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2017 June 15

Petition to ask NIH to limit funds per person

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:35
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I just signed a petition,, that asks that NIH continue with their plan to cap each principal investigator at about three grants.  (Full details at the petition site.)

The idea is that by limiting over-funding for some of the biggest grantees, a lot of money would be opened up for good research that is currently going unfunded—the estimate is that the cap “would affect only 3% of all investigators, and the funds freed up could fund 900 new grants for PIs who did not have other grant funding.”  That sounds to me like a very good idea.  I gave up on writing grants a few years ago, when it became clear that the game had become a stacked lottery, and the expected value of the grant proposal was less than the cost of preparing the proposal (at least for slow writers like me—my salary for the time it took me to write a grant proposal was less than the expected value of the grant, given the very low probability of success).

I’ve blogged before on my dissatisfaction with what has happened to US research funding (see Fellowships, not research grantsSabbatical plans 2, and Sabbatical leave report), but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to add my voice to others in pressing for a change.

I urge others to read the petition, and decide whether you agree with it enough to sign it.

2014 March 13

Suggestions for changes to biomed training

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:56
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Yesterday I attended a a discussion lead by Henry Bourne (retired from UCSF) about problems in the training system for biologists in the US.  His points are summarized fairly well in his article A fair deal for PhD students and postdocs and the two articles it cites that preceded it:

In a recent essay I drew attention to five axioms that have helped to make the biomedical research enterprise unsustainable in the US (Bourne, 2013a). This essay tackles, in detail, the dangerous consequences of one of these axioms: that the biomedical laboratory workforce should be largely made up of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, mostly supported by research project grants, with a relatively small number of principal investigators leading ever larger research groups. This axiom—trainees equal research workforce—drives a powerful feedback loop that undermines the sustainability of both training and research. Indeed, unless biomedical scientists, research institutions and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) act boldly to reform the biomedical research enterprise in the US, it is likely to destroy itself (Bourne, 2013b).

I’m basically in agreement with him that very long PhD+postdoc training current in biology in the US is fundamentally broken, and that the postdoc “holding tank” is not a sustainable system.

I also agree with him that one of the biggest problems in the system is paying for education through research grants. Grad student support should be provided directly, either as fellowships or training grants (I prefer individual fellowships like the NSF fellowships, he prefers training grants). By separating support for PhD training from research support, we can effectively eliminate the conflict of interest in which students are kept as cheap labor rather than being properly trained to become independent scientists (or encouraged to find a field that better fits their talents). By limiting the number of PhD students we can stop pumping more people into the postdoc holding tank faster than we can drain the tank by finding the postdocs real jobs.

I disagreed with one of his suggestions, though. He wants to see the PhD shrunk to an average of 4.5 years, followed by a 2–4-year postdoc. I’d rather keep the PhD at 6.5 years and eliminate the postdoc holding tank entirely. In engineering fields, researchers are hired into permanent positions immediately after their PhDs—postdoc positions are rare.  It is mainly because NIH makes hiring postdocs so very, very “cost-effective” that the huge postdoc holding tank has grown. If NIH changed their policies to eliminate support for postdocs on research grants, allowing only permanent staff to be paid, that would help quite a bit.

Draining the postdoc holding tank would probably take a decade or more even with rational policies, but current policies of universities and industry (only hiring people in bio after 6 years or more of postdoc) and of the NIH (providing generous funding for postdocs but little for permanent researchers) make the postdoc holding tank likely to grow rather than shrink.

He pointed out that NIH used to spend a much larger fraction of their funding on training students than they do now—they’ve practically abandoned education, in favor of a low-pay, no-job-security research workforce (grad students and postdocs).

A big part of the problem is that research groups have changed from being a professor working with a handful of students to huge groups with one PI and dozens of postdocs and grad students. Under the huge-group model, one PI needs to have many grants to keep the group going, so competition for research grant money is much fiercer, and there is much less diversity of research than under a small-group model.

The large-group model necessitates few PIs and many underlings, making it difficult for postdocs to move up to becoming independent scientists (there are few PI positions around), as well as making it difficult for new faculty to compete with grant-writing machines maintained by the large groups.

A simple solution would be for NIH to institute a policy that they will not fund any PI with more than 3 grants at time, and study sections should be told how much funding each PI has from grants, so that they can compare productivity to cost (they should also be told when grants expire, so that they can help PIs avoid gaps in funding that can shut down research).  The large groups would dissolve in a few years, as universities raced to create more PIs to keep the overhead money coming in.  The new positions would help drain the postdoc holding tank and increase the diversity of research being pursued.

Of course, the new positions would have to be real ones, not “soft-money” positions that have no more job security than a postdoc. NIH could help there too, by refusing to pay more than 30% of a PI’s salary out of Federal funds.

Of course, any rational way of spending the no-longer-growing NIH budget will result in some of the bloated research groups collapsing (mainly in med schools, which have become addicted to easy money and have built empires on “soft-money” positions).

I think that biology has been over-producing PhDs for decades—more than there are permanent positions for in industry and academia combined. That combined with the dubious quality of much of the PhD training (which has often been just indentured servitude in one lab, with no training in teaching or in subjects outside a very narrow focus on the needs of the PhD adviser’s lab), has resulted in a situation where a PhD in biology is not worth much—necessitating further training before the scientist is employable and providing a huge pool of postdoc “trainees”, many of whom will never become independent scientists.

Tightening the standards for admission to PhD programs and providing more rigorous coursework in the first two years of PhD training (rather than immediately shoving them into some PI’s lab) would help a lot in increasing the value of the PhD.

Unfortunately, I see our department going in the opposite direction—moving away from the engineering model of training people to be independent immediately after the PhD and towards a model where they are little more than hands in the PI’s labs (decreasing the required coursework, shrinking the lab rotations, and getting people into PI labs after only 2 quarters). I gave up being grad director for our department, because I was not willing to supervise this damage to the program, nor could I explain to students policies that I did not agree with.

One thing we are trying to do that I think is good is increasing the MS program, so that there is a pool of trained individuals able to take on important research tasks as permanent employees, rather than as long-term PhDs or postdocs. Again, the engineering fields have developed a much better model than the biomedical fields, with the working degree for most positions being the BS or MS, with only a few PhDs needed for academic positions and cutting-edge industrial research. Note that a PhD often has less actual coursework than an MS—PhD students have been expected to learn by floundering around in someone’s lab for an extra 5 years taking no courses and often not even going to research seminars, which is a rather slow way of developing skills and deadly to gaining a breadth of knowledge. Biotech companies would probably do well to stop hiring PhDs and postdocs for routine positions, and start hiring those with an MS in bioengineering instead.

2012 January 10

ISCB opposes HR 3699

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:59
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In the post Rolling back open access, I passed on the message about the badly thought-out Research Works Act (H.R.3699),  which is intended to prohibit federal agencies from requiring public online access to grant-funded research results.

The International Society for Computational Biology has sent e-mail to all its members:

As many of you may be aware, the U.S. House of Representatives has recently been presented with a bill called the Research Works Act (HR 3699) that threatens the current U.S. requirements of public access to federally funded research results. ISCB strongly opposes this bill. Burkhard Rost, ISCB President, and Richard Lathrop, ISCB Public Affairs & Policies Committee Chair, are drafting a letter to the bill’s authors that expresses our opposition and emphasizes the importance of the ISCB Public Policy Statement on Open Access to Scientific and Technical Research Literature that was released in 2010. If you are a member of ISCB and have not yet signed on to our statement, you are invited to do so at your earliest opportunity via the link to current signatories from the above URL.

I’m glad to see that the ISCB is taking action.  It would be valuable for people to write letters to their congressional representatives.  Those who are members of professional societies should write letters to the president or board of the society asking them to take action.

Of course, some professional societies behave more like publishing houses than like member-serving societies, and may be perfectly happy getting back the right to keep all taxpayer-paid research behind a paywall.  Has anyone gotten ACM or IEEE to recognize the importance of open access to scientific literature?

Note: the NIH rule does not prevent publishers from making money selling articles, as the articles don’t become open access until a year after publication, and the user interface for getting access to the publications is rather awkward.  Several journals had already adopted an “open after a year” policy before the NIH ruling took effect.

2012 January 6

Rolling back open access

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:44
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A bill sponsored by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) and Congressman Darrell Issa (R-California), The Research Works Act (H.R.3699), is intended to prohibit federal agencies from requiring public online access to grant-funded research results.  (Currently NIH has such a requirement.)

TaxpayerAccess has started a letter-writing campaign opposing this bill, and scientists who value the NIH open-access policy may want to add a letter of their own to this.

There is a good explanation of the advantages in scientific education to having open-access literature, especially for community colleges, on the Discovering Biology in a Digital World blog: Raising the barriers: restricting access to scientific literature will hurt STEM education.

The International Society for Computational Biology has an official policy supporting such open-access policies for funding (see my post ISCB open access policies and the official policy statement).  Perhaps the President of the ISCB needs to write a letter in opposition to HR 3699.

2011 November 11

Fellowship applications

Every year at about this time I have my senior and first-year grad students write fellowship applications as an assignment for 2 classes (the bioinformatics core course and the how-to-be-a-grad-student course—most of the first-year students are in both, so can submit the assignment only once).

Because I’m on sabbatical this year, the courses are being taught by different people, so the students will get feedback from 3 people instead of one (a postdoc and TA who are teaching the core course, and a faculty member who is teaching the how-to-be-a-grad-student course).  Not satisfied with this, one of the new grad students organized an additional help session to get feedback from still more people on NSF fellowship applications (including students who had previously gotten NSF fellowships).  Feeling a bit left out of all this frenzy of fellowship feedback, I agreed to read and comment on three of the applications (less than the usual load of around 20 when I’m teaching the courses and way less than the grueling marathon of being on the NSF panel for grad fellowships, which I’ve done a few times in the past, but stopped doing because of how much time it ate out of my teaching and research).

The hope, of course, is that with all this polishing of the applications, more of the students will actually get fellowships (we’ve been averaging fewer than one a year, and our students are of a caliber where we should be getting 2 or 3 a year).

Mostly I’m looking for vague generalities (which trigger then panel’s BS detectors) and sloppy writing—those things are relatively easy to find and correct, but make a huge difference in the impact of the essay, particularly after 2 days of reading badly written essays.

I’ve read one and a half applications so far, and I can see that NSF would not fund them as written.  It is not that they are bad applications, but that they mention some no-no words for NSF: “biomedicine” and “drug interactions”.  NSF is very careful with their rather limited money, and won’t fund things that they think fall within the purview of the much wealthier NIH—anything having to do with medicine is out of scope for NSF.

Of course, grad students investigating those subjects are kind of stuck in a catch-22: NSF won’t fund fellowships for them, and NIH won’t fund grad students directly.  To get funding, they’d have to convince a faculty member to write a grant to support them, but the usual funding cycle for NIH grants means that no money would come in until far too late for the student (it probably averages more than 3 years from idea to getting any money from NIH, if you ever get that lucky).  NIH doesn’t want to pay for anyone except postdocs, who work very hard for very little money (a postdoc on a grant actually costs less than a grad student, since postdocs don’t pay tuition).

So what do I recommend to the students who have exciting work they want to do—work that does not fit under any existing grants of faculty in our department?  They can’t get money from NIH in a reasonable time frame, so NSF fellowships are still their highest-probability funding source.  (The NSF fellowships are too short, of course, at only 3 years, so they still have to write an NIH grant application with a faculty member, but at least the NSF fellowship is fairly quick turnaround (less than a year), so that they can have some money to do their research while waiting for the glacial grant cycles.

Those students who are interested in drug discovery or drug interactions, for example, have to spin their work differently.  Instead of focusing on the medical application (which in some cases was a bit dubious anyway), they should focus on biological discoveries and methods for discovering new ligand-protein interactions. Those interested in studying cell heterogeneity in cell lines by developing single-cell high-throughput experimental techniques have less rewriting to do—just cutting out mention of “medicine” may be enough.  It might also help if the work were done in something other than human cell lines, as human cell culture might trigger the knee-jerk “throw it over the fence to NIH” reaction.

The questions these students want to study are ones of fundamental science that can be applied to any species, not just to human medicine.  As such, they fall comfortably within NSF’s scope. The trick here is to keep the reviewers excited about the scientific possibilities, without triggering the NIH-should-pay-for-this reflex.

Note that this advice (to stay away from any mention of medical application and stick to fundamental biology) is precisely the opposite of the advice I would give to someone applying for an NIH grant, because NIH hates basic science and wants short-term application to medicine—the sooner the better. Although NSF is getting political pressure to become more applied, they are still more interested in fundamental science than in short-term payoff the way other funding agencies are.

Although, as an engineering faculty member I stand to gain from NSF becoming more applied, I do hope that NSF resists the politicians, as it is about the last source of funding for pure science research in the US.  Most highly applied “research” (properly called “development”) should be paid for more directly by industry (as much of it is), and the government should be funding more long-term science and engineering research.

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