Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dear NIH,

It is your party line that postdocs do not write RO1s.

This is completely false, and you must know it. However, no actions have been taken to officially recognize or correct the problem.

I am writing today to say that several times in the last month or so, I have heard this advice given to postdocs as if it is a respectable way to stay employed:

Offer to write an R01 in some PI's name, and in exchange if it gets funded, they will pay you off that R01.

But we have fellowships, you say? Let's be honest here. NRSA and K mechanisms are widely and inaccurately advertised. Most postdocs are not eligible for them, and they are in no case sufficient to cover the entire span of postdoctoral experience.

Instead, increasingly many postdocs are buying into this completely unethical approach as a way to continue doing science when their attempts at getting fellowships have failed, or when their fellowships have run out before they achieve job security.

What none of these often desperate postdocs seem to understand is that their participation in these kinds of schemes is not a guarantee of job security or advancement.

If anything, it undermines the whole concept of independent research in this country.

Furthermore, it strongly suggests that many PIs who are currently running labs perhaps do not fit their job description, and have no qualms about breaching ethics to continue the charade that they can fulfill their responsibilities.

And, these same PIs are encouraging others to pursue unethical behavior that fundamentally undermines what still passes for being a "system" of funding scientific research based on "merit".

Perhaps most importantly, it is generally not recognized that this is also evidence that postdocs do not need more "training".

In fact, in some ways it is the best evidence that postdocs are already independent enough to write entire R01s. It calls into question all the arbitrary distinctions between postdocs and junior PIs.

It demonstrates, in fact, that neither ability nor achievement earn advancement in this "system", since these ghost-author postdocs cannot list these R01s as their own achievements and instead they are credited to their PI's account!

Even in the cases where they are successful at getting funded, these postdoc ghost-authors remain vastly underpaid and abused, as they serve out their time being paid by these R01s.

And the cycle will perpetuate itself, because the more postdocs agree to do this, the more it will become expected.

Perhaps most frightening is the twisted thinking that follows from this kind of reward system. Some of these postdocs actually believe that their ideas are only reviewed fairly when they propose them under their PIs name, rather than their own.

In fact, I'm sure you know that the truth is probably the opposite, that bad ideas are seen for what they are when proposed by a junior person, but taken on faith when proposed by someone with an "established track record".

Do you understand what that shows about the peer review system? Do you understand what this kind of thinking does to our future scientists, who should be objective about their work and whose work should be reviewed objectively?

NIH, you must change your policies on who can write grants and require promotions to go along with them. You must overhaul current granting mechanisms. You must work with universities to develop reasonable job titles and advancement policies for scientists in this country, and you must to enforce them at the university and funding award levels.



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At 4:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

damn straight sister.

Every postdoc should sign up to be a grant reviewer. it's enlightening to see how crappy and great some of the proposals are submitted by big cheese PI but they are really written by postdocs (who are co-PI or listed as collaborator). The crappy ones are written by at best mediocre postdocs and the great ones are written by superstars - but they are all under big cheese PI who gets the cred.

It's really not hard to figure out who did the writing on some of them and it's easy to tell when the writing style switches within the pages if it's a bad cut-and-paste paragraphs job.

The grants I've reviewed from big cheeses were reviewed as I would any other submitter. And I really do wonder what the hell big cheeses are even good for, other than space. physical lab space. and it's a waste of space in many cases.

My big pet peeve is adding several big cheeses to a project to get it through because THE IDEAS ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH. it's the names on the first page that matter... so they think. Just wait until I review their crap.

At 4:59 PM, Blogger madscientist said...

I have to say that you are showing a very one-sided view-point here.

While I don't work in the NIH field, the university that I do work at does not allow Post Docs to be PIs of proposals. I don't agree with this policy, but it is what it is.

Here is how life works - you learn by doing. When you are a grad student, you write papers. Your adviser reads those papers and gives you comments. You make changes, your adviser gives you more comments. Repeat until every one is happy with the paper. Then, repeat paper writing process until the graduate student is able to basically write a pretty ok paper on their own. Graduate student graduates. Then becomes a post doc.

Writing a proposal is not the same as writing a paper. It may seem that way, and many people may treat it that way, but it is not the same thing. Therefore, post docs need to learn how to do this. How do you learn? By doing. You write a proposal. "Your PI" (I hate this term - does the postdoc own the PI? Does the PI own the postdoc? I surely hope not.) then edits the proposal and suggests changes. If the PI is worth their salt, they will give valuable suggestions to the postdoc. Now, if it were me as the PI in question, I would state in the proposal that the post doc in question will be made an assistant research scientists when this grant is funded. Especially if the post doc were actually writing the grant. If this arrangement weren't made, I would suggest that the post doc refuse to write the grant. They have no motivation to actually do it, without this assurance.

Let's look at some alternatives. You (the post doc) refuse to write the grant. That is fine. When the funding runs out, someone has to go. Who will that person be? That, I am afraid, are the facts of life. Without the funding, the budget goes down. Sometimes this is taken care of by graduate students finishing. Sometimes a post doc is finishing. Sometimes the money is crucial for the survival of the group. I would home that the PI would care about the funding a lot, then.

Another alternative is that you have a real heart to heart with "your PI" and express the fact that you would (a) like to learn how to write a grant, but (b) you feel like you need more job security, so you would like to be included at a higher level in the grant.

Here is another trick. Since you are being asked to write grants anyways, and you can't be PI on them, what is to stop you from writing a grant with someone that you would rather work for? While you are at your next conference (or even tomorrow - get on the phone!) talk to someone that you admire and express that you would very much be interested in working with them. Express that you have some grant writing experience and that you would be happy to help them write a grant for your funding. That would express to them that you are an extremely motivated person that is willing to go the distance to do what you would like to do.

I have no idea if you guys do "white-papers" - which are a few pages that simply describe what you would like to do. Write up a white-paper and send it our to a few people that you consider good in your field. If you write it well (clear and concise!) and it is an interesting idea, they may be motivated to write a proposal with you and hire you on as an assistant research scientist.

One problem with this method is that you don't want to share too many details, since you seem like a very un-trusting person (and you may be very right to be un-trusting). So, it may be better to do this with a phone conversation, where details of plans are not fully discussed.

Good luck!

At 6:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought you were going to write about the other kind of postdoc-authored RO1' the exceptions where you write one 1. as a postdoc with the promise from dept. chair (done in the form of a letter included with the grant) to give a promotion to Asst. Professor if the grant is awarded, or 2. As an exception, endorsed by chair.

I disagree with many of your posts, but with this I agree 100%. It is completely unethical.

At 8:18 PM, Anonymous Pain Man said...

I think independence is an illusion, anyway.

The NIH is in the business of risk management. I guess I would argue that just because I can write an R01 for my (very prestigious) PI, that doesn't make me functionally independent. It means I can write grants that get funded using a system that has been rewarded in the past (I'm thinking of starting a service). But I don't have nearly enough political capital to run the operation he has. I can't attract talent, I can't influence reviewers, etc...I still need to further reduce my risk in the eyes of the NIH and my field. I think that's the bottom-line job of today's postdoc. Not very romantic, but we do have to put food on the table.

The quid pro quo becomes: PI harnesses the talent of his postdocs, postdocs then use PI's name to gain "independent" position. The assumption is that it's still somewhat of a meritocratic process. But what's meritorious is in the eye of the beholder. Postdocs are rank-ordered and pigeon-holed very early on. PIs squeeze as much juice out of each postdoc where they can. This one is a technical genius but can't communicate effectively, that one is suave but lazy. The PI thinks "Fine, I can work with these. They're useful each in their own way." Finally, certain postdocs rise to the top, the well-rounded, confident ones without any rough edges. The safe ones. Low risk. Smooth stones. These are promoted as progeny. They then transition from good writers/technicians/communicators to "independent". They're called independent because they have earned the confidence of the system, to become a part of the system. As such, are they really to be called "independent"?

I think people seeking to become independent are going to be disappointed in today's scientific research. Independent researchers usually have to fund their own research.

At 9:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I can see your point, I don't really see why postdocs can't use it as their own achievement. Maybe it doesn't go under grants/fellowship obtained, but surely you can list it on your CV somewhere as "cowrote an R01 grant which got fundend". How can that possibly not work in your advantage at all?

At 10:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The current system works very well for PIs because they basically exploit postdocs and get the postdocs to do their work for them (on top of the postdocs' other work of doing the actual hands-on science that generates results for papers and future grants).

It's true that teams need to be managed so someone has to be the group manager so this is the job of the PI. However, in most other venues we see that along with the privilege of hogging the credit for the team's success, the leader also runs the risk of getting fired or taking all the blame for the team's failures. But this doesn't happen in academia. instead, here the PI gets all the credit when a postdoc writes a winning grant for them. yet if the grant doesn't get funded the postdocs is the one out of a job while the PI just suffers a disappointment or temporary setback.

Just look over at the blogs written by PIs that are updated every day. The blog called Drugmonkey comes to mind. How do these PIs have the time to blog every single frickin day - let alone keep up with other people's blogs enough to comment on them or write posts about other people's posts - if their jobs are supposedly so difficult and burdensome? Simple - their postdocs are the ones doing all the work, thus freeing up the PIs to spend their days blogging about how well the system works for them.

At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I call BS. You really have a knack for painting all PIs with the same dirty brush, and as a PI who cares about people in their lab, I'm tired of you giving people the wrong impression of academic scientists in general. While I'm sure that there do exist PIs who are exploitive of their personnel (because I've been around them), I believe that these are outnumbered by people who are trying their best. With regard to the issue at hand (postdocs writing their PI's grants), I've been NIH funded for well over a decade with multiple grants, and I have written every damn word of these applications. If the postdocs in my lab are writing for any type of award, it's for their own fellowships. On top of that, I can vouch for the fact that most of my peer group in my department act the same way. If you have not had a good experience with your mentors, I'm sorry for you, but there are plenty of good mentors out there. I myself had wonderful mentors who encouraged my independence. Please stop the villification and do everything in your power to get yourself into a better lab group. Your bitterness is not of service to anyone.

At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

postdocs are modern time intellectual slaves. No body really pays attention to us and we accept the whole thing as it should be. It was nothing wrong in the 80's and 90's but now, postdocs are too many and too poor.

At 12:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Madscientist, your world seems very different from mine (and I suspect YFS' too). Maybe you are fortunate, or we are unfortunate in our experiences.

First, I have never heard of a PI offering to make a postdoc a staff-level type person if the grant that said postdoc conceptualizes and writes gets funded. Reason: staff level scientists cost more money than postdocs because they need to be paid higher salaries and have benefits. So this would mean a greater percentage of the grant will have to go to personnel salary, which is undesirable for many reasons. Thus the more likely scenario is that if a postdoc is even lucky enough to be written into their own grant, it is more likely to be still as a postdoc.

Second, I've appealed to every PI i've ever worked for concerning grant writing and job security and always been told flat out that there will be no higher level of job security if I bring in money for them or not. And indeed this has been true. I brought in money for one of my postdoc advisors (as in, I wrote the grant entirely from conception to actual writing and preliminary data generation, all he did was slap his name on it). The grant got funded and part of it even went toward the PI's summer salary. Yet I didn't get anymore job security or advancement opportunity (I'm no longer working there because my funding ran out and so I got kicked out of the lab). And since I wrote this grant under my PI's name, there's nothing to prove that I wrote it so it doesn't bring me any closer to career advancement. If I were to have writtena nother grant (under the PI's name) and it got funded, I would simply continue on as a postdoc at low salary and with no more job security than before so it's just as well that my funding ran out and I was forced to leave academia. That same PI told me if I want job security, then I need to "go out and get a real job but don't expect anything from me". As of now he's still taking credit for that grant I brought in for him (last I heard he got a new grant funded that was a continuation of mine, he copied most of my original grant and put in the data I got before I left, and now he has a new postdoc working on my project).

My experience is by no means unique, as most of my postdoc friends who have been involved in grant writing have experienced some variation on this theme.

Third, your comment on writing up white papers to other PIs in hoeps that they will take you under their wing, is I think potentially dangerous. if they like your idea enough to be willing to "collaborate" then what is to stop them from scooping you and submitting the proposal without you? (that has happened to a colleague of mine, and I've seen my postdoc advisor do it to other people).

your ideas are good but only if the PI is a decent and moral person to begin with. Maybe you are one such PI and you would do those things you suggested, but my experience and that of many of my peers is that many if not most PIs are not. I think the point of YFS' post is that because PIs are allowed and indeed rewarded for unethical behavior regarding exploitation of postdocs, therefore many if not most of them do it.

At 11:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in a similar position as you. I have postdoc funding now but it won't last forever. I need a grant to stay employed but I'm not eligible to write R01s or other postdoc grants (at least not through NIH). Nice catch 22 there.


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