August 31, 2012

The notion that tenure provisions in the contracts of University Professors or school teachers means that they are uniquely protected against firing for incompetency is a scurrilous lie.

Many, many job places that do not have anything called “tenure” do in fact have procedures in place, formal or otherwise, that respect the duration of service to the place of employment.

The notion that those more senior than oneself are undeserving of the job titles, promotions, payrate and/or privileges that you do not currently enjoy is a nice comforting meme. But if you are going to advance a strong accusation against the seniority system and argue about who “deserves” to have a job and who does not, you better bring some ammunition.

Or, you know, run for office as a Republican where that kind of unverified ranting convinces someone useful.

UPDATE: Zen reminded of his post on a peer reviewed article examining career arcs. The key points:

The models indicate that as competition increases, many people can be taken out of the career pathway by… blind, stinking, clueless, doo-da luck.

Just as one can seemingly succeed through alignment of circumstances with a normal level of talent and effort, one can wash out through no fault of one’s own too.

But the competition turns out to be very important in this model; and that relates to tenure. Many people want to see tenure replaced with a series of recurring short-term contracts. The authors imply that the short-term model could be harmful for the development of science. A failure in one short-term contract could derail a productive researcher, since early career shocks can ripple throughout a scientist’s career.

And this is why we’re in the state of “Do it to Julia, not me, Julia” backstabbing panic about the NIH budget situation. The immense fear on the part of all many of us that the next grant rejection means the end of our career is palpable. Visceral. The anger of the young that they are “better than” half of the existing faculty and therefore deserve that person’s job is clear. Very clear.

but be careful about that to which you aspire. Our history of pure Darwinian tooth-and-nail employment is not a pretty one. The dawning of the industrial age showed us how that goes down.

Job protections are there because on average they make all workers’ experiences better. Not there to protect the lazy and incompetent. That effect is an unintended consequence.

So when you are ranting your rants about the deadwood tenured fucks, please, do your homework. Show us how dismantling Professorial tenure is not going to rapidly devolve us to the level of the itinerant Adjunct Professor.


August 30, 2012

Amid all of Paul “Lyin” Ryan’s prevarication and misdirection in his convention speech, I noticed an objectionable truth.

Well, I’m going to assume it is true.

He noted he lives on the same block as the house he grew up in.

Look, we’re all used to politicians emphasizing their down-home, jest-folks cred. I suppose it feels authentic to some voters.

But it sounds very parochial to me. This clown wants to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency. He wants to represent the needs of the *entire* country. It is most certainly not a good thing if his only frame of reference is one narrow enclave of one unrepresentative town in one unbelievably unrepresentative state.

I would like to see national candidates emphasize how many different States, cities, neighborhoods, etc that they are familiar with.

At least Romney has homes in three very different States.

This is great stuff Romney wrote!

“Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress,”

Read the rest of this entry »

There’s a good one up at retraction watch. An author suggested reviewers for his manuscripts using email addresses he had access to, then supplied his own reviews. Apparently suspicions were aroused by the 24h return of reviews- an obvious sign of fakery.

My learned colleague Odyssey opined that this situation strengthened his resolve to never select the suggested reviewers when acting as an Associate Editor.

I think this is ridiculous. A few bad apples, blah, blah. But more importantly, it seems simple fairness that if a journal is going to request suggestions for reviewers then they should use them. And not, as Odyssey is suggesting, as an exclusion list.

I think AEs should use one and only one of the suggestions.

Watch this video. If you are anything like me, you have essentially zero understanding of what this guy is talking about. To start with. It very rapidly devolves into technical jargon and insider references to things that I don’t really understand.

But you know what?

After awhile you probably kinda-sorta pick up on what is going on and can kinda-sorta understand what he’s telling his audience. I think I am impressed at that part.

Watching this through also makes you realize that a computer-geek presentation really doesn’t differ much from the talks we give in our science subfields. And if you skip through to the Q&A about two-thirds through, you’ll see that this part is familiar too.

I think I may just make this a training video for my scientific trainees.

As most of you know, when Science published the now-infamous graph showing that the average age of a PI when s/he received the first R01 NIH grant was 42, even the NIH realized there was a problem with the demographics of the extramural research workforce. This led to a number of initiatives, including the creation of the NIH’s first broadly available and genuine transition mechanism, the K99/R00. This was good because it incentivized University hiring committees to take a risk on a younger person. They would come with R level research grant money already in hand! It was also a mostly benign change because it was clear from the start that there were not going to be very many of these awards.

The NIH also realized (amazingly belatedly) that their “New Investigator” checkbox system was not having any effect on the age of first R01 award. Or, not a beneficial effect anyway. They realized what I had realized within two hours of the start of my first study section meeting, i.e. that the competitive NI applications were from highly experienced scientists who simply hadn’t sought funding from the NIH before. So they generated the “Early State Investigator” category of PI.

The ESI was distinguished by the time elapsed since the award of the PHD. Sounds okay, right? No more special perks for the previously NSF-, DOD- or CDC-funded established investigator. No more focus on the “New” investigator recently hired from a foreign country where she was highly experienced in extracting grant funding from that country’s NIH equivalent. Let us focus on the genuinely “new” investigator. Someone just starting their faculty appointment and needing help……uh-oh.

Problem was, there was this entire generation of scientists already in the pipeline. Waiting to transition.

The ESI program was an academic generation screw job which is why I say it is a blunder.

I’ve blogged about this before in the context of saying I don’t feel sorry for myself and people of my approximate generation who managed to make it over the transition hurdle. Those people of my approximate generation who managed to get their first grant before things really went in the toilet and are now complaining that they are stuck between ESI policies and the OldGuard really digging in their toes (facilitated by their “long term POs”). My sympathy for us is limited (but…grrrrr).

What I usually fail to talk about are those excellent scientists who, for one reason or another*, didn’t happen to get over the hurdle. Then, when they were all long past the ESI interval (and therefore asking for special extensions was kind of pointless) along comes the NIH “help” for younger investigators…but it explicitly jumped over them and said “too bad folks, we’re just going to ignore you and furthermore, we’re going to give hiring committees every reason in the world to screw you as well“.

Right? I mean would you hire someone who had the extra 5 yrs of postdoc’ing (with the productivity) over a younger someone with half-decent pubs but about 3 years of ESI time on the clock? You’d be doing your Department a serious disservice! Improved chances of your new hire getting their foot in the NIH grant door as early as possible is a major factor these days.

So, while I do like the NIH giving the Universities a reason to make faculty hires ever closer to the granting of the PhD…this method was a really brutal** way of choosing of winners and losers in the generational battle***.

*all too frequently women, all too frequently childbearing, all too frequently accommodating a slightly older academic spouse

**curious given the relative timidity of the NIH in making other dramatic changes, picking winners, etc.

**It will not surprise you in the least that I view this as yet more of the Boomers (those who run things at NIH) screwing the GenXers for whom they have zero affinity to benefit the GenY/Millenials who are their generational offspring.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has an interesting manuscript submission process.

Apart from allowing NAS members to “contribute” a paper from their own lab that they’ve gotten peer-reviewed themselves, there is a curious distinction for more normal submissions.

The pre-arranged editor track permits you to find a PNAS editor before you submit it. Presumably a friendly editor.

In the best case it is similar to a pre-submission inquiry practiced formally or informally at the GlamourMags. In the worst case, an end run around “pure” peer-review via the Insider’s Club.

(The end run being as benign as simply avoiding the desk-reject and as pernicious as getting a gamed peer-review.)

But is this any different from other journals? GlamourEditors require some buttering up. They brag in unguarded moments about how much they’ve “worked with” the authors to make the paper awesome. So many of those papers end up functionally identical to having a pre-arranged editor who has agreed to handle the manuscript.

In pedestrian-journal land, one can easily go Editor hunting. If a host of journals sort-of fit, and the IFs are indistinguishable, then it behooves the authors to seek a journal with a friendly Associate Editor. And to ask for that person in the many submission systems that permit such requests.

So really, how does the PNAS system really differ?

In fact, you might see that as being more honest and transparent.

Any expression of your opinions and/or presentation of facts or rationale that touches on a political topic, and is heard or read by another person, is by definition an act of political activism.

Well that was fast. Quick on the heels of the pilot study conducted for the summer Council rounds, the NIH issued NOT-OD-12-140.

In September 2012, NIH will be implementing a general policy whereby Advisory Council members will provide additional consideration of new and renewal applications from well-supported investigators who currently receive $1 million or more in direct costs of NIH funding to support Research Project Grants (RPG). RPG for the purposes of this policy is defined as: R00, R01, R03, R15, R18, R21, R22, R23, R29, R33, R34, R35, R36, R37, R55, R56, RC1, RC2, RC3, RC4, RL1, RL2, P01, P42, UA5, UC1, UC2, UC4, UH2, UH3, UM1, U01, U19, U34, DP1, DP2, DP3, DP4, and DP5. These RPGs are generally investigator-initiated research projects rather than NIH’s other grant programs which include support for investigator training and development and center grants.

One key change is that the scrutiny will be triggered by $1M in direct costs rather than the $1.5M in total costs which was used for the pilot study. As I said in my prior post:

The threshold of $1.5 million total costs. How’s that break down? Well if you are in a consensus ~50% overhead state university, let’s see…Thats FOUR full-modular awards. But let’s be clear, odds are you got cut by at least a module per award so that’s only $900K direct..you get to be in a University with about 70% overhead and you are still clear. What bout the much-rumored 100% overhead small institutions? well, you get three R01s before you go under strict scrutiny.

Moving it to direct costs makes it fairer to the individual PI; being at a high versus a low overhead institution or University does not affect the trigger.

This is not going to affect all that many applications. This policy means the PI will have to have 4 concurrent full-modular R01s before the special scrutiny is triggered. As we’ve seen from data posted on Rock Talk, in FY2009 7% of investigators had 3 or more Research Project Grants and 1.5% had 4 or more.

There are also key exceptions to the $1M rule that will further decrease the number of scrutinies.

  • Pending applications submitted in response to Requests for Applications (RFA), which use a single round of competition to address a targeted research objective of IC(s) and are separately considered for funding.
  • P01s and other multi-project RPG applications unless all of the PD/PIs and sub-project leaders are at or above the $1 million threshold.
  • Multi-PD/PI projects unless all of the PD/PIs are at or above the $1 million threshold.
  • Subprojects within complex applications. This may be revisited by NIH once we begin to accept complex applications through eRA Commons.
  • Administrative supplements

Naturally, the BSDs who are in the 1.5% of NIH-funded investigators will already be pursuing RFAs, large-mechanism awards like Program Projects (P01) and Centers and other “complex” applications. They will already, for grantspersonship, practical and scientific reasons be including more-junior (read, less well-funded) investigators as the occasional component or Core PI. They may similarly be pursuing Multi-PI awards. All of this means that very few applications are going to be receiving this special scrutiny.

And do remember, people, that scrutiny means only that. It only means that Advisory Councils will have to briefly consider the arguments for the application receiving funding. And in an era in which awards need to be in the top 10%, maybe 12% to be shoo-ins for funding…do you really think the Councils are going to have difficulty finding that these applications are so awesome that they justify pushing the PI over the $1M mark? How many of these will be situations in which the PI looks to be losing one of his triggering awards relatively soon, say within a year of funding the scrutinized application…think Councils will not find this a reasonable excuse?

I predict that the number of applications that are rejected after this special scrutiny is going to be very, very small. One, maybe two per Fiscal Year per Institute or Center. At best. This will do nothing to feed all the hungry mouths.

So why is the NIH engaging in this high profile effort?

Quite simply, to throw a few buckets of distracting chum in the water to calm down the people who are lighting the torches and sharpening the pitchforks to go after the bogey man of the excessively funded investigator. And to head off any Congressional snooping/complaining about this alleged ogre of the Extramural system.

As with the Sea World Shamu show, turns out the chum is just ice cubes.

This will have no perceptible effect on success rates for those of us in the 93% or 98.5%.

Is it just me or does the average “free thought”, skeptical / atheist blog comment thread resemble 20 Jack Russell sized dogs simultaneously attempting to ineffectually hump the same person’s leg?


August 17, 2012

via Crommunist.

Formative Reading

August 17, 2012

On the Twitts yesterday, Rebecca Skloot asked a few of her Tweeps about which formative fiction books they best remember reading when they were 10-15 years old. I came to it a bit late but we had a lot of fun talking about some of our favorite reads. Rather than try to storify it, let’s take another whack at it from the blog side….

My trouble was one mentioned by edyong, i.e., that I can’t really recall precisely when I read which particular books. My other problem, which was what made the Twittersation so much fun, was that I don’t always remember the books until my memory is jogged. So let’s have at it.

In my more fixed memories, I am pretty sure I started the obsessive-reading thing just prior to first grade. My first real book memory is of On the Banks of Plum Creek from Laura Ingalls Wilder. I went through most of her works in short order. Then through towards 3rd or 4th I was working through Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Cherry Ames, Bobbsey Twins, my dad’s old Tom Swift books. Somewhere in there came The Great Brain and perhaps 4th to 5th a diversion into my mom’s old-lady mysteries- Agatha Christie, etc. None of this was what I think of as formative in terms of really essential good-reads, although it established the life of a reader. Later on, there were more in this category. Piers Anthony is apparently most famous for xanth novels but I don’t think I read many of those- Apprentice Adept series was my thing

Watership Down, Narnia Chronicles, The Dark is Rising series and the Arthurian works of Mary Stewart were around 5th grade. These are starting to be what I think of as formative books…ones I’d be disappointed if my kids never read and ones that in many cases really did contribute to my orientation on the world.

There are also a host of books which I don’t know when I read them but very likely it was just prior to, and into, Skloot’s 10-15 year old interval. My recollection is that by 13-14 my obsessive reading was tapering off so mostly up to about 13.

Lord of the Rings, of course.
The Foundation Trilogy by Asimov
Vonnegut’s works
Heinlein- an interesting recollection of always thinking his intellectual elitism and macho libertarianism was a bit of a spoof. This was buttressed by my later life realization that for some people Heinlein was their Ayn Rand. Like they actually were on board with that stuff. Rollicking good reads though.
L’Engle- I think I read Wrinkle in Time and the two other ones a bit early
Thomas Covenant series

What do you remember Dear Reader? Which fiction books from your youth were most important to you?

ps for the scifi nerds who haven’t seen it yet, Baen Free Library will give you free samples (not recommended for anyone starting their new Assistant Professor job).

pps anyone who mentions the Hobbit movies will get punched in the e-nads

Gurdur has an excellent post on “How not to criticize psychiatry“. It’s a must read.

Many psychomedications – just like many medications in general – can have bad side-effects. So do you for example recommend vaguely against antibiotics or cortisone or aspirin because in each case there can be bad side-effects? Or how about whether Lipitor (a statin, used to lower cholesterol level) can cause memory loss or not? Or chemotherapy meds that can really go to town in side-effects? This is yet again the hurdle of lack of exactness; a very vague accusation made without context or consideration. There is also the factor that a severe mental dysfunction is itself very dangerous to the sufferer – and as with many other conditions, such as the also-as-yet-poorly-understood autoimmune conditions, it becomes a matter of weighing risks and effects of a medication against risks and effects of the original illness.

Likely because like most people, most skeptics etc. simply don’t know enough about psychiatry – or medicine in general. Access to good healthcare is an even more important issue, and includes psychiatry, yet just how many skeptics, atheists etc. cover health and healthcare issues in any detailed depth? Very few indeed. SC is right to say psychiatry should be a concern for the left, for skeptics, for everybody. But then so too should immunology, paediatrics, and practically every other branch of medicine. Health care is a pressing concern, and often very much a class issue too.

A recent comment from Spiny Norman waxes unimpressed with child-care cost complaints of those in the academic pipeline.

My partner and I knew we were going into demanding, high-risk, poorly-compensated public service careers. We knew that both time and money would be limiting, and saw little point to having kids if they were mostly going to be raised by paid surrogates.

We also looked around, and concluded that the planet was/is *not* suffering from a shortage of fat, happy, high-carbon-footprint first world babies.

This makes me ponder. Read the rest of this entry »

I don’t know what started the round of “I only got paid X when I was a trainee” on the twitts but I noticed nobody was adjusting for inflation.

Using the US Dept of Labor calculator, I came up with the following.

For an initial frame of general reference, $30K in 2012 is equal to $22K in 2000, $17K in 1990, $11K in 1980 and $5K in 1970.

The grad stipend when I started graduate school was equal to $15.6K in 2012 adjusted dollars. For us, the NSF fellowship was a considerable upgrade and the NSF graduate fellowship from that time is equivalent to $22.6K in 2012.

Interesting. So how are today’s trainees doing?

The current NSF stipend is apparently $30K, a 33% increase in adjusted dollars compared to what it was when I was a graduate student. Looking at my old training department, they are offering a 35% increase in stipend over what they were offering when I started, again, in constant dollars.

I also happened to spend some time on NIH training grant funds so I can also report that my starting postdoc salary was $28.6K in 2012 dollars. The current NRSA base is $39.3K, which represents a 37% increase.

The bottom line is this. We’re in crap economic times and graduate students and postdocs are getting paid at least 33% more than I was, even going by inflation adjusted dollars.

Stop whining about your salary.