Grant Karma

May 17, 2011

There is a lot of injustice in grant award and grant failure.

Sometimes you don’t get the award you really should have received.

Sometimes you get one that you don’t deserve or for which you are not really the best PI or investigative team.

If you focus exclusively on the former you are going to fail to maintain the conditions that make the latter possible.

Steely gazed PI

May 17, 2011

It would never have occurred to me that being a scientist who lives on NIH, NSF or other major grant funding required nerves of steel.

But seriously people, the crying and handwringing over at writedit’s and Sally Rockey’s blogs…….

Nerves can be a good thing…if they keep you alert, motivated and on your toes. We’re well past that now and into chicken-with-head-cut-off territory.

FFS, keep it TOGETHER, my friends. She who keeps a firm grip on the reins is going to come out of this just fine.

Now get back to work on your R01 for the June submission….

I had to stop some commuter last week and fix her front quick release for her. Nothing that scares the crap out of me more than seeing someone with the lever in the wrong position, poised for a nice little whoopsie. I’ve seen the aftermath of what happens when a front wheel drops off and it is not. at. all. pretty.

This should make the essential point:

If that still wasn’t clear, read this.

This is Bike-to-Work Week (and if you can only make one, Friday is Bike-to-Work Day) in the US. Let’s do it, folks!

Apparently the President and CEO of the Phoenix Suns NBA team, Rick Welts, is making his sexual orientation public (or public-er) more or less in response to an incident in which Kobe Bryant of the L.A. Lakers was caught on camera making a anti-gay slurs. A commentary from Trevor Paxton at SB*Nation (whatever that is) lauds the Suns organization:

While the NBA playoffs may rage on without the presence of the Phoenix Suns, the effect of the team is still being felt league-wide. It takes courage for a franchise and its players to make such bold stances on controversial issues. With the reception of these actions being held in high esteem, the Phoenix Suns may just be setting the example to how a successful sports franchise can integrate itself into the issues other franchises are afraid to touch.

Great, right? Glad to see more dismantling of bigotry in the ranks of professional sports. Good stuff all around.


The commentary has a poll attached to it. And the options are
-Good for Rick and the Suns
-Keep the “homosexual agenda” out of sports
-Really don’t care either way

WTF? The “homosexual agenda”? Way to tip your hand there, folks. Cripes.

Maybe the other option should have been
-Get the “ignorant dumbfuck bigot agenda” out of sports

Look, the idea of a “homosexual agenda” is faked up bullshit, invented by those who have a bigot agenda. The “agenda” in support of homosexuals enjoying all the rights and responsibilities of any other citizen of their respective countries is simple. It is a human rights agenda. It is a fairness agenda. It is a civil liberties agenda.

If you are not behind the idea that gay folk deserve the same rights and protections as anyone else, then you are not really on board with human rights, fairness or civil liberties.

As far as I am concerned the most important characteristic of a doctoral trained scientist is the ability to work in a systematic and sustained fashion to get shit done.

To close the deal. To make it happen. To bring it to fruition.

Grad students need to make data happen.

Postdocs need to make papers happen.

PIs need to make research programs happen.

GMP is raging.

I am in a physical science field where journal publications are the most important, and many (many!) faculty have the criterion of 3 journal publications, preferably from the dissertation work, as necessary for graduation. I was quite peeved when I realized that this student would graduate with zero papers

ok. peeved. Why?

I asked the student if there was a reason that he was graduating without a single journal paper; if there was a reason that he must be graduating now and not in, say, a year?…He said it’s because his wife and he had been living apart for some months and he also happened to find a job there. I almost blew my top off

Look. We’re already in a bad place here, GMP.

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According to this top-40 list at The Scientist anyway. The list is laden with Institutes and Centers and big L Laboratories. You have to get down to number 10 to find a University and they are overall pretty thin on the list.
Interestingly the NIH (i.e., intramural NIH laboratories) comes in above such NIH extramural research powerhouses as Johns Hopkins, Mass General, UNC, Michigan…
They give plus and minus columns. I find it interesting to see how “Career Development Opportunities”, aka, pedigree? (Hi Zen!) dominates the plus side and how frequently pay and benefits comes up on the minus side.
It is also kind of interesting to see which criteria “Family and Personal Life” never co-occur with.

First off, if you are not visiting damnyouautocorrect, you are missing out on some cheep laffs. That stuff is hilarious.

Second, a recent experience.

In typing “nigger”, my damn autocorrect gave me three, not one, three separate “corrections”.

OTOH, it corrected my mistyping of “redneck” right out of the gate.

I’m pretty sure that means something.

that no, you can’t make creme brulee with a cigarette lighter.

People who succeed as junior faculty are those that are willing to make tasty desserts with a Bic lighter if they have no other choice.

People who won’t so much as try to cook without a gleaming, stainless steel and chrome industrial kitchen are not likely to succeed.


Back in the day, the Congress offered to throw a little Recovery and Reinvestment cashola at scientists via inclusion of the NIH in the ARRA. Yay!, right?

Of course, scientists being the idiots that they are, they immediately started crying and moaning. “Oh, the timeline for submission was too short”. “Hurry-up of the review process” was a problem. And above all else “We can’t do *anything* with only two years’ worth of funding, we need to shore up our regular R01 paylines! Aieee!”.

I thought this was stupid. More money into the research enterprise is a good thing, in my view. It displayed a shocking lack of can-do attitude and imagination on the part of scientists to react the way they did. Especially, since one heard a lot of pushback on the two things that Congress was trying to make people do (not just scientists, everyone) with the ARRA funds. 1) Create jobs. 2) Buy stuff. Yes, two years and then a cliff (really? a cliff?) is hard when it comes to hiring research techs but, you know what? I see research techs in my geographic location out of work now and again because yet another small biotech folded or got absorbed by BigPharma. It seemed to me that ARRA funds would have come in handy to hire some of those folks. I’m sure they wouldn’t have complained about the short-duration when they were otherwise unemployed. Or the undergrads who were graduating in an environment of pinched new hiring. Some of them would have thought two years a pretty decent deal- heck, half of the research tech applicant pool I see straight out of undergrad are “thinking about” grad or professional school anyway.

Also a good time to stock up on some fancy new (or run of the mill) science kit. Lord knows the usual science vendors were hammering my email box once the news of the NIH dole of ARRA funds hit the streets. (And, um, fighting with each other like small children.)


Don’t get me wrong, there were some problems. The variety of fast-distribution mechanisms meant that the rich (i.e., those institutions with lots of NIH funding already) made out like bandits from the ARRA. The investigators who were best know, had existing grants to supplement and/or could crank out the applications were best able to land the “new” dollars. And that was not so good, I’ll readily admit.

I didn’t follow a lot of the programs but I’m sure they were very uneven in terms of meeting Congress’ two golden intentions. Hire. Buy. No doubt a lot of the ARRA grant funding just went to the same-old. To pay the salary of people already on the books and to buy consumables rather than big-ticket equipment that, I assume, was the big interest of Congress. Still, money entered the system that would otherwise not have. Good deal.


Question is, were we prepared for the reality of the crash-back-to-bad-budget levels post-ARRA? Rumor has it that the National Cancer Institute (update: Varmus link; not a rumor  “NCI made a decision in 2009 to use appropriated dollars in FY2011 and FY2012 to extend some of the grants that were originally awarded with ARRA funds.“) was not.

Part of NCI’s added budget pain comes from their funding ARRA awards for 4 instead of 2 years, taking the latter 2 years out of future appropriations. Since the appropriation has not gone up since ARRA, NCI has had less $ available for new competing awards.

What? And another rumor I hear claims NIA has done the same thing…MADNESS. What in the heck were they thinking? We had just come past a similar episode of apparent lack of planning at the peak of the doubling interval when political will to continue substantial annual increases to the NIH budget evaporated. There was some similar IC pain in dealing with the tail of the out-years of 4-5 year grants funded right at the end of the doubling.


Why on earth would they turn right around and make the same mistake?


Sure this can’t be true, is it? Did some of the ICs really commit to four years on ARRA two-year proposals?


It is officially time to get a grip.
Over at writedit’s voluminous comment thread discussing NIH scores and paylines I ran across this gem:

rumor has it that NCI is limiting funding of new projects there, to prevent losing Institute dollars when that part of the portfolio moves to the new addiction institute

So if you’ve been following along, the NIH is planning to disband NIDA and NIAAA and launch a new Institute on Substance Abuse / Substance Use Disorders. Name is yet to be determined.
Also yet to be determined is the portfolio of such a new institute. It did not escape the attention of the sharp-eyed that there are substantial amounts of addictive-disorders related funding being handled by the NCI, a comparatively much larger Institute. So the present state of affairs appears to be an effort to take an accounting of various existing grant portfolios that are related to substance use and therefore might be best placed in the new Institute for all addiction-related science. This taskforce/working group accounting and proposing effort appears to be the latest kicking-the-ball-down-the-road strategy* for Francis Collins, Director of the NIH.

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In the “ya learn a new one every day” files comes a Tweet today which says:

We are required to pick J Club articles from high IF journals.

This is stupid. Just…..stupid. And unscholarly. The notion that a laboratory uses this as a criterion for which articles that are permissible to discuss is just….foreign to me.

Journal club, for the uninitiated few in my audience, represents a meeting in which the members of the laboratory discuss a scientific paper. Methods can vary but usually the paper is selected and sent to the laboratory staff about a week in advance of the meeting. One of the lab members generally opens with a presentation of the paper. Maybe at the power-point level with a couple of figures copied in, perhaps with a lot of background context involved as introductory material…but perhaps not.

The reasons for selecting papers vary tremendously in purpose and intent.Just a few I can think of off the top of my head.

  • A review of a foundational paper in the field- for general didactic reasons (“kids these days never read the old stuff“) or because new developments warrant a reconsideration of that prior paper.
  • The very hottest and newest paper in the field is going to revolutionize everything!!!1111!1
  • A paper (foundational, brand new or otherwise) from a tangential field that the laboratory needs to be moving into.
  • Techniques that are of interest to the lab’s current or future directions.
  • A super-complicated paper which is hard to understand and the efforts of the lab brain trust can bring clarity.
  • Education of the most junior trainees on how to properly read and assess a paper for meaning, breadth, scope and clarity.

I don’t see where these goals are served by using some sort of IF cutoff for the journal in which the paper was published.

As we are all well aware, the actual scientific impact of a given paper on the ongoing work of a specific laboratory is entirely uncorrelated with the IF of the journal in question. Unless, of course, your laboratory exists solely to butt-sniff other GlamourMag laboratories and/or solely to publish in the GlamourMags by whatever means necessary. If you are interested in actual science, however, it is inconceivable to me that a lab which can sustain a journal club (i.e., greater than two members) can never have any interest, in or gain any value from reviewing, papers from a variety of journals.

There are downstream implications of this. Another key feature of journal club, especially as the groups get larger, is that a given person will notice a paper that would be of general interest that the other members of the lab (ok, the PI) haven’t noticed yet. And an important function of Journal Club is this literature-scouring part. If the lab head inculcates the group to only focus on that limited subset of GlamourMags (which is what is being done by insisting this is the selection criterion for Journal Club discussions) then those lab members are going to stop reading anything else. They are going to adopt the a smug superior pose that if it ain’t in Science, it ain’t worth reading. This will leave them with an inferior understanding of their own science, first, so this is a big mentorship failure right there. Second, they are going to be unable to serve that literature-filtering and literature-discovering function which, in my view, helps everyone in the laboratory. Most especially the PI, I will admit. If everyone is reading the same four journals there is no hive mind advantage when it comes to covering the scope of possibly-related scientific discovery.

This IF-exclusionary approach will also lead to a follower mentality in the laboratory’s scientific directions. Interesting and novel stuff in science results all the frigging time from a translation of techniques and approaches in one area of science to another. Often times it is the cross-application that turns the ho-hum from one field into something really amazing in another. Interesting stuff also results from long-forgotten minor observations being rescued and followed up with current capabilities, techniques or knowledge that has been developed in the mean time. Someone has to be reading off the beaten path and make the connections to other work for this to occur.

The Office of Extramural Research at the NIH has launched a working group tasked with the examinationof the current and future state of the extramural research force.

  • What is the right size of the workforce?
  • What are the appropriate types of positions that should be supported to allow people to have successful careers and to continue to advance biomedical and behavioral sciences?
  • What is the best way to support these various positions?
  • What types of training should be provided?

That would be you, DearReader, at least those of you working in one way or another on scientific projects funded by the NIH.
Princeton University (sorry about that) President Shirley Tilghman is quoted in a Science Insider note from J. Kaiser as saying the following in an upcoming HHMI bulletin interview

“changes could be made to the structure of the typical biomedical research laboratory.” Specifically, she suggests reducing the number of trainees, who currently outnumber technicians 10 to 1, and increasing the number of “permanent employees…. We need to explore such options.”

I agree.

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It's complicated

May 3, 2011

Some idjit Twitted:

The fact that you cannot grapple with complexity of feelings and ethics does not make you intelligent or superior…it makes you a teenager

and followed it up with

Adolescents are sure that they are right. And they are. It is just that the world is wrong. Soooo wrong.

This came during interesting times. America’s EnemyNumberOne Osama bin Laden had been killed in a nighttime raid straight out of one of those rah-rah paperbacks you read on the plane. Or maybe out of ’24’. The TeeVee show. Lord love us but the name “Jack Bauer” was trending on twitter. An unseemly celebration sprang up outside the White House as the news emerged that bin Laden had been killed.

Many on the Twitts and blogs that I read were dismayed. Dismayed that we should be celebrating the assassination of one man. No matter what he had done to us as a nation. Dismayed that anyone should be joking or making light of the situation. A man has died…and at the hands of us all. That is what a war means. We are complicit in the decisions of our government. Even if we oppose them. And we have to live with that. And, I think, own it.

It is immature to insist that it has nothing to do with you because you are agin’ it. Doesn’t work that way. You are a part of this world, you are a part of this country, my US readers. We all benefit, if there are any benefits to emerge, and we are all put at risk from fall out. That is what a civil society is…kind of like wedding vows “for better or for worse”, is it not?

And it is not being “unintelligent” to joke or grapple with complexity in a situation like this. Out here in the real world, life IS complex. It is “unintelligent” to pretend it is anything else.

I have been most comfortable listening to this (NSFW):

I never watched the movie so this is new to me. It is pitch perfect in a situation like this.

Perhaps even more than the wiseass creators of it even knew at the time….or will ever know. Or maybe than they ever intended. The truly dense may hear nothing more than Toby Keith’s asinine hit.

But it is brilliant.