Faking up the Charm…

There is a kerfluffle going on in the blogosphere over how support staff should be treated. I’m just going to pause here and say WTF???

You should treat everyone that you work with (and everyone that you interact with in general in the other parts of your life) with kindness, respect and the benefit of the doubt. Even people who are rude to you. Period. You don’t need to go about this with fakery and stealth, like our beloved Comrade Physioproffe confesses to do:

Example: I like to eat a few hard candies every day after lunch, but I don’t want to keep them in my office, because then I pound them instead of just eating a few. So I keep a dish in our department business office stocked with candies that I buy, and every day after lunch, I pop into the office to grab a few. While I am in there, I say hello to the admins, and make small talk for a few minutes.

So why should you bother? Because it is the right thing to do. Not because your job might be made easier (and for the record I don’t think this is what CE really meant), not because you think you should, but because it is the right thing to do. I don’t know how to explain it any more simply than that.

I have a special ire for people who think that because of their profession or position they are ‘above’ people in other professions or positions and they act accordingly. The kind woman who empties the trash can in my office works every bit as hard as I do- and I’ve had every advantage. The compliance officer, who I often spar with over the rules, has a job that is amazingly difficult in ways totally different from my job, and a totally unenviable one at that. What we all have in common is that we are all trying to do our best at our jobs and for the competing demands of our various lives.

Data Storage FAIL

Say it isn’t so. Say that isn’t data… crumpled up in that drawer….

I’m only going to say this once. DATA SHOULD BE IN A BOUND NOTEBOOK AT THE VERY LEAST, OR GEEZ, PUT IT IN THE BIOLOGIST’S FAVORITE COMPUTER PROGRAM…. EXCEL ….  Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER let me find it crumpled up in a random drawer again.

NIH to allow explanation of lags in productivity… Finally!!

I’d like to post the text of a letter that I wrote and sent in early 2008, to Dr. Vivian Pinn, Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at NIH. The back story is that I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Pinn at an event on my campus – during a small group session I mentioned the stoppage of tenure clocks is useless for women in science, without an equivalent stoppage of the NIH clock or some way to explain gaps in productivity to reviewers. I was delighted to see that this suggestion, which I am certain has also been made by many, many others, has finally been acted upon. Three cheers NIH, you have my eternal gratitude.

Dear Dr. Pinn-

I don’t mean to crowd up your email inbox, but you asked me to send you an email regarding the suggestion that I made during the faculty discussion following your talk at my institution several weeks ago (January 2008).  I’m sorry it has taken me some time to finally get to this.

If you recall, our discussion concerned promoting the participation of women in academic scientific careers. My point was simply that the criteria that we are judged upon as scientists are funding and research productivity, and these two are interdependent.  Lags in productivity of papers, negatively affect the ability to obtain federal funding (and vice versa)- and these lags are more likely to happen for women for many reasons- including childbearing and child care (even with the most enlightened spouse), entry of women into research careers via non-traditional routes or ‘research faculty’ appointments (non-tenure track appointments where one has to provide one’s own salary-hard to produce papers when continuously writing grants) – just to name a couple.

When grants are considered during the peer review process at NIH, lags in productivity are counted against the applicant and are many times directly unfavorably commented upon by reviewers.  Currently, the only formal information that reviewers have about an applicant is the Curriculum Vitae and a list of publications- it’s a simple calculation – divide the number of publications by the number of perceived years in the workforce. This kind of calculation will never take into account lags in productivity that disproportionately affects women scientists. Stopping the tenure clock and other measures that might be taken at an institutional level will not change this.

Several granting agencies (such as the American Heart Association) allow an applicant to explain unusual circumstances that have occurred during their careers in a special section on the application.  Such a section could be added into the NIH grant application for explicit explanation of unusual circumstances or lags in productivity that would otherwise be counted against an applicant, and might make the funding playing field more fair for women scientists.

I have myself, on various applications, inserted an ‘introduction to the principal investigator’ section into my USDA proposals, with the express purpose of explaining publication gaps after I became frustrated at having low productivity pointed out on my NIH proposals (I was finishing veterinary school, gave birth to two daughters, and my postdoc advisor moved to another institution during my postdoc leaving me to support myself). When I have done this, I have not had a single comment about my ‘low productivity’ on the review sheets for my grants, but have been acknowledged a ‘junior’ investigator, and have had favorable comments on my willingness to collaborate with established investigators (and been scored well).

I am sorry for the lengthy email, but as a young woman scientist who struggles every day with the balance between a job that I love, and a family that I need  – I have a vested interest in finding ways to make this system work better for all women in my position. That drain in talent that is occurring when women scientists leave the pipeline after their postdoctoral years, or in their early academic career- is many times because we have been taught that family life and a successful career as a scientist are incompatible (and involve such family sacrifices such as putting off having a family until AFTER tenure decisions). Our senior mentors, both male and female, teach us this and we have precious few more enlightened role models.

I apologize again for the lengthy email.


The scientist also known as DrdrA

ASM Action Alert: Federal Funding for Science…… in Jeopardy.(UPDATED)

I’m delighted that the to A2 or not to A2 bomb in my last post is generating so much discussion all over the blogosphere. It is obvious that people have strong opinions about this subject in one direction or another, but I hope that most everyone agrees that there is a problem. The problem is bigger than A1 vs. A2- it is a problem of shrinking total dollars, and how those total dollars are going to be distributed for the research enterprise.

One thing that I have very much appreciated in all of this is the call to activism for us basic scientists. In my daily life I’m an activist for all kinds of things, science education, public education in general, the death penalty (against), equal rights, a woman’s right to choose… but in the course of my career I think I’ve been very lax about activism that could benefit academic science. I can’t remember having lobbied my congress person about a topic related to my research career or research funding… like… ever.

I recognize that I am late to the game- but this seems like a do or die moment for all of us who run labs supported by federal tax dollars- so I’ll start right here with this plea from ASM (American Society for Microbiology) to contact my congressional representatives. I will contact them both by phone and by email, and I challenge you to do the same.

UPDATE: The gorgeous and talented Isis has posted a similar call to action at her blog today as well.

Action Alert: Federal Funding for Science and
Public Health Programs in Jeopardy

Dear Colleague:

Federal funding for science and public health programs is in jeopardy as Congress begins the budget process to reduce federal spending for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.The House of Representatives is expected to consider later this week an FY 2011 funding bill (HR 1) that would make major cuts in science and public health programs.If these cuts are enacted, they will have an extremely negative impact on science and public health programs in the United States.

It is very important that Members of Congress hear from their constituents about the adverse impact of reducing federal funding for science and pubic health programs at the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Energy Science Office and the Environmental Protection Agency. We ask that you contact your congressional delegation now to oppose draconian cuts to federal funding for science and public health programs.

A draft letter, which you can edit and personalize, and talking points to help you make the case for science and public health programs supported by federal funding are available on the ASM’s Legislative Action Center website.We urge you to personalize your communications and describe in personal terms how federal funding impacts your research, your institution and your community. Personal stories resonate most with policymakers.

In the coming days, we urge you to do the following, if possible:

* Call your congressional delegation in both their local and Washington offices
* Visit your elected officials’ district offices or scheduled Town Hall meetings
* Send a personalized email to your congressional delegation

The time to act is now. Please contact your Congressional delegation to reject deep reductions in federal budgets for science and public health programs.

Go to the ASM’s Legislative Action Center to send a message http://capwiz.com/asmusa/issues/alert/?alertid=27665501 <http://emessage.asm.org/emessageirs/servlet/IRSL?v=4&l=1&r=997&m=8516&e=2 <http://emessage.asm.org/emessageirs/servlet/IRSL?v=4&l=1&r=997&m=8516&e=2>>.The ASM has provided you with a draft message that you can edit with specific examples of how federally funded research benefits you, your community and the world.There are also talking points that you can reference in your message.Please add state, district, or institutional specific data that highlight the importance of federally funded research and public health programs.

President Obama released his FY 2012 budget proposal on February 14. The House of Representatives’ action on the FY 2011 Continuing Resolution (CR) is the first step in the budget process that will play out in the coming months. The ASM web site will have budget and appropriation highlights as they become available:http://www.asm.org/index.php/policy/radfy2012.html <http://emessage.asm.org/emessageirs/servlet/IRSL?v=4&l=2&r=997&m=8516&e=2 <http://emessage.asm.org/emessageirs/servlet/IRSL?v=4&l=2&r=997&m=8516&e=2>>.

Thank you for your support.

Bonnie Bassler, Ph.D., President, ASM

Roberto Kolter, Ph.D., Chair, Public and Scientific Affairs Board

Like to return to two revisions on your NIH proposal? Sign the petition..(UPDATED)

This weekend I received the email below regarding the current policy to allow ONLY A SINGLE REVISION for a given grant at NIH. If you feel strongly that this policy is misguided (particularly in the current funding environment)- please respond to Dr. Robert Benezra by Email at:  r-benezra@ski.mskcc.org

**UPDATE: I just received an email with a draft petition with nearly 1000 signatures attached. The text of this petition is posted here. If you would like to be added to this petition please email Dr. Benezra directly.

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to solicit your help in changing  a new NIH policy that I believe will have an enormous negative impact on our field. As most of you know, a recently adopted rule states that if a grant proposal is not funded on the first submission, only one revision can be submitted with the same specific aims. If that revision is not funded, the proposal must be “substantially” changed. As far as I understand, the rule was adopted to discourage “serial resubmitters”. While such a policy could make sense in an era of reasonable paylines, with the projected budgets rumored to be funding at the 7th percentile in some sections, this could have a dramatic and I would argue devastating effect on the research efforts in this country. Consider the following:

The rule will have a disproportionately negative impact on young investigators with early stage and therefore less diverse programs, or more senior investigators who also have more narrowly focused programs. How can a young investigator, for example,  who is just starting “substantially” change their aims when they have to focus their efforts on a very limited number of projects undertaken with limited funds and staff. These people are often hired by senior faculty on the basis of their first projects and to be told they must change on the basis of applications that might fail despite being ranked better than 90% of grants submitted, seems patently absurd. And worse, it is likely to be profoundly discouraging and destructive.

All of us who have sat on study section know that we cannot distinguish a 15th percentile grant from a 5th percentile grant. It is simply beyond the resolution of the process. Therefore, this new rule will have the consequence of redirecting the science of many of our very best scientists on the basis of what will essentially be an arbitrary criterion.

The meaning of “substantially changed” has not been clearly defined.  Program Officers themselves are not sure what this term means and are not being given adequate guidance. I have heard things from “51% different”,  change the tissue or cell type you are working on, any aim included in either the first application or revision cannot be included, etc. We need clear and unequivocal guidance on this point, and I would argue we need it immediately as “new” applications are being prepared by a large number of investigators at this time.

The alternative that I advocate would be to go back to a system where at least 2 revisions of the same application would be allowed. While we will still obviously lose some superb applications if the pay line stays where it is, I think this would provide a much fairer assessment of the research proposals received by the NIH.

My intention is to let the feelings of a large number of scientists on this subject be known. If you are willing to sign an email that will be sent to both Francis Collins and Tony Scarpa (Director of Center for Scientific Review) that raises these points, please let me know by simply responding to this email and (if possible)  forwarding it to 10 people who you know (not on the current recipient list) that might also want to sign. If I can accumulate a large enough number of signatures (100-500, say) I will draft a letter and send it first to all who have expressed interest in signing to get feedback.

I must say, I am not generally prone to such activism but I think things have just gotten to the tipping point.

I look forward to your responses.

(I’ve removed the institutions of the original signers of this email, because these are their personal views)

A ranty rant about the supposed evils and costs of tenure…

I’ve been meaning to comment on this post by Female Science Professor.  In her post she refers to a piece that she wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in response to numerous articles that have appeared recently in the media, articles, and books, about the evils of tenure, the slacker work style of tenured faculty everywhere, and the cost of tenure in $$.  Some of the fervor last year was generated by the publication of a book entitled Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, written by one Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University Department of Religion.

I too have been disturbed by the seemingly constant barrage in the media lately about the evils of tenure. Although I will say that some departments seem to have a member whose research interests have faded and that don’t participate to their full ability in the teaching mission of the department…. Sometimes called dead wood faculty, … I venture to say that these individuals are a VERY small minority in the ranks of tenured faculty in the biological sciences. It seems like those who think that all tenured faculty are slackers- just aren’t aware of the fact that we didn’t set out on our faculty careers just to get tenure, or primarily to get tenure or for huge paychecks… we set out on our faculty careers by and large because we find a particular subject fascinating, we want to contribute to the generation of new knowledge in subjects of interest to us …. That’s otherwise called research,  and we want to pass our knowledge the current state of our field AND this new knowledge generated by our research to younger generations. Collectively, this whole business is called scholarship, and it is something you get when you have research (the generation of new knowledge), and teaching (the passing on of knowledge) happening together- and THIS is what takes place in R1 Universities.

We have institutions of higher education that simply do teaching without doing research- and these are called community colleges. I’m not denigrating community colleges by any means- I simply want to point out that their mission is primarily a teaching mission- not a scholarship mission- and that is what differentiates them from R1 institutions.

The particular statements that I hear in the media that drive me crazy are the following:

1.     Tenured faculty don’t work as hard as junior faculty.

I beg to differ. Since I achieved tenure last year, my work hours have gone through the ceiling, my service responsibilities for my department, university, and profession have been tripled, and I’ve been asked to participate in teaching extra courses. That’s reality folks. Junior faculty in the sciences are (and should be protected) from heavy teaching and service responsibilities when possible- but the piper gets paid after tenure docs are signed…

2.     Tenured faculty members earn huge salaries.

This is a doosey. I spent 10 years in graduate and professional school. My first job as a postdoctoral researcher paid 27K, and I had (and still have debt) from professional school. Show me another profession where members do as much education as I have done at top tier places, and then start their first ‘real’ position with a salary in the 60-70K range, and I’ll eat my laptop. Law? Nope. Medicine? Nope. And making tenure at less than 100K/ year… one can’t complain, but to me this isn’t a ‘mega’ salary.

3.     Tenure costs universities huge amounts of money in salary.

This one makes me really mad. First of all- I’m not sure where we though faculty should be free. Every employee that is worth having costs money. So if you thought you were going to get someone to do some scholarship for free- well, you’ll probably get what you paid for.

But let’s just review all the $$ benefits to the institution of having tenured faculty in the biological sciences… and for a moment we’ll just base this argument on the fact that more experienced faculty …i.e. tenured… are those that are best at competing for grants…

Tenured faculty pay ½ of their own salaries. Yes, that’s right. Tenure track faculty at many (if not most) major research universities are expected to bring in research dollars to pay large portions of their own salaries. Much of the time this means that these faculty are paying 50% or more of their own salaries using grant money that they successfully competed for from federal grants. In case that is too obscure for some of you (Mark C. Taylor) to figure out… a tenured faculty member in the biological sciences that takes home 100K per year, IS ONLY BEING PAID 50K PER YEAR from the institution itself. Put another way- the institution is getting a tenure track or tenured productive researcher and teacher FOR HALF PRICE. … or about the price that it would cost to employ a lecturer.  This very fact makes takes the meaning out of tenure- since tenured faculty who lose their grants for whatever reason, can generally not afford to stay and do the same amount of work, only to earn half a salary.

Starting to look like a pretty good deal for the institution… right? Read on.

Tenured faculty grants bring in indirect costs that are paid to the institution.  Federal grants (in the biological sciences) are obtained at vastly higher rates by experienced faculty… and the institution benefits by collecting the indirect costs. These ‘indirect costs’ are usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of the direct costs of the grant. In plain English then, if a researcher is bringing in 250K in direct costs to run their lab in a year… the institution is generally receiving in the neighborhood of 125K per year in overhead (aka “indirect costs”)… that they spend to keep the lights on…as they like.  Wow, so -50K in salary… +125K in overhead… it kinda seems like the institution is making $$ on this deal.

But wait- who pays grad student tuition? Yes, that’s right- successful grant getting tenured faculty use federal grant $$ to pay the tuition of their graduate students at their institutions. And, I hear you cry- but those students take courses… and yes, well they do take courses … for something like 2 years out of a 5-6 year doctoral program… the rest of the time the tenured faculty member is paying tuition to the institution so that the grad student can do research in the PIs lab… and the tuition cost is in addition to paying stipend/health/fringe for the student… off… you guessed it, federal grant $$.

I don’t know… I’d love it if I could employ people for 50% salary, collect the substantial overhead on the money they bring in AND get them to pay me tuition for students that they educate in their labs… who I then award a degree too and take credit for having educated!

Great gig if you can get it.