Working the NIH: Resources

(by potnia theron) Jan 25 2018

A periodic reminder that the NIH website has a wealth of information to help you.

See here for "Insights from Peer Reviewers and NIH Staff on Putting Together Your Application".


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last bit on outreach: personal efforts

(by potnia theron) Jan 25 2018

Potnia, why are you not working towards X?

Where X is: outreach, gender equality, affordable childcare, affordable eldercare, Queerrights, evolution in schools, taking back the Senate, saving the turtles, the rainforests, the tundra, the icecaps?

All of these are things I care about passionately. These are all things I have given some financial support to. Well, maybe not the tundra. Keeping NSF funded, keeping NASA funded, vaccine education, science education, freedom of speech, the integrity of our constitution, a safer and welcoming world for transgender people, the Deaf, people with physical disabililties, people with mental disabilities, the Chesapeake Bay. Women in countries that deny them a vote. Countries where no one gets to vote.

There is a long list of what I care about. My family, my students, my trainees, the young women in my department, the URM in my University. The homeless, the disenfranchised. They are often tree rings that circle out from me – some are closer in my life everyday, some every week, and some not so often.

I cannot do all of these things. I cannot even do several of these things and still be the scientist and teacher and mentor that I consider my primary job. And that is cold, hard reality.

But there is one more thing.

I was talking with a very smart, very active woman of my age, who I met on vacation. She is a prof in a related field, and is Famous. She is very good. She is very active. We were trading war stories, although her sub-field may have traditionally had more women than mine, we are still of an age where we were often “The Woman”. She had changed much in the world and fought for people who could not fight for themselves. I told her some horror stories about the Chair from Hell at my old MRU, and she took me to task for not recording them and “leaking them”. I had thought briefly about doing that at the time, and had rejected it. I was pretty sure that it would cost me my job, and I was not yet ready to leave MRU. I was doing active parent care at the time and I couldn’t up and move for a new job. Or if I had to because I was fired, who would take care of my parents?

(see here and here and here. I think some of my best writing was about coping with my parents).

And therein lies the problem. We all make compromises. None of us is perfect. Sometimes it is cowardice and unwillingness to face what must be done. Sometimes its weighing two things and deciding which is more important, right now. And sometimes we just run out of steam.

If you do not see this, go read Toni Morrison on what mothers will do for children.

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Outreach thoughts part 2

(by potnia theron) Jan 24 2018

A final bit on doing outreach. It’s important. It will save science from the hordes, on the left and the right, who hone their hatred on the whetstones of alternative medicine or Christian righteousness. But, it’s not what we get paid for. It’s not what guarantees our future employment. This is part of what started @JenniferRaff 's discussion. She had a pile of academic work, but felt something needed to be addressed, and did so, despite the pile of academic work.

Yes, that should change. Not the anthro part, but the counting part. And working on the change is also important. That is one thing senior people can do: is make sure that junior people get a fair hearing for tenure. Either that or blow up the tenure system altogether.

There was a blogpost critique of an advice piece to the Executive Platinum Super-Dooper- Overachieving Executive Executive [can't find where I read it, apologies for lack of citation]. How one guy was taking one day off a week. To play with his kids, to take them places, to learn new things and renew himself. Great, says the blogpost, if you have wonderful people working for you, who can up your efficiency so that you can work a 80% week. No body is telling those worker-bees, yes, why don’t you take every Friday off. In fact, when those worker bees have sick children, or parents to take to the doctor, or their own health issues, they get docked if they overshoot their allotted vacation/sick leave/time off.

Yes we should all be doing outreach. I admire Raff that she gets so much done. We should all be changing the system to make outreach count. We should all be doing our political duty to make sure that NSF gets a high level of funding and that people who are elected care about science. If we don’t do these things there will be no science.

The reality of it is that I don’t know many lazy scientists. I don’t know many folks who sit around watching 5 or 6 hours of TV every night, or play Wolfenstein till 2 in the morning. Sometimes, when we look at others we see the duck gliding on the surface of the otherwise still pond, or the Mama Pig lying peacefully on her side, snoozing in the sunlight. We miss the furious sub-surface paddling, or the energy and metabolism it takes to produce milk for 20 piglets.

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Thoughts on Outreach

(by potnia theron) Jan 24 2018

Razib Khan and Jennifer Raff had an interchange about outreach. It's a longish conversation, but here is one entry point:

It was about the need to do outreach. There is more in this thread, including:

This exchange got me thinking about doing outreach, both personally (as one of those "senior people" who can't write), but also in terms of the junior people I mentor.

I think that one of the biggest reasons people have for not doing outreach (or only doing outreach because it is required by their NSF funding) is that many of us are swamped by the feeling that I am treading water to stay alive. If I am not devoting 105% of my energy towards the things that: get me a job, get me tenure, get me funded, etc then I will not survive to be able to do outreach tomorrow. The argument that senior people have less of these pressures than junior people is not necessarily valid. There are things that are easier,  psychologically, when you have tenure. But as one goes through life, the logistic concerns shift. If one is not making my children's lunches, doing laundry, exercising and all that overhead that is life, one will not be able to do outreach.  If someone is squeezed between teenage children and demented elderly parents, they may look like a selfish boomer to you, but their story is far more complicated than what is seen every day in the lab. Asking anyone and everyone to do outreach, in the current climate is kinda like saying: you all can have a 4 hour work week, if you are clever enough to acquire enough slaves to support you.

Now, there is no question that outreach is important. Indeed Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson make a difference to the public perception of astronomy in general, and probably physics in specific. It's important to realize that outreach, at the level of NdGT isn’t easy or necessarily possible no matter how much time and energy and love you put into it. IRL, I have written some of those popular articles, and even gotten them published in big-audience places. But getting the kind of audience he has? Not a chance in the world. It is this hard no matter how old you are.

Not everybody is going to be good at that level of outreach. One may argue that a Sagan or a deGrasse Tyson is a relatively rare and talented human being. Neil Shubin got a show based on his “Inner Fish” book – evolution, humans, etc. Neil is good, but it didn’t take off the way Cosmos did. Paul Serreno does a ton of outreach for dinosaurs, but one may argue whether his work, or that of Jack Horner, another dinosaur dude, makes the headlines in the same way. Jurassic Park, with the Sam Neill character based on Horner, probably did more for dinosaur funding than anything else. I know of a couple of other evolution types who’d like to be NdGT, but just aren’t that good. Ed Wilson (Silent Generation) just wrote another popular book on creativity and our brains. Steve Gould. There is a list of folks who try, but succeed at various levels of public splash.

Finally, keep in mind that there is lots of outreach going on that isn't so obvious.  Outreach that is, shall we say, in reach? Talking to schools, publishing locally, even giving money for science in schools. There is a couple I know, who do great biology, ranging from dinosaurs to birds to bats, bone and tissue through evolution and ecosystem. They go to public schools about once a month, every month, every year. They may not impact federal funding or the greater public perception, but if they reach one kid a visit, is that an important difference? By definition, this isn’t going to be visible on twitter.

More thoughts to come.



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Ursula K. Le Guin has died

(by potnia theron) Jan 23 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin, the immensely popular author who brought a tough-minded feminine sensibility to science fiction and fantasy, died at 88. Her books mattered tremendously to me when I was young. Her writing was powerful and gave me hope and dreams.

  Image result for ursula le guin

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Mistakes in AREA grants (R15)

(by potnia theron) Jan 23 2018

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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Dolores O’Riordan died today

(by potnia theron) Jan 15 2018

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Grants Accounting *never* gets any love. from anyone. especially me.

(by potnia theron) Jan 03 2018

I hate those bean counters. I need to purchase a piece of equipment, consistent with other equipment already in the lab. Need in these sense, the equip we have does not work with one set of experiments. Need in the sense, if we are going to make a major part of aim 2, we need this stuff.

I got a quote from company (thank you company) that provided original (wonderful) equipment. I wrote the justification to grants accounting in October. OCTOBER. In Oct, grants accounting said "you need NIH permission to move money". I said: no, I don't. I found chapter and verse why I didn't (in short, it is less than $25K, it doesn't change the scope of the work). Grants accounting, in NOVEMBER said "sure, fine". Quote expired. Got new quote. Put it in. Need this for experiments that start mid -Jan. TODAY. To-fucking-Day, Grants accounting said "nope, we were wrong, you do need permission, from NIH and a statement from the company that no one else makes this". Why ? Because there is no "equipment" line in my budget. So to add the fucking budget line needs approval.

And the company, the very small, yet very good company, is off at a meeting.  No one to write my statement. NIH is, well, NIH. I am not sure when they will get back to me.

Take home lessons: Know the rules. Know the NIH rules that pertain to you. And know where to find chapter and verse when you need it. Do not believe grants accounting. I know I am smarter than them, and that I've been doing grants longer than them. Also: I did not put equipment in this proposal, because I didn't think I needed any. Now, I learn that one always wants to put an equipment budget line in, so that you can use it later.  There are other problems with that. But right now, I've got too many fires to put out to detail it for you. But I will.


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More thoughts on getting funded - Nature article

(by potnia theron) Dec 29 2017

Ok, Ok, I am letting go of what pissed me off from this article.

Here is another thing about which I have written before.

Talk to the Program Officer: Programme officers, also called programme directors, are NIH employees who shepherd grant applications through the system, from submission to award. Their role includes advising investigators by e-mail and on the phone — but not every scientist takes full advantage of this opportunity.

When I wrote about this in the past, or when DM wrote about this or datahound wrote about this (here and here and here and lots of other places, too), we got comments back that said: well, yes, but they never answered my phone call or email.

So firstly, the ways to do this. No one likes cold calls, ie, out of the blue from people they don't know. PO's are no exception. They usually have an admin person screening for them. A better strategy (and I have asked PO's about this) is to send an email. Yes, you are the generation that doesn't do email. But the PO is. Send a polite email. Use an appropriate subject line that includes the 5 word version of your proposal. "Discuss potential proposal on Bunny Hopping". Keep the email short:

I would like to discuss a proposal I am developing on Bunny Hopping. [insert one sentence summary of the proposal here]. I believe that it might fall within your portfolio. Is there a good time when we could discuss this on the phone?

If you have an abstract or SA developed, or even a para summary, you can attach it or paste it below. But if you make the PO wade through the whole summary before getting to "can we talk?", they may never make it there.

This of course assumes that you have bothered to read what is in the PO's portfolio. You can find this on the web. The NIH website has lots. Go to the IC you think is relevant. Go to the "extramural page". or just search on "program officers". It is absolutely fine to contact multiple PO's. They will not perceive you as cheating on them.

Now, if that doesn't get a response, try again in a couple of days to a week. Remember these guys are human beings. They have families and get to take vacations, and may even have more work than you do. Sometimes it takes a while.

If after multiple tries, they don't get back. Try another PO. Try the head of the PO's. They may have 40 of these emails, and it could be that yours is the least interesting to them. PO's also run the range of human beings: some are helpful, some take an interest and some are jerks. I've met all kinds in my life.

Finally, don't ever text a PO. Mostly their contacts are land lines, so it most likely won't work. But, texting is how their kids talk to them, not their PI's.

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Getting Funded -thoughts on the Nature Article

(by potnia theron) Dec 28 2017

There is a new piece up in Nature's N&V about getting funded. I'm irritated by the figure, which breaks the old/young distribution in a way that makes their point, but is not defensible on data analysis grounds (let's not even talk about breaking continuous distributions into discreet categories).

But there are some nice little gems tucked into the article.

Taking a modular budget, especially in light of the yearly budget-slimming cuts that the NIH applies to all awards, might hurt a young lab’s research. And the data suggest that it won’t improve the chances of winning a grant.

One of the things to keep in mind is that the budget, modular or not, is a minor, very minor part of the review, and technically not something that gets included in the scoring.

Separate out the scope of the work from the budget requested to do the work. Scope is a legitimate criterion: can the PI do the work proposed? Is it reasonable for the time requested? One of the big flaws I see is that a young PI is proposing to do a 30 year study, and not a 5 year one. But the money? Unless you are asking for Millions a year and a 20M$ overall budget, don't sweat this. Ask for what you need to do the research.

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