US Doctorates Awarded

April 29, 2020

One thing that I usual forget and Michael Hendricks has to remind me of is that you cannot explain the Boomer hegemony on the basis of the population size of the US Baby Boom relative to the GenX.

I was struck by this type of graph back a few years ago when the total number of births in the US, not the rate- the raw number, finally exceeded the peak year (1961 I believe) of the baby boom (this isn’t extending forward enough in this particular version but I posted it awhile ago so there you are). It makes it pretty clear why GenX always feels squeezed between the Boomers and their children, the Milennials, here termed Gen Y.

I used to think about this when I was grousing about the way GenX has been treated in academia, academic careers and grant funded science. But the issue is even worse because, as Professor Hendricks points out, GenX actually has MORE PhDs than do the Boomers. Not proportionally…total.

Roughly speaking the Boomers started exiting graduate school around 1972. They continued to be the majority of doctorates earned until the early 1990s when the first of the GenXers started to exit graduate school. You can see the year over year stability of doctorate production for the Boomers, followed by the acceleration in numbers when GenX hit their mid 20s. A smaller population of people, but more PhDs being generated, year after year.

Why? Well it’s complicated. Late 80s was still dicey economic times, prior to the Clinton era tech boom, and we earlier GenX were thinking grad school was a decent place to park ourselves for awhile. The doubling hit the NIH and more money was available for graduate stipends. There was the traditional loose talk about massive older faculty retirements, but this time coupled data! I.e., it was presented along with the anticipated need for higher education for the Boomer echo (aka their kids. aka the Milennials) that was already obvious to demographers. And, as mentioned in a prior post, everyone was either ignoring, or not realizing the impact of, the end of mandatory retirement policies. Apparently nobody realized the great investment in higher education during the 50s and 60s was not in fact merely temporary casualty of the Reagan “recover” strategy. They didn’t realize the tax payers weren’t going to come back to the table once economic times were better (and they were during the early 90s onward until Bush’s wars messed everything up). They didn’t realize the adjunctification of education would be the outcome of Reaganist policy.

So, as we know, the NIH doubling did not result in the funding of new labs for younger folks, the GenXers that were exiting grad school during the doubling. It resulted in the expansion of labs under one existing PI. It resulted, to lesser degree, in the expansion of funding to existing professors in institutions or departments that mayhap previously did not seek grants from the NIH as assiduously. It facilitated Deans who were responding to the gradual pull-back of public, State level funds from the Universities with a demand that their faculty secure more and more external funding. Which required…warm bodies.

The growing labs needed more graduate students to do the work. And then, of course, mid level management and higher skilled labor..enter the postdoc! It was a tremendous time for Boomer faculty (and pre-Boomer, let’s not let them off the hook). They were the ones that invented up reasons why graduate school now had to take 5, 6 or more years for their students to “be competitive”. (In an entirely made up game of scarcity directed to the benefit of…you guessed it). Then it was “oh but you definitely need some postdoctoral training to be competitive”. Never mind that they themselves barely did 2 years postdoc, if any, statistically speaking before they landed their jobs starting back in the early 1970s. But it was awesome! The NIH budget doubling meant it was easy to get and keep funding. Easy for the more energetic to get more and more funding and keep on growing their labs. More and more hands under each Professor’s direction and supervision. This is why nowadays when I ask people what they think of as a medium sized labs they settle on numbers around 7. “Medium”. Look at the “lab picture” page on your average faculty website these days. It coincides with this sort of interpretation of what people think of as “a lab” in academic, NIH grant funded biomedical science.


The main point is that GenX is not squeezed merely because we are fewer in (population) number relative to the Boomers. There are actually more of us with PhDs. We’ve just been kept away from the levers of power in disproportion to our PhD numbers.

I once wrote a really whiny post. No, not that one. No…not that other one. Nope, not that either. No… sigh.

Okay, it was the one where I was whinging about Generation X never, ever reaching their true potential as a scientific generation in the US. Apparently I wrote that 5 years ago. One whole NIH R01 grant cycle ago. In 2011 when there was some hope brewing that we were coming out of the Great Bush Recession.

Welp. Thanks to COVID-19 it looks like we have more Recession type times ahead. And right on cue we are seeing various versions of those who are retired, and those who should be retiring, complaining about the stock market and what a hardship it is for them. My parents, as it happens, are in the first category. They are not by any means in any hardship for their retirement because of this, btw. Any part of their living money that is going to go down because of this Recession is only a part of what they live on. My academic parent secured a tenure track job back when they were accompanied with real, defined benefit pension deals. Generous ones by modern standards, where they even exist.

Also, they are actually pre-Boomer and the offspring of the Depression, which means that they don’t even like to spend money on themselves anyway. So they are fine.

In this week’s Boomer Digest, a Professor and ex-Dean at MIT has written an Op-Ed that I think is intended to be helpful. A Professor Fitzgerald writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that:

We senior scholars need to get out of the way, graciously and with dignity. A great deal of the power, glory, and heart of our departments and universities is there because of our work, but we need to recognize when it is time to pass that on to the next generation.

But along the way to this conclusion she reminds us that the Boomers got their jobs at a time when a prior generation was subject to mandatory age-related retirement.

Congress had just amended the age-discrimination law in 1986 to prohibit mandatory retirement when I started my academic career. Higher education was exempt, however, and institutions could still force professors to retire at 70. Yet at that point of my career, nothing could have been further from my mind than my own retirement plan.

LOL, “age-discrimination law” is a bit of a reveal. Ahem. Note that it was 70 instead of 65 or 68 like I seem to remember for other jobs….but still. Wait, hang on…the gravy train continued for a few more years?

As a young scholar, I believed that academics died with our boots on. One of the great things about being part of a “thinking” profession was that, barring illness or death, thinking would never end. My research and teaching would just get better with time, and my students and colleagues would value my wisdom and experience. I continued to believe that in 1993, when higher education’s exemption expired and professors could no longer be forced out at 70.

Let me do the math here. 48. The first of the Boomers were 48 years of age when mandatory retirement for those above them was ended. In 1979, the earliest Bridges to Independence includes, the age of first assistant professorship in US medical schools was 34 (Fig. 2-4a). As we know from Advancing the Nation’s Health Needs: NIH Research Training Programs (Figure 9-2), it was around 1979 before even 50% of PhDs in biomed were in postdocs for 1-2 years and 3-4 year postdoc stints were less than half as common. Round about 1973 when that graph starts, the first wave of Boomers were in their late 20s and had probably been sucking up jobs like crazy for two years by then. Note that the very first wave of the GenX were maybe clearing graduate school right around 1992ish as the last cohorts of Boomers were coming through.

It is only the very tail end of the Baby Boom generation that was facing their search for a faculty job without any sort of mandatory retirement in place to clear out the generation that came before them. Gen X has, in contrast, faced this for all of their professorial job seeking in academia.

The famous Figure 1-2 of the aforementioned Bridges to Independence report tells the NIH grant tale. For reference the front of the Boomer wave was 36 right when the chart starts in 1980. The GenX front edge was this age round about 2001. The difference in the percent of successful applicants for NIH funding could not be any more obvious. By that time, the cohort of funded applicants 35 years or younger was reduced to a fourth or a fifth as large as it had been when the Boomers were their age.

These two issues are, of course, related. Gen X could not secure jobs as early as did the Boomers and so were always 5+ years behind anyway.

This is not absolution. Quite the contrary.

Five years of building wealth is a long time. Especially when you add the 20 years of generational time into relative inflation of housing costs and student loan generating educational costs. Boomers had fewer outstanding student loan dollars because, Oh, that’s right, the prior generations built OUTSTANDING public-funded Universities for the Boomer’s to attend for very low costs. Which the Boomers promptly decided to stop paying for once they reached the workforce, voting age and started backing Republicanism with respect to taxes and public goods/investments, even if they otherwise pretended to be Democrats. Boomers had lower relative housing costs by far.

Which brings me back to the excuses Professor Fitzgerald outlines as she is, I think(?), attempting to chivvy her compatriots into decent behavior.

Not all of us can afford to. Money is a key reason why many faculty members keep working. It is hard to accept a big pay cut — which is what most retirement arrangements involve — when we are still the sole or primary breadwinner. In addition, some of us didn’t plan ahead financially. I know there are those (mostly economists?) who figured out their retirement options in their first month on the job. But the rest of us didn’t, and some of us even pushed aside financial planning until really late in the game, like at age 60, by which time our options were limited.

This is the part that is setting GenX SciTweeter’s collective hair on fire. OMG, we are thinking. After all these generational advantages you have enjoyed you STILL think you need MORE!??!!! Sole or primary breadwinner? O M G that brings up ANOTHER factor which is that modern academics cannot always just expect to support another non-working person as their spouse!!!!! Gen X academia just fricken EXPECTS that of course both spouses are going to be working, how else could we possibly survive?

Yes my hair is most assuredly on fire, Dear Reader.

Professor Fitzgerald’s piece had gone through a positive litany of deadwood accusations, fessing up to them, just before this. She admitted that her rapidly emeritizing peers didn’t actually want to work, shoved most onerous responsibilities in the department onto younger faculty and STILL says they feel entitled to cruise along, taking salary BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T PLAN WELL and can’t face losing any income. Even, I guess, faculty who got a Dean upgrade to their compensation some time ago and probably, going by the way things usually work, never really lost all of that extra compensation as the go back to regular faculty.

These, I will note are some of the faculty that write “just one more NIH grant” to make it to retirement. They said that last recession, btw, so this is round two for some of them. These are the faculty that NIH Program decides need the R56 Bridge or “just one last” pickup because they are otherwise out of funding and “would have to close their lab”.

It is easy to see the people who are in front of us. It is easy to see the people we have seen in front of us for decades.

It is really, really hard to see the people who haven’t had a chance yet.

It is even harder, impossible even, to see the opportunity cost of losing the full potential contribution of those who are “doing just fine“.

I don’t know what the solution is. I try as hard as I can on this blog to get people to grapple with the do-it-to-Julia problem of pointing the finger desperately at those other guys over there. I very sincerely mean that we are not going to solve all of the issues by putting some sort of mandatory retirement into place. Not at all. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain….realities. I try to get people to grapple with the zero sum nature of the NIH funding, the endless creation of new mouths to feed and the ever marching encrappification of life as a grant funded academic scientist. I occasionally muse about the wisdom of “saving” a lab with 5 years max to run, and 30+ years of wonderful opportunities taken, versus never letting one with 30 year future even start. Or even just saving one with 15 years to go instead. I wonder (okay, complain) about the wisdom of NIH’s tepid buyoff schemes that are occasionally bruited about-where emeritizing Profs are supposed to be a paid nanny to a younger person’s award.

Whenever I point out these generational facts of life, or even try to have a discussion, the Boomers freak the fuck out. How dare I? I’m morally certain that some of them have punished, and probably still do punish, me at grant review for daring to talk about careerism, priorities and the history of our business on this blog. Also for my apparent lack of respect for seniority when it came to my years appointed on a study section when I was just past early, early career. No doubt I get some Program Officer decisions going against me for the same reasons. They are Boomers too.

My online friends who happen to be Boomers get really, really angry with me too. How dare I? They didn’t enjoy any of this supposed Boomer privilege I am describing. Why, they are a woman in science! or a POC in science. Or something. They never had it good. Look at all the suffering they went through and are going through. THEY HAVE LESS GRANT SUCCESS THAN SOME GENXers OF THEIR ACQUAINTANCE SO CLEARLY THIS IS BULLSHIT!!!!! AIIIIIIEEEEE.

They can only look up and see how other people had it better. Because nobody can ever, ever, ever look themselves in the mirror and admit that they had some privileges relative to anyone else. Even their like to like comparison person in a different generation.

See, DM, they shout at YHN. You go first! You are so selfless, let’s see you retire. Or stop seeking grants. We’ll show you!

I get that in these discussions. One way or another. And as I’ve said repeatedly in similar discussion, I’m no different than anyone else. I like my job and I plan to work to keep it. I am far, far away from making any declarations, such as Professor Fitzgerald is making in her Op/Ed, about my retirement plans.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel privileged to have been given an opportunity for directing grant funded science, sure. I feel very, very lucky that the opportunity was handed to me by the world when it was, and not afterwards, since things kept getting crappier and crappier for the kids these days who followed me. And I don’t feel particularly entitled and deserving of an easy ride in the NIH grant getting game.


That’s the operative term here.

I do feel entitled to a fair shake. From the perspective of now, yes, but also from a historical perspective. And that my friends confounds me. Because this is what smells to me like falling a little too far into entitlement.

Is it? I don’t know. Is it MAGA thinking? Longing for a day that cannot possibly ever be returned to us? Can we never find ANY way to make things a little more livable in this career?

The corona crisis is giving us more time, seemingly, for online and offline navel gazing about the career. Me likey, obviously, but I’m not optimistic. We get new voices involved but we just keep treading the same ground.

And shouting at each other.

Like this.

First Generation

April 24, 2020

It can be difficult to be the first person in your family to do something when it comes to careers and training for them. There are always going to be aspects of that career, or training, that are opaque, obscure or intentionally concealed. Many of these things give an advantage, significantly so in many cases, to those who are aware of them.

Academia is our main concern around here and just about every aspect is easier if you know more about how things work, and especially “how things really work” in several cases where the latter is in contradiction to the surface level information.

In a prior brief post I mentioned that I am, more or less, in the family business, i.e., that of public funded education and academics. I’ve probably blogged or commented several related aspects but suffice it to say, academic careers were not strange to me at any part of my life that I can remember. “Dean is a four letter word” is a concept that was drilled into me since childhood. I’ve known about “undergraduate summer research experiences” since before I left elementary school. I knew about tenure and the difficulties associated with not being “amenable to the senior faculty” (yeah that’s a quote from an actual someone’s initial tenure denial after going up early). I got this sort of vague indoctrination into what it meant to be a “good” professor at a Primarily Undergraduate Instruction institution, as compared with various forms of phone-it-in-deadwood….in certain points of view, of course. I have known if you want to be a Professor you had to go to graduate school to get a PhD since approximately forever.

Despite all of this, there is a metric efftonne of stuff about my career as it unfolded that I had not the foggiest clue about until I was upon it or, most likely, after the fact. I attended a smaller college for undergraduate studies and the research opportunities were limited. My department faculty was all emeritizing at the time and were not doing much research at all. They were not trying to groom us for doctoral studies in any specific way. One relatively new professor took me under his wing, got me some summer research-project funding one year and tried to kind of help me along, but it was not super aggressive in terms of telling me all the ins and outs of career planning.

I have found many aspects of my career opaque, some of which is my own fault of course. I just blundered forward on the immediately observable rules in front of me at the time. “Apply for grad school, this Prof stuff seems like something I would like to do forever“. Apply for these graduate fellowships at the same time, sure why not? Financial aid was familiar from the college application/choice process so…”this is basically the same, I think?“. Which graduate programs? “Well, I want to live here, here or here and not there….I think these programs are somehow ranked in the top 25 of my discipline so..looks good!“.

I knew less than Jon Snow. Somewhere in the process of reviewing graduate school materials I realized they were going to pay me a stipend. Or maybe it was when I started looking for what I thought of initially as “financial aid” to cover tuition and maybe living expenses in part. At some point I connected the dots. I am certain I never cottoned on to this from my family experience. I was missing that piece. I don’t think any of my college professors ever told me this directly (and most of their experiences were decades out of date). I didn’t really think that hard about how graduate training disciplines came with important differences in how graduate support worked. Nobody explained any of this.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I didn’t know how to find out until….oh, around my second postdoc I started to get a clue.

I cannot imagine how hard all of this is for someone who does not have any family members who have completed a four year undergraduate education. I can’t imagine how random it would be for such a person to really grasp, as they are being educated at a research university even, all of these critical facts. I have gone out of my way with every undergraduate who has sought a research experience in my laboratory to point out that graduate school pays a salary. I think it is absolutely critical, if we are to do even the most basic of recruiting efforts with people who are underrepresented in academics and in science.

The world of academia, particularly the one I inhabit, has been much better in recent years about paying attention to first generation students. From undergraduate admissions, retention, support and assistance to the provision of graduate slots and fellowships, through to postdoctoral and faculty funding opportunities, we are treating first generation as special. Explictly or implicitly as if they are an underrepresented minority group.

Now yes, many such individuals are already within some other category of under-representation. Which then makes us ask who is leftover, and of course it generally means less-privileged white folks in these here United States of America. I grew up in a super majority white part of the country where the best hope for a really smart kid from one of the local deeply rooted families was to join the military and gtfo of that place. I am not kidding. Despite the presence of a local undergraduate institution and we, the families of the Professors of said institution, there is no friggin way the local yokel family kid who was really fricken smart (and I went to school with them, there were several) was going to end up where I ended up. Ok, ok, I know that statistically many of you, Dear Readers, did come from similar backgrounds, but the hit rate is really low. I get it. I believe in it. I work for it. We should focus on first generation people as if they are an underrepresented minority.


This gets us deep into the Oppression Olympics about who is most deserving and who needs to come second at the gravy train. There are no good answers and I am sure we all struggle with our own perspectives and biases.

One key issue is passing. A person from my home town who manages to make it into academia may be able to pass entirely. His or her colleagues will never know about their background unless they choose to share. This is countered by the “what about Obama’s kids???” cries about how visual distinction may hide a background that is advantaged and just like everyone in the majority.

Yep. Lots of nasty arguments to be had.

This sort of Oppression Olympics thinking affects our takes on any claims to first generation in academics in weird ways. I’ve seen, I think, people trying to claim that they are super underprivileged because they didn’t have a parent ever go to grad school. Now, Mummy and or Daddy may be four year college educated, possibly at a awesome-name college and the family may be rich as all get out due to success in some endeavor unrelated to anything PhD holders do. But the person has not been around life-long academic scientist types and so feels justified in identifying with hashtag-firstgen with a PhD addendum.

This angers some people.

I am not certain how I feel about it. I feel that many of us can be very much at sea about our careers despite a family steeped in higher education activity. Sometimes it is because the family experience was in a totally different discipline or our experience of it was when that family member was in a totally different job type than the one we are targeting. Sometimes it is because of the decades long gap and the changing nature of being an academic.

On the other hand, yeah, we have a problem in all of USian life right now where everyone in the upper-middle to frankly upper slice wants to define themselves as average. And to actually feel just a little bit under-privileged. Because of course we are always looking up at someone who has a little bit more than us, instead of the majority of this country which has less. It’s common. I get it. But it does also ring a little false to me when someone of apparent socio-economic privileges starts brandishing a “pity me” hashtag of first gen, just because they have two kids in their grad class with parents that published papers in the field they are in.

In the wake of NIH’s announcement of their advice to reviewers to ignore any corona shutdown effects on the generation of preliminary data (blog post) there was a discussion on Science Twitter about fixing the NIH.

As per usual it eventually devolved into me shouting at people about how solutions that derive from their own personal interest are unlikely to be actual solutions. As is usually the case when I piss people off enough, they eventually do the full reveal, totally validating what I am saying. In this case, the person said in tweets that it is okay to ask people “who can afford it to tighten their belts for a year” and that they personally believe that they “have enough money” right now and therefore it would be okay if they happen to get a good score on another grant in the near future it would be just peachy if NIH skipped over it.

It is not news that PIs who feel that they have sufficient grant funding for the near future are totally okay not getting any more, for awhile. Yay for you that you feel all generous ONCE YOU HAVE BEEN SERVED.

This is what I’ve been saying in this particular kerfuffle and online for years. Yeah, we come first. Everything about our views on NIH and fixing perceived problems derives from our own personal selfish interests. It has limits, sure. We know we don’t need ALL of the NIH money. We just “need” what we want, we come first and anything that is left over can support our virtue-blasting prescriptions to help everyone else. Sometimes the “we” is a little broader than our own personal lab. Maybe it is people we feel are categorically like ourselves in some way. Maybe it is our friends. Maybe it is members of our field that we really like (work product-wise). It’s still essentially selfish.

But those other guys. The ones we don’t know. The veiled ‘Others’. Well it is totally okay that they be forced to take a haircut. After all, they can just “tighten their belt”.

It’s almost funny how impenetrable the cognitive defenses are. We NIH-dependent types cannot fathom that for every other person or category of person that we deem to have unwarranted funding or deem able to “tighten their belt”… there are just as many people pointing the finger at us for similar disadvantage. Those people have roughly the same arguments for why they “need” the money as we do (it is almost inevitably some version of “my lab will close down”). And in every case there are numerous somebodies out there pointing the finger and saying, cold-heartedly, “so what, fuck off, you aren’t needed here”.

I don’t know how you can get as far as some people have in this career and not grasp this. Unless you are extremely fortunate in the NIH grant getting game (and there are still some who are) then you have been told regularly, by a panel of your peers, that you and your work are not needed here. That you can take your series of ND grant outcomes and piss off. This should give you pause about your personal entitlement relative to a lot of other people. Relatedly, the NIH at one point started doing what I think they should have been doing since forever- considering the per-investigator success rate. Well, in a rolling 5 year interval some 87 thousand unique PIs submit RPG applications to the NIH and only 32 thousand are awarded grants. Sixty percent of applicants over five years are disappointed. That is peer review telling them they are unworthy.

Then we come to the chatter boxes and opinion havers about who is the Real Problem. We talk about this endlessly. In the current discussion it was the RICH MED SCHOOLS that were screwing everything up. For years we’ve had the discussions where the fingers are pointed at soft money job categories (blaming Universities for creating them and desiring to punish PIs for taking them), jobs at high overhead institutions (ditto) and perceived too-well-funded individuals. We’ve had the kerfuffle over riff-raff. The September 2019 Advisory Council for the Center for Scientific Review included one Councilor stating essentially that if someone hadn’t been funded after a few years of trying this proved they didn’t deserve funding ever. There was not general pushback from the rest of the panel, I will note. We’ve had allusions to a species of angry BSD who, upon getting a disappointing grant score, rails about “associate professors I’ve never heard of from East Jerkoff State University killing my grant” with the subtext that such individuals do not deserve any sort of NIH funding themselves. We have the discussion of “independence” and how those PIs who are clearly subordinate in BSD’s lab don’t deserve a fair chance because it is “really just the BSD trying to get more cash”.

I just don’t think we can move forward by ignoring math and funding facts, on the one hand, nor by attacking all those other people and suggesting they should bear the brunt of any pain because we have decided in our own personal wisdom that they “can afford” belt tightening.

The specific proposal on the table was bridge funding. A suggestion that NIH should pump out R56 awards to anyone who has a grant review criticized for a lack of preliminary data, tied to the notion that we cannot generate any more data from our closed labs in the Time of Corona. Of course this is zero change because this is exactly what the R56 program is for in good times and in bad. I guess this person wants a greater share of the NIH pie devoted to R56 right now. Which means fewer grants being awarded in full. Which is more or less in the space of putting in cuts to new awards (and existing awards) to prop up success rates which, again, is what NIH has done regularly in recent memory (aka my entire career as a PI). This is all fine. I actually support the idea of having this stop-gap.

What I don’t like about it is that it is totally random and hugely biased with respect to how cosy one is with Program. And like just about everyone, I’d love to have a PO throwing a R56 my way when I need it and I would resent them throwing one to someone I think undeserving when it is at the price of them not being able to pick up my payline+3%ile application. You can feel free to go RePORTERing for your favorite ICs decisions on R56 awards. You can see what the PI in question has been up to in terms of prior awards and make some inferences about their successes at peer review. Are these people uniquely special? Not at my favorite ICs they aren’t. There are tons of investigators just as worthy and just as struggling and, presumably just as “screwed” by peer review, that are not getting bridge funding. Maybe look into that before you think doubling or even quadrupling the number of R56 awards is any sort of general improvement.

Strategically, the NIH should do this, with great fanfare. They should claim they are quadrupling the number of R56 bridge awards and they should do so. They should yell that this is all so that people who can’t generate data during the Time of Corona aren’t disadvantaged. Because it will be years before anyone realizes that they are just going to the same old usual suspects. Entrenching the program biases that already exist. Disproportionately awarded to BIG MED SCHOOLS and all the above categories of Undeserving Bad People. Years before anyone who just loves this idea realizes that Peter was robbed to pay Paul.

Years before anyone cottons on to the fact that those with slightly more preliminary data, perhaps generated by their labs in the time everyone else was shut down, or who worked harder to submit more applications will still be advantaged.

This goes beyond opinionating at the NIH during times of crisis.

It speaks to how we, the peers doing the reviewing, are behaving at study section. Implicitly or explicitly, we bring our little opinions about who “deserves” funding. And it contaminates our review of merit. It makes us protect our own and run down the Others. Implicitly or explicitly, this is absolutely indisputable.

Now I would argue that the less that one examines and interrogates one’s own biases, the more likely one is to let them be expressed in grant scoring. The more one acknowledges the arbitrary and selfish nature of one’s preferences, the more likely one is to be aware of, and counter, them. And the more one doubles down to “prove” to someone else that one’s little biases are in fact right and just and entirely awesome….the more one is likely to let these matters contaminate one’s review.

Sally Amero, Ph.D., NIH’s Review Policy Officer
and Extramural Research Integrity Liaison Officer, has posted a new entry on the Open Mike blog addressing reviewer guidance in the Time of Corona. They have listed a number of things that are now supposed not to affect scoring. The list includes:

  • Some key personnel on grant applications may be called up to serve in patient testing or patient care roles, diverting effort from the proposed research
  • Feasibility of the proposed approach may be affected, for example if direct patient contact is required
  • The environment may not be functional or accessible
  • Additional human subjects protections may be in order, for example if the application was submitted prior to the viral outbreak
  • Animal welfare may be affected, if institutions are closed temporarily
  • Biohazards may include insufficient protections for research personnel
  • Recruitment plans and inclusion plans may be delayed, if certain patient populations are affected by the viral outbreak
  • Travel for key personnel or trainees to attend scientific conferences, meetings of consortium leadership, etc., may be postponed temporarily
  • Curricula proposed in training grant applications may have to be converted to online formats temporarily
  • Conferences proposed in R13/U13 applications may be cancelled or postponed.

Honestly, I’m not seeing how we are in a situation where this comes into the consideration. Nothing moves quickly enough with respect to grant proposals for future work. I mean, any applicants should be optimistic and act like everything will be normal status, for grants submitted this round for first possible funding, ah, NEXT APRIL. Grants received for review in the upcoming June/July study sections were for the most part received before this shutdown happened so likewise, there is no reason they would have had call to mention the Corona Crisis. That part is totally perplexing.

The next bit, however is a real punch in the gut.

We have also had many questions from applicants asking what they should do if they don’t have enough preliminary data for the application they had planned to submit. While it may not be the most popular answer, we always recommend that applicants submit the best application possible. If preliminary data is lacking, consider waiting to submit a stronger application for a later due date.

Aka “Screw you”.

I will admit this was entirely predictable.

There is no guarantee that grant review in the coming rounds will take Corona-related excuses seriously. And even if they do, this is still competition. A competition where if you’ve happened to be more productive than the next person, your chances are better. Are the preliminary data supportive? Is your productivity coming along? Well, the next PI looks fine and you look bad so…. so sorry, ND. Nobody can ever have confidence that where they are when they shut down for corona will ever be enough to get them their next bit of funding.

I don’t see any way for the NIH to navigate this. Sure, they could give out supplements to existing grants. But, that only benefits the currently funded. Bridge awards for those that had near-miss scores? Sure, but how many can they afford? What impact would this have on new grants? After all, the NIH shows no signs yet of shutting down receipt and review or of funding per Council round as normal. But if we are relying on this, then we are under huge pressure to keep submitting grants as normal. Which would be helped by new Preliminary Data. And more publications.

So we PIs are hugely, hugely still motivated to work as normal. To seek any excuse as to why our ongoing studies are absolutely essential. To keep valuable stuff going, by hook or by crook…. Among other reasons, WE DON’T KNOW THE END DATE!

I hate being right when it comes to my cynical views on how the NIH behaves. But it is very clear. They are positively encouraging the scofflaws to keep on working, to keep pressing their people to come to work and to tell their administration whatever is necessary to keep it rolling. The NIH is positively underlining the word Essential for our employees. If you don’t keep generating data, the lab’s chances of getting funded go down, relative to the labs that keep on working. Same thing for fellowships, trainees. That other person gunning for the rare K99 in your cohort is working so…..

Here’s the weird thing. These people at the NIH have to know that their exhortations to reviewers to do this, that or the other generally do not work. Look how the early stage / young investigator thing has played out across four or five decades. Look at the whole SABV initiative. Look at the remarks we’ve seen where grant reviewers refuse to accept that pre-prints are meaningful.

All they would have had to do is put in some meaningless pablum about how they were going to “remind reviewers that they should assume issues resulting from the coronavirus pandemic should not affect scores” and include Preliminary Data may not be as strong as in other times in the above bullet point list.

The concept that we are “eating our seed corn” if we don’t do X, Y or Z to support junior scientists is completely misinformed, inapplicable and wrong.

This was super popular back when the ESI issues were being debated and the NIH was trying to justify giving special consideration to fund the applications of new comers to the system. I do happen to support continued efforts to help those who are on the short end of the NIH grant award stick, but this is mostly about the concept and how it leads to bad thinking.

“Eating our seed corn” has raised its misguided head in the Time of Corona as we are discussing University polices that have, apparently, started to slow walk new hires, pull back startup funds of recent hires, etc. There was even a little hint of graduate programs pulling offers of graduate stipends if the candidates had not responded to an offer yet, despite the deadline for response being in the future.

This is bad. Yes, it’s devastating for those individuals who are in the transition zones right now and are being denied opportunities that were in front of them. It’s devastating for departments and laboratories that were very much looking forward to securing new contributors. What it is NOT is “eating our seed corn”.

For those that have never so much as planted a food garden…. I am going to risk insulting your intelligence and to point out the obvious. “Seed corn” concerns were from a time of agriculture when a person hoping to grow a crop couldn’t just run down to the feed store and buy seeds whenever they wanted to. It comes from a time where you had to save your own seeds from the harvest time so that you could use them, about six months later after the winter snows had cleared, to grow next year’s crop(s). No problem right? Millenia of agriculture agrees- set aside enough seeds fro harvest to plant for next year. Easy peasy.

But…sometimes there wasn’t enough food to get through the winter. Seeds, of course, are also food. The corn kernels that we eat are those same seeds that can be planted to grow next year’s crops. And if you eat all your seeds to make it through this winter, you are going to have no corn crop next year. Or the year after that. or ever. Until someone takes pity on you and gives you some of their seed corn.

You can’t just make new seeds after you’ve eaten them.

New scientists are not like this. At all.

We CAN make new ones whenever we want, even if we’ve skipped several cycles. As I’ve noted in another context, if we have a department that literally closes it’s graduate program admissions for five years….they can start right back up in year six with essential zero headaches. The same professors suddenly forgot how to train graduate students? Please.

That’s because the proper analogy is more like acorns. Graduate student production is a perennial, not an annual, crop. If you have a big old oak tree on your property, it’s gonna grow acorns. Every year. We don’t chop it down to eat the tree when we get really hungry in the winter, right? It’s not edible. So next year, it’s gonna grow more acorns. And the cycle of health for that tree is really, really long. It doesn’t care if you ate 25% or 100% of the acorns it grew last year, it’s going to produce more next year. And the year after that. And after that.

If growing conditions are terrible, sure, many perennial agricultural producers may have low output that season. Some may even fail to produce anything edible that season at all. But as soon as the conditions return to favorable, that plant produces another crop. It takes a really, really bad set of conditions, sustained for years likely, to kill an oak tree. Short of devastating trauma, that is.

Sticking with the agricultural references, we are facing a water shortage and not a wildfire. We are not Little House on the Prairie where we have only ourselves on which to rely for seeds. We are most certainly not solely dependent on annual food crops. The enterprise of scientific research in the US is a perennial. It has persistence and resilience.

The ESI debate was no different. We were not then, and are not now, talking about the sort of existential emergency that is described by “eating our seed corn”. We are talking about priorities of how many plants and in what variety we can support, given a water supply that is rationed by external forces. We’re only getting so many acre-feet this year. And it looks to be less than we got last year.

The point is that we need to make rational, thinking choices about what we are going to prioritize and support. We should not panic, running all about screaming that every crop will be gone forever if we don’t water it just like it was watered last year.

Well respected addiction neuroscientist Nick Gilpin posted a twitter poll asking people about their favorite part of doing science.

Only 4% of the respondents voted for “Reading the literature”. Now look, it’s just a dumb little twitter poll and it was a forced choice about a person’s favorite. Maybe reading is a super close second place for everyone who responded with something else as their first choice, I don’t know.

However. Experience in this field, reviewing manuscripts submitted to journals, reading manuscripts published in journals, fielding comments from reviewers about our manuscripts and trying to help trainees learn to write a scientific manuscript suggests to me that it is more than this.

I think a lot of scientists really don’t like to read deeply into the literature. At best, perhaps they weren’t ever trained to read deeply.

As a mentor, I tip toe around this issue a lot more than I should. I think, I guess, that it would be sort of insulting to ask a postdoc if they even know how to read deeply into a literature for the purposes of writing up scientific results. So I take the hint approach. I take the personal example approach. Even my direct instruction is a little indirect.

The personal example approach has a clear failure point. The hint may suffer from that somewhat as well. The direct statements of instruction that I do manage to give “Hey, we need to look into this set of issues so we know what to write” is only slightly better. The failure point I am talking about is that part of reading deeply into the literature is a triage process.

The triage process is one of elimination. Of looking at a paper that might, from the title or eve the Abstract, be relevant. In the vast majority of cases you are going to quickly figure out that it is not something that contributes to the knowledge under discussion in this particular paper. To me this is under the heading of reading the literature. It doesn’t mean you read every paper word for word, at all. Maybe this is part of the problem for some people? That they think it really means read every frigging search result from start to finish? I can see how that would be daunting.

But it IS work. It takes many hours, at times, of searching through PubMed, Google Scholar or Web of Science using several variant key word searches. Of then scanning papers as needed to see if they have relevant information. Sometimes you can triage based on the abstract. Sure. But a lot of the time you have to download the paper and take look through it. Sometimes, you are just checking for a detail that didn’t make it into the abstract and finding that, nope, the paper isn’t relevant. But sometimes it is and you have to read it. But then, maybe it would be a good idea to look at the citations and follow the threads to additional papers. Maybe you should use Web of Science to find out what subsequent papers cited that particular paper. All of this work to come up with three or two or even one sentence with three surviving citations.

The person who is following my writing by example doesn’t necessarily see this. They may think I just pulled three cites at random and kept on going. They may think that somehow it is my vast experience that has all of this literature in my head all at the same time. Despite me saying more or less the above as reminders. When I say things like “hey, everybody works differently, but when I do a PubMed search on a topic, I like to start with the oldest citations and work forward from there”, I mean this as a hint that they should actually do PubMed searches on topic terms.

(I admit in early graduate school I was really intimidated by the perception that the Professors did have encyclopedic knowledge of everything, all of the time. I don’t think that any more. I mean, yes, my colleagues over the years clearly vary and some are incredibly good at knowing the literature. But some are just highly specific in their knowledge and if you get too far outside they flounder. Some know lots of key papers, sure, but if you REALLY are digging in deeply, you figure out they don’t know everything. Not the way a grad student on dissertation defense day should.)

So I’m not talking about reading the literature in a “keep up with the latest TOCs for all the relevant journals” kind of way. I’m talking about focused reading when you want to answer a question for yourself and to put it into some sort of scholarly setting, like a Discussion.

I have no recollection of being taught to read a literature. I just sort of DID that as a graduate student. I was in the kind of lab where you were expected to really develop your own ideas almost from whole cloth, rather than fitting into an existing program of work. Some of my fellow grad students were in labs more like mine, some were in labs where they fit into existing programs. So it wasn’t the grad program itself, just an accident of the training lab. Still, it wasn’t as though I chatted much with my fellow students about something like this so I have no idea how they were trained to read the literature. I have no recollection of how much time anyone spent in the library (oh yes, children, this was before ready access to PDFs from your desktop) compared with me.

So about this poll that Professor Gilpin put up. How about you, Dear Reader? How do you feel about reading the literature? Were you taught how to do it? Especially as it pertains to writing papers that reference said literature (as opposed to reading to guide your experiments in the first place, another topic for another day). Have you tried to explicitly train your mentees to do so or do they just pick it up? Is it always the case that reviewers of your manuscripts hand wavily suggest you have overlooked some key literature and they are right? or is it the case that you know all about what they mean and have triaged it as not relevant? Or you know that what they think “surely must exist” really doesn’t?

one more than you currently own.

The NIH has been responding to the corona virus epidemic / crisis by shooting out various funding opportunity announcements to encourage new research on the issue. They will fund supplements, administrative and competing, as well as new grants and contracts. This is what NIH does in the face of perceived new health issues.

This response is perhaps more rapid than usual, but it is not very different from responses to other perceived crises such as the HIV/AIDS one, the SARS one, the Ebola one, the opioid one, etc. It’s not all that different from sudden political support for things such as the ongoing War on Cancer or the BRAINI scam.

As usual this sparks some minor debate in the ranks of the NIH funded science community. Is it some sort of outrage that individuals seek to create some sort of artificial, Frankenstein’s monster type of research program to respond to such funding opportunities? Is it distastefully mercenary? Will it just end up funding poorly considered, crap science?

Some seem to be arguing this line with respect to the corona virus crisis.

I am one who shakes my head ruefully and says “well, that’s how this system works”. On a tactical level my advice to grant funded PIs is to just say “well, two Aims for them, one Aim for me and let’s call it a day”.

Meaning sure, try to meet the intentions of the FOA by marrying what you already do to the interest of the day. Do some credible work on their interests – after all, at some level we do in fact work for NIH priorities which means national taxpayer priorities. We are fortunate to live in an investigator-initiated environment for the most part so is it really so terrible that once in awhile we’re sort of told what to do? I say no. Especially since we’re able to invent up the boundaries of what we’re being told to do. But this is also the opportunity to get some funding for what really interests you. To the tune of at least an Aim, probably more. How is that not a good thing?

I went through some of this as an observer and a participant PI during the HIV/AIDS version of this. Congress pushed a bunch of money at NIH for HIV/AIDS research and, the way I understand it, instructed NIH on who was going to be in charge of how much. Well, a lot of money ended up in the hands of NIDA. I can’t recall all the whys on that—those decisions were made before I was aware of this situation.

But, I very much was aware during a time when grants were supposed to come in with basically four groups or manipulations or what have you: Control, Immunodeficiency Virus Related, Drug Related, Virus + Drug. Another way to put it is: “How does Drug X affect pathogenicity in your immunodeficiency virus model?”

This is pretty specific but I think it generalizes to corona where there will be a lot of objection to people marrying The Real, Important, Critical Work on Corona Virus to Whatever They Happen To Do.

I didn’t think I was going to have an angle on corona virus at all. Shocked me to find that NIDA was actually out front. Why? Remember all that speculation back in the earlier days that Chinese men were perhaps more at risk than Chinese women due to cigarette smoking rates? And then there was some loose association of that with vaping in Scientific American (I think) speculation and boom, off to the races.

NIDA published one of the first FOA that I saw. NOT-DA-20-047 appeared March 19. Notice of Special Interest (NOSI) regarding the Availability of Administrative Supplements and Urgent Competitive Revisions for Research on the 2019 Novel Coronavirus

It’s a very broad one. Not just about smoking. They are ON it.

In order to rapidly improve our understanding of the risks, prevalence, and available control measures for 2019-nCoV in substance using or HIV-affected populations, NIDA is encouraging the submission of applications for Competitive Revisions to active grants to address the following research areas of interest:

Research to determine whether substance use (especially smoking tobacco or marijuana, vaping, opioids and other drug use) is a risk factor for the onset and progression of COVID-19.

Research on how HIV among persons who use substances may impact the onset and progression of COVID-19.

Research to understand system-level responses to COVID-19 prevention and risk mitigation in secure settings such as prisons and jails, with a particular emphasis on detainees with substance use disorder (SUD). For example:

Research to understand the respiratory effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection among individuals with substance use disorders (SUD); in particular those with nicotine, marijuana, opioid, and methamphetamine use disorders.

Research to understand how the respiratory effects of COVID-19 influences the rate of opioid overdoses both in pain patients as well as patients with an opioid use disorders and also to assess how it influences the outcomes for naloxone interventions for overdose reversal

Research to develop therapeutic approaches for comorbid SARS-CoV-2 infection and SUDs.

Research to evaluate drug-drug interaction of medications to treat SARS-CoV-2 and substances of abuse or medications to treat SUDs.

Research to understand system- or organizational-level responses to identify, prevent, or mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in service settings that serve vulnerable populations, including people who are homeless or unstably housed.

Research to understand and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in methadone treatment programs and syringe exchange services.

Research on how potential overcrowding of emergency departments and health services will impact the treatment of opioid overdoses and of opioid use disorder

Research using ongoing studies to understand the broad impacts of COVID-19 (e.g., school closures, food insecurity, anxiety, social isolation, family loss) on neurodevelopment, substance use, substance use disorders, and access to addiction treatment.

COVID-19: Potential Implications for Individuals with Substance Use Disorders

is a webpage with more of their thinking on this.

So, is it terrible if I were to respond to this by firing the lab back up? By turning stones at my University until I found someone with a decent rodent-related set of expertises in corona viruses? Started plotting an attack on funding?

I am being ASKED to do so by the NIH. Encouraged to get in the game. And that means, you guessed it, putting the lab to work on this.

Are we the baddies?

The Office of the Inspector General at the HHS (NIH’s government organization parent) has recently issued a report [PDF] which throws some light on the mutterings that we’ve been hearing. Up to this point it has mostly been veiled “reminders” about the integrity of peer review at NIH and how we’re supposed to be ethical reviewers and what not.

As usual when upstanding citizens such as ourselves hear such things we are curious. As reviewers, we think we are trying our best to review ethically as we have been instructed. As applicants, of course, we are curious about just what manner of screwing we’ve suffered at the hands of NIH’s peer review now. After all, we all know that we’re being screwed, right?

NIH isn’t funding [X] anymore“, we cry. X can be clinical, translational, model system, basic…. you name it. X can be our specific subarea within our favorite IC. X can be our model system or analytical approach or level of analysis. X can be our home institution’s ZIP code, or prestige, or type within the academic landscape.

And of course, our study section isn’t giving us a good score because of a conspiracy. Against X or against ourselves, specifically. It’s a good old insider club, doncha see, and we are on the outside. They just give good scores to applications of the right X or from the right people who inhabit the club. The boys. The white people. The Ivy League. The R1s. Those who trained with Bobs. Glam labs. Nobel club.

Well, well, well, the OIG / HHS report has verified all of your deepest fears.

NIH Has Acted To Protect Confidential Information Handled by Peer Reviewers, But It Could Do More [OEI-05-19-00240; March 2020;; Susanne Murrin, Deputy Inspector General for Evaluation and Inspections.

Let’s dig right in.

In his August 2018 statement on protecting the integrity of U.S. biomedical research, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins expressed concern about the inappropriate sharing of confidential information by peer reviewers with others, including foreign entities.5 At the same time, Dr. Collins wrote to NIH grantee institutions to alert them to these foreign threats, noting that “foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers.”6 As an example of these programs, NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director warned NIH of China’s Thousand Talents plan, which is intended to attract talented scientists while facilitating access to intellectual property

Additionally, congressional committees have expressed concerns and requested information about potential threats to the integrity of taxpayer-funded research, including the theft of intellectual property and its diversion to foreign entities.8, 9 In a June 2019 Senate hearing, NIH Principal Deputy Director Dr. Lawrence Tabak testified that NIH was “aware that a few foreign governments have initiated systematic programs to capitalize on the collaborative nature of biomedical research and unduly influence U.S.-based researchers

So the rumors are true. It’s about the Chinese. One of the reasons I’ve been holding off blogging about this during the whispers and hints era was this. This may be why NIH itself has been so circumspect. Nobody wants to conflate what looks like racism along with what appears to be state-sponsored activity to take advantage of our relatively open scientific system. Many academic scientists love to bleat about the wonderful international nature of the scientific endeavor. I like it myself and occasionally reference this. I wish it was not inevitably and ultimately wrapped up in geo-politics and what not. But it is. Science influences economic activity and therefore power.

I am on the record as a protectionist when it comes to academic employment in the public and public-funded sectors. I don’t think we need hard absolute walls but I also think in hard times, we raise serious and very high barriers to funding NIH grants to foreign applicant institutions. I think, of course, that we need to take a harder look at employment politics. Like any other sector, immigrant postdocs and graduate students often devalue the labor market for domestic employees. I’d like to see a little more regulation on that to keep opportunities for US citizens prioritized.

But I also appreciate that we are an immigrant nation founded on the hard work of immigrants who often ARE more eager to work hard than native born folks (of which I am one, people. I’m including myself in the lazy sack category here). Hard. So we need to have some academic science immigration, of course. And I am not that keen on traditional lines of white supremacy dictating who gets to immigrate here to do science.

So, when I started getting the feeling this was directed specifically at the Chinese, let’s just say the hairs on my neck went up.

But, this report makes it pretty clear this is the problem. They are targeting this “Thousand Talents” effort of China very specifically and are going after US-employed scientists who do not report financial conflicts….from China. And other sources, but…the picture in this report is sharp.

I have heard of more than one local investigator who had a Chinese lab or company who was not reporting this appropriately. They also hold NIH funds and so were disciplined. Grants were pulled. At least one person has disappeared back to China. At least one person is apparently under some sort of NIH suspension but the grants are still running out the clock on the current fiscal year so I can’t quite validate the rumors. A multi-year suspension from grant seeking is being whispered around the campfire.

So what about the reviewers? Where does this come in?

As of November 2019, NIH had flagged 77 peer reviewers across both CSR- and IC-organized study sections as Do Not Use because of a breach of peer review confidentiality. A reviewer who is flagged as Do Not Use may not participate in further study section meetings or review future applications until the flag is removed

…Between February 2018 and November 2019, NIH terminated the service of 10 peer reviewers who not only had undisclosed foreign affiliations, but had also disclosed confidential information from grant applications. For example, some of these reviewers shared critiques of grant applications with colleagues or shared their NIH account passwords with colleagues.

There is a bunch of more of this talk in bullet points about reviewers being suspended or under investigation for both violations peer review and undisclosed foreign conflicts of interest. It could be companies or funding, although this is not clearly specified. Then….. the doozy:

As of November 2019, NIH dissolved two study sections because of evidence of systemic collusion among the reviewers in the section. At least one instance involved the disclosure of confidential information. NIH dissolved the first study section in 2017 and the second in 2018. All grant applications that the study sections reviewed were reassessed by different reviewers.

AHA! There IS a conspiracy against your grants. Look, this is bad. I’m trying to maintain some humor here, but the fact is that this would be relatively easy to pull off, so long as the conspirators were all on board and nobody ratted. What would you need? A third of a study section? A quarter? Half? I dunno but it isn’t *that* many people. Some are in on the main conspiracy (puppeted by a foreign government?), some are willing pawns because their own grants do well, some are just plain convinced by their buddies that this is how it actually works here?. And if they are all in contact, how long would it take? five minute phone conversations about how they need to support applications from A, B and C and run down those likely looking top-scoring apps from X, Y and Z?

I don’t know how they caught these conspiracies but there were probably emails to go along with the forensic evidence on their foreign conflicts of employment, affiliation and funding. Oh wait, the report tells us:

One way NIH learns about instances of possible undue foreign influence is through its national security partners. Since 2017, NIH has increasingly worked with the FBI on emerging foreign threats to NIH-funded research. NIH reported that in 2018, the FBI provided it with referrals of researchers—some of whom were also peer reviewers—who had NIH grants and were alleged to have undisclosed foreign affiliations.

It also says that program staff may have noticed papers that cited funding that has not been disclosed properly (on the Other Support that PIs have to file prior to funding, I presume).

As of November 2019, NIH determined that allegations against 207 researchers were potentially substantiated. Of those 207 researchers, NIH determined that 129 had served as peer reviewers in 2018 and/or 2019. NIH designated 47 of these 129 peer reviewers as Do Not Use. When OIG asked NIH about the remaining 82 peer reviewers—i.e., those who had potentially substantiated allegations but who had not been designated as Do Not Use—NIH did not respond.

What the heck? Why not? This is the IG ffs. How do they “not respond”?

Between February 2018 and November 2019, NIH confirmed 10 cases involving peer reviewers who were stealing or disclosing confidential information from grant applications or related materials and who also had undisclosed foreign affiliations. Two of these 10 cases involved peer reviewers who were selected for China’s Thousand Talents program. The breaches of confidentiality included disclosing scoring information, sharing study section critiques, and forwarding grant application information to third parties. In some of these instances, reviewers shared confidential information with foreign entities.In two cases, NIH dissolved a study section

So the worst of the worst. How long had this been going on? How many proposals were affected? How many ill gotten grant awards aced out more legitimate competitors? Were those PIs made whole (hahaha. Of course not.) For the dissolved study sections, just how bad WAS it?

Look, I’m glad they caught this stuff. But I have no confidence that we are getting anything even remotely like a full picture here. The tone seems to be that this was sparked by some pretty egregious violations of Other Support declarations leading to scrutiny of those PIs who happened to review grants. The NIH then managed to find evidence (confessions?) of violations of peer review rules. The description of the actual peer review violations leans heavily on inappropriate disclosure of confidential information. Showing critiques and grants to people who have no right to see them. Is this all it was? This is what led to a study section dissolution? Or, as I would suspect, a lot more going on with grant-score-deciding behavior? That is what should lead to dissolution of a section but it is a lot harder to prove than “clearly you gave your password to someone who is logging in from half a world away two hours after you logged in from the US”. I want answers to these harder questions- how are these conspiracies and conflicts leading to funding for those inside the conspiracy and the loss of funding for those who are not?

NIH is highly motivated to soft-pedal that part. Because they are really, really, REALLY motivated to pretend their system of grant selection works to fund the most meritorious science. Probing into how easy it would be to suborn this process, as a single rogue reviewer OR as a conspiracy, is likely to lead to very awkward information.

I never feel that NIH takes participant confidence in their system of review and grant award seriously enough. I don’t think they do enough to reassure the rank and file that yes, it IS their intent to be fair and to select grants on merit. Too many participants in extramural grant review, as applicants and as reviewers, continue to talk with great confidence and authority about what a racket it is and how there are all these specific unfairnesses I alluded to above.

Well, what happens if reviewers believe that stuff?

Everybody is doing it” is the most frequent response when scientists are caught faking data, right? Well….

A loss of confidence in the integrity of NIH review is going to further excuse future misdeeds in the minds of reviewers themselves. If the system is biased against model systems, it’s okay for me Captain Defender of Models System Neuroscience, to give great scores to fly grants, right? I’m just making up for the bias, not introducing one of my own. If the system is clearly biased in favor of those soft money high indirect cost professional grant writers than hey, it is totally fair that I , Professor of Heavy Teaching Load Purity to do down their grants and favor those of people like me, right? It’s just balancing the scales.

Because everyone knows the system is stacked against me.

Do it to Julia, not me, Julia!

I think the NIH needs to do far more than to blame the dissolution of two study sections of foreign influence and call it a day. I think they need to admit to how easy it was for such efforts to corrupt review and to tell us how they can put processes in place to keep review cartel behavior, explicit OR IMPLICIT, from biasing the selection of grants for funding.

They need to restore confidence.

One of the thorniest issues that we will face in the now, and in the coming months, is progress. Scientific progress, career progress, etc. I touched on this a few days ago. It has many dimensions. I may blog a lot about this, fair warning.

Several days (weeks?) ago, we had a few rounds on Twitter related to altering our peer review standards for manuscript evaluation and acceptance. It’s a pretty simple question for the day. Is the Time of Corona such that we need to alter this aspect of our professional scientific behavior? Why? To what end? What are the advantages and for whom? Are there downsides to doing so?

As a review, unneeded for most of my audience, scientific papers are the primary output, deliverable good, work product, etc of the academic scientist. Most pointedly, the academic scientist funded by the taxpayer. Published papers. To get a paper published in an academic journal, the scientists who did the work and wrote the paper submit it for consideration to a journal. Whereupon an editor at the journal decides either to reject it outright (colloquially a “desk reject”) or to send it to scientific peers (other academics who are likewise trying to get their papers published) for review. Typically 3 peers, although my most usual journals accept 2 as a minimum these days, and editors can use more if necessary. The peers examine the paper and make recommendations to the editor as to whether it should be accepted as is (rarely happens), rejected outright (fairly common) or reconsidered after the authors make some changes to the manuscript. This latter is a very usual outcome and I don’t think I’ve ever had a paper ultimately published that did not get there without making a lot of changes in response to what peers had to say about it.

Peer comments can range from identifying typographical errors to demanding that the authors conduct more experiments, occasionally running to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in expense (counting staff time) and months to years of person-effort. These are all couched as “this is necessary before the authors should be allowed to publish this work”. Of course, assigned reviewers rarely agree in every particular and ultimately the editor has to make a call as to what is reasonable or unreasonable with respect to apparent demands from any particular reviewer.

But this brings us to the Time of Corona. We are, most of us, mostly or totally shut down. Our institutions do not want us, or our staff members, in the labs doing work as usual. Which means that conducting new research studies for a manuscript that we have submitted for review is something between impossible and very, very, very unlikely.

So. How should we, as professionals in a community, respond to this Time of Corona? Should we just push the pause button on scientific publication, just as we are pushing the pause button on scientific data generation? Ride it out? Refuse to alter our stance on whether more data are “required for publication” and just accept that we’re all going to have to wait for this to be over and for our labs to re-start?

This would be consistent with a stance that, first, our usual demands for more work are actually valid and second, that we should be taking this shutdown seriously, meaning accepting that THINGS ARE DIFFERENT now.

I am seeing, however, some sentiments that we should be altering our standards, specifically because of the lab shutdowns. That this is what is different, but that it is still essential to be able to publish whatever (?) manuscripts we have ready to submit.

This is fascinating to me. After all, I tend to believe that each and every manuscript I submit is ready to be accepted for publication. I don’t tend to do some sort of strategy of holding back data in hand, or nearly completed, so that in response to the inevitable demands for more, we can respond with “Yes, you reviewers were totally right and now we have included new experiments. Thank you for your brilliant suggestion!”. People do this. I may have done it once or twice but I don’t feel good about it. 🙂

I believe that when I am reviewing manuscripts, I try to minimize my demands for new data and more work. My review stance is to try to first understand what the reviewers are setting out to study, what they have presented data on, and what conclusions or claims they are trying to make. Any of the three can be adjusted if I think the manuscript falls short. They can more narrowly constrain their stated goals, they can add more data and/or they can alter their claims to meet the data they have presented. Any of those are perfectly valid responses in my view. It doesn’t have to be “more data are required no matter what”.

I may be on a rather extreme part of the distribution on this, I don’t know. But I do experience editors and reviewers who seem to ultimately behave in a similar way on both my manuscripts and those manuscripts to which I’ve contributed a review. So I think, that probably my fellow scientists that have my ~core skepticism about the necessity for peer review demands for more, more, more are probably not so exercised about this issue. It is more the folks who are steeped in the understanding that this is the way peer review of manuscripts should work, by default and in majority of cases, who are starting to whinge.

I’m kinda amused. I would be delighted if the Time of Corona made some of these Stockholm Syndrome victims within science think a little harder about the necessity of their culture of demands for more, more, more data no matter what.

Despite evidence to the contrary on this blog, some people who don’t like to write have occasionally said things in the vein of “oh, but you are such a good writer”. Sometimes this is by way of trying to get me to do some writing for them in the non-professional setting. Sometimes this is a sort of suggestion that somehow it is easier for me to write than it is for them to write, in the professional setting.

I don’t know. I certainly used to be a better writer and my dubious blogging hobby has certainly contributed to making my written product worse. Maybe I’m just getting that Agatha Christie thing early (her word variety constricted towards her final books, people suggest that was evidence of dementia).

But for decades now, I view my primary job as a writing job. When it comes right down to the essentials, an academic scientist is supposed to publish papers. This requires that someone write papers. I view this as the job of the PI, as much as anyone else. I even view it as the primary responsibility of the PI over everyone else, because the PI is where the buck stops. My personnel justification blurb in every one of my grants says so. That I’ll take responsibility for publishing the results. Postdocs are described as assisting me with that task. (Come to think of it, I can’t remember exactly how most people handle this in grants that I’ve reviewed.)

Opinions and practices vary on this. Some would assert that no PI should ever be writing a primary draft of a research paper and only rarely a review. Editing only, in the service of training other academic persons in the laboratory to, well, write. Some would kvetch about the relative ratio of writing effort of the PI versus other people in the laboratory. Certainly, when my spouse would prefer I was doing something other than writing, I get an earful about how in lab X, Y and Z the PI never writes and the awesome postdocs basically just hand over submit ready drafts and why isn’t my lab like that. But I digress.

I also have similar views on grant writing, namely that in order to publish papers one must have data from which to draw upon and that requires funds. To generate the data, therefore, someone has to write grant proposals. This is, in my view, a necessary job. And once again, the buck stops with the PI. Once again, practices vary in terms of who is doing the writing. Once again, strategies for writing those grants vary. A lot. But what doesn’t vary is that someone has to do a fair bit of writing.

I like writing papers. The process itself isn’t always smooth and it isn’t always super enjoyable. But all things equal, I feel LIKE I AM DOING MY JOB when I am sitting at my keyboard, working to move a manuscript closer to publication. Original drafting, hard core text writing, editing, drawing figures and doing analysis iteratively as you realize your writing has brought you to that necessity…I enjoy this. And I don’t need a lot of interruption (sorry, “social interaction”) when I am doing so.

In the past year or so, my work/life etc has evolved to where I spend 1-2 evenings a week in my office up to about 11 or 12 after dinner just writing. I dodge out for dinner so that my postdocs have no reason to stick around and then I come back in when the coast is clear.

I’m finding life in the time of Corona to simply push those intervals of quiet writing time earlier in the day. I have a houseful of chronologically shifted teens, which is awesome. They often don’t emerge from their rooms until noon…or later. Only my youngest needs much of my input on breakfast and even that is more a vague feeling of lingering responsibility than actual need. Sorry, not trying to rub it in for those of you with younger children. Just acknowledging that this is not a bad time in parenthood for me.

So I get to write. It’s the most productive thing I have to do these days. Push manuscripts closer and closer to being published.

It’s my job. We have datasets. We have things that should and will be papers eventually.

So on a daily and tactical level, things are not too bad for me.

The NIH has a nice COVID-19 related FAQ page up now, it’s worth keeping bookmarked.

One category of person in science who is under particular COVID-related stress is anyone who has NIH opportunities available to them that are time delimited.

For example, any postdoctoral trainees on NRSA support. There are constraints on total support time on fellowships like the F32/T32 NRSA awards which limit postdoctoral fellows to three years maximum. There’s a FAQ answer here and a link to more information. The latter is more general and says, importantly, that stipends can continue to be paid even if the trainee cannot work, due to COVID-related shutdowns. That is all well and but fails to address the concern about burning daylight doing nothing. The FAQ answer reads: Yes, as outlined in NOT-OD-20-086 recipients may extend awards affected by COVID-19 through a notification to the funding IC. For awards where such an extension impacts research progress, the IC will provide support and address any impact on the NIH-funded research. which is fairly imprecise. There is an even more focused FAQ entry which is answered as follows: “Yes. Recipients may submit extension requests to the funding IC for consideration when the effects of COVID-19 have altered the planned course of the research training/activities. Extension requests must include a description of how COVID-19 affected the NRSA and/or fellowship award, and clearly outline how much additional time is needed.  All such requests must be signed by the fellow, the Authorized Organization and the fellowship sponsor.

It’s all going to depend on what “the IC will provide support” means in the end. Will this be a with cost extension of the F32 for however many months the person cannot work due to COVID-related formal shutdown? That seems to be the intent of this last statement. Will they entertain longer intervals if the shutdown entails a loss of productivity far beyond the interval of formal University shutdown? This is likely to be true for the researcher and I’d say the NIH is very unlikely to take this broad approach. The “clearly outline how much additional time is needed” part is somewhat encouraging, however. My advice to the audience is to keep beating this drum as loudly and as frequently as possible on social media and what not. NIH has to understand that their role is to make people whole, not to chinz out on narrow technical “replacement” of time lost due to formal University shutdown timelines.

The T32 awards could be more flexible, I think. They run longer than the F32s and so there is the possibility there that NIH simply permits keeping a T32 fellow on past his or her 3 years if the T32 Director chooses to do so. I’m doubtful any additional funds will be provided so the T32 training faculty are going to have to think hard about how and whether they would use such flexibility, if offered. Could get sticky. But you never know, perhaps supplements could be provided. Otherwise it is not simple for the T32 Director and her core of training faculty. Renewal of the T32 is competitive and reviewers tend to bean count the number of trainees and how successfully they’ve been rotated off into other things. Locally speaking, will it be just the few people who are in their third year right now that get extra support? Well the ones in their second year are also burning daylight right now, and are going to feel slightly miffed about that.

Then we come to the K99/R00 (and the NIH intramural version the K22). The K99/R00 is designed to offer one or two years of postdoctoral support under the K99 mechanism, followed by three or four years of research grant support in the R00 phase. The first concern has to do with eligibility to apply, which is limited based on the time since the applicant’s doctoral award.

Applicants must have no more than 4 years of postdoctoral research experience at the time of the initial (new) or the subsequent resubmission application.

Ok, technically that is a running clock on postdoctoral employment so I suppose if you take time off after the PhD to do anything else, your clock is not expiring. But most applicants will be closely watching this eligibility. My stock advice (under normal circumstances) to any newish postdoc is to take a look at the last possible date for the “subsequent resubmission application” that comes in within the 4 year deadline and work back from that to where the first application must go in. Well, COVID-19 shutdowns are going to play havoc with this. Now the NIH has issued several notices stating flexibility in this timeline for various things, child bearing, elder care, etc. So this is probably a no-brainer even absent any specific COVID guidance. But the above mentioned FAQ specifically references this question. The answer is: “Yes, K99 applicants can request an extension to their K99 eligibility window due to the effects of COVID-19 on their research productivity. Affected applicants should consult with the funding IC for further guidance.” So far, so good. But still nerve-wracking, of course, because any given applicant can’t know for sure if he or she is going to be permitted the extension, or denied, by his or her target IC. They cannot know how much of an extension will be offered. One round? It may not be enough for full recovery of the person’s best possible proposal, including preliminary data.

Harkening back to yesterday’s post, this means that the very nervous K99 hopeful is going to be highly motivated to press ahead and stay on the schedule that she or he knows for a fact will be approved. I really wish NIH would find a way to be more definitive, such as saying the eligibility interval will just be a default 5 years for anyone who had 1-4 years experience as a postdoc as of March, 2020.

Now what about those lucky few who managed to land a K99/R00 award? There is a very nasty little problem for them, which is that the training phase is supposed to be no longer than 2 years and the R00 is supposed to start right afterwards. The R00, you will recall, requires that the person be hired in an Asst Professor job. So that has to be signed, sealed and almost delivered by the end of two years of K99 support. I’m sure I don’t have to remind this readership how hard it is for hopeful postdocs to land a job. And that many professorial jobs on offer follow the academic cycle of applications due in the fall semester, review in the early winter with interviews commencing soon thereafter. With luck, a candidate has things settled by April or May but this stuff can drag on, depending on…factors. In the Time of Corona, some Universities are putting a freeze on hiring, save for “essential” hires. How will this be interpreted for professorial hires? I don’t know. But I guaranfrickentee there are K99 holders sweating bullets about this right now. If the candidate is not lucky (in the ToC or just generally), they may have to wait an entire year for the job cycle to start up again. The text of the K99 is not very friendly about this.

The K99/R00 award will provide up to 5 years of support in two phases. The initial (K99) phase will provide support for up to 2 years of mentored postdoctoral research training and career development. The second (R00) phase will provide up to 3 years of independent research support, which is contingent on satisfactory progress during the K99 phase and an approved, independent, tenure-track (or equivalent) faculty position. The two award phases are intended to be continuous in time. Therefore, although exceptions may be possible in limited circumstances, R00 awards will generally only be made to those K99 PDs/PIs who accept independent, tenure-track (or equivalent) faculty positions by the end of the K99 award period.

Emphasis added. As I’ve tried to point out in many blog posts, almost everything at the NIH that appears to be a “rule” is negotiable. The phrase in this that exceptions “may be possible in limited circumstances….generally only be” is a perfect reflection of my understanding. I’ve heard of all kinds of exceptions being made to all kinds of stated rules. I’ve heard even more stories about people trying to get exceptions to one thing or another being totally stonewalled. It is hard not to confirm one’s bias about such anecdata that it seems like the insider club types get a lot more exceptions than us strugglers. And K99 holders pick up on this sort of uncertainty.

Me, I would say, talk to Program. But I actually have, about this exact scenario, and I got a sort of hard-line response. Of the “no way, no how they HAVE to get a job by the end of the first year”. I, being aware of at least one exception and the above text, tend to take this with a grain of salt. For one thing, I was asking as a PI. The PO might be keen on sending a brush back message to any PI who is angling to keep the K99 awardee in their lab as long as possible. The PO may also be trying to keep the fire lit under their K99 awardees to take job searching seriously. And with urgency. The PO doesn’t care a whit if their K99 people end up in a more [insert some aspect of the variety of academic jobs] job than that person would prefer in their heart of hearts. Perhaps that is all this person was trying to communicate, hoping to get their ICs K99s employed in anything that would vaguely permit them to do research. I don’t know what the intent was. But it was very clear that this PO was trying to be all hard ass about their particular IC’s viewpoints on K99 transition.

It’s stupid to me. Why not let the K99 take a year off of funding before starting her R00 if that is the way it has to be? Why force them to maybe take a job under less than ideal circumstances? Maybe there is a spousal hire situation that is complicating things? Maybe they just haven’t been able to land something really awesome that they maybe could with one more hiring cycle.

Anyway, particularly in the Time of Corona, I’d like to see NIH do this. They almost are. In response to this particular FAQ, they say: NIH is providing maximum flexibility and will accept these requests from recipients affected by COVID-19. Individuals and mentors should contact the funding IC in writing to provide details on the delays related to COVID-19.

WHHHYYYY????? Why do they have to say this in Bureaucratic Weaselish? Why can’t they just fricken say “The NIH will permit a one year unfunded interval between K99 completion and R00 initiation.”? Or even “The NIH will permit the recipient to choose three years of K99 time at the expense of only two R00 years (something about the extra budget rolling over).”?

It’s so frustrating. Good that they are addressing this. Good that in all liklihood the existing K99 awardees will be able to adapt their course to the ToC related circumstances. ….but for goodness sake, why do they always have to make this so uncertain and nervewracking for their awardees?

I would have predicted, if anyone had told me a few months back that I’d be sitting under home quarantine for weeks at a time, that I’d be blogging up a storm to compensate.

Obviously, I’m not.

Our business of doing science has taken a serious shot right in the fo’castle and we, most of us anyway, are not doing things the same on a day to day basis. You would think I would have things to say about this. And maybe I do, I just have no idea where to begin.

I’m scared for my lab’s survival. I almost always am, true, but this is different. I’m not going to sing you my tale of woes today because many, many of you are in the same boat.

The shut down doesn’t do much of anything good for our usual problems and anxieties. There has been some relief for the tenure seekers, true. Many Universities have announced that there will be tenure clock delays permitted and that everybody in the process, from Tenure and Promotions Committees to letter writers will be exhorted to take the Time of Corona into account when assessing productivity. There has been some relief for those who are paid from NIH grants in that NIH has basically said it is okay to keep paying people even if their productivity has changed dramatically.

But this doesn’t help the person who is seeking tenure to actually get tenure, as far as I can tell. It’s not as if a delay in clock makes things magically better. We often have years-long arcs of developing our research programs, of making the efforts of our laboratories pay off in published work. And while yes, if you happened to be doing well prior to March of this year, you can ride that. But if you were just getting going? If the research models were finally reaching productivity? If maybe you had just managed to secure a grant, at long last, and were looking to CRANK it for a year to ensure tenure? Or maybe you were just about to collect that preliminary data that was going to push your 12th R01 attempt over the line…?

How is there any predictable way that a delayed clock or supposed relaxation of review standards are supposed to help with this? Unless the assurance from your University is that they are just going to hand you tenure now, I’m sorry, but you should be terrified. I am terrified FOR you.

Grants. Ah, grants. Yes the NIH has reiterated there is spending flexibility. But all we are doing is burning daylight. Staff are being paid but we’re getting less productivity per person hour. If we are doing it right, that is. If we are, in fact, shutting it down. Those weeks and months are just ticking away. And we are still in the same nightmare of funding….only worse. There is no guarantee that grant review in the coming rounds will take Corona-related excuses seriously. And even if they do, this is still competition. A competition where if you’ve happened to be more productive than the next person, your chances are better. Are the preliminary data supportive? Is your productivity coming along? Well, the next PI looks fine and you look bad so…. so sorry, ND. Nobody can ever have confidence that where they are when they shut down for corona will ever be enough to get them their next bit of funding.

I don’t see any way for the NIH to navigate this. Sure, they could give out supplements to existing grants. But, that only benefits the currently funded. Bridge awards for those that had near-miss scores? Sure, but how many can they afford? What impact would this have on new grants? After all, the NIH shows no signs yet of shutting down receipt and review or of funding per Council round as normal. But if we are relying on this, then we are under huge pressure to keep submitting grants as normal. Which would be helped by new Preliminary Data. And more publications.

So we PIs are hugely, hugely still motivated to work as normal. To seek any excuse as to why our ongoing studies are absolutely essential. To keep valuable stuff going, by hook or by crook….

Among other reasons, WE DON’T KNOW THE END DATE!

It could be olly-olly ox in free at almost any moment. If we get relieved from these duck-and-cover restrictions in a week or two, well, those who euthanized a bunch of research subjects are going to look really, really stupid. If we battened down the lab for the six-month window, we’re going to be a lot slower to get back up to speed. And those June/July grant submission dates are fast approaching. So are the October / November ones, frankly.

I have no answers. I know for a fact that some folks are fighting lab closures inch by inch and continue to generate data. I know some other folks shut it right down to zero at the first intimation this was coming. I know the former will be advantaged in the very near future and the latter will pay a price.

and winter is coming.