Thursday, September 24, 2009


I'm beginning to wonder if agreeing to be on two grant review panels in the same month I have a grant due was one...

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Real lives and white lies

The title of this post is stolen borrowed from a new opinion piece by Peter A. Lawrence in PLoS Biology titled "Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research."* Go read it (open access - it's free!). Lawrence is mostly referring to the current system in Britain, but there are clearly parallels with the system here in the U.S.

Lawrence is concerned with the fate of young innovative scientists. However, many of the opinions cited in Lawrence's piece come from well-established scientists, so it's not clear how some of the suggested "fixes" (shorter grant applications, a tiered system of fixed five-year funding blocks followed by review, etc.) would work for young scientists. One of the quoted scientists complains about a 2.5 year funding gap after 30 years in research, which is easy to interpret as the whining of one of those old farts CPP loves to hate. Maybe he is, maybe he's not. Still, it's an interesting read.

Some highlights:

On the system-
“What a strange business this is: We stay in school forever. We have to battle the system with only a one in eight or one in ten chance of getting funded. We give up making a living until our forties. And we do it because we want to help the world. What kind of crazy person would go for that?”—Nancy Andrews, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Duke University School of Medicine

On the advantages of large groups-
"The peculiar demands of our granting system have favoured an upper class of skilled scientists who know how to raise money for a big group [3]. They have mastered a glass bead game that rewards not only quality and honesty, but also salesmanship and networking. A large group is the secret because applications are currently judged in a way that makes it almost immaterial how many of that group fail, so long as two or three do well. Data from these successful underlings can be cleverly packaged to produce a flow of papers—essential to generate an overlapping portfolio of grants to avoid gaps in funding.

Thus, large groups can appear effective even when they are neither efficient nor innovative. Also, large groups breed a surplus of PhD students and postdocs that flood the market; many boost the careers of their supervisors while their own plans to continue in research are doomed from the outset. The system also helps larger groups outcompete smaller groups, like those headed by younger scientists such as K. It is no wonder that the average age of grant recipients continues to rise [4]. Even worse, sustained success is most likely when risky and original topics are avoided and projects tailored to fit prevailing fashions—a fact that sticks a knife into the back of true research [5]. As Sydney Brenner has said, 'Innovation comes only from an assault on the unknown” [6].'

And perhaps my favorite paragraph-
"Universities have whole departments devoted to filling in the financial sections of these forms. Liaison between the scientists and these departments and between the scientists and employees of the granting agencies has become more and more Kafkaesque."

Kafkaesque indeed...

* Peter A. Lawrence (2009) Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research. PLoS Biol 7(9): e1000197

Monday, September 14, 2009


By 8am this morning I had reinstalled a toilet*, showered, shaved, breakfasted, read the newspaper, drove one of my daughters to school, and built towers out of wooden blocks with my son. I'm not sure I can maintain this pace...

* I tiled the floor yesterday.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

PSA: How to schedule a dissertation meeting

In the last three or four weeks I've had five grad students email me trying to set up meetings of their dissertation committees. Let's call these students A, B, C, D and E. Student A's email read:

Dear members of my committee,
I want to have a meeting of my dissertation committee on SpecificDay at SpecificTime.

Students B thru E all sent emails along the line of:

Dear members of my committee,
I want to have a meeting of my dissertation committee. When are you available?

No, no, no, no, no. Neither of these approaches will do. In fact, these are exactly how NOT to go about the process.

Let's start with student A. The odds of all of your committee members being available at the specific time and date you chose are quite small. In fact, I'm not available then. So now what? You choose another specific time and date? What if I or another committee member aren't available then? How many rounds of this will we have to go through?

Students B thru E. What timeframe are we talking about here? Sometime in the next week? Two weeks? Month? Year? Decade? Millennium?

Okay, so we can probably rule out millennium. And decade. At least for students B, C and D. You guys should have graduated and be long gone by then. E on the the hand...

Even if you pin it down to specific period, say sometime in the next two weeks, do you really want me to send you a list of when I might be available? My calendar currently looks like something Jackson Pollock created on the floor, as do, I suspect, the calendars of all your other committee members.

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Pollock's No. 5 1948 is a reasonable representation of Odyssey's calendar.

Why, oh why are you creating so much work for your committee and for yourself?

As a public service here's how you should approach the process:

  • Send a preliminary email asking if everyone is in town during the period you're hoping to have a meeting in.
  • Based on the results of the preliminary email, provide a list of five or six times and dates and ask your committee members to indicate which they are available for.*
  • Based on the replies, choose a time and date that works for everyone. Let everyone know as quickly as possible so they don't inadvertently fill that slot with something else. If there isn't one, try again.

    Simple isn't it?

    * If your committee is composed of computer savvy faculty you could go high-tech and use something like