When should the university stop supporting a lab?

(by proflikesubstance) Mar 03 2014

Tight funding budgets make for tough times in academic labs. Some PIs who were used to a certain approach in their funding strategy (i.e. renewal of a single award) are running into funding gaps that they did not worry about before. University budgets to bridge these gaps and support labs in other ways are also feeling the squeeze.

At my institution, the major resource that is critical to many of the laboratories is the pool of Teaching Assistants. This academic year support for students means the difference between some labs having students to do research, or not. Labs with no personnel money depend on the TA pool to continue running, but labs with active grants also utilize this resource to spread the funding (e.g. split an RA between two students) and allow more funded work to get done.

This year, available TA slots are extremely restricted. In programs where PIs would like to accept a cohort of 10 students, there might be 2 or 3 TAs available. How do you pick which labs get the support? Rank the students? Rank the labs? Support the supported or keep the boat afloat? Many departments around the country are asking these same questions and there's no good answer.

I think the hardest hit are the mid-career folks. Everyone can agree that our pre-tenure people need to be supported and there's general agreement about certain labs at the other end of the spectrum that they really aren't in the game anymore. In the middle is where the debate lies. Who is likely to get funded even if they currently are not? Who has a production record that affords them another shot? Who is just spinning their wheels? Who just hasn't admitted to themselves that it's over?

And once you go down the rabbit hole where lack of funding means more teaching, which means less time to ramp up the granting effort.... Are you going to bounce back? Should a student be placed in your lab and then be subject to the outcome of your funding situation that could be pretty bleak? And who says no? The department? The Dean? The grad program? The grad committee? Where does the buck stop for that decision?

I wish I had the answer, because it isn't getting any easier.

13 responses so far

Why I'm giving up on clickers

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 28 2014

I mentioned this on twitter yesterday and several people were curious about my reasoning, so, FWIW, this is why I'm giving up on clickers:

First, some background. I am teaching a 30 student upper level class. I had slightly better use with clickers when I was teaching a class around 70 students, but in the smaller class it doesn't work as well. I also use several forms of classroom engagement, including think/pair/share and small group paper discussion followed by group presentations, etc.

- The primary reason is that they are too damn expensive. I was led to believe that every student would essentially have one because they supposedly use them in the early classes. In reality, only a small fraction of the students have the right model that works with the new software, so probably 60-70% of the class ends up buying them for my class. Considering that 85% of them are in their senior spring, this $60 seems like a poor investment.

- But wait, there's cheaper options! Yes, there are aps available that work with our system, but I honestly spend more time trouble shooting the connection than it is worth. Between getting it to work on my side and having them make sure they have it set on theirs, I get about half of the responses from those devices. And even when it's working, about two times during class the system will log me out and disrupt my slides.

- The information I get isn't as helpful as I had hoped. And this one might be on me, but I find that pretty much every question has about a 75% correct response rate. Perhaps I need to alter my questions to make them more challenging, but the idea of sinking a bunch more time into this technology I don't think is a huge benefit is not exactly enticing.

- Finally, the students aren't engaged by this method. They'll dutifully do it, but they either get the right or wrong answer and move on. On the rare occasion I find the class response to be closer to 50% correct, I already knew they were having trouble with a concept. Using the clickers to merely confirm what I can see on their faces is probably not the best use of technology.

So given my particular circumstance, I don't find the use of clickers in my class to be a major advantage, nor is it worth the monetary investment for my students. Therefore, I won't be using them next year.

12 responses so far

The Universal Experience

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 27 2014

The more I wind up in disagreements with people, either IRL or on the interwebs, the more one thing strikes me. The biggest impediment to people considering an argument that opposed to their own is convincing them that their experience is not the universal experience.

We all have a world view that is a product of our surroundings, experience and path. Some of us who are more opinionated draw upon that background when judging any new scenario or situation. But when faced with opposing views people either stick to their guns, insisting they have the experience to accurately assess the situation, or consider that the views being put forth by another person could have merit even though the conflict with their own worldview.

That ability to stop and listen to a perspective that wouldn't have occurred to you is rarely instinctual and downright appalling for some to consider. I wish I did it as much as I should, but damn, does it open your eyes.

6 responses so far

Pre-tenure applicants should use the CAREER mech for uninvited preproposals

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 26 2014

One of the Stock Complaints about NSF review is how people feel as though the goal posts are always moving because the panel composition changes every round. While that's a topic for a different day, the preproposal system provides junior people with a bit of an exception here.

Preproposal results should be filtering in in late April or so. The CAREER deadline is in late July. It might not be the four months that PIs are given to turn an accepted preproposal into a full proposal, but that still leaves about three months between hearing back about your uninvited preproposal and the CAREER deadline. Why should you consider packaging your proposal for the CAREER award?

For one, the CAREER grants get mixed in with the full proposals submitted to a panel, so it is essentially a backdoor access for junior people to get their full proposal looked at. Yes, the CAREER has certain stipulations that are going to require your attention, but it's a good idea to be in the pool of proposals that are being considered for funding.

Second, and maybe more importantly, you have feedback from many of the people who will evaluate it again! IME, there is decent panel consistency (maybe ~50%) between the preproposal and full proposal round. In cases where someone can't make the second panel, they are often asked to be an ad hoc on a few proposals they saw as panelists. It is to your significant advantage to robustly demonstrate that you have dealt with the critiques of the reviewers rereading your proposal and that it is better now than ever!

Now, you're obviously going to want to be choosy here on which proposals to try this with. You only get three shots with the CAREER proposals, so you will need one that you feel confident just missed the cut and can be turned around effectively. Sometimes that can be a little hard to judge, but a careful reading of the reviews and maybe a discussion with the PO might help you make a call.

But don't ignore the opportunity.

2 responses so far

Get on a panel!

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 26 2014

I've said this before, but it bears restating: if you are applying for NSF funds and have never been on a panel, you are shooting yourself in the foot. There's always questions about how panels work, but there's no substitute for doing it yourself. It is a TON of work, but worth every second.

So, how does one get on a panel? Well, it's a good idea to actively seek the opportunity out. You have a huge advantage if you have a semi-rare knowledge base or work in a state that isn't flooded with NSF PIs, but no matter what you should put your name out there. If you have submitted to a panel you obviously can't ask to be on it, BUT, the preproposal panels are already pretty much filling up, so if you don't get on one of those you could always ask to be on the full proposal panel, should your proposal get cut in the first round.

Regardless, you should contact several POs from different programs to put your name on their radar. It may take a bit to get called if your work, institution type and state are well represented, but you just have to keep trying. Ask, Ask and ask again.

5 responses so far

FUND THE PEOPLE!!!!!!!

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 24 2014

I have to admit, anytime someone says that we need to start funding people not projects, my suspicion meter just about craps itself. As with all "solutions to the status quo" it always turns out that the person espousing this view sees themselves as a major beneficiary of this system. The will cite HHMI is a shining example of success, of course, and conveniently forget that those HHMI peeps had to become independent before they were picked up. I may be mistaken, but I don't see a lot of Assistant Profs at the HHMI table.

I am all in favor of figuring out ways to fund good science and change the fact that I spent most of my time chasing money. ALL for it. But it's a damn waste of time to just toss out quarter-baked ideas without stopping for half a second to flex the mental muscle and see what the logical conclusion is. Why does HHMI work? Well, it identifies promising scientists and gives them the resources to get shit done. Cool! Why doesn't HHMI fund the scientific enterprise in the US? Well, for one, that's not their mission and for another, they don't have the money. And oddly, neither does NIH if it wanted to go to this model.

It's simple math. If the goal is to provide long-term stable funding so that certain people can be as creative as they like, the cost is going to be large in terms of the science that doesn't get done. Let's just take the NHLBI data that DrugMonkey is all wrought up about as an illustration of a point. These data show pretty convincingly that the science happening at the 1%ile is just as impactful as the science that gets scored at the 35%ile. Unfortunately we don't have data beyond that point, but one could hazard a guess that a tailing off doesn't happen right after the 35%ile. Let's just suppose for a second that the drop off is somewhere in the neighborhood of the 50%ile.

Current funding ranges at NIH are pretty much at the 15%ile and below at the moment. The expanse between 15 and 50 is, well, massive. So let's say we had enough NIH funds to keep the top 20% (however one would measure that) of labs comfortable. What happens to all that science that would have had the same impact but isn't happening in the right labs?

Now I realize there's no perfect correlation between the Proposal %ile and number of labs, but you get the idea. We would be forced to either give a much larger number of labs much less money or effectively cut off an enormous amount of productive impactful work. Indeed, if you're at a top institution and all you care about is your own situation, it's NBD, right? And if you're too dumb to figure out how to make it work, well then you're probably not the type of scientist that should be funded anyhow.

12 responses so far

Where NSF preproposals are a Good Thing

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 24 2014

I'm on record as not particularly liking the preproposal system that NSF Bio has been essentially forced to moved to. However, I will admit that some of the advantages of the system do indeed accomplish what they were set in place to do. Namely, the short format means there is a low activation energy for getting in the game.

Why is that important? For reasons outlined in Michael Tomasson's latest post about dealing with triaged proposals. Essentially, every PI needs to have a few ideas in the mix and getting feedback on them quickly is key. If your proposal gets trashed in review, then it's time to rethink it and move on with something else. The preproposal system allows you to do this, but providing feedback on a general idea (and in 4 pages, that's about all you can do) for relatively little effort.

The downside, of course, is that you have 8 months before you can resubmit. This is why it's important to be cycling several preproposals at the same time. With the 4 page format you can afford to do it, even if you're juggling it with teaching.

If you're tenure is largely dependent on bringing in NSF funding, you need to avoid being stuck with a single proposal you keep trying in slightly different ways and be willing to walk away from an idea that gets poor feedback at panel. By at least year three you should be maxing out the 2 preproposal limit for your favorite division and probably looking at ways to hit other calls as well. There are plenty of "cross-cutting" mechanisms to explore, as well as the CAREER awards (which can also be a landing spot for re-thought non-invited preproposals).

The most successful PIs I know have also been the most flexible in their funding search. Preliminary data can be used for multiple different proposals with different foci, as long as you can be creative in the questions you want to explore.

12 responses so far

Why is my PI usually non-committal on budgetary questions?

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 20 2014

I often have people in my lab come to me with requests for non-day-to-day things they would like to purchase for our research. They come to me with travel requests or questions about committing funds to something next summer. They are planning ahead and that's a good thing. But I can't always answer them right away.

Why? Because budgeting for a lab is a balancing act with many unknowns.

For instance:

A lab budget is a bit of a puzzle. At the moment the lab runs off of five different pots of money that vary significantly in the amount and duration. Some are scheduled to end this year, some a few years from now. Some have more or less restrictions with what you can do with the money. Each one of those pots has sub-categories with different strings attached. Whereas you can rebudget between most of the categories, they don't all work the same way (e.g. Equipment).

The single biggest charge to any grant is personnel. In a lab environment, the goal is personnel turn-over. Of course, when people leave and when new ones arrive is a moving target. A PhD student might leave after three years or take over 5 and there is little way to know a couple years in advance which will happen. Spending heavy now could mean leaving someone out in the cold in two years.

All of the different pots of money can interact. People often work in overlapping budgetary areas. Reagents exist within the intersections of the lab budget Venn circles. Services? Software? Consumables? There's no way to charge everything in a project-specific way*.

Given the constantly moving parts, in particular the people, a lot of budgeting just can't be done on the fly. If we spend $20k from Pot A, how is that going to affect the activities supported by Pot B? If everyone goes to Big Fancy International Conference, will we have the $$$ to pay everyone the following summer and still fulfill our research goals? Will Sue still be here and in need of support? Can we pick up Bob on an RA for another semester so he can finish after has last experiment imploded?

Ideally, I'll have made the right decisions to ensure that we keep people paid and keep doing good science, but to make that happen each significant expenditure needs to be thought out.

*We do the best we can. Please don't audit me.

13 responses so far

Repost: Like it or not, you're in sales

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 10 2014

In light of the most recent "I'm leaving science because I don't like what this job is", I thought I would pull this back out. The reality of the situation is that you can't be a PI interested in getting federal funding without appreciating The Sell. Whether you like it or not and whether you're willing to embrace it or not, this is the deal: You are selling your ideas.

It always fascinates me to get different opinion of how this career works. It's part of my interest in blogging and why I find the NIH crowd worth watching. But one thing that unites scientists is the need to sell their ideas. Without being able to pitch your research plan to an audience (whoever has the money) and convince them that you have a worthy investment, you aren't going to be able to continue to do science. Whether you are going for crowd-sourced money, an institutional grant for $10,000 or an R01, your job depends on getting other people excited about what you are proposing to do.

That is part of why it has been so painful to watch the public journeyman science exploits of Ethan Perlstein. In a twitter exchange yesterday, it became clear that not everyone agrees with this. But whether your audience knows the same literature as you should not be the deciding factor as to whether or not your proposal is understandable. And no, this is not ancillary to the science, it's critical if you want to DO the science. These are fundamental aspects of grantsmithing and finding ways to keep a lab funded.

I hear people say, all the time, that so-and-so only got the money because they can sell their work. It is usually said with at least a subtle air of "my science is better, but they're smoother". The reality is that selling the ideas is critical to doing the science. Whether you are trying to get money from the federal government, industry or private donation, you still need to get people interested! Part of that is establishing feasibility based on what you have done, demonstrating you're on to something and making a case that the result is going to be AWESOME. If your response to any question of the work is either "well if YOU knew the literature like I do, you wouldn't ask such a stupid question!" or "Clearly you can't see the brilliance of my work because you're too vested in the current dogma." then you are biting the hand that feeds. Maybe BSD graybeards can pull that off, but it's no way to get established.

I'm not trying to pile on while there is an on-going discussion about the research involved, but if you can't sell an idea in plain language to your target audience you are not going to make a go of this. The sooner one recognizes the simplicity of this point, the better off they're going to be.

Oh, and it also doesn't help if you keep publicly bashing whole fields that review your work.

10 responses so far

Engaging in creationism vs. evolution debates is anti-science

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 05 2014

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.

22 responses so far

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