This is an extension to some thoughts I posted on Twitter awhile ago.

There is a certain species of “amazing scientist who is revolutionizing everything” biographical puff piece that strikes an interesting chord about academics. These are details that come up in seminar introductions, blog posts, media profiles, institutional profiles, award nominations and obituaries.

I am referring specifically to the part where they talk about hobbies, interests and activities that are not directly related to work*.

I surmise the hobby is discussed in these types of pieces to humanize the nerd or to amaze you that their non-science time is just as obsessive and elite as their science**. Possibly both of these apply simultaneously. Typical realms of discussion are obsessive sports participation (very commonly running long distance events or triathlon competition), foodie obsession (he cooks lavish meals for his lab), wine snobbery or the arts. With respect to the arts, you most commonly hear about how the scientist being lionized plays a musical instrument in a band. Presumably this ties into our societal obsession with rock n rollers and their supposed rebel natures. We know Francis Collins plays the guitar in a band. We know Nora Volkow likes to run. I can’t remember hearing about any community minded hobbies of any of the other IC directors.

You don’t hear about how the awesome scientist pulls his (it’s usually a him) weight at home in these types of settings. Obsessive plumbing leak fixer! Soccer dad! Makes meals for his family on the regular!

You don’t hear about community stuff either. Many scientists participate in local groups for improving the schools or city governance or their faith community. Many spend their time volunteering in the classroom.

And it isn’t just the puff pieces that draw this distinction between the externally-focused activities and the obsessively internally-focused ones. Academic science actually punishes people for anything they do that isn’t self-oriented.

If one is highly accomplished in science it is okay to have hobbies as long as they are obsessively self-involved ones like running marathons. It is obvious that any sort of external activity or hobby is only okay if the science work is considered to be of the highest rank. If one is considering a middle of the road scientist then clearly they should be spending more time at work and less time training for a marathon!

Look, I get that we like to know more about people’s life outside of their work. Pursuit of the personal detail fuels industries valued in the billions of dollars when it comes to famous movie stars, musicians, politicians and professional athletes. There is no reason that people in science wouldn’t also have an interest in the non-work activities of the more famous members of our professions.

But still. The relative selectivity in what we choose to lionize versus criticize about our science peers seems meaningful to me. It has an effect on all of us, including (most importantly) our trainees. Personally, I do not want people in science thinking (no matter how implicitly) that obsessive, self-involved hobbies are associated with the most revered scientists and that community type, external benefit activities are the hallmark of the scientific nobody.

Perhaps we could think twice about those seminar speaker intros we give and the nature of the puff pieces we write or contribute background to.

*Calm yourselves debate champeens. This set of observations is about which hobbies we choose to laud in a professional context and which ones we do not. It doesn’t mean you are horrible for running every day. Exercise is healthy and good for you. We should all do more of it.

**And I should also note that this doesn’t have to devolve into “I only have time for work” snark, no matter the reality. I’m not criticizing hobbies and activities at all. I think that is great if you have things that make you happy. Again, this is about the type of such non-science hobbies that we find reason to congratulate or merely to note in a professionally-oriented biographical piece.

The Director of the NIH went to testify before Congress today and one of the tweets from the @NIH account summarized a point he was making thusly:

In case there is any trouble with the auto post of the tweet, it reads in part:

And, now, on to my favorite: Scientific Inspiration. I can assure you that researchers funded by #NIH come to work every day full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those ideas through.

It is, of course, very likely true that on any given day of the year there are at least two researchers (he did use the plural) who come to work full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those idea through. Given the size and scope of the NIH funding mission (let us assume he meant extramural, not just intramural, funding) this is statistically obvious.

What is not true, however, is the broader implication that all or even most researchers who are funded by NIH extramural grants have the wherewithal to see their many innovative ideas through. If this is what he conveyed, intentional or not, he misled Congress. I was going to say “lied to” but I really have no idea whether Francis Collins legitimately believes this false notion to be true or not.

The @NIH twitter also pointed out that Director Collins bragged how they were focusing on, and increasing, the number of funded young investigators:

In an environment where the NIH budget has been essentially flatlined since 2004 (with a resulting decrement in purchasing power, due to inflation) you cannot increase the number of funded investigators without decreasing the amount of grant funding each of the investigators enjoys, on average. As we know, the purchasing power of the full modular R01 (the workhorse award) has declined substantially, it is now something like 61% of what it was in 2000.

Ever increasing numbers of applications resulted in decreasing per-application success rates all through the 2000s. Data from the NIH website show that success rates of under 20% have been the reality for the past 7 years.

At last report from the NIH, most investigators held one or two major awards from the NIH at any one time. The reality of poor success rates has meant that maintaining consistent funding with one or two awards across time is very uncertain. Even the ability to competitively continue an existing award given reasonable progress has essentially disappeared. PIs have to put in competing continuations early and many of us realize that we have to have overlapping “new” awards on the same topic in order to have any decent chance of continuity of a research program.

The loss of funding can have dire consequences. It means technicians, students or postdocs may have to be let go. New staff cannot be brought on board until funding is re-acquired. There will be a significant delay until postdocs and graduate students can be recruited (up to 12 months is not unusual). And as Datahound analyzed, the cumulative probability of a lab regaining funding after a gap was 20% within 2 years (in 2012) and reached an asymptote of about 40% within 5-6 years in prior Fiscal Year data.

I have been around approximately continuously NIH grant funded PIs for about two decades now. I have engaged similar folks in online discussion for over a decade, broadening my experiences beyond my department and subfield.

It is simply not true that the majority of NIH funded scientists enjoy some sort of halcyon period where we all “come to work full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those idea through”. Most of the time, we come to work fearful that we cannot maintain the wherewithal to keep the laboratory functioning in a minimally healthy way with reasonably good expectations for a continuously funded future for the duration of our careers. And we spend too much time strategizing about how to maintain the wherewithal.

Admittedly, it isn’t all terrible all the time. I would estimate something on the order of 20-25%ish of my time as a grant funded PI has indeed been great. I have had extended intervals of time in which I did have the wherewithal to come to work focused only on the scientific ideas I wanted to pursue. It is AWESOME to have these intervals. Really. I totally get it. I appreciate it. I love(d) these times.

But it is not the constant reality of the vast majority of NIH funded PIs that I talk to. It has not been my consistent reality.

The fact that the very head of the NIH does not seem to understand this is dismaying. It means that nothing will change. And, in fact, given his glee at creating yet more mouths at the trough this aspect of NIH funded science will continue to get worse under his Directorship.

I was trained to respond to peer review of my submitted manuscripts as straight up as possible. By this I mean I was trained (and have further evolved in training postdocs) to take every comment as legitimate and meaningful while trying to avoid the natural tendency to view it as the work of an illegitimate hater. This does not mean one accepts every demand for a change or alters one’s interpretation in preference for that of a reviewer. It just means you take it seriously.

If the comment seems stupid (the answer is RIGHT THERE), you use this to see where you could restate the point again, reword your sentences or otherwise help out. If the interpretation is counter to yours, see where you can acknowledge the caveat. If the methods are unclear to the reviewer, modify your description to assist.

I may not always reach some sort of rebuttal Zen state of oneness with the reviewers. That I can admit. But this approach guides my response to manuscript review. It is unclear that it guides everyone’s behavior and there are some folks that like to do a lot of rebuttal and relatively less responding. Maybe this works, maybe it doesn’t but I want to address one particular type of response to review that pops up now and again.

It is the provision of an extensive / awesome response to some peer review point that may have been phrased as a question, without incorporating it into the revised manuscript. I’ve even seen this suboptimal approach extend to one or more paragraphs of (cited!) response language.

Hey, great! You answered my question. But here’s the thing. Other people are going to have the same question* when they read your paper. It was not an idle question for my own personal knowledge. I made a peer review comment or asked a peer review question because I thought this information should be in the eventual published paper.

So put that answer in there somewhere!

*As I have probably said repeatedly on this blog, it is best to try to treat each of the three reviewers of your paper (or grant) as 33.3% of all possible readers or reviewers. Instead of mentally dismissing them as that weird outlier crackpot**.

**this is a conclusion for which you have minimal direct evidence.

Anti-Nepotism Rules

August 21, 2018

The University of Texas, Austin rule states, in part:

No University employee may approve, recommend, or otherwise take action with regard to the appointment, reappointment, promotion, salary or supervision of a close relative as defined by this policy.

which is not, I think, uncommon.

So: No hiring your spouse or supervising your spouse.

There is also some weasel language that could potentially undercut the policy in practice. If you become married or a spouse transfers under your putative supervision, there has to be notification but it is allowed. The the management and oversight of this nepotistic employee goes to the PI’s boss.

This is likely how a thin veneer of red tape covers the case of a spouse working in the lab of an appointed Professorial rank person.

So nepotism is officially bad, but University policy has enough wiggle room to permit a de facto case of hiring and supervision of one’s spouse.

In a lab the idea of getting meaningful supervisory oversight from the PI’s supervisor is a joke. It in no way can mitigate preferential treatment and in fact justifies it. The PI can set work hours, discipline for poor performance and even fire everyone *except* the spouse.

I think the NIH should more frequently use the power of the purse to change the behavior of Universities. I expressed this recently in the context of a Congressional demand for information from the NIH Director on the NIH oversight of the civil rights obligations of their awardee institutions. I have probably expressed this in other contexts as well. Before the invention of the K99/R00 one saw handwringing from the NIH about how Universities wouldn’t hire less experienced PhDs and this was the RealProblem accounting for the time-to-first-R01 stat. My observation at the time was that if the NIH was serious they could just ask Universities for their hiring stats and tell ones that didn’t hire enough young faculty that they were going to go to the back of the line for any special consideration awards.

This could also apply to occasionally bruited NIH concerns about women, underrepresented groups and other classes of folks not typically treated well by Universities. Exhibit lower than average hiring or promoting of women or URM professors? You go to the back of the special consideration line, sorry.

My suggestions are typically met with “we can’t” when I am talking to various NIH Program types and various grades of “they can’t” when talking to extramural folks about it.

Of course the NIH can.

They already do.

One very specific case of this is the K99/R00 award when it comes time for administrative review of the R00 phase hiring package. If the NIH finds the proposed hiring package to be deficient they can refuse to award the R00. I have no idea how many times this has been invoked. I have no idea how many times an initial offer of a University has been revised upwards because NIH program balked at the initial offer. But I am confident it has happened at least once. And it is certainly described extensively as a privilege the NIH reserves to itself.

A more general case is the negotiation of award under unusual circumstances. The NIH allows exemptions from the apparent rules all the time. (I say “apparent” because of course NIH operates within the rules at all times. There are just many rules and interpretations of them, I suspect.) They can, and do, refuse to make awards when an original PI is unavailable and the Uni wants to substitute someone else. They cut budgets and funded years. They can insist that other personnel are added to the project before they will fund it. They will pick up some but not other awards with end of year funds based on the overhead rate.

These things have a manipulating effect on awardee institutions. It can force them to make very specific and in some cases costly (startup packages, equipment, space) changes from what they would otherwise have done.

This is NIH using the power of the purse to force awardee institutions to do things. They have this power.

So the only question is whether they choose to use it, for any particular goal that they claim to be in favor of achieving.

A comment from pielcanelaphd on a prior post tips us off to a new report (PDF) from the General Accountability Office, described as a report to Congressional Committees.

The part of the report that deals with racial and ethnic disparities is mostly recitation of the supposed steps NIH has been taking in the wake of the Ginther report in 2011. But what is most important is the inclusion of Figure 2, an updated depiction of the funding rate disparity.
GAO-18-545:NIH RESEARCH Action Needed to Ensure Workforce Diversity Strategic Goals Are Achieved

These data are described mostly as the applicant funding rate or similar. The Ginther data focused on the success rate of applications from PIs of various groups. So if these data are by applicant PI and not by applications, there will be some small differences. Nevertheless, the point remains that things have not improved and PIs from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups experience a disparity relative to white PIs.

Readers of this blog will not need too much reminder that sexual harassment and sex-based workplace discrimination are very much a problem in academic science. We have seen numerous cases of this sort of academic misconduct reach the national and sometimes international press in the past several years. Indeed, recent discussions on this blog have mentioned the cases of Thomas Jessell and Inder Verma as well as three cases at Dartmouth College.

In these cases, and ones of scientific fraud, I and others have expressed frustration that the NIH does not appear to use what we see as its considerable power of the purse and bully pulpit to discourage future misconduct. My view is that since NIH award is a privilege and not a right, the NIH could do a lot to help their recipient institutions see that taking cases of misconduct more seriously is in their (the recipient institution’s) best interest. They could pull the grants associated with any PI who has been convicted of misconduct, instead of allowing the University to appoint a replacement PI. They could refuse to make any new awards or, less dramatically, make any exception pickups if they aren’t happy with the way the University has been dealing with misconduct. They could focus on training grants or F-mech fellowships if they see a particular problem in the treatment of trainees. Etc. Lots of room to work since the NIH decides all the time to fund this grant and not that grant for reasons other than the strict order of review.

Well, two Democratic members of Congress have sent a letter (PDF) to NIH Director Francis Collins gently requesting* information on how NIH is addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. And the overall message is in line with the above belief that NIH can and should play a more active role in addressing sexual misconduct and harassment.

As pointed out in a Mike the Mad Biologist’s post on this letter, these two Congresspeople have a lot of potential power if the Democrats return to the majority.

are ranking members of committees that oversee NIH funding–and if the Democrats take back the House or Senate, would be the leaders of those committees.

One presumes that the NIH will be motivated to take this seriously and offer up some significant response. Hopefully they can do this by what seems a rather optimistic deadline of 8/17/2018, given the letter was dated 8/06/2018.

The first 6 listed items to which NIH is being asked to response seem mostly to do with the workings of Intramural NIH, both Program and the IRP. Those are of less interest as a dramatic change, important as they are.

Most importantly, the letter puts the NIH squarely on the hook for the way that it ensures that the extramural awardee institutions are behaving. Perhaps obviously, the power of NIH to oversee issues of harassment at all of the Universities, Institutes and companies that they fund is limited. The main point of justification in this letter is the NOT-OD-15-152: Civil Rights Protections in NIH-Supported Research, Programs, Conferences and Other Activities.

To give you a flavor:

Federal civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, and age in all programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance, and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs or activities conducted by colleges and universities. These protections apply in all settings where research, educational programs, conferences, and other activities are supported by NIH, and apply to all mechanisms of support (i.e., grant awards, contracts and cooperative agreements). The civil rights laws protect NIH-supported investigators, students, fellows, postdocs, participants in research, and other individuals involved in activities supported by NIH.

The notice then goes on to list several specific statutes, some of which are referenced in footnotes to the letter.
The Murray/DeLauro letter concentrates on the obligation recipient institutions have to file an Assurance of Compliance with the Health and Human Services (NIH’s parent organization) Office of Civil Rights and the degree to which NIH exercises oversight on these Assurances.

I think the motivations of Senatory Murray and Rep DeLauro are on full display in this passage (emphasis added).

“It therefore appears that NIH’s only role…is confirming…institution has signed, dated, and mailed the compliance document….

This lack of engagement from NIH is particularly unacceptable in light of disturbing news reports that cases of sexual harassment in the academic sciences often involve high profile faculty offenders whose behavior is considered an ‘open secret’.

…colleagues may have warned new faculty and students…..but institutions themselves take little to no action.”

It is on.