Thursday, June 15, 2017

Is resilience the name of the game in academia?

As I was going through one of the hardest days in my tenure-track experience, struggling getting grants and keeping projects staffed, a friend advised me: "Resilience is the name of the game in academia. Just keep going." And so I did, I doubled down on my efforts and ticked every possible box on the tenure check-list...apart from one...an NIH R01 grant. I applied at every funding cycle revamping old applications and drafting new ones, went from Not Discussed last year to two not-fundable, but decent scores in 2017. And so we keep going through the slog of applying to an NIH grant every four months until something hits. "Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'..."

Lately I've been faced with what happens if something does not hit. A very close friend was let go and will close her lab in the next couple of weeks. Then, this week Dr. Becca (@doc_becca) who has been a beacon for junior faculty everywhere got one more not-fundable score on an R01 application, and may not get tenure. In both cases, these women are recognized young leaders in their respective fields, speakers at national conferences and part of national society committees, in addition to being great mentors and good citizens at their universities. In Dr. Becca's words...

What if you do everything you are supposed to do and the NIH still doesn't believe you? What if you are doing cool and innovative science which doesn't fit a certain mold and the reviewers don't get it? You can say: "Well, maybe you did not explain it well enough." "Maybe, though it was explained well enough to get nice papers and talk invites." It just feels like there is something fundamentally broken with the system and that wishin' and hopin' is not going to cut it. I have completely changed strategy with every grant I have sent in. When I have responded to reviewers comments by doing everything requested, things have gotten worse instead of better. Taking a look on the inside of NIH peer review earlier this year gave me some prospective. I don't necessarily think that peer review itself is broken. I enjoyed participating and found that everyone was fair, but I realized that the 10-15% pay lines introduce an element of pure luck which has nothing to do with your worth as a scientist. And this is particularly punishing to women as they receive lower scores than men. I have some hope in the new NIH initiative to increase new investigator pay lines to 25% across the board, but this still doesn't fix the overall lack of support that many junior and mid-career faculty receive from their institutions.

I didn't mean to start this as an hopeless post. I'm still wishin' and hopin'. Still hustlin' to come up
with some new ways to tell my stories so that journal referees, conference attendees, AND NIH reviewers are wowed. I'm just wondering if resilience is necessary but not sufficient, and if luck is the defining factor. The good fortune to have the right mentors at the right time to guide your applications, the right reviewers, the right star alignment for a favorable outcome. Then everything is a gamble, and all a young scientist can do is her/his best. If you are one of the lucky ones, how do you move forward from there? How do you motivate your trainees through such instability? But  also how does this impact the status of scientific development and innovation at a national and global level? These are the days I would really want to move into policy-making to fix this, but then the most exciting science of my career is sitting there waiting to get done...and I need to find money to do it. So, I get back to my work and try not to think about any of this, while somewhere in the back of my mind still lurks the suspect that I'm being conned...

14 comments:

  1. My institution just instituted a new "goal": 5% increase in "productivity". Measured in $/sqft. So increase your external funding by 5% or they strip you of lab space. Delusional.

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    1. I know. This has been a growing trend in medical schools and hospitals, where many tie your sqft to indirect costs on grants. I have friends who receive biannual reports on IDC$/sqft to show whether they "deserve" their space or not. This doesn't work for people with foundation grants or private money because those allow little or not IDC. It's really scary.
      As the same time, sometimes i wonder about poorly funded older PIs who have rooms and rooms of semi-empty space while other are climbing over each other, but all you really need is a strong and fair dept chair to keep track of stuff...

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    2. Ok, I'll bite. What is a typical number for IDC $/yr/sqft?

      Guessing $200?

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    3. I think it's higher than that! $200 would get you 1,000sqft. I don't remember exactly but it was more in the $500-600 range with IDCs of 75-80$, so a modular grant gets you 2-3 double benches in an open space. I have a friend whose R01 got her 1 bench...
      Also the scary thing is that it's SPENT IDC, so it mirrors how much of your directs you spend. Even if you have money and you don't spend it, they threaten to cut your space.

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    4. I meant 75-80% indirect rate...

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  2. I have seen a reviewer from my study sections shamelessly presenting a novel approach at a conference that I had proposed in my grant and did not get. Another reviewer just submitted a paper on the hypothesis that he had negatively questioned in one of my grant. I think the worse impact of this system is senior PIs fishing for ideas from young investigators grants while at the same time killing those grants to win this race for $$$$$

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    1. That is just despicable. Can you report them? It is expressly prohibited in the forms that you sign before peer review. At least you should be able to exclude them from any future review of papers and grants.

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    2. One does not own one's ideas. It's hard. It's ugly. It can be a problem. But, even when they are your best beloved babies. http://mistressoftheanimals.scientopia.org/2016/08/01/nobody-own-ideas-even-when-they-are-your-best-beloved-babies/

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  3. I think resilience has always been the name of the game in research. Even if it isn't proposals, there are papers that get bad reviews (or no reviews), there are experiments that give contradictory information or just plan don't work, there are instruments that flake out at the worst possible time...

    Resilience and skill aside, there is (and always will be luck). I tell my students it is their job to get qualified for whatever they want to do next and after that it is luck, and they need to understand that. This is as true for industrial positions as academic ones. Not getting any particular position, award, or proposal is not necessarily a reflection on them. So much is being in the right place at the right time, and there is not much you can do about that. Once you are above the bar, things are (mostly) out of your hands. When rejections come (and they will), put them aside a few days, get over your disappointment, and really think about the critiques offered. Learn from the comments given (if any), but don't obsess. If after reflection, some criticisms don't look valid, ignore them and move on.

    I also tell them that any particular rejection is the result of a very small number of people's (often 1 or 2) judgement, and that people are often wrong. Several really important ideas or papers were rejected at first, because the referees just couldn't see the impact or understand the significance of the work (classic example: Barbara McClintock's jumping genes). Most of us don't work on anything so paradigm changing, but still, it is a good reminder that even really important advances are not immediately recognized.

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  4. I think is this a really great post! I also think that the question you ask, “how does this impact the status of scientific development and innovation at a national and global level?”, is really worth pondering. I’m *so sick* of (typically more established) folks who want to stick their heads in the sand and just not deal with that. The types that keep telling you to focus on making your grant even better, because you need to buy a ticket to the lottery in order to have a shot at winning. Perhaps they mean well. But telling people in our position, “resilience has always been necessary,” “luck has always been a factor” is really side-stepping that magnitude of what’s occurring today. Can they really be that blind?

    So I will say – even though it’s depressing as hell to admit – that you’ve answered the titular question of this post: resilience is no longer the name of the game in Academia, it’s luck. As to what this is doing to science: I think the current system is selecting for weaker scientists. It’s selecting for the ones who have coasted on the old boy’s network and that’s how they’ll continue to be “lucky.” It’s selecting for those who are willing to pump out half-baked papers just to pad their CVs so they can be more competitive. It’s selecting for style over substance – I’ll stop now, I think you get the picture.

    I’m sure this is not very encouraging to you, as you’re clearly going to keep at it, at least for now. But hopefully it makes you feel a tiny bit better to know that there are others out there who hear you and find themselves nodding, “Exactly!” Thanks for having the courage to ask the questions that many of the more established bloggers are unwilling to touch. Whatever your future holds, I hope you continue to share your journey with us!

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  5. I totally agree that luck is the overarching factor in winning grants. Luck plays in a variety of ways, what is hot when you apply, who reviews the grants, how discussion on the panel proceeds (what went before/after, how late in the day, etc), what funding agency/IC wants at any given moment, who is randomly willing on any given day to go to bat for you, etc.

    However I will point out the obvious: the probability of winning the grant lottery scales (perhaps not linearly but mostly monotonically) with the number of applications and diversity of calls you respond to. So my general strategy has been to out in a large number of medium quality proposals. Often I hear folks talk about polishing a single R01 proposal to death and crossing their fingers...this doesnt seem like the optimal approach. More optimal for the purpose of winning grants is probably to target a dozen or so different agencies/ICs and submit handfuls per year.

    That said, this seems like a pretty crappy way to maximize your actual scientific productivity (as measured in papers and citations). I'm still trying to figure out how to balance. Currently my strategy is to submit like crazy until Im financially secure for a year or two and then try to spend more time in the lab. Then repeat. Not my dream scenario but I don't see a better way.

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  6. More optimal for the purpose of winning grants is probably to target a dozen or so different agencies/ICs and submit handfuls per year.
    That said, this seems like a pretty crappy way to maximize your actual scientific productivity (as measured in papers and citations)... Currently my strategy is to submit like crazy until I'm financially secure for a year or two and then try to spend more time in the lab.

    Yes and yes. Polishing sadly doesn't guarantee funding. It's the PI's responsibility to learn how to get to the top 30-40%... The rest is luck. So you have to diversify. I too submit to a $hitload of calls, alone and with various collaborators. Small teams, large teams, internal, DoD/NSF/DoE, anywhere. Things eventually hit. But it sure is exhausting. We spend so much energy and time on getting grants; the science would benefit way more from us actually doing more of what we're proposing.

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  7. I just found your blog and this post completely resonated with me. I have been at my current institution for ~ 5years... and am still waiting for NIH to stop screwing up my career (and life...) I think that most of my time for the last 2 years has been spent sending out as many grants as I can. I *might* be about to get my first R01... but I have no idea how I will find the motivation to move forward in academia if I don't. Also, I noticed that you mentioned two female super-stars in danger of not getting tenure. I really believe that the NIH needs to stop pretending that it supports applications from women. And the careers of women. Seriously. Look at the NIGMS MIRA program or the DP2 Innovator program. If they really cared about the success of young women, they would support the best of them early. (We know that the applicant pool is just fantastic. One last thing- ever get an "administrative rejection"? That is a special kind of hell- "do not go past go, do not collect your NIH dollars". I could go on and on.

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