Search Results for "didn't funded "

Feb 24 2015

So I didn't get a fundable score, either

Here are things that I am grateful for, right now, when I didn't get a fundable score:

1. I am old enough not be totally incapacitated for 12 to 48 hours with grief and depression.

2. I am mature enough that I am not going to beat myself up and say that I'm stupid, that I'm incompetent, that my science sucks.

3. I have enough self control not to go out and get 3 gallons of expensive ice cream and eat it over a period of a few hours till I feel even more miserable about myself.

4. Nor am I going to take it out, in one form or another, on my current partner. I am not going to pick a fight, so I that can say that no one cares at all about me. No one in my life right now deserves that.

5. I am not going to blame: the molecular geneticists, Millennials, clinical idiots who don't like animal models, GenX, Sally Rockey, the study section chair, the reviewers, my mother, men, or anyone else. Not because they aren't at fault, but because it doesn't matter. Fault is irrelevant here. Getting funded is the goal.

These are all things I have done in the past.

It will be a while till I get pink sheets (reviews). I will read them. I will be unhappy. I will try & rewrite (as a new grant, of course).

Meanwhile, it's time to trot out ideas for proposals B and C and work on making them presentable, i.e., submittable.

My heart goes out to all the young people who are in the same boat, folks who haven't learned what I've learned about responding to being trashed by study section. Because it hurts a lot to be rejected.

If my thoughts help, great. That's why I write this blog. If they don't, well, my heart is still with you, whether you want it or not.



16 responses so far

Jan 23 2018

Mistakes in AREA grants (R15)

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I'm reviewing grants again, and find it a wealth of mistakes that would be easy not to make. One is from an R15 or AREA proposal that didn't include students in a major way. So, what started as a small snarky post because a longer one on how to do it.

Here is from the program announcement for R15. The overall purpose of these awards (my emphasis):

The purpose of the Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program is to stimulate research in educational institutions that provide baccalaureate or advanced degrees for a significant number of the Nation's research scientists, but that have not been major recipients of NIH support.

NIH has been pretty strict about the "not been major recipients" criterion:

AREA grants create opportunities for scientists and institutions otherwise unlikely to participate extensively in NIH research programs to contribute to the Nation's biomedical and behavioral research effort.

You don't get to chose if your institution qualifies. NIH has a total funding amount that they use to decide. If unsure, talk to your program officer (not your institutional official). NIH decides if you qualify to apply or not. It's a threshold of total institutional funding:

The applicant organization may not receive research support from the NIH totaling more than $6 million per year (in both direct and F&A/indirect costs) in each of 4 of the last 7 years.

The purpose is parsed into three succinct goals of the program (my highlights & numbering):

AREA grants are intended to (1) support small-scale research projects proposed by faculty members of eligible, domestic institutions, to (2) expose undergraduate and/or graduate students to meritorious research projects, and to (3)strengthen the research environment of the applicant institution.

Let's look at these, with the wording from the PA.  Note the must below means that this is required, but not necessarily sufficient to get funded:

The research project must involve undergraduate (preferably, if available) and/or graduate students in the proposed research.

The announcement goes on to define what student participation means:

Students’ involvement in research may include participation in the design of experiments and controls, collection and analysis of data, execution and troubleshooting of experiments, presentation at meetings, drafting journal articles, collaborative interactions, participation in lab meetings to discuss results and future experiments, etc.


The application should focus on plans to expose students to hands-on meritorious research and the role of students in conducting hand-on meritorious research.

Also, keep in mind the following nuance.

The AREA program is a research grant program, not a training or fellowship program. As such, applications should not include training plans such as didactic training plans or non-research activities relating to professional development.

What this means is that an R15 is a grant to do research, not a grant to train students. But students must be involved. Additional caveat (my emphasis):

An AREA application may include other investigators, such as collaborators or consultants, or other trainees such as high school students, post baccalaureate participants, postdoctoral fellows, or clinical fellows. However, involvement of such individuals does not fulfill the goal to expose undergraduate and/or graduate students in eligible environments to research.

What does: support small-scale research projects proposed by faculty members mean? In a practical sense, small-scale means limited time & budget (3 years, $300K total). If you are doing a project, 100K/yr does not leave lots of room for faculty salary, but perhaps summer salary.

It is anticipated that investigators supported under the AREA program will benefit from the opportunity to conduct independent research;

Who is this? It could be people with large teaching loads during year who do not have research time written into their contracts or workloads. I have a colleague who teaches in an undergraduate allied health sciences (OT, PT, SLP, etc). His load is tough (2 courses/term, with labs in each, probably on the order of 20-30 contact hours a term). But even getting a small grant is such a Big Deal in his college that they will lighten his teaching load, and give him a term off every other year. Small medical schools that are primarily teaching schools, or stand-alone from large universities often do not have research written into contracts.

As an aside: this is not a place for big fish to get easy money. Here are the rules on other funding:

  • The PI must have a primary appointment at an AREA-eligible institution.
  • The PI may not be the PI of an active NIH research grant at the time of an AREA award.
    • Instrumentation awards (S10), conference grants (R13), and institutional training grants (T32) are examples of grants that are not considered research grants.
  • The PI may not be awarded more than one AREA grant at a time.
  • Eligibility applies only to the PI and Multiple PIs, not to collaborators, consultants, or sub awardees.

Best of all this note:

Prohibiting awards to already NIH funded PIs is central to the AREA program goals.

There is even less about how ones shows that this work will strengthen the research environment of the applicant institution. This is from the PA, and is pretty much a longer reiteration of the phrase above:

that the grantee institution will benefit from a research environment strengthened through AREA grants and by participation in the diverse extramural programs of the NIH;

Ways I can think of to show this include having other people at your institution involved in the work. Showing future directions (R15s are explicitly renewable) and a history of student co-authored publications would be two other ways. The people I know who have received an R15 and the ones I've reviewed are all doing top level research. Although R15s get reviewed separately (in one bunch) at study section, or in some IC's they have a special dedicated SS, the number of applications, the funding available means that competition is still pretty stiff for these awards.

Finally here is the FAQ for R15s.

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Jul 19 2017

Thoughts on funding and support for medical schools (part 2): Learning from Dental Schools

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Everyone, at my little almost-MRU, at other real MRUs, etc, says "Higher Education is in crisis". Yet, in my over 40 years experience, higher education is always in crisis. There is always a fiscal problem. And while everyone says "really, truly, NIH was in trouble now", and there are numbers to back it up right now, there have been other times when NIH is In Trouble. [aside: one of the issues olde fartes, greybeardes, and blue hairs are not inclined to worry, is that this wolf has been called over and over and over. That doesn't make the response "this happened before" right, factually or morally. But it may explain part of that response].

This situation reminded me of when I was a newbie faculty member in a Dental School. Back then, the distant past, before you were born, most likely, Dental Schools were In Crisis. Historically, going back to the 60's, Dental Schools had never gone the "NIH" route as it was called back in the lush days of 30% paylines. And as a result, they were much smaller than med schools, in budget and number of faculty, and, in general, research scope. Medical schools had hospitals, but Dental schools had clinics. As a result, as I pointed out here (part 1), they were much more tuition dependent, especially at private schools with no state subsidy. That is one reason why some dental schools closed in the 80s & 90s. Here is an article about dental school closings, but in the context of the future of Vet Schools. That there were more seats in dental school than total applicants, meant that the classes were being filled with people lower and lower on the admissions list. Whether these people would be "good" or "bad" dentists was not, to my knowledge, ever studied.

Since then, some new dental schools have opened. These are not necessarily scholarly places, but places focused on training people to be dentists. The folks I know who teach in them are teachers, first and foremost. Seed money? Lab space? Not so much.  The ones that closed were more scholarly places, including Emory, Northwestern, Georgetown, Wash U, Loyola, Fairleigh Dickinson. They were private schools, with no state subsidies, and budgets to balance. There was, and still is, lots of talk about demand to be in the profession as a driver of professional school success. Those discussion are informing the future of law schools right now. For medicine, that demand will always be relatively high, and acceptance rates relatively low.

I do not think that the causal root of any crises in medical schools will have the same basis as the historical basis of dental school crises. The problems in medical schools (and likely universities in general) will more likely come from the other parts of the equation that add up to total income. If NIH budgets are being cut, if the state universities are looking at reduced subsidies, those parts of the equation are going to be the problem. Now, there is talk that NIH funding will just be held at previous levels, and thus may or may not translate into problems for med schools. After all, its the same, right? But if that money is sequestered into Olde Fartes, and not supporting younger people, then growth will be absolutely impossible. If more and more young researchers enter the system, as the Big Dog schools feel they must "grow or die", funding at previous levels will be a problem.

There was talk, back in the mid-90s, well after I had left the Dental School where I started, that the closing of some schools had eased the pressure on others. Will some medical school close, too? I have heard scuttlebutt that one of the second tier medical schools in my state is in sufficient fiscal trouble that the State Legislature is considering just that. It won't be from lack of students and demand for the profession. It will be from the other parts of the equation, including, as many of my wonderful readers have pointed out, the expansion of the administration, and the costs associated with that (but you know, I heard the same damn thing in 1986 at the Dental School).

So implications for us ants on the ground? Well, to start with, closing schools means even less jobs. It means more people leaving the system earlier on, and less mouths at the trough in the Asst. Prof. instar. We are back to the argument about where the sorting and selection should occur. Less students? Yes that would likely mean fewer people later on. The argument that everyone should have a shot a being a researcher, a professor, etc, has defensible points. Admit them all and let , who? how? at what point? sort them out? But if the limits aren't imposed at the levels before tenure, they most certainly will get enforced there. And frequently enforced by people who, while they are very sad you didn't get funded and therefore tenure, in the end make decisions based on the fiscal health of the university.

These problems are not new. I got a master's degree in a small, intense program at a good school that invested, in the beginning, in the dream of a faculty senior person. There were 3 faculty, one BigDog emeritus who had been enticed to retire there (from whom I took some of the best seminars of my life), and 10-12 graduate students, many of whom had turned down the big places to go to that program. It was intellectually exciting, and changed how I do science. In fact, I think had I not been in that program, I would have left academia. I was not ready for prime time at that point. But, as these things happen, the program fell apart, one jr prof left, Uni admin changed and declined to replace this person, so the senior person was ripe for recruiting, and left.  I went on to Big Name Place for my PhD, and everyone in that program landed on their feet. I give big props to senior person, who worked hard to make sure every student found a home somewhere (and a very large percentage of those students are still out there being scientists). The program was great, better than great, but without admin support it died.

So what are we to make of the administration? I do not know a single researcher/professor who does not have complicated thoughts and feelings about the administration. Actually, that's not true. I have a wonderful marvelous, now tenured colleague, here at almost-MRU, who would say to me: Potnia, my thoughts are not complicated or conflicted. I hate the fuckers. Ah. Part 3 to come. Soon. Real Soon Now.



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Jun 21 2017

Study Section Reality

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A tweet from @doc_becca set things off last night:

This is going to have to be a quick post. I've got too many urgent things piling up around me. This post isn't urgent, but it is important. There will, without question, be mistakes. I trust my loyal readers to point out, preferably with glee and schadenfreude  where I'm wrong.

Another caveat:  This is not about Doc Becca. I count her as a friend. I am upset about her situation and where she is and the stupidity of her university. I've been following her for years, since she was stumbling towards the tenure track. I love her writing, and from what I know of her career IRL, she deserves tenure, based on her science and productivity.

Again, this is not about her. This is about all the things that got said about study section last night. Some of this is my opinion, but lots of it is about how study sections (SS) work.

So on to content, and not in a necessarily good order:

Firstly, remember reviews are two steps: Study Section and Council. Study section reviews proposals for scientific merit and assigns a score. This score, later on, by NIH staff, will be normalized into a percentage based on all the scores from the current and the last two iterations of this section. At SS, the proposal may be discussed (if it s in roughly top 50%) or not (triaged, in bottom 50%). Reviewers, any reviewer on the SS, may ask for a triaged proposal to be discussed, before SS, or even at SS. I have done this. It is not common, but not rare, either.

SS does not decide funding. Council does, with much input from NIH staff. The person who runs SS (a Scientific Review Officer) is not part of the team that decides funding or ranking of grants to be funded. SRO's usually work for OER (office extramural research), whereas staff PO's (Program Officers) work for individual IC's. IC's decide funding. There is variation in the score that is funded, and there is variation in who, at what score, gets funded. IC's do this because they have programmatic priorities. If Bunny Hopping is in this year, a worse percentile may get picked up. Something that is outside the "main mission" of an IC may not get funded.

Secondly, (and we are now on our third espresso of the morning): the way that SSs work is not a big  mystery. Junior people can do a round on SS to learn how. I've got some posts on that, and will try to dig them up for you. NIH has a program for this and it is very valuable. The most grantsmanship I learned was when I sat on SS.. So now, stuff about how SS work:

Who decides who reviews which proposals? The SRO does. They have a miserable job here, and no time to worry about screwing you. Truly. They have a list of reviewers, which may not include sufficient expertise. They have to go begging for reviewers. Outside reviewers. I've been to reviews where I've been an outside person and there have been more outside people then standing members, because of the range of proposals that come in.

Sometimes outside reviewers don't go to the meeting, and call in. They haven't heard the other reviews, and they are not "calibrated" to the section. Most outside people are aware of this and defer to the ones who are there. But not always.  This is another source of variation. But not everyone can drop everything for 2-3 days and go to Washington. You can say "no phone reviews" but that may mean worse reviewers. What's worse?  Someone more removed from the area of the proposal, who has no appreciation of either the premise or the design.

People serve on SS for 3 or 4 years, and technically are supposed to be at all of them. Some SS have a program where you do an extra year and come 2 meetings of 3 each year. I was told that option was so over-subscribed at the one I'm joining, that its not an option for now. But, people join, people leave.  Maybe the proposal had an ad hoc to start with, and that ad hoc can't do it again. You may not get the same reviewers, you may have 2 of the same, or 1 of the same, or none. There is not a set rule here. BUT! when a reviewer gets a new to them proposal that has been reviewed before, they get the entire summary sheets that the PI received. IME, reviewers read these and consider them. (but more on re-review below).

(BTW: how does your proposal  go to a  particular section? Thats another post, but in short: you can request, there are key words that help determine, and people who do this).

SRO's have to get expertise, but they also cannot give any reviewer significantly more than others. What is more? Varies from SS to SS. For some, its 4 or 5. But, I've been on ones where I've got 8 or 9 and thats standard for the sitting or standing members. (I sit, because I'm old, and standing hurts my back. This is a joke, do not read anything into it). It's a lot of work for everyone, and you get paid squat for doing it, and it's one of those things you do. I don't think anyone relishes the power involved. Ok, maybe there are a few antediluvian bigdogs who do. I don't. I just try to do the best damn job I can.

IN MY EXPERIENCE: SS members care. They work hard. They are obsessively concerned with being fair, and just and right. They are sensitive to the PI, and take "Investigator" criteria seriously. No one is out to screw you. But, of course, they are human, and have biases and have a lot to do. Sometimes they think proposals are bad. Sometimes they get irritated with a proposal partway through (Make the reviewer your ally, your advocate). But for the most part, the reviews that  I've seen, even the ones that don't get discussed, reviewers are capable of partitioning their perspectives. They can find both good and bad in a proposal. They try to balance those things, and realistically evaluate their relative importance.

Finally, a bit about some of things that got said last night.

Scores going up and down? As much as I want Doc Becca to get funded, I do not see how one can be protected against a dropping score. The reviewers have a different proposal. Maybe the proposal is worse, to one of the ones reading. I've received conflicting advice on a first submission before: add human subjects, do not add human subjects. Take out Aim2, expand Aim2. And, yes, conflicting advice is horrible to deal with, and you can't know if the person who gave that advice is going to review again. NIH has tried to circumscribe that kind of advice with "review the proposal in front of you, do  not write a new version for the PI". But even just saying  "this is good" or "this is weak" can show up in the same review.

If I was told that my review had to be limited by the previous reviews, it would make reviewing very hard for me. I read  each proposal. I  try to give each proposal my very best thoughts. If I see something glaringly bad, that got missed (as far as  I can tell) in the previous review, I am not going to give it a pass because some other reviewer didn't see the problem. But, if I think something is very very good, significant, innovative, and the previous review said "meh", I am also going to point that out, and advocate for it.

People last night said that this is a problem with reviewing, if this happens all the time. I don't know if it happens all the time. I dont have statistics. It has certainly happened to me, more than once, and I've been putting in proposals for a very long time.

You may agree, or not with the idea that scores can drop.  But, if you believe that having external reviewers, peer reviewers, reviewers from the larger community assess proposals,  is a good thing, and that if proposal can get worse. that you must admit that a score may drop.

If you want to limit scores, then the system will need to change. Maybe that would be a good thing. I tend to think not, as things that would limit, in general, reviewers will not improve the system. In the end, I suspect that those limits would be co-opted by those in power, those with the most grants, and the most time and resources to submit.

Is the system broken? Once again, I say no. It is not perfect. There are problems, and individuals who get lost or hurt or destroyed in the grinding of the gears. But, the alternatives to people like me reviewing grants is letting the PO's at NIH make all the decisions. Even if they could, which they can't, physically, they just don't have time, this would not be a good thing.  Right now there is some flexibility there, and as is true of everything else, those people are human beings with all the attendant flaws of human beings.

I've not edited this way I usually do, because its late and I want to get it out. There's a lot more to be said, so likely another post on this.






14 responses so far

Jun 12 2017

Righteous Indignation! on behalf of former trainees

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I have a marvelous former student (master's) from about 20 years ago. Former student (FS)  at a mostly-teaching place and trying to get a proposal in and get research going. There have been lots of bumps on the road, but FS is good-humored and takes them in stride, or at least in flying form. FS isn't well liked by everyone in my lab, for all sorts of reasons, but I am in a place where I can take a slightly larger view of things. All I'm saying here, is things are not quite simple.

This proposal is to do something that will be in my lab, which is fine with me, and acceptable to the current lab folks.. I am helping with the proposal, which has had problems, and is a resubmission. In fact, I was surprised it got the relatively good reviews it did on the first go-round (not triaged! scored!). For this version,  I suggested adding a third person (TP), as a consultant who is working with the animal model (different from my standard, in some significant ways) that is integral to this project. I know TP to be Good People. I thought.

FS copied me on a string of emails to and from TP discussing the project and asking TP about being a consultant.  I noticed something that FS did not. (This would be their first NIH grant). Third Person is asking for a subcontract to do something that is essentially minor consulting. Yipes! And a fair chunk of salary. In fact, it wasn't so much asking, as assuming, and sending instructions.

TP's view might be defensible, but I think it has crossed a line.  So. Some more details.  Despite having just got tenure, and thus technically a "senior" faculty, FS teaches 12 months a year, about 4-5 courses a term, and really can only do research if  funded. That FS is in this position is clearly a function of choices made along the way. FS has two small kids, a working spouse, and all the complexities of life that go with that. Yet, FS published a first authored paper as a UG, and got two first -auth and two mid-auth papers doing  a masters. I think there is potential. Hence, my support, and help and etc.

The proposal is an R15, a wonderful mechanism, IMO for folks at primarily UG institutions,  the determination of which is based on total Institutional funding. R15's however, are limited to a total of 300K and 3 years. You can go non-modular, by asking for only 2 years  per year, or one really big year and 1-2 very small ones. But, if your costs are fairly consistent, and consist of sufficient salary for a term off, or enough course reduction to have time to do the work, money for ug's to do research and the actual costs of doing research, there really isn't room for much else, let alone 10-20% of a consultant (med school prof) salary.

Now, to make things more complicated, TP is up for tenure this year (I know TP from meetings). TP is good, published, and I think tenure is a no-brainer. But of course, we all know no-brainers that don't go the way we thought they would. I don't think this proposal would happen in time to make a difference for that decision. But again, we all know problems that started at "we didn't think...".


I let this post sit for a bit, and now am trying to be more generous. I am hoping TP just thought it was an R01 and there would be plenty of money and space. I am hoping that this all is a misunderstanding on everyone's part. It's hard to ask for something, no matter who you are. Maybe that is my problem: that I want to think everyone is a good guy and no one is out to screw anyone else. And you know, that's not such a bad attitude to have.

[Note: there are some gender and URM issues here. But I wanted to stick to the main issue about funding and support and asking to be on someone else's grant. It gets even more complicated when you consider those things. I struggle with these things when they are real. In theory, I have no problems. Its just real life that's such a pain in the ass].

7 responses so far

May 29 2017

Addiction isn't a moral failing

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I have a good, nay, a great, friend who is a chemist. She does work that impacts/has relevance for the drug industry. We are argue about physiology and drug impact on physiology a lot, although neither of us exactly works in that field.

Part of what I know is from my own experience. A little less than 10 years ago I was very sick. In the hospital twice, once to figure out what was wrong (a massive rare infection in bone) and a second time to repair what the infection did (eat away significant parts of bone that were critical for my ability to... well, do anything). The pain, originally and then following surgery, was excruciating. 11 on the scale to 10. I was unable to do anything but lie there and moan.

The docs put me on Oxycodin/contin. In the hospital I had one of those button thingies, but at home I took pills. I was taking very large doses when I left the hospital the first time. The pain was under control,  so it became important to me to Get Off the Drugs before I had surgery, which was about 2 months later. I started gradually which was hard, but going ok.

One day,  about 2 weeks before the surgery, I decided to just stop. It was a mistake. My BP dropped to about 80/50 and I passed out. Luckily, my partner was there, took me to the ED, where I got an IV and a long lecture on going cold turkey. This lesson learned, after surgery, I set a schedule (I still have the little notebook where I kept track of times), and spent a few weeks watching the clock, several times each day, till I could take another pill.

The oxy did not give me a high. It did not make me feel like superperson, or anything like that. All it did was keep me from feeling the pain from the surgery, which involved significant metal implants, and transplant of bone to the metal and the place where the bone came from and the muscles that had to be cut to get to the place bone had been eaten away by infection. Yeah, I was a mess.

I remember sitting there, looking at my notebook, wanting a pill, hoping I got the time wrong, hoping that I could take another pill, realizing, no, I could not. I would go and walk for 2-3 minutes, which is all I could do, and sit back down. By my own, pre-illness standards, I would stop and think how pathetic I was. And then I'd look at the clock again.

But I was motivated. At the time, I had a job loved (albeit with the chair from hell), I had a partner who loved me. I did not have financial worries, or children to take care of.  I had great friends. I had lots of stuff that made life very worthwhile for me, and very little about which I was worried that was urgent. I was motivated. So I could wait, and stare down the clock, and took a pill with relief on the schedule of reduction. It did not bring me above baseline, but it erased the cravings, it erased the pain.

As time went on the pain receded, and the time between craving became longer. I could walk for 20 minutes, and get myself a glass of water without shaking like someone with late Parkinson's.  I rehabbed myself, and it is without question, one of the hardest things I have ever done.

How hard? Harder than writing a thesis, getting NIH funded, training for the swim leg of a triathalon, planning a wedding, planning a funeral, having a baby. But those things? They are all positive, improvement-things. They are things that when done, there is an accomplishment. Healing from surgery, from the drugs, etc? That only brought me back to baseline, and honestly, it was a baseline that hasn't ever been quite where I was before this happened.

(btw- no one ever  figured out how I got the infection. probably walking through the hospital. but it didn't really matter in the end)

So, when the self-righteous talk about "getting off drugs", especially with respect to the current pain-killer crisis, I want to ask if they've ever been there. Do you know what it feels like to look at a clock, waiting to take a pill to end the need? Have you ever had pain that keeps you from thinking, and then the drugs to make thinking possible again, knowing that those drugs are really not very good for you?

My wonderful friend talks about addiction to food, to sugar, to salt. And I say: that's not the same thing at all. Of course we are addicted to food: we die without it. But denying oneself sugar can be hard, and it can make you grumpy and you can feel the need, the desire, and the craving for it. But it is not the same thing at all as what Oxycontin feels like. And certainly, that craving and withdrawal are not the same for the rest of your (non-mind) body.

And for those people struggling with addiction: I had everything going for me when I stopped. I can imagine if one of those things wasn't in place: the partner, the job, the security of belief that my research was important (delusional as that may have been), let alone the security of knowing I could pay my bills, that I had good health insurance, a roof over my head. If any one of those things was not there, I might not have made it clean.

I had a big bottle of pills, that I kept for years, just in case the pain came back. I was never ever tempted to take. It's not because I object to feeling good. I drink wine, and beer, and a cocktail now and then. And it's not because I don't hurt. I do hurt, it's just not like it was then. The oxycontin didn't make me feel good. In the beginning it kept the pain at bay, and then it didn't just keep me from feeling bad, I took the pills because I had to.

The answer the "addiction crisis" right now may partly lie in restricting access to the drugs, more reasoned and thoughtful scrips to people in pain. It certainly does not lie in stricter prison sentences, which will only give us  very ill people going through withdrawal and possibly dying in jail. It lies in looking at the lives that people in pain live, and figuring out how to give them the reasons for getting off the medicine. It means figuring  how to deal with that craving that really has nothing to do with getting high, and everything to do with the cold hard reality of the physical legacy of pain medication.

4 responses so far

May 16 2017

More on not enough faculty positions

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Let's do a little math, before I start preaching.

Firstly, let's think about new jobs. These are back of the envelope calculations. Order of magnitude of the problem. For the purposes of discussion.

There are ~180 medical schools in the US. As for biology departments, according to Wikipedia:

As of 2012, the latest figures available in 2015, the US has a total of 4,726 Title IV-eligible, degree-granting institutions: 3,026 4-year institutions and 1,700 2-year institutions.

Now some of these schools have more than one "biology" department. Certainly medical schools have multiple departments that hire PhD's. But let's just say 5000 departments? 10000?

How many PhDs in "life sciences"? Over 8000 a year. Other sources (NSF) have other, even higher numbers: ~12,000.

So the number of PhDs each year, in life sciences, is about equal or greater than the number of departments. This makes sense: most of those (non-SLAC, non-CC) departments have multiple faculty, churning out PhDs. Even if every single department hired one more faculty person, that would still have an excess of many, many  PhDs.

Let's say that again, there are, roughly, each year, as many PhDs generated as there are departments that could hire these faculty.

I know people are waiting for "Boomers to retire", but I want to remind you that, again, that the youngest boomers are only 52. People do not retire at 52. Or 55. Or even 60. I'm mid-boomer, 62. When I talked to my chair about being on a 4-6 year retirement trajectory, he was shocked. I was surprised he was shocked. (but for me, damn there are other things I want to do).

I know people argue all the time about "alternative careers". I wrote about this years ago, when I started blogging with Mama Isis (and can't find the post). But no one starts a PhD program thinking "Oh, this is a good path to an alternative career".

Back to the problem. There are many reasons we, the mentors of academia, train people. Some of them are what economists would call "market pressures". We need trainees to survive. We need trainees to generate data to finish projects, write papers, get grants, and, well, survive. Some of us (yes, we all know these dudes, although they are not always dudes) who need trainees because their egos can't stand a small lab. They are competing for new students.

So what to do?

I think senior people need to make a commitment to finding trainees/support/help that does not involve bringing more mouths to the trough. I think senior people need to make a commitment to supporting the existing junior faculty in ways that do not require them to have enormous labs to succeed. This, in fact, will require education at the decanal level and above. NIH is the cash cow of many schools. Everyone needs to commit to education about NIH and the need to support research in the US, let alone elsewhere in the world.

Yet, expanding NIH is only kicking the can down the road. Supporting more trainees now, giving jobs to all the PhDs now will just mean this crisis will come back either come back in 10 years, if money is jolted into the system now, and current PhDs get funded, get jobs,  and start training an even larger next generation. Or if money is dribbled in, there will just be the continual pain that we see now.

It is not the scheme is unsustainable: it's just a matter of where the selection and sorting (in the evolutionary sense) occur in the life history of a scientist. Although my GenX friends (and yes, I have one or two who do not perceive me as the devil incarnate) will be skeptical, this was an issue debated as I was finishing my PhD in the early-80s. There weren't a lot of jobs to go around then, even to people (and yes, you may laugh heartily here), who perceived themselves as the cream of the crop (I didn't, but that had more to do with my identity at the time). Academia had undergone an expansion in the 60s, and those people were the Boomers of the time. They were hanging on to jobs (in our view) and didn't care that they were training more people than there were jobs. Places weren't hiring (imagine that). I remember long discussion about whether it was better to restrict entry into grad school, and let selection occur earlier, or to expand postdocs (in ecology/evolution/organismic science PD's were relatively rare at the time) and push selection down the road.  In those days (and to some extent now), in those fields, grad students were PI's, and lab or mentor affiliation was a weak tie, and certainly not necessary for the faculty, except as ego-props. The numbers of grad student admissions was more fluid, and often based on teaching assistant needs. I don't remember what I thought, except that I was tremendously relieved to get a postdoc.

But back to what to do? Please do not think that retiring the boomers will change the situation. Do you not think that the GenXers who do get jobs will see their survival as justification for doing what they need to do to survive? Do you not think the millennials who make it will turn into the boomers of 30 years hence? The boomers I knew back then were good people who would never ever ever abuse trainees, or promise things, or even inadvertently be part of the problem. We are all destined to become our parents, our mentors, and partly what we despised when we were young.

The solution? For me, right now, is to be aware, and work towards a change. Commit yourself to things be different, better. Reach out that hand, dammit.


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Apr 27 2017

The realities of modern politics and NIH funding: lone PI edition

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Let's start by defining what I am not: I am not at a MRU. I do not run a flash lab. I do not have multiple grants, multiple grad students, multiple postdocs. Right now, I've got one of each. When I started developing a second project, working with a wonderful young PI who came to me with a great idea, my current postdoc joked that I was going to become a BSD. My response: I would love to be a BSD.

But where I am in terms of running my lab, I don't have a lot of  financial flexibility.

What do I have: great colleagues. A chair, who by and large, appreciates me. This department, my  (relatively new) department is filled with people like me: one grant, small lab. Everybody gears up in the summer, and takes medical students (very serious, hard working, wonderful medical students) on as summer fellows. These are people who are  largely in the same boat as I am.

Last year, after much struggle (and submitting 2-4 proposals a year) I got refunded. Yes, I'm a boomer, and it's allegedly easier for me than thee. I acknowledge the issues that my younger colleagues have, but again, that's another post. I am glad to have this grant, I am doing something that Might Make A Difference for Babies, and certainly is chock full of basic neurophysiology goodness.

There was some initial weirdness from my IC, for which I am now very grateful. The grant started in August, but my IC didn't want me to have an August anniversary date. There are too many grants with August anniversaries, I was told. So, I started August, but they made my renewal May 1. But they did give me the first "full" (after the mandatory 18% cut to all grants in this IC) year, albeit for the reduced time period.

Now if I was a paranoid type, I might think they did that on purpose to make life miserable for me. Or because they didn't Care About Me. Why? Because one of the Rites of Spring is the Annual Congress Screws with the Federal Budget Follies.  In the past, this happened, and I don't remember it impacting me, and somehow NIH muddled through. It may have been that my non-competitive renewals (annual renewals on a 3 or 5 year grant) came at a Good Time relative to the Federal Budget.

But, now, I've got issues. Some major. Some minor.

Minor first: my 2nd year of funding did not come in when it should have. And the idiots in University Accounting sent emails to the postdoc, the grad student and the tech that "because your Grant is over, your personnel form has been terminated". I had some very anxious people inquiring. Sigh. Lab meeting: yes there is enough carryover to pay everyone's salary for at least 6 months. This is just an administrative thing. No, I have redone everyone's personnel form. And no, I'm not, the Chair is not, the Dean is not going to let you go because NIH has not sent next year's money. You are valued.

Major next: well, yesterday the 2nd year came. It has been cut 30% from requested. I looked at the number in disbelief. It was a tight budget to  start with. 30% is more than someone's salary.  More than two sets of experiments. And all the travel.

Pro response: Thank you very much sir. Please may I have another?

2nd Pro Response: write to the guy listed on ERA  Commons as the "financial contact". I have found the people in this role to be helpful and polite, as long as I stay polite. I asked about this and apologized for bothering. "No, it's what we are here for". I got lots of explanation, and only a little reference to the unintelligible rules.

Basically, because the federal government does not have a budget, and we (the people) are operating under a continuing resolution, all NIH awards  (right now) in this IC are being cut. Some IC's are cutting more than others. The cuts, if NIH budget is cut, are likely to be permanent.

I know people who go back and argue for more money. Some PI's go nuclear: I can't do the work with only this money. That runs the risk of "ok, we'll take it all back and give it to someone who can". Maybe there are some really big, really really big BSD's who can do this. Maybe they count on sheeple like me acquiescing, so they can have more money.

Because of the short first year, I've got some carryover to ease through this year. Because I figured out a major experimental cost saving, I will be OK this year and next. But by year 4, I will be having trouble figuring out where to cut. There won't be any fat left.

For my part, I am glad to have my one r01. I am glad to have my small lab and to keep pushing on the frontiers in my small way. I would love to have that 30% back. My department chair would love for me to have the 30% back, as most of it is going to come out of my salary support. It's sure as hell not coming out of trainee salaries, or experimental supplies, or animal per diems. We just keep going.


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Dec 19 2016

Serving on a Study Section

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As it does, there was some discussion on the tweets about serving on study section a bit ago. I've been busy with end of term stuff, so didn't get around to finishing this off till just now.

Firstly, serving on a study section, any study section, is about the best thing you can do to enhance your grantsmanship. The learning is relentless. I, funded now for many years, still learn something new every time I do. Furthermore, the landscape of funding/grant success  changes. You can get some sense of that change from blogs, from NIH, etc, but study section is ground zero for promulgation of that change. You can learn grantsmanship elsewhere (there are wonderful courses - take one), but information and watching the process is dense information. It is efficient for education.

But, I hear you say, I know that Potty. I've done it once or twice (as the NI, or ad hoc'd), but what about long term membership? This is what the tweets discussion was about. I'm being asked to serve on the section that funded me, you say? What to do

[As an aside, I was talking to the SRO for the study section where my stuff mostly goes. He told me that for CSR sections you must have an R01 to serve. In-house, IC specific sections may or may not have different rules.]

I still maintain that serving on a section, doing the four year term is a vastly valuable experience. Some people recommended ad hoc'ing. Some people pointed out that if you are on the section your proposals go to a Special Emphasis Panel (SEP) which is usually a more difficult review (because it's smaller number of people, it's usually on the phone, it's usually a small number of proposals, sometimes only yours). I think this drawback is of less importance than the value from sitting on a study section as a full member.

When I was younger, during my first R01, I sat on a study section for two terms. That meant my 2nd R01 was reviewed elsewhere. I really don' t remember, although at the time it was incredibly important to me. Things were different then, and I don't know that this is possible now. I think I got my first funded by chance? Ha. It was good, but probably would get triaged today. What sticks with me, lo these many years later, is that I learned and benefited tremendously from that experience.

There are other lesser benefits. You get a snapshot of pre-publication science. Where the field is going. You learn about related fields that aren't yours,  but fall in the same general area. You make friends and colleagues and will get input that you just won't get anywhere else. Yes, yes, you can get this at meetings, but the community and social sense that arises here is intellectually much more intimate. If you are young, you are much more likely to have time to talk with people who wouldn't notice you at those meetings. And you may find that your science, your perspective on science changes, grows, evolves. Mine certainly grew, in ways that I did not expect. Being exposed to different ideas and work is valuable. Finding how to be exposed is difficult, and one can waste a lot of time being exposed to stuff that doesn't change you.

A brief word about logistics. When you are appointed to a panel, there is an approval process. After the SRO asks you, and you agree, you send a CV, and Important People Somewhere (depending on the SS) approve you. This process is usually not for the next section, but for 2-3 down the road. So if you've got a proposal in the pipeline queued up for the next round, your appointment isn't going to impact on it.

So, why in the words of the tweet, "mess with something that's good", i.e. Your relationship with the SS, the SRO. So, if they are asking you to be on it, chances are one of the people who liked your now-funded proposal is rotating off. They need your expertise, right? Even if that that person doesn't rotate off now, they will, and probabilisticly sooner rather than later. Approximately 25-30% of a SS turns over each year. Lots of ad hoc's can't or won't serve a real term, so no guarantee that you'll have anything like the same study section on the next submission, anyway, or the same expert reviewing your proposal. That relationship? It's fleeting.

In the end, the benefits (to you, for you) of being on a panel far far outweigh the drawbacks. If you're asked to serve, chances are you are already funded, so moving your proposals elsewhere may not be such a big deal (do you really need 3 or 4 R01's?, but that's a different post).

There have been lots of posts to this end, not just from me, but from DM, etc. But right now, I'm writing this in my corner breakfast place, and there is not Internet. Just do a search on study section and scientopia and get more input.

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Nov 18 2016

Ode to Friends

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This post was going to be about my mother. But I realized as I wrote it in my head that it was really about my girlfriends.

A few days ago, I was feeling sad about my mother, and I saw a picture, taken at some local fundraising event, of me with six of the most marvelous women in the world. They are marvelous because they are my friends.

When I see a picture like this, one of Urusala LeGuin's short stories pops into my head. It's a story set in her universe from Left Hand of Darkness, a powerful book unto itself. The story is framed as a series of snapshots, a this device that echoes one of the themes of the story, how our memory is often frozen like a picture.

The picture with my friends is still fresh, it was only last week. But in a month or two, I will remember the event, but not feelings exactly at that moment.  Maybe in a year or two, I will not remember even where we were at the time.

I look at the picture, and I know similar ones exist, ones with a different mix of people's faces in them. I know, because I've seen them. And while I don't know the faces in those pictures, on Facebook, on Twitter, in miscellaneous blog posts, I know the feeling.

These women love me and each other. And it doesn't matter how smart or thin you are. It doesn't matter if you work in a factory (as one does) or teach school (as another does) or have several squillion NIH dollars (or not). It doesn't matter if you are fat or fit. It is a friendship born out of shared time together, of helping when things are tough, and looking out for someone else.

I have not always had time for women like this in my life. And now, looking back, I know why I didn't have time. I am not even sure, as wonderful as having such women in my life is, I am not sure that I would be here, now, where I am if I had. Family and job often sucked everything out of me. But there were also times and places in my life when I thought these women didn't exist, or at least exist for me. And that was wrong.

When I moved to almost-MRU in the Middle-of-fracking-nowhere (as it seemed to me at the time, I know better now), I was emotionally devastated. I had probably hit 5 or 7 of the top 10 stressors in life (although not getting funded by NIH isn't on most standard lists, it is on ours). As I have at other times in my life, I plastered "I can make this work" smile on my face, and stood up and taught large classes of frequently indifferent students. I sat in front of a computer and lost myself in data. Or in grant proposals. But I was not happy in my Potenmkin Village of life.

And I found these women. They didn't just fall into my life, although that is possible. I found them, and made an effort towards friendship. Without meaning to, they saved my life. I know that I have, on occasion, saved theirs. These women are there for you. They are worth finding. They are worth the energy of reaching out to. They will save your life.



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