Sunday, December 02, 2007

Being a good citizen.

As pointed out by an alert reader, drugmonkey wants to keep talking about this point on a previous post about how/whether we can change the way science in the US is currently broken. Oops, I mean, whether we should have a say in fixing it.

One of the points raised was regarding this NIH RFI we discussed a while back.

I just want to point out again that when the NIH puts out an RFI, it's not advertised to everyone. Grad students don't hear about it, and neither do most postdocs.

Most of the PIs I know can't keep up with their email to save their lives, much less forward these things along to their lab members. They might be getting awards for being great citizens, but nobody seems to notice or care that they aren't doing anything to train their lab members or invite them into the scientific community.

I think this is why NIH got so few responses, and why everyone's vote doesn't count equally. It's designed to solicit input from a limited audience for a reason.

I think the system works really well right now to squash input from the youngest members. They don't want us getting distracted from our assigned slave labor. If we stopped to look around, they'd be in big trouble.

No, the system works really well to ensure that most grad students and postdocs are dog-paddling just to keep their heads above water. They're not sitting around saying,

"Gee, how can I make the system better? What can I do?!"

They're just trying to survive. They don't have enough energy or time to do more than that.

And most people's reaction to hardship is not to say,

"Let's fix this for future generations!"

The most common trend in science right now is actually:

"Get me the fuck outta here! Where's the door?!"

So they will do whatever they have to do to get out. That usually means keeping your head down and your shoulder to the grindstone.

I saw the same thing in school. All schools have to be reviewed every few years to maintain their accreditation, and mine was no exception. But the way they handled it was classic politics in action. Those of us who had, ahem, shall we say suggestions, were carefully hidden away (read: prohibited from talking) when the reviewers were present. They didn't want a real review. They just wanted to pass the requirements.

NIH does the same thing, just like the mainstream media, and the Bush administration, and any large group with power that doesn't want the naysayers to... have their say.

The same thing happened with Nature's stealth attempt at having an open access journal of their own. I personally think they did this on purpose. They didn't advertise it, and then they used their paltry turnout as evidence that open access will undoubtedly fail.

Similarly, some of these open access journals are purportedly less political/stratified than the traditional money making machines of commercial scientific publishing. But all you have to do is look at the publications fees to see that's not exactly true. Sure, they say they'll waive it if you're broke, but that's not exactly fair, either, since it means the rich labs are overpaying to support the poor ones.

I've written about this a lot, but I'll say it again: everything in science in the US is a hierarchy right now. And maybe it always will be.

Case in point: I get certain readers because I've declared that I'm a postdoc, and that I'm female.

I also get certain types of comments because of that.

Sometimes PIs come on here and tell me I'm wrong and what could I possibly know. Sometimes they're actually encouraging, but just like in my real life, that's the exception rather than the rule.

I get a handful of female grad students asking for advice, and even - oh, heartwarmingly! - stopping back in to say things have gotten better for them.

And I get a fair number of would-be peers, mostly green, male postdocs who come from a different caste of lab wondering why I'm so stupid that I didn't join a lab with infinite money, like they did.

Newsflash: even rich labs occasionally go through dry spells!

I might be complaining about being poor now, but I'm well aware that I'm more equipped to deal with limited resources than any of these people whose solution to everything is "switch labs and join a rich one."

But hey, I try to deal with my problems by a) venting on my blog and b) taking the long view.

What doesn't break me or make me stronger makes for interesting blog fodder.

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6 Comments:

At 2:56 AM, Blogger Matt Hodgkinson said...

The same thing happened with Nature's stealth attempt at having an open access journal of their own. I personally think they did this on purpose. They didn't advertise it, and then they used their paltry turnout as evidence that open access will undoubtedly fail.

Although I work for BioMed Central and not NPG, I feel that I need to correct this. Nature's experiment last year was in a type of add-on community peer review, not in open access. NPG, along with EMBO, has launched a full open access journal called Molecular Systems Biology, and they're certainly taking it seriously.

 
At 11:23 AM, Anonymous Noah Gray said...

And I get a fair number of would-be peers, mostly green, male postdocs who come from a different caste of lab wondering why I'm so stupid that I didn't join a lab with infinite money, like they did...I might be complaining about being poor now, but I'm well aware that I'm more equipped to deal with limited resources than any of these people whose solution to everything is "switch labs and join a rich one."

Having a chip on your shoulder will only get you so far, no matter whom you think has a narrow-minded view of the world.

A hierarchy is involved in all entities functioning within a capitalist-influenced, liberal democracy. Only the young and naive believe that science would be any different (as I did before starting grad school). That hierarchy is unlikely to disappear, but its demographics could shift. There are now more opportunities for underrepresented groups (female and minorities) to establish themselves in faculty positions and collect a larger proportion of grant money. Although the pace of change is slow, it is change nonetheless.

Focusing just on gender, the number of female grad students in the biological sciences and engineering in the US has gone from ~ 16,000 (in 1979) to over 45,000 (in 2005). During that same period of time, the number of male graduate students has gone from ~ 29,000 (in 1979) to ~31,000 (in 2005). Simply using statistics, there should be (and there is) an increased representation of females in science now, raising the prospects for the future even higher. As the older (male) guard retires/dies, they will have to be replaced with somebody. It might as well be women. With more female candidates and an inevitable loosening of the "Old Boys' Club" spirit (although rampant, it is dying out a lot faster in science than in the business world...) there will be more female faculty than ever before.

Despite these trends, and even with an increase in female representation at or near the top of the hierarchy, this stratified structure will still remain, albeit more diversified. If you ultimately get your faculty position, this hierarchy will become even more complicated and treacherous. Think about that the next time you are criticizing your PI (or any PI, for that matter), since it is entirely possible that she/he has more on her/his mind (and is considering those other things when making decisions on spending, etc...) than simply your small wedge of the pie that makes up her/his research program. With almost all post-docs and graduate students on track to eventually leave the lab, the PI must consider what is in the best interests of the research program (ideally while trying to help the post-doc/student as well) if the lab is to ultimately survive in the long-term.

I propose that you consider dropping the anonymity. What does it truly provide you except for another excuse with which to blog that others don't take your ideas seriously? It is the only way to receive respect for your interesting words as someone other than "YoungFemaleScientist.” You need to take credit for brilliant ideas to reap the benefits that they may bring. You said yourself that females flock to your blog looking for advice and support. It is therefore time to take the next step as their role model and demonstrate that you are strong enough to take on the establishment and win. It is entirely possible that John Q. Jackass simply got lucky, but he was willing to put himself and his ideas out there for others to tear down or appreciate. Well, despite his ignorance of scientific brilliance, his boldness seems to have paid off by those higher up in the hierarchy.

I'm happy to discuss this further, so feel free to contact me. My name is listed below.

 
At 11:27 AM, Anonymous CC said...

I just want to point out again that when the NIH puts out an RFI, it's not advertised to everyone. Grad students don't hear about it, and neither do most postdocs.

That's true, but in general I'm amazed at how uninterested scientists at every level are in the political/economic structure of the "industry" they're in. Engineering Science is one of the most interesting, informative discussions of science policy around and it gets basically zero traffic relative to nonentities foaming at the mouth about creationism. Even if no one will listen to you (and of course you're right that no one at NIH cares what a postdoc thinks), one can at least know what's going on!

I completely concur with one of your anonymous posters a couple of posts ago -- NIH got this huge pile of additional money from the Clinton and Bush administrations, and proceeded to use it to make the existing system even worse. And there's not a shred of outrage, or even of criticism, from the people who are most affected. Most of them are so clueless they'll tell you that Bush has been cutting the NIH budget since he took office.

 
At 2:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Similarly, some of these open access journals are purportedly less political/stratified than the traditional money making machines of commercial scientific publishing. But all you have to do is look at the publications fees to see that's not exactly true."

Publication Costs:
Minimal salary and benefits for people/ years:
$100,000-$200,000

Cost of reagents:
$25,000

User fees on core equipment:
$5,000

"publication fee" or the $$ a journal charges to publish your paper:
$1,000-$4,000 depending on the journal.

I'm not great at math, but it seems to me that anyone who can afford to write the paper can afford to publish it.

The rest of your post is too inane for comment.

 
At 2:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I just want to point out again that when the NIH puts out an RFI, it's not advertised to everyone. Grad students don't hear about it, and neither do most postdocs."

If it matters to you that you receive RFIs, RFAs, PAs etc, I suggest you either subscribe to the NIH Guide Listserv:
http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/listserv.htm

Or the RSS feeds:
http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rss_info.htm

I read them when I was a grad student. Everyone in science should, as they provide an introduction to what is happening at the NIH.

 
At 10:50 PM, Blogger Bill Hooker said...

I just want to point out again that when the NIH puts out an RFI, it's not advertised to everyone. Grad students don't hear about it, and neither do most postdocs.

This might help:

http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/WeeklyIndex.cfm

Has an RSS feed too.

 

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