#Impactfactorwarz (updated)

This morning I was multitasking during a seminar and came across some tweets from my esteemed colleague Dr. Isis with the hashtag #Impactfactorwarz, and I started reading the associated conversation that revolved around use of impact factor in important decisions like promotion. The conversation could apply equally, however, to academic hiring, and other important career makers or breakers like grant review.

Let’s just focus for a minute on the following bit of Isis fact:

It means when my promotion committee looks at IF>5 papers, that’s where I have to publish.

Indeed, but this is a dirty little fact that we all know is true. Go ahead- wave your hands and protest that it is all about the scienz- but know that you are living in an alternate reality lying to yourself when you do that. Search committees, promotion & tenure committees, and review panels DO care about impact factor, and whether or not you publish in the ‘single word journals’ as another esteemed colleague of mine (Dr. Casadevall, I do adore you) is fond of calling them. But here is the deal- these committees and review panels are made up of individual scientists, living, breathing, flawed, busy, lazy, worried, idealistic, distracted, competitive scientists. So while we can point fingers and vilify this committee and that committee- remember also that it is us as working academic scientists that are perpetuating this culture. Uh huh, that’s right- its YOUR fault. That’s the second dirty little fact we don’t want to admit to ourselves.

And these #Impactfactorwarz are killing science. OH- I hear you cry, that’s bold DrdrA. Really, why? Let’s just agree that you don’t are so much less likely pass the search committee, the P&T committee or receive a score on your grant without the ‘single word journal’ pub. You don’t get an interview in this tight academic market without such a pub. No interview = No job. Our work takes longer and longer to get into press as you attempt to jump the moving target that is the high bar at the ‘single word journal’.  This lost time is just unnecessary, it slows the pace of progress, and costs junior people precious time producing the reims of data in the revision requested by the reviewers… for that sparkly glamormagz pub that you are going to get a rejection notice from anyway. And we have become afraid to show our data to each other.

You know what else- that ‘single word journal’ publication has become so overwhelmingly important- that people cheat their way into it. Yes, CHEAT. I know that sounds kind of dirty and we cringe a little inside when we read those words. But remember that scientists are not, as a rule, operating on some higher moral plane than the rest of society- even though we like to imagine that to be true. We know from some fine recent work- that misconduct is to blame for the majority of paper retractions, and that the number of retractions due to fraud has risen dramatically in recent years. We also know, from the same work, that the higher the impact factor the greater the incidence of a retraction due to fraud.… and if you don’t believe me, have a look at the data in Figure 3.

Now comes the hard part though. Let’s recognize that we, as working academic scientists, have created and perpetuate this system Every.Single.Day. We’ve leaned on impact factor as a proxy for quality and for influence in a given field, and we use that  honestly just out of laziness for the most part. Ask yourself, each of you- what can we do to change this system before it chokes us off- and before we end up with only a few funded scientists who have cheated their way to the grant money.

Updated: Drugmonkey just put up a post on the same topic

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.

So you’ve got tenure…that changes things.

Anyone who has taken a casual glance at my posts, can see that I have written quite a lot about the academic job search, and all kinds of fun things that happen leading up to tenure time. I wrote about these events in real time for the most part- and since I’ve gotten tenure I find myself on the steep part of the learning curve again. I suppose that I thought that once I got tenure, I would keep on keeping on.. doing the basic things that I was doing pre-tenure, and that my job would reach a plateau of  hum drum normal stuff that I knew I was already pretty good at. NOT.

That just didn’t happen, and that even post-tenure, my life, my job and my career continue to be filled with all kinds of interesting surprises, twists and turns, new tasks that keep me out of my comfort zone. First off, seems like the instant that letter signed by the board of regents arrived in my mailbox, there was a line-up outside my office door of various people in various positions of power, requesting that I participate in this or that new service commitment. My service on committees grew exponentially, like overnight.  This is OK with me, but I have to confess that all I really want to do is interact with my lab, look at data,  write papers, and think about where I am taking the direction of our science in the future. I know the committee stuff is necessary- and sometimes it is interesting, but most of the time I wish I could be looking at data. I don’t think that I am going to become the person that re-makes the graduate program from scratch, or the person that re-writes curricula. Maybe that is wrong of me, but I’m saying that these things don’t excite me the way they seem to excite some other faculty.

Secondly- it seems like the instant I was essentially un-fireable, there was a new emphasis on political correctness. I know, I know. Right now you all are saying … .wha…..t? Because you all thought that you had to be maximally politically correct before tenure, after which point you could just let it all hang out… NOT. I’m not sure I paid attention to how politically correct I was being pre-tenure- this was mostly because I didn’t have any energy left to be politically incorrect, or give it any thought even- I was writing nearly 30 grants, trying to get papers out, blogging, and mentoring a bunch of people. I still find it stunning when I see pre-tenure faculty trying to re-make the first year curriculum, that a more senior faculty have usually developed and been tinkering on with lots of debate for years and years… I’m not sure where they find the time for that (maybe while I’m blogging!).

Now, I find that there are some silly barriers that get in the way of projects going forward that have to be solved at levels outside my lab group. My preferred way to get these issues solved has been to be the squeaky wheel. And believe me, I can be the queen of squeaky. Funny thing though, I don’t feel like I’ve been very effective at translating the message up about what we need to happen up the line, or – alternatively- I’m not finding the people who can solve a particular problem so that we can move on. Then sometimes it seems even worse than all this. It seems like my squeaky-ness about a given problem, and my personal commitment  to getting the problem solved work against me, and for the first time I am running up against all of the negative comments that are hurled against aggressive, driven, ambitious women.

‘Can’t you be more pleasant’? (read, you’re so bitchy)

‘You are too direct.’ (read, you don’t make nice)

‘You are so emotionally involved in this topic.’ (This one leaves me speechless)

‘We can’t put you in that role because you won’t play nicely with others’. (Not a team player)

To be clear- I’m making up the exact comments as examples, they only roughly approximate the literal truth- but the thrust of each of them is real. I had read all about this sort of thing when I was more junior, but I never really felt I was being dealt these cards earlier in my career. I naively assumed that because I myself had not heard these things previously in my career- that I wasn’t going to be hearing them in the future either. Wow- was I wrong about that. In my first year or two post-tenure- I’ve heard all kinds of bullshit like this. And honestly, I’m still stunned when I hear it and I’m not sure how to get around it.

And also on the topic of this issue, even though I’m pretty squeaky- I start to see those 1000 small cuts that can disadvantage women in their careers, one of which is unequal allocation of resources- in a more immediate way than ever before. Remember those women faculty at MIT who crawled around on the floors of their labs to show (with actual data) that they were being awarded less space than the male faculty?  This kind of resource inequity can happen in about thirty-thousand different ways- and many of them are not so easy to get at as using a measuring tape. There is inequity in certain kinds of specialized  space, there is inequity in $$ awarded internally for various things, there is inequity in getting stuff fixed or making certain things a priority… and the list goes on. …  It is nearly impossible to generate an accounting of such resource inequity- and they can affect a career in very real ways. Every minute I spend fighting for a needed containment device that a man in a similar situation doesn’t have to spend- is time I’m prevented from spending on grants, papers, or mentoring.

My personal hero for the day, the week, and possibly the year: Dr. Paul Greengard

I interrupt my blogging hiatus to bring to your attention something that I totally missed- for like 8 years.

A story in the Huffington Post today by Nell Scovell entitled “The man who loves women who love science”  caught my eye. I started reading thinking- ho hum- gee this will be kinda interesting- Paul Greengard– my first job as a tech in a research lab was for one of his former postdocs, plus he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2004- so the name rings a bell…. wonder what this will be about….

When I finished reading, I had tears in my eyes. Actually, I didn’t even get through the second paragraph:

“I’ve seen many terrible examples of prejudice against women,” Dr. Greengard said on the phone recently. “It’s built-in and people don’t even realize it. When I first announced the prize, there was an article saying I was giving money to help women in the sciences. I got 500 emails from women, each of which would make you cry. It made me realize the enormous amount of discrimination that still occurs. A lot of women are suffering more than we realize.” (This quote is from the HuffPo article)

before I started to cry. Maybe they were tears of relief. Relief at having a very distinguished male scientist openly and publicly acknowledge the difficulties and discrimination that women in general, and women in the sciences face. You see, after winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, Dr. Greengard and his wife established the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, awarded annually to honor outstanding women in the Biosciences. Dr. Greengard and his wife named this award in honor of Dr. Greengard’s mother, who died in childbirth- and whose career was limited to secretarial work. Dr. Greengard- today you are my hero, not just for recognizing systematic and sometimes subtle discrimination against women, for doing something about it, and for being a role model for us all.

I can’t say anything more appropriate or eloquent than about this subject than Dr. Greengard and the folks who award this prize have already said in their own words- somehow I stumbled upon a set of youtube videos of the 2010 Pearl Meister Greengard awards ceremony. I watched them all, and I urge you to watch them as well: 2010 Pearl Meister Greengard Award Ceremony videos (Part 1 (Sir Paul Nurse does the honors), Part 2, Part 3 (Andrea Mitchell is inspiring), Part 4 (the description of the contributions of  recipients of 2010- Drs. Janet Davidson Rowley and Mary-Claire King), Part 5 (Sir Paul has a conversation with the winners), Part 6 (conversation Pt 2)). Previous recipients of the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize can be found here.

Later today there will probably be a whole new set of videos on youtube- because the the 2011 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize will be awarded to Dr. Brenda Milner, now in her 90s, for her groundbreaking work on human memory which has ” revolutionized the way we understand the human brain.”

Bad Mood

I don’t think you guys will really want to hear from me right now. I’m in a bad mood. Really bad.

I spend a bunch of time in meetings. Some are useful, some are not. Most are benign. Some are not.

Today I experienced first hand a non-benign variety.

The ambush.

I’ve learned some hard lessons today:

1. Do not go to meetings where you think you know what is on the agenda without asking what is on the agenda. Period.

2. Always assume that people are talking about you behind your back. A healthy level of paranoia is… well…healthy. Be prepared.

3. Politics suck. Politics are unavoidable. But they still suck.

4. Most people are terrible at communication. It is an art form that very few people have mastered. Maybe I haven’t either.

5. Even if the facts are on your side don’t assume that means shit.

Sometimes I feel like I need a guide to navigate aspects of the professional mine field that I feel trapped in.

Sorry but that is all I have energy for.

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)

Indeed.

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.

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).

.

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.

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.

Sincerely,

The scientist also known as DrdrA