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


5 thoughts on “NIH to allow explanation of lags in productivity… Finally!!

  1. I am grateful to your blog back in February for alerting me to this new provision back in Feb. I knew it would be useful. Now it is Novemeber 2011 (nearly a year later) and I am submitting a new NIH grant with a couple of sentences in my Biosketch describing a recent publication gap due to moving my lab to a new city and having a baby at the same time. Thanks for the blog and your advocacy of the issue!

  2. Wonderful work, DrdrA!

    I’d like to point out that your first paragraph contains two apologies and you close with another one, all for doing something the recipient requested you do (and that you did well). There is a rich literature on women over-apologizing… perhaps a subject for a new post? Sorry to start a tangent 😉

  3. Anne- Excellent point. No problem on starting a tangent- will be a great subject for another post when I get around to that!

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