The latest idiocy, and we should remember to be taking a grain of salt for possible journalistic pull-quote shenanigans, is from the authors of a study showing that women applicants to the NIH get less money than do men. In Science, Jocelyn Kaiser quotes the author as follows on the issue of unfairly conflating all award types.

But Brian Uzzi, a co-author on the JAMA paper with postdocs Diego Oliveira and Yifang Ma, defends his team’s decision to cast a wide net and study a range of funding categories besides R01s and other RPGs. The R01s made up only 11% of all NIH grant money in the study, he notes. And, he adds, even if it’s for a resource or a conference, “any grant money is advantageous for an individual’s career.”

This is stupid. No, not all NIH awards are viewed the same with respect to an individual’s career, nor do all awards contribute to the career of the individual in the same way. So while it may be the case that any grant money is advantageous, it is not all equally advantageous. I am particularly struck by the mention of the conference award (see R25, for example). Sure, kudos for organizing a conference and kudos for not being the one that cratered the long-running Gordon conference’s NIH support this year. But DUDE. Are you so unaware of the disproportionate expectation that women do service work? and the price they pay for doing so? And, it is to organize a conference. There is NO FREEKIN WAY a measly conference award contributes to the laboratory goals and the career of the PI in the same way as another R01 award.

And the R01 itself? Versus other awards? Sorry but being the PI of a P01 or P50/60 Center or a large U01 means different things in a career assessment. They are not all one mix of substitutable values. For that matter if you get the same amount of cash via R03 and R21 awards it is never going to be viewed in the same way as the R01. Jeremy Berg quote from the article was spot on.

Jeremy Berg, a former NIGMS director who is now editor-in-chief of Science, calls the study “sloppy” because it “mixes apples and oranges.”

An interesting pre-print discussion emerged on Twitter today in the wake of an observation

that members of study sections apparently are not up to speed on the NIH policy encouraging the use of pre-prints and permitting them to be cited in NIH grant applications. The relevant Notice [NOT-OD-17-050] was issued in March of 2017 and it is long past time for most reviewers to be aware of what pre-prints are, what they are not and to understand that NIH has issued the above referenced Notice.

Now, the ensuring Twitscussion diverted off into several related topics but the part I find worth addressing is a tone that suggests that not only should NIH grant reviewers understand what a pre-print it, but that they should view them in some particular way. Typically this is expressed as outrage that reviewers do not view pre-prints favorably and essentially just like a published paper. On this I do not agree and will push a different agenda. NIH reviewers were not told how to view pre-prints in the context of grant review by the NIH as far as I know. Or, to the extent the NIH issued instructions, it was to essentially put pre-prints down below peer reviewed work.

The NIH agrees that interim research products offer lower quality information than peer-reviewed products. This policy is not intended to replace peer-review, nor peer-reviewed journals …

Further, the NIH is instructing awardees to explicitly state in preprints text that the work is not peer-reviewed.  These two practices should help reviewers easily identify interim products.  The NIH will offer explicit guidance to reviewers reminding them that interim research products are not peer-reviewed. Further, since interim products are new to so many biomedical disciplines, the NIH hopes that these conventions will become the norm for all interim products, and will help the media and the public understand that interim products have undergone less review than peer-reviewed articles.

Given this, I would suggest that NIH reviewers are quite free to discount pre-prints entirely, to view them as preliminary data (and be grumpy about this as an effort to evade the page limits of the NIH application)…..or to treat them as fully equivalent to a peer reviewed paper because they disagree with the NIH’s tone / take on this. Reviewers get to decided. And as is typical, if reviewers on the same panel disagree they are free to hammer this disagreement out during the Discussion of applications.

I believe that pre-print fans should understand that they have to advocate and discuss their views on pre-prints and also understand that merely whinge about how reviewers must be violating the integrity of review or some such if they do not agree with the most fervent pre-print fans is not helpful. We advocate first by using pre-prints with regularity ourselves. We advocate next by taking advantage of the NIH policy and citing our pre-prints in our grant applications, identified as such. Then, if we happen to be invited to serve on study sections we can access a more direct lever, the Discussion of proposals. (Actually, just writing something in the critique about how it is admirable would be helpful as well. NIH seems to suggest in their Notice that perhaps this would go under Rigor.)

Money Talks

March 7, 2019

When you are looking to advance in academic science, sure everything is supposed to be about “scientific merit”. And who knows, maybe that is indeed a very large driver but as we all know there is nothing objective about that assessment. CNS pubs, JIF points, per article citations, overall scientist citations, h-index, “actually reading the papers”….. pfagh.

It’s the money that is a universal language. Grant money. Money that is under your control right now. Your history of acquiring grant money and the deployment of that history to predict your future ability to secure grant money.

We talk about this topic now and again. I have made this blog in very large part about how getting grant money works (and fails to work) within the US biomedical science setting. In this I get pushback from a lot of directions, including those individuals that are basically only lamenting that this is a reality. We also have those individuals that think it is gauche to talk about such things, indecorous to reveal our dirty scrabbling efforts or to suggest that fellow scientists should think hard about how to get grants.

Well, I’ve just been through a process in which no fewer than three academic institutes were deciding whether to employ YHN and simultaneously deciding whether to employ some other scientists working in roughly the same areas as me. And I am here to tell you…it is better to have grant money than not to have grant money. I happened to be on an upswing when most of the decisions were being made and it counted. A lot.

So keep sending in those applications people. Keep your foot on the floor. It is what gets you opportunity. It is what keeps you employed. It is what allows your other talents (like that science stuff) to be so much as viewed. Don’t let anyone gaslight you with “don’t get to big for your britches, junior” or “grants are a means not an ends” (yeah no duh, what does that even mean) or versions of “uppity” or “it’s only fair if every person that wants a grant gets one” or anything else. For you, you in particular? The lesson is clear. Get the money. Do the science. Get some more money. Do some more science.

Minor update

March 7, 2019

I’m in the midst of a significant career….something. Plainly put, I’m changing jobs in the very near future and will be moving my laboratory. As you are used to, Dear Reader, I have a tendency to work out stuff I’ve been thinking about on the blog. Sometimes it is long delayed from the triggering event(s). Sometimes it comes up as a weird pastiche of many different experiences that I have drawn together in my mind. Most of the time I think that what I have been pondering may have some value in terms of the career aspects of this blog that keeps some Readers coming around.

This will be no different.

So I thought I should give a little bit of alert and outline to my remaining Readers.

Up to this point, as you know, I describe my job as an exclusively soft money gig. I’m responsible for securing grants to fund my lab operation and the salaries of my staff. Most pointedly, my own. I tend not to be highly specific about my career timeline on the blog but I’m coming up on two decades as a lab head and as a continuously NIH funded one at that. (touch wood). So this feels like a big mid-career change of the variety that I would prefer there be only one. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past two years about “the second half of my career” in the context of this transition.

Oh yeah. It has been a two year process. And it has a story. Actually, it has many stories. With many, many moving parts and it involves an unusually large number of other people. So. It is not impossible that I will feel unable to talk about some parts of this and may have to flat out lie about some other things if I think it violates someone’s privacy too much. And I will use my usual unreservedly heavy hand of moderation in the comments if anyone strays too far afield with specifics.

At any rate, the thumbnail sketch is this. I will be in a University med school department environment within a few months. It is still a soft money type gig and the expectations of me do not change. I’m supposed to get grants, do science and publish science. I do, however, get partial hard money support of my salary which is a change. Other major changes include the fact I’m going to have to do some teaching and service work that I’ve been able to essentially dodge up to this point, but nothing terribly onerous. I anticipate dealing with a lot more bureaucracy than I had to negotiate up until now.


Before I address that, I have some more blog notes. I started this blog in 2007, using a pseudonym for various reasons of which only some involve me in a personal way. As part of that, and to support those reasons, I tried to keep a lot of personal specifics out of the discussion. This has had its pluses and minuses over the years, and some hilariousity when people assumed I was older, whiter, more female and a host of other things compared with my actual self. Nevertheless it was always my mantra that pseuds only work in a particular direction and if anyone knows your real voice they are going to sniff out your pseud in a trice. And I’ve found this to be true. It is occasionally so obvious to some people that they literally cannot believe you mean the pseud to actually be detached from your real identity and they will bust out with the connection in broad daylight without any particular malign intent. Some time ago a not-all-that-close-to-me colleague referred to my pseud as “the worst kept secret in drug abuse (science)”. Probably true. Most pertinently, my current department colleagues know, my trainees know and my colleagues’ trainees know. The point person on the hire that has resulted in my new job has known since before this all started- pretty sure some key communications occurred on Twitter DMs. Some of the colleagues in the department I am joining know. The blog is something I mention on career brag documents so anyone who was asked to write a reference letter for me knows. The point is that this narrows the space of who I am potentially talking about when I indirectly mention others who are involved in my current job transition. Or when I only mention things that involve other people. So I’m going to have to be a little bit careful, although inevitably my points about myself may draw some contrasts or point some fingers.

On to the “whys”.

  • I miss being on a University campus.
  • I’ve always existed on the outskirts of a department that is itself on the outskirts of my current institution. Scientifically and politically, which has had implications for my career, believe me. I am joining a department for which my work is more in the comfort zone. For now, at least, I feel my work will be a lot more appreciated.
  • My current institution has had its financial and administrative instability hit the papers occasionally. No need for specifics but ultimately I cannot be 100% certain my job in it, or the institution itself, will last my desired career length. The University I am joining will still be here after my grand children are dead.
  • Partial hard money salary, with a tenure guarantee of same until I retire, is a large contrast with my prospects in my current gig.

I was going to say “in no particular order” but right now reading this, it looks like my actual order. fwiw. As far as the other stuff goes, you may assume it is all workable at the worst. Space and support for my work and what not. All good enough to make it work.

The career of an academic scientist is assisted mightily by self-confidence. This is hardly news. But there exist a plethora of insults to our intelligence, preparation, accomplishments and ideas that plague us. Application to graduate school is itself an attack- it’s a cool career and yet you may not be allowed to do it. If you aren’t good enough. On paper. We’ve argued recently about the GRExit but this ties into a broader argument about the “best” way to select graduate students. Which is basically a way of telling some people they suck. The mere fact that we furiously debate which attributes of the applicant are most important should serve as a warning guide post for the future of academia.

There are no fixed agreements about standards of evaluation. This means that literally EVERYBODY SUCKS. (On at least one metric that is super important to someone else in a position to judge us.) That’s just the beginning. Rotations. Qualification exams. Advancement to candidacy. The dissertation “defense”. Manuscript review is notoriously brutal. Grant review is probably even worse. At every turn, the academic is told that she or he is unworthy. A healthy dose of self-confidence comes in handy in my experience.

My gut reaction to most of the slings and arrows has been, and continues to be: “Fuck you! Who are YOU to judge ME you %&*%&*$%%*^?!????”

Internally anyway. I don’t actually say this out loud or in response to a disappointing review. But I knuckle down and start crafting my response to whatever is attacking me, if I need to do so (manuscripts, grant applications), or let it wash over me if I need to ignore it.

This may possibly be genetic. I was having a conversation with some area ~teens recently in which I was trying to get them to see that boundless self-confidence was something they should see as a privilege of being them. I may possible have observed “Do you notice how each and every person in this family pretty much thinks that they themselves are the best possible and always most-correct in every way person on earth?”. Everyone had to ruefully admit that I was right (and to be honest people, I’m the least self-confident person in my family if that tells you anything) but I am not certain that moved the needle much on understanding the privilege issue.

Anyway. I continue to be concerned with a career path that makes such an advantage for the self-confident, and what this means about the people we are selecting for/against. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with self-confidence and I don’t really mind that life might be a little competitive and silly now and again. I am very grateful that I happen to have these traits and am not hamstrung by self-doubt. But there is no reason we need assume that the best science is going to emerge if we make sure that those that lack self-confidence do not succeed.

Tactically I try to show trainees and some junior faculty that it’s not them, it’s the process. That the business tries to beat up everyone. That grant getting is an issue of overwhelmingly bad statistical chances, not an issue of them being unworthy. I really don’t know what else to do.