March 6, 2013

my blather on the realities of being an NIH extramurally-funded investigator is to “game theory” what screaming and waving in panic is to dogpaddling over to the side and climbing out the pool ladder.

Idle thought

March 6, 2013

Relevant to Sci’s recent ranting about the paper chase in science…

Sorry reviewers, I am not burning a year and $250K to satisfy your curiosity about something stupid for a journal of this IF.

because it strips away all the confident predictions about what you would do if some shit was going down…

Kington, as in Raynard Kington (PubMed), senior author of the Ginther et al. (2011) report that identified poorer NIH Grant success for African-American applicant Principal Investigators. Also as in previous Principal Deputy Director of the NIH Kington and current President of Grinnell College Kington.

He had an observation in The Scientist recently, responding to their coverage of him in context of Ginther et al, which included this bit:

And so I was dismayed by a recent news story on about our report that seemed to prove our point about the existence of such unintentional bias. The story identified me as an “African-American scientist,” as have other stories I’ve read over the years.

Is that who I am? And if yes, is it relevant to my research?

Let me answer the second question first. The Scientist article to which I refer mentioned four scientists—and I was the only scientist who was identified by race. Moreover, the article didn’t mention any other demographic characteristics about me—not my age, my gender, my ethnicity, my sexual orientation, my geographic location, not even my current job as president of one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. Nor did it include demographic information about the three other scientists mentioned in the story.

Go Read. Read the rest of this entry »

from someone on the Twitts going by @ilovepigenetics

Annoyed that PIs prefer to cut positions vs. experiments. #sciquester #dotherightthing #shortsighted Fewer jobs=less taxes=less funding

this was followed with an interesting response to YHN:

@drugmonkeyblog Do the right thing. You have a responsibility to your trainees.

and the lunacy goes on (reverse chron):

  1. @SciTriGrrl @BabyAttachMode I choose to pay my people and live on 75% salary. Is it hard, yes. Am I lucky that I can do it, yes.
  2. @SciTriGrrl We are smart people. Don’t take the easy solution. Figure out a smart solution.
  3. @BabyAttachMode @SciTriGrrl Who needs the $ the most-a PI who makes ~100K or a student who makes $25 K?
  4. @neuromusic @drugmonkeyblog Find ways to make it cheaper. I’m very disappointed. You have a responsibility to those you took on.
  5. @SciTriGrrl Cut your salary. Don’t hire new people, but your first responsibility is your trainees. $25K doesn’t support a student or a PD.
  6. Lessons from my Father: Cut YOUR salary if you must, but pay your people first. The #1 rule I learned from my Dad, a small business owner.

There are two main problems here. The first one is related to whom the PI owes “responsibility”.

The NIH Grant funded PI typically has a number of responsibilities in my view.

She has a laboratory of employees and trainees with a good bit of smear between who is an employee and who is a trainee. On the one end is the straight-up employee who is a technician and on the other end an undergraduate “volunteering in the lab for experience”. The former might have a reasonable expectation of life-time employment (within the confines of normal variation and the grant cycles). In between there are the postdocs who are on for a 2-3 year training stint without explicit expectation of a life-time job and graduate students who are there to achieve a semi-defined task (the doctorate). The PI has a responsibility to do well by these people, there is little doubt. But there is also little doubt that perfection cannot be achieved for everyone. Not everyone is going to have an outcome commensurate with their expectations. This is reality, not evidence of a PI who is uncaring, irresponsible or insufficiently “creative”.

The PI also has a laboratory. This is the edifice built by and for the prior trainees, the current trainees, the future trainees, the PI herself…and her University. Sometimes this laboratory has been inherited from a prior investigator (or a chain of investigators). It may be a laboratory that will obviously be passed down to subsequent investigators. It may be a laboratory that has enjoyed considerable University support over the years. It may have enjoyed considerable support from a specific Institute or Center of the NIH. The PI may have to compromise on other responsibilities to service her responsibility to the laboratory, from time to time.

The PI has a career. She has to continue to publish papers, secure funding and supervise research to keep this career going. You may view this as a selfish responsibility but hey, if you are complaining about the fact that another person is taking a career hit by the PI not being “creative” enough…you need to explain why one person’s selfish goals are to be prioritized over another’s.

The PI has a life. Just like you do. Sure they may be further along in years, stage(s) or whatnot than you are. They may have some things that you cannot see yourself ever attaining (like a mortgage, twopointseven kids and even a stay at home spouse. perhaps college bills for offspring). And their salary is clearly higher. It looks to you like they are totes moneybags and should just forgo 25% of their salary so that someone else can stay in their job for another 6 months. Guess what? It’s time to get real. NIH grant supported investigators do make a lot more than postdocs do, mostly, but they are by no means insanely compensated. And just like you, they went through a period of training and fell into debt, behind the mortgage curve, behind the 401K explosion, they came along post-pension, etc, etc. Just like you they nursed ancient cars through postdoc and into the first years of faculty. They ate pasta. They did all that and got lucky to get a job. And started a life. And now they have people who depend on them to maintain that life. My sympathies are limited for those who claim that the people farther down the path just aren’t responsible or creative enough to ensure that each and every person to come through their lab achieves the same outcome as they have.

There is another big one, this one related more to “what” the PI owes responsibility. I might suggest this is even the first priority of the NIH funded Principal Investigator.

The PI has a responsibility to the grant. You know, the tax payer funded money that has been dropped on the laboratory, under the PI’s guidance, in expectation of some sort of return. A return of information, otherwise known as published papers. Yes, the PI has a HUGE part of her creativity and responsibility tied up in making sure that some science actually occurs. Published science. It is very easy for the trainee who has just been told that they have two months to find a new job to overlook this. The PI should be a good steward of the public purse. And sometimes that role is going to conflict with the above mentioned responsibilities to staff members. This is why the salvo from @ilovepigenetics about prioritizing salary lines over experiments drew my attention, btw.

If you keep people employed “over experiments” this means that the experiments aren’t getting done. Or aren’t getting done efficiently. Then where are we? If you can’t buy reagents, can’t analyze all the samples in the freezer, can’t support cage costs, can’t maintain mouse lines, can’t buy rats, can’t recruit human subjects, can’t afford scanner time… then everything in the above list crashes down. Because eventually productivity suffers, no new grants come in, no new trainees can be afforded, the dollars eventually run out and everyone needs to be fired.

Just to avoid firing one postdoc today.

postscript: This Twitt is also spectacularly clueless about the fact that the current extra good news of the sequester comes after a good 5-8 years of serious squeezing and pressure on the NIH budget and NIH funded scientific labs. PIs have been scrambling like crazy to be creative about funding, maintaining trainees salary lines as far as possible and to get the most work done that they can. Like crazy. For years now. And believe you me, this ain’t news to any postdoc with half a brain. They’ve known about how bad things are for ages. If they’ve been burning the midnight St. Kern oil to write fellowships and papers and assist the PI with grants (so that s/he can get one more out per cycle) then hey, I’m a bit sympathetic. Somehow I suspect not all of them have been doing this though….

Why do many urban jurisdictions ban the keeping of a rooster but you think banning established dangers to life and limb (instead of mere sleep/wake cycle) is the equivalent of racial discrimination?

*having just learned at PhysioProf’s blog that Jack Russell terriers are “statistically” dangerous just like pitbull terriers perhaps we are getting at the real problem. Terriers.

Every year we get an annual safety meeting from our EH&S department and they show us a bunch of instructional slides on how to handle various laboratory hazards around the campus. They always include a few chuckles, like the guy operating plugged-in powertools standing on a ladder immersed in a pool, the guy Lincoln welding the gas tank of a truck propped up on a couple of bricks..that sort of thing.

And of course we go down the list of hazards from the chemical to the radiological to the microbiological. My department is usually in full eyeroll mode most of the time because of a simple fact. You know what never happens on our campus (touch wood)? We never have a Ebola infected African green monkey head for the hills. Nary a hantavirus rodent plague. Maybe someone gets a little sloppy with some low grade radioactive material now and again but that’s rare. We don’t have people getting infected with various nasty viruses and virulent (hmm) strains of bacteria they work with.

But you know what does happen on our campus? Regularly? Like 2-3 times a year?

Some chemist blows up a hood, erupts a waste bottle, causes a fire in the lab bays or otherwise renders a building uninhabitable. In dramatic fashion.

Causing the Fire Department to have to respond and anyone working in the building to lose at least a day.

It is always the chemists.

I have never really understood why.

Life in No-A2ville

March 1, 2013

The good Comradde PhysioProffe has launched a new discussion on grant strategy, informed by the past few years’ worth of experience with the new reality at the NIH. Specifically, the reality that prohibits more than one resubmission (amendment) of an unfunded grant proposal. As you know, a whole lot of people weren’t fond of the new policy.

At any rate, PP has three bits of advice, I’ll paraphrase:

3) get your advice from people dealing with this, not GeezerProffes who keep renewing the same award like clockwork– totally agreed. always sound advice.

1) if Significance scores were good and the Approach dragged you down, worth revising. If the Significance scores were in the tanker, don’t bother revising because you need wholesale reconstruction. Including New Aims. (which brings PP to his third point.) This is sad and I really don’t want it to be true. Obviously we propose stuff that we think has Significance and if those reviewers don’t get it, then we can explain it to ’em. And probably they were just the wrong reviewers anyway. Grrrr. Sure…but even so, you still want to seek a new study section perhaps. And this goes straight into PP’s main point.

2) regardless of specific cause, if you are substantially changing 2 or more Aims it is better to take a fresh shot at the NewSubmission/OneResubmission deal. – I know what he’s saying here and I partially agree. But only partially. Because I still think you are going to need to take a specific line of research through multiple rounds of review to get it funded. Based on the rather steep odds. So the odds are very good that you are going to be slicing and dicing Aims anyway. Some of those mashups are going to be stronger, some weaker….but what ultimately matters is that you get a good shake of the reviewer dice. Because, as always, I assume that you all are smart enough to make every one of your applications at least credible. Past that, I still think it matters tremendously that you simply get the right reviewer mix where at least one person really gets it and two are at least willing to waffle on the usual quibbling. The usual quibbling being stuff that could very well be applied to any application…I’ve yet to see a perfect one. I’d argue that any applications that have been universally applauded in any study section round* as awesome could be taken to the StockCritique woodshed. Slightly different emphasis of factors and I could write a credible and entirely defensible review that justifies triage. Not kidding.

An additional consideration for me is purely tactical and related to standard receipt dates. I’m deadline driven. This is suboptimal, I admit this. But it is my reality. So having two deadlines a month apart for new and A1 submissions lets me put in more grants. And if I’m sitting there after the new proposal deadline expires with nothing do to but either resubmit or wait until the next round…..I’m going for it.

I will be further considering PP’s position, however, and seeing if I am just wasting my time revising and resubmitting.

*ETA “that I’ve been present for”, this is a personal experience claim. might be some sections where good is good and chaff is chaff. maybe. might be so. I guess.