Archive for: May, 2011

Slide templates and bride's maids dresses

Why do administrators insist on slide templates when they tell ask you to give a talk to other administrators? And WHY do they find the most brutally awful template ever created that requires you to mess with every fucking one of your slides after you drag your normal slides in? Is this some admin version of a bad bride's maid dress that makes their talk better looking next to your Pollock-like background? Are they TRYING to make me kill as much time as possible in prep for a worthless meeting? WTF?

11 responses so far

On "duplication" of research effort

May 31 2011 Published by under [Information&Communication], [Politics]

Senator Coburn's recent report on NSF has caused quite a stir. Possibly because it's typical conservative Republican hand waving and spin, but hey, at least he's not blatantly lying on the floor of congress to advance his agenda, right? Right?

A few other bloggers have already jumped all over this, including Dr. O, Namnezia and Prodigal Academic, so I am not going to attack the "report" as a whole. Like any other argument with someone who relies on lies or "bent" truth to advance their position, it's not worth it.

There was one section of the report, however, that I found amusing in its complete and utter lack of awareness regarding the funding climate of today, and that was the "Duplication" section (p. 20 for those who want to follow along at home). The central thesis of this section is summarized in the first paragraph:

Duplication of efforts across the federal government can lead to inefficiencies and waste of taxpayer dollars. Congress has all too often given government agencies overlapping authorities and responsibilities, often creating new programs without consolidating or eliminating existing programs with the same purposes.

Sounds like it was lifted from the stock congressional report template like a piece of clipart, but whatever. So the report is anti-duplication. Shocking. But, what kind of duplication are we talking about here? This is where the art of spin comes in and the wording gets all squirrely.

Even a cursory review of NSF grants turns up potential examples of duplication. For example, NSF funds a significant amount of energy research on top of the $4.4 billion DOE supports. A search of of program areas beginning with the term “energy” yields approximately 1,000 grants totaling another $590 million. 104 NSF’s trademark Antarctica program has a priority of supporting “national energy security goals.”

I'm sure a "cursory review" was all that was done, and I love the wording with "potential examples". Never attack without a back door, classic. In any case, let's assume that a key word search means anything other than that the PI is aware of current funding trends and tried to align with them - what is "energy research", for instance? Is it one kind of science or are there multiple different fields that having something to offer? Oh, it's interdisciplinary? That seems like something the Feds have been pushing for a while. Should we take all work related to energy and give it to DOE and eliminate anything related to energy from NSF? But what about the dreaded "silos" that the government is always freaking out about? We could run this around in circles for months.

My favorite was this little gem:

With 99 programs at 11 agencies, overlap and duplication is a significant concern. Consider that across the federal government there are nine programs intending to improve STEM education for minority populations and 15 programs for graduate level STEM education.

Translation: Cause srsly folks, do we really need NINE programs across the country to improve STEM education for minority populations? Aren't all minority populations the same? Can't we just have program? What a fucking waste of money!

But the bigger point is that the perception of duplication of programs is a symptom of the budgetary decisions congress has been making. We can argue around and around about whether more money for science produces better quality science, but the fact of the matter is that funding rates are low right now. There is heavy demand, little supply and a lot of labs are having to explore new funding options to stay afloat. In the current climate, PIs are looking to pitch their research to agencies they might otherwise not consider. Is this redundancy? Should PIs only have ideas that fit the mandate of their core funding agency?

This came up in Prodigal Academic's blog and was used as a source in Coburn's report:

Some in the scientific community question the ethics behind submitting overlapping proposals to two different government agencies. In an online discussion, researchers discussed how they, or people they work with, had often submitted the same proposal to separate agencies. One commenter asserted managers at the Department of Energy suggest scientists should submit their proposals to multiple agencies. The blog’s author stated, “Some of the DoD basic science calls are pretty broad—I think it would be possible to use more or less the same proposal, reformatted, for various DoD calls that overlap with USDA, DOE, NSF, NIH, or NASA programs.”

NEWS FLASH: If your work could be funded by multiple agencies and you're not sending it to them, the biggest question is why not? Would it even be possible to write the programs of the various funding agencies to exclude any overlap? Maybe, but likely by isolating large communities that would then lack any home. To do so would be supremely stupid and short-sighted.

The fact that there is some overlap in key words and PIs can submit similar ideas to multiple agencies is a feature, not a bug. If Coburn is worried about individuals double-dipping for the same project, then why not show some actual examples of that (which I think would be very difficult to do and not get hammered for it)?

As usual, this "report" seems like just another conservative attempt at justifying some of their more morally reprehensible proposals by trying to pretend like they have federal savings at heart. Much like the report, the promotional campaign was chock full of misrepresentations and attempts to convince anyone unwilling to read anything for themselves that SCIENCE IS WASTIN UR MONIEZ!

I guess the lies sounds a whole lot better than the truth.

4 responses so far

The dreaded red

May 27 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

By the time I was a postdoc I felt as though I had developed my writing skills to the point that I knew what I was doing. I had written several papers and a thesis, and even though those were heavily edited by my PhD supervisor, I had learned a lot about my own style and writing.

It only took a single draft of my first paper as a postdoc to have that little illusion shredded. In less than 24 hours after handing what I thought was a solid draft of a manuscript to my PI, I got it back drenched in red. The carnage was horrific. I think a new Masters student had to leave the room to throw up. My first reaction was to wonder if I had inadvertently handed in an early copy, but alas, it was the new version. So, I sat down and picked through the remains.

Much of the damage was stylistic (though both excellent writers, my PhD and postdoc PIs have very different styles), but it forced me to think hard about my audience, the best way to communicate the message and finding my own style to accomplish the goal. I fixed it up and turned it around.

24 hours later*, another blood bath.

WTF? I thought I dealt with all the issues that came up from the first draft?

But the paper was changing, and with it, so was the "pitch". The subtle and not so subtle refinements along the way were absolutely critical in revealing the message and making it stick out over the layer of data below. This might have been the most useful skill (of many) that I learned as a postdoc - effective writing that goes beyond "getting the story out there" and gets into the realm of making people want to read it.

I haven't mastered this yet, but my postdoc set me in the right direction. It amuses me now to see the reaction I get from my own trainees when I had back drafts of their manuscripts. In the end, however, I think they appreciate the effort I'm putting in to both their drafts and to pushing them to be better writers. It's a craft we all need to hone at every opportunity, because most of the people that ever come across your work will do so in its written form.

*Yes, my postdoc supervisor was a fucking machine and dealing with text and getting things turned around.

10 responses so far

Lessons of the day

May 26 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

The difference between "New York" and "York" is actually really key if you're trying to travel to one and then actually have to go to the other.

Telling a pregnant lady that you feel like you've gained a little weight recently is like telling someone on fire that you're upset about you athletes foot flaring up.

Never inform your lab that having someone make a cake iced in your likeness would creep you out beyond words, because they will make it their collective mission to make it happen.

9 responses so far

Zombies? The CDC is ready.

May 25 2011 Published by under [Et Al], [Information&Communication]

The Center for Disease Control is always preparing fro new outbreaks, and this time they're keeping an eye out for zombies.

In perhaps an unusual move for a government organization, the CDC is exploring new ways to engage a younger audience. What better way to do so than on a blog post about zombies!

If zombies did start roaming the streets, CDC would conduct an investigation much like any other disease outbreak. CDC would provide technical assistance to cities, states, or international partners dealing with a zombie infestation. This assistance might include consultation, lab testing and analysis, patient management and care, tracking of contacts, and infection control (including isolation and quarantine).

According to AAAS, the zombie post increased the CDC's hits from a typical 1000-3000 hits per day to a million hit over a few days. See everybody likes zombies.

It's good to see a government organization using available media tools to get their message out and conveying a serious point with some humor. Go CDC.

One response so far

Are grad students "employees"?

May 25 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This is not a new topic to the bloggosphere - DrugMonkey alone has roughly 47,390 posts that touch on elements of this questions. But I bring it up here because of some major differences that occur among various fields that are important for thinking about the question of whether or not grad students should be viewed as employees. I don't think the situation in the biomed fields is necessarily representative of "science", particularly in light of the large roll that TAships play in non-medical fields. Without tipping my hand too much, I'll provide my opinion later in the comments section, after others have a chance to weigh in. To the polls!

35 responses so far

How many reminders does it take to get to the center of a PI's brain?

May 24 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

If there's one universal feature that unites anyone running a research lab, it's that there are never enough hours in the day for them to get done everything that needs doing. From manuscripts to meeting, reviews to reports, there is always something due yesterday. The general hierarchy of How Fast Shit Gets Done, runs something like this:

Will it bring money into the lab?
Is it for a lab publication?
Is someone seriously pissed about the lateness of it?
Was it due yesterday?
Is it due today?
Are there meaningful consequences for missing the deadline?
Is it for my trainees?
Everything else.

Note that things from "everything else" can work their way up the ladder, but only if someone starts making some noise. I used to feel like an ass when I would get those reminders from journals that my review is due today. Now, depending on the time of year, that reminder is what gets me to download the damn thing.

Why is this important? Because outside of a few incredibly efficient PIs, most of us need reminders. In fact, for some tasks, if I don't get a reminder it will fall off the deck completely. This often comes up in the bloggosphere and IRL as an issue that a lot of trainees have, and the simple answer is that you need to stay on top of people if you want to keep the thing you need from them on the forefront. Always be pleasant and polite, but sending reminders is something you'll need to get used to. Remember that letting someone else's work sit on the back burner is an easy way to manage one's limited time, and unless there's some sense of urgency from that other person, it's gonna sit until I have nothing more pressing to do.

4 responses so far

Can pro cycling afford to have Armstrong exposed as a cheater?

May 23 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

Few things terrify those in charge of a major sporting organization than having an iconic figure torn down as a cheater. From time to time it happens, the popularity of that sport takes a hit and anyone from that particular era who was great immediately falls under suspicion.

In the US, perhaps the most spectacular recent case has involved baseball and steroids. We've watch Barry Bonds' head expand, we've seen a defiant group testify in front of congress, we've watch the life of Roger Clemens take some very dark turns, Mark McGuire become a recluse and Jose Conseco actually find a way to profit out of all of it. But baseball survived the steroids era because of its massive popularity prior to the allegations, the labor stoppage and several other factors that have threatened the game over the last couple of decades.

But cycling, especially in the US, doesn't have the kind of popularity to take a major hit and bounce right back. Despite massive increases in the number of registered members of US Cycling since Lance Armstrong started his fairly amazing run, that number remains well under 100,000, even with a post-2002 increase of ~50%. These numbers certainly pale in comparison to the popularity of professional cycling in Europe, but there has also been an upward trend in the sport's profile in Europe that corresponds to the emergence of Lance Armstrong on the Tour de France. Love him or hate him, it made for good theater.

But now we have yet another US cycler adding fuel to the fire that has been simmering for some time. As one prominent cycler after another has been sanctioned for testing positive for PEDs, everyone has turned to Armstrong and listened harder for the whispers that have grown louder. So far it's been a dead end, but littered with some incriminating details. The one accusation that I find the most interesting has resurfaced in Tyler Hamilton's latest claims: that Armstrong tested positive in 2001, but worked out a deal with the International Cycling Union to make it go away. In ESPN's summary of the "60 Minutes" interview, it states:

Hamilton corroborated that story on "60 Minutes," saying a "relaxed" Armstrong told him the UCI had made the issue "go away." It is not clear whether the initial test, dubbed "suspicious" in Sunday's report, was ever backed up by a test on another sample. However, as World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman pointed out on camera, a clear ethical breach occurred when the director of the Swiss lab that conducted the test met with Armstrong and his team manager Johan Bruyneel at the behest of the UCI. That would constitute preferential treatment. Around the time of this alleged meeting, Armstrong donated $25,000 to the UCI (he contributed another $100,000 to the governing body three years later).

The show reported that the lab director said in an affidavit the meeting included a discussion of testing procedures that would have been useful for someone seeking to beat the test. If all the moving pieces in this story are connected, it will give credence to the theory that Armstrong and his organization were protected by the UCI in exchange for a quid pro quo. Bribing foreign officials is against U.S. law.

So now the plot thickens at the suggestion that the ICU gave special protection to Armstrong and rather than having an interest in player health and cleaning up the sport, the governing body cares more about drawing fans. Sound familiar? *cough* baseball *cough*.

Just ask the NHL, which is just now starting to recover from being banned to the Outhouse Network, or whatever, how hard it us to claw back after pissing off your fan base. Baseball did okay, but remains under the specter of the Steroid era. If it turns out that many, if not all, of the top cyclists use PEDs, including some of the sports icons, can cycling bounce back? Will parents encourage their kids to play a sport where it is perceived that you can not reach the pinnacle without "assistance"?

We may very well get to find out.

6 responses so far

Job Vacancy: Meeting Ninja

May 18 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

Having filled our previously advertised jobs in Seminar Napping and Journal Club Killa, the PLS lab at Employment University has a new position available immediately, entitled, Meeting Ninja.

Job requirements: Must be able to produce the appearance of being in two places at one time, while being in neither. Must be able to disappear in a cloud of smoke at the utterance of "who can we count on to get this done?" or "we'll need volunteers to make this work." Preferable skills include the ability to appear to sign up for tasks like "Welcome Day" while actually assigning said task to those who haven't volunteered in 20 years.

All letters of reference must be delivered by messengers who drop dead immediately after their delivery is complete.

In an unrelated job posting, a messenger body removal person is also required.

One response so far

Research progress in the lab

May 17 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This is an excellent summary of how our research progress feels right now.

14 responses so far

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