Archive for: January, 2013

Funding the preproposal. Good idea, or this way be dragons?

Jan 31 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I've mentioned this before in discussion of the preproposal panel I was on last spring, but a post of DrugMonkey's brought it back up in my mind. One of the ideas that NSF seemed to be batting around was the possibility of funding proposals at the preproposal stage. As it was discussed, this would be a rare option that might be exercised on the top few preproposals in the bin. Obviously, with no budget at the preproposal stage, there would have to be some downstream work with the POs to make it happen, but it is an intriguing option.

On the "pro" side, my experience on that panel suggested that a small number of preproposals stood out to the group as superior. With this option, it would save time and resources in getting top science funded.

Some of the "cons" could include overuse. If, say, five preproposals got funded, what would that leave for the full proposal round? And if we're going to fund 4 pagers, why bother doing the full proposal? Having read a large number of both grant types, I can say for sure that most proposals need more than 4 pages. I think most panel members would shy away from green-lighting 4 page science, but I don't know.

What do you think? Is funding a preproposal a viable model?

10 responses so far

The first signs of a toddler infestation

Jan 30 2013 Published by under [Et Al], [Life Trajectories]

Toddlers. They can wreak havoc of your house. Once they get established, eradication is virtually impossible and only time can diminish their effects.

The Weer One has officially reached that age where she has found the sublime joy in just fucking shit up. Books on a shelf? They are way more hilarious on the floor! Why are all these toys in this basket when the toys are more fun scattered about and the basket is the best hat EVAH! It's great that my sister likes to organize things so that I can come by and reset this game of Chaos!

Exhibit A: The best toy in the house.

It's basically like living with a post-midnight fed gremlin who has the vocabulary of an Ewok and the volume of a screeching eagle. The minute you make it clear that something is out of bounds, every waking minute of their lives is dedicated to the conquest of that object while alerting you to their success. Silence followed by shrill maniacal laughter is always the first clue that they have succeeded while your back was turned for that instant.

"Child proofing"? Who are you kidding? It's just upping the challenge and the reward. Sure, you can try and watch them all the time, but like a prisoner, they have all the time in the world and nothing to lose. You're better off trying to win a staring contest with a fish.

And so we wait it out and try not to break an ankle on a book, spoon or pony on the floor.

4 responses so far

The inevitable, but too slow, march

Jan 25 2013 Published by under [Politics]

Yesterday another state set the marriage equality ball rolling. The Rhode Island House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that would define marriage as the "union of two individuals" without regard for gender. The bill still has to pass in the Senate and faces other challenges before it will ever end up as state policy, but it has key supporters, including the Governor.

While this vote didn't surprise me, what did was the realization that RI would be JUST THE NINTH STATE to support marriage equality. Compare that with 31 states that have constitutional bans on marriage equality.

Dude! Fuck. Sigh.

The wheels of changes turn slow. Too slow. The idea that anyone should be vilified or denied basic rights because of who they love has always been a foreign concept to me and I'm privileged to fall in a non-persecuted category. I've never needed to hide feelings or wonder what the hell is wrong with me. If you read Gerty's wonderful post from yesterday, you might get the slightest feeling how torturous that can be. But until we accept that people don't have to fit into the majority norm, we force people to play a role, publicly, which further isolates young people in need of role models.

How many times do we need to go down this road before we realize that discriminating against a minority group that just wants a level playing field is an absurdly ignorant thing to do?

4 responses so far

What's your science war story?

Jan 24 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

Everyone has a story from their past scientific exploits that comes up when there is a pissing contest over war stories. That time you got locked in the cold room for several hours? Nasty animal bite? Were you evacuated from a remote location? Maybe it's the time you accidentally inhaled some nasty chemical or blew up the fume hood. Perhaps you were directly responsible for the evacuation of a building or a chemical spill that required state officials to get involved. If there was fire, all the better.

Me? I've spent enough time in the field on my own and other people's projects that I've managed a few stories along the way. Perhaps the one with the best humor/no one seriously hurt ratio was the time I was pinned down by a sea turtle and, for lack of a better term, humped.

But how about you folks? What's your war story?

11 responses so far

Slowly letting the lecture go

Jan 24 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Tis the time of year when deadlines and obligations clash together like waves in a storm. The students are back, grants are submitted, budgets are revised and lectures are.... being dealt with. For the 4th time I am teaching my primary undergrad class and for the 4th time I am making substantial changes.

I simply survived the first year, as most do when they take on a full course for the first time. That first year was a whirlwind for both myself and the students. It seemed that I have to pack every lecture with info so I could keep from ending early. 1 slide a minute? I had to make it nearly 1.5. I had no gauge of what the students could handle and I fed them with a fire hose.

In year two I made the course actually make some sense. Cut back a bit and spent more time going to the board. In year three I finally felt like I had tweaked it enough that the students were getting something out of it instead of just making it through.

But I'm tired of being frustrated by the inability of much of the class to grasp some core concepts - concepts that are repeated throughout the course. While I think part of that failure falls on them, there's no way I escape blame. No matter how clear I think I'm being, it's not getting through. Time for a new strategy. I've used this space before to get teaching advice and this year I'm doing my damnedest to get away from straight lecture.

It's been hard. Lecturing is safe and easy. It's what we are used to. In some ways it is what they expect. But it hasn't been working well for me. So I am implementing both clickers and Think-Pair-Share into my class. Yesterday's trial run was good and I kept the students engaged. The first day of class is hardly time to take the students' temperature, but it was a good start.

But most of all, using these strategies has forced me to evaluate every slide in my arsenal and ask "why are you here?" Some material has to go to make room for stopping the class for discussions, and it has made me look at each slide to wonder what it's purpose is, in a new light. This might be the most valuable part of changing my class style - hacking off the vestigial material from when I couldn't have enough stuffed in there.

At a time when I least need it, I've increased my workload this semester by virtue of making the change, but feeling far more satisfied with my class is rewarding in itself. Hopefully I can maintain my enthusiasm for this new source of late nights as the semester progresses.

12 responses so far

Happy DEB preproposal day!

Jan 23 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I hope everyone is getting theirs in with plenty of time to spare. I hit the button on one last night and should have collaborators submitting a second this morning. Good luck to all!

6 responses so far

The diminishing returns of success

Jan 18 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This has been a good year for the lab. Students have graduated, papers have been published and funding success has been realized. Pending the federal budget fiasco and assuming NSF will not be cut in any major way, we are likely to have full funding for three projects in the lab this year, with seed funding for a fourth. There's hiring to do. There are students to bring on board. There is shit to buy.

But as the lab transforms into a busier place, the time to manage those new people and projects has to come from.... where? Which ball gets dropped when new ones get tossed in? If my teaching load gets reduced, who picks up the slack? Who covers my committee work? Who spends time with my family?

In lean financial times there is scant money around to pay adjuncts to pick up new courses. Like most universities, mine is facing a multi-million dollar budget deficit this year and guess where those cuts hit hard? Per-course instruction is low hanging fruit for administrators (yet another reason that being an adjunct instructor is a raw deal).

Maybe I don't offer a course for a year? I guess that's possible, but it certainly isn't ideal for the curriculum. I can assure you that it would also not be a move supported departmentally, which makes it a bit of a non-starter. So what's left? I don't know, but it looks like a conversation I need to have or risk stunting our progression curve.

How does it work at your institution? What does grant success "buy" you in the non-medical science world?

9 responses so far

Sally Rockey Discusses two years of NIH blogging

Jan 17 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Sally Rockey has been blogging at Rock Talk for two years and wrote a commentary about the experience that was published in Nature, yesterday. It's a good read and important insight into why blogging is so beneficial for government agencies.

I encourage others in science policy to go into blogging with their eyes open, recognizing the level of effort required to care for and maintain a blog. Potential bloggers should be aware of the long-term commitment needed to determine which issues are blog-worthy and of interest to the community. Rock Talk has sometimes covered topics that reveal NIH idiosyncrasies. But I think that is what makes the blog real and helps us to connect with the community.

As many readers will note, I've been on NSF about this for some time. One thing that Dr. Rockey mentions that might scare NSF away from blogging is the time and work involved, including that she has staff to help with the blog. Based on several conversations I've had with folks at NSF, I know this is unlikely to happen there. However, the incoming director of DEB, Alan Townsend, has an NSF blog in the works and I think that will pave the way for more. Whereas Rock Talk engages pretty much anyone applying to NIH, I think division-specific blogs at NSF will have a smaller (and less rabid?) audience that will be manageable for one person to handle. We'll find out soon enough.

No responses yet

Is the world of NIH-funded labs a haven for pathological douchebaggary?

Jan 16 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I have spent the vast majority of my career sheltered from the enormity that is the NIH funding machine. Part of that is my field, part of it was leaving the US for a good part of my training. As regular readers know, I have made some attempts at NIH funding and so, have tried to get my head around the culture. I've done so both informally via blogs and reading NIH documents and more formally by meeting with a good number of successful NIH PIs and getting feedback on proposals.

Generally I've had a lot of good interactions with people across the board. But as I've gotten a little more involved I'm getting a better sense of the NIH world. The more trainees and administrative people I talk to, the more concerned I get. But some of the stories... even if I limit things to just the people I know and trust.

The demands placed on trainees, the power dynamic that is wielded like a hammer and the ferocity with which it is used, have on several occasions left me speechless. And whenever questions about the behavior come up, it is chalked up to "You have to be tough in this game", or some such bullshit.

Perhaps it's a numbers game and the small percentage of asshole PIs is amplified in the bigger NIH world than what I have seen throughout my career. Might be the lack of focus on mentorship at NIH, compared with NSF, or the relative budgetary investment in trainees. Maybe it is a stress of the bigger payday or the associated power, I don't know. But in my dealings with a relatively large number of PIs who see NSF as the primary funding source, I have never witnessed the type of pathological behavior that appears acceptable within NIH circles. Or, at least, is tolerated by many peers and ignored by higher-ups. That's not to say it doesn't exist outside NIHville, but it doesn't appear so blatant and widespread that an outsider might be taken aback.

So WTF, NIHers? Why does the percentage of pathological PIs appear so high among your ranks?

28 responses so far

The variability of "professor"

Jan 15 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

What does the term "professor" mean to you? If you check Google it means an old white guy with glasses and a 60% chance of bearedness. As we found out from Forbes report Susan Adams two weeks ago, it someone with a leisurely lifestyle and takes summers off. I think there's been enough response to that article (including an excellent response at Forbes by David Kroll), but what I've been mulling about in my head while tending to a sick family is the singularity of the title.

I'm betting that for many of us, the perception of what a professor is has been heavily influenced by our own college or university experiences. Oddly, however, the title itself spans such an enormous spectrum of jobs that the name seems to be the only link between them. If you asked an adjunct professor or even a tenure track prof at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution for a job description, how much to you think it would have in common with a soft money NIH-supported professor at a medical center? Anything? Probably not. Maybe someone who had some teaching responsibility at a med school might find some common ground with the PUI prof, however tenuous.

Even WITHIN a single institution there is an enormous difference is what professors do. My engineering and art history colleagues have very different jobs than I do. It is often amusing to compare notes over beers to get a better understanding of how they spend their weeks.

All these jobs have their merits, stresses and rewards, but they serve different purposes and are responsible to different audiences. I am no more interested in teaching four classes a semester than I am raising my own salary entirely via grant funds, which is why I fall where I do on the spectrum. Others have made different choices, but it's time to ole' yeller the fantasy that one can describe a typical professor.

12 responses so far

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