Go it alone? or form a collective?

July 12, 2010

When you first start in this business you tend to see yourself as an independent operator. You are responsible for publishing the words and images that are your product. To do this, you have to oversee a lab group of talented and creative scientific minds. This requires that you win the grant funding that keeps the people paid, keeps the lab stocked and the lights on.
We talk a fair bit on these blogs pages about the one to one struggle the independent laboratory head has with study sections, professional Program Staff at funding institutes, the peers and professionals involved with academic publishing and the peers involved with career evaluation and promotion.
As the career matures, some of us* ponder whether the things that we wish to accomplish in science require something a little greater than the occasional collaboration. Is there any value to paying out the considerable organizational effort to draw a limited number of independent laboratories into a single project?
In the NIH arena this generally means the Center or Program Project mechanisms of funding.

Program project and research center grants support investigator-initiated research programs in which a team of investigators works in a clearly defined area of mutual scientific interest. In a program project, achievement of the objective of the research effort is facilitated by the sharing of ideas, data, and specialized core resources such as equipment, laboratories, clinical facilities, and administrative services. An essential requirement is a central theme toward which the total scientific effort is directed and to which each research project relates. In keeping with the tradition of investigator-initiated research, the NINDS expects the program director to define the integrating theme and to develop the approaches that would be used to accomplish the objective of the proposed research program. The theme of a program project may be, for example, basic research on regeneration and plasticity in the nervous system or basic and clinical research on a specific disease process; the unifying concept may be an hypothesis concerning the fundamental mechanisms that result in the clinical manifestations of the specific disease process.

You may wish to review a brief description of the various P mechanisms (expanded list).
My thinking on the scientific career arc is that there is a sort of funnel that you ascend whereby you increasingly spread your scientific ideas across a broader swath of science. Broader than you can accomplish at your prior stage. The starting stage is the graduate student, laboring away on a narrow project, alone. At some point (perhaps as a postdoc) the scientist has the opportunity to supervise technical staff or more junior scientists who are working on a project of the more senior person’s own. Eventually, the scientist ascends to an independent appointment and starts to grow her own group of technicians and trainees.
The influence on a subfield of science grows.
Another way the influence grows is by contributing to the service work of a scientific field. Reviewing papers. Reviewing grants. Eventually, contributing to the hiring and/or promotion of other scientists.
As the funnel broadens, the reach is much greater but the degree of influence wanes.
At some point in middle to middle-late career a scientist’s thoughts may turn to the aforementioned collectives funded under the P-mechanisms. Centers and Program Projects draw together something on the order of 4-5 individual projects (i.e., approximately R01 equivalents) on a single topic. They may also include some support Cores which are designed to support common scientific and organizational tasks. The idea from the NIH perspective is that they will get synergy- more science for the spending of less money than it would take as individual awards. Sometimes, with an idea that the science simply cannot or will not be accomplished save by these collectives.
From the point of the Program Director (the PI of the whole shebang) I think my funnel of influence is still pretty apt. I think one of the major motivations almost has to be this. There has to be some topic that is personally important enough to justify the headaches. After all, herding the smart, egotistical, driven and cantankerous personalities that abound in the scientific PItariat is not for the faint of administrative heart.
A successful PD is generally going to be a scientist who does not have a great deal of trouble keeping her laboratory in multiple R01 awards. It is more than just another route to funding. It has to be.
Influence over broader swaths of science and scientific synergy have to be a potential, indeed a likely, outcome.
How you construct the core ideas can vary tremendously, of course. There will often be a core influence of people you like, enjoy and want to work with. This is a social business as is any other involving real humans. You not only want to be on the same scientific page, you want to agree on larger strategic goals as well. Where / when will you publish? What are the career implications for group-authored papers? Do you really expect the collaboration you are putting on the paper out of the other lab? Will they produce? How do they pull together at grant deadline time? These are important considerations. You want to have a cohesive style.
There are also accidents of prior association- these Big Mechanisms tend to have multiple people from a single University. Perhaps they will involve people spread across institutions if you happen to be in a Bay Area, Boston, Seattle, San Diego or similar type of biomedical research enriched locale.
These considerations, however, may conflict with intellectual breadth. Perhaps the reason that you want to pull together a collective is because you value diversity. You don’t need to work with your buddies or the labs in the next building. After all, you can always write subcomponents or collaborations into an R01. Maybe this is the only way to pull together these individual laboratories. Perhaps the diversity is so broad as to preclude success with any other sort of grant funding.
Either way the first step is to decide you want to do it. This is not always easy when you are just starting to breathe with respect to your own gig, your own research program. The next is to decide if it is even possible. What do the existing Center and Program Project grants look like? Where have they been successful? Where have they failed? Do you see one that looks anything like what you want to do?
Then you start assembling people. Perhaps you open discussions with your tightest homies with whom you are certain you will collaborate or it is not worth it. Perhaps you just start talking to the emeritii who have been there before you (ask them to be on the Advisory Board! Critical step!). Or maybe you just put out the news to everyone around you that might be interested and see who comes a-running. I’d tend to start with a core of people I know I like and want to work with, myself. I’ve actually been around quite a number of big mechanisms in my day. I’ve been funded by more than one. So I’ve been in a lot of the operational meetings and seen some of the dynamics. I would never ever want to captain up a BigMech grant of people I think are jerkholes or who cannot focus on the group effort. Not as the core participants anyway.
Because you are going to have to bring the hammer. Oh, yes, if you sign up at the Project Director you are going to have to apply the boot. A lot. These are collectives of independent minded folks and they tend left of center anyway, being academics. Democracy (the gutter kind) is the default. If you want to sustain the effort you are going to have to lay down the law at times. This, btw, is why the PD has the pursestrings. Yes, even though individual components have nominal Principal Investigators with their own proposed budgets, ultimately the PD can apply the jack boot. Cut off funds or even close down a component entirely. Decide to cut someone out of the next competing proposal to continue the project.
So another thing to think about is whether you ever want to be making those decisions. Trust me, you will be. At the least you will have budget cuts applied by Program (should you happen to get lucky and win an award) which you will have to distribute to the project as a whole. This may be best satisfied by clipping off a component which didn’t do well in the review…or by an across-the-board cut. Point being, you have to be ready able and willing to act dictatorial..nobody is going to volunteer to get less research funding!
Perhaps there is a better role for you as the deputy. Or even as a mere cog. Acting as the co-director or merely as a component head. Maybe you want to focus only on writing up the Center’s theoretical reviews or polishing the core-mission part of the Discussion sections that are published. Or maybe, you just want to be the primary data geek.
I don’t think there are any easy answers. But if you think you might want to be a grown up Center director some day, it bears some consideration.
Are you up to it?
What did you think this post was going to be about? Well, perhaps it is, perhaps it is.
*This is not for everyone. Granted. Everyone is going to find the point in the funnel that works best for them and their scientific (or career) aspirations.

11 Responses to “Go it alone? or form a collective?”

  1. tideliar Says:

    I was fortunate enough to be involved in one of these at my institute, recently. I am but a lowly peon, however the bioinformatics unit that I manage would have run the web-services, databasing and maintained the admin core. So, although I had little direct input on the science proposed, I was able to experience the effort that goes into doing one of these right. And it is not for the faint hearted!
    What was particularly valuable to me though, as a mostly junior scientist, was collaborating online and via telecon with very senior and experienced PIs. The grantsmanship, depth of thought and imagination were really quite inspiring. It was actually, and literally, exciting to be a part of it. I also helped edit the final draft of the grant to help unify the tone of 5 different authors.
    Shame we got absolutely skull-fucked in review though. In a remarkable turn-about of the norm, the third reviewer was astute, thoughtful, wise and generous in her/his praise. Number One was obviously a poorly trained and short-sighted sociopath with little understanding of true genius.
    …or something…


  2. juniorprof Says:

    Well, well. I think a Drugmonkey-led collective would be pretty cool. NIH biz and neuroscience perhaps? A key point would be recruiting writedit (IMHO).


  3. whimple Says:

    I think the hierarchical corporate model is a much better way to achieve the cooperative collective research you’re describing. Why not start/join a company? We’re struggling to put together cooperative academic research models here, but it is a definite struggle. Back in the day, P-mechanisms were easier to get than the corresponding equivalent basket of R01s, but this seems no longer to be true, which really kicks the legs out from under all such collaborative funding approaches.


  4. pablito Says:

    Back in the day, P-mechanisms were easier to get than the corresponding equivalent basket of R01s, but this seems no longer to be true, which really kicks the legs out from under all such collaborative funding approaches.
    I think it’s true that P-mechanisms are harder to get but the NIH is “encouraging” multiple PI applications for other mechanisms http://grants.nih.gov/grants/multi_pi/index.htm. A multi-PI R01 could request $500,000 in direct costs per year, for example.


  5. If you want to sustain the effort you are going to have to lay down the law at times. This, btw, is why the PD has the pursestrings.

    I thought the PD had the purse strings so that she could funnel all of the money to her own project. At least that’s what happened on the PPG I was involved in anyway.


  6. One of the funding sources for my lab is a PO1 (my PI is not the PD) and we have a monthly videoconference to keep tabs on each other. Our labs are all attacking the same problem but from different angles and sharing resources. My PI was added in to replace a guy who was retiring during the renewal and from what I understand, not only is getting these things a bitch but so is the renewal process.


  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    from what I understand, not only is getting these things a bitch but so is the renewal process
    having observed one or two of these I think one of the most fundamental talents of the PD is convincing the components PIs and everyone else that the project is in DANGER of crashing..even if it is in the year 26 renewal of a center that has no chance whatsoever of not getting funded. this urgency appears to be necessary to generate the appropriate focus and motivation.
    (but then again, I am not all that familiar with big mechs that fail to get renewed, assuming the people actually try.)


  8. becca Says:

    “one of the most fundamental talents of the PD is convincing the components PIs and everyone else that the project is in DANGER of crashing”
    As a person with a highly developed *internal locus of moral authority* – driven desire to see science make progress (e.g. I want malaria eradicated, damnit), I think this is SLIMY. I HATE this ‘managerial approach’ (and by ‘managerial approach’ I mean psychopathic asshattery, because that’s what it is from the PIs that I’ve seen attempt it).


  9. DrugMonkey Says:

    I suppose YMMV but have you ever seen a big mech be renewed without a sense of urgency and much talk of imminent non-funding from the PD? Anyone?


  10. whimple Says:

    Mostly I’ve just seen a lot of these big mechs go unfunded and all the effort put into them essentially go to waste, whether or not a sense of urgency has been involved. Big mechs are mostly a wealth transfer mechanism from those that desperately need the wealth to those that already have more than they need. 🙂


  11. GMP Says:

    I have experience with large centers funded by the NSF and DOD. There is constantly a state of panic — the next big annual review, the next advisory board review, the imminence of non-renewal… They are a giant pain in the neck in terms of pressure, paperwork, and overall anxiety level that comes with them. The center director (i.e. the PI) is perpetually on antacids and invariably gets hypertension and insomnia at renewal time. Being the PI on one of these large centers is — literally — not for the faint of heart.


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