When disaster strikes

November 30, 2012

NIH Director Collins is very sad about laboratories stricken by megastorm Sandy.

He suggests we should all “help”.

Well sure. We should all help other scientists when disaster strikes.

But you know….? Disaster is striking all over the country. One lab at a time. When they can’t keep their funding. And yeah, many of these result in the loss of “cutting edge” work. The loss of “a decade of” samples or mouse lines or other valuables.

What makes the victims of a natural disaster any more worthy than any of the rest of us?

Advertisements

No Responses Yet to “When disaster strikes”

  1. dr_mho Says:

    Really? You’re actually equating the hurricane devastation with loss of competitive funding?

    “What makes the victims of a natural disaster any more worthy than any of the rest of us?”
    That’s about the worst example of “everybody is special so nobody is special” argument I’ve ever heard.

    Like

  2. Dave Says:

    I suspect you are going to get some heat for this post, but I know what you are saying. You get the feeling that he is a bit like The Romneyeister – not really in touch with the funding reality. Disasters certainly are happening in labs all over the country.

    Like

  3. Jim Woodgett Says:

    Whoa…. c’mon losing grants due to tight finances and after competitive evaluation is on a totally different planet to losing the ability to do science due to a hurricane. There is nothing that entitles a researcher to funding from NIH or anywhere else. Plus, Collins was asking for collegial assistance (such as helping to replace reagents, strains of mice, etc.).

    Like

  4. miko Says:

    I think it depends on what he means by “help.” The NIH could give special consideration on renewals due to setbacks.

    But money shouldn’t be the problem. All these facilities and everything in them should be insured. (If they weren’t, then they are incompetently managed. I can’t imagine a more legitimate use of overhead. And if you’re less diligent in ensuring your lab is insured than, say, your home, more’s the pity.) What’s lost is time, reagents, animals, etc. No one can do anything about that. You’ve been set back a year or two or five. Shit happens.

    People get career setbacks for a thousand reasons that aren’t fair and that they can’t control. Lab fire. Career sabotage. Illness. Where’s their “help” from FC?

    Like

  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    That’s about the worst example

    I see that you have not actually provided us with any insight, apart from your knee jerk outrage, that this is different. Did you notice how I ended with a question, not an assertion?

    not really in touch with the funding reality
    Of course Collins is not in touch. As with most NIH program folks he is incredibly motivated to see the system as working, even in these tough times. I suspect that his comment about “cutting edge” labs says it all.

    losing grants due to tight finances and after competitive evaluation is on a totally different planet to losing the ability to do science due to a hurricane.

    Really? In what way does it differ to the person who is out of work, cannot do their science, must rebuild after losing decades of work, etc? If you assert it is “totally different” so readily you must be able to quickly reel off the reasons, right?

    Collins was asking for collegial assistance
    If you think there will be no extra dollars headed to the Sandy-devastated Unis and Research Institutes due to this….I have a bridge to sell you.

    Like

  6. DrugMonkey Says:

    People get career setbacks for a thousand reasons that aren’t fair and that they can’t control. Lab fire. Career sabotage. Illness. Where’s their “help” from FC?
    eggzactly.

    being born in the wrong generation. being ready to transition to asst prof-ness just when the economy tanked. ….the reasons that aren’t fair are manifold.

    Like


  7. I have been told by program staff in multiple Institutes that they will be scraping together funds to provide to their already-funded investigators who have been damaged by Sandy to help them get going again, and that they do this routinely when natural disasters strike. Most ICs also provide funds to some investigators who have the “almost but not quite percentile” disaster strike, through R56s.

    Like

  8. miko Says:

    “If you assert it is “totally different” so readily you must be able to quickly reel off the reasons, right?”

    Exactly… this is just a cognitive bias. A clear proximal cause (and massive media exposure) triggers a different kind of desire to help than a fuzzier (but just as capricious and unfair) set of circumstances that lead to the same kinds of consequences. Bad luck is bad luck.

    Like

  9. Dr24hours Says:

    What makes them more worthy? PUBLICITY.

    Like


  10. Seems that a high-ranking official in a Cabinet-level agency would be well placed to make an argument that rebuilding these federally-funded labs should be part of an emergency relief bill.

    Or he could ask people to pass the hat.

    Like

  11. Dave Says:

    I have been told by program staff in multiple Institutes that they will be scraping together funds to provide to their already-funded investigators who have been damaged by Sandy to help them get going again, and that they do this routinely when natural disasters strike

    Is this really the job of the NIH? What about the poor bastards who are not already funded? Seems to me that universities should be footing this bill. I’m assuming they all have insurance against this kind of thing.

    Like

  12. Dave Says:

    (just saw that Miko already raised a similar point)

    Like

  13. Virgil Says:

    So how about a few conditions to the “special funding” you speak of? Like maybe move your vivarium out of the basement for starters! And maybe as others have mentioned, insurance, and institutional assurances about back up generators etc. It would be a shame for NIH to piss away a bunch of money, only to see this happen all over again when the next 100 year storm strikes in about a year. Maybe for those institutions whose backup generators failed, claw back some of their ridiculous indirect rates (which are way higher in big cities like NYC than they are elsewhere in the country).

    Like

  14. DJMH Says:

    I have been told by program staff in multiple Institutes that they will be scraping together funds to provide to their already-funded investigators

    Hands up everyone who thinks NYU should lose funding, not gain it, for demonstrably bad decision making regarding the safety of their animals. Letting ten animals drown looks like bad luck, but letting ten thousand drown looks like carelessness.

    Like

  15. Beaker Says:

    DM, you are making an apples and oranges argument. The difference is between acute and chronic. Sure, there are some investigators who deserve special consideration because they got hit by a 100-year storm. That is different from the chronic problem of insufficient funds allocated for biomedical research in general. An analogy would be the difference between maintaining unemployment benefits in a severe recession versus maintaining Medicare as it is now currently funded.

    Like

  16. anon Says:

    @DJMH – FWIW, friend in NY says NYU was told they weren’t in the flood zone & staff were all gone once it was clear flooding wld happen

    but yes, there are no natural disasters… only bad preparedness & responsiveness. e.g. http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Smith/ & http://www.ecopolity.com/2010/03/01/there-are-no-natural-disasters-only-social-catastrophes/

    aside: friend of said friend is 4th yr grad student @ NYU. lost entire mouse line. luckily had broken IACUC policy & stashed 2 mice(m&f) in drawer lab upstairs over weekend

    Like

  17. anon Says:

    hwuh? DM is moderating anon comments allofasudden?

    Like

  18. anon Says:

    oh. my bad. its prob b/c I had 2 outbound links… I guess I just gotta wait.

    Like

  19. Dave Says:

    No one believes these guys don’t deserve help, the issue is why is the NIH the one that Is doing it. What exactly do institutions pay for these days? It’s not faculty salaries, it’s not lab space, it’s not equipment, it’s not even parking. Surely they pay for insurance.

    Like

  20. Grumble Says:

    “What exactly do institutions pay for these days?”

    I don’t know about your institution, but mine has a total of 34 Deans, Executive Deans, Associate Deans and Assistant Deans. Multiply by at least $100,000/year plus fringe, and now you know where a big chunk of our roughly $75 million/year in overhead goes.

    Who needs insurance when you can have expensive, bloated administration?

    Like

  21. drugmonkey Says:

    My understanding is that in the prior Hurricanes (Ike, Katrina, the Houston one) that FEMA was also involved in the lab rebuilds…

    Like

  22. Alex Says:

    I don’t know about your institution, but mine has a total of 34 Deans, Executive Deans, Associate Deans and Assistant Deans. Multiply by at least $100,000/year plus fringe, and now you know where a big chunk of our roughly $75 million/year in overhead goes.

    Well, that sort of administrative flowchart narrows it down to, hmm, let’s see…just about any university in the country.

    Like

  23. drugmonkey Says:

    Apples and oranges are both fruits

    Like

  24. DJMH Says:

    Re anon, but NYc had had Irene just a year earlier. Sure, Irene was a bit of a bust, but it should have prompted every institution there to review their catastrophe plans. And in those catastrophe plans, people normally include phone trees for things like, “Oh shit, we are going to flood after all, APB to get in here and take a little Noah’s ark.”

    Glad your friend of friend was smarter than the administration of NYU. Seems to me that s/he should be promoted to VP strategic planning.

    Like

  25. lurker Says:

    Hurricane Allison, Houston 2001. U Texas MD Andersen colony and many others toast. NYU’s new animal facility construction began after: http://theweek.com/article/index/235769/how-hurricane-sandy-destroyed-years-of-medical-research
    Deans and Powerheads don’t learn or don’t care.

    Meanwhile, where’s the sympathy for all the newbie labs running on startup fund fumes about to shutter doors because even 1st grants are so few?

    Tax the Rich (labs)!

    Like

  26. miko Says:

    “friend of said friend is 4th yr grad student @ NYU. lost entire mouse line.”

    Exactly! And you can never get back the time you spent generating those lines, you can just pay to do it over again. And if your facilities, equipment, and reagents weren’t insured, your 6-figure adminbots are guilty of gross negligence.

    Acute/chronic is an interesting distinction for places who keep animals in floodable basements (and maybe don’t insure labs? still not clear on how common this is). My city is now spending $30 million to fix “acute” problems with a bridge, when it would have cost them $3 million 20 years to address its chronic, sub-acute issues. Yes “no one prepares for an unprecedented storm” [sound of Tulane and the VA facepalming].

    Even with this distinction, people have setbacks for all kinds of “acute” problems that aren’t their fault, as I mentioned above.

    Like

  27. boehninglab Says:

    I work on Galveston island which suffered the largest loss of life ever from a hurricane in the US (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1900_Galveston_hurricane). The university I work at was on the island during this hurricane, and remarkably persisted afterwards. In 2008, we STILL had much of our infrastructure on the ground floor (including essential facilities such as the hospital pharmacy and animal facilities) during hurricane Ike despite the fact that TS Allison caused much of the Houston medical center to move everything upstairs in 2001. Why? The cost to change things were astronomical. When hurricane Ike hit it caused massive damage, and without significant help from FEMA (hundreds of millions), we would have been toast. The NIH had a special program to support the affected labs, and I was a recipient of a one-year non competitive funded extension of an R21 (but not an R01 I had at the time) http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/not-od-09-015.html. The total cost to the NIH was probably a minuscule percentage of their total budget, but it helped me a lot. FEMA was solely responsible for the survival of the university, and also reimbursed losses to some of the labs. My point? Unless you are in the affected area, please try to understand the challenges involved and the shear number of people affected. Any help from FEMA, the gov, the NIH, etc. can be essential for survival. I feel the hundreds of investigators that required assistance to survive an environmental catastrophe out of their control were worthy of support. Don’t even get me started on the tenured faculty who were fired because of the “financial exigency” (http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/26981/title/Fired-faculty-speak-out/) and the freezing of all startup funds of new faculty.

    Like

  28. drugmonkey Says:

    Is the point really so hard to grasp boehninglab?

    I’m not saying it isn’t horrible. It is. But there is the same stuff going down daily in an invisible trickle. My question is why the sudden one is so salient and whether there is justification for pouring all this taxpayer money (my tax return doesn’t specify FEMA vs NIH) into the one but not the other.

    Like


  29. Why do we now spend 100s of billions of dollars per year as a nation on (useless) “Homeland Security” in response to a single event that killed about 3000 people, while ten times that number die every year in car crashes and it’s not even the slightest blip on anyone’s radar?

    Like


  30. Don’t even get me started on the tenured faculty who were fired because of the “financial exigency” (http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/26981/title/Fired-faculty-speak-out/) and the freezing of all startup funds of new faculty.

    Looking at that article, it appears that the vast majority of fired tenured faculty had been stalled associate professors for decades. Those who stall at the associate professor level for decades after making tenure have no research programs, so it isn’t so surprising that they were the ones who got fired when the shitte hitte the fan.

    Like

  31. becca Says:

    DM- a real difference is that you can plan for what to do if the grants don’t get funded again. It sucks and all, but you can send a unique mouse line to Jackson long before your lab gets handed over to someone else. You can, if you are so inclined, archive samples and send them to a collaborator. You can sometimes hurry-up a grad student who is ready to leave to ensure they graduate, and often get them a co-advisor whose lab they can conduct their final experiments in.

    Fundamentally, we do need a better system for keeping the reagents generated from good work. The post Mike the Mad Biologist had (http://mikethemadbiologist.com/2012/11/19/the-fragility-of-scientific-infrastructure-the-mlst-edition/) highlighted the problem pretty well, but it’s also quite likely that in a case like that, there will be zero problem actually transferring the resources over to a suitable steward (at least, the resource is highly desirable). There may be something here we could learn from other fields of science. I doubt they build particle accelerators in places with lots of tectonic activity, and I hope they know enough to build them where they won’t flood.

    Like

  32. DJMH Says:

    Why? The cost to change things were astronomical. When hurricane Ike hit it caused massive damage, and without significant help from FEMA (hundreds of millions), we would have been toast.

    Uh, yeah, thanks for proving the point. “Why should the university take responsibility for protecting itself, when it could just wait for FEMA bailouts instead?”

    If only Texas really WOULD secede. I for one would let it go without a pang.

    Like

  33. miko Says:

    “Why? The cost to change things were astronomical.”

    No, they are not “astronomical”, but they are essential. Astronomical are the costs that you (or others) pay when the inevitable happens and you weren’t prepared. Moving things up a floor in some research buildings and hospitals does not compare even relatively to, say, New Orleans building the Dutch infrastructure they will need to survive. It’s just a hard budget choice for administrative weaklings to make — it’s not fancy like a new building. And for each deanling, it probably won’t happen on their watch. Politics.

    This reminds me of people who want to live on dry, windy, grassy hills outside San Diego but don’t want to pay taxes for a fire department.

    How many careers are ruined here, as opposed to just disappointments and setbacks? Dozens? Hundreds? Neither compares to the careers destroyed by bad policy, mismanagement, misconduct, and a list of other addressable problems. CPP’s point is excellent.

    Unrelatedly, my great grandparents were friends with Isaac Cline after he retired to New Orleans and opened an antique store (he’s the weatherman who failed to predict the scale of the Galveston hurricane and told people not to evacuate, and lost his wife in it). Apparently, he still had some cred, because everyone in the Quarter would prepare for the day depending on whether or not he carried an umbrella to his store in the morning.

    Like

  34. Dave Says:

    Don’t even get me started on the tenured faculty who were fired because of the “financial exigency” (http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/26981/title/Fired-faculty-speak-out/) and the freezing of all startup funds of new faculty.

    Universities have abused the “financial exigency” clause for a while now to fire faculty. The financial meltdown allowed them to use this to clean house ad lib and it is still going on today.

    Like

  35. Dave Says:

    So will we be seeing layoffs at NYU a la UTMB? I fear for all the junior faculty and especially the soft-money guys.

    Like

  36. miko Says:

    “Universities have abused the “financial exigency” clause for a while now to fire faculty.”

    Off point, while it’s an epic tragedy for education in the US, I have limited individual sympathy for tenured faculty suffering from the rise of the administration… they have been on the whole incredibly eager to sell all of their power via senates and unions in exchange for shiny baubles and honorary deanletships (w/extra scratch) to those at the top. Maybe another facet of boomer narcissism, maybe human nature.

    Kinda sad to see people with PhDs so easily pwned by C-level MBAs. Hothouse flowers.

    Like

  37. Dave Says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you completely, but it is not just old and tired tenured profs getting the boot. And the admin behavior in this regard is shaping policies that will affect the young guys coming through now.

    Like

  38. DJMH Says:

    NYU is going to implement a 2 R01s or leave policy in one of its neuro depts soon, but unrelated to Sandy. Of course, that means they’ll lose some decent faculty, but I will bet $$$ that the VP of strategic planning (or whoever is responsible for their myriad failures) doesn’t get the boot. Admin protects its own.

    Like

  39. miko Says:

    Oh for sure. It is a new system for us, with new games to play. Though most young scientists will never get the golden ticket opportunity to be fucked over in this manner.

    Like

  40. miko Says:

    “2 R01s or leave policy”

    Good timing. Tenured faculty held to this same standard?

    Like

  41. DJMH Says:

    Miko, that’s what I have heard. Just at dick tsien’s shop though. And yeah, they are all moving to a new building….threshold 2 r01s. Old building being turned into something else. Tenured faculty iNCLuded.

    Like

  42. miko Says:

    I can’t believe he could get away with that with tenured faculty, unless they want a raft of lawsuits. I wonder how many R01s the building costs.

    This is about his brother, isn’t it?

    Like

  43. DrugMonkey Says:

    Seriously? Multi R01 requirements to play. what a world we’re in

    Like

  44. Odyssey Says:

    My dean would like us to move to a 2 R01 (or equivalent) system. Hopefully not any time soon. If ever.

    Like


  45. The notion that a “two R01s or out” system can be workable is grossly delusional. Yes, some faculty end up being able to maintain two or more R01s at steady state. But identifying who these faculty are at the time of hiring is impossible. And how is this supposed to work when paylines are getting tighter and tighter as time goes on?

    Like

  46. DrugMonkey Says:

    Wonder how the folks complaining about various aspects of “those guys over there” will see this one :-).

    Heck, I wonder how the NIH would feel about such a formal requirent at a department , School of or University level?

    Like


  47. I once reviewed an R21 in which the PI was a senior post-doc/research scientist in a big macher’s lab. In her “letter of support”, the big macher actually wrote words to the explicit effect “if this grant is not funded, the senior post-doc will be fired”. If anything, the study section looked even more harshly on the grant in the face of this kind of hostage-taking attitude.

    Like

  48. miko Says:

    Mind still blown. What percent of NIH-funded scientists have 2 R01s? Will they all work at NYU?

    I’ll believe it when I see the first case of firing a tenured prof who loses 1 of 2 R01s.

    Like

  49. Jim Thomerson Says:

    When I was working on my dissertation at Tulane, I made three copies of each day’s new data. One left in my lab, one in my car, and one in my apartment. I figured if something happened where all three were destroyed, I would maybe take up raising goats for a living or something. This was BC,and I am talking carbon copies.

    Like

  50. Dave Says:

    NYU is going to implement a 2 R01s or leave policy in one of its neuro depts soon, but unrelated to Sandy.

    Lol that would clear about 90% of our entire medical school and would completely close my division overnight. And for what purpose?

    Miko – tenured faculty won’t do anything about it because they have no power anymore. They are just as vulnerable as everyone else in times of “financial exigency”. The Admin has cemented that.

    Like

  51. Dave Says:

    Heck, I wonder how the NIH would feel about such a formal requirent at a department , School of or University level?

    Whatever.

    What the fook are they going to do about it? Nothing. Congress limits their powers, remember. The NIH is happy to stand on the sidelines while everything goes down the toilet. They have shown little desire to step in when it comes to anything related to career issues and institutions. They always hide behind their lack of power. Heck, they might even like this approach. Less mouths to feed long-term.

    Like

  52. DJMH Says:

    Well, maybe in light of their flooding, they’ll backtrack on this plan, but this is definitely what I heard from a faculty member there. All other universities, start thinking about poaching…

    Like

  53. Namnezia Says:

    Well, maybe in light of their flooding, they’ll backtrack on this plan, but this is definitely what I heard from a faculty member there. All other universities, start thinking about poaching…

    So this 2 R01 thing is with the excuse of financial exigency? How else do they justify firing tenured folks?

    Like

  54. Odyssey Says:

    Nam,
    They don’t necessarily fire them. They start by making the lives of the people without 2 R01s miserable. Shrink their lab space. Make them share offices or move them to noisy cubicles. Give them unbearable committee assignments. The idea is to make them want to leave. Of course if the victims refuse to play along, the admin can then try to fire them on the grounds that they aren’t doing their job. One could argue that the latter approach hasn’t been used on deadwood, and therefore tenure must be protection from that, but I am aware of more than one place, my own included, that is trying to clear out deadwood with that argument.

    Interesting times.

    Like

  55. DrugMonkey Says:

    I think what scares people most about these policies is running afoul of narrowly drawn productivity rules. On an individual level, not much trouble dissociating those who are not even trying from those who are unlucky for a stretch. So as long as your Chair or Dean are serious, no problem. On the broader NIH extramural perspective, perhaps this degree of scrutiny is impossible. So the ones that wash out may be driven more by chance. Of the alternatives, i.e. random “Darwinian” (as Rockey put it) vs a more intentional culling strategy, I’m not sure which would be better. I lean towards some strategy though.

    Like

  56. whimple Says:

    …those who are unlucky for a stretch
    Is there even such a thing anymore? How long can such a stretch be before it morphs into “forever”? I’m guessing that if you’re not ESI and you’re off the R01 boat for 2 years, you never get back on it.

    Like

  57. qaz Says:

    Whimple writes: “I’m guessing that if you’re not ESI and you’re off the R01 boat for 2 years, you never get back on it.”

    This is demonstrably not true. (Examples include faculty from my BigStateResearchUniversity and that I’ve seen on study section.) But it does depend on internal university support and an old-school “we hired/tenured you, let’s help you get back on your feet” attitude. That attitude does still exist at some institutions, but (not surprisingly) not all of them.

    Like

  58. Dave Says:

    We promised to use all available tools from NIH to help: altering submission deadlines for grant applications, allowing researchers to negotiate new specific aims, and extending training periods for trainees whose research projects have been seriously affected. Soon, NIH will issue an opportunity for NYU researchers who have lost precious equipment or supplies to apply for additional funding through Administrative Supplements.

    Wow.

    Like

  59. miko Says:

    I think my lab might meet with a K99-worthy “natural disaster” in the coming days.

    Like

  60. DJMH Says:

    Wow^2. Extended deadlines and specific aim adjustment, sure. Special funding opportunity for the idiots who left their mice to drown? Way to fail upwards.

    Like

  61. SMHProf Says:

    Taxpayers, meet liberal entitlement-elistist attitude.

    If this isn’t the epicenter of the dog eat dog mentality of big government, I don’t know what is. Funding is tight everywhere, yet when a natural disaster strikes an area that is not in any federal or state issued flood/hurricane zones….well, screw them. NOT OUT OF MY BUDGET! FEMA, Army Corps, DoD, NSF….anyone but MY budget!

    Glad the folks in NOLA and other Katrina areas didn’t have DM in government. “Katrina? Those fools should have known not to live there! Gross negligence on their part. And who cares that a bunch of people died and went homeless in one event? It happens every day. That’s the real crisis, we need to ignore this, let people’s insurance take care of it, and put more money into law everyday law enforcement and homeless shelters. This hurricane is all publicity! Nothing to see here folks.”

    Like

  62. gri Says:

    I feel their pain. But I have also heard that a certain institution is requesting Millions of USD from the government/NIH in special funds (didn’t read it myself). My reaction to that is mixed – yes, they probably will need some help but why should all other ones also suffer from that? That is money less in an already small pot, so your or my application may go the drain because the money is spend. And those who build close to the water should know the danger and take precautions. What I hear from some institutions just lets me wonder what their administration was thinking… Benefits in administrative form yes (e.g. grant deadlines) but financially – not sure. We have all our stuff backed up, at least the most valuable cell lines and mice strains are.

    Like

  63. gri Says:

    Jim Thomerson: “When I was working on my dissertation at Tulane, I made three copies of each day’s new data. One left in my lab, one in my car, and one in my apartment. I figured if something happened where all three were destroyed, I would maybe take up raising goats for a living or something. This was BC,and I am talking carbon copies.”

    My dissertation was on my Mac Classic, floppies (one copy placed in my parents bank vault), one copy on my advisers Mac – and one on my girlfriends Mac. Call me paranoid but now you know why…

    Like

  64. gri Says:

    “My hat is off to NYU Langone’s Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Dafna Bar-Sagi and her colleagues for leading the recovery effort. ”

    Really – weren’t they the ones that let the mice drown and the whole NYU system to have the generator #2 on the roof? Wise thinking but its fuel was pump in the basement (not so wise) and no batteries in the NickU’s respirators. That must have been fund manually bagging the little ones in the dark all the floors down…

    Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: