@thenewPI has a new post up titled: Is resilience the name of the game in academia?
Go read it. I'll wait...
She talks about @doc_becca, who is one of my alltime favorite people on the intertubz. Heck, we've even met in IRL, and doc Becca is twice as impressive in person as she is on the web (which is not true of all of us). I don't want to dredge up problems, etc, but she been done wrong. Many people who are Good and Working Hard, and as Doc_Becca sez " I have done EVERYTHING I was supposed to...".
But we live in a harsh funding climate, are being pushed and shoved out of academia. We live in a climate that is particularly harsh for the young, for URM, for women, for people who tick off more than one box. And these people are being denied tenure by zealous administrators who think about the bottom line more than the content.
As I, and many we all respect (lookin' at you, DM and datahound), have said over and over, one of the issues, if not THE ISSUE, is too many mouths at the trough. See here. and here. and here. (These are all good reads, and if you don't know them, they are also worth a minute or ten of your time).
Applications for NIH funding are rising faster than the money for those projects. There are lots of suggestions about how to diivy up the existing funds, limits on the oldies, bumps for the young. But these, in my view are not just rearranging the deck chairs. They are worse, because they distract from the real problem and they divert energy from the solutions that really need to happen. See also this set of tweets from Michael Hendricks.
But one of the points I want to get back to is something that NewPI does a good job of talking about: the problem is really not so much that NIH peer review is broken. Lots and lots of chatter on the Tweets and various other places that talk about how horrible peer review is. From NewPI:
Taking a look on the inside of NIH peer review earlier this year gave me some prospective. I don't necessarily think that peer review itself is broken. I enjoyed participating and found that everyone was fair, but I realized that the 10-15% pay lines introduce an element of pure luck which has nothing to do with your worth as a scientist.
DM has also said this: when you get to 5-10% paylines (my IC is at 9% for established investigators), you are looking at lots of things other than just how good the science is. The difference in the proposals at 9% and 11% maybe trivial in quality. And this is where NIH staff comes in, and there are massive issues there, too.
But back to peer review: some of these issues are random, wrt to you, but not in respect to other factors: Are you the last proposal before lunch, the first proposal of the day, following a bruising discussion about another proposal? Is one of your reviewers "saving it up for another proposal" and thinking that they can't go all out and advocate for two?
These are not the hallmarks of a broken system, although it could be perceived that way. They are the hallmarks of a human enterprise, where human beings are making decisions, lots of decisions, and giving scores and trying their best. Me? I get tired at study section. I do my damnest to stay alert, to read every proposal's specific aims, every proposal's full reviews. For the proposals I've reviewed: I read the other reviews, I take notes. In short, I prepare for study section. And yet, I am sure I make mistakes. Despite myself.
So what is a young person to do? Read TheNewPI's advice here about working with the study section. Read DM's advice and also here and here (and much more). Grantsmanship means looking at the system and doing what you can to come out on top. Read the damn instructions to reviewers and know what they are looking for and looking at when they read your proposal.
To those of you starting out: it's not an easy road. And yeah, resilience is gonna be important. But remember there are people out there who do want to help. There are people who will be on your side. Find them.
Resilience. Cleverness. Hard work. Desire.