Archive for: September, 2017

FOIA, copies of your best-beloved Proposal, and Sharing

Sep 12 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There's been some talk on the internet about FOIA'ing copies of funded proposals, not directly available from NIH or NSF. This was one of the first things I read by Carey and Woodward from Buzzfeed. This is from Small Pond Science, Terry McGlynn. This is from Edge for Scholars author, Flighty Squirrel.  McGlynn's comments, in particular, as Flighty Squirrel points out, are very useful and cover a lot of ground.

These are all good, and I encourage you to read them.

I think this is a case of something that sounds great in theory, becomes a lot more like sausage making when one confronts it up front and in person and about one's own work.

Full disclosure: no one has FOIA'd me yet, probably because not one gives a hoot about my bunny hopping grants. But something did happen that made me think again, about one's best beloved ideas.  And yes, this is a different incident than the one that prompted the post linked to in the sentence above.

So in theory: sure, everyone can have a copy of my proposal. Heck, if you can study bunny hopping the way I do, knock yourself out. If my writing can help you get funded, I've done something for the community. That's the theory. The broad sweeping view when the particulars are hazy and in the distance.

Except, of course the community is a zero sum game. This is something McGlynn points out: that he wants to help people at HIS university more than at other ones. So if I help someone, its not who doesn't get helped, it's who doesn't get funded?

I was contacted by someone who was working on hopping locomotion, but in small kangeroos. Different enough, different aspect: evolution of hopping vs. physiology of hopping. A younger someone, but part of a Big Dog Group. A group with a lot more money than me. A lot more people to run difficult experiments. We exchanged pdfs, and I sent her the abstract of my proposal. and the Specific Aims. Dumb, dumb Potnia.

An email came whilst I was on vacation: while they are still working on kangaroos, the younger someone wants to start doing physiology. "It's of great concern to clinicians". Especially the kind of data you are collecting. "We would like to get that kind of data too". And she wants to come and see my lab so that she and BigDog can duplicate the equipment and protocols and setup I have. My equipment isn't unique, but by and large it's in a different field - more biology than biomedicine (where the kangaroo researchers dwell).


Now, I may or may not ever write another grant (one of the things McGlynn considers). But I have trainees who have taken this or that part of my bunny hopping studies and made them their own. I am not sure how I feel, let alone what I  should do. Where does collaboration end and hurting oneself and one's offspring begin? Is that even the right paradigm to see this in.

Maybe I am naïve, but responded that of course she was welcome to visit. But could we talk about collaboration? Pooling resources? Working together? I have no idea of it's feasible. Or not.

2 responses so far

a few more thoughts on independence

Sep 08 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There are some good comments on the independence post, to which I have written some (lengthy) replies.

But here are a few more thoughts, from offline comments and talking with my friend:


How much independence?

Insistence on relentless independence can be throwing out the good science baby with the mentor-dominated bathwater, to coin a metaphor. It's very easy to dismiss one's mentors, or better yet, Julia's mentors,  as out of touch, or not understanding, or if they are close in age, just Not Quite As Good as oneself. There is value for working with other people. The difficult judgment is determining if the TT candidate faculty is driving the research, or functioning as an executive officer.  What is the scientific/creative relationship? Publishing by oneself is clear.

How explicit the criteria?

I perceive this as problematic, to say the least. In my view, the more explicit the criteria are, the more difficult it becomes to look at good people who might not quite make it. If it's a blue-yellow axis when does blue become green, and is green ok for blue and when does green become yellow? Yes, some things do need lines. By using a word like "independence" or "excellence", with some guidelines, it leaves room for the multiple levels of assessment to allow for different kinds of achievement. It also leaves room for abuse. But the answer to the abuse is not more specific and explicit criteria, but for more reasoned, rational and defensible assessment.

One more reason for not having explicit criteria

Making a form with boxes encourages box ticking behavior.



3 responses so far


Sep 07 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Independence is not a binary state. And that's part of the problem. Independence is something you grow into, and I admit that while I am certainly more independent now than I was 40 years ago, there are still lots of people, senior, junior, trainee and staff upon whom I depend. [which raises the question of what is the opposite of independence? dependence? but don't we all depend on something to some extent? But I digress].

Yet tenure committees, hiring committees are all searching for "independence" and evaluating it as part of their job.

A friend, I've got a few, at another university, who sits on her department Tenure Committee got in touch with me. For advice. She's young. She's ambitious, and she's very very good and just got tenured. So she's safe right? Not quite. Here's her problem (with some details changed to protect everybody involved).

My friend & the dept level TC are being pressured by their (very powerful) chair (Dr. VPC) for a number of more explicit criteria for tenure. Dr. VPC wants specifics like "$X" and "# of Big Grants vs. # small grants".

Why? My friend says that it was the (unspoken) rule that one had to get their own money, their own projects for tenure, and that was what equaled "independence". But now Dr. VPC wants more "nuanced" guides, and explicitly stated that "superficial" things (such as independent lab meetings, and publishing without senior collaborators) are not valid. He may truly believe that this is for the Greater Good, and that The World Is Changing, and Big Labs and Big Collaboration are critical, and not amenable to existing standards. I was guessing not. And my friend said not. There is a young faculty, working with the chair, and so we all say "ah". and then we all say "wtf?".  It's politics.

While my friend has tenure, she is still young. She is funded now, but making enemies of senior people is not considered a pathway to success. I asked her to think of the biggest wannabe BSD male colleague she's got. I asked her to think "what would he say to powerful alpha-males?". And she laughed (virtually). That doesn't mean it's a wise thing for her to stand up and fight this. I only want to point out that there are many potential responses.

My advice to her was to talk, confidentially, to some of the more senior people on the committee. By and large senior people guard their prerogatives strongly. My last advice to her was: know what the battle you are fighting is.The independence that is of concern here is not the independence of the folks coming up for tenure, it is the independence of the tenure committee to stand up to a powerful chair. And the chair may not even know that.


10 responses so far

Requested repost: Effort In vs. Quality Out

Sep 01 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I can't believe I wrote the original on this just about four years ago. It's been a long strange trip, indeed. So here is the original post, with some edits and updated thoughts.



One of the hardest things to learn is how one’s effort translates into output. I don’t say finished product/paper/grant, because they seldom are. In the words of one of my most wonderful mentors: Scientific papers are never finished, they are merely abandoned to publication. Get over it. Move on. Things are not complete. This was one of the hardest lessons for me, and I find for many trainees to learn. When to turn things without a deadline in. It is one of the hardest things, I think, for pre-tenure faculty. But that's the point of this post.

The graph below is the best way I’ve come up with explaining this. First, energy into anything (be it making dinner or writing a grant) is never linear. Get over that. Some things have a huge start up cost in time (line A – pink with the flat start). Lots goes in, little comes out, till you hit a point where it takes off. This is learning MatLab or mastering the basic knowledge in a new area.

Some tasks have a more gradual rise, (line B, blue). This could be learning surgical techniques. Note this line takes forever to get close to the asymptote. There’s a reason its called an asymptote. One never quite reaches the black dotted line of perfection, 100%. Get over that, too. Other projects start going right away (line C, green), perhaps doing a different version of an experiment that has been done before. They rise gradually, but at any amount of effort in they have more out put than lines A&B.

One key to success is understanding which of these (or other) lines any project is. The other is (repeat after me): it's not linear. It's not linear. It's not linear.

The next point is that where you stop on any of these curves is a function of what the task is, and its importance to you, not necessarily the shape of the curve.

If its a grant, trying for stopping point 1 on the graph is probably a good idea. If its an experimental technique, then being good enough (ie not killing the animal, getting a functional electrode in place), position 2 might be sufficient, that extra perfection will not impact on the results. Yes your stitching isn’t perfect, but does it need to be?

In my view, committee work, picking out kid’s clothes for the day, or choosing a type of pencil, stopping point 3 is probably more than one needs. Did you show up, are they dressed and does it write? Of course there are pencil fanatics who would disagree.

Which raises the final point: where one stops on this curve is an individual decision. And your stopping point may not be someone else's stopping point for the same task, the same grant mechanism, the same Important Paper.

But remember: if one tries to push everything to stopping point 1, nothing will reach that stopping point, and there will be lots of things stalled or finished at 3 that one would prefer were at least 2’s. Deciding where you are on the effort out axis can be hard. And while you may be able to estimate with some accuracy how much effort in you've devoted to the project, that is valuable only in the context of the shape of the curve.




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