Pink Sheets

Yeah, I got mine yesterday. I’m allowing myself to be frustrated for 24 hours- and writing in frustration is often very cleansing.

So, first the good news. We got a score and thus got discussed on the first submission. That’s a good thing, and not all that common these days from what I see going on around me.

But the bad news is always more voluminous than the good news, right? What I do is essentially discovery- discovery of new genes important in a given process. We identify these genes by the phenotype of a mutant and then work backwards to function and mechanism. I like doing things this way because no one can argue with me that I’m spending time working on something that may be totally unimportant in the actual biological process in question. I know that we are laying the groundwork for many productive years to come. The problem with this approach though, should be obvious. Its tremendously difficult to go from discovery to mechanism of function in a single grant- and thus one always runs up against the ‘you didn’t show us the mechanism’ criticism, which, as we all know by now- is deadly.

Here is the other risk with discovery- you often end up with things that are totally novel. That doesn’t sound like a problem right? I mean, you already showed that they are clearly important in XYZ biological process, and going off on uncharted territory is how we make the fundamental discoveries that drive change in the big paradigms in biology. Right now we have a factor in hand that we show to be important in the process we study, and it has gone 30 years without us (biologists in general) having the faintest clue about its function. I’m totally jazzed by that. Let me say that again-maybe in all caps this time- I’M WILDLY EXCITED ABOUT THIS PROJECT.

But I fear that reviewers won’t get it. I fear that because this discovery is outside the mainstream set of factors  that the field accepts as important- that we’ll get the: what the hell is that weird molecule-YOU DON’T HAVE A MECHANISM-incremental advance- I see the data but I don’t believe it- bla bla bla review. I fear that because I’m not taking the road that ensures maximum boredom safety, we will not be able to get this project funded. And these days- all it takes is one reviewer to say- I don’t get it, TRIAGE- to put the brakes on something that has waited 30 years to be assigned a function.

I know, I know- that’s the way the system works, the funding line is so low, safe is best right now, etc. I know. I can’t stand it. Something is terribly wrong when we’ve retreated to taking ONLY the avenue of maximum safety to the exclusion of all other avenues.

Grants strategy for the newly minted PI

I’d like to solicit the collective science blogosphere’s opinion on strategy for first grant proposals for the newly minted faculty member.

I learned, back in the day… (ha ha- it cracks me up that I can say that, my teenager would be SO embarrassed)- that the first grant proposal that you submit should be the one for which you have the strongest preliminary data, and that you have published on. This  meant taking the project that you left your postdoc lab with and capitalizing on that data to build your first grant proposal, and had the benefit that you could submit your first grant proposal very shortly after starting your faculty position. We all know how freaking long it takes these days to go through the submission/re-submission process, so I guess I feel like getting an early start at this is critical. But… this approach could have the drawback that newly minted PI is out of the lab writing- basically immediately upon starting their faculty position. They may leave a bunch of new, green personnel, relatively unsupervised for a large block of time at the very beginning- leaving staff without a good foundation.

I realize that this isn’t the only approach to one’s first grant proposal. An alternate approach might be to identify a hot area in the same field, an off-shoot of what you are already doing,  develop the preliminary data for the grant in say the first year or so of one’s faculty position, and submit the first grant after a year or so. This approach might have the benefit that the new PI could take advantage of their single best set of hands (their own!) in the first year and really get an exciting area, and new personnel, off on a solid foundation. The obvious disadvantages are that betting on a publication from this first year, while training new personnel and setting up the lab, seems risky. In addition, by delaying the first submission by one year (or whatever interval) – the clock on the year of waiting in line for review of the first proposal- pushes everything back. Third year reviews come around much more quickly than newly minted faculty can imagine.

What say you all?

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.

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 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.

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