Thought of the Day on how the Public Views Scientists

(by drugmonkey) Sep 15 2014

The comments that are submitted to the NPR pieces on NIH, NIH-funded science and academic careers by Richard Harris (see here, here, here) are interesting.

One of the things that is immediately picked up by the typical reader is the conceit we scientists express about having a job paid for by taxpayer funds, that allows us to do whatever we want, unfettered and without any obligation to the people paying for the work.

One example of the type:

I argue that the very presence of government (taxed) money is "free" money to scientists to indulge in directions that perhaps are pointless. When something is free, people line-up to collect it (with bad science or poor quality work). A better approach is no funding at all. Then, only the best science would be a candidate for private funding since that is money that people are voluntarily investing expecting a return.

This is what you call an own-goal, people. We cause it by the way we talk about our jobs.

We usually get into this topic most specifically when we are discussing overhead rates awarded to local Universities by the Federal process and when we are discussing the percentage of faculty salaries that should be paid from Federal grants versus the University pot of MagicLeprechaunFairyMoney.

I am the one who continually makes the point that science funded by the NIH (or DOD, CDC, FDA, NSF and a bunch of other Federal entities) should be viewed EXACTLY the same as any other good or service. I tend to get a lot of push-back on this from those of you who are committed to the argument that Universities need to put "skin in the game" and that the solution to the entire NIH budget problem lies with defunding those Universities who get more than 50% overhead.

Bushwa. Science is no different from any other good or service the Federal government wishes to obtain. Yes, the deliverables are going to differ in terms of how concrete they may be but this makes no difference to the main point. The US Federal government pays Universities, Research Institutes and the occasional small business to conduct research. That is what they want, that is what we extramural, NIH-funded scientists provide them with.

The fact that we find it enjoyable is of no importance. The folks making money off building the latest jet fighter (that doesn't work) or the latest software security package for the FBI (that doesn't work) or the latest armor for the Humvees (that we hope works better) find their profits enjoyable. The people getting paid to send plumbers and truck drivers and "private security contractors" along with our military to help pacify Afghanistan or Iraq enjoy making many times the salary they would get otherwise in the civilian world.

Know anyone in elite military jobs? I have known several in my lifetime. Guess what? They enjoy the everloving blazes out of the opportunity that they had to DO something that they find personally fulfilling. Do we question the SEAL or Ranger or TopGun type duder and ask them to do it for free just because they find their jobs personally fulfilling and the taxpayer is footing the bill? Isn't the fact that they are shoo-ins for much better paid gigs as airline pilots and "private security contractors" in their post-Federal-employment career evidence that we don't need to worry about how they are paid while doing the Nation's business?

In many of these cases, the companies and people responding to the US Government request for a good or service tell the government exactly what and how they choose to respond. They present themselves as available for the task. The Government agencies involved then select the winner via a competitive bidding process or other competitive review. Sounds very similar to the NIH Grant game to me.

The Government very frequently, if I read the newspapers correctly, ends up paying even more than the bid, more than expected, more than reasonable for that good or service. Cost overruns. Ooopsies. Progress not as expected in the wildly optimistic original bid. Stuff happens when trying to build a complex modern fighter jet. Mission creep. Is the variable outcome of a NIH Grant funding interval any different? Why should anyone expect it to be different?

I also note that it has to get really, really bad in terms of excessive payouts and utter failure to provide a semblance of the good or service before the Nation's attention is engaged when it comes to most other areas. Golden toilet seats in my era. Then it was fighter jets. Then Haliburton's war profiteering and Blackstoneriverwtfever "security". FBI software upgrade. Fighter jets again. It goes on and on.

The extramural NIH-funded science area of government contracting for goods and services really doesn't look so bad when you put it up against the proper comparison.

We generate knowledge and we publish it. Just as we are asked to do. By the US taxpayer.

The individual taxpayer may object to the US federal government asking us to provide them with a service. That's fine. I have a problem with the amount of military stuff we ask for.

But don't try to pretend we scientists are grifters, looking for a handout to do whatever the heck we want, purely on our own hook. We choose to work in a particular job sector, true. But a lot of other people choose to work in a federally-funded job sector as well.

We should be viewed the same. We should view ourselves* as the same.

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*consistent with the percentage of our effort dedicated to Federal goods and services requests, of course.

25 responses so far

On Feminist 0.6 thinking

(by drugmonkey) Sep 15 2014

Look, it's a long slog to make yourself a decent person. I once wrote a fairly popular blog post entitled "I am". It contained passages such as

I am a friend. A friend to women who I met when I was 5 years old, ones I met in high school, college, grad school. Women I met as a postdoc, as a faculty member, as an inhabitant of my community.

I am a boss and a mentor. Women work for me and with me on my various professional activities.

I am a husband. My spouse is a professional person working, as it happens, in the sciences.

I am a father. Of a nonzero number of miniwomen.

These sorts of sentiments still feel truthful to me.

But so do the sentiments in this piece which takes a shot at such self-referential thinking:

As A Father Of Daughters, I Think We Should Treat All Women Like My Daughters

I’m not proud to admit this, but before I had daughters, I sometimes used to harvest women for their organs to build Liver Pyramids in my backyard. I just didn’t see a problem with it. I sure do now, though. What if someone killed my daughters just to make a pyramid, or even a ziggurat, out of women’s internal organs in their backyard? I sure wouldn’t like that at all. They’re my daughters!

Go read the whole thing. Careful with drinking any coffee until you are done.

5 responses so far

Scientists "cut corners", eh, NPR?

(by drugmonkey) Sep 15 2014

The latest in the NIH/science focused series from Richard Harris is:
Patients Vulnerable When Cash-Strapped Scientists Cut Corners

It hits on some of the expected themes. Including:

Most of the experimental ALS drugs, it turns out, undergo very perfunctory testing in animals before moving into human tests — based on flimsy evidence.

In hopes of figuring out why, scientists went back to take a second look at the mouse experiments that were the basis for the human study, and found them to be meager. Additional, more careful tests found no compelling reason to think the experimental drug would have ever worked.

Stefano Bertuzzi, the executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology, says that's partly because there is little incentive for scientists to take the time to go back and verify results from other labs.

"You want to be the first one to show something," he says — not the one to verify or dispute a finding, "because you won't get a big prize for that."

and then the former head of NINDS, Story Landis checks in:

Landis has thought a lot about how those last-chance patients ended up in this untenable situation. There is no single answer, she says, but part of the explanation relates to a growing issue in biomedical science: the mad scramble for scarce research dollars.

"The field has become hypercompetitive," she says.

Many excellent grant proposals get turned down, simply because there's not enough money to go around. So Landis says scientists are tempted to oversell weak results.

"Getting a grant requires that you have an exciting story to tell, that you have preliminary data and you have published," she says. "In the rush, to be perfectly honest, to get a wonderful story out on the street in a journal, and preferably with some publicity to match, scientists can cut corners."

So. The offending comment came from Story Landis. I am shaking my head with dismay.

Remember, SHE is the one who has made the decision on which grants get funded at the National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke since 2003. Specifically and personally.

All that peer review of science and Program Officer priority and National Advisory Council concurrence? That is all process advisory to the Director who makes the ultimate decision on what to fund.

So, if there are any fingers to be pointed about what is driving particular aspects of scientist behavior in their attempts to stay funded merely so that they can work on thorny problems like ALS, well that finger goes right at Story Landis.

It's really simple, Directors of ICs. Simple as pie.

If you want to prioritize meticulously replicated and extended scientific investigations, you fund those proposals that are planning just that with urgent priority. When you are evaluating PIs to support with the usual spectrum of Programmatic priority handouts, select those with a history of meticulous replication instead of those who hit the hot highlights and never flesh out the story.

I'm telling you, this would snap a lot more PIs right into line in this current environment.

We are just exactly like everyone else. We respond to the contingencies under which we operate. When HawtEleventyGlamourScience and InstantlyTranslational is seen as the route to funding, guess what. We are going to "oversell weak results". When meticulous and incremental advance is seen as the province of irrelevant plodders who do not deserve grant funding, nobody in their right mind* is going to propose a project which mentions any such thing.

So, you want my advice? Find projects in your funded portfolio that meet the meticulous replication standard- give them a R37 MERIT extension and say why. Publicly. Next, find some of these type of proposals in your just-missed pile and fund them. Also brag on that.

Look up the PLoS ONE pubs that are associated with your grants.....presumably they are going to be enriched in negative results, confirmational findings and all the good stuff Story Landis seems to be seeking. Put out a press release on THOSE results. Particularly the negative ones.

In short, put your money where your mouth is, NIH. Don't engage in this double speak when you, yourselves, are a major contributing factor. Don't put this on your extramural investigators and pretend that you played anything other than a central role in their behavior.

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*I may possibly have proposed** a grant which was dedicated to replication and sorting out failures-to-replicate with the explicit expectation of a lot of essentially negative or pedestrian results.

**and received funding for***

***yes, I would have been, assuming that this indeed transpired, as amazed as you are****.

****should such a thing have occurred, I have absolutely no explanation for how such a feat was accomplished*****. Really, none.

*****I mean, the 2%ile priority score, if such had been the result, only begs the question, right?

11 responses so far

A simple question (or two) on training graduate students

(by drugmonkey) Sep 13 2014

This one is directed at my Readers who have supervised graduate students through the PhD in their laboratory.

Have you ever, at any point, thought that you should not train more than replacement value (n=1)?

If not, why not? What influences in your life have shaped your decision to train graduate students? What is YOUR purpose here?

69 responses so far

NPR on the NIH Grant situation

(by drugmonkey) Sep 10 2014

In the event that you missed it, NPR has been running stories on the current situation with NIH-funded biomedical research in the US. These seem to be mostly the work of Richard Harris, so many thanks to him for telling these stories to the public. You will note that these are not issues new to this readership for the most part. The themes are familiar and, perhaps necessarily, latch onto one position and therefore lack breadth and dimension. Those familiar with my views on "the real problem" with respect to NIH funding will see many things I object to in terms of truthy sounding assertions that don't hold water on examination. Still, I am positively delighted that this extensive series is being brought to the NPR audience.

Enjoy.

When Scientists Give Up

"When I was a very young scientist, I told myself I would only work on the hardest questions because those were the ones that were worth working on," he says. "And it has been to my advantage and my detriment."

Over the years, he has written a blizzard of grant proposals, but he couldn't convince his peers that his edgy ideas were worth taking a risk on. So, as the last of his funding dried up, he quit his academic job.

"I shouldn't be a grocer right now," he says with a note of anger in his voice. "I should be training students. I should be doing deeper research. And I can't. I don't have an outlet for it."

U.S. Science Suffering From Booms And Busts In Funding

"If I don't get another NIH grant, say, within the next year, then I will have to let some people go in my lab. And that's a fact," Waterland says. "And there could be a point at which I'm not able to keep a lab."

He notes that the hallway in his laboratory's building is starting to feel like a ghost town as funding for his colleagues dries up. He misses the energy of that lost camaraderie.

"The only people who can survive in this environment are people who are absolutely passionate about what they're doing and have the self-confidence and competitiveness to just go back again and again and just persistently apply for funding," Waterland says.He has applied for eight grants and has been rejected time and again. He's still hoping that his grant for the obesity research will get renewed — next year.

Built In Better Times, University Labs Now Lack Research Funding

PAULA STEPHAN: In many ways, the research university that's evolved today is much like a shopping mall.

HARRIS: She says think of universities as mall owners and individual scientists as the shopkeepers. Scientists get research grants and then pay rent to the universities out of that money. When grant funding doubled between 1998 and 2003, construction cranes went up all over the country to build more lab space.

STEPHAN: Universities were exuberant. They thought that they could keep running this kind of scheme - where the NIH budget would keep going up, and they could keep hiring more people.

HARRIS: But that didn't happen. After the NIH budget doubled, it stagnated. In fact it's declined more than 20 percent when you take inflation into account.

STEPHAN: We greatly overbuilt the shopping malls.

By The Numbers: Search NIH Grant Data By Institution (support site for the pieces by Richard Harris)

112 responses so far

Driverless automobiles

(by drugmonkey) Sep 09 2014

Driverless cars will not be accepted until most people who remember Windows95 are dead.

16 responses so far

Thought on the public funding of science

(by drugmonkey) Sep 05 2014

Simple truth of the recentEbola hysteria and the ensuing media coverage of scientists working on hemorrhagic viruses. Approximately 85% of bioscience now wishing ill on a whole lot of people so as to draw attention to their scientific domain.

8 responses so far

The good old days of science

(by drugmonkey) Sep 04 2014

46 responses so far

Attention FLOWbies!

(by drugmonkey) Sep 03 2014

A solution for you!

6 responses so far

Repost: The War on Drugs Didn't Work, Eh?

(by drugmonkey) Sep 02 2014

There's a strawman-tilting screed up over at substance.com from my current favorite anti-drug-war-warrior Maia Szalavitz. She's trying to assert that Trying to Scare Teens Away From Drugs Doesn’t Work.

In this she cites a few outcome studies of interventions that last over relatively short periods of time and address relatively small populations. I think the most truthful thing in her article is probably contained in this quote:

Another study, which used more reliable state data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, concluded that “When accounting for a preexisting downward trend in meth use, effects [of the Montana Meth Project] on meth use are statistically indistinguishable from zero.”

This points out the difficulty in determining broad, population based outcomes from either personal introspection (where a lot of the suspicion about anti-drug messaging comes from, let's face it) or rather limited interventions. Our public policy goals are broad- we want to affect entire national populations...or at least state populations. In my view, we need to examine when broad national popular behavior shifted, if it did, if we want to understand how to affect it in the future.

The following originally appeared 21 July 2008.


If you are a reader of my posts on drug abuse science you will have noticed that it rarely takes long for a commenter or three to opine some version of "The (US) War on Drugs is a complete and utter failure". Similarly, while Big Eddie mostly comments on the liberty aspects (rather than the effectiveness) of the WoD himself, a commenter to his posts will usually weigh in, commenting to a similar effect.

Now I'm open to all the arguments about personal liberty trade offs, economic costs, sentencing disparities, violations of other sovereign nations and the like. Nevertheless, I'm most interested in the fundamental question of whether the War on Drugs worked. That is, to reduce drug use in the US. For those who believe it has not worked, I have a few figures I would like explained to me.

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