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.