Thursday, May 30, 2013

A nasty little mystery of the mind

I just read an editorial in Science authored by the NIH Director and a couple of other NIH bigwigs plugging the new NIH BRAIN (yes, all caps) Initiative. The plan is to develop new technologies to figure out how our brains work. I have no opinion about the project in general, but there is one question I would very much like to see answered: why, as I grow older and my mind becomes less agile and my memory not as reliable, am I nevertheless able to recall every awkward or embarrassing moment, every uncomfortable instance, in my life as vividly as ever? It's as if the synaptic connections comprising these memories are super-glued together. The rest of my mind is held together by Elmer's.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cashing in on being an NIH "New Investigator"

Investigators fresh out of training have a hard time competing for grants against established scientists with proven track records and often backed by large, resource-rich laboratories and armies of postdoctoral fellows and grad students. This problem is compounded by the fact that the NIH grant review system has no formal metric--no system at all really--for just how efficiently these more senior investigators are using their research funds, a topic I won't delve into right now.

The NIH has made an effort to level the playing field for these newbies, who self-identify by checking a box on NIH grant applications indicating that they are a "New Investigator."  This provides various significant benefits in the competitive grant review process. This is all for the best (although I guess one could argue that perhaps, given the current funding situation , the flow of investigators into NIH-grant funded research should be slowed).

So, we have these new investigators who have a minimal track record, and they are given a shot to prove themselves. But here's the thing: until they receive notification that one of their applications has been funded, they can submit as many grant applications as they want with the "New Investigator" box checked off . Furthermore, these young applicants can apply for special, very large, research awards only available to New Investigators.

Illustrative of the kinds of  inefficiencies that result when an enormous government bureaucracy doles out public funds, there is no coordination within the NIH in regards to how multiple applications from the same New Investigator are handled. One part of the NIH can decide to take a chance and give the New Investigator a chance to prove him or herself by awarding them a grant without knowing the applicant has already been awarded funding by a different part. Brand new independent investigators with no track record of running their own research program or administering their own laboratory can suddenly find themselves showered with huge sums of NIH research funds.

As a result of this lack of coordination within the NIH, there are newly independent investigators who are simultaneously awarded two R01 grants along with a DP2 grant, which are very large grants targeted specifically to new investigators. Getting what is called in NIH parlance an "R01" grant is a big deal. Established scientists are finding it very difficult to get R01 grants funded these days.

Here is a real-life example of the grants awarded to one such new investigator all within a few months of each other (since they were all submitted prior to any of them being awarded, they were all accorded New Investigator status):
1. An R01 grant that will cost the NIH $329,000 per year over 5 years.
2. Another R01 grant that will cost the NIH $388,000 per year over 5 years
3. A special grant just for newbies, called a DP2: cost to NIH is $2,320,000 to be spent over 5 years.

So, this new investigator goes all at once from zero NIH funding to $5,905,000 to be spent over 5 years (note: about one third of this total goes directly to the investigator's university to cover overhead costs). And this in a time when established laboratories are closing due to an inability to get their R01 grants renewed. What do you think about that?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Some great things about this job, Part 1

My job has a number of abstract benefits, such as the opportunity to work at the frontier of medical science and to carry out research that may eventually help those suffering from disease. These benefits are easy to ignore; they tend to get lost in the shuffle on a day-to-day basis. More concretely, looking at new, interpretable data, no matter how mundane, is always fun. Analyzing interesting results is even more fun. On a more practical note, I have great freedom to set my own schedule and hours. This is a particularly nice benefit since I have kids; I am usually able to easily adjust my schedule, for example, to stay home with them if they're ill or spend time with them if they have an odd day off.  Molecular biology can be extraordinarily frustrating and there can be long periods of time where little progress is made. In rough stretches like this, I especially appreciate also being a physician. With patient care, I always feel like I've accomplished something; same goes for teaching.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

How can universities grant you tenure if they don't pay you?

Medical schools need full-time doctors to work in their hospitals and clinics; they also employ physicians who, because they carry out clinic-based research, can earn their salary by treating patients. You can recognize these docs by the word "clinical" in their titles, as in "clinical professor" or "professor of clinical (pick a medical specialty)."  For whatever reason,  these professors are subject to a system of evaluation and promotion that awkwardly overlaps that of a professor of, say, art history, but that's a topic for a later time.
This post is not about these clinically-oriented physicians, but rather about "tenure-track" physician faculty members who spend most of their time doing non-clinical/basic research.

"Tenure-track" physician-scientists are evaluated and promoted in exactly the same way as any other aspiring professor, for example the professor of art history I mentioned above. This means a period of time at the assistant professor level and then, after six or seven years max, it's either up or out. "Up" means tenure. Universities have basically handed over decision-making regarding tenure to their faculties. Which is to say, faculty committees set up to play an advisory role have become the de facto arbiters of tenure decisions, only rarely (at the universities I am most familiar with, in any case) being overruled by university chancellors or vice-chancellors. The fun part is that the final faculty committee to weigh-in is often a university-wide committee, comprised of professors of you-name-it (history, sculpture, engineering, music, physics and so on).  If you think that it may not always be optimal to have, say, a professor of political science weighing in on the scientific output of a molecular biologist or, say, a Ph.D. molecular biologist commenting on the clinical service and teaching of an MD of MD-PhD, I would have to agree.

Though faculty members are subject to this promotion system throughout their career, the biggest step is the tenure decision. This is also a big step for the university, since, by giving someone tenure, they are committing to career-long employment of that individual. So, the assistant professor has to run this gauntlet, but, if successful, will thereafter have career-long economic security.  Unless he or she is on a medical school faculty, in which case she will get all of the same stress and little or none of the resulting security (see my earlier post on soft money). I found this galling before I received tenure and, now that I have tenure, still think it is highly unfair.  I was interested to learn that the major trade organization for professors, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), has been clued in to this problem and is most displeased. They are insistent that "economic security" is an essential component of tenure. Here is some of what the AAUP has had to say on the matter (from the AAUP report "Tenure in the Medical School"):

  •  . . . . The 1940 Statement of Principles stipulates that tenure is a means not only to academic freedom, but also to “a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” Except, as is sometimes the case, where the reward of rank and tenure is purely honorific, all tenured and tenure-track faculty should be guaranteed an assured minimum salary adequate to the maintenance of support at a level appropriate to faculty members in the basic sciences, and not merely a token stipend,  . . .
    (emphasis added)

  • We question whether any institution of higher education or one of its components, whether the purpose be undergraduate, graduate, or professional education, can provide such educational quality without that reasonable assurance of stability that helps ensure the commitment of its faculty members to freedom of inquiry in teaching and research and to the preparation of its students.
    (emphasis added)
"Assurance of stability" eh?  Oh well.

(P.S. see also this)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Soft money: how to hire a physician-scientist for free

You may think of university professors as having cushy jobs which--thanks to tenure--guarantee us a job and a salary (as you will see, this is not redundant) right up until retirement. This may be true for, say, professors of political science or English literature, but this is most definitely not the case for your typical academic biomedical scientist. In fact, not only do biomedical faculty not receive a guaranteed salary, they often receive no salary at all. You see, back when grant dollars were easier to come by, academic medical centers figured out that they could hire scientists and pay them only a small percentage of their salary, very often 0%. The professors' salaries would be mainly foisted off onto the granting agencies (mostly the National Institutes of Health). This was brilliant: universities could hire faculty virtually on a volunteer basis, agree to pay them X per year, pay them a fraction of X per year or zilch, and tell them they were on their own to scrounge up the rest. If the faculty member was lucky and had part of her salary paid by the hiring institution, they were said to receive "hard money." The rest is "soft money."

This soft-money based system evolved at at time when over 30-40%* of NIH grant applications--and some years over 50%--were approved for funding.  What happens when grant approval rates are closer to 10-15%? Here is one indicator: a Google search for "soft money" (not the political kind) and "stress" results in over 59,000 hits**. Considering also the vagaries of the grant review system, the soft-money system verges on cruelty. Highly-educated, generally very intelligent researchers are forced to compete against each other to be one of the few investigators selected for funding. Loss of research funding could very well equal loss of salary support and derailment of ones career. And people are wondering why physicians don't want to have biomedical research careers anymore?

As a physician-scientist, I am fortunate in that having to leave academia would result in an increase in my income, and it would not be hard to find a job as a clinician. If I'm stressed, I wonder how straight Ph.D. faculty members must feel? The 59,000 Google hits I mentioned above give some indication of this**. There is also much discussion of the current dire funding situation--the angst is almost palpable--and it's impact on medical school faculty careers at the blogs of other biomedical researchers, including my current favorite***.

*link will download an Excel file from the NIH website
**see first comment for caveat regarding using a Google web search for quantitation in this manner
*** "my current favorite" except for the occasional political commentary, which is often uninformed and/or venomous.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Intro and Anonymity

Hello. This, my first foray into blogging, will include (in part) a behind-the-scenes glimpse of academic biomedical research that--I hope--will be of interest to you, dear reader, the taxpayer who pays for (almost) all this work. It may also be of interest to students pondering whether to spend most of their 20s in MSTP*/MD-PhD training and then, most likely, some of their early 30s in the requisite postdoctoral training. I also have a dirty little secret that I will divulge sometime in the future. Nothing illegal or unethical or related (directly) to science, but something that I don't talk about in polite academic company.

My decision to use a pseudonym was arrived at after a bit of deliberation. An important aspect of being an academic biomedical scientist is that your colleagues, most often acting in an anonymous capacity, have an incredible amount of influence over your career.  The fates of your grant applications, the manuscripts you have submitted for publication and your applications for promotion, are, in general in the hands of  individuals who are in no way invested in your career and who basically have free rein to indulge their whims and be swayed by their moods. Though my fellow scientists are almost always at pains to fair, they are, alas, human, each and every one of them, and subject to the same failings and imperfections of thought as are we all. In short, I don't want to have to worry about ticking off someone who will later sit in judgement over one of my manuscripts or grant applications. So I'll remain anonymous.

*MSTP, Medical Scientist Training Program: an NIH-funded program created to train physician-scientists at research-oriented medical schools around the country. Graduates earn both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees.