Archive for: March, 2013

If you don't talk to your kids about it someone else will

If I've learned anything about parenting, it seems you spend most of your time catching up to what your children have already been trying to figure out. In the last 6 months or so we've gotten a number of questions about death from the Wee One. At five years old kids are starting to figure out that things die and the natural question is "then what?" I've provided answers about the chemicals in your body going back into the Earth so that other things can grow, largely to a dissatisfied stare in return.

"So you then grow into a horse? Or a squirrel?"

"Well, maybe some of the chemicals in your body help to make up a squirrel..."

"Daddy, I'm becoming a squirrel when I die!"

We've had a few of these conversations, which have become a bit more productive over time, but it's a challenging concept so I let her go at her own pace. What I didn't expect to have a conversation about was something that came up last night.

We were listening to the kid's album Snack Time by the Bare Naked Ladies and the song "Raisin" came on. The very first line of the song is:

"Raisins come from grapes, people come from apes"

The Wee One looked up and said "Why did they say that? How can we come from apes?"

Hey, teachable moment, I thought! "Well, honey, apes are kind of like our really distant cousins. People and apes share a greatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreat grandmother and..."

"But daddy, GOD made people! My friends and teachers told me that."

And I was all:

Alrighty then! Nothing like playing from behind in a game you didn't know you were in. For the next hour we chatted about religions, what it meant and why different people believe different things. She was offended that there were no "girl gods" and insisted that she should be able to grow up to be a girl god and I told her that seemed like a reasonable request. In the end she told me that she still thought god made people, but it was a girl god. For now, I'll take it.

But for an atheist family with a child going to a school that celebrates no religion-based holidays and prides itself on diversity, I was (stupidly) unprepared to field these kinds of questions. Good lesson to learn now.

24 responses so far

Taking a grant budget cut in stride

Mar 27 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Shortly after any grant award come the part where you have to figure out how to do the work with the money they are actually going to give you, rather than what you budgeted. With the NIH modular budget, there's a bit of room for slop with the numbers. NSF holds you a little closer to the fire when it comes to the total. Therefore, that cushion you might be able to build in an NIH budget is like a wafer thin motel pillow in an NSF budget.

There are ways to make it work, however. Because you have to account for every dime in your budget it is important to add some flexibility without "padding" the numbers.


Every institution will have different resources that need to be considered, but I am often able to use grad student support as a place to cut. This is only true because my college has TA and RA support available for students, allowing me to employ the same number of students but have them paid internally. This also helps if tuition was budgeted into the grant, because internal support covers tuition as well.

Since NSF typically only covers 1 month of summer salary per year in each grant if you have a 9mo appointment, the potential of using overhead return to cover one or more of the months in the grant is something to explore. Up to you to determine whether your department or Dean might consider this option.


Another possibility involves postdocs. If you have a postdoc line budgeted and you know who you intend to hire, figuring out what kind of health insurance they need is useful. Will they need family insurance? This is one spot you want to be careful, however, because if their status changes you will need to adjust accordingly. Possibly playing with fire. **Update** This is NOT a suggestion to favor hiring single postdocs. At all.


Cutting in the equipment category is rarely worth it because there is no overhead associated with this category. Therefore, your cuts here don't affect your bottom line in the same way as cuts elsewhere.


I'm generally loathe to cut travel money. I realize that money can be moved between categories later, but travel is damn expensive and is pretty critical if you have a field component and want to attend meetings.


Here is the category that is typically most nebulous. Certainly you need to make sure you can get the work done, but if you've been smart you have found ways to ensure you can absorb some cut here. This is also the area with the most potential for cross-fertilization between projects. I've never seen a lab that marks certain pipette tips or gloves for certain experiments, depending on where the purchasing funds came from. That may be what the federal bean counters would like to see, but it's impossible in reality. Therefore, the general supplies money of different projects can be considered a pool, relieving the pressure on a single project.

One benefit of federal funding taking forever to become a reality these days is that some aspects of the project really do drop in cost over time. DNA sequencing is a prime example of a technology that gets cheaper every month. For instance, slight cuts in the year two sequencing budget will have little impact on the amount of data produced.

Other costs
I typically budget money here to fund my broader impacts activities (remember, $$$ makes you accountable!). Once the proposal is funded the opportunity exists to leverage the funding for support within your institution for the activities you have planned. If you get a couple interested parties to chip in towards a workshop, for instance, you can reduce the load on the budget.

Depending on your institution and the support you have from the admin, there may be better places for you to cut your own budget, but this is what has worked for me. It's nearly impossible to get commitments prior to funding, but once you have money in hand, you might be amazed at what people are willing to do to accommodate you.

7 responses so far

How do we test students with learning disabilities?

Mar 26 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The more I teach the more I run into things I haven't thought much about. Over the past few years I have had students with various learning disabilities. Some of these are on record with the appropriate university office and these students get special exemptions for testing, such as unlimited time or a secluded room. That helps certain types of students.

But for others it has nothing to do with quiet or time. One of the hardest issues for me to solve is testing students who don't process diagrams well. Many of my lecture slides and board drawing are diagrams that illustrate concepts. For most students these are helpful to translate words into a broader context, but for a small number the diagrams engender confusion. In rare cases, students can't at all interpret the meaning of a diagram. It's not that these students don't care or aren't taking the time to study - they really can't learn this way.

Perhaps in studying they can "translate" the concepts into something they can get a handle on, but in my exams I tend to mix a wide variety of different question types. Almost by definition, diagrams (either on the test or drawn by the students) are part of this. My problem is how to make a test for students who can't deal with diagrams and how to make it fair. I don't have a good solution yet. Perhaps you do.

7 responses so far

Finally official!

Mar 25 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Got my official notice of award today for my proposal submitted as a preproposal in Jan 2012. May 1 start, a mere 16 months from getting the process started. Long road, but great to hear my PO's voice!

8 responses so far

Open Thread: How does an NSF panel work?

Mar 21 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

A lot of the conversation I had on twitter following my post on panel prep earlier in the week made me realize how many people are curious what actually happens in a panel. I was going to write a description, but that seems kinda boring, so I figured I would leave it open for questions and for others with experiences in different NSF divisions to weigh in. They all have different cultures and their own way of making the process work. So if you're curious what the review panel experience is like, fire away.

34 responses so far

The Senate does something right

Mar 20 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Good news, Peeps. As Beth Mole (@BethMarieMole) reported on the Nature News blog the continuing resolution passed today in the senate helps science.

NSF actually gets a bump, even post sequester:

The NSF, which received $7 billion in 2012, faces a $209 million cut this year from sequestration. The agency would have been left with just $6.79 billion for 2013. But the Senate bill would boost that budget by about $90 million, to $6.88 billion, once sequestration’s 5.1% bite is factored in.

NIH gets a proportionally smaller bump for this fiscal:

The NIH, which received $30.7 billion in 2012 and lost $1.553 billion this year to the sequester, would receive an extra $67 million from the Senate bill.

While this isn't going to fix everything that has been set in motion by the sequester, it does mean that these two agencies can breathe a little sigh of relief for the moment. It should set the dominoes in motion to release funds in the BIO directorate at NSF, which is a good thing. Similarly, those on the edge of NIH funding may see their PO smile upon them.

In our current climate, this is the first good news in a while.

UPDATE: I read this wrong last night when blogging while revising a manuscript. NSF gets close to restoration levels, but NIH takes it in the teeth based on this CR resolution.

10 responses so far

REPOST: How I prepare for an NSF review panel

Mar 19 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I posted this last year before heading to a preproposal panel. With the bulk of the DEB/IOS panels on the horizon, I thought it would be a good time to repost it.

The first time I went to NSF for a panel I wasn't quiet sure what I needed to do to be prepared. I read like crazy and showed up fairly apprehensive about whether or not I would be prepared to do a good job. Facing my second panel in a few weeks, I have a much better feel for preparing this time around. Below are some suggestions if you are making a trip to NSF in the future.

- Get you reviews in be the requested week before... or close. This isn't just for the benefit of your PO, it is for you. NSF has a couple of different choices behind the panelist sign-in:

You reviews all get filed under the Panel Review System tab, but once you have submitted a review for a proposal you can go check out the other reviews under the Interactive Panel System tab. This is important. Not only because you'll want to know if your assessment is radically different from the other panelists (and ad hocs if you are on a full proposal panel) so that you can reread it, but for the reasons below.

-Decide which proposals you are going to fight for and find out who you will be fighting. You will be going into the discussion with a short list of proposals you really liked. By looking up the other reviews ahead of time you can figure out how much of a fight you have on your hands. What did the other panelists think of your Good List? Go look those panelists up and find out what they do. Is their expertise strong in the proposal topic? People may write opinionated reviews, in either direction, before the panel discussion and change their minds during the discussion. This seems especially true if they were out of their element a little when writing and didn't "get" the proposal. Don't be scared off of fighting for something that got hammered by another panelist, but figure out where they are coming from.

-Identify your panel enemy. Alright, maybe "enemy" is a little strong but in both of my experiences I have found that I share the majority of the proposals I am responsible for with a small group (3-5) of other people. Among that group, there seems to be one person who thinks every idea put forth is doomed for failure. Their reviews often focus on poking holes in any perceived methodological flaws, as if the PI(s) have no recourse but to follow exactly what is written without modification. This is the person you will need to convince that the proposals you are fighting for will work. Read their review, know what they work on and be prepared to spar with them.

-Get a sense of the panel's mood. After reading the reviews you have access to, are they generally positive or negative? Is this going to be a panel that spends most of its time finding reasons to whack a proposal or finding reasons to support them. There is always a mix of both, but there can be a very different feel to panels that go one way or the other.

-Figure out if anyone else shares expertise in your area. Scan the list of names on the panel. Know anyone? Read anyone's work? I wouldn't go e-stalking anyone or reading people's stuff just for kicks, but I find it useful to have a little idea what other people do and what they may weigh in on.

That's what I do in the lead up to a panel. I'm sure some of the more experienced Peeps out there may have other suggestions as well. Above all, remember that you are there to talk science and participate in the process of getting people funding. As a group you'll have to make some hard decisions and it's easy to walk out of one of these feeling a little depressed by the amount of good science that doesn't make the cut. But do what you can, learn what you can and get to know the other panelists - there's a decent chance they will be reviewing one of your grants some day.

7 responses so far

Negative scientist is negative

Mar 18 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

People have a lot of reasons they get into science as a career, but no one ever seem to go into it for the rejection. This is notable because if there one constant in a science career, it's that you're going to get a lot of rejections. And we only have ourselves to blame.

We're taught to be critical of everything all the time. Don't accept your results at face value. Critique pushes science forward (especially when it's of that other lab!) and keeps us thinking. But everyone has spent time in that journal club or lab meeting where it seems like the sole purpose is to tear anything to shreds. "Sure, you discovered the Higgs Boson, but you announced it in Comic Sans so is your work really any good?"

It's something I try to remember as a reviewer. I think my natural tendency is to focus on the things I don't like in a grant or paper. It's as though not being able to criticize something in a proposal is basically mailing in my review.

And I'm not alone, I've gotten my fair share of Excellent or Very Good rankings with a review including about a 4:1 hated it/loved it ratio. Critique is what we're good at. But I'm making a concerted effort this month to dedicate roughly the same amount of text to both the "Strengths" and "Weaknesses" sections of my reviews. Obviously it's not going to work out that way every time, but I'm reading a LOT of really good science. It's worth recognizing that in writing.

23 responses so far

Leave on a high note

Mar 15 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Got some very promising news on the funding front today. Nice to leave the office of a good note.

No responses yet

What should the PUI share of NSF awards be?

Mar 15 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The NSF DEB blog is running the numbers from the first round of preproposals and resulting full proposals in a series of posts right now (part 1, Part 2). Other than the simple fact that I'm giddy about the information and analysis coming out of this blog, there are some really interesting insights into the funding decision making. One thing that caught my eye from part 2 of the numbers series, was the following (emphasis added):

At this point in time, the whole process appears to be avoiding disproportionate impacts on Beginning Investigators and Primarily Undergraduate Institutions. However, both of these groups have historically been minority groups in submissions to DEB and furthermore underrepresented in award portfolios compared to submissions. While we can report changes over time and compare between groups, these numbers do not provide answers to the questions that underpin evaluations of progress: What is the right mix of Beginning Investigators and Primarily Undergraduate Institutions in an award portfolio? And, how can we reach the right mix in awards? Would such a mix require a change in submission patterns and/or changes in peer review practices and/or changes in Program Officer handling of the submissions we already receive?

We all know that the NSF system is for amateurs, but even in this context, the researchers a Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) are at the biggest disadvantage when it comes to research productivity. Typically using only undergraduate help and while teaching 3-4 classes per semester, faculty at PUIs have to fit research into the thin cracks of open time and try to make the most out of summers. This is toughest on early career PIs, creating multiple courses. Many do it successfully, but the PUI category exists because of the likely limit in productivity.

DEB's numbers for the last 7 years indicate that proposal success rate originating from PUIs hovers between 12-15%, with submissions to the total pool between 14-18%. And this is WITH portfolio balancing* by POs. Presumably NSF is happy with this success rate, reflected by the consistency of the numbers over time. The question is, should tax payers be happy with that rate?

When budgets get tight institutions need to look at value for their money. In NIH land, there have been two responses to the too-many-mouths-at-the-trough problem; 1) Kill the rich, 2) Eliminate the small town grocer. NSF has toed the more "Canadian" line by mixing portfolio balancing and basically telling PIs with major roles in two or more proposals that they shouldn't bother submitting another lead proposal.

So I'm curious whether people believe this is the best route for science? For the tax payer? For innovation? What say ye?

*POs are required to balance their grant portfolios based on several factors, including PI gender, ethnicity, institution type, state, etc.

33 responses so far

Older posts »