Archive for the '[Biology&Environment]' category

Engaging in creationism vs. evolution debates is anti-science

When I was a weer lad starting down the road of science, I used to think that any opportunity to engage creationists in debate was a Good Thing. We should take the education to them and show them how wrong they are! I was gung-ho and ready to pull back the curtain of ignorance on religion.

But then I watched some of these circus acts and realized very quickly that there is nothing to be gained here and everything to be lost.

I was unaware that there was a televised creationism debate on last night until my Twitter timeline was rapidly filled with scientists pointing out logic flaws in the creationist's arguments. My response: creationism STARTS with the suspension of reality. It does no good to treat it as anything more than a fairy tail.

The problem is that it is not a debate. A debate is an argument of two valid sides. It's the use of facts to make your option sound more appealing than the other person's. But the entire exercise is futile when one side has facts and the other side has only unsubstantiated belief. It's not even that creationists are bringing a knife to a gun fight, it's that they're showing up empty handed imagining they have a nuclear bomb.

These "debates" aren't constructive, helpful or useful to spread facts. Instead, they play right into the hands of creationists by lending false credibility to the very idea that the two sides are on equal footing. Do doctors conduct open public debates with faith healers? Do physicists debate astrologers or magicians? Do geologists debate flat-Earthers? Of course not! We don't give that kind of lunacy the public stage that we do creationism, but the absurdity of such "debates" is no different.

The FACT is that we can observe evolution in real time. Antibiotic, herbicide and insecticide resistance? How about the annual global migration of the flu? The very reason why vaccine development for diseases like AIDS and malaria has not been effective? All of these are examples of evolutionary forces we can observe, record and demonstrate. It's repeatable and crystal clear what is going on. It's not debatable. Either you are willing to look at the data or have decided you refuse to accept reality. There is no middle ground. The very act of engaging in these spectacles legitimizes the lunatic fringe and is anti-science.

So what do we do? Yes, creationism has gained a lot of steam in certain parts of the US and it's not just "the ignorant masses". Doctors, lawyers and politicians count among those who have chosen to ignore observable data for belief. But the thing is, you're not going to argue those people into submission. You're not not going to have a break through with 99.9% of adults who Believe. You can spend all of your professional time trying to shine the light of science into every dark corner and you will never reach every nook and cranny.

Instead we need to concentrate on the schools and youth. Educate the kids. This is the exact tactic creationists have been using for decades now, resulting in the level of acceptance you see today. How was big tobacco crippled? Not by going after the life long smokers, but by making it "uncool" to the youth. You'll never get them all, but educating kids is the best tool we have to less ignorant future.

In addition, I think it's critical to engage religious people who are not literalists. There are millions of religious people who do not take every word of the bible as fact and who are willing to accept science, and specifically, evolution. Thousands of scientists, including the current director of NIH, consider themselves people of faith. Science and religion are NOT incompatible and it will require the engagement of religious and agnostic alike, to ensure we educate the future leaders of our country.

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The education / effort trade-off

So last night's #pubscience discussion was focused on decisions about undergraduate education. Specifically, how our panelists saw the pros and cons of undergraduate education at different types of universities and colleges. These are questions I face regularly at University open houses and in one-on-one conversations with families considering sending their child to the place of my employment.

"What can you offer that comparable universities can't?", "What will my student's job prospects be when they graduate?", "What types of student support are there here?"

Parents and students, alike, are trying to measure their chances of success at a particular place, and importantly, the value of an education there. Price point is increasingly becoming one of the most important criteria when students are selecting a school, IME.

Okay, but what does that mean for me as a professor? Whereas I don't teach as much as some of my colleagues at other institutions (and I teach more than others), I see my share of undergraduate faces every year. As a pretenure prof, balancing the amount of effort I put into teaching is important.

Why? Because teaching won't get you tenure. At least not here. I'm not saying that's right or just or The Way It Should Be, only that it is reality. Without significant* research output, the odds of one passing into the ranks of the tenured are dramatically lessened. This leads us to the great pretenure balancing act - do the best job at teaching that you can without taking too much away from your research effort.

As a specific example, let's take labs. I teach a class that has a lab. The class meets twice a week (1.25hrs ea) and the lab meets twice a week (3hrs ea), but the class is split so that each student only goes to one lab per week. Therefore, I have to prepare roughly 2.5 hrs of material for class per week and 3 hrs for lab. I teach all the class periods unless I am traveling or there is a daycare crisis, but I have a graduate student TA to teach the lab. We meet weekly and I have designed the labs to fit the class, but I am not there to teach the material and go over concepts.

From an undergraduate perspective, this is probably less than ideal. Unless the TA is excellent it would probably be better to have the person who designed the lab exercise and who is teaching the classroom portion to be instructing the lab as well. There's more opportunities to reiterate concepts from class and chances to push students on the core concepts when you have a single person handling all aspects of the course. I know I benefited from this as an undergraduate and I'm sure the students in my class would too.

But.

There's only so many hours in a day and I have been asked to focus more on other parts of my job than on teaching the lab portions of classes. Reinforcing this is the fact the my college pays a graduate student to alleviate me from those duties. I know it would be a better educational experience if I was in the course lab, but my interests and motivation are elsewhere. And so we knowingly sacrifice on the quality of undergraduate education in the name of research and graduate student training (teaching experience).

It's a trade off, and like any compromise, no one is 100% happy with it. But it's the reality of a university that holds it's professors to a research-centric advancement metric.

But before you think I'm leaving you on an anti-bigU down note, one of the most critical points of last night's discussion was that every one of the panelists who went on to careers in science did so because they got into a lab and did actual science. It wasn't their classes that inspired them to head to grad school, it was getting their hands dirty in a research lab. So, while the majority of my students would be better off if I were in the course lab, the 5-7 undergraduates who work in my research lab per year have been afforded an opportunity they would not get if research wasn't thriving here. For those students who end up in science careers, their time in the lab was like a deciding factor.

*"Significant" is purposefully vague to allow for waffle room. Not Waffle House. Mmmm, train wreck omelet....

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Should we stop training PhDs in certain sub-fields?

There's been a lot of discussion in the last few months about the number of PhDs we produce. You may recall JHU trying to get out in front of the issue, but it's still a hot button topic:

The question of reducing the number of PhDs produced is a complex one and there's simply no chance that the overall numbers will be reduced evenly across the board. It seems inevitable that certain fields are going to dry up and blow away and I think this has direct bearing on how we consider training students.

In my own lab we do several things that can more or less be divided into two camps, one of which is more "classical" and the other more cutting edge. Importantly, I have NSF funding for both, so each can be considered a viable enterprise from a funding perspective. However, there is a wild skew in the job prospects for students with training in one vs. the other.

This leads to a significant dilemma. Obviously I feel that both types of work are important and both contribute significantly, but there are just no jobs to do the classical work. And I don't just mean no academic jobs. I mean that training in this particular field leaves you few options outside of an academic job, of which there are none. There is funding out there for this type of work, but it is not accessible if one can not find a faculty job to exploit it.

We've been trending this way for more than a decade. I see it from the labs I know training people in this field. I see it in our regional conference that is bimodally skewed to the old and the students. I see it in the job ads that circulate. Unless you have other significant skills or are willing to leave the counrty, it is excrutiatingly difficult get a job (academic or otherwise) utilizing a PhD in this classical field.

In stark contrast, everyone who spent most of their time in the other side of my lab has left and found desirable (to them) employment. They have skills that are more broadly transferable and that a wider range of potential employers are interested in. Therefore, I am left to wonder whether it is even ethical for me to accept PhD students into my lab to work on the classical stuff, or is it simple labor exploitation. Ironically, I get more applicants interested in this than the cutting edge stuff we do.

Is it time for me to back-burner the classical stuff? Do I need to begin to rethink all of these projects to bring in new techniques that might alleviate this issue (some are emerging, but they are not yet ready for prime time)? Should I be the one deciding or should the student applicant pool decide?

14 responses so far

Solar powered sea slugs: Is it all in the plastid?

Dec 19 2013 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

ResearchBlogging.org

Anyone who has followed this blog over the years knows that I have a bit of a thing for photosynthetic sea slugs. It's a complex story that has been worked on by several labs over a few years, and it is still not clear exactly what is going on. In short, there is a group of sea slugs that have the ability to feed on algae, and rather than digest their plastids (chloroplasts), the slugs store them in a reticulated intestine. Once full, the slugs stop feeding and apparently use the photosynthate produced by the plastids for several months. The catch, and why this is so interesting, is that plastids require proteins that are incoded in the nucleus of the alga. The sea slug digests the nucleus. So how does it work?

In 2008 evidence was published suggesting the slug had acquired nuclear genes from the alga. In 2010 I blogged about a study that countered this claim. In 2011 the story took a twist and it looked like the gene transfer story was an artefact. In 2012 the pendulum swung back and more data came out suggesting that ~60 algal genes reside in the sea slug nucleus.

What to make of all this? de Vries et al. have a different take and the secret may have been in the plastid all along.

The biggest hurdle that orphaned plastids have to deal with is degradation of the D1 protein of photosystem II. Most plastids we are familiar with require proteins that are encoded in the nucleus to be shuttled to the plastid in order to maintain the D1 protein. The plastids sequestered by sea slugs are divorced from their nucleus and the proteins it encodes. Therefore, they either have to be self-reliant to repair their photosystems or must rely on the host sea slug.

de Vries et al. suggest that the robust gene complement of plastids taken up by the sea slugs is directly responsible for their retention. Specifically, they site ftsH as instrumental in repairing the D1 protein of PSII. In many photosynthetic organisms, this protein is nuclear-encoded, but it remains in the plastids of the sea slugs' preference. In the absence of a nuclear contribution from the sea slug, the plastid may be able to repair itself for the lifespan of captivity in the slug.

Certainly this story is not over. This most recent paper even cites an "in press" manuscript that appears to demonstrate that the plastids are maintained in the slug for months in the dark, raising additional questions about how the slugs are utilizing the plastids. There have also been complications in the story based on different labs using different species of slugs (and their preferred algal food source) to ask the same questions. However, as this story continues to evolve the complex association between the slugs and the plastids they steal is slowly coming into focus.

References

Rumpho ME, Worful JM, Lee J, Kannan K, Tyler MS, Bhattacharya D, Moustafa A, & Manhart JR (2008). Horizontal gene transfer of the algal nuclear gene psbO to the photosynthetic sea slug Elysia chlorotica. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105 (46), 17867-71 PMID: 19004808

Wagele, H., Deusch, O., Handeler, K., Martin, R., Schmitt, V., Christa, G., Pinzger, B., Gould, S., Dagan, T., Klussmann-Kolb, A., & Martin, W. (2010). Transcriptomic evidence that longevity of acquired plastids in the photosynthetic slugs Elysia timida and Plakobrachus ocellatus does not entail lateral transfer of algal nuclear genes Molecular Biology and Evolution DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msq239

Pelletreau KN, Bhattacharya D, Price DC, Worful JM, Moustafa A, & Rumpho ME (2011). Sea slug kleptoplasty and plastid maintenance in a metazoan. Plant physiology, 155 (4), 1561-5 PMID: 21346171

Rumpho ME, Pelletreau KN, Moustafa A, & Bhattacharya D (2011). The making of a photosynthetic animal. The Journal of experimental biology, 214 (Pt 2), 303-11 PMID: 21177950

Pierce, S., Fang, X., Schwartz, J., Jiang, X., Zhao, W., Curtis, N., Kocot, K., Yang, B., & Wang, J. (2012). Transcriptomic evidence for the expression of horizontally transferred algal nuclear genes in the photosynthetic sea slug, Elysia chlorotica. Molecular Biology and Evolution DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msr316

de Vries J, Habicht J, Woehle C, Changjie H, Christa G, Wägele H, Nickelsen J, Martin WF, & Gould SB (2013). Is ftsH the key to plastid longevity in sacoglossan slugs? Genome biology and evolution PMID: 24336424

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Want to know more about zombie ants? Help fund some research!

Parasites are ubiquitous among eukaryotes, with some estimates suggesting that for every animal species there are at least 100 parasites and that parasites outnumber free-living species 4 to 1. For a variety of reasons, getting true estimates of parasite numbers is virtually impossible, but there is no doubt that they play a major ecological and evolutionary role. With all this competition among parasites for suitable hosts, it should not be surprising that some have gotten particularly creative in finding ways to disperse.


Image source

If you haven't heard of the fungal parasite that takes over the brains of insects, it's an amazing story. It's an amazing system that David Hughes has been working on at Penn State since staring his position there in 2011. There's certainly been no shortage of interest in the system, but the lab is looking to transition from understanding the ecology of this relationship to examining the cellular scale.

That's where postdoc Charissa de Bekker, comes in. Charissa is in the process of understanding what's going on in the heads of those ants. Literally. Using the recently published genome of the caterpillar Ophiocordyceps parasite and draft genomes of the parasite species in the ants as a backdrop, she will use the expressed genes (transcriptome) and metabolites of the parasite during infection to reveal the mechanisms for ant mind control.

Charrisa has launched a crowdfunding campaign to get this work rolling and produce the preliminary data needed to write a fundable proposal. As of now, the project has 18 days remaining and is only just over 20% of it's goal of $5,306. Beyond the fact that this is a very cool project that will produce some enticing data, you will be supporting the work of a new lab getting established in a growing field. Plus, the more we know about zombies the better prepared we will be for the Zombie Apocalypse*.

So head on over an donate to this project.

*This research is a better use of your money than stock piling food and ammo.

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Guest Post: Five Reasons Why You Liked My Post

Following up on her post "The Worst Part Is Not", guest contributor Hope Jahren has asked me to post the following:

1. It Was Well-Written. Lordy lordy how well-written it was. Let’s all turn toward the East and say it together, loud enough to shake the walls where a certain book proposal is languishing on a certain desk. “HOPE JAHREN SURE CAN WRITE,” we bellow while choking back our collective sob. Someone should give that girl a goddam book deal.

2. It Didn’t Name Names. First Ofuck or Ofek or whoever-the-f*ck hate-spoke Danielle Lee and we were all like, String him up! How daaaaaare you! And the guys were all like, Let me at him! Then Borat or Boraz or Borehole sleazed up Monica Byrne and we were all like, Not Mr. Rogers! He’s a flesh-and-blood dude! He gave me peelings for my compost heap! He defragged my harddrive! Why universe, why? And the guys went kinda silent at that point (did you notice?). Then we looked at each other and said, Whoa this is complicated. Eventually we got to this place where we sure as hell don’t want him making decisions about women’s careers but we’d still probably perform CPR on him if we saw him lying in the street. Turns out he’s neither an angel nor a devil, just like all the other men I don’t know. Just like every sorry soul made flesh temporarily wandering this lonely dusty Earth.

3. You Needed to Read It. When we all started wringing our hands about What will happen to Dear Old Borat(^1) and Can the community afford to lose such a prophet as he and Will they repo his flatscreen, I started thinking “Why should we care more about Borat’s(^1) career than he apparently does?” Then it dawned on me that this is really about me. If you knew me better, you’d realize that most things are about me. It’s why I have so many friends and was elected Homecoming Queen for two consecutive terms in high school. I got all morose and guys-are-pigs and cancelled my subscription to Scientific American(^2). I began to dwell on how my whole life has been spent bandaging and rebandaging my sores from this kind of shit. Hell, I was sent out of the room in Kindergarten for already knowing how to read.(^3) Then I looked around and realized that, at that very moment, I was eating a papaya under a freaking rainbow. That changing the world is not supposed to be easy. That my life contains successes that my grandmother couldn’t even have dreamed of. That I am strong, and good inside(^4), and that maybe I can do something about this. Here we’ve got a guy who’s a dickhead who doesn’t even know he’s a dickhead cruising through life leaving a trail of crushed dreams and cold untouched lattés behind him. How many guys would quit doing that shit if they realized that it adds up to something really super hurtful? How many agents would clamor for my manuscript if they read a heartbreaking(^5) post on the subject? Then I took pen in hand.

4. I’m Not Going To Name Names. You probably got that vibe from my post. It’s not that I’m afraid, and it’s not that it’s not true (you got the G-rated version, dear reader). It’s that, well, apparently there’s more than a few people out there who think it’s about them. I get a HUGE KICK out of this.(^6) Send me some email and call me a c*nt. I won’t out you. Or maybe I will. I’ve got this thing next to my computer called a printer. Young folks nowadays tell me I can do this thing called a “shot-screen” or something. Ain’t technology grand?

5. The Real Message of the Piece is Still Working On Your Subconscious. We all read it. We laughed. We cried. We lived. We learned. That’s all good. But please don’t miss the point of the whole thing. Yes there’s sexual harassment in Science, and it’s sustained and it’s pernicious and it’s damaging. It didn’t drive me out of Science because sexual harassment is everywhere(^7). As if there’s some safe place you can flee to and be safe from it. I don’t mean to go all Second Wave on you(^8) but sexual harassment in Academia is symptomatic of the larger-scale dysfunctionalities between the sexes in our culture, and any address of them must be grounded in the fundamental tenets of women’s liberation. BUT (and this is a big, all-caps BUT) you can do something about this today. This “fundamental tenet” I keep gibbering on about is that Women Have Worth. You know that woman you work with or have in class who’s so smart she scares you? Who’s so good at what she does, she must already know it? The odds are that nobody has ever told her this. So why don’t you go do it? The endless stream of harassment and sexism is not what has stayed with me. It is the encouragement I got from people who didn’t have to encourage me, who could have said nothing. This is what I cling to during dark days. This is why I know I am not a c*nt for speaking out. The various monologues of inappropriate comments all ran together long ago like some tacky watercolor landscape. What I remember clearly were the people who stopped what they were doing to tell me I was special, and that they saw something important developing in me. This is what fortifies me. YOU have the power to fortify someone. Today. “You have done well, and you are good inside, and you will change the world.” I wrote you the f*cking script. What more do you want from me?

^1 Or Boraz or whoever-the-f*ck.
^2 I did indeed.
^3 Not that I’m bitter or anything.
^4 Somebody told me that once, and it stuck with me. More on that later.
^5 Your words, not mine.
^6 Remember the original disclaimer about me not being Mother Theresa?
^7 and because my Calvinist upbringing convinced me that I was predestined to be an important scientist with a beautiful lab full of magnificent beeping machines. Come see it sometime, it’ll knock your socks off.
^8 Or maybe I do.

Hope Jahren is a Full and tenured Professor at the University of Hawaii. She is on Twitter @HopeJahren. Her research page is here: www.jahrenlab.com. Her lab Twitter is @JahrenLab. She told her students she would take them to a fancy dinner on Waikiki if they got 1,000 followers.

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Lamar Smith ups the anti.

Apr 29 2013 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

Unfortunately I don't have time right now to do this justice, but after my post on Friday, I couldn't let Lamar Smith's new bill to remove peer review from NSF go unmentioned. In addition to this ridiculous bill that would undo non-medical science in this country, he's also requested reviews and PO comments for five particular grants he didn't like the title of. For someone with such an appalling voting record when it comes to science, suddenly Lamar thinks he can step up and do a little grant reviewing? The right wing naked anti-science agenda is really reaching the absurd. Clearly they are not even attempting to hide it anymore.

12 responses so far

NSF preproposal specific aims section

Apr 02 2013 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

The NSF preproposal is a fairly new document and people who submit to DEB and IOS are still trying to figure it out. I'm currently reading proposals for my second preproposal panel and some patterns are starting to emerge. In particular, how people handle the Specific Aims section 1) makes a big difference in the flow of the document, and 2) is pretty heavily correlated with those I suspect have NIH experience.

There seem to be three flavors of SA that I see re-occurring:

1. Just the facts

Some PIs are simply stating the aims of the project with no supporting text. Just two or three aims at the top of the document and then we'll tell you about the background.

2. The hybrid

Others are including a bit more than approach 1, but wrapping the whole thing up in half a page or less. There's some context, but it is mostly focused of fleshing out the Aims a bit.

3. The pager

These generally stick to the NIH format of taking a page to nail down wtf you are proposing to do. There's a certain format to these pages (one opinion here) and it should do a good job of summarizing the science of the proposal concisely.

I may be biased here, so take my opinion with a rock of salt, but I find option 3 to be far more readable a format. Option one is jarringly disjunct and option 2 never seems to do quite enough for my reviewing tastes. My guess is that some people feel that the third type of SA section is redundant with the project summary, but the summary is very specific and includes Broader Impacts. If you're sly, you can use the summary to include a few interesting tidbits before hammering your best stuff home in the SA page.

Like many novel NSF documents (see: postdoc mentoring plan, data management plan), it's going to take a few rounds before things settle in and people have a feel for what to expect. For those of you who have written preproposals, how did you handle the SA section? What are you reviewers seeing?

12 responses so far

Corporate Bio-knowledge FAIL

Nov 29 2012 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

Um, yeah. As much as "amphipod" sounds kinda like "amphibian", they are not actually the same thing. But the people at Amphipod Running Products probably didn't want their logo to look like this:


Pic from here

Although, I gotta say it's a lot more interesting than a frog.

7 responses so far

Thoughts on the ESA letter to NSF Bio

From multiple fronts I have recently been made aware of an effort that started at the Ecology Society of America to formally protest the new NSF Bio regulations on grant submissions. For those not aware, the short version of the changes includes a move from two annual cycles to one, the institution of a preproposal stage and a limit of two grants per PI in any capacity.

These changes were met with resistance and the general feeling that early career people were going to take it in the teeth. Only the DEB and IOS programs in Bio initially made these changes, but MCB recently let it be known that they were going to do the same after a year utilizing a different approach.

The ESA letter focuses on the concern that the new policy is going to significantly slow the pace of science in the Bio Directorate, an opinion I have written in the past. I'll deal with each of the points of the letter separately:

The process creates an exceedingly long lag between the time when ideas are first proposed and when funding becomes available to investigators. Even if the two preproposals allowed per Investigator per year are successful, it takes over one year from submission to funding (as opposed to 6-9 months in the former system). This lag time increases to over two years or longer if a preproposal is unsuccessful. The increased lag period comes at a time when the rapid pace of environmental change requires science-based solutions to address societal needs. It also hinders the development and deployment of new tools and technologies (e.g., molecular and informatic) that inform solutions that address such rapid environmental change. The long lag between idea generation and funding is particularly hard on junior scientists who are establishing their research programs, but also hinders progress of more senior scientists seeking to sustain active research programs and to educate the next generation of scientists.

It's hard to argue with this one, which basically summarizes several points that have become familiar refrain. When I served on the preproposal panel last spring, these exact points came up. The NSF party line* is basically that the extra time now built into the process is critical for PIs to incorporate the feedback they received from the previous round. The claim is that internal studies demonstrated that proposals that were turned around from one round to the next did not fair as well as those that took a round off. Unfortunately, there is no NSF equivalent of Rock Talk to show these data, so we can't pick it apart. We're left wondering whether these data are a game of averages or represent real trends. Nevertheless, from the perspective of a PI, the loss of one round per year is perceived as a significant development, no matter how NSF wants to spin it.

The process limits the scope of science by (1) selecting against complex, interdisciplinary science that cannot be convincingly described in four pages and (2) hindering collaboration among scientists (by limiting the number of submissions per investigator per year) at a time when research programs and teams need to be increasingly multifaceted, innovative, and interdisciplinary to address complex issues.

This is where I'm a little less enthusiastic about the approach. The first argument about complexity that can't be described in four pages is, to me, a little weak. Is it hard to encapsulate a complex project in four pages? Yes. But claiming my science is SO complex you just don't get it because I can't tell you all about it is not exactly winning me over. Make it work.

The second point is stronger. For a decade plus we have been told that interdisciplinary is the way to get things done. Multi-PI projects have been encouraged at every level, from federal to institutional, and suddenly it is a liability. Now we have to pick and choose what we can contribute to in order to stay within an arbitrary limit of proposals. Okaaaaaay.

The process limits feedback to scientists, slowing the pace at which creative ideas advance during the iterative submission-resubmission process, because of the lack of ad hoc reviews for proposals. Although investigators faced low rates of proposal success with the former process, it at least offered comprehensive feedback and allowed for relatively quick resubmission, increasing the chances for success with future submissions.

This is another point that I don't see eye to eye with. If you have ever served on a panel, you know that the opinions that really matter are in the room. Whereas the ad hoc reviews can be very informative to the panelists, they can just as easily be almost ignored. The POs will ask the lead reviewer to comment on the ad hocs, especially if they are at odds with the panelist opinions, but they do not carry the weight of the panelist reviews. Additionally, my experience in the preproposal panel suggested that NSF can get pretty good coverage of the vast majority of the proposals with the panelists, not unlike NIH's study sections. Besides, the PI still gets at least three reviews back and if it didn't get trashed in those reviews, a panel summary as well. Are the additional couple of ad hoc reviews really that important?

The delays, the reduced opportunities for collaborative proposals, and the more limited feedback are likely to have a disproportionate effect on young scientists and members of groups who are not yet well represented in our science. We fear that this new process will result in the loss of some very promising people from the pipeline who are already discouraged by bleak prospects for funding research.

This is a concern shared by NSF. When the Director of Bio came to speak to our panel in the spring, this was something that he cited as being at the top of the list of things they are monitoring. I have to say that most panelists were not necessarily comforted that the situation was being monitored, but it was made clear that the POs were being directed to keep their portfolios balanced as before. How the preproposal process is going to affect that is not entirely clear.

One rumor I have heard repeatedly, however, is that only established labs made it through the preproposal process. I can say from my experience as both a panelist and a preproposal PI, this is not true. I can understand the perception that those with more proposal writing experience were able to navigate the new process better, but we pushed many early career preproposals through in my panel and I had one accepted from my own lab as the sole PI. I don't buy the fear mongering.

The letter concludes with the following:

We are optimistic that thoughtful modifications of the new preproposal process, made in consultation with the ecological and environmental sciences community, will ensure that science progresses as rapidly as possible given the level of funds available, thereby providing maximum benefit to society. In any such modifications, we believe it is essential (1) to ease current restrictions that limit collaboration and the pursuit of high-risk, high- reward ideas and (2) to provide two deadlines per year, even if that requires taking other measures, such as reducing the number of ad hoc reviews or reducing proposal length, to ensure reasonable workloads for NSF staff and the reviewer community.

Here's my biggest problem with this letter. Where is the solution? It is very easy to say that the current system is not working and we need to make changes, but don't place that burden right back in the lap of NSF if you want to make changes! Make a PROPOSAL. I've made some very clear suggestions geared towards solving these exact issues, but I have seen almost no other concrete proposals made. I think this is where we, as a community, are doing ourselves the most harm. We need to hammer out what we want and how to implement it if we want to gain any traction, otherwise NSF can throw up their collective hands and say "this is the best we can do."

So will I be signing this petition? No. As much as it summarizes some of the concerns I share, I don't think it has much value without suggestions for real change. I think NSF was fully aware they would get push back from the community based on these changes and this type of letter is going to fall right into the "expected whining" camp. Until the community can present a meaningful document with realistic changes, there is no impetuous for NSF to do anything.

I see this as a labor negotiation. NSF changed the rules of "payment" and has left their "payees" upset with the new environment. Unless we can make a convincing case (including some concessions**) for change, we're going to have to live by the new rules.

*Make no mistake, there are wildly different opinions on the changes among the Program Officers.

**Sorry folks, but NSF believed strongly that the system was nonsustainable. If you want to convince them to change you need to make concessions that address the issues.

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