Archive for: July, 2013
There's much to love about today's post over at DEBrief on the size and duration of their awards. If you like data, you're going to like what they've put together in an effort to set the record straight regarding several NSF myths. Very much worth a few minutes of your time if you apply, or plan to apply, to anything in the NSF Bio Directorate.
There's lots challenging parts to this job, but few are as variable and rapidly changing as managing the people in your lab. When everyone is working well together it is great, but the pendulum always swings the other way at some point. Each new member of the lab changes the dynamic in some way. It doesn't have to be positive or negative, but there is always some shift. The trick is making sure things don't go too far bad when they do start to slip off the rails.
Everyone has baggage. And that includes you. We are all, to one degree or another, a product of the management we have experienced. Perhaps you've been through a few labs and have an idea of how you want to approach your mentoring, but the range of possible is far greater than any one person is going to be subjected to. Trainees coming from another lab or making your lab their first stop, similarly have expectations that are either learned or imagined. The first few months is important in terms of setting expectations for both sides. Your availability, their hours, communication, dealing with data, lab protocols and SOPs, etc., etc. Sometimes you'll need to real people in and other times you'll need to force them to take more line.
What's nearly impossible to pre-manage, IME, are interactions among your group. This is largely because much of it is going to be hidden from you unless things get pretty far down the road. You'll always be playing catch-up and getting partial information. Many of us are competitive by nature, and that can manifest in both legitimate and ridiculous ways in a lab. Much of it doesn't require intervention, but occasionally it is necessary to get people together and figure out where the problem is and what can be done. If you're lucky you catch it early and can find a way to ensure a working relationship between the parties. If you're not, well, that's less fun.
What I find helps is having a fairly open policy about drop-ins and conversations with anyone in the lab. It's not always convenient or helpful for my productivity, but I can't really afford to have the productivity in the lab go south over personal frictions, so I make the time. For me, open communication with the people in my lab has been critical to making sure there is open communication between them. Usually I can see the seeds of developing conflict if people feel comfortable talking to me about what is and isn't working for them.
Have you been in a lab where everyone got along great? Have you been in an unhappy lab? Have you seen labs shift from one to the other? Was the cause a new person or people, or did it relate to a shift in management style?
Is it common practice in your field to let grad students be corresponding author on papers? If so, under what circumstances?
We discussed the university-wide declining funding rates (at least here) last week and I'm curious whether we have yet seen what people have been saying will happen for so long: Administration recognizing that the funding expectations for tenure from 5-10 years ago are unrealistic now. Has anyone seen evidence that this is happening at their institution?
Every year the research office at my university distributes a summary and breakdown of the funding across the university over the last 5 years (FY09-FY13 in this case). There's numerous tables and graphs that allow people to take a bird's eye view or drill down to departments. I don't know if many people read it, but I find it fascinating. It's not just the perspective of how your college/department is doing in relation to others, but the time component is pretty meaty. I was able to dig into my email archives and find last year's report, giving me 2008 numbers as well.
I mentioned a few stats on twitter yesterday, but the report lays out plainly how devastating the current funding climate has been to science. I would love to see a ten year spread and look at the pre-2008 numbers, before the economy really shit the bed. Also 2009+2010 are a bit of an aberration because of the Stimulus Money (ARA) that got injected into granting agencies, which caused both # of applications and money received to go way up.
First, the good news:
From 2008 to 2010, award money nearly double at my university. In 2011 & 2012 those numbers dropped down a bit, but settled roughly 10% below the 2010 peak. 2012 was the university's strongest year in terms of the number of awards received, even if the total dollar amount was not the highest in this span.
From 2008-12, my college nearly tripled its "value of awards received" and my department has increased its take 400% between 2008 and 2013. In terms of award money, the department has gone from the bottom half of departments in the college to $10K out of first place. This change has been driven both by the success of newer investigators AND some more senior colleagues increasing their proposal effort.
Now the bad news:
As a whole, the university took it in the teeth in FY2013. Whereas my department has continued to surge, numbers at the university and college levels are ugly. Even though numbers for the month of June were not included in the analysis (the fiscal runs July-June), the university and college numbers have dropped below 2008 levels! Zoinks Scoob, like, run. University-wide FY13 brought in 11% less money than 2008 and my college took in 7% less. Meanwhile, expenditures are up 14% and 10% at the university and college, respectively. Of course, with our overhead rate ever increasing, F&A money received has not been hit nearly as hard as general funding levels. Imagine that.
Strangely, and likely correlated to fewer awards, the drop goes for proposals submitted, as well. Why there is a sharp decline in submitted proposals across the university this year is a mystery to me, but after a peak in FY2009 proposal numbers have declined every year and are now 15% BELOW 2008 levels. I don't know if the combination of the NSF Bio preproposals, implosion of USDA and elimination of the NIH A2 are slowly whittling away at proposal numbers, but I can't imagine that any of those factors would be enough to slow the tap as much as the numbers show. Maybe others have some thoughts.
In any case, it will be interesting to see if FY13 turns out to be an oddball or the start of an ugly trend. I don't anticipate a major budget shortfall, given the F&A money has not declined as substantially as the research money, but I do know that the university has committed to no increase in tuition for next year. Hopefully the rainy day fund isn't fully depleted and things pick back up in FY14.
In a lot of ways this is a response to Meg's post yesterday about system envy in which, she and several commenters talk about the grass-is-greener feeling with other biological systems. Indeed, it's easy to go to talks and see what other people are doing and think "Man, that system has everything I would like to have in the one I'm working on!" One thing Meg points out is that, once you dig in however, every biological system has its warts. Her experience has been that delving into a single system has allowed her to pursue things that she might not even know where interesting if she didn't have the depth in that particular topic.
I have no doubt that is true and Meg's work certainly shows it. Lots of people spend careers learning the nuances of a single system and have produced some really elegant work. But let me propose a slightly different trajectory to trainees considering the direction their career might go.
Don't sweat the system, sweat the question.
One can make the argument that knowing the minutia of a system allows you to answer identify testable questions and I won't quibble with that. But, another way to skin the cat is to have a question and try to determine which system will best allow you to answer it. Rather than becoming logistically constrained into asking certain questions that your system of choice can support, this approach allows you to pick the best model for your question.
Best of all, it allows you to demonstrate similarities across independent groups that can tell you fundamental things you can't derive from sticking to a single taxon. As an evolutionary biologist, I am far more fascinated by independent events that result in the same final product because they tell a much broader story about what is important for that trait, once you strip away all the lineage-specific baggage.
This is why I encourage my trainees to take a non-linear career path. If you decide that you want to dedicate your life to ants, fair enough, but a lot of what I have seen as major advances have come from people bringing outside expertise into a novel system and turning things on their head or drawing broadly across life to zero in on core features.
So if you are in the training stages of your career, consider being a system nomad. If you are doing a Ph.D., think about a postdoc in a totally different system. Maybe you like ants, but what can what you learn from them tell you about moles or coral or phytoplankton or snails? How can your work in the field inform a lab-based system, or vice versa? You'll only know if there's a bigger question to tackle if have a broad enough understanding to recognize which systems give you the best opportunity to answer the question, rather than letting your system dictate the questions.
Public engagement is always a topic that circulates through blogs and twitter, which makes sense since those using social media have a scientific face to the public. There are many who blog with the intention of bringing science to a general audience, and do it quite well. That's never really been my intention here, but I do support efforts to educate the public on what it is we do. After all, public money is being used to fund our labs and people with little scientific background are making decisions that critically affect our ability to do our jobs.
That being said, I have also never been at peace with self-promotion. I realize there are times when it is necessary, but I have an inherent distaste for such things. I think the reason scientists are not all that active with the media stems from this, in combination with a concern about how the final story will portray their work.
I've recently had opportunities to discuss one of our projects with both print and radio media. My initial reaction was to beg off, but it felt hypocritical to do so. I did both interviews and the article was fine and my best sick-kermit-the-frog impression radio spot was mercifully brief in the final cut. But I came away from the radio interview, in particular, realizing how terribly unprepared I was to make a strong public message out of the work we are doing. I probably should have read up a bit in the hour I had between interview request and getting the phone call, but the radio host did a good job of summarizing our conversation and then providing my commentary for a brief sound bite. Lucky this time.
But one thing that struck me was what the project that was the focus of this minor media attention. Of the several projects we have on-going in the lab, this one is the most straight-forward and has the least "up-side". When it was funded, the granting agency stripped out the most innovative part in favor of addressing their goals. Fair enough, but the only reason the media latched on to it is because there is a local connection to the work. It wasn't the science, it wasn't a publication in a high-profile journal, it was simply proximity.
In a way, that's a bit depressing. In another, it's understandable. But we talk about making science accessible and all I've managed to do here is poorly explain our lab's most white toast science. Clearly I need to be more proactive in getting the word out about the unique and interesting work we are doing. It may be time to ignore my dislike for self-promotion in the name of communication.
FYI, if you haven't had to dig into your NSF reporting duties this year, buckle up buttercup, because the changes are significant. There's way more detail and, IMO, redundancy in the questions you need to answer. Might want to set aside a little more time than you expected to.