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.