OER Response to the Benezra Letter is Out…

Visit Rock Talk to see the OER response just in from Sally Rockey and Lawrence Tabak to the petition to re-institute the A2…. If you remember the petition was initiated by one Robert Benezra, signed by about a zillion scientists, and submitted to Tony Scarpa on February 20, 2011. I previously posted the original text of the petition here, and it was my impression that there was some behind-the-scenes gnashing of teeth that the petition was put up on blogs and created some controversy.

First, I love that the ‘official’ response appears on a blog before those of us that signed the petition even got an email, snail mail, or phone call about it. I suppose that speaks to the acceptance or the usefulness of this medium for communication- even among scientists. But I’m a big believer in the usefulness of blogging anyway- so I’m delighted by this.

Second, signers of the petition aren’t going to like Dr. Rockey and Dr. Tabak’s reply much, which- in a nutshell- is that the policy to eliminate the A2 submission has worked, more A0s are being funded while the number of A1s funded has stayed level, and more new investigators are being funded with shorter wait times than before. And the post is accompanied by actual data. Nice. I’ll recap.  In Figure 1 the data show that the percentage of R01s awarded as A0s has increased sharply as the A2 has now been eliminated, and not surprisingly, the time to award has fallen (Figure 3). In Figure 2, we see that a bunch more new investigators are being funded.

That’s all good- but it still leaves me flat. I think that several of us are concerned that there are some (maybe many) A1 proposals that are highly meritorious that are not being funded. Or, put another way, I think some of us are concerned that it is impossible to tell the difference between one ‘highly meritorious’ proposal and another- and that might mean that equally meritorious proposals might end up on opposite sides of the funding line.

So… I wonder…can someone tell me (er… this means you OER)  how many A1 proposals there are in the 8-15th percentiles, that are getting dumped off the edge of the A1 cliff in each round of review every year? And if we agree that we (as reviewers) can’t really tell the difference between a grant that is in the 8th percentile and a grant that is in the 10th percentile as A1s, how are we going to reconcile this with all the meritocracy talk that is flying around out there- and get right to the heart of that ugly truth that we all know but Rockey says out loud (to echo C PP and Drugmonkey):

There is little doubt that some great science is not being funded because pay lines are decreasing, regardless of the number of permitted resubmissions. Restoring A2 applications will not change that picture and will increase the time and effort required for writing additional resubmissions. (emphasis mine)


So here is the deal petition-signers, you are all creative people- what are we as a community going to do about this? What can we do to promote an increase the dollars that flow to keep our first in the world research system afloat? Who is going to lead, who is going to coordinate, who is going to call and do the grass-roots work, who is going to lobby? We weren’t too busy to sign a petition and OER wasn’t to busy to answer- but this is going to take more than that.

And for the love of God don’t tell me you are too busy- the very survival of the human infrastructure that does biomedical and basic science research in this country depends on you.

The Backlash to Gender Equity in Academia?

I’m done with my study section duties… and in my hotel room…. doing something useful, reading the newspaper. And what should I come upon – but this article in the New York Times today- entitled ‘Gains, and Drawbacks for Female Professors’ by Kate Zernike. In the article the gains in gender equity among faculty at MIT after a decade of intensive effort on the part of the university, set into motion after female professors there did such things as crawl around on the floor measuring out lab spaces of men and women documenting the lesser resources provided to women faculty, are described.

I’m alternately delighted and pissed off at what is described in the article. On the one hand I’m delighted that policies set in motion to level the playing field for women in science at MIT have paid off so nicely. I mean this is a good thing, right:

“An array of prizes and professional accolades among female professors has provided a powerful rebuttal to critics who suggested after the earlier report that women simply lacked the aptitude for science — most infamously, Lawrence H. Summers, whose remarks set off his downfall as the president of Harvard.”

I mean we all knew that women had the same aptitude as men do for these subjects- and that women were excluded by systematic, and “subtle and pervasive” ways. This correction is right.

I’m pissed off though- I mean:

“But with the emphasis on eliminating bias, women now say the assumption when they win important prizes or positions is that they did so because of their gender. Professors say that female undergraduates ask them how to answer male classmates who tell them they got into M.I.T. only because of affirmative action.”

Really- is this where we are now? I’ve got a great answer for that- Boys- since the dawn of time blatant favoritism has been practiced to your benefit. In fact it has been practiced to such an extent that us girls had to be BETTER than you academically… and then most of the time we were still ignored. To think anything else is just ignorant of the facts. Now, at least, the playing field is somewhat level, and now us with the double XX chromosomes just have to be equal.

And here is the second thing that irritates me about this article:

“While women on the tenure track 12 years ago feared that having a child would derail their careers, today’s generous policies have made families the norm: the university provides a yearlong pause in the tenure clock, and everyone gets a term-long leave after the arrival of a child. There is day care on campus and subsidies for child care while traveling on business.”

Wonderful that things have changed at MIT. I’m beside myself to see that this is possible. I don’t, however, want anyone to have the impression that because so much headway has been made in these areas at MIT, that means we no longer have a problem with these issues in academia in general.  It is WONDERFUL that everyone gets a term-long leave at MIT after a child is born- but at many U.S. universities- there is NO PAID MATERNITY LEAVE. While there may be day care on campus in some places, this is patchy at best and non-existent at worst. And, that last part has my mouth hanging open- subsidies for child care while traveling on business!!! Seriously, that’s awesome but I have never ever ever seen this kind of help. For someone who traveled 12,000 miles in January DrMrA and I could surely use that. I’ve no idea who even to request… or demand… this from….

And finally:

“Yet now women say they are uneasy with the frequent invitations to appear on campus panels to discuss their work-life balance. In interviews for the study, they expressed frustration that parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one.

As Professor Sive said, “Men are not expected to discuss how much sleep they get or what they give their kids for breakfast.”

Administrators say some men use family leave to do outside work, instead of to be their children’s primary care giver — creating more professional inequity. “”

Yes. Quite. Work-life balance is a family issue. Until it is seen as a family issue, until care of children is seen as a family issue… I fear we are stuck where we are. Men have families as well and let’s hear what they have to say. Men have families, let’s see them take an equal share of parental leave.

Stunned Silence

I, like the rest of you I’m sure, am stunned by the devastation of the recent earthquake in Japan and the aftermath that is following. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami provided the most frightening footage of a natural disaster that I have seen in my lifetime, this juxtaposed to the fact that modern engineering can build skyscrapers that sway and largely protect a modern city of 13 million people.

We have friends in Sendai and on Friday I plucked their holiday card from my refrigerator and Googled their address… to comfort myself that they might be OK if their house was far enough inland from the sea to have escaped the tsunami. 12 Km inland. Thankfully we heard from them on Saturday and they are fine, but surrounded by total devastation.

My heart aches for those who were unable to escape and for those who lost loved ones.

Just One Piece of Advice On Flow Charts

As you all know, I am currently buried under a large pile of grants. Again.

I love flow charts in grants- especially of the experimental plans. When they are well done they can say it all in just one self-explanatory image, making the angels sing and bringing rapture to tired reviewers. I would argue that a great flow chart, outlining the whole grant, is worth all the other 11.5 pages.

But the flip side, however,  is ugly. A badly done flow chart, one that causes reviewers to throw up their hands in despair necessitates the reviewers to completely re-design it in pen on the back of an adjacent page so that they can figure out what the hell the applicant meant – is not worth the paper it is written on. Don’t let this be your flow chart. Use this *important* tool wisely and clearly. In pursuit of a good flow chart- I’ll offer one important rule. Just one.

Take the flow chart of the experimental plan that you have slaved over for your grant- and show it to a few people on your floor who are relatively unfamiliar with your work. Do this early in the grant writing process. If they can figure out where you are starting, how the experiments flow, and what you will have at the end, WITH A BARE MINIMUM OF VERBAL EXPLANATION FROM YOU, then you have a winner. If, however, they scratch their head in confusion at all those intersecting arrows and boxes- do not pass go, go directly back to the drawing board and start again. The key is to outline the experimental plan in a simple form, so the reviewers can take one look at it and see clearly where your work is going.

And one more thing- not too many words on the flow chart.

Ok, I lied. That was two rules. In the advice giving arena I can’t help myself.

Help, I’m buried under grants and I can’t get up!

I’m up to my neck in grants. All different flavors. I’ve got my multicolored sticky notes out and I’m annotating the paper copies. I know that seems insane, but it is so. My colleagues (affectionately) assure me that I’m going to get heckled at study section about that rainbow of sticky notes sticking out of the side of each proposal.

Last time I reviewed I went paperless boldly. And while initially I was enthralled by the high-techness of it all- in the end I confess I didn’t love it.  I can’t look at two non-contiguous pages on my iPAD simultaneously, and there is something unsatisfying about putting notes on that turn into little icons once I move on. I want to be able to see them all open and color coded. I want to be able to look at a figure on page 27 and text page 45 at the same time. I want to be able to attach the citations that I need to the back of the grant and carry them around me.

So this time I’m doing all that on paper. This time I’m going to kill some trees. Just a few- I only printed out the research plan portions.. and everything else, all those Biosketches and equipment pages I’ll look at on the electronic copy. Maybe I’ll have to accept that going all in- either all-paper or the all-electronic  just isn’t going to work for me, and settle for some hybrid version with quiet acceptance.


Could describing personal circumstances hurt your grants chances?

I stumbled upon David’s post at Terra Sigiliata entitled “NIH biosketch change as  “kick- me” sign?” this morning.  In this very nice post, David points out a poll of researchers over at Genomeweb.com on the new NIH policy to allow an explanation of personal circumstances that may have affected progress (read publication gaps) on the biosketches that we send in as part of out grant applications. I didn’t see the poll myself when it was up- but I am pretty sure that you all can figure out how I would have voted. Nevertheless, here is what was asked:

Do you think you will make use of the new option in NIH grant applications to include possible disruptions and delays to your research?

And after being posted for a week- Genomeweb received 105 responses that broke down in the following way:

17%  Yes, I’ve been waiting for NIH to do this.
17%  Yes, it sounds like a good idea.
16%  Maybe, if it becomes applicable to me.
2%    No, I don’t foresee any delays.
46%  No way, why would you want to potentially hurt your grant’s chances?

And here I have to pause to say WTF. I’m hoping that the two percent that answered ‘No, I don’t foresee any delays’ are young idealistic grad students that haven’t experienced much of life. Cause you know, no one can really ‘foresee’ getting hit by a car, having life threatening pneumonia, how having a baby is going to affect your life, or whether or not one of your parents is going to be diagnosed with glioma. ALL of those circumstances will undoubtedly and understandably affect your productivity, and let me tell you kids- shit just happens. Sometimes a really bad shit happens.

And for that 46% of you that answered ‘No way, why should you want to potentially hurt your grant’s chances?’ I say double WTF. I guess I am at a loss to understand why ANY of the circumstances I listed above would ‘potentially hurt your grant’s chances’ if explained.  I have a difficult envisioning conversations on study section like… I think we should give so-and-so investigator a 5 because he wasn’t very productive when he had to take care of his mom for three months after her near fatal car accident. Perhaps you all think of this section as ready made for providing a section that will catch any excuse for low productivity? A section for the whining whiners to go on about how their tech is lazy and couldn’t just get ‘er done?

I, however, do not. I think of this section as a fail-safe from stupid ass comments on reviews… i.e. so and so had low productivity during X period….. when the reviewers didn’t read the biosketch carefully enough to pick up perfectly obvious cues like the applicant was in the MD portion of their MD/PhD during the period in question and WASN’T PUBLISHING because they were in professional school. I see this section as a way to explain critical issues like… had a new baby was away for 3 months- that are not otherwise spelled out anywhere in a grant application. Can having a new baby affect your productivity? I want to believe that I don’t have to explain the logistics of this anymore. Having a baby can affect your ability to get in a shower once per day, we are not even going to talk about what it can do to your ability to complete tasks that involve actual brain power. And anyone who has had a baby knows that when the maternity leave is over your brain isn’t automatically switched back on to its full pre-baby full night of sleep every single night productivity.

Maybe you all should read, this- and yes, click on that link for the study cited in the article entitled ‘Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline’ out of the UC system. Read this study and you will see that women with children have a 35% lower probability of entering a tenure track career than men with children, and a 28% lower probability of achieving tenure. Read between the lines there- put that together with the facts that women do the vast majority of child care, the vast majority of night time care etc- and that lock step rigid systems with rigid “time based criteria” and “productivity assessments” do not lend themselves to inclusion of a life in your basic science career.

Oh sigh. I guess I am hoping that when a grant comes up at study section and reviewer #1 is ready to trash the productivity of the applicant, that reviewers #2, 3, and 4, armed with the reason for the productivity gap now explained in the biosketch, will be prepared to make reviewer #1 and the rest of the panel think twice about penalizing someone for circumstances beyond their control and occurrences that are part of real life.

Postdoc Oversupply…

On a tweet from @David_Dobbs I found this article in the World View column of the journal Nature by Jennifer Rohn entitled ‘Give Postdocs a Career Not Empty Promises”  (Published online 2 March 2011 | Nature 471, 7 (2011) | doi:10.1038/471007a).

One of Jennifer’s points is that we have an over-abundance of post docs, too little funding for them (only going to get worse, BTW), and a vanishingly small number of faculty positions for them:

“In coffee rooms across the world, postdocs commiserate with each other amid rising anxiety about biology’s dirty little secret: dwindling opportunity. Fellowships are few, every advertised academic post draws a flood of candidates, and grants fund only a tiny fraction of applicants.”

Quite. I’m with you 100% Jennifer. Thanks for bringing up this topic and I read your solution with interest:

“This is a familiar lament, but I also propose a solution: we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.”

“Every academic lab could employ a few of these staff along with a reduced number of trainees. Although the permanent staff would cost more, there would be fewer needed: a researcher with 10–20 years experience is probably at least twice as efficient as a green trainee.”

I’ve seen labs that have professional post-docs or senior scientists that act as lieutenants in the group – they do their own project, manage training of a grad student, and run certain aspects of the lab- and are completely scientifically and intellectually engaged with the PI. We already have a professional career track for such individuals, usually bestowed upon them when they are deemed ready for grant-writing,  and it is has the title “Assistant Professor for Research” and sometimes “Assistant Professor, non-tenure track”, and sometimes ‘Instructor’.

And long-term these ‘Assistant Professor (R)’ positions are costly and unstable. The current NIH guideline for postdoc salaries for postdocs with 7 or more years experience is an annual salary of $52K. Add benefits to that and you are talking in the neighborhood of 70K/year in total compensation for a very experienced postdoc. And this number will only rise as years of experience rise. Start approaching 80-90K per year in total compensation and this is a big, big chunk of a single NIH grant. if the modular budgetary limitation of $250K/year applies. Furthermore, these positions are unstable when tied to the PIs research support- in that they last only 4-5 years- the length of a typical NIH grant. This grant uncertainty would make it very hard to keep that highly trained person that holds an important part of the lab’s scientific memory around for longer than that. This ‘instability’ issue  has been discussed previously by Drugmonkey, who suggests that there may already be existing funding mechanism models (using the K05 as a model) that could be used to fund the salaries of such career research scientists. Maybe.

As for institutions chipping in with salary lines and such- while this is a lovely idea- it just doesn’t seem practical right now. Getting institutions to pay the salaries of their tenure track and tenured faculty these days is a challenge. The medical school standard in the US (and I fear that this is for generous institutions) is that they currently pay only 50% of a tenure track faculty member’s salary anyway. This is 1/2 a position. In the current economic downturn lecturers, instructors, and non- tenure track faculty are being laid off.

Anyway- I think Jennifer is on the right track that we have a postdoc oversupply- but I think we need to get down to the root causes. We are making too many post docs because we train too many graduate students. Right now every department I know of is running around madly recruiting young, fresh faced, un-aware of the rat race of science graduate student candidates. I see the numbers- 15 recruits here, 20 recruits there, 35 recruits somewhere else.   I see all of this in the face (as Jennifer points out) of a dearth of tenure track faculty positions, reduced state funding in many places for education, and rock bottom NIH pay lines. So far I haven’t heard too much rational discussion about why we train the numbers of graduate students that we do- and any thoughts on where we expect these bright kids to go when they leave our programs. Do we have  to train 50 students for each one who eventually makes it into a TT position, or could we be amazingly selective, train fewer and get a higher percentage into great post docs and eventually have those two gain tenure track positions? (I’m waiting for the sports analogy).