Hipster science

February 27, 2011

Hipsterscience Lab NotebookUPDATE 2/28/11: #hipsterscience shows no signs of slowing down.

I’m pretty sure it is all Zelnio’s fault:

kzelnio: I keep my pipettes in organic wool hand-woven napsacks made by local free range shepherds in Big Sur #hipsterscience

kzelnio: I hand grind organically grown fair trade red algae to make my agarose for electrophoresis. I don’t buy into “big agarose” #hipsterscience

kzelnio: I was into the coalescent before it went mainstream #hipsterphylogenetics

enniscath: Positive controls are waaaaay too conformist #hipsterscience

superkash: I use my own heirloom goat’s milk for blocking buffers. #hipsterscience

JoshRosenau: My primers are organically made by a guy I know. You wouldn’t have heard of him. #hipsterscience

drugmonkeyblog: You get a better shave with a blade you’ve freshly knapped from fair-trade, small producer obsidian @drisis #hipsterscience #hipsteranthro

upulie: I don’t publish on the “major journal” labels, I only tweet my work #hipsterscience

CMastication: My parents fund my research. #hipsterscience

noahWG: I discovered the Higgs boson, but fuck if I’m going to ruin it by telling others about it. #hipsterscience

talyarkoni: Hypothesis testing is for people who lack conviction. #hipsterscience

CBC_psi: My data don’t need to fit to your “model.” #hipsterscience

drugmonkeyblog: The Williamsburg Project was edgier RT @nwerneck @bjkraal: I liked Richard Feynman before he joined the Manhattan Project. #hipsterscience

bjkraal: I liked Richard Feynman before he joined the Manhattan Project. #hipsterscience

DrKlapperich: I’m writing a textbook. It’s self published #hipsterscience

dftchemist: If its not fortran 77 its not real code #hipsterscience

dr_leigh: the modern lab balance has only one pan. nowhere to put the mass standards… tragic. #hipsterscience

drugmonkeyblog: replication is for mainstreamers…I prefer to keep moving forward. #hipsterscience

ajebsary: I only publish in PLoS journals, out of principle. #OpenScience is my mantra and impact factor is for jokers. #HipsterScience

talyarkoni: Neuroscientists today have it easy with Brodmann Areas and stereotaxic coordinates. In my day, we used echolocation. #hipsterscience

anaturalstate: I use R for stats because Matlab is so corporate #hipsterscience

drugmonkeyblog: I know he went by Fred, I only use Burrhus to be ironic. #hipsterscience

CMastication My research question? You’ve never heard of it. #hipsterscience

drugmonkeyblog: Poser. I used the only lecture hall that still has chalkboards. RT @medscholaradaml overhead projector for my thesis defense #hipsterscience

medscholaradaml: Powerpoint? No thanks I’m using this overhead projector for my thesis defense #hipsterscience

TheAstronomist: I like galaxies the way they used to be long ago when they emitted their light, I don’t even care what they do now. #hipsterscience

drugmonkeyblog: I build my own electrophys rigs out of parts from RadioShack to remain authentic. #hipsterscience ..oh, wait http://bit.ly/ifs61w

ryneches: Published in PLoS One before everyone thought it was cool. #hipsterscience

dorsalstream: I only work with skinny genes. #hipsterscience

caruanascott: unless you take a day to equilibrate your phenol, extractions are just not very rewarding #hipsterscience

kzelnio My thermal cycler is a fixie #hipsterscience

jillahjillah: Negative reviews validate the innovative nature of my work #hipsterscience

catchpolenet: Infrared spectroscopy is a little passé. I’m thinking purples and browns. Brown goes with my man bag. #hipsterscience

para_sight: I only sequence the anti-sense strand; the conformists can work out the obvious, maybe #hipsterscience

AgileRoxy: I converted my lab notebook to QR codes. #hipsterscience

westius: I like my chemistry organic #hipsterscience

cambrianexplode: Evolution? I like the early stuff but it’s all gotten so predictable now. #hipsterscience

drugmonkeyblog: It’s just more authentic to pipette by mouth. #hipsterscience

Well, score this one in the file of YHN learns something new.

One of the fondest accusations and complaints of unsuccessful NIH grant applicants is that their application was reviewed by someone who is in scientific conflict with their proposal. Therefore the unsuccessful outcome was related more to selfish interest on the part of one or more reviewers than it was to the merits of the proposal itself.

This accusation generally boils down to one of two things

1) The other reviewer represents the other side of a scientific debate and is motivated to squelch your application so as to continue to “win” the scientific debate by default, rather than in the competition of equals who are both (or all) funded sufficiently to carry on the debate with data, logic and papers.

2) The other reviewer is on the same side of a scientific question but is motivated to squelch your application so as to be able to be the one to publish the anticipated findings.

There are, of course, refinements on these themes. Perhaps it is that a buddy is the person with the “interest”. Perhaps it is thinly veiled payback for perceived prior slights by the applicant or the applicant’s training pedigree. Whatever the details, the point is that the applicant feels as though her chances would have been much better with another reviewer.

I’ve written a fair bit about how pointless it is to appeal the review after the fact. My suspicion is that since many, many unsuccessful applicants cry about reviewer conflict on the thinnest of evidence, the NIH is motivated to make the review process seem as futile as they possibly can.

Occasionally, however, I get a question from a newer applicant regarding how to preempt the conflicted reviewer. Perhaps it is a revision application and the reviewer in question is likely to get the application again. Perhaps the person is a standing member of the study section that is desired.

My standard advice has been to try to find another study section, under the impression that complaints about reviewer conflict don’t hold much water with SROs. Again, it is my suspicion that so many PIs would try to claim this that the entire process would break down. I mean seriously, how do you come up with 30 people that are expert on a study section sized theme of science, some quarter of which probably are in a given subfield to which an application belongs, and not have the specter of scientific conflict arise? It seems inevitable to me.

So my version of the cover letter is short and sweet. “I ask that this be reviewed by GRZLLP study section because [insert buzzwords that overlap between your application and the CSR official description of the study section]. I also request that it be assigned to [insert your favorite IC] because of blumbelty mumble obvious reasons”. That’s it. Short and to the point.

Consequently I listened to a recent podcast published by the Office of Extramural Research with some surprise. In the middle of the one on Cover Letters (dated 2/18/2011) a recommendation is given by Dr Ann Clark, Associate Director of CSR’s Division of Receipt and Referral, to list conflicted reviewers who you wish not to review your grant right in your cover letter. With the reason for the conflict.

Honestly, I’m flabbergasted by this official recommendation.

Live and learn, live and learn

An towering figure of the substance abuse research fields has passed away. According to a note posted to an ASPET mailing list, Charles Robert Schuster, Ph.D. suffered a fatal stroke on Feb 21 in Houston Texas. NIDA Director Nora Volkow has also posted a notice to the NIDA-grantees mailing list.
The CPDD biography of Dr. Schuster is a brief overview of his career.

After six years in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Michigan, he joined the Departments of Psychiatry, Pharmacology, and Behavioral Sciences and founded the University of Chicago´s Drug Abuse Research Center. In 1986, Dr. Schuster was appointed the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a position he held until 1992. In January of 1995, Dr. Schuster was appointed as a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State School of Medicine and the Director of the Substance Abuse Research Division.

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the most fundamental and lasting advances of Dr. Schuster was the development of the self-administration model of drug reinforcement. Bob Schuster was one of the first to demonstrate that animals would work to receive intravenous infusions of drug and he was a major player in several of the initial observations on the reinforcing properties of recreational drugs through the 1960s and 1970s.
James R. Weeks published in 1962 that female rats would press a lever to receive intravenous infusions of morphine. Schuster and his colleagues were the first to adapt this method to nonhuman primates, getting started at approximately the same time as Weeks (there are references to Abstract presentations from Weeks as early as 1960 or 1961).

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I can't apply for *that*…

February 22, 2011

Funding opportunity announcements from the NIH come on both vague and highly specific flavors. (For the latter, think “We invite applications examining Gertzin trafficking in the Tiddle cells of the Physio-Whimple nucleus during bunny hopping. Applications using the 100m to hedgerow model will be judged responsive.”)

One of the things that I’ve slipped out from under far too slowly in my career is the naysayer voice “There’s no frigging way I’m going to be competitive for that!”

And yet…circumstances have occasionally pushed me. To venture an application that in my heart of reviewer hearts I think is such a long stretch as to be nearly a waste of time.

Interestingly enough, I’ve gotten a grant that way on more than one occasion.

Edited to add: It was Damn Good Techncian who pointed out “getting published in Science is like a threesome – if you don’t ask, it won’t ever happen.“. This also applies to grant applications according to drisis.

The Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research has posted a series of ranking tables based on NIH awards in Fiscal Year 2010. Unfortunately it is by total costs (direct plus indirect) so there will be some bias depending on the negotiated indirect cost rate.

I took a look at the PI lists in Basic Science and identified the number of women listed in the top 25:
Anatomy/Cell Bio: 8
Biochemistry: 2
Genetics: 3
Microbiology: 1
Neuroscience: 2
Pharmacology: 2
Physiology: 1

Not so good. Okay, what’s my best bet here from the clinical departments? hmm, how about:

Clinical OB/GYN: 8
Family Med: 9
Pediatrics: 9
Psychiatry: 9

I may have miscounted one name or so per list but no worse that that. And yeah, I know we talk about he dismal stats for women in science all the time, and how as the pyramid narrows it gets worse and worse. But it sure does have some umph to look at the numbers again, doesn’t it?

Commenter Neuro-conservative pointed to a set of data slides on the NIH site. I was struck by the one showing the number of investigators supported on Research Project Grants by the NIH over time.


So obviously the ESI/NI pickups and preferential payline strategies enacted around Fiscal Year 2007 or so worked to significantly increase the number of first time awardees. I make this out to be something on the order of 1,000-1,200 newly funded investigators in FY2010 over a ~2,2000-2,500 baseline back in FY2004-6. (Although if you check the last slide on the website, you’ll see that if you limit it to R01 equivalents, the trend is a lot less impressive.)
Most interesting, however, is the uptick in experienced investigators that seems to be associated with the doubling. Since we know that inflation and Bush era flatlined budgets essentially un-doubled the budget, well, we can see the problem here pretty starkly, no?
The number of experienced investigators being supported on NIH dollars has not fallen back anywhere near fast enough.
Some 2,000-2,500 experienced investigators were added to the books during the great doubling. At best this has been pared back to the tune of 800-1,000 investigators. While the first time investigators are up by a good 1,800 since the start of the doubling period.
I’ve been taking the piss out of PhysioProf for his observation that he thinks the NIH is intentionally trying to pare back the number of funded labs. I may have to reconsider my skepticism. Not only that, but reconsider where I stand on the *need* to drop significant numbers of investigators off the books. Five to fifteen percent, maybe even 20 percent…these are the numbers that might be necessary if inflation and flat budgets have really erased the budget doubling.

Holy. Moly.

[ UPDATE 2/17/11: A post on the OER blog and a comment from drdrA at BlueLabCoats. ]

A short while ago Cath of VWXYNot made me aware of a Canadian policy on CV/Biosketch items that permitted a narrative on Personal Interruptions and Delays.

Here’s the official wording:

“Identify any administrative responsibilities, family or health reasons, or any other factors that might have delayed or interrupted any of the following: academia, career, scientific research, other research, dissemination of results, training, etc. Common examples of an interruption/delay might be a bereavement period following the death of a loved one, maternity/parental leave, or relocation of your research environment. Limit the list to one page. Descriptions might include the start and end dates, the impact areas, and the reason(s) or a brief explanation of the absence.”

I was immediately enthusiastic.

And I am instantly a big fan of a default section for “Interruptions and Delays”. This is frikken AWESOME to include as an expectation. I am beside myself.

In response to an article in The New York Times (“Keeping Women in Science on a Tenure Track“) which was coverage and distillation of an interesting report entitled “Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline,”, I felt compelled to post this on Jan 5:

The NIH needs to adopt [the Canadian section on Interruptions] right away as a required line on their Biosketch…The point is to make it default and a part of every application so that the applications of those who feel it necessary to use it will not stick out as unusual…it will be a subtle and insidious statement that it is expected that NIH applicants will have had delays in their career progress or scientific projects due to certain personal and family-related factors…Expected and therefore accepted…having expectations laid out relatively explicitly can’t but help…My usual advice for these types of delays is that it is dangerous to bring it up in your application before anyone has criticized you for it. Since in the old days you got two rounds of revision and at least one round of revision was pretty much necessary, no biggie…Trouble is, now that we’re down to a single revision and ICs are steepening the paylines for even the A1 revision…you have to face it head on in the original application if you judge your “Delay” to be so obvious as to entail a good chance of drawing reviewer fire.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a nice custom made section (which didn’t take away from your precious 12 pages) for this?

I think so.

Well Cath has alerted me to NOT-OD-11-045 issued on

The NIH is aware that personal issues can affect career advancement and productivity. Such considerations have shaped the implementation of the Early Stage Investigator Policy (see http://grants.nih.gov/grants/new_investigators/index.htm). That policy permits Principal Investigators to describe personal factors that may have delayed their transition to research independence. Such factors can occur at any point in a scientist’s career and include family care responsibilities, illness, disability, military service and other personal issues.
This modification of the Biographical Sketch will permit Program Directors/Principal Investigators and other senior/key staff to describe personal circumstances that may have reduced productivity. Peer reviewers and others will then have more complete information on which to base their assessment of qualifications and productivity relevant to the proposed role on the project.

Beginning with applications submitted for the May 25, 2011 and subsequent receipt dates, the biosketch instructions will include a modification of the personal statement section to remind applicants that they can provide a description of personal issues that may have reduced productivity. The revised instructions for the personal statement are shown below and should appear in applications toward the end of March:

Personal statement: Briefly describe why your experience and qualifications make you particularly well-suited for your role (e.g., PD/PI, mentor) in the project that is the subject of the application. Within this section you may, if you choose, briefly describe factors such as family care responsibilities, illness, disability, and active duty military service that may have affected your scientific advancement or productivity.

Providing information about personal issues is optional. If applicants wish to provide such information they are encouraged to limit such descriptions to a few sentences.

Thank you NIH! This is a very nice step to help those, generally women, who have had the k3rn3d-damned gall to let actual life get in the way of their scientific careers.

Isis the Scientist recently posted a letter from the FASEB regarding a proposal in the Congress to pass a continuing budget resolution that whacks $1.6 Billion from the NIH budget for the current fiscal year. That’s a whole lot of grants that won’t be funded.
I’ll join many of my blogging colleagues in urging you to click on [ This Link ] to find the phone number of the Washington DC office of your Congressional Rep and for you to make that call.
I’ll also suggest a few things you might want to have at the top of your list for communicating to the office staffer who answers the phone. This originally went up Oct 29, 2008.

Since many of our US readers are feeling jazzed about politics right about now, it is a good time to discuss Talking Points. You, DearReader, whether in the biomedical science biz or merely interested in some aspect of biomedical science, are the first line of attack in advocating for the continued health of our federally funded science enterprises. As we’ve all learned over the past 8 or even 16 years of US politics, crafting and honing messages to convey essential themes is critical to political success. Generating a mantra-chant and drumbeat of lemming feet on a consistent and limited set of bullet point topics is the way to cut through the noise and transmit the message. Call it framing or Talking Points or whatever you like.
I have a suggestion for how scientists may wish to approach their CongressCritters.

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Ahh, just when the thoughtful, completely self-interest free prescriptions for saving the NIH extramural grant system from D. Noonan and Cedric Wesley were losing steam (see Odyssey for more), we have a new entry. This one is via an email chain letter from one Robert Benezra (PubMed; Institutional website; Research Crossroads). Unfortunately RePORTER doesn’t seem to generate a good link on a PI search but homeboy’s been very successful at the NIH game. He had a one year F32 in 89-90 and then a 7-8 year stretch to his first R01 but he’s been a busy beaver ever since. I note only three -01A1s on his list, one of which is competing renewal for a Program Project for which he’s only a component head. Benezra seems to have had multiple R01-level awards (some are P01 components) continually and he even has a mainline grant that survived a switch from NIGMS to NCI. The website seems to confirm that he runs an ~18-member lab operation.
In short, a guy who is as inside as you could wish (I mean I saw Harold Varmus listed as a component head of one of the Program Projects this guy is on) now has some complaints.
[Before we move on to my ramblings, you may wish to read a bit of pro/con debate from DrDra of BlueLabCoats and Comrade PhysioProf as a warmup. Additional from Prof-like Substance and Genomic Repairman.]

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Am I the only lucky person in the entire NIH extramural community who has managed to get grants on technical-feasibility type of preliminary data (which can therefore support multiple proposals on fairly different topics) instead of highly specific experiments showing that Aim I SubExperiment 1.c.II actually works (which are of no utility to support anything other than the present proposal)?

…is up over at the ScienceBlogs.

You may also wish to read a bit of pro/con debate from DrDra of BlueLabCoats and Comrade PhysioProf as a warmup. Additional from Prof-like Substance and Genomic Repairman.

I haven’t had time to work on a response to yet more “Fix the NIH!” nuttiness but there’s been an email proposal for a petition circulating. It’s kind of like a “pass to 10 friends” kinda thing which gives it a fresh new flavor of wackaloonery.
At any rate, you might as well go read Physioprof’s take on this.

Delusional Biomedical Researchers Seek Repeal Of Arithmetic

The letter authors seem to have forgotten that-while they may feel put upon that they only get a single resubmission-all their competition also only get a single resubmission. The playing field is still even, but in a context that should make peer review more efficient by substantially reducing “holding pattern” study section behavior. It will also reduce the PI behavior in response to “holding pattern” of submitting half-baked proposals they *know* aren’t fundable in order to “get in line” in the “holding pattern”.

double doc seems to like the letter.

I love writedit but sometimes she cracks me the heck up. In responding to a nervous (newb, as it happens) PI on one of her epic threads she says:

I can’t imagine you not being funded as ESI at the 9th percentile at NIDDK, especially given the news that the NIH would only lose $1B on the Republican proposal. You’ll still be waiting a while for an award, but I would certainly hope you can rest easy at night with that score/percentile.[ Emphasis added. ]

HAHAHAAHAHAHAHAAAA! PIs “rest easy” after the NGA has been issued. Or more like it, when their institution has issued them a charge number *after* the NGA has been awarded. I don’t care if they get a 2%ile score and are totes best buddies* with the Institute/Center Director. They sweat it.

The reason is that there can always be skips. Decisions on the part of the IC that they just don’t need your science, no matter what the percentile rank. Sure the skips are vanishingly rare, but they happen.

And this stuff matters to PIs. Matters intensely. I don’t think anyone really understands this.

Certainly not administrative or institutional staff who draw their salary from various institutional structures whether grants are awarded to a particular PI or not. Not even the PI’s own lab staff who operate in a sort of denial about lab funding, even if the PI is open about grant matters. Heck, probably not the PI’s spouse, either.

Because as far as they are concerned, your past success (if you are a previous awardee) is all the evidence they need to assume “well of course you are going to get your grant”. If you are a newbie, then the past success of people similar to you means the same thing. Of course you will eventually receive your grant.

Nobody really believes, in their heart of hearts, that you could fail** in quite the same way that you do, my PI friends.

I pretty much believe*** my latest competitive grant award was my last one ever.

*well, maybe not those PIs

**and no, I’m not talking about imposter syndrome. This is objective analysis of the odds of NIH grant success talking here.

***not kidding.

Pick any two

February 9, 2011

OMG, this is so true it hurts:

Anyway, he said that it is very rare to have all three: students, money and data. He said that usually it took two out of the three to get the third, and by the time you were close to getting the third, one of the other two was vanishing

Grant money, data stream or awesome postdocs.

Pick. Any. Two.

A bit of confusion has arisen on the Twitts over who can serve as the PI of a grant application submitted to the NIH, who “owns” the award and what the implications are for moving the award to another University.

For a highly related topic I recommend you re-read my old post Routes to Independence: Beyond Ye Olde Skool Tenure Track Assistant Professorships (original).

To distill it to a few simple points for the current discussion:

  • The University (or Research Institution, company, etc) submits the grant to the NIH and receives the award from the NIH.
  • Anyone who the submitting institution deems to be a PI can serve as the PI. Job title or status is immaterial as far as the NIH is concerned.
  • Postdocs, Research Scientists, Staff Scientists, etc can be the listed PI on most broad NIH mechanisms (there may be the occasional special case like MD-required or something).
  • The submitting institutions, for the most part, permit anyone of tenure track professorial appointment to prepare NIH grants for them to submit but it gets highly variable (across institutions, across their respective non-professorial and/or non tenure track…and across time) after that.
  • The question of how study sections view applications submitted by those of other than tenure track professorial rank is a whole ‘nother question, but you would be making a mistake to think there are hard and fast exclusive principles.

The second issue has to do with moving the award to another institution, given that a PI on an NIH award decides to go somewhere else. Although technically the University owns the award, in the vast majority of cases that institution will relinquish the award and permit it to travel with the PI. Likewise, in the vast majority of cases, the NIH will permit the move. In all cases I am aware of this move will occur at the anniversary of funding. That is because the award is in yearly increments (maximum of 5 unless you win a PECASE or MERIT extension* of the non-competing interval). Each progress report you submit? That’s the “application” for the next year of funding. Noncompeting application, of course, because it does not go back to study section for review. At any rate it makes it less painful for all concerned to do the accounting if the move is at the anniversary.


Point being that if you are a postdoc or non tenure track scientist who wants to write and submit a grant, you need to start snooping around your local University about their policies. Sometimes they will only let you put in a R21 or R03 or some other nonrenewable mechanism. Sometimes they’ll let you throw down the R01. Just depends. Most of the time it will require a letter of exception to be generated within the University- Chair or Dean level stuff. Which requires the approval of your current lab head or supervisor, generally. You need to start talking to all these people.

Since these types of deals are frequently case-by-case and the rules are unwritten, don’t assume that everyone (i.e., your PI) knows about them. Snoop around on RePORTER for awards to your institution and see if anyone with non-TT professorial appointment has ever received an award from the NIH. Follow up on that rumour that Research Scientist Lee once had an award.

If you are really eager, be prepared to push the envelope and ask the Chair/Dean type person “Well why not? University of State1 and State University2 and IvyUni3 and Research Institute4 all permit it, why can’t we?”. This may require doing some background surveying of your best buddies spread around the country/world.

Final point:
Obviously I wouldn’t be bringing up these theoretical possibilities if I hadn’t seen it work, and with some frequency. As a reviewer on a study section I saw several applications come through from people who had the title of something below tenure track assistant professor. Instructor, Research Scientist and yes, even Postdoc. I myself submitted at least two R01 applications prior to being able to include the word “Professor” on my Biosketch. I have many peers that were in a similar circumstance at their early stage of grant writing/submitting and, yes, winning.

No, you will not be treated just like an Assistant Professor by the study sections. You will be beat up for Independence issues and with doubts about whether this is just the BigCheeze trying to evade perceptions of overfunding. You will have “helpful” reviewers busting on your appointment as evidence of a lack of institutional commitment that the reviewer really thinks will get the Dean or Chair to cough up a better title**.

In all of this however there is a chance. A chance that you will receive an award. This would have very good implications for your transition. (Assuming, of course, that you manage to get the grant written and submitted without too big of a hit to your scientific productivity, never forget that part.) And even if you do not manage to obtain a fundable score, I argue that you get valuable experience. In preparing and submitting a half-decent proposal. In getting some degree of study section feedback. In taking a shot across the bow of the study section that you have ideas and you plan to have them review them in the coming few years. In getting the PO familiar with your name. In wrangling local bureaucracy.

All of this without your own tenure clock running.
*there may be other extensions I am unaware of.

**One of the first questions I asked an experienced reviewer about after joining a study section. Sigh.