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.

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8 thoughts on “Could describing personal circumstances hurt your grants chances?

  1. 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.

    Yeah, I’m still waiting for this one to happen.

    I’m still curious how this section will be perceived by study sections. Since I probably won’t be getting a TT position, and therefore won’t be writing a grant, anytime soon, I’ll have some time to hear stories about how this all goes down before making a decision.

  2. I got reamed in my first K22 app ‘for lack of productivity’ b/c I had not published anything while being on maternity leave and looking for a job. My resubmission came before the policy change, so I snuck the following into the introduction:
    After I returned from maternity leave in the spring, I began the interview process. I have accepted a tenure-track faculty position….

    I still got slapped on the wrist for not publishing as much as they wanted me too, but b/c I didn’t whine about maternity leave or anything else, it gave them a reasonable explanation for my lack of publishing. AND I was given a fundable score on my resubmit.

    I will say that a fellow male post-doc bristled at my inclusion of the above sentence in my Introduction. I don’t know if he would have commented negatively if I were out getting treatment for leukemia (for example). But my sincere hope is that his attitude becomes a minority attitude and a not a majority backlash over a solid improvement in NIH policy. Because hey guys, while you may not have the same down time during paternity leave, unfortunately, anyone can get cancer or pneumonia, have parents that they need to take care of, etc. etc. Oh-and those people in study section that you are so scared of-yeah, they deal will all of this too.

  3. People in that 46% really do not understand the review process. My generally approach is that you are going to have advocates (or you are sunk) and detractors for any given proposal. Your job is *not* to overwhelm the detractors with the sparkling crystal logic of your rebuttal or initial argument. This doesn’t work. Your job is to give your advocates the ammunition they need to argue your case. If the advocate doesn’t know wtf was going on with you, she / he cannot rebut the StockCritque about productivity. If you provide an explanation, then the advocate has something to go with.

    It is never a guarantee that the mean vote of the study section is going to buy your explanation. But I can tell you for damn sure it is far more likely than that they are going to overlook obvious StockCritique bait without any type of explanation.

  4. Pingback: NIH biosketch change as “Kick Me” sign? | Terra Sigillata

  5. Your job is to give your advocates the ammunition they need to argue your case.

    Your job is equally to deny your detractors the ammunition they need to argue against your case. (This is not apropos to anything specific about the new Biosketch rule, just a general comment.)

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

    Another way to look at this data is to see that 50% of respondents are accepting of the idea of providing a rationale for productivity gaps. The “Maybe…” folk haven’t yet had a delay, perhaps, but will consider mentioning it when they do. This represents a thoughtful, open response. Dismiss the 2% clueless, as they are likely within the margin of error (the numbers only sum to 98%). The 46% “No way” are just frightened. They will come round with time, when they see that others are accepting of fact-based, non-whiny explanations. This all looks pretty good to me, MUCH better than it was 10 years ago!

  7. I think maybe the odd poll results could be in part due to the fact that we haven’t really seen yet how the new biosketch section will be used in practice, and there may be a spectrum of opinion on what constitutes a “gap” that needs justification or for which justification will be helpful in practice. I imagine many of the 46% that voted “no way” would in fact be very happy to use the section if down the road they have a serious life-altering experience that literally takes them out of science and publishing for a few years. They were perhaps not thinking of anything catastrophic on that scale, but instead may have thought of more common borderline situations existing on their own biosketches, where it is more of a guess whether you are even likely to be dinged on productivity before you call attention to it yourself. Like, I had a baby in Dec ’06, in ’07 I managed to publish a review article but no research, but by ’08 I was back on track with a research articles– is this a “gap”? I could choose to use my biosketch to call attention to and explain the lull in productivity in ’07, but since I’ve never before been criticized on summary statements for low productivity, I’d have to guess being defensive on the biosketch is more likely to hurt than help, if that makes sense.

  8. Agreed whole heartedly! Despite what reviewers (and some PIs, for that matter-sorry PIs) think, life is not lived entirely in lab. Every personal interaction and relationship and things that make life worth living do not happen at the bench. This is true for professors, post docs, grad students, etc. Without some acknowledgment that life happens in the real world, and the understanding that sometimes life is more important than lab (for shame!), I think people with extenuating circumstances will continue to be unfairly hurt by the current grant system. And this, as you so nicely quoted from the UC study, disproportionately affects women. I hope people use this! And I hope granting agencies follow up to see how it affects distribution of grants. More tenured female PIs in STEM? I wonder…

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