Let's stop blaming the alcohol

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 10 2016

As more and more cases of academic sexual harassment continue to come out into the light (and I believe this is barely the appetizer course), there's a lot of people navel gazing about what can be done. And rightfully so - this is a problem that has festered WAY too long, as the stories make clear. Pretty much every field has AT LEAST one dude who "people know" is a lecherous asshole, but there he/they is/are at every meeting. They still have labs and trainees and still get funding. They exist within the field, in spite of their crimes.

An obvious focus has been the use of alcohol at university functions, society meetings, social gatherings, etc. I get it, it's those nighttime functions where a lot of this stuff is initiated. Lower inhibitions, or in some likely criminal situations like the Richmond accusations, an inability to consent. Those in the power position of these situations are quick to blame the alcohol for something they would never do otherwise (until the rest of the stories spill out) or use it to victim blame. So, The People Say: BAN THE ALCOHOL!

But here's the thing. It was never the alcohol. The alcohol didn't let the lecherous predator out from the normally totally cool prof dude who is universally beloved. That's not how this works. If someone has a couple of drinks and goes into sexual harassment mode, chances are they do it sober, just not in front of *you*. If someone is a couple drinks away from endangering someone, especially someone they have some form of power over, it has nothing to do with the alcohol.

So rather than ban alcohol, I have a better solution. How about we actually punish people when these situations arise? And don't give me all the "well but" hypothetical solutions that come up all the time. I'm sorry, but if you find yourself aroused by someone you have career power over, then deal with the situation through proper channels while sober before advancing things. If you want to consensually knock boots someone at a similar career stage without a loaded power dynamic, I'm not talking about you. Will there be some gray areas? Yeah, but I'll take that if it means consequences for serial harassers.

It's well past time to address the culture that enables this behavior without pretending like the real problem here is adults acting like adults after a beer or two. It was never the alcohol.

4 responses so far

What IS indirect cost money, anyway?

(by proflikesubstance) Feb 09 2016

Based on discussions on twitter, it seems pretty clear that a lot of Non-PI scientists don't really understand the concept of indirect costs, aka overhead. Most people know that a university's overhead rate is what they take from federal grant dollars to "keep the lights on", so to speak. But how is it calculated and how is it spent?

The indirect rate is something each university negotiates with the federal government. So, when someone tells you their overhead rate is 51%, that the number their university has worked out with the feds. The rates for NSF, DoD and NIH are always the same, USDA and (I think) NASA are lower. That's a discussion for another time. Now, a rate of 51% does not mean half your grant goes into the dark cauldron of university expenses. Overhead is calculated by taking the total of adjusted* direct costs and finding the 51% of that number and adding it to the total direct costs.

So, if your adjusted direct costs are $100k, the overhead on that will be $51k. If, once you add tuition and equipment in, your total direct costs are $120K, the total budget will be $171k. In this hypothetical case, the overhead amount on the grant is only about 30% of the total budget. NIH applicants only ever deal with their direct costs in a budget (ie, NIH budget limitations, inasmuch as the exist, are on direct costs only, not total budget), but everyone else calculates the total budget.

Ok, so now that we have calculated overhead and you were awarded the grant, what happens to all that money? Well, it doesn't get freed up into the coffers until you spend money off your grant. For every dollar you spend, fifty-one cents of overhead money gets it's wings. As you spend, the university gets cash.

Most of that cash will find it's way directly into the university-level machine. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-80% will get gobbled up right away, with the rest landing next in your college. Your college will take a giant bite out of that (usually at least 50%), before your department gets to swing the bat. Different departments do it differently, and I've seen situations where the department takes everything that remains, whereas others return all of the overhead back to the investigator. Usually the solution is somewhere in between, so let's say that 50% goes to the department and 50% goes to the PI.

The PI is allowed to use that money to do things like cover shipping, buy software and journal subscriptions, bring in people for interviews for lab positions, cover salary, etc. In many places, this is a very useful, if small, pot of money to have available. However, overhead generated on a particular project should, by law, be expended entirely by the end of that project. In practice, this is almost impossible, but stockpiling overhead money to CYA later is heavily frowned upon.

What the university and college do with the overhead money varies, but much of it is related to supporting costs of the research enterprise (think, compliance, university vet, grants staff, etc.). Additionally, those monies are often used as part of start-up packages for new hires, meaning a lean year for indirects directly effects the hiring and recruitment process.

* Some things like equipment and tuition are non-overhead bearing budget lines, so they are subtracted from the total.

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The new class

(by proflikesubstance) Jan 28 2016

For better or for worse, I decided to ditch the class I had been teaching pre-tenure and create a new class. The new class has some cross-over with my previous one, but is aimed at an earlier (2nd years) and larger audience. I also decided to team teach the course, because my co-instructor brings a ton of interesting and useful experience to the table for this class.

The last time I did a new class prep, it was horrible. That was the hardest semester I've had in this job, for a variety of reasons, but class creation was chief among them. I thought I had a plan for it, but it kicked my ass so hard. That experience left me with mixed feelings going into this semester. I know have way more service and departmental responsibility than I did back then, a much larger lab and I'm juggling different grants while writing for some new opportunities. I don't have time for an ass kicking.

It's early yet, but this time around is completely different. I could almost saying I'm kind of enjoying it. The experience I have at this point makes it WAAAAAY easier to know what to include in a lecture and what to toss. I have a good feel for timing, which was lost on me before. I don't feel like I need to add content to avoid coming up short. Instead I have the confidence to know I can talk through the material in different ways, depending on the time available. Since the class is right in my wheelhouse, I'm having fun with adding in information from the literature.

In short, it could not be a more different experience. I am controlling the class, rather than surviving it. This job continues to amaze.

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Tenure Funk

(by proflikesubstance) Jan 14 2016

So much academic advice and energy is focused on tenure. How do you get tenure? How do you survive pretenure? What are the tenure requirements at your institution? On and on and on. It's an important milestone, since it is a rare opportunity for your university to tell you to leave, but for 90% of institutions there is far more bark than bite.

I never focused on tenure. It was never my goal. I focused on staying relevant in my field and getting good science out. I focused on keeping the lights on by getting grants. I focused on training my students so I would be proud of them when they left. I reasoned that doing those things would put me in a position to get tenure and stressing about the milestone itself did no good. We also have annual reviews here, so I knew I was on the right track.

And it worked. I jumped the bar and have the official letter to prove it. And then something unexpected happened*.

That summer and well into the next year I fell into a funk that I hadn't experienced before. I wasn't depressed, I wasn't sad, but I felt like I needed some time away. I let deadlines go unmet. I ignored things I shouldn't have ignored. I went to conferences and barley attended talks. I pretty much stopped blogging or reading blogs. Once I got tenure I looked back and realized that I had spent years either writing grants to pay someone else to do cool science or writing papers about cool science someone else had done. I had an office job and now all the benefits and protections of being pretenure were torn away like a badly stuck band-aid.

In retrospect, the drive to tenure was taking a toll on me, whether I realized it or not. I never felt anxious about getting tenure, but clearly the looming deadline had been weighing on me. While I was great to get that behind me, it felt a little like bursting through the curtain to an empty auditorium. "Congrats, now which of these committees would you like to be on!"

I took a semester sabbatical, which did little to change things. I wrote a pile of new grants and some got funded. It was fine, but really not until this last summer (a year post-tenure) did I start to re-engage. I honestly don't know why I stepped away or what brought me back, but things are rolling again. We have new stuff going in the lab. We have some new opportunities and some old ones have starting bearing fruit. Things are good, but it took a bit to be at peace with where I was at, professionally.

*And yes, I know this is basically the top of the First World Problems mountain.

14 responses so far

Protecting students from bad PIs

(by proflikesubstance) Jan 13 2016

Astro physics has been in news a lot recently, with a series of sexual harassment cases involving male PIs and female students. As anyone who has worked in academia for a while knows, these are not isolated cases. Academia is as bad about dealing with sexual harassment as many private and public sector jobs are, and the consequences for the students involved can be complete career annihilation. This is a massive problem tat we are not treating with the urgency it deserves, and it is hardly the only issue that can lead to students being pushed out of academia.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that needs to be dealt with at the departmental and university levels. Of course, an issue that disproportionately effects students that needs to be dealt with by administration is only acted upon if that admin is motivated. They rarely are, which is why the problem exists. And we go round and round.

I get that it makes sense to take the bull by the horns as a student applying to work in a lab, but some things just don't work:

On first glance you might think, "okay, that's one way to start a conversation about expectations, etc...." but take this a step or two further.

- Asking someone an incredibly invasive personal question on an interview aside, what's to say that the situation today is predictive of tomorrow? Things could be going great today, but a car accident, unexpected health issue of a child/parent/spouse, or relationship issue down the road is no less likely to occur if you ask this question. Life happens and it's impossible to predict what the reaction will be.

- Do you have the right to even ask this question? I mean, should a potential PI feel obligated to describe their personal health information to you? The answer is no. You don't know anyone's home situation and you're not privy to that information, even if it may affect you one day. Why not ask if they're on anti-depressants? How much they drink? Whether they do drugs? Are they seeing a therapist? I mean, that's basically shades of the same question. Can you see where this becomes problematic?

Asking that type of question will not protect you from anything and is more than likely going to alarm a potential PI. Maybe it's a vehicle to a good conversation in a few instances, but I doubt it would generally play well.

I am acutely aware that the power differential between PI and trainees is a very steep slope, and that more protections need to be in place for students. Reforms at the department and university level for student (and really anyone junior) protection are desperately needed, but the "advice" above is not how we get there.

20 responses so far

The New PI Goldfish

(by proflikesubstance) Dec 18 2015

There's lots of ways to start a new lab. Some, however, have proven more successful over time than others. Whereas the responsibilities of different new PIs are wide ranging, most include advancing a research program. How does one do that?

I am a huge fan of taking a diverse approach to one's research question. My lab has had success working across different system and focusing on a couple of main questions, who's trajectories may be headed in distant or similar directions at any one time. I think the key to surviving in a time of tight budgets is flexibility and locking into a single question/system is unlikely to make that simple. Obviously many people find success going down a single rabbit hole, but I don't think I would be as effective at that.

With that said, the new PI cannot chase research projects like butterflies in a garden if the hope is to build a program that will attract external funding. You have two resources as a new PI that you must invest very wisely: Time and Money. They are finite and wasting either has far greater consequences for you that it does for your senior colleagues.

Really cool opportunities will come up all the time. Your ability to discern which ones are worth your resources, and particularly how much of your resources, will play a large part in whether your research program takes off or sputters. As tempting as it is to chase down everything that comes along, spreading yourself too thin is a bad trap to fall into.

Identify your bread and butter and invest heavily in that. Cultivate side projects that you contribute to, but don't do the heavy lifting for. Your grant writing and paper writing should mainly concentrate on advancing your core, with minor contributions to side things. The bar for funding, WRT preliminary data and proof that you know what you're doing is too high to mess around. If your goal is an externally funded research program, having initial focus is fairly critical, before you broaden your scope.

3 responses so far

Considering the fame of potential advisors?

(by proflikesubstance) Dec 02 2015

In the context of the three most important questions on should ask when choosing a postdoc, came this:

Ok. I get this. But damn if this isn't bad for science. We complain about the homogeneity of academic science. There are large fields where the Academic Tree of Life looks more like a bush, with a few central hubs (almost always older white men). We complain about science too often being a "who you know" game, despite claims of a meritocracy. And the reason all this is an issue is precisely encapsulated above.

Was your advisor famous enough to turn some heads in a search committee? On a funding panel? Are you one of the chosen, or just someone doing science for people who have to work to get their papers in the upper tier journals?

From the selfish perspective of a student who might benefit from such career advantages, I recognize the utility here. But this kind of thing is as corrosive as the Glam Mag Game. Doing great science and learning new tools (Matt's other two suggestions) should be the most critical pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, like the Glam Mag Game, individual decisions and motives drive a behavior that is bad for the overall endeavor.

15 responses so far

Your DEB panel summary will look a bit different this year

(by proflikesubstance) Nov 04 2015

Tis the time of year for full proposal panels in NSF's IOS and DEB and there's a few new twists for those in DEB, including the panel summary. If you were fortunate enough to have a full proposal in panel this round, you may be slightly surprised at the feedback you get. There's a longer explanation at the DEB blog, but I was initially surprised by the new template, which looks like this:

pstemplate1

There's a fair bit of information here that was previously not really included in the panel summary, which focused almost exclusively on the strengths and weaknesses of the IM and BI sections. So what do that mean to you as a grant writer? Two things in particular:

1) There is now a heavier emphasis on evaluating prior support. Were you productive? Did you actually do more than training for your broader impacts? These will now be specifically commented on. Make sure you choose to highlight the recent grant (you only need to write about ONE) where you can flex your publication and BI muscles a bit.

2) The data management plan is becoming more of a focus. Don't be surprised if this ends up as a field in the reviewing score sheet soon. Those who have been mailing it in for this section (and there are plenty) are going to have increasing difficulty convincing reviewers they can deal with the project data. I don't think the postdoc mentoring plan is far off from showing up here either, BTW.

Whereas these new sections of focus don't have the same weight as the others, DEB is certainly shining a light on sections that were often glossed over before. Be prepared if you get a shot at a full proposal next year, because you don't want to waste those opportunities.

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What you learn from reviewing a batch of proposals

(by proflikesubstance) Oct 06 2015

It is full proposals review season for NSF's IOS and DEB panels. Theoretically, what we are reviewing is the cream skimmed from the top of the preproposal pile (+ CAREER proposals). The reality, of course, is that we have the resulting proposals from those who were convincing at the preproposal stage. Subtle, but very different.

One thing that has really jumped out at me this year is the number of proposals that are clearly stretching to make the 15 pages. There's lots of tricks to do this, some more obvious than others, but it's still clear if you add a superfluous table that spans two pages or use five pages for your Broader Impacts that could be summarized in two. I don't remember seeing that in previous full proposal panels, but perhaps I was less attuned to it before. Indeed, some people this round aren't even bothering to fill the full 15 pages, ending their proposals a page or more early. My sample size is too small to know whether this is A Thing, or if I'm just getting an unusual number of these proposals.

I honestly also don't know whether this is a consequence of the preproposals stage or not. I mentioned this on twitter and got different reactions, but the general feeling was there was an influence of how we select preproposals.

As we've discussed before, pre- and full proposals are different documents with different goals. It is entirely possible to sell an exciting preproposal that doesn't hold water as a full proposal. I don't think that's in inherent flaw, just a new feature of the system.

But I digress.

Another obvious issue with some proposals is their lack of balance between writing for the ad hocs and the panelists. What's the difference? The ad hoc reviewers will be people in your field who know the ins and outs of the system. They will be the ones to spot a flaw that doesn't take into account some recent literature in your field. They will be the ones questioning part of your specific methodology. The panelists will likely be evaluating the goals of the project at a different level. Beyond the minutiae of your system, panelists will be determining whether or not your over-arching questions appeal broadly. Is there more than just answering a subfield question here?

Unlike the preproposals that do not get reviewed outside of the panel, every full proposal walks the tightrope between these two audiences, attempting to please them both. The key to doing this is structuring the proposal so that the broadest questions and approaches are front and center, with the gritty details towards the end and well labeled. Mixing and matching the two works for some, but often makes a mess in less experienced hands. When reading a number of proposals at once, this is very clear.

As a panelist I often struggle with how much grant writing advice I should include in my reviews. I mean, that's not technically the job, but that feedback might be just as important as the scientific feedback. Not everyone out there has mentors willing or able to provide critical feedback. Unlike NIH, where the review is written specifically to the study section, NSF reviews are written more with the applicant in mind. I admit that I've found more of this type of critique slipping into my reviews than it once did. I'll be curious to see how that is handled at panel.

Of course, the biggest trick of all is ensuring one takes one's own advice when it comes time to write your own proposal.

8 responses so far

Arming professors: A terrible, no good, very bad idea

(by proflikesubstance) Oct 02 2015

Deterrence. This argument often surfaces in the aftermath of school shootings, which have become almost commonplace in the US. If we simply armed teachers, it would keep would-be school shooters from carrying out their plans. It's an opinion that is gaining traction nationally. I even had this conversation yesterday:

You can follow the thread, but there's several major flaws in this argument. First off, the data just flat out don't support that claim. Even the casual observation that the US has by far the most guns in the hands of citizens, yet the highest national gun violence stats, should tell you all you need to know. There is NO QUESTION that more guns = more gun violence.

But but but, we just need the right people to have the guns! Well, this is also a favorite NRA argument. Spoiler: it doesn't hold weight, either. Check out this 20/20 episode where they trained students well beyond the normal training for concealed carry, told them they would have to fend off a shooter and not one managed to pull their weapon when shot got real and they all got shot.

Now we want to argue for putting guns in the hands of professors. Okaaaaaay, how's that gonna go? Well, to start with, the vast majority of profs I know would refuse. Why? there's probably an infinite number of reasons, but they would start with the fact that even trained professionals often make mistakes in live shooter situations and kill innocent people. Now you want Dr. Smith to seamlessly transition from their economics lecture to gunning down some dude who bursts into a classroom with an assault rifle? Yeah. Ok. How many of the professors you have met would you trust to react to a live shooter incident, fire a weapon accurately at a distance and not accidentally hit an innocent student in the mayhem?

Even if we only secretly hire new professors with Navy Seal training, what would be the effect of having professors toting guns to class? You think your professor is unapproachable now? I'm sure a loaded .38 will help. "He seems much more nurturing now that I know he could gun me down at any moment!" The reality of any open carry movement is that the primary use of visible guns is intimidation. Any professor that would volunteer to carry a gun to class is almost certainly not one I would want to carry a gun to class.

Now, would armed professors make any difference? Doubtful. If someone wants to shoot up a school, is the presence armed professors going to make them change their plans? "I was going to go on a rampage with my assault rifle, but the thought of Dr. Ratcliff's .22 made me reconsider and channel my efforts to community service!" Yeah, no. Mentally stable, rational people don't gun down innocent people on a whim. Assuming that they are taking risk into consideration is absurd when almost every school shooting has ended with the death of the shooter. They know they are not making it out alive, so the idea of armed professors would mean nothing.

Knee jerk reaction aside, there is no evidence at all that would suggest that arming professors would curb the violence we have seen. More guns are not the solution, no matter what the NRA has conditioned us to believe. We need gun laws that actually make sense (see: almost every other first world nation) and the citizenry to actually give two fucks about curbing gun violence.

Or maybe we just charge $5k for bullets:

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