Archive for the 'Uncategorized' category

For the Canadians suffering through the CIHR mess

Jun 09 2015 Published by under Uncategorized


No responses yet

Let's stop rearranging the deck chairs

Jun 04 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I've come to a bit of a realization recently.

I have spent a lot of time over the years thinking about and talking about ways to fix the current funding mess at NSF. I think it's a useful exercise and nearly inevitable in times when everyone is looking for solutions. I discussed it with people online, offline, inline and in line at the grocery store. At times I thought I had a really good idea or two, worth batting around.

But almost every time I've thought up something I thought might be helpful, I would mention it to a Program Officer and in about 10 seconds they would point out a major flaw I either wasn't aware of or hadn't considered. And the more and more discussions I see on this topic the more I realize that everyone has a significantly blind spot when it comes to The Solution. Unsurprisingly, people's solutions always benefit the type of science they do while undercutting something else, whether they realize it or not.

People argue about grant size and number, collaborations, junior versus senior, but all we're doing is debating the pattern we want the deck chairs to be in when the ship finally sinks.

"They should be spread evenly across the deck!"

"No, there should be varying clumps!"

"Um, folks, I don't want to alarm you but my shoes are wet."

At this point I am comfortable saying that I think NSF (specifically Bio, but probably the rest as well) is doing the best they possibly can to fund science in this country, given the budget they have. The reality is that there just isn't the money available to fund all the good ideas and that has placed a squeeze on everything. It exacerbates the influx of proposals and turns up the static in the peer review process, making reviewer jobs harder. It enhances the smallest flaws in every proposal because the margin is so thin. Missteps that would have been overlooked in a better climate now knock proposals out of the running.

And it's hard.

But it's harder on the people trying to keep the system running with one hand tied behind their back.

Without additional money into the pipe, there's no real solution that isn't going to gouge some part of the NSF population badly. If there were a simple or even mildly painful solution, I honestly think it would have been tried (See: preproposals). But for now, the only group to blame is congress for keeping science funding stagnant for years.

Now, that's not to say that our current arrangement is sustainable. It's not. We've done the experiment. The NIH doubling didn't help (edit: because it was a one time pulse that has not been sustained). The ARA influx to NSF didn't do much of anything (edit: again, because of the transience of those moneys). The way we are currently conducting business is not sustainable anymore, no matter what money gets put into the system.

Tomorrow I'll suggest some ways to move forward.

7 responses so far

Despite the name, Teaching Assistantships support the research mission

Oct 08 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers], Uncategorized

For a typical Biology Department, TAs are a critical resource. Teaching Assistants run most of the labs in the department, and in some cases run recitations or help grade exams in large classes. In most places I have been the TAs are limited in the number of hours they can work in a given week, usually in the range of 20h/wk. TA support comes with pay that covers the stipend, and importantly, the tuition and fringe of the student for the semesters they are teaching. In that sense, their major professor does not need to support them off grants while they TA, but their research time is limited by the contact hours, lab prep and grading.

Since many biology departments are largely geared towards NSF funding, TA support allows for more students to be involved in a project than can be supported directly from a single grant. In my college, for instance, the Dean's office will match a semester of TA support for every semester or RA support a PI has on a grant. This allow us to be a little flexible in our budgeting, since the actually dollar amount of federal grants has not climbed appreciably in quite some time, whereas inflation and institutional overhead rates (which IS counted into the budget of an NSF grant) have increased, unabated.

Therefore, we have graduate students performing an important role in the teaching mission of a department as a way to directly supplement the research mission of the department.

And this is where it can get tricky, folks. Because not every class runs the same way and not every professor understands the big picture. If you think of TAs as graduate students who are teaching to supplement their research time, you will have very different expectations than if you see a TA as a junior teacher there to relieve teaching burden from the professor. There will be different task and time expectations and the inequity of these across the curriculum can be significant. As graduate students, it's important to know what the expectations are when you agree to take on a new class.

But more importantly, departments need to ensure that there are cultural norms for these expectations. Is it expected that TAs should work their full time allotment every week? If not, what is a reasonable load? After all, the grad students are there to get their degree, not bear the burden of your teaching load.

EDIT: I forgot an important point that I was reminded of on Twitter: TA's are paid for at the university level by overhead dollars. Thus they are paid for by research to support the research mission.

13 responses so far

Rip tide (update)

May 25 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Digging this band.

No responses yet

Family codes

Aug 23 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Every family speaks in codes that outside people, even with years of practice, have a difficult time discerning.

2 responses so far

Something good

Jun 24 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

One response so far

The life of an NSF Program Officer (Part 1 of 3)

Dec 12 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm very excited this week to have a guest blogger to talk about the experience of an NSF program officer, from the inside. Rotating PO, Michelle Elekonich, has agreed to provide some perspective on how people become NSF program officers and what that decision entails. Over the next two days I'll have two more posts in this series. (Part 2, Part 3)

Let me introduce myself- I’m Michelle Elekonich. I am an associate professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV). My honey bee research focuses on cellular and physiological mechanisms of behavior, stress and aging (NSF funded) and also on the honey bee disease American Foulbrood (USDA funded). I came to NSF in August 2010 to be a program director in the Behavioral Systems Cluster in IOS and am currently the science advisor for IOS, part of the division leadership with the Division Director and Deputy Division Director. Now the disclaimer: these are my experiences and not an official NSF announcement or policy statement. Your mileage may vary.

You might be wondering how someone becomes a program director….I had been an external reviewer and panelist for NSF for a few years when one of my colleagues from UNLV who was rotator at the time called and said he wanted to nominate me as a rotator for the Animal Behavior Program in IOS. (Little did I know then each rotator is expected to help find his/her replacement). I agreed and sent him my CV. I figured an interview would be a chance to find out more and then I could decide …. it was fun to talk about my NSF funded work at NSF and meet all the program directors and administrative staff.

Then I waited …I interviewed in March, they called in June and I arrived in August. NSF spent July negotiating with my university – depending on how a rotator is appointed NSF returns different amounts of the salary, health benefits and retirement to the university. I was appointed as a Visiting Scientist, Engineer or Educator (VSEE – everything at NSF has an acronym) and my university used the salary savings to hire a temporary instructor. Some of my NSF rotator colleagues got some of the salary savings back to pay a tech or postdoc to run their lab while they were gone. I wish I had thought to ask for that! Since the colleague that recruited me had not gotten any accommodations, it did not occur to me that I would be able to either.

So how could I leave my lab on such seemingly short notice and come to NSF? About 8 mos. before I got that fateful phone call, my close collaborator left UNLV for a better position (good for him - we continue to collaborate), both post docs got jobs (Yay!) and my technician joined another lab as my grant was winding down (ya gotta do what ya gotta do). I was post-tenure and really feeling like I needed to get some perspective and I wanted to do something that mattered…since I could not afford to do a sabbatical on the half salary that my university would give me and I really enjoyed being a panelist – I thought why not- what better way to get a really BIG perspective on science than go to NSF? It could be an “alternative” sabbatical, sort of like doing an alternative spring break with Habitat for Humanity. I had just taken two new grad students, but they were deep in course work and I figured that it would likely be a year before they got most of their courses out of the way. NSF has a internal program called Independent Research and Development which would pay for my travel back and forth to my lab (I go for a week or so about 4 times a year and have lab meeting every week by Skype) and pay for me to attend meetings where my students and I are presenting – which also happen to be meetings that NSF wants representation at anyhow. You can read a little about my students’ reactions in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve ended up staying longer than I expected, but I think that has helped them be more independent.

The biggest determinate for people deciding to be a rotator at NSF seems to be timing – professional and personal. I’ve just described the timing professionally, personally the timing was also good. My stepdaughter lived with her mom and was finishing high school, so I did not have any children to worry about. Due to the recession, my husband’s business closed, so he had no reason to stay in Las Vegas and could join me in Arlington. Both of those things made the family issues easier for me than they might have been - but I know multiple rotators that have brought their families and enrolled their kids in new schools locally. For really little kids, NSF even has a day care on site.

10 responses so far

How did NSF beginning investigators fare in the new system?

Dec 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

There's a webinar today for the IOS Division of NSF to discuss the current state of NSF affairs. Based on the slides sent out, there is a lot of general info about the process that will likely be serious rehash for anyone who has been paying attention to all the changes. However, there is some interesting data on how reviewers felt about the process and how Beginning Investigators (those with no previous federal funding) faired.


1) Ad hoc reviews were cut from 14,000 in the old system to 2,500 in the new.

2) The 30% full proposal target was hit the year.

3) IOS reports that 80% of PIs used to only submit once a year anyway (who are these people?) so the new system doesn't change behavior for the majority of PIs.

Reviewer specific

1) 65% of preproposal panelists thought the new system improved their experience, with only 20% feeling it detracted.

2) Only 20% of preproposal reviewers across IOS and DEB spent more time reviewing, compared to full proposals. This is relevant because there were many more preproposals to read than panelists would get in a full proposal round.

3) In the full proposal round, 74% of IOS panelists thought their experience was better this year than previous, with only 5% indicating a worse experience.

4) Whereas nearly 70% of panelists did not feel there was a change in the Intellectual Merit at the full proposal stage, nearly a third saw improvement.

5) Over half felt the full proposal Broader Impacts were improved, compared with previous years.

Investigator specific

1) The percentage of Beginning Investigators who were ranked in the High Priority category was on par with previous years.

This is notable, as some feared the Beginning and New Investigators were likely to take it in the teeth. These data suggest otherwise.

2) Both the percentage of submissions and high priority rankings from those working at RUIs (mostly undergrad institutions) was up in the new system.

Unfortunately, we do not have funding rate data yet because the budget isn't settled, but these indicators appear to be validating NSF's position here. Panelist satisfaction is up, ad hoc requests are down and the fear that some groups of investigators would be unfairly affected is not borne out by the data. I'll be listening in for other tid bits later today.

18 responses so far

My first living obituary! Happy Dia de Muertos!

Nov 01 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Go check out Namnezia's calaveras to celebrate Dia de Muertos. Then ask him what a substantial processor is.

One response so far

Sunday chili

Sep 30 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Fall is the time for chili and Sunday is the day to make it. There's football on and food to make for the week. Gather your ingredients!

About a pound of stew beef.
Half a pound of ground beef.
A red pepper.
A poblano pepper.
An onion.
16 ozs of diced fire roasted tomatoes.
16 ozs of crushed fire roasted tomatoes.
8 ozs of black beans.
8 ozs of kidney beans.
2 ears of corn.
6 ozs beer (I use a malty ale)
2 ozs basalmic vinegar.
Dried chipotle peppers
Dried aji panca peppers.


Dice the fresh peppers, onion and mince the garlic. Sauté over medium heat until soft.

then add the basil and oregano.


After a minute or two, add the meat. Brown over medium heat.


Transfer to a crock pot.


Add all the canned goods, the corn (cut off the cob) the vinegar, half the beer (the other half is for the chef) and chilies to taste (I add about 4 chipotle and 2 aji panca.


Mix everything and let cook on high for 4-8 hours (longer is better)


Once it cooks done, it's ready to serve. Eat up!


6 responses so far

Older posts »