Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Grab bag of atrocities & wonderment

Lots of stuff I've been meaning to write about. Yesterday I was overjoyed to see this fantastic post over at FSP about the concept of "selective sexism". This is when a guy seems to be okay with some women but when threatened by others, resorts to harassment tactics.

I was thrilled to see the FSP finally gets it, that a seemingly respectful young male postdoc (to her) could actually be a complete asshat to his peers (female postdocs). Of course, it's not clear that anyone is prepared to do the right thing in this situation, but I was glad to see FSP noticing the disparity and blogging about it.

This week I've mostly been catching up on some classic pieces in science journalism. One is this wonderful piece by Kendall Powell in Nature News.

The article points out, though understates, how much worse funding is now than it was 10 years ago (when I was in grad school). Funding back then was at the 32% level, which didn't seem so bad, if you really believed that about one-third of applications got funded back when I was struggling to get my PhD. It's now down to 21%.

To most non-scientists, that may sound like a 10% difference. But you could think of it as a 35% decrease, in the sense that those who would previously have been funded now won't be.

But it's a bit more complicated than that anyway, since the percentage points don't mean 32 out of 100 grants will be funded. It's not clear, but I think they're really citing the percentiles, which is a weighted ranking number based on past years and the distribution of all the grants this year.

Isn't that clever, how they hide the degree to which funding has become increasingly more competitive? It was never 1 in 3 to begin with, but they don't like you to know that when you're choosing your undergraduate science major!

Here is the paragraph everyone should read. If you're considering becoming a cancer researcher, if you're donating a dollar at your grocery store (as mine has been harassing me to do multiple times per unavoidable visit to buy food), this is how scientifically your money gets distributed [comments in brackets are my snide remarks]:

All of this puts immense pressure on the grant-review panels. [poor grant review panels!] Senior reviewers say that when the top one-third of proposals can be funded, the review process works well at identifying the best science. But when the success rate drops, they see the process start to fall apart. [BECAUSE IT'S NOT A VERY ROBUST SYSTEM TO BEGIN WITH.]

Let me pause here and emphasize this point before going on. How is this a great system when it works at 32% but FALLS APART at 21%? If this were a building, it would fall down.

But next comes my favorite part of the entire article:

Conversations turn nit-picky and negative, with reviewers looking for any excuse not to fund a project, rather than focusing on its merits. Reviewers say that they feel forced into making impossible choices between equally worthy proposals, especially when success rates are less than 20%. "That's in a range where you have lost discrimination," says Dick McIntosh, professor emeritus of cell biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "That's a situation where you are grading exam papers by throwing them down the stairs." The chairman of the ACS panel agrees. "Deciding between the top grants, I don't want to say it's arbitrary, but it's not really based on strong criteria," he says. "It's subtle things." [emphasis mine]

There are tons of other gems in this article, so you should absolutely read the whole thing. I applaud Kendall Powell for giving a fly-on-the-wall view of the grant review process. Although I have to admit, many of the subtleties would have been lost on me when I was in college or even grad school, because she mostly just reports observations without really spelling out what it all means.

The next to last paragraph includes advice from the ACS vice-chair(wo)man [I guess it's a Britishism to call everyone chairman regardless of gender?]:

She also says applicants should use their contacts to sniff out the personality of the panel and the nature of the competition.

Just read that sentence over a few more times.

Yeah, you idealistic types out there. I'm talking to you. It's not about the quality of your work.


Speaking of quality of work, I know some of you saw this story about the postdoc who sabotaged a labmate's cell cultures with alcohol.


I hate to say it, but this article actually made me feel better.

I had a couple of situations myself where people threw out my samples or reagents that I think might qualify.

Despite all this, there is little to prevent perpetrators re-entering science. In the United States, federal bodies that provide research funding have limited ability and inclination to take action in sabotage cases because they aren't interpreted as fitting the federal definition of research misconduct, which is limited to plagiarism, fabrication and falsification of research data.

I was deeply impressed, both by the grad student for pursuing the complaint, and the PI for listening to her and starting an investigation without first confronting the postdoc, which would have made the hidden camera approach impossible to pursue.

When it happened to me, I approached my PI (two different PIs, actually), and in both cases the PI confronted the person in question, alerting them and giving them a chance to defend themselves (and/or switch tactics).

The PI in this article did everything right, or this wouldn't have been resolved.

Here again, the entire article is worth reading, although many subtleties would have been lost on me when I was younger and less experienced, it includes some useful tidbits, especially if you might have missed earlier posts on these topics.

Daniele Fanelli at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who studies research misconduct, says that overtly malicious offences such as Bhrigu's are probably infrequent, but other forms of indecency and sabotage are likely to be more common. "A lot more would be the kind of thing you couldn't capture on camera," he says. Vindictive peer review, dishonest reference letters and withholding key aspects of protocols from colleagues or competitors can do just as much to derail a career or a research project as vandalizing experiments. These are just a few of the questionable practices that seem quite widespread in science, but are not technically considered misconduct. In a meta-analysis of misconduct surveys, published last year (D. Fanelli PLoS ONE 4, e5738; 2009), Fanelli found that up to one-third of scientists admit to offences that fall into this grey area, and up to 70% say that they have observed them.

[emphasis mine]

Now that Bhrigu is in India, there is little to prevent him from getting back into science. And even if he were in the United States, there wouldn't be much to stop him. The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, through its Office of Research Integrity, will sometimes bar an individual from receiving federal research funds for a time if they are found guilty of misconduct. But Bhigru probably won't face that prospect because his actions don't fit the federal definition of misconduct, a situation Ross finds strange. "All scientists will tell you that it's scientific misconduct because it's tampering with data," she says.

Still, more immediate concerns are keeping Ross busy. Bhrigu was in her lab for about a year, and everything he did will have to be repeated.

Perhaps the best part of the article is written in such a way as to not really stand on its own. Here's the actual text:

After Bhrigu pleaded guilty in June, Ross called Trempe at the University of Toledo. He was shocked, of course, and for more than one reason. His department at Toledo had actually re-hired Bhrigu. Bhrigu says that he lied about the reason he left Michigan, blaming it on disagreements with Ross.

Allow me to translate. The cheating postdoc went back to his former lab, lied about why he needed a job, and the former PI had no idea about the sabotage investigation. The only way anyone knew was because the PI who caught him actually called the former advisor and related the story.

There was nothing posted to Google or twitter, nothing circulated by NIH Feedback Loop email. NOBODY KNEW.

Oh and another funny thing happened on the way to my reading this article. It was forwarded to me by two people, both of whom said they witnessed or heard rumors about similar things happening in their former labs. Neither of those cases were investigated.

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At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Autistic Lurker said...

Hi YSF, do you have an email address?

I think you might be interested to know the story behind my firing out of the scientific world.


At 12:49 PM, Blogger Kea said...

I'm so glad I'm not an experimentalist. With my asperger's traits, this stuff could go on right under my nose without me noticing. At least in Theory the d00ds are manifestly d00dish, and all the bad d00dishness is on the table in plain sight.

At 5:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's one of my stories of sabotage. There was a jackass graduate student working with another advisor who used the same computing facilities. Me and another woman would regularly check on our data because our runs started disappearing. Poof, gone. Just hers and mine. After going round and round with IT staff, me and the other woman started watching our runs from our offices. I watched one of my runs get deleted right in front of me on the screen. The only person in a 50 mile radius of the computer when it happened was the asshole student. I ripped him a new one so bad in the hallway that someone called the cops! The asshole's advisor didn't believe me. His little good boy couldn't possibly be a sabotaging asshole! It must have been a mistake! I was obviously out to get the asshole!!! I was making a big deal out of nothing! I heard it all. The advisor told me he was going to consult with his wife on how to handle the situation. I WAS THE SITUATION, not the asshole, not the sabotaging. Me. Awesome.

That asshole is a postdoc at a leafy school.

At 10:11 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

A.L., It's yfsblog at gmail. I would indeed be interested!

Kea, The thing is, it's very very hard to catch someone in the act. I'm terrible at telling in the moment when someone is lying to me, especially when it's over email or phone. My personal favorite is when they claim it was an accident, a misunderstanding, or a mistake. I've seen PIs use that excuse to deliberately screw each other over - who's to say this kind of bullshit doesn't start very early in people's careers?

WhipItChick, Oh this sounds familiar. I especially love how it's a woman problem so he's going to ask his wife how to deal with you? That's the only woman he knows? What a nightmare.

The only silver lining here is that it was someone else's student. Believe me, it's a lose-lose-lose scenario when you're the new postdoc and the student/technician/postdoc in question has been in the lab a lot longer than you.

Did you tell your advisor? Did s/he believe you & back you up?

To the person who thought I was being sarcastic about FSP, I wasn't. I'm glad she seems to get some of these issues, eventually, despite her position of apparent privilege. That's actually a huge compliment. I think most scientists are incapable of observing what goes on around them unless it affects them directly.

But it's not clear to me that she's going to intervene as forcefully as would be needed to make a dent in the situation. I'm not sure which part you thought was sarcastic.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I have a question and you can answer it honestly: if you have a job opening for someone, would you choose for a woman or a man when both are equally suited?

At 4:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my. We are currently enjoying this sort of thing at MegaPharma, due to the recent mergers--any takeover means lots of people will be put in competition for jobs.

Most recently, an old codger whose group competes with ours first threw the DNA we sent his group down the drain, then claimed it was never sent. A second vial was sent, this time with signature receipt. That one, he claimed wasn't enough (it was milligrams, he needed micrograms to run the assay), so we had to make a new prep. He sent the new prep to be sequenced, and claimed that the sequencing group said it was all empty vector, although our group had previously confirmed it was fine, insert 100% correct through the cloning sites. We re-sent it, got a "100% correct" result again, tried the assay ourselves with some success, ran a few restriction digests. Insert there, expressing well, functional in assay. Management now complaining that we must be sabotaging Codger's group. We sent all our data right up through the line management. Codger's lackey reports via "Reply To All", she can't get any cells to express enough to run the assay, no clones. Asked lackey, what exactly did you do so we can help troubleshoot, and she reports that Codger told her to digest all the DNA with an enzyme known to cut this particular plasmid to shreds.

Line management fed up with drama but unsure what to do about it at this point--no way will Codger get fired, he's been there forever. Mostly because he's too old/outdated to get a job anywhere else.

WRT FSP's issue, I am a big fan of giving the sexist post-doc the pink slip. There are just too many starving scientists on the job market to make it worthwhile to put up with that crap. They'd find a way to ditch his butt in a heartbeat if he worked less than 80 hours/week or if he wasn't getting good results that fit the PI's pet hypothesis. Plus, harboring that sort of individual only drives many good folks away from your lab--you can't imagine you're getting the cream of the application crop when everyone is saying, "Oh, *that* lab. Uh. Yeah. Well, don't tell anyone I said this, but..." And the good people you do have, will leave post-haste. It happens at MegaPharma, it happens at start-ups, there is no reason to think that academia is exempt.

At 2:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm... an employee who is polite to his boss but is trying to undercut his colleagues... Yeah...that's sexism alright!

At 2:03 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Tim, You know I don't really like to answer completely rhetorical questions, which is what this is. I've *never* been in a situation where two people were equally qualified and suited to the position. I haven't hired a lot of people but I don't think such a situation can really exist in science. Everyone is different, it's apples and oranges and depends entirely on experience, aptitude, and much as I hate to say it, personality. I think to date I've actually had approximately equal numbers of male and female students. I care a lot more about whether the person has had the right courses and understands how to listen, ask questions, take notes, and think for themselves.

Unfortunately, most people can't see past their own biases. All we can do is try to learn how to avoid earlier mistakes (both our own and others').


Nice! I love how the lackey doesn't know how to even look the stupid thing up instead of just blindly following instructions! Or she's too terrified or whatever.

What a great waste of everybody's time and effort! But hey, props to you for following up and making sure it wasn't your fault. I've had a couple of those myself, sometimes there's nothing you can do when the person isn't following your protocol or claims your stuff doesn't work when they never even tried it, etc. It's frustrating but I don't have a good solution. Karmic payback?

I like your idea that jerks aren't worth the risk of losing other, better people. But in academia I think two things happen more often: a) people leave and nobody asks why (or the person feels like they can't say why), b) people feel trapped so they don't leave, c) nobody says anything so new unsuspecting victims are arriving every day.

Anon 2:34, The point of FSP's post (if you even read it) was that this guy is apparently harassing his female colleagues.

At 2:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear YFS:


At 7:11 AM, Blogger a physicist said...

I have an easy answer for Tim's question: I would hire the woman.

1. Because in the past, men were hired even when there might have been a better female candidate. So if I do have two equal candidates I might as well correct the imbalance the other way. Once we reach 50/50 we can flip coins to decide between two equal candidates, but we're not there yet.

2. Because in physics, there is still a huge lack of women. At the very least it is better to have a few women faculty around for the sake of the students (of all genders) that we're teaching. And having more women around makes it less likely that sexism in hiring will persist, in my opinion.

Of course reasons 1 and 2 aren't fun: we would all prefer to just flip a coin. But then there's reason 3...

3. Because lots of studies have shown that women are usually ranked a little lower than men (by their advisors in particular). So two apparently equal candidates, well, then it's more likely the women is in reality a bit superior. Certainly this reason trumps reasons 1 and 2 above. (Regarding "lots of studies", YFS has posted these before, she knows the literature better than I do.)

So yes, I do feel it is sensible to hire a woman over a man, if I'm presented with two otherwise hypothetically mathematically equal candidates.

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Senior reviewers say that when the top one-third of proposals can be funded, the review process works well at identifying the best science. But when the success rate drops, they see the process start to fall apart.

I don't find this surprising at all. A lot of judgment on what is good science is very subjective. You can never rank all proposals exactly by scientific merit; even if you can, two different people will rank the same proposals very differently.

When you have two proposals that are almost equally good in terms of the actual science, and you can only fund one, one is going to get rejected based on all sorts of arbitrary criteria. Even minor things such as the mood of the reviewer that particular day, who the authors of the grant are, $10K more in the budget, matter. In case of disagreement between reviewers, the reviewer with the most seniority or the one who can shout the loudest will be likely to prevail. (This is very much the case in reviewing papers too, but that's another story.)

The only solution I can see is to increase funding levels so that one can fund all grants which are roughly above a certain reasonable threshold. Can you think of any other solutions?

At 1:45 PM, Blogger Tim said...

@missphd: It was not rhetorical at all. And if you think it was, you should not have answered it, which inadvertently you have not, you merely diverted the question. It is not relevant whether you ever have or will be in that role, the question remains relevant: are you acting on your biases you so bravely confess to have.

At 6:16 PM, Anonymous Thinkerbell said...


I agree with a phycisist that two candidate are very, very likely to be equal. Personality, fit in the group, those things make huge differences when it comes to getting people for your lab. The only time people might be totally equal is when they are completely blank slates, i.e. young students. And in this case (This is going to sound totally sexist but I'll say it anyway) I have found that women, on average take better notes, and are less scared to ask questions instead of thinking they know everything. So in that case, I'd pick the woman.

At 10:51 PM, Anonymous Thinkerbell said...

I meant two candidates are very likely to be un-equal...

Also, I was wondering what your opinion is on the following: some journals (e.g. EMBO J) now publish the entire review process online as part of supplementary information that goes with the paper. Personally I was sort of comforted by the fact that the peer review system seems to work - i.e. overall the data appear to be judged for what they are: the data.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I haven't read any examples in EMBO, but only a tiny fraction of what they publish is relevant to my interests. I just got the latest TOC, I should check it out.

So here's what I think.

1. This might help tremendously to force reviewers to think twice about being @$$holes, but not enough journals are doing it for us to know that for sure, yet.

Also, plenty of higher up @$$holes will just refuse to review for EMBO. There's no serious penalty for refusing to do reviews. Or maybe they'll be more likely to hand it off to their students/postdocs to write the reviews?

All we can hope is that the practice catches on at ALL the journals, and that people BOTHER to read the reviews.

2. Subtle jabs & biases may still be lost on all but the insiders of the field. Reviews are usually written in code language anyway, in my experience. Sometimes reviews sound really harsh but actually aren't, and vice-versa. I've gotten nicer-sounding rejection letters than acceptance letters, in multiple cases. I had to have a senior person read & decode them for me.

And I had to point out to my advisor, for example, when there was obviously sexist language that betrayed a conflict of interest with one or more reviewers. Not that I was allowed to complain about it to the editor.

3. People can still opt out of having the reviews published, can't they? At least when they originally introduced this practice, it wasn't a requirement for publication in the journal.

At 9:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something almost exactly like that happened in my lab. We never proved who it was, but everything was directed against one person, and the professor confronted everyone, so no cameras. Later, another postdoc was fired for not having a lab notebook--the data this person generated was "too good to be true" and not replicable. Some has already been published, but my advisor doesn't want to admit or retract.There's no proof, but I think the fabricating post doc also vandalized the other person's experiments to keep her from finding out about the fabrication.

I came to graduate school in part to go into academia. After various experiences like this, I don't want anything to do with academia. Ever.

At 9:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The guy you talk about in the article the postdoc who sabotaged research is doing extremely fine now - seems to be a director at an Indian govt mol bio lab

While what he did was obly wrong, I can't help but admire him. If he can recover after such a huge slander/setback in his career - he should be really tenacious. Any problem has solutions :-)


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