Archive for the 'Uncategorized' category

Reviewing Grants: Intro on what the heck *happens* to my grant

Sep 27 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

NIH really really tries for transparency. Almost everything I'm saying exists somewhere on the NIH website. The issue is the "where" part of that.

I've got lots of posts elsewhere on the writing part. This is what happens, briefly after submitting. Firstly, there are two different routes: going to the CSR -Center for Scientific Review, vs. responding to a particular request for grants. The latter means it is designated to an initial IC (this jargon confusing? See here and here). I'm going to talk, for now, about going to CSR.

At CSR it gets assigned to a IRG (Initial review group) or Study Section. It also gets assigned to an IC. You can request, and NIH tries to honor requests, but there is a balancing act. The head of the IRG, who is a SRO (Science  Review Officer) gets some say in what is assigned to his/her sie's group.

Then the SRO assigns proposals to the people who sit (and seldom stand) on the IRG. The SRO usually has another list of ad hoc reviewers. I've been on IRGs where more than 50% ere ad hoc, which to me indicates the SRO was at least trying to get appropriate expertise.

At this point, the reviewers, the study section members, get a list of proposals and all of the significant personnel you listed. This is because NIH takes Conflict of Interest very seriously. At this point, proposals are assigned to reviewers. And the barrage of information that I'm putting in other posts starts coming to us. There are 2-4 reviewers, but usually 3 per proposal. [see here for info about serving on a study section]

There is a due date for reviews, usually about 5 days before SS meets. When (and not before) you have uploaded your reviews, you get to see what the other reviewers have written.

Some brief calculations for you: The Harsh Reality of study section. There are 15-30 people, all of whom are overworked, and reviewing because they think it’s the Right Thing To Do. This group may have 60-100 proposals assigned by CSR to this meeting of the SS. Three reviewers per grant = 180 to 300 grant-reviewer assignments. Which means that everyone has 6-10 grants to review. It is a lot of work.

We will look at the other reviews before we leave town for the meeting. In fact, we are encouraged to, and to think about what they other reviewer has said. Do I (or almost anyone) do this for all 60-100 proposals? Nope. I do it for the 10 I have reviewed. I do read while I am in study section, and listen to the reviewers, but that's yet another post.

When we get to study section, the chair will ask for “preliminary scores” and we (three or four reviewers) will give those overall scores. We can say something different if one of the other reviewers has persuaded us in their written & uploaded review.

This is the "total impact score". There are five sub-areas. More about "total impact" vs. five areas in next post, but also see here and here. But what is relevant here, if I’ve given you a “2” on Investigators and a “6” on innovation no one may actually know those values. But! After giving the scores, we start with the primary reviewer explaining what the proposal is about, and why they gave the scores they did, and what aspects of the five areas informed that score. Then the second reviewer will say something like “I agree with Dr. HuffnPuff, except that I think the significance was higher for these 16 reasons.”

The review you get (Pink Sheets) will include everything that was written by the reviewers. Reviewers get a chance post-meeting to edit their reviews (and are encouraged to do so). Someone, usually the primary reviewer, writes up something that captures what happened in the discussion.  You will get the specific comments on the 5 areas, identified by area, as well as scores. The important fact here, though, is that the study section may not see them, if they chose not to.

Why wouldn’t they? See above about amount of work that goes into the review. I don't know exactly how much I put into each review. And it varies with proposal. But its more than 4-5 hrs per. Times 10. At least a week of work.

With this introduction, next posts will be back to the instructions NIH is giving to its reviewers.



8 responses so far

Grant Reviewing

Sep 25 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I am back on a study section. I thought hard about doing this, but felt I could do some good (the downfall and delusion of right-thinking people in every walk of life).

First, a reminder of one of my favorite things:

Aims should be general enough to require a project (1-2 papers per aim), but specific enough that they are a project.

I've written a lot about writing grants over the years, and I will try repost at least links to those.

How study section is being handled now is a significant departure from my previous experiences. The amount of energy that is going into training and preparation of the reviewers is not just larger than before, it exists. In the past, in my experience, there was none of this. There is a large effort to make sure we are calibrated, that we know what the criteria are, and that we do reviews as uniformly as possible.

I've had two phone call training sessions, and a nearly weekly email with substantive information. Here is today's bolus (all of this is online, but don't have links right now):

General guidance for all sections of the critique:

  • Avoid general comments and provide specific details.
  • Provide sufficient context to orient comments (e.g. does the comment refer to a specific aim?)
  • Make sure bullets have evaluative statements that indicate your assessment of a particular aspect of the application.
  • Make sure that the text within each section is consistent with the score.
  • Scores of 1-3 should be supported by clearly articulated strengths.
  • Scores of 4-6 may have a balance of strengths and weaknesses.
  • Scores of 7-9 should be supported by clearly articulated weaknesses (or lack of strengths).
  • Prioritize strengths and weaknesses by indicating if they are major(score-driving) or minor.
  • Address all relevant review criteria and critique sections (e.g. many applications require evaluation of issues in addition to Overall Impact, Significance, Investigators, Innovation, Approach, and Environment).
  • Include attention to new considerations related to Rigor and Transparency in research (scientific premise, rigor, consideration of biological variables including sex, and biological/chemical resource authentication), as appropriate for the research questions.


Please try to adhere to the guidance and provide specific comments with sufficient context.

There was an attached, lengthy document. I will start posting that, with comments and perceptions later this week. Right now, I must go off and be a good citizen.

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Logical Disconnect: Industry, Profits and Safety

Sep 22 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

An article in the Daily Beast about the lack of safety in coach class was both interesting and scary. The article was titled: Flying Coach Is So Cramped It Could Be a Death Trap with running header of:

A judge calls it a ‘life-and-death safety concern.’ A government document shows there may not be enough room to brace for impact. Inside the potential dangers.

This investigative story is based on an US Appeals Court case brought by an activist group called "Flyers Rights", which has an interesting website worth at least a peruse if you fly regularly, or even not so regularly.

The gist of the DB story is that coach class is probably no longer safe, the US Dept of Transportation standards are not being followed, and the FAA (let alone Boeing) is not releasing all of their current data on evacuation tests.  They also discuss the biomechanics of the closeness of the seats and the fact that passengers cannot properly brace themselves for an emergency landing.

All of this is no surprise to anyone who flies. The DB article calls it "densification". And it is all chalked up to "greed" on the part of airlines.

Please don't get me wrong. Flying is awful. It used to be glamorous and something for which one dressed up. The getting there and back used to be part of the adventure. It's not. It's horrible and discomforting and something to be endured. But I fly, and I imagine that many of you do, when there is a meeting or a vacation or a family thing to do that is more than 500 miles away.

But what I found most entertaining about this story was the inevitable outpouring of ire on twitter including things like:

The airlines might as well load us in like cattle because that's what they think we are. - PMK@veve4heart 

I don't think the airlines see passengers as "cattle", as they don't want to eat us. They want to make money. We are customers. But what any business or even industry sees as "customer service: is dictated by a number of factors. There are K-selectors, which go for higher quality, more effort and fewer offspring, er, customers. Think about chartering your own plane to go to SfN. I, by and large, do not qualify for such companies. Or rather, do not choose to use such companies. They charge a premium for service. There are also r-selectors, who make money by charging less to more people. This would include nearly every big box store.

If you look at the airline industry, they have a couple of sets of costs no matter how many people they fly. Fuel, which is cheaper today. Staff. Lots of people think pilots are paid too much and work too little. Others don't. And yes, many of us think that top executives make obscene amounts of money.

This brings me to one of my favorite sayings (not mine, but whose? I know not): What is a general definition of rich, or too rich, or who should be taxed more? Anyone who makes more money than me.

That the airlines want to make money is part of why they are in business. Keep in mind that if a company, a publically traded company, doesn't make money, it doesn't stay in business. This is one of the reasons why there are far fewer airlines today than there were even 10 years ago, let alone 30 years ago. How much money they should (and should is a very dangerous word here) and at what cost to passengers is a legitimate debate.

But that is not (entirely) why the FAA and the NSTB exist. They exist because we, the people (who allegedly are represented by the government), think that safety in transportation is important. [also because we can't integrate, in the mathematical sense of area under the curve, about every day things. A flight crash that kills 20 or 100 is a horrible massive problem. Deaths due to car accidents are about 1.3 million people/ year, which is more than 3000 people per day. That's a 9/11 every single day. Have we turned this country upside down about that? No, we have small efforts (seatbelt laws and campaigns). One third of those deaths are likely related to alcohol or substance abuse whilst driving, and we still do not regulate drunk driving the way we regulate flying. But that's another rant for another day.

Why do I care about this? One of the most dangerous things going on today is the unilateral business-friendly climate (i.e., the current government) and the loosening of the safety-based laws. And this is getting mixed up with issues about profits that companies make, which is how I interpret the "we-are-cattle" remarks.

We want airlines to make less money, but we have the choice to fly or not. What do you think drives low prices on airlines or at WalMart? People who are willing to pay that amount of money to fly. Airlines could make planes less dense, but it would likely result in higher prices. In fact, you can already do that. If you don't like coach, pay for business class. But, you and I and most people flying don't think business or first is worth it. And worth it means we have made a decision about the value of the bigger seat and more room and we don't want to pay the money for that. We want first class seats at economy prices.

I would separate out two arguments here: one about obscene profits and high executive salaries from the other about safety issues in the things we do. They are tied, I do not deny that. When airlines want to make money they will cut safety corners. Appropriate regulation is necessary for safety aspects of things we chose to do. The problem is not regulating the profits of the airline industry. I personally do not believe a communist government (which almost always leads to a totalitarian system, with an elite at the top, not much different from the stratification we've got right now in the US) will serve the needs of the citizens. One  of the (pretty much undisputed facts, at least in my reading) is that post-price regulation, airfares went down. And the airlines, if they stay in business will make money. What we need to think about is the safety. Public pressure on companies works. Sometimes. But what works best is getting the government to enact the safety laws we want to see. And that's only one of the things wrong with a "pro-business" administration.





7 responses so far


Sep 18 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

People are always coming up with systems of deities who require our worship. But we’ve got a funny nomenclature for naming these systems.Image result for greek gods classic sculpture

If the person proposing a new deity is alive, we call it a cult. If the founder dies, but there are still active worshipers, the system moves to the status of religion. But if believers are gone, or mostly gone, or of little status or account in society, the system becomes myth. Thus we have Greek Myths and Norse Myths, but Christianity and Shintoism are still ongoing affairs.

It is not my goal here to talk about religion. There are certainly enough other Wise and Significant Thinkers talking about that. Nor do I want to get into any kind of pissing contest with true believers and true non-believers. I have always felt that religion is a little like underwear. If you have some great. If you don’t also great. If you prefer frilly or scanty or work-a-day, I am very happy for you that you know your preference. But I sure do not want to know about undergarments or lack thereof. I do not want to know what kind, color and state of cleanliness. And even if you think, nay you know, that your underwear is The! Best! Underwear! Ever! I do not want to know this. I do not want you to try and convince me that my life will be better if I wear yours. I respect yours, please respect mine. And, for pete’s sake, keep your underwear the heck out of politics and science.

What I do want to think about the role that myth and its little sib, storytelling, play in our lives. Myths can be politically safe, since everyone involved is dead. Myths can be the stories we tell. Sometimes the word myth takes on a negative connotation, of something we know is not true, yet cling to anyway. But myth as story is powerful.

What I wish to do here, is revive the word myth, and imbue it with all sorts of good and wonderful connotations, as something we need.

I was thinking about this when I re-watched Moana. Why did this movie, with its catchy tunes, good images and middle of the road character development stay with me? Why are all the young women in my group listening to the soundtrack during data collection, rather than their usual music of choice? Why did, a few years back, every young female between 2 and 10 become obsessed with Anna and Elsa and drive every parent bananas with singing Let it Go?

I have often objected to modern movies (and much TV) as being pornography for the young. You’ve got people, of various genders and identities, doing jobs at an age where it’s highly unlikely that they would have achieved the position and worth that they have.

Because everyone wants to see someone with whom they can identify on the screen, and young people as much as, if not more than, anyone need heroes. We need to see people fighting battles and demons and evil and winning. And growing and winning. Moana is simply a hero. She takes on an impossible task, has challenges, set-backs, gives up (for about a nanosecond), and then in the end, bravely stares down her antagonist, to triumph and literally restore beauty and life to her world.

Maybe as we get older we are more realistic at looking at the day. Maybe as we get old, we regret the undone things, but don’t quite see the arc of potential stretching out in front of us. Maybe we are tired running a home and a lab and a life and unrealistic, fictional, mythic heroes get in the way of putting dinner on the table and the laundry folded and the lecture prepared.

Sometimes, as we get older, heroes are hard to have. One is all too aware of the clay feet of our heroes, their flaws and falls and facades. One is sensitive to one’s own shortcomings, all the things one should have, could have, ought to have by now, done. When someone, especially a peer, is pointed out as doing better, it is painful, like a sharp paper cut that won’t go away. Yes, I too might have been an astronaut, but for, but, but, but. I am mired in dirty diapers, screaming children, and unfunded grant proposals, and not living that exotic fascinating and funded life that this alleged hero is living. I can barely teach my class to these snot-nosed children, or snotty adolescents, but really I’d like to be the Senator from New York. Or even just Delaware. It is hard to be gracious, let alone admiring, of the people who achieved the dreams you had 30 years ago.

Mythos can help. They’re not real. We know they are not real, and so do the young women in my lab and so do the 10 year old who want to learn to sail and navigate by the stars. Every old lady can close her eyes and dream of catamarans. Especially when there is a strong old-lady character in the movie.

When I watch Moana, am I thinking “convincing Maui is like convincing the NIH” or “the crab is the dept chair from hell?”. No, my tasks and challenges and trials are not so simple, no so black and white and clear cut. But watching the movie makes me a little happier, a little more positive about those problems.

The myths and stories and legends may have started as a mechanism for teaching children, for helping them paint the arcs of their lives. And modern movies still do this, filled with young people achieving unrealistic goals. The modern troubled adolescent who takes on the whole, very evil, establishment, and wins through their pure courage, genius or genetically given wizardly skills gives our mired in the real world adolescents that same bit of hope. Maybe a bit of courage. But certainly the basis for the dreams that life is made of.


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Predicting Junior Faculty Success

Sep 15 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

In PeerJ there is an article titled:  Prediction of junior faculty success in biomedical research: comparison of metrics and effects of mentoring programs, by Christopher S. von Bartheld1, Ramona Houmanfar, Amber Candido. It is very interesting. Let's start with the abstract:

Measuring and predicting the success of junior faculty is of considerable interest to faculty, academic institutions, funding agencies and faculty development and mentoring programs.

No shit Sherlock. It's also of interest to the junior faculty.

Various metrics have been proposed to evaluate and predict research success and impact, such as the h-index, and modifications of this index, but they have not been evaluated and validated side-by-side in a rigorous empirical study.

This is true. And we are scientists. So we like to do rigorous empirical studies.

Our study provides a retrospective analysis of how well bibliographic metrics and formulas (numbers of total, first- and co-authored papers in the PubMed database, numbers of papers in high-impact journals) would have predicted the success of biomedical investigators (n = 40) affiliated with the University of Nevada, Reno, prior to, and after completion of significant mentoring and research support (through funded Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence, COBREs), or lack thereof (unfunded COBREs), in 2000–2014.

This is what they used as predictors: h-indices, publication, etc. What was their outcome variable? It took significant reading to figure this out. There definition of success was not tied to the COBRE funding (as far as I can tell), but its not as straightforward as I might like.

A successful faculty was defined as having external (not only COBRE-funding) of any amount and duration (in all of our cases at least two years of funding), and in addition publishing on average at least one last-author (=senior author) paper in PubMed per year during or upon graduation from the COBRE (or a comparable time frame when the COBRE was not funded). [my bold]

I think this means that COBRE funding did not count towards success. But what's significant is that success was not tenure/no tenure but other publishing and funding measures. There are some more details about the relationship between funding and success, including:

Simply staying on COBRE funds for extended periods of time without other external grant support was not considered an independent, externally funded and successful investigator in biomedical research.

(I will forward the part about independent to my friend on the tenure committee).

So let's get to the good stuff. What DID predict success? First the stuff that did not predict success. Two interesting findings:

The h-index and similar indices had little prognostic value.

Publishing as mid- or even first author in only one high-impact journal was poorly correlated with future success.

What did matter?

Remarkably, junior investigators with >6 first-author papers within 10 years were significantly (p < 0.0001) more likely (93%) to succeed than those with ≤6 first-author papers (4%), regardless of the journal’s impact factor.

Publishing some begets publishing more. But what is really critical (to tenure committees everywhere) is that the damn IF did not matter. They also found that the COBRE program made a difference, whether it was through money to support work, or the mentoring/group activities involved in those grants.

The benefit of COBRE-support increased the success rate of junior faculty approximately 3-fold, from 15% to 47%.

Or whether the selection criteria for COBRE are those that will make someone successful and the program is just a marker, not providing any additional benefit. They claim that there is no selection bias because their control group were proposed for being a "project leader" but the COBRE was not funded. The "mentored group" were those who proposed to be a project leader, and became one. It is not clear if this is truly a non-selection bias control, as we don't know why some COBRE's were funded and others were not. But there is a small bit of information tucked away that bothered me, which does suggest some potential bias issues in the data:

The gender of junior faculty was 50% female vs. 50% male for the control, and 25% female vs. 75% male for the mentored group.

I do believe that these authors really did try to control for as much as they could. Take the results with a bit of salt, but they are worth thinking about.

The authors believe that these results support the utility of mentoring programs like COBRE. I don't have a problem with that, even if there is selection bias. Anything we can do to help jr faculty is good. They have some data on success rates for males vs. females (not parity), which might be related to the problems in the selection process for COBREs. Also interesting is that in the comparison of native English speakers vs. 2nd language speakers:

 Faculty with English as 2nd language had more success (8/18 = 44.4%) than native English speakers (6/22 = 27.3%).

In the end, their main conclusion is quite simple:

We show that a relatively simple metric—the number of 1st-author publications—far outperforms other metrics such as the h-index, journal impact factors, and citation rates in predicting research success of junior faculty.

With the usual caveats:

However, proxies alone are insufficient in evaluating or predicting faculty success, and further work is needed to determine which aspects of the COBRE and other faculty development programs contribute to success. Nevertheless, our study can now be replicated and validated at other biomedical institutions to predict the most suitable targets for faculty development and to evaluate and improve various types of mentoring programs.

Which means, we (senior people, mentors, helpers, people who want to see others succeed) need to do what we can to help junior people publish. This must include making sure that judging them, be it in study section or on tenure committees, that we stop emphasizing and valuing Glamour Pubs, and talk about getting the damn stuff out.

Full Citation: von Bartheld CS, Houmanfar R, Candido A. (2015) Prediction of junior faculty success in biomedical research: comparison of metrics and effects of mentoring programs. PeerJ 3:e1262

9 responses so far

Secret and Hidden Identities

Sep 15 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I obviously use a pseudo, as do many of my internet friends. I have no idea who they are IRL. I’m pretty sure none of them are my friend in the next office, as he is upfront about his interests which do not include blogging. There are lots of people who know me IRL, and I’ve even met some of them. That’s ok, I feel less like I need to be cloaked these days. But in the beginning it felt differently. I am using the word “feel” a lot, which is accurate. This wasn’t a well thought out decision at the time.

The University of Rochester thing brings up a point, distantly related to pseudos: if there is anything, anything, on your work computer that can link pseudo-blogging-tweeting you back to Real Big (or not-so-Big) Scientist you, it can be used against you.

Fighty squirrel has a good post on this. I may be just echoing the combatative sciurus, but it is worth echoing again.

Do not think that “oh my advisor/chair/dean/mentor loves me, really, really supports me”. Seasons change, and so do advisors/chairs/deans and mentors. Even if anyone in the chain of command above you does love you, does care about you, and even has protected you in the past, they may not be able to shield you from the Dread Pirate Roberts University lawyer. If the UR thing has taught us anything, it is that Universities perceive themselves as an entity with a reputation to protect, which they will over the needs and possibly truths of individuals whom they employ.

Aside: I know a story where this was not true. It was not me, but very close. The university did The Right Thing, even though it was expensive, and ultimately involved a real world civil court trial. There was an easy, cheap and face-saving out. But it would have been wrong and someone, somewhere high up in the University hierarchy said no to the easy solution. They supported the faculty member, and both uni and faculty were vindicated in the end. Everyone was shocked at all the choices made, and it was horrible for the faculty person. It is one story, and I cannot give the details. But, having watched my friend go through this, no matter what a trial looks like in the movies or on TV, you do not want to be involved in one. [do not cue up lawyer jokes. I know many fine lawyers who believe, unlike our president, in the Rule of Law. It is a very good thing to have the rule of law in our lives. I appreciate that there are lawyers who believe in it. But that doesn’t make a trial any less difficult on the non-lawyer participants, no matter what the role].

Many of you don’t blog. But nearly everyone does email, despite the fact that everyone says Millennials don’t. Yeah, yeah, but you do at work. And with every email you send, you should be thinking: the Dean could read this. The head of the grad affairs committee could read this. My mentor could read this.

Do not write anything (with work /uni email) without being aware of the greater audience who could by reading your every keystroke.

There is the equivalent of a key-stroke logger on your computer that is on the uni network. It might be that bringing your own laptop mitigates that problem. But it might not.

I have a friend who is of the view that he is lost amongst the squillions of xeno-terra-mera-hera bytes. That his little rivulet of words are lost in the ocean of University crap.

To this I say: fah. I say sure, until you are sucked up in some investigation. Go read fighty squirrel's examples. It, the problem, the cause, might have nothing to do with you at all, but that weirdo student in the next lab. S/he did something really weird that Concerns The Administration now. And in that first year you had carrels in the same room. And it turns out the weirdo was dealing drugs, or stealing bytes or banging the dean’s son. And now there is an investigation and they want to know what you know, and not about the Krebs Cycle.

There is good justification for keep your identities as separate as you can. They OWN your electronic university stuff. You do not.


6 responses so far

Bitter or Sad?

Sep 13 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I want to take a moment to give a shout out to Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. Her insights about being a woman of color in science are some of the best I've read.  I do not always agree with her, but she always makes me think. She always makes me bring my best arguments to the table. I am not a woman of color, but, as has often been pointed out, one of the most important things one can do to support people who are different from oneself is to listen. She is a good person to listen to.

A recent post of hers titled: The Truth About Colleges and Universities has the subtitle: If you’re applying to college in the US or your kid is, you should read this. Especially if you’re not white.

It is a wonderful article, and well written. She starts with two disparate facts. Here is the 2nd one:

.., but I write it optimistically as a Black woman postdoctoral researcher in particle and cosmology theory who is plunging into her second round of faculty applications in a country that has never had a Black woman theoretical cosmologist on a college or university faculty. 

I know something akin to this feeling. When I first started applying for jobs, there were far far fewer women in science than there are now. I heard "if I hire a woman, there is a man with a family to support who won't get the job". LBGTI people are more accepted, as are same-sex spouses, inter-racial couples, and people who have disabilities. The world has changed since I was young, and that is a good thing. It has not changed enough, but that is a different post.

Now, here is the first thing she said, that preceeds the "but" above:

I’m going to be called bitter for publishing this

It doesn't seem bitter to me. It is honest. It is hard to hear. But does it make me feel sad.  You need to read the whole thing which is an indictment of what is wrong with collegiate level education in America, especially for women, POC, LGBTIQ, and those who do not fit the mold. It is a reminder of the ways in which the world has not changed.

Dr. P-W outlines some of the wrongs. Her first thing wrong is:

the first thing you should know is that academics are brutal, and academia encourages brutality.

Sometimes it's not so much intentional brutality as brutal indifference. Sometimes it is people who steal or want to steal your ideas. Sometimes its just people who don't care that they are working on the same thing, and have more resources than you do.

She goes on from there, speaking truths about the, yes, brutal economics and realities of education. She talks about research intensive universities, but what she says is also true of State Universities. It's just that the latter have (sometimes, somewhat) cheaper price tags. And while she is addressing people (and their families) entering college, it could equally be true of people aiming towards any post-graduate education. But near the end Dr. Prescod-Weinstein says:

Nu. I’m not saying don’t go to college or don’t send your kid to college. All I’m saying is have zero delusions about what these institutions are up to.

So why sad?

Because part of what pushes us, the ones who do care, the ones who haven't lost all the starry-eyed hope, is that the pursuit of science still thrills us the way nothing else does. And it is sad that there is so much that gets in the way.

Out there, probably not reading this blog, but maybe one person or two away, some young trans or non-binary person of color, or even white male who understands, some human being to whom the beauty and joy of science doesn't just speak, but sings and draws pictures and enchants and thrills. And that human being is thinking "crap, do I need this much more hassle in my life?"

To that person I echo what Dr. P-W says. There are people who care. There are people who will help nurture your dreams.

Except for a slice of the world, it has never been easy to become a scientist. (or an artist of any sort). Some people take that lemon and make lemonade. Some people find other outlets for their inner drive. See Gertrude Stein, or Stanley Kaplan. All the things she says about the reality is true. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try.



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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

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