Sunday, January 24, 2010

On the latest NIH soft-money kerfuffle

The commenter who writes as "lou dobbs" sent this link to a post Drugmonkey wrote about some things said by Francis Collins in an interview.

Basically, the relevance to postdocs is this quote:

But Dr. Collins said he was looking more at universities themselves, saying that the age bias actually originates with institutions that don't allow their younger researchers to apply for grants.

At first, I thought I couldn't get riled up about this, I'm tired, whatever.

....And then I started writing.

In short, I call bullshit. Nothing is going to change until the funding agencies admit that they have to take the reins.

1. Universities won't let younger researchers apply for grants.

TRUE. But they blame the NIH guidelines, the cost to cover salaries and benefits, and lack of lab space.

2. Faculty won't help younger researchers apply for transition grants, much less allow them to apply for their own funding.

TRUE. They claim the low rates of funding make it barely worth the time it takes for a younger researcher to write the grant, since that is time they can't spend doing the faculty member's already-funded projects. They also refuse to share their lab space to support a younger researcher setting up her/his own project on a bench in their lab.

3. NIH encourages younger researchers to independently apply for independent funding.

BULLSHIT. NIH guidelines match university guidelines. They require certain types of appointments, and they require that the university guarantees "support".

What this means in practice is that universities effectively ban postdocs from applying for funding, because they can't guarantee support to everyone whether or not you get the grant. It's just not practical.

NIH continues to reinforce the catch-22: you can't get the job title without the funding, and you can't get the funding without the job title.

It all seems backwards to me. Seems to me that the university should be allowed to guarantee resources IF AND ONLY IF the grant is awarded. Then the university isn't risking anything.


4. NSF is different, they allow younger research to independently apply for independent funding.

BULLSHIT. NSF has the same rules. They use the same university guidelines requiring appointments and resources.

5. This is true for everyone, so it's fair.

BULLSHIT. What really sticks in my knickers is that MDs can be "independent" a lot sooner, despite having MUCH less research experience.

They're allowed to apply for their own funding, because their salaries will be covered by clinical work whether or not they get the grant.

Does that make sense from a business perspective, if universities are companies?


Does it make sense in terms of research qualifications or potential for progress?


I'm not sure where Francis Collins thinks universities are supposed to get the money to pay PhD researchers' salaries, if not from research grants.

We don't see patients whose health insurance pays a fee. We don't sell a product that is available right now - that's the nature of basic research. Which everyonesays they know is important, except they certainly don't treat us that way.

Meanwhile, we're supposed to believe that it's some amazing privilege to work as overeducated postdoc slaves with no guarantee of future employment past a handful of years.

And families don't want to pay more for college tuition. There's more and more rumbling about online education and the end of the university as we know it.

Personally, I think science has been going to hell in a handbasket for a while. I wonder if Francis Collins isn't just helping to speed the process. Maybe these genome project type d00ds just want all research to be done in private Institutes? This article certainly seemed to imply that NIH wishes universities would be more like the Whitehead.

Lately I do wonder if we shouldn't separate undergraduate education from research centers. It seems nearly impossible to be equally good at teaching and research. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the two aren't mutually exclusive.

But I somehow doubt that would solve our funding issues. Unless it's actually the case that the bigger the university, the more money they waste?

....Yeah, I think that's probably true. In myriad ways.

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At 9:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really hate most of the writing on this blog, but I never let a difference of opinion come between me and a fellow scientist's views on my RSS feed.
However, this post is outstanding and nails it on this HUGE problem that is turning science into a cesspool of discontent.
I don't want to be around this imploding field anymore (I'm in chemistry, think mergers...). My tanks of idealism, denial, love, patience and ego have ran out. For those with bigger tanks, good luck.
Science is one of the best things ever to have happened. However, unless people have infinite optimism or are content on being a serf of science, you've been warned.
Undergraduates and parents are catching on to the crappiness of science education. Also, Americans are getting taxed to the point of discontent (Tea Party?), biotechs are outsourcing and the list goes on.
Unless scientists change the way they operate and are funded, YFS will be condemned to write disgruntled, paranoid blog posts for eternity (or until she quits science) and America will continue on its path toward intelligent design.

At 2:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This topic riles me up too, so much you can't imagine. (or maybe you can.)

You hit the nail on the head when you said "NIH continues to reinforce the catch-22: you can't get the job title without the funding, and you can't get the funding without the job title. "

And that NSF does the same. my research is not applicable to NIH (it is to NSF). But as a long-time postdoc I've been banging my head against this wall for years: no one will hire me or commit any resources to me unless I have a funding track record*. Yet I keep getting denied for funding unless I have the job title already and university commitment. Each side denies that the other is saying what they are saying.

* Yet somehow I see other people manage to get positions without having even TRIED to procure funding, based solely on their publication record. Yet my publication record is never enough to get me the job even though it's objectively better than that of many people who have since gotten their positions. This is the other issue of "who you know" is how you get the job. And if you don't know the right people - like me - then you need to have bring funding, but you can't get funding unless you already have the job title. WTF?!

At 8:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone who is a soon-to-be soft money PI, I have to somewhat disagree with the blanket statement 1. The NIH guidelines do not categorically require any particular appointment. If you are not tenure-track, you do need a letter of support from the department that states you are 'PI-eligible' (although they don't say that anywhere) and that the department supports your bid for funding with a promise of space (office and/or lab) and use of facilities. This is not difficult if you have a TT faculty mentor willing to push this for you (point 2). For the department to give that kind of support, yes, you probably should be beyond a 'postdoc', and ask for a Research Faculty position. Here, the university policy is to do this after 6 years. If you have 6 years of postdoc experience and your university won't promote you, that's a problem with your university/department/mentor; it's not the case all over, and not the NIH.

For reference see PA-07-070 under Eligibility:
Eligible Project Directors/Principal Investigators (PDs/PIs). Individuals with the skills, knowledge, and resources necessary to carry out the proposed research are invited to work with their institution/organization to develop an application for support.

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Genomic Repairman said...

Looking for the head of the nail. Oh wait, you smacked the shit out of it! There are a lot of PI's who got out of the mentoring business long ago. They aren't grooming their trainees for possible PI'dom. They are working their ass to the bone and tell them to kick rocks once their traineeship is over. Luckily I have one of the few PI's who is trying to develop his folks into independent researchers.

And what's up with this bullshit where an MD does a quick residency and easily establishes their own lab after ~8 years of training (med school + residency) while most postdocs (5-6 years of grad school and ~5 years in the postdoc hamsterwheel) are left scrapping for whatever left overs are there. Not to mention our medically trained colleagues are more likely to commit research misconduct than us do to the financial incentives given to them by companies that they work with.

In our current research landscape, I literally must be freaking nuts to be head down the rails on a dead end track where only minor percentage of postdocs end up as PI's.

At 11:33 AM, Blogger Foreign and Female in Science said...

@ Anon 8:21AM

After 6 yrs of postdoc? I wonder if you are hearing yourself. That is 10-12 years after you started graduate school, you may hope to apply for your first grant? And in the mean time you are supposed to keep optimistic and keep slaving away at someone else's project? this is inhumane.

I often do find Ms. PhD's comments paranoid and offensive. Especially the ones about foreign scientist willing to put up with crap.

We don't. I don't want to be in my late 30s or my 40s when I can start exploring my ideas. By that point my brain would not be nearly as flexible enough as it is now. Mathematicians know it -- that is why they encourage good work early on with the Field's medal (for achievement by under 30 yrs old people).

When I interviewed for my current postdoc position we talked long and hard how I do not know about paperclips. My specialty is push pins. And I'd like to spend 15% of my time working on pushpins. My CV shows that with my adviser I co-wrote 5 NSF proposals and one of them got partially funded. Why did they fail to mention that the college explicitly PROHIBITS postdocs from writing grants?

I think by 15% they meant I can spend one or two weekends a month working on my pushpins. I am not amused.

At 9:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon@8:21AM :is is not difficult if you have a TT faculty mentor willing to push this for you (point 2).

And this is the hurdle which is getting a faculty "mentor" to actually push anything for you. Most faculty have a vested interested in keeping you as a serf for them rather than helping you to advance in your career (because then they have lost a highly skilled serf). So the solution is to try to make it on your own without a faculty "mentor"'s backing. And then you run into the problem of no institutional commitment unless you have funding, and no funding unless you have institutional commitment.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Amy said...

This is beyond frustrating. A PI who won't dedicate some space and resources to their postdoc shouldn't even bother having one, in my opinion. Part of a PI's job SHOULD be to educate the next generation of scientists, which means encouraging independent research, rather than simply passing down projects for the postdoc to carry out with little intellectual investment (although some of this should be expected, at least at the beginning of the postdoc appointment, while the postdoc gets a handle on the techniques and literature).

A bit of my personal history: I am a fourth year postdoc. I have NEVER been paid as a postdoc. I actually volunteered for the first couple months, and since then, I have earned an hourly wage that amounts to less than what I earned as a graduate student. I have taught 6 courses to supplement my income. I have supervised Independent Study students for no compensation. I have written a couple of grants, the first of which was blasted primarily because my PI did not (at the time) have the monetary resources that NIH deemed acceptable. The 2nd grant is about to go out the door, and I do not have high hopes. My PI is supportive in terms of giving me guidance and letting me pursue my own research. The problem is that he simply doesn't have the money to fund me better. The primary reason I took this less than stellar postdoc appt is b/c of my husband's work, which placed a major geographic constraint on my postdoc search.

It is difficult to feel that your work (or ideas) have any value when you are not compensated adequately for them. Had I known about the realities of research funding when I started graduate school, and what a struggle I would be facing, I never would have taken that path. For the past 2 years, I have been struggling with myself over what to do next. It's enormously sad to think about walking away from it all after all of the work and sacrifice, but I just don't know how much longer I can hold out. My peers in other fields are now well-established and well-compensated, and are enjoying their lives. I want to enjoy my life too, and as reluctant as I am to do this, I think that I would feel relief if I just walked away from it all. I need to change what I am doing---adapt my skills for industry, or somehow find another, more fulfilling career path. I am tired of feeling like my work doesn't matter.

At 3:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This summarises the problems of my entire 15 year research 'career' and has left me in a well paid and relatively secure but limited and increadily dull research management job. I've come up with ideas, established collaborations, done work and wrote funded grants for myself but all under other PIs names. No permanent position?? Sorry you can't apply. Too old for junior fellowships and too junior for senior fellowships. I've published plenty and advanced other peoples careers but not got a jot in terms of progression because I've never directly controlled the resource. It's a crock of shit. I'm bitter, smouldering with resentment but stuck becuase of family committments.

My advise to all the young post graduates and final year Ph.D.s is just get out. Don't be swayed by interest in a project or the lure of doing interesting work. Lumbering from one poorly paid contract to another on the vague promise or hope that it will eventually come good is not a career. It's just a sucession of jobs.

I don't know what the answer is but it requires a dramatic overhaul from the top down - the waste and leakage of talent is appalling and if any other industry leaked people in the same way becuase of funding and salary structure there would be outcry.

At 12:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have to agree with previous Anon. It is the university that decides.
Here is out policy on who can submit:
• full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty
• research support staff with an adjunct faculty appointment
• full-time nontenure track faculty with the title of Research Assistant/Associate/Professor, Lecturer, or Instructor; Visiting Assistant/Associate/Professors are eligible if their appointments will continue through the first requested external award year

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 9:28 - Thanks, I guess.

Anon 2:43 - Yes, the dependence on the publishing-in-certain-journals nonsense has to stop. Maybe we can hope that the new iPad and latest Amazon requirements will help drive the end of all publishing houses... eventually???

Anon 8:21 - In practice, the official policy guidelines are sort of irrelevant.

I was thinking about applying for an R21 and/or taking one of these 2-year "adjunct" type positions where I could be eligible to apply for "independent" funding.

But then I heard that it's generally LOOKED DOWN UPON by NIH study sections if you're in those sorts of positions, and that this makes you MUCH less likely to get the money from those kinds of job titles (again, sometimes lumped under "insufficient institutional commitment").

Eligibility on paper is NOT the same as eligibility in practice.

BTW, If you think all postdocs have a PI who is willing to push for you, you haven't been reading this blog or the comments very carefully.

GR - yes, we are freaking nuts.

FS - I think you're wrong about assuming that all foreign scientists are the same. I never said that.

Let me tell you a little story. Right this minute, I can name 10 Chinese postdocs who would all tell you that the shit they put up with here is nothing compared to what it would be like to go back to China.

I see their point, although I can't even imagine what their lives have been like up to now.

But I became concerned when I learned that at least three of those ten have deliberately faked data. They guessed correctly what the PI wanted to see, and made sure that was how the data looked, even though the results were not reflective of reality.

I guess it's hard for me to really understand the kind of pressure some foreign scientists are under. When my PI has asked me to do some unethical things - more than once, I might add - I said no. This didn't earn me any points, but at least I can live with myself.

Still, I'm very aware that I have the luxury of knowing I can always quit this career if it comes to that, and although I do worry about being unemployed, I don't have to worry about being deported.

And I recognize that, independent of where we come from, everyone is different. I'm the personality type who values ethics and honest results very highly. Some people just don't see what's so bad about shortcuts and clever ways of making the data fit the model you want. But I think those tendencies to take shortcuts and rationalize them are more likely to take over when postdocs feel desperate. The reasons to stay in this country are life-of-death for some. It doesn't get more desperate than that.

Your story about the 15% is kind of funny the way you told it. I fully understand why you are not amused. You did the right thing by trying to negotiate for 15% (I am guessing that is what you did, although you didn't say so explicitly?).

Anon 9:23, Yes, that was what I was trying to say. The system has EXTREMELY FEW mechanisms that would let a postdoc "make it on your own".

Amy, I'm glad you wrote this and that you're feeling better. This is much more common than anyone wants to admit. The tendency in this country is to medicate, instead of just saying "Gosh, it's really simple. Maybe your job is making you sick."

Anon 3:38, The incredibly dull research job is really a nightmare concept to me.

I like what you wrote, but for the love of god please use a spellchecker next time.

Anon 12:48, see my response above.

At 5:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why spend the best years of your life toiling away for the slight hope of an academic post that less than 5% of you will get? Just say no.

To those of you unhappy students still in a PhD program - bail with with a MS. Companies will fight over you. A good MS with 5+ years of experience can make 80-100k. Who cares about crap after that? A MS is underrated because you have to quit to get it - but this is the degree industry likes best.

To those of you chasing the independent PI dream, good luck.

Ok, I'm done rambling.

At 11:16 PM, Anonymous PhD Research Paper said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

At 1:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 2:43 - Yes, the dependence on the publishing-in-certain-journals nonsense has to stop. Maybe we can hope that the new iPad and latest Amazon requirements will help drive the end of all publishing houses... eventually???

hi, I'm the Anon2:43 again. Actually what I meant about other people being hired on their publication record is even worse than this. what I mean is that I am the one who has published in top tier journals and yet this is not enough to get me a job. Yet I see other people get jobs (without having even lifted a finger to try the grant chasing game) based on their publications which are in much lower ranked journals. furthermore, I have quantitative more publications, AND in higher ranked journals. So why are other people's mediocrity sufficient to get them jobs, whereas my objectively and quantitative greater achievements do not get me the job?? Answer: it's who you know, somehow that makes up for mediocrity and lack of merit (and even lack of competence too).

At 7:19 AM, Blogger Helen Huntingdon said...

Oi. On waste and large institutions, hell yes. The accounting system at mine is a resource black hole.

The faculty in my department got together and collectively screamed at the department head. He got together with the other department heads and they screamed en masse at the dean. The deans got together and held several screaming matches at the provosts and president.

The provosts and president responded curtly that there is no problem. Quit whining already.

At 11:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi YFS-- It's me, Anon 10:29 from a few weeks ago--the one who was upset about leaving science for a position to be with my SO. Nothing has changed, although I have realized that science does mean much more to me than I realized when I first started grad school, or even my postdoc. Somehow, the experience has made me realize how much I want to fight and stay active in my field. While I am going to try and see how things go, there is a part of me that feels that I will be back in full force to continue what I left behind.

Oh, and I totally know about the MD to faculty situation. I am almost at the point of reconsidering whether or not I might go back for it, even though I am rather old to be doing that at this stage. I think that it would only help me to write good grants and relate my work (which is very clinically related, but still basic research in nature) to relevant RFAs. I have not made peace with stepping away, but being able to at least see the other side is a useful opportunity, either way.

At 5:32 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 5:50 is right. Too bad industry isn't in such great shape right now- once upon a time, they could have hired everyone out of grad school and away from the PhD track.

PhD Research Paper - AGREED.

Anon 2:43 again,

That's relatively unusual. My advice would be to do some sleuthing about your recommendation letters? Have you have been associated with PIs whom nobody likes or trusts? Or are there people out there who just hate you? Have you burned bridges?

Or do people doubt

a) the veracity of your publications (some people actually have an anti-top-tier bias, because in some fields many of the top tier publications actually belong the Journal of Irreproducible Results)

b) whether you are independent enough?

Being unknown is not by itself so bad.

The only other piece at advice that might help if you feel trapped in obscurity - learn how to give great talks, and pay for yourself to attend a few big meetings if your PI won't. The strength of your top-tier pubs should get you chances to speak; a reputation for giving a great talk will get you interviews (note that they will ask your PI if you are a good choice for a platform presentation).

Then you just have to show up and not be an asshole. Right? At least, that's what I've heard has worked for other people.

Helen, that's just depressing. And it sounds really corrupt, like the provosts and president don't want to be held accountable for all the perks they're hiding??

Anon10:29 from a few weeks ago-

Glad to hear you are feeling better.

I know a few people who went back for an MD later in life - not many who went back after grad school, and even fewer who went back after postdoc (for any length of time).

But if you think you'd be up for the work, debt, and long hours, I'd say go for it. You can always drop out if it sucks, right? But the one thing I've heard about med school is that once you get in, they really want to help you get through and graduate (unlike some other professions!).

Good luck with whatever you choose. I'm sure having an MD would only help if you have the energy for that sort of undertaking. Personally, I've had more than enough school, exams and grades to last me several lifetimes!

At 10:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are exactly right. I was perfectly qualified to apply for a career development award till it catered to my mentor's research, the moment i said I had a different reasearch idea, she flipped out, telling me I was'nt good enough to be an independent PI, everytime I would write up a proposal she would shoot it down.


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