated fields (ok, every field)? Making it as an underrepresented minority in science? It is WAY better to get there and work your influence from within. You may not have “made it” for a long time. Heck, YHN has hardly “made it” in any sense. Privileged white males get denied tenure too, as has been discussed elsewhere in blogoland during the abovementioned hoopla. Soft money science employment means anyone can be out of a job by not bringing in the grant money. There is much discussion in current funding times of very senior people “closing their labs” perhaps a few years earlier than anticipated because of failing to renew grants. But even with out having “it made” you can work influence.

My thoughts on non-ranting approaches to the ends are mostly directed at the disgruntled postdoc, I suppose. My recommendations:

  • Your job, from about year 2 of postdoc’ing is to get a Job(tm), meaning a position in which you are permitted to write research grants (not just fellowships).
  • That next paper you are working on is not going to drop a Job(tm) in your lap, no not even if it is in Science or Nature. (If you are at that level of science, so is your competition). Don’t wait to apply for a job or a grant because you think this next result is going to seal the deal- it won’t.
  • Important caveat to the above: Never, never, ever lose sight of the fact that you have to produce for your current PI or you are sunk. I don’t care how exploitative, etc. You have to produce for sake of your own career. Stop doing that Society-of-Fellows stuff….really.
  • Write papers. This is the currency of your career and everyone knows this. It is also a common disgruntled post-doc topic. “The PI won’t let me publish, it isn’t cool enough for a high impact journal”. “My experiments aren’t working.”. “I got put on a service/lame/unproductive project”. True, true, ain’t it awful. Thing is, it is YOUR behind on the line. Learn how to manipulate that obstructive PI to your advantage. Swallow your pride and publish in “bad” journals. Publish methods. Anything. You have to publish. …you knew this.
  • Writing a grant “for” (or with) your PI is not “exploitation” it is training. How cool is it to get your hardest knocks in the grant review process while it isn’t really your behind on the line?
  • “Networking is stupid and cheezy and insulting. And I suck at it.” Etc. I’ve been there. It isn’t my forte by a looooong stretch. But guess what? It is the JOB, so learn how to do it.
  • Take any position that lets you write a grant. Startup is nice, as is the triumphant arrival at a new department that recruited you heavily. But this is not the only way. Get promoted from within to “staff scientist”, “adjunct research professor” or anything else that your Institution lets write grants. Be careful because unwritten policies and changes thereof abound.
  • Take over service Cores of Big Grants . Seems lame, eh? Guess what, you show up on CRISP as a PI.

….this is going to be an open thread for a bit.

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