Blogging in the Time of Corona

April 7, 2020

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.

4 Responses to “Blogging in the Time of Corona”

  1. seat-of-the-pants scientist Says:

    Thanks for saying this. Totally agree. I shut down completely and downsized my mouse colony to just 30% including those animals required for prelim data for July competitive renewal. Found out yesterday that other colleagues didn’t. Going to take forever to get back up and am struggling to be productive with homeschooling and family stress. Severe impostor syndrome here. … and yes – severely disadvantaged going forward.


  2. wheresreason Says:

    Imagine you’re a late-stage postdoc that was planning to apply for jobs toward the end of this year. Imagine you lined everything up perfectly — papers, fellowship, and timed it so your visa doesn’t expire before you get to take a real shot at the job market. And then this. The uncertainty is driving me mad.


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    wr- yes the pressures on transitioning scientists is particularly acute given a variety of timeline issues.

    sotp- I don’t know what to say about this tragedy of the commons issue. The bad actors who keep pressing ahead will be advantaged over those who do not. There is no way for the field to detect this, save whisper net, and no functional way to punish them for being the jerk, anyway. I’m hearing tales from multiple different institutions of people who are pushing their “essential” work that is just like the kind of work that other people are shutting down.


  4. Emaderton3 Says:

    I shut down my small lab for many reasons–general concerns for health, a safer at home order, and people having small children that are not in school and don’t have alternatives for their care and/or homeschooling (including myself). The silver lining in all of this is that I will be given more time for a tenure track clock that was basically about to expire. However, I am not sure how much it will help since we need to generate various cell lines which will take some time (and in some cases don’t have the RNAi, plasmids, etc. in hand yet). In particular, the inability to generate new data for the upcoming R01 resubmission is really unfortunate. I have thought about going in (or having someone else go in) to begin generating the cell lines, but I was concerned that we would be under a much more strict stay at home order because things were not looking good. So, lots of lost time for those of us “following the rules.”


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