Huh. A bit surprised I never had occasion to repost this. Well, the conversation about the Ginther report and disparity in NIH Grant success reminded me of this.

Originally posted 03/23/09.


MajorTaylor.jpg

source


In the year 1899 an American cyclist won the world championship in the 1-mile track event. In those days, track cycling was what really mattered and cycling was a reasonably big deal. So this was an event in sport. An even bigger deal was the fact that Marshall “Major” Taylor (Wikipedia) was black. This fact was, likewise, important:


The League of American Wheelmen, then the governing body for the sport, banned blacks from amateur racing in 1894, just as bicycling’s popularity surged.

Read the rest of this entry »

Thought of the day

October 21, 2013

For academics:

The greatest realization you can make is that success, no matter how modest, changes power dynamics. One of the reasons that people in academics get into trouble is that many never escape the mindset of graduate student trying to defend, postdoc trying to get a job and/or assistant professor trying to make tenure.

No matter how successful they become, many still see themselves as the powerless peon, just like anyone else.

They never notice that the other voices have stopped speaking.

h/t: scicurious

Someone or other on the Twitts, or possible a blog comment, made a remark about academic citation practices that keeps eating at me.

It boils down to this.

One of the most fundamental bits of academic credit that accrues to authors are the citations of their research papers. Citations form the ballyhooed h-index (X papers with at least X cites each) go into the “Highly Cited” measure of awesomeness and are generally viewed as an important indication of your impact on science.

Consequently, when you choose to cite a review article to underline a point you are making in your own article, you are taking the credit that rightfully goes to the people who did the actual work, and handing it over to some review author.

Review authors are extracting surplus value from the people who did the actual creating. Kind of like a distributor of widgets extracts value from those people who actually made them by providing the widgets in an easy/efficient location for use. Good for them but…..

So here’s the deal. If you are citing a review only as a sort of collected works, stop doing that. I can make an exception when you are citing the review for the unique theoretical or synthetic contribution made by the review authors. Fine. But when you are just doing it because you want to make a general “..it is well established that Bunnies make it to the hedgerow in 75% of baseline time when they are given amphetamine” type of point, don’t do that. Cite some of the original authors!

If you really need to, you can cite (Jo et al, 1954, Blow et al 1985, Moe et al 2005; see Pig and Dog, 2013 for recent review).

Look at it this way. Would you rather your papers were cited directly? Or are you okay with the citations for something to which you contributed fundamentally being meta-cites of some review article?

Show me the data, Jerry!!!!!!

September 3, 2013

Today’s Twittsplosion was brought to you by @mbeisen:

he then elaborated

and

and

There was a great deal of distraction in there from YHN, MBE and the Twitteratti. But these are the ones that get at the issue I was responding to. I think the last one here shows that I was basically correct about what he meant at the outset.

I also agree that it would be GREAT if all authors of papers had deposited all of their raw data, carefully annotated, commented and described (curated, in a word) with all of the things that I might eventually want to know. That would be kickass.

And I have had NUMEROUS frustrations that I cannot tell even from methods sections what was done, how the data were selected and groomed, etc in many critical papers.

It isn’t because I assume fraud but rather that I find that when it comes to behaving animals in laboratory studies that details matter. Unfortunately we all wish to overgeneralize from published reports….the authors want to imply they have reported a most universal TRUTH and other investigators wish to believe it so that they don’t have to sweat the details.

This is never true in science, as much as we want to pretend.

Science is ever only a description of what has occurred under these specific conditions. Period. Including the ones we’ve bothered to describe in the Methods and those we have not bothered to describe. Including those conditions of which we have no knowledge or understanding that they might have contributed.

Let us take our usual behavioral pharmacology model, the 10 m Hedgerow BunnyHopper assay. The gold standard, of course. And everyone knows it is trivial to speed up the BunnyHopping with a pretreatment of amphetamine.

However, we’ve learned over the years that the time of day matters.

Until…finally….in its dotage seniority. The Dash Lab finally fesses up. The PI allows a trainee to publish the warts. And compare the basic findings, done at nighttime in naive bunnies, with what you get during the dawn/dusk period. In Bunnies who have seen the Dash arena before. And maybe they are hungry for clover now. And they’ve had a whiff of fox without seeing the little blighters before.

And it turns out these minor methodological changes actually matter.

We also know that dose response curves can be individual for amphetamine and if the dose is too high the Bunny just stims (and gets eaten by the fox). Perhaps this dose threshold is not identical so we’re just going to chop off the highest dose because half of them were eaten after that dose. Wait…individuals? Why can’t we show the individuals? Because maybe a quarter are speeded up by 4X and a quarter by 10X and now that there are these new genetic data on Bunny myocytes under stressors as diverse as….

So why do the new papers just report the effects of single doses of amphetamine in the context of this fancy transcranial activation of vector-delivered Channelrhodopsin in motor cortex? Where are the training data? What time of day were they run? How many Bunnies were aced out of the study because the ReaChr expression was too low? I want to do a correlation, dammit! and a multivariate analysis that includes my favorite myocyte epigenetic markers! Say, how come these damn authors aren’t required to bank genomic DNA from every damn animal they run just so I can ask for it and do a whole new analysis?

After all, the taxpayers paid for it!

I can go on, and on and on with arguments for what “raw” data need to be included in all BunnyHopping papers from now into eternity. Just so that I can perform my pet analyses of interest.

The time and cost and sheer effort involved is of no consequence because of course it is magically unicorn fairy free time that makes it happen. Also, there would never be any such thing as a protracted argument with people who simply prefer the BadgerDigger assay and have wanted to hate on BunnyHopping since the 70s. Naaah. One would never get bogged down in irrelevant stuff better suited for review articles by such a thing. Never would one have to re-describe why this was actually the normal distribution of individual Hopping speeds and deltas with amphetamine.

What is most important here is that all scientists focus on the part of their assays and data that I am interested in.

Just in case I read their paper and want to write another one from their data.

Without crediting them, of course. Any such requirement is, frankly my dear, gauche.

In Science, from Sandra L. Schmid, Ph.D. [PubMed] who is Chair of Cell Biology at UT Southwestern.

The problem:

CVs provide a brief description of past training—including the researcher’s pedigree—as well as a list of awards, grants, and publications. A CV provides little insight into attributes that will ensure future success in the right environment. For example, a CV is unlikely to reflect the passion, perseverance, and creativity of individuals who struggled with limited resources and created their own opportunities for compelling research. Nor is a CV likely to identify bold and imaginative risk-takers who might have fallen—for the moment—just short of a major research success. The same is true for those who found, when they realized their goal, that their results exceeded the imaginations of mainstream reviewers and editors, the gatekeepers of high-profile journals. Finally, for junior hires at early stages of their careers, a CV is unlikely to reveal individuals who are adept at recombining knowledge and skills gained from their graduate and postdoctoral studies to carve out new areas of research, or those able to recognize and take advantage of unique opportunities for collaboration in their next position.

Her Department’s solution:

We will be asking applicants to write succinct cover letters describing, separately and briefly, four elements: (1) their most significant scientific accomplishment as a graduate student; (2) their most significant scientific accomplishment as a postdoc; (3) their overall goals/vision for a research program at our institution; and (4) the experience and qualifications that make them particularly well-suited to achieve those goals. Each of the cover letters will be read by several faculty members—all cell biology faculty members will have access to them—and then we will interview, via video conferencing technologies, EVERY candidate whose research backgrounds and future interests are a potential match to our departmental goals.

She closes with what I see as a deceptively important comment:

Let’s run this experiment!

You have probably gleaned, Dear Reader, that one of my greatest criticisms of our industry is that the members of it throw all of their scientific training out the window when it comes to the actual behavior OF the industry. Paper review, grant review, assessment of “quality”, dealing with systematic bias and misdirection…… MAN we are bad at this.

Above all, we are reluctant to run experiments to test our deep seated beliefs. Our beliefs that GRE quantitative or verbal or subject predict grad school performance. Our beliefs that undergraduate GPA is the key or maybe it is research experience in a lab of some DewD we’ve heard of. Our belief that what makes the postdoc is X number of first author pubs in journals of just exactly this Impact Factor. Our confidence that past performance predicts future success of our new Asst Professor hire….or tenure candidate.

So often we argue, viciously, our biases. So infrequently do we test them.

So bravo to Chair Schmid for actually running an experiment.

Terminated

August 23, 2013

The Twitt @TellDrTell wondered:

This brings up the question of what is meant by the “terminal degree“, and this way of phrasing it focuses on one aspect of the concept, namely the “highest” degree.

For many fields of endeavor, some sort of degree that includes the word “Doctor” is the terminal degree. These ones are familiar to my audience.

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD or DPhil if you are a Brit)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)
  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)

These terminal degrees happen to predominate in our research fields and in the population of PIs who secure major grant awards. There are also others of potential interest to this audience, including

  • Juris Doctor (JD. Did you know lawyers can call themself “Doctor”? Why don’t they?)
  • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.; fraught with implications)
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)

If you hold only one Doctoral degree then presumably most folks would agree this is the highest one. But @TellDrTell wondered which to consider the highest one if a person holds two doctoral degrees.

Wikipedia and other sources tend to distinguish research degrees from professional degrees. In our usual pool of Doctoral letters, the Ph.D.s are research degrees and most of the other ones are professional degrees. This is underlined by the fact that most of the dual Doctoral degree subpopulation holds a PhD and one of the so-called professional degrees.

Being a research degree, obviously the PhD is higher, better and/or more terminal.

But wait. The Wikipedia lists a whole other bunch of research doctorates, like Doctor of Management and Doctor of Modern Languages, that you’ve never heard of and sound like some scam to avoid doing a Doctor of Philosophy in the respective subjects. In more familiar terms, there are PhDs in both Pharmacology and Psychology, so the PsyD and PharmD seem like lesser degrees to some folks. More limited.

Obviously those are lesser than the professional doctorates in Medicine, Dental Surgery, Veterinary Medicine and Juris. Wait, Juris? Is that law degree more “terminal” than a Ed.D. that was awarded after 6 years* of painstaking thesis research?

Gaaah!

Okay, let’s just say the Ph.D. is the best, all others are lesser and you should list your Ph.D. as your highest degree if you are also a M.D. or a D.V.M.

Unless you went to a combined M.D./Ph.D. program, in which case I think you are this, but not separately either a M.D. or a Ph.D.. And yes, unsurprisingly, I have heard at least one M.D., Ph.D. speak of how awesomely better this is than those lesser M.D./Ph.D. folks**.

And since it is usually a Doctor of Philosophy in [Subject], and the sciences are the most awesome, I think we can safely say that if you have two degrees in which one is a Ph.D. [Science] and the other is Ph.D. [Philosophy], the latter*** is the higher one. And you win the entire world’s respect.

__
*I don’t actually know the duration of Ed.D. programs.
**Gawd, I love academics.

***Because Philosophy squared

GMP has an observation up at Academic Jungle that resonates:

2) Nobody ever pats you on the back and tells you “Good job.” Ever. Except perhaps the people whose approval in the professional arena doesn’t mean much, like your partner or your parents. …The fact that you are supposed to forever go on based on your own convictions and some internal source of energy (must be nuclear, eh?), without ever expecting to get a little energy back in the form of praise from colleagues in the professional community is a really tall order. … I never expected that I would have to be the sole engine propelling myself and all my group members for the next 40+ years. I praise my students when they do a good job, but for us grownups there is no such thing. I suppose you get an award every now and then, but what’s that, a pat on the back every few years? That’s a lean affirmation diet.

It’s totally true. Frequently so, anyway. Those who are supposed to be reviewing and helping with your career locally, such as a Chair or even Dean type of person, are universally motivated to tell you that you are not good enough so that you will work harder. Grant review, paper review…there are some warm fuzzy comments made but somehow the criticisms seem to loom larger. Peers who want to talk about your papers like to bring up the stuff you didn’t do or the flaws or explicate the methods. This is science and a healthy part of it, but it can be hard on the ego since there is never any impression of universal acclaim followed by more and more and more unquestioning approval of your work.

There is a subtle feeling we encourage in science about expectations as well. Sure, you just published a paper, got a grant from the NIH or graduated a PhD student…..but here’s the trick. If you really belong, if you are really one of us…that is expected! So why should there be any special notice for your accomplishment?

Each novel accomplishment for your career simply raises you to a new level of expectation. Just scored your first Nature paper from your own laboratory? Hey, that’s great. But now you are a CNS Glamour Lab and, well, of course that is what you do. (Hey, when’s the next one coming out?)

Over the years I have tried to go out of my way to congratulate my peers, especially the more junior ones, when I see they got a new grant award. Tried to take special notice of their papers and congratulate them on trainees flying the coop. Say something about their selection for study section. I’ve tried to remind some of my closer peers more directly when I see them as an important part of the field and our overall endeavor. And I don’t just limit it to the plebes like me or extramural scientists either. SROs and POs in the NIH need to get some positive feedback too. Your senior faculty won’t be hurt to know you think of them as the best person to serve as Chair or even to make a run at a Deanship (should they be so crazy).

I am not natively a person who is effusive in praise. So I’ve had to make a conscious effort. I’ve done so ever since coming into contact with the Imposter Syndrome in blog-discussions, which was a big factor in crystallizing my thoughts on this.

I’m running a few months behind schedule on this on but I finally remembered. It’s a meme for you, Dear Reader, to take more than the usual spotlight you enjoy at this blog. This is especially for you lurkers (in case you didn’t notice, the email field can be filled with nonsense like dev@null.com). For the the veterans, yes I know who you are but feel free to update us on any changes in the way you interact with the blog…especially if you’ve lost touch with the content, been dismayed or just decided that I’m not who you thought at first, ideas-wise.

So, to work!

1) Tell me about yourself. Who are you? Do you have a background in science? If so, what draws you here as opposed to meatier, more academic fare? And if not, what brought you here and why have you stayed?

2) Have you told anyone else about this blog? Why? Were they folks who are not a scientist?. Ever sent anything to family members or groups of friends who don’t understand your career?

3) How did you find us and how do you regularly follow us? through Twitter, Facebook and/or other beyond-RSS mechanisms?

[This is all the fault of Ed Yong. Head over the the last iteration to see all the gory details and links to prior comment threads.]

tl;dr version: Your Humble Narrator is a sexist pig apologist for the old school heteronormative stultifying patriarchal system, hates women, resents his spouse and would leave his kids with the dogcatcher at the slightest excuse.

More after the jump….
Read the rest of this entry »

Tweep @biochemprof pointed to a story of the day about a judicial ruling that unpaid interns on a movie production should have been paid. The story via via NBC:

In the decision, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that Fox Searchlight should have paid two interns on the movie “Black Swan,” because they were essentially regular employees.

The judge noted that these internships did not foster an educational environment and that the studio received the benefits of the work. The case could have broad implications. Young people have flocked to internships, especially against the backdrop of a weak job market.

“Weak job market”, my eye. I still recall the disbelief I was in during the end of my senior year in college when my friends described how they “had to” take unpaid internships. There were several industries (I can’t recall the specifics at this far remove) for which my fellow newly bachelor degree’d worker drones were convinced they had to start their careers by working for free. Having secured what I thought was a pretty good gig, being paid the 2013 equivalent of $23,000 per year to earn my PhD, I felt comparatively fortunate. There is no way in hell, or so I thought at the time, that I would be able to have followed such a path. I needed to do something that was going to put a roof over my head and at least some cheap pasta on the table. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I grew up in an academic household. So the parental support for me going into academics was pretty good. However, it was by no means a fantastically well-off household either, being academic, and there was no way in hell my parents were going to pay all my bills deep into my 20s. I had to get a job that was going to pay me something. So I did.

As far as I can tell, the phenomenon of “unpaid internships” for both recent college grads and other long term or temporary would-be-workers has not diminished substantially.

Unpaid internships are a labor-exploitation scam.

Period.

In any industry.

And according to the NBC bit, this is the beginning of a long slog of court cases making exactly this point.

The “Black Swan” case was the first in a series of lawsuits filed by unpaid interns.

In February 2012, a former Harper’s Bazaar intern sued Hearst Magazines, asserting that she regularly worked 40 to 55 hours a week without being paid. Last July, a federal court ruled that the plaintiff could proceed with her lawsuit as a collective action, certifying a class of all unpaid interns who worked in the company’s magazines division since February 2009. This February, an unpaid intern sued Elite Model Management, seeking $50 million.

After a lawsuit brought by unpaid interns, Charlie Rose and his production company announced last December that they would pay back wages to as many as 189 interns. The settlement called for many of the interns to receive about $1,100 each — amounting to roughly $110 a week in back pay, for a maximum of 10 weeks, the approximate length of a school semester.

As part of his ruling on Tuesday, Judge Pauley also granted class certification to a group of unpaid interns in New York who worked in several divisions of the Fox Entertainment Group.

Good.

Look, obviously there will be much legal parsing about the relative benefit of unpaid work to both the employer and the employee. But the basic principles should be clear and easily understood in plain language and we should be highly attentive to where the putative “educational” or “training” benefit to the employee is being oversold and the relative work-product benefit to the employer is being intentionally undersold to justify the exploitation.

This brings me to us, DearReader. By which I mean my academic science peers, our research laboratories and the phenomenon of undergraduate or high-school “interns” who work without financial compensation. It is wrong, exploitative and immoral. We, you… our industry as a whole, should knock it off.

I am not swayed by arguments that you and your lab put more effort into summer interns than you get back in return. If this is so, stop taking them. Clearly, if you do take them then you get some sort of benefit. Even if that benefit is only that you can brag that you have trained numerous undergraduates or “provided a research experience” to several. But in many cases, these freebie interns do much that is of value and that you would otherwise have to pay someone else in the lab to do. At worst, this saves your lab on technician salaries or frees up the time of the betters in the lab to work on the more complicated stuff instead of washing glassware or making up buffers. In better situations the intern produces data that helps the lab forward on a project.

If this is the case, ever, then you have exploited the internship scam. You have accepted someone working for you for free. This is almost mind bogglingly immoral to me and I do not know how my fellow left-leaning academic types can bring themselves to ignore it.

I don’t care one whit that you have 10 or 20 requests each and every Spring from some undergrad on campus or some undergrad from another University that happens to live in your town and is home for the summer. I get them myself. They make it clear that they expect no compensation…all this tells me is that our business has successfully created a system of exploitation. We have convinced the suckers that they “have to” take these positions to advance in their own career goals.

This is absolutely no different from times in the past, prior to labor protections, in which workers “had to” accept dangerous working conditions, longer than 40 hour weeks, no breaks, employment of juveniles, low pay, company stores/towns that stole back much of the wages, etc, etc. The list is lengthy. In every case the industry had fantastic reasons for why they “had to” treat their employees in such a way. The workers themselves were often convinced things “had to” be that way. And what do you know? After hard fought labor protections were put in place the industries got along just fine.

So far, I have gotten along just fine without exploiting unpaid interns in my laboratory. If they are not getting compensated in some way, they don’t work in my lab. I plan to stick with this principle. In my book, training, recommendation letters and the nebulous concept of experience do not qualify as compensation. There should be an hourly wage that is at least as great as the local minimum wage. In some cases, under the formal structure of an undergraduate institution, course credit can be acceptable compensation. I would recommend keeping this to a minimum, particularly when it comes to summer internships and/or work conducted outside of the academic semester. With respect to this latter, no, you can’t skate on the scam that they are just finishing up what they started under a for-credit stint during the regular academic calendar.

In addition to the general immorality of science labs exploiting the powerless (those desiring to enter the career) there is another factor for you to consider. The unpaid internship scam has the effect of blocking the financially disadvantaged from entering a particular career. Think about your mental (or your department’s formal) graduate admissions schema. Does it prioritize those who have had some prior experience working in a research laboratory, preferably in a closely related field of work? Of course it does. Which means it prioritizes those who could afford to gain such experiences. Those who had parents who were willing to float their rent and food bills over the summer months instead of making them find a real job, such as installing itchy insulation in scorching hot attics for 10 hr days, digging ditches, busing tables or changing oil filters. (As I have come to hear postdocs making upwards of $35,000 per year and graduate students $29,000 per year — Federal minimum wage is about $15,000 at present — complain about their treatment, I am certainly coming to reconsider which type of undergraduate summer experience is really the best way to select doctoral students.)

Even if we do not apply an admissions filter, how would the latter type of undergraduate student even come to appreciate that a laboratory career might be for them?

Clearly the solution is to find a way to pay our scientific interns. Much of the time, these mechanisms exist and it is mere laziness on the part of the PI that keeps the intern from being paid. There are administrative supplements to NIH grants for disadvantaged students that are, from what I hear, pretty much there for the asking as they are underutilized. Local summer-experience programs, small scale philanthropy and academic senate funds. Even if you cough up some grant money, what does 10 weeks cost you? Not that much. Can you look yourself square in the mirror and tell yourself honestly that you can’t afford the outlay from your grant and that you are not getting any value out of this prospective intern?

I can’t.

Unpaid internships are as much a scam and a labor exploitation in academic science labs as they are at Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Knock it off people.

Anyone who thinks this is a good idea for the biomedical sciences has to have served as an Associate Editor for at least 50 submitted manuscripts or there is no reason to listen to their opinion.

LinkedIn: yea or nay?

June 4, 2013

It’s been a few years but I still have about the same approach to LinkedIn. I’m on there mostly for the networking that might extend to my trainees and other junior scientists in the field. I don’t find it that useful for me in any direct sense.

How about you, Dear Reader*?

UPDATE 06/05/2013: Arlenna points to a page on creepy LinkedIn behavior and a privacy setting you might want to check.

__
*and PhysioProf

Many years ago when I was a much younger scientist, reading through the literature was occasionally frustrating. I’d come across a lab working on some question of interest and wonder why they just…..stopped, almost before they got going. Often the authors in question never returned to the published literature and I would wonder what happened.

Later on, in a few cases I would run into them again…..maybe they went to Administration in their University, maybe became a NIH Program Officer, perhaps ended up in BigPharma or publishing. In other cases there was never much trace to explain what happened.

I think we can assume it was frequently grant money-related.

We’re facing another round of the phenomenon, I sense. The current economic climate for biomedical research scientists is very grim. You know this. News of 5%ile paylines posted by at least one NIH Institute is gripping. In the bad way.

The rumble of labs closed due to loss of grant support is swelling. No longer a FOAF, either, but someone you know. The degrees of separation will shrink. People will be lost from science.

This means that future bright eyed graduate students or postdocs will read and wonder.

“What happened to that lab”, they will ponder, “the papers were leading somewhere cool but they just stopped”.

Eve Marder has an opinion piece up in which she discusses the “luck” involved in career outcomes.

Our present world is filled with great angst. Our junior faculty are writing too many grant applications for not enough money. Our postdocs rightfully feel that they are in purgatory, not knowing when and if there will be an academic position for them, should they desire one. Our graduate students are watching the struggles of postdocs and faculty. For me, this era is especially frustrating, because it is a time of extraordinary opportunity for scientific discovery, and it is criminal that our young scientists can not experience the excitement and challenge of scientific discovery without being worried about their futures.
There is no right answer to the question of how long a talented scientist can or should remain in a ‘looking for a job’ limbo. Every individual must take into account their own ambitions and circumstances as they try to answer this question. And all of us should also be aware that we have the potential to be successful in many careers, in and out of science.

Go read (and comment).

from someone on the Twitts going by @ilovepigenetics

Annoyed that PIs prefer to cut positions vs. experiments. #sciquester #dotherightthing #shortsighted Fewer jobs=less taxes=less funding

this was followed with an interesting response to YHN:

@drugmonkeyblog Do the right thing. You have a responsibility to your trainees.

and the lunacy goes on (reverse chron):

  1. @SciTriGrrl @BabyAttachMode I choose to pay my people and live on 75% salary. Is it hard, yes. Am I lucky that I can do it, yes.
  2. @SciTriGrrl We are smart people. Don’t take the easy solution. Figure out a smart solution.
  3. @BabyAttachMode @SciTriGrrl Who needs the $ the most-a PI who makes ~100K or a student who makes $25 K?
  4. @neuromusic @drugmonkeyblog Find ways to make it cheaper. I’m very disappointed. You have a responsibility to those you took on.
  5. @SciTriGrrl Cut your salary. Don’t hire new people, but your first responsibility is your trainees. $25K doesn’t support a student or a PD.
  6. Lessons from my Father: Cut YOUR salary if you must, but pay your people first. The #1 rule I learned from my Dad, a small business owner.

There are two main problems here. The first one is related to whom the PI owes “responsibility”.

The NIH Grant funded PI typically has a number of responsibilities in my view.

She has a laboratory of employees and trainees with a good bit of smear between who is an employee and who is a trainee. On the one end is the straight-up employee who is a technician and on the other end an undergraduate “volunteering in the lab for experience”. The former might have a reasonable expectation of life-time employment (within the confines of normal variation and the grant cycles). In between there are the postdocs who are on for a 2-3 year training stint without explicit expectation of a life-time job and graduate students who are there to achieve a semi-defined task (the doctorate). The PI has a responsibility to do well by these people, there is little doubt. But there is also little doubt that perfection cannot be achieved for everyone. Not everyone is going to have an outcome commensurate with their expectations. This is reality, not evidence of a PI who is uncaring, irresponsible or insufficiently “creative”.

The PI also has a laboratory. This is the edifice built by and for the prior trainees, the current trainees, the future trainees, the PI herself…and her University. Sometimes this laboratory has been inherited from a prior investigator (or a chain of investigators). It may be a laboratory that will obviously be passed down to subsequent investigators. It may be a laboratory that has enjoyed considerable University support over the years. It may have enjoyed considerable support from a specific Institute or Center of the NIH. The PI may have to compromise on other responsibilities to service her responsibility to the laboratory, from time to time.

The PI has a career. She has to continue to publish papers, secure funding and supervise research to keep this career going. You may view this as a selfish responsibility but hey, if you are complaining about the fact that another person is taking a career hit by the PI not being “creative” enough…you need to explain why one person’s selfish goals are to be prioritized over another’s.

The PI has a life. Just like you do. Sure they may be further along in years, stage(s) or whatnot than you are. They may have some things that you cannot see yourself ever attaining (like a mortgage, twopointseven kids and even a stay at home spouse. perhaps college bills for offspring). And their salary is clearly higher. It looks to you like they are totes moneybags and should just forgo 25% of their salary so that someone else can stay in their job for another 6 months. Guess what? It’s time to get real. NIH grant supported investigators do make a lot more than postdocs do, mostly, but they are by no means insanely compensated. And just like you, they went through a period of training and fell into debt, behind the mortgage curve, behind the 401K explosion, they came along post-pension, etc, etc. Just like you they nursed ancient cars through postdoc and into the first years of faculty. They ate pasta. They did all that and got lucky to get a job. And started a life. And now they have people who depend on them to maintain that life. My sympathies are limited for those who claim that the people farther down the path just aren’t responsible or creative enough to ensure that each and every person to come through their lab achieves the same outcome as they have.

There is another big one, this one related more to “what” the PI owes responsibility. I might suggest this is even the first priority of the NIH funded Principal Investigator.

The PI has a responsibility to the grant. You know, the tax payer funded money that has been dropped on the laboratory, under the PI’s guidance, in expectation of some sort of return. A return of information, otherwise known as published papers. Yes, the PI has a HUGE part of her creativity and responsibility tied up in making sure that some science actually occurs. Published science. It is very easy for the trainee who has just been told that they have two months to find a new job to overlook this. The PI should be a good steward of the public purse. And sometimes that role is going to conflict with the above mentioned responsibilities to staff members. This is why the salvo from @ilovepigenetics about prioritizing salary lines over experiments drew my attention, btw.

If you keep people employed “over experiments” this means that the experiments aren’t getting done. Or aren’t getting done efficiently. Then where are we? If you can’t buy reagents, can’t analyze all the samples in the freezer, can’t support cage costs, can’t maintain mouse lines, can’t buy rats, can’t recruit human subjects, can’t afford scanner time… then everything in the above list crashes down. Because eventually productivity suffers, no new grants come in, no new trainees can be afforded, the dollars eventually run out and everyone needs to be fired.

Just to avoid firing one postdoc today.

__
postscript: This Twitt is also spectacularly clueless about the fact that the current extra good news of the sequester comes after a good 5-8 years of serious squeezing and pressure on the NIH budget and NIH funded scientific labs. PIs have been scrambling like crazy to be creative about funding, maintaining trainees salary lines as far as possible and to get the most work done that they can. Like crazy. For years now. And believe you me, this ain’t news to any postdoc with half a brain. They’ve known about how bad things are for ages. If they’ve been burning the midnight St. Kern oil to write fellowships and papers and assist the PI with grants (so that s/he can get one more out per cycle) then hey, I’m a bit sympathetic. Somehow I suspect not all of them have been doing this though….