Thought of the Day

November 7, 2013

There is tremendous pressure in the US culture (that I have come across to date) for middle to upper middle class (and even wealthy folks), no matter their circumstances, to consider their lives to be very busy and stressful.


And if their lives are in some way NOT stressful, people have this unbelievable need to make things MORE stressful for themselves.

Working folks, Stay and home parents and retirees alike.


Yes, including you. and me.

All I can say is that for me, understanding this cultural drive people have to pretend stress and overwork makes it a TINY bit more understandable.

Perplexing in the specific case perhaps, but vaguely understandable in the general.


31 Responses to “Thought of the Day”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    Puritan work ethic. Blame zee Germans.


  2. Jonathan Says:

    Er, did I say puritan? I meant Protestant. These comments really should be editable. And have UBB code or something because who knows HTML these days? That’s what a decent CMS is for.


  3. DJMH Says:

    True. I always feel guilty about leaving work early, or internetting a lot, *regardless* of whether my productivity is actually good, because WORK.


  4. dr24hours Says:

    My life is objectively not that stressful. But I’m high-strung anyway.


  5. BioDataSci Says:

    I think it runs a little deeper than a need to feel busy or stressed. It comes down to a belief that we are actually making a positive difference (to ourselves and/or society) by doing the things we do. We believe that doing more things will make a bigger difference. But that isn’t necessarily true.

    Also, many people allows others’ expectations to drive their own activity. We believe that by doing more things, we will assure The Other People that we are using our opportunities well.

    In some cases, it may be a coping mechanism. If I stay busy, it keeps me from facing uncomfortable realities of life that I prefer to avoid.


  6. What I’ve always found interesting is the related idea that all this pressure and overwork is a recent development. In the 1960s/1970s the novels of Jack Finney (e.g. “Time and Again”) dealt with overworked protagonists who time travel back to the 19th century which was presented as less stressful (yes, the protagonists, like Finney himself, were white males). But in the actual 19th century itself, you had people like William Blake and John Ruskin who were convinced that the Middle Ages were the golden age and all these railroads and factories spoiled things.

    The thing is, all the facts show the opposite — that people seem to have *more* leisure time these days.


  7. Dave Says:

    I don’t have time for this shit, I’m far too busy. But most importantly, I’m busier than you .


  8. Beaker Says:

    Stress and its opposite (unstressed solitude) are two poles of emotional state. People get discombobulated when they go too much in either direction. While creation often occurs in solitude, it gets vetted and realized under stress. People who are uniformly laid-back and unconcerned are boing. Equally boring are those who live by jumping from crisis to crisis.

    Productive people create controlled stress to maximize their productivity. As Duke Ellington noted, “I don’t need time, I need a deadline.”

    One irony is that people sometimes exaggerate their stress level in order to attain more solitude. If your colleague tells you that they are so friggin’ busy that now is not a good time to talk, you just leave them alone. We all understand—you give them space. This is true even if their story is a lie.

    The beggar who asks for a donation at the stoplight is under way more stress than you are. Our brains are good at adjusting to the basal stress level. We respond to changes in stress level, not the absolute value of the stress. We need stress to accomplish great things. The trick is to adjust one’s life to get the “right amount”.


  9. not spartacus Says:

    somebody says “I’m so busy” nobody bats an eye, say “not too busy today” everybody loses their mind!


  10. AcademicLurker Says:

    No thoughts on this?

    “Cash-Strapped NIH May Ask Universities to Limit Grant Applications”
    -Chronicle of Higher Education


  11. Eskimo Says:

    Lurker, I thought about DrugMonkey about 0.001 seconds after seeing that headline.


  12. AcademicLurker Says:

    I mostly agree with what Potnia Theron wrote. It sounds like a recipe for truly poisonous departmental/institutional politics.

    On the other hand, it’s kind of encouraging to see NIH at least acknowledging that the determination of Universities to overburden the system is a major source of the problem.


  13. If limitations occur at the University level, at best, absolute best, it will be neutral. However, I have never seen power taken, handed over, or otherwise procured that did not lead to some level of political interference with the process.

    Everyone knows that the Big Glam Awards (starting with Nobels) are political and heavily field biased (organismic or systemic physiology isn’t even in the hunt). It used to be that it didn’t matter if you were apolitical and not in the glam business. If you just wanted to do good science, and had a good question, being a scientist was possible, having a career in research was possible. That is becoming less and less true, as any young person can tell you.

    Adding local levels of screening will not make science/research/funding more accessible. Period.


  14. miko Says:

    What about limits at the PI level? What percent of R01s are held by multi-R01 holders?


  15. DrugMonkey Says:

    This again? There are data on Rock Talk. Big majority have 2 or 1. Solid plurality 1, to my recollection.


  16. The Other Dave Says:

    “Cash-Strapped NIH May Ask Universities to Limit Grant Applications”
    -Chronicle of Higher Education”

    Would be great punishment for this:

    “Harvard, MIT thwart effort to cap overhead payments”

    But that’s also the reason why the former (limited applications) will never happen. The big research institutions will not tolerate restricted access to the spigot.


    With regard to other discussion above… I have served several years and hold a leadership position on a university-wide panel that decides which faculty get to submit certain proposals for external consideration, and who gets internal seed funds, at my very large research university. It’s all about targeted investment. We invest in people and projects that have the highest likelihood of bringing in the most money.


  17. rs Says:


    sounds very undemocratic and short sighted to me, not from the university point of view but science in general. I have seen internal grants not awarded even after very good reviews/scores by the award committee on the basis of criteria you mentioned.

    This is slightly old, but still relevant article:


  18. miko Says:

    I think this chart

    would be more interesting if the y-axis was “percent of all grants” rather than “percent of all PIs.” It would make that tail into 3+ grants look a lot beefier.

    It is obvious math, but it doesn’t take a large percent of PIs to be holding 3+ R01s for it to be a significant percentage of all R01s held by those folks.


  19. miko Says:

    I have no data to back it up, but my very strong impression is that the marginal utility of more funding/people above ~2 R01s starts to drop off. So for someone with 4 Ro1s, those extra 2, which could be someone else’s only 2 (or two people’s first/only one), are not pulling their weight in productivity.

    I think the NIH should have keeping people in the system as a goal rather than absorbing the sunk costs of labs, careers, and programs getting shut down & ended. Cutting back on the BSD mega-labs is an incredibly reasonable way to do this, because it is likely a more than a zero-sum reshuffling of limited funds… it adds more value to the system than it takes away.


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    I have no data to back it up, but my very strong impression is that the marginal utility of more funding/people above ~2 R01s starts to drop off.

    I have no data to back it up, but my very strong impression is that the very best and cutting edge science results from groups that have 4+ R01s worth of funding over the long haul.

    …Oh, wait, I do have data. See latest issues of Science and Nature….


  21. miko Says:

    ha. ha. ha.

    there’s this one

    productivity peaks at $750k


  22. drugmonkey Says:

    It is obvious math, but it doesn’t take a large percent of PIs to be holding 3+ R01s for it to be a significant percentage of all R01s held by those folks.

    not sure I’m taking your point.

    making the FY2009 math simple, if 72% have 1 grant, that’s 72 grants. if 20% have 2 that accounts for another 40 grants. 5% have three that’s another 15. maybe 2% have 4 grants that’s 8.

    So up to 4 R01s, we have 72 vs 63. just below half of the awards going to people with >1R01.

    I can’t really reasonably resolve the percentages above 4 but looks far less than one so for each of 5, 6, 7 and 8 grant PIs, we’re only adding less than that number. maybe a quarter to a fifth? 9 grants?

    Let’s say it is 50/50.

    But that includes the 2-grant and 3-granters and you said 3+. So we’ll swap the 40 from the 2-grant pile and end with a 112 / 32 differential. 22% of the grants going to the RichieRich labs which are under something like 7-8% of the PIs.

    Yes, it is disproportional. a “significant percentage”? what does that even mean?

    I’m not sure how any of this does anything but restate the obvious. Some PIs have more grant support than others do. Because your subtext here is that you would take a grant from the person with 3 and give it to someone else. But that person just loses one, not all of their three awards. So the available excess grants is still not huge. Barely more than a third of that 22%, because most of the RichieRich, by your definition, are only 3 grant labs. So there is like a 7% margin to be had to devolve down the ranks. Of course, some of that is going to go to the 1-granters to bring them up to your 2-grant threshold. how much? who knows? but less than 7% boost in the one-granter population.

    Sure it is “more”. but again, it is hardly a systematic fix that is going to make all those knocking on the door amazingly better off.


  23. drugmonkey Says:

    productivity peaks at $750k

    This is an absolutely idiotic conclusion to be drawn from Berg’s data.

    And it is directly in contrast to your contention that 3-grant labs should be in the richie-rich side of your line.

    Full mod is $250K and nobody gets all of that anymore. So the peak is at just a little bit over a 3-R01 average. Even if a BSD has one main award at $450K, it is still going to take more than one full-mod to sneak past $750K. Any way you look at it, the peak is at 3 grants’ worth of funding at a minimum. So swap out another 15 grants in my analysis above.

    Getting back to why it is ridiculous is the notion that all papers cost the same amount and that labs of all sizes are equivalently playing the same paper-type game. They are not. The ones up on the higher end are very likely to be huge consortia doing human clinical trials or something. Large data sets with a variety of paper types coming out. This explains more papers and diminishing impact factor vis a vis the merely superrich. and this dataset doesn’t properly incorporate impact factor because of the categorical shifts across glamour levels. It just isn’t going to work to look at means in a situation like this. If we magically dispersed the Glamour delusion and put all labs on a similar data/papers ratio then these numbers would be totally different. much steeper productivity curves.


  24. Busy Says:

    If I remember correctly, somewhere there was a study which determined that there is a very individual personal limit of how much money one can effectively use. I.e. if one is cash starved, the first few hundred grand will result in increased productivity but eventually researchers reach their bandwidth limit and more money does not lead to more research.

    This limit is unique to each person. Some researchers can very effectively manage an army of researchers while others can barely tolerate meeting with a grad student.

    If the system is not starved for funds each person will naturally reach their limit. On the other hand, when the system is cash starved, we end up in situations where two equally meritorious researchers are in an uneven playing field. The moment one gets lucky and wins a grant they get more publications and more subsequent grants while the other, equally meritorious researcher falls further and further behind.

    I don’t have a solution for this, perhaps except to stop voting for candidates and parties which are anti-science.


  25. The Other Dave Says:

    I think we can all agree that funded labs tend to be more productive than unfunded labs. The only point of discussion is strategic: How can NIH (the taxpayer) get the most scientific bang for the buck?

    One can argue that scientific breakthroughs are unpredictable. They do not always pop out of the most celebrated labs, or targeted research. In this case, it is important for NIH to spread the wealth.

    Alternatively, one can argue that certain people and places are responsible for a disproportionate number of accomplishments. That work directed at solving certain high-priority goals, although not successful all the time, is certainly more successful than a bunch of random people dabbling in whatever. In this case, NIH should identify the people and places and research areas and dump craploads of money on them.

    Or one can argue that the truth is somewhere in the middle. In which case NIH should employ a mixed strategy. Which they basically do. Some labs get a lot. A lot of labs get less.

    The drawback of the mixed strategy is continual discontent among scientists, who will always feel that some other guys are getting more than they deserve.


  26. miko Says:

    DM, you are right… “productivity peaks” is stated wrongly, at best that is where diminishing returns kick in… on average. But you seem to be saying that labs with many-R01 scale funding mostly do science that just inherently costs more? Maybe that’s true, but in my (admittedly narrow) experience, sure, there are some large consortia but there are also many more labs just doing lots and lots of “small science” with 15-20 trainees, just rolling more 7-year postdoc dice for the next Cell paper, and who cares how much money and how many people you spend to get it. There truly are diminishing returns in these labs for all sorts of obvious reasons, and I think their growth is often due to fairly arbitrary positive feedback mechanisms in funding and publishing that have little to do with any particularly good reason for funding them as opposed to someone else.

    Also, just because someone *can* “effectively manage” a lab of 20 people (debatable, to me, given the stated training and research involvement expectations of PIs) doesn’t mean that it is good for science or training or it’s worth paying for. Walmart and Costco can “effectively meet” all of your consumer needs, but lots of people decide that’s not how they want them met. Science as community can decide how we want to do things, too, irrespective of market forces and incentives that tend toward concentrating resources. I don’t think scientists are particularly special as individuals in the sense that someone else wouldn’t eventually do the equivalent of my work if I didn’t, and I don’t see any reason why any PI should be actively pursuing more than their 2 or 3 best grant-sized ideas at a given time. It is not my impression that the BSDs are brimming with brilliant, creative science…they have the same incremental ideas as everyone else, they just have the money to try more of them. So what I do see often is people with a lot of money burning trainees on pretty stupid shit.

    As a collective enterprise, more people involved in science and less concentration of wealth and influence is always better. I don’t think this means people living in Manhattan (primate labs?) should be trying to get by on the same as people in Sheboygan (yeast?). But no one in either place needs a Ferrari (precast gels?).

    So either kill the rich or just take 80% of their stuff… same diff to me.


  27. Busy Says:

    Science as community can decide how we want to do things, too, irrespective of market forces and incentives that tend toward concentrating resources.

    Actually no we can’t. We are publicly funded and thus accountable to the citizenry. They have a right to demand the most bang for their buck.

    As a collective enterprise, more people involved in science and less concentration of wealth and influence is always better.

    [Citation needed]


  28. miko Says:

    “We are publicly funded and thus accountable to the citizenry. They have a right to demand the most bang for their buck.”

    That is bullshit. Exhibit A: the military. Exhibit B: every other government entity. “The citizenry” has no more right to dictate the details how science is done than they should vote on what shape wings fighter jets should have or how many quarters should be minted next year, and the alternative is a stupid populist fantasy. The far-seeing politicians who created the NIH and similar large government undertakings made damn sure of it by make *peer* review the defining method of assessment for projects and researchers.

    Even assuming it was theoretically possible to measure the net scientific “value” of the NIH in some way that would allow us to know if we were optimizing it or not, we shouldn’t because we’re not fucking robots. People doing the work have a major say in how it gets done, or you will get mediocre people doing mediocre work, every time. And unless you want some panel of GOP or teabagger mouth breathers deciding what matters in science, I suggest locking down that “oh but the citizenry” shit.


  29. Busy Says:

    They have a right to demand is not the same as “they routinely demand”. In your post you posited that scientists have a right to self determine their fortune, which I fail to see anywhere in the US constitution. However I do see the power of our elected representatives to decide how the government monies will be spent.

    Personally I feel a social obligation to justify my salary and endeavors to my fellow citizens which I’m happy to do if ever given the chance. Some people call that a social conscience.

    I suggest locking down that “oh but the citizenry” shit.

    You are foaming at the mouth dear.


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