Friday, June 11, 2010

Good golly! The System done been broke!

Funding for science is tight right now. No one knows that more than I and the stack of rejected grant proposals I have on my desk. For a lot of people the shifting climate sucks and for new people it can be be painful to get one's foot in the door. But, is this in itself proof positive that The System is broken? Aureliano Buendia* thinks so.

This morning I was sent a link to a new forum for discussing the "problems" with NSF and what can be done to fix it. Specifically, the creator of the forum states its purpose as discussing "What problems have you had with NSF? What creative solutions have you come up with to these problems? The forum is designed to address such issues. Let's bring out our best ideas, and hope that NSF pays attention."

In one of the inaugural forum posts Aureliano Buendia wonders whether going to the "Canadian system" is really what NSF should migrate towards - Smaller grants ($30 - $50K/year direct for 5 years) with a high rate of funding (~50%). Perhaps this would work for some researchers but I think if you ask your Canadian colleagues whether this is an ideal system you might come away thinking that it is not quite Nirvana on Earth. For a whole host of reasons being stuck with a $30K / year (normal first time grant) lab budget for 5 years (because you can only have one NSERC grant at a time) stifles research progress during a critical time for lab growth. Don't get me wrong, there is some tremendous work being done in Canada, but if you can't apply to other agencies to support your work there is no hope of hiring a postdoc in the first 5 years of the lab unless you attract someone with their own funding. Zoinks, Scoob.

With his cat-like reflexes to perturbations in the interwebs, Drug Monkey has already weighed in on the forum and brings up a good point.

In addition I would encourage everyone to consider closely an issue that comes up over and over again in the NIH-focused discussion. We are all subject to a certain myopia*. The first symptom is that we interpret changes in our personal success rate (if we are relatively senior) or a lack of personal success as being unambiguous evidence that TheSystemIsBroken!. The second symptom is promotion of "solutions" that benefit our own personal career, laboratory, research programme, etc. At the expense of others of course ("Do it to Julia, not me, Julia!")

To me, there appears to be a lot of concern over the size of many grants these days and a lot o'"back in the day, we did science for A NICKLE! And we liked it!" goin' on over at the new forum, but I encourage my readers to go take a look and weigh in if you think you have something to offer. I will be curious to see how the comments develop and whether the consensus opinion is that a small grant mechanism would be a good thing or whether people feel this is just a public foot stomping by an aging scientist having trouble getting funds.

*I have no idea if this person is real or a Pseud.


  1. I have no idea if this person is real or a Pseud.

    Aureliano Buendia is a character from Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude". If I recall correctly, there are several characters having this family name throughout the years that the story spans.

    So I'm guessing it's a pseudonym (a cool one at that), although it could in principle be a real name (I doubt it).

    As for grants, my impression is that NSF is moving increasingly to large centers (and the existing centers getting bigger), which does it make it difficult for young people to get independent money, since large centers have a hierarchical structure (duh!) with a famous dude (or dudette) on top. So for the sake of junior faculty single-PI grants are a good idea, but they are alreasy pretty small -- $80K per year, which is really maybe 1 student and some summer money, not enough for a postdoc or significant lab supplies.

    So NSF is more-or-less doing the small single-PI grants like described. They are really small, and it's hard to have more than one at a time.

    Funding everywhere has dropped, but the shift towards centers does hurt younger PI's.

  2. GMP,
    Do you have any numbers supporting your claim that the NSF is moving more towards large centers? I'm not necessarily disputing the claim - I've heard it before, but not really seen any evidence to support it.

    As far as that forum is concerned, right now "Aureliano Buendia" is coming across as a whiny PI who's had his pet proposal turned down for the nth time. And his "solution" of having a small grant program makes little sense. There is no lower limit to how much you can ask for in a NSF proposal. If all you need is $50k/year, then that's all you should ask for.

  3. of course the real point is that *everyone* should ask for tiny awards so that s/he can get hers/his.

  4. How much does not having your grants funded stifle your lab's growth? The Canadian system has the virtue of you not getting fired.

  5. I honestly do not believe the average new PI has the experience to qualify as a suitable postdoc mentor.

    If the department is paying your graduate student and technician's salary, then $50 a year is not a bad deal. If salaries are expected to be budgeted into a $50/yr grant, then there I fail to see how any science could be done.

  6. Anon@7:22-
    And the point of having a lab with insufficient funds is?

  7. I am not sure whether NSF is moving towards funding large centers. A glance at their awarded grants still has a large component of individual/2-PI grants along with some large centers. That said, funding is really tight and science is getting really good/novel... whatever. 3 Excellent/Very Good reviews (multiple rating) and still declined as I found out today. The small grant model will work if you aren't paying for the grad student, which I think is the case in Canada.

  8. Odyssey,

    I know for sure that there is a tendency towards fewer centers but larger ones (within NSF, I have experience with DMR and ECCS divisions, and am affiliated with 2 DMR-funded centers; newer solicitations for center renewal point to the goal of having fewer large ones).

    The fewer single-PI, more centers mantra I also keep hearing often, but I don't think it's an official policy. I have heard it from the mouths of two or three center PM's and several colleagues. So I don't have data for this.

    Dr.Girlfriend said...
    I honestly do not believe the average new PI has the experience to qualify as a suitable postdoc mentor.

    I had CAREER and one of the DOD young investigator awards. In both cases the PM's told me they don't want me to budget for postdocs for the precise reason you mention: because junior faculty are believed not to be experienced enough to mentor a postdoc.
    While this makes sense for a brand new TT faculty who just started TT, it no longer does past ~ 3 years on tenure track.

  9. an american in canadaJune 12, 2010 at 7:24 AM

    $50k from NSERC is not the same as $50k from NSF. As stated, the NSERC is direct only, indirect goes straight to the University. More senior Canadian scientists can pull in $150k+/year direct from NSERC.

    Also, the cost structure is really different. Many Canadian PIs do not cover grad tuition (which is substantially lower than in the US--like 5k/year). There are no benefits to pay (the basics are covered by taxes). A student costs around $20k/year, less if they TA.

    While it does suck to be locked in at ~$30k/year for 5 years, that amount should cover a student, all their needed supplies, travel costs, and a little more. So it is about equal to ~$80 to $120k/year from NSF in purchase power (depending on how much a student really costs--I've heard up to $100k/year when all is said and done at some private US institutions). Also, Canadian academics, like American ones, are expected to have more than one funding source.

    That's not to say all is happy in the Canadian neck of the woods. NSERC funding levels have been stagnant for at least 30 years, maybe more (I don't really know, since I am a young'un). So NSERC used to fund well, now it funds barely adequately. There are many complaints about the distribution (Dr. Big Name got $100k last time, so we should give him at least that much this time, even if he is going through a dry spell and his proposal is poorly written. We don't know Dr. Young Gun, even though her proposal is amazing so $25k it is.) One thing that is nice about a Discovery Grant is that it funds the lab, not a project, so it is really flexible.

    FWIW, some of the provinces also run their own similar scale direct only funding systems for the sciences and humanities. Imagine a state level NSF.

  10. I honestly do not believe the average new PI has the experience to qualify as a suitable postdoc mentor.

    This is as useless and broad a statement as saying all senior people make good mentors. Can we not be so simplistic as to paint with a brush the size of Montana?

    As far as the Canadian situation goes, again, broad brush. All of the provinces do things differently, so if you're in Alberta, BC or Ontario things aren't so bad because there are provincial grants you can get. Quebec also has an independent mechanism (surprise!). Outside of those provinces things look very different.

    But in the same way as many US institutions, students are "free" only if they TA. If you want to buy a student out of TAing, you're on the hook for salary and tuition (though not overhead on the salary or health care). If you want a non-Canadian student, the PI has to pay an additional "foreign differential" no matter if they are TAing or not.

    In no case, unless your US institution has a bazilion percent O/H, does $30K of direct = $80 - $120K of funds in the US. O/H is typically in the neighborhood of 50% of what the total direct comes out to, which means 1/3 of the actual budget when all is said and done. I'm no mathamagician, but...

    The trouble, as my Canadian colleagues tell me, is that a starter NSERC grant is typically $30K. A second grant, if all went well, is probably $50K. That's ten years of funding that averages $40K a year. Yes, that is all direct cost, but so is start up and I've blown through more than that already this year. Some science is expensive and that is hard to do ay $40K/year for a decade.

  11. Another American in Canada...

    FYI...Average NSERC grants at my panel can be less than 20K a year in many years...I have to pay ~13,000/year for each student (that is if they TA--if they don't TA, it's more)...TAs come with no tuition waivers, so students pay ~$7,000 of their stipend back in tuition...All told my students make less than I did when I started grad school at a MRU in the US in the mid-90s.

    It's just another kind of bad than NSF.

  12. American in Canada again....

    I would also note that leaping from 30K to 50K in NSERC funding, at least in my panel, is almost unheard of.

  13. Comment: "I honestly do not believe the average new PI has the experience to qualify as a suitable postdoc mentor."

    Reply: "This is as useless and broad a statement as saying all senior people make good mentors. Can we not be so simplistic as to paint with a brush the size of Montana?"

    Okay, I do think there is a point here that you are rather quickly dismissing. All dogs are mammals does not imply all mammals are dogs. Junior investigators (start-up year) probbaly lack the experience to mentor a post-doctoral fellow is not the same as all senior faculty are good mentors.

    There is a real and legitamate concern with junior people mentoring post-docs. It somewhat mitigated in fields with very long post-doctoral training (where the investigator can acquire useful experience) but there are clear issues. I've seen a lot of conflcit with post-docs and pre-tenure supervisors -- both of whom need to be productive for career reasons but are on the same projects. There is a fair degeee of variability as to the ease of win-win solutions.

    That is not to say that some junior people may not make fantastic mentors. But some people could be ready to PI a lab after their undergraduate and we still make them get PhDs because relative rates of competence do matter.

  14. If you want to see me quickly dismiss a point, you've provided plenty of fodder for that in your final statement.

    The fact of the matter is that your anecdotal evidence about junior PIs isn't any more significant than the anecdotal evidence out there regarding the large number of poor senior mentors. There are shitty mentors who are both old and young and people of all ages and experience who are unprepared or unwilling to provide postdocs with the materials (physical and intellectual) they need to get ahead. Blaming it on a certain demographic of PIs based on n=2 of observation from afar does not make for a "legitimate concern".

    If someone want to show me some actual stats on postdoc success (however that would be measured) in relation to PI experience we can talk. If we're going to throw around random personal observations or hearsay based on "what someone told me one time", then I have better things to do.

  15. A new PI is not qualified to mentor a postdoc because he has nothing to offer an aspiring professor, in terms of experience.

    Sure he has more research experience, and getting published will be the key factor in securing a tenure-track position, but this is not enough. Besides, a postdoc should not need too much guidance at the bench.

    A postdoc needs learn how to succeed his chosen vocation. How can he learn from someone who has not yet made it him or herself?

    A postdoc applying for jobs needs the advice and guidance of someone who has served on numerous job search committees and has experienced the tenure process.

    Graduate students cannot be solely responsible for undergrads, and postdocs cannot employ graduate students, so why are assistant professors allowed to employ postdocs?

  16. I am the same person as comment 13. I am honestly not trying to start a fight nor to dismiss your point of view. I am open to discovering that rules are different across fields.

    My informal n is around 30; I have found a u-shaped relation in my personal experience (both very junior and very senior PIs have disadvantages for post-docs). Over in my corner of the world it is possible to become an assistent professor with between 0 and 2 papers.

    My reason for the (admittedly hyperbolic last statement) was that I think that experience matters. I got a lot better about judging the quality of projects after my first five papers and way better after ten. I am happy to admit to a point of finishing returns but worry that very junior people (especially the ones hired with zero papers) might need seasoning. Furthermore, when the number of papers is small, concerns about tenure create possible conflicts of interest.

    I don't want to say "all junior professors make bad mentors"; in my informal sample I can already spot a glaring counter-example. I just would be happier if the junior person had a productive mid-career faculty mentor so that they had somebody to get advice and/or assistence from if things went badly.

  17. My point was simply that there is huge variability between fields, universities and individuals, so blanket statements to the effect that a subset of individuals all do anything the same way doesn't take that into account and is overly simplistic.

    Your point on the papers is a great example. someone with 0-2 papers would never even been looked at for a TT position in my field and generally The Rule of Ten applies pretty effectively. Postdoc experience is pretty much required, with the length of time varying, but usually at least two years. Therefore, it is common to have people starting positions with 4-6 years of postdoc experience and 10-20 papers on day one. At what point is one "experienced" enough to be able to mentor?

    We are also making the assumption here that the lab PI is the only person to whom a postdoc can go for guidance, and IME, that is also far from true. As a postdoc I consulted several PIs, both at my home institution and elsewhere, on a variety of different issues from applications, to funding and taking a position. I'm not sure how that would change based on the experience of the primary PI.

    It is ridiculous to impose a requirement of tenure on anyone who wants to mentor a postdoc (as Dr. Girlfriend seems to want to do), because every mentor is going to have strengths and weaknesses. A postdoc and supervisor need to be able to recognize these 'holes' and find other mentors to compensate for weaknesses of the PI. This is no different from the situation where a postdoc wants to go into an 'alternative' career and must find mentors that will be able to guide them through that process.

  18. Returning somewhat to the earlier points... I think the original post reflects an inverted version of the myopia mentioned. If Buendia risks incorrectly saying the system is broken because it is not favoring him, of course those who say the system is fine may only mean that it happens to favor them. Big grants are great if you have them; so, if you've got one, the system's working for -you- and thus is presumed to be fine for everyone.

    You don't generally see arguments for a reduction in economic disparity coming from those at the top end of the distribution.

  19. NSF is broken. Today I revived an e-mail that my grant was rejected. The reason was not that my proposal was poor. Just the opposite, all reviewers liked the proposal. The reason was and I quote :We have reservations that you are the "right" person do the research (I am a junior professor in a mid-tier university with a Ph.D. from a top university and more than 20 publications in good conferences and journals). So basically, doesn't matter what I submit. Since I am not the "right" person. By right, they mean someone from a top school. NSF is an elitist organization that only sponsors a handful of schools. I am 100% sure that the proposal would have been funded if it was submited by someone from MIT or Standford.
    Basically, applications from top school never get rejected, while applications from the rest always do.
    I am so glad that my tax dollars go to such an organization that can single-handedly determine who is right to do what research. If only top Universities are "right", then the government might as well close the rest.

    I believe that the problem is that if Ivy League University A and a mid-tier university B want to do the same research, then 100% of the money always go to University A.

  20. Is there the slightest chance that not being the "right" person has nothing to do with your school and more to do with what you are proposing to do and the history you have in that subject matter? Not only is your elite school hypothesis completely opposed to my experience as a reviewer, panel member and discussions with program officers, but it is in complete contrast to the mandate POs have to fill their portfolio with proposals from a wide variety of institution and investigator types. Other than that, you're spot on.

    This video might help in your current situation.