Field of Science

The Grant Is Dead, Long Live the Grant

Alas poor R21, I knew it well.  There comes a time in every person's life when you have to face reality. For me, one of those times came yesterday. My R21 grant, a two-year exploratory proposal, was assigned to a study section. The study section is the group of scientists who will evaluate your proposal and decide if it warrants funding.

Of the last 14 grants I have submitted, 12 went to this study section (11 of the more involved R01 type of proposal and 1 R21 ). Of these, 0 were discussed. 0/12 (o.00%). Basically, these proposals were considered by three reviewers to not be competitive (on average), so they were not discussed in front of the study section panel. In a study section, of the proposals discussed a fraction, roughly 10-20% actually get funded. So I took the time to write 12 proposals of which 0 were considered to be in the top ~30% (i.e. those discussed). Maybe I suck at writing grants.

The problem is that the 2 grants (both R01s) that did not go to this study section (each went to a separate study section), both were scored and discussed in front of the whole panel. 2/2 (100%). So maybe I don't necessarily suck at grant writing.

Now you may be asking why I sent my grant to the former study section and not a different one. Well, in my cover letter I suggested 2 study sections I thought were appropriate that were not the 0/12 study section. The administrators at NIH disagreed with me and sent it to the elephant graveyard of study sections. I no longer consider this recent submission to have any hope of funding or even discussion.

It's kind of the name of the game, but consider this. Consider the number of hours I spent reading the literature, writing, revising, and working on this proposal. Multiply that by 12 (not entirely accurate because there are resubmissions included in that cohort, which require less time) and you have an approximate amount of time wasted on grant writing. Now multiply that by all the people at my institution doing the same if not more and multiply that by all the institutions doing similar things. That represents the amount of completely wasted unproductive time. Compare this to teaching, where students learn something or writing reviews or papers where there is a tangible product at the end of your struggles. Fuck, playing Diablo III on my playstation at least provides some enjoyment and I get to level up!
When I started my career, the valid argument was that the time spent working and reworking a grant put you in kind of a zen state of understanding and thought regarding that area of biological research. I agree with this thought. Now however, we are cranking out grant after grant after grant that are basically different aspects of the same thing. After that initial submission, the zen of understanding is lost to the trials of trying to get funding. Admittedly if your ideas suck it doesn't matter how many times you submit a shit idea, you won't get funded. However, from my reviews (from the 3 reviewers) suggest it is not a shit idea problem, but a great idea, but there were some others we liked better. (And by others, I mean other researchers we know who we like better.) So I am stuck resubmitting grants hoping these other groups do not have proposals in at the same time and that my proposals are good enough to compete with all the others in the same boat I'm in.

Maybe I'm just bitter, but when my proposals go to other study sections, they are suddenly competitive (n=2). I don't know what the message is here other than I believe my recently submitted proposal is already DOA and I highly discourage anyone in the US from entering into the field of biomedical research.

And on a more important and happy note:

But a massive YAY to the 5 supreme court justices with whom I agree and more importantly to the multitude of US citizens who are slightly more legal than they were before.

The last few days before a grant deadline

Why does it always seem that when the grant deadline is imminent, all the work I've done is basically irrelevant and I have 100 times more to do than I already have done? No really, why?

Too Easy, but What the Hell

I 'belong' to a 'Creation Evolution Debate' group on Facebook. I joined this group, not because I think there is a debate, there isn't, but because I wanted to see what Creationists thought was debatable. Was kind of hoping to see some thoughtful discussion or potential misconceptions that could be cleared up. Basically all I see is the same old arguments from ignorance that have been dealt with time and time and time again. For example, this little gem showed up awhile ago complete with a geocities approach to web design.

1. How did nothing turn into something? It didn't. I'm assuming this question is referring to Big Bang Theory, which has nothing to do with evolution and is a problem of physics. I recommend Stephen Hawkings' A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes for an answer. I like the sub-heading though, as discussing evolution is banned. 

2. How did life come from non-life? I don't know. One place you could start to address this question is Freeman Dyson's Origin of Life. (Full disclosure, I haven't read it but have read papers on the topic.) Of course the origin of life is not the same as evolution, but what the hell. Regarding the sub-heading, what is the first law of science? Is it conservation of mass? The 1st law of thermodynamics? Neither are relevant here.

3. How did millions of life forms evolve with absolutely no evidence of major change? What? I mean really, what? Let's see I do not look like my cat nor a mushroom, not a bacterial colony. Isn't that evidence of major change? We have these things called that's not! Fossils!!!! Right. A good place to start reading about this would be Richard Dawkins' The Ancestors Tale or Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish.

4. How can a watch come into existence without a watchmaker? It can't. Also, don't mention DNA, because it's so complex it's beyond the complexity of all computers on earth. That's probably why DNA is used to control computer synthesis machines. Wait that's not right, computers control DNA synthesis machines. I'll go with another Richard Dawkins' book, The Blind Watchmaker.

5. How did thought come from non-thought? I don't know, but I do not think thought is as super special as our geocities web host. I recommend Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works as an excellent starting point. Sub-heading is true, the first thought, if there is such a thing, did not come from an evolutionary biologist since the major tenets of relatively modern evolutionary thinking is only a couple hundred years old.

So I answered all 5 questions! Probably the author is not happy with those answers, but I answered them, so the point of that geocities abomination is shown to be wrong! Oh wait, I'm not an evolutionist (whatever that means), so I guess the red and blue vomit of words still stands.

We Need to Work Much Much Harder

I recently spent some time with family very dear to me that I had not seen in many years (contradictory yes, reality sucks). It was wonderful to catch up, meet new cousins, and have them meet my son. It was also socially educational as many members of my family and I lie on different spots of the political spectrum, with me lying solidly in the progressive liberal side of spectrum well to the left of the democrats and them lying much further to the right somewhere between the republican and tea party depending on specific issue.

Actually that's not completely true, through a number of discussions we had, mostly not initiated by me, I think we have much more in common than not regarding specific issues. This includes even the more contentious issues. However, their viewpoint clearly originates and is framed by a right wing perspective, much like mine originates and is framed from a left wing perspective.

That being said I was glad to be able to talk to and hear what people, whom I care about, think about a number of issues important to them and to me. These discussion lacked any real debate and both sides were cognizant, I think, of each others feelings and strived to communicate clearly without being aggressive. Based on these albeit too brief interactions, I have a few posts I am planning that address some of these interactions, although I will not necessarily mention my family in them but try to introduce thoughts I heard more subtly.

Here, I simply want to bring up one thought that was mentioned in passing that I think reflects a tremendous problem scientists and science enthusiasts need to start dealing with yesterday.

"Some scientists are just trying to disprove god."
(Not an actual quote, a paraphrase.)

This one thought, which was simply stated in passing, concerns me greatly. First, the fact that it was easily stated in passing suggests to me that the idea is so entrenched and obvious (to the stater) that it doesn't justify defending or supporting. Second, science is fundamentally misunderstood. Third, what scientists do is not at all clear to people at large.

I want to be clear here, I am concerned about the scientists, the science enthusiasts, and anyone remotely interested in determining the truth and I am concerned with what we should be doing. I am not concerned with the general public, they are a victim of FOX propaganda and a massive misinformation campaign that is easily available on the internet.

From that one statement (above in blue), which almost caused another bout of seizures, it became painstakingly obvious how much work we need to do. This thought came from a caring hard working family man who I think represents almost (no one is perfect) everything good about humanity. So I am going to go out on a limb and say that this idea is not some odd minority opinion, but a reasonable representative of a vast majority of Americans. I feel comfortable in this conclusion based on the number of Americans who attest to believing in a ~6,000 year old creation plus those who believe in a slightly more refined, older, creationism.

So here are my responses to the three concerns I raised above.
1st, the fact that this was stated so easily without concern for a justification or defense. We need to do more! Anyone interested in science or approaches to define reality need to do more! We need to directly and forcibly call out supporters of pseudoscience and those who are wrong. If it is a public figure, this needs to be done loudly strongly and without remorse. If this is a friend or family member, this needs to be done with more sensitivity, but it still needs to be done. I think the forces opposing good science get a free pass by publicly calling into question climate change and at the same time requiring a measured response. This is gaming the system (FYI Fuck you Scott Walker!).

2nd, science is fundamentally misunderstood. Science is about understanding the universe, it's about understanding ourselves. Hell, it's even about understanding our place in the universe. What science is not is showing that specific religious tenets are wrong. The problem lies in that all religions make specific claims about the reality of the universe and sometimes science clearly demonstrates that these claims are wrong. It is not that scientists set out to show these claims are wrong, but that their work ended up showing these claims are wrong. (I will allow that there may be some scientists who have an underlying agenda to clearly demonstrate that Islam, or other religion, is wrong but this is not what science is. When your religion makes definitive statements about the universe, it was created 6000 years ago, it was created yesterday, the world is flat, the world is a dodecahedron, humans are not animals, humans are not related to animals, then you are subject to having science show you are wrong. That may be unfortunate, but that's the fault of your religion making statements about the reality of the universe, not the fault of science.

3rd, it's not clear what scientists do. I will speak for all scientists here, someone can correct me if I'm wrong (I'm not). Scientists do not care if your religious tenets are right or wrong. The problem is that as we ask questions about the universe, like why do people get sick and die, we learn things that contradict certain religious doctrines. While things might have been different in the 1600's, no scientist is going to get the resources to show that the earth is not 6000 years old. You might get resources to address specific aspects of science that led to the understanding that the earth is 4.7 billion years old, but if your goal is to show that the earth is 6000 years old you'll probably fail. Kind of like if you want to get money to show that π is actually equal to 3, you won't get funding (because things like mortars only work if π=3.14.... regardless of personally interpretations of the bible).

So the short response to issue #3 is that scientists are trying to learn more about the universe, whether that is how planets form, how microbes cause disease, how economics affected German policies leading to WWII, etc. We don't have time nor the interest in showing that your personal belief in the afterlife may or may not be true. Surprisingly (to me this is something we have to fix, unfortunately this is something we need now, since we didn't fix it in 1974.

On Screwing Over a Generation of Biomedical Researchers

We, the biomedical community in the United States, live in interesting times. Below is the funding dollars for NIH over the last couple of decades. I completed my Ph.D in 1998 about the time the historical trend line and actual funding line separate. This separation marks the 'doubling,' when Congress passed legislation to double NIH's budget over the course of 5 years. I completed my post-doctoral training and obtained an academic position at a top research university in the midst of the doubling. This was a time of great expansion and much hiring by universities and research institutes across the country. Along with the hiring came investment in new facilities to house and recruit the increased numbers of scientists. This was not an instantaneous process at all institutions, but those who did not expand missed out on this additional ~38 billion dollars of new resources. It was shortly after the doubling was completed that I obtained my first NIH R01 grant.
From Here
Since the doubling was completed, you'll notice there has been a steady decrease in funding every year through 2013. In fact, 2008 represents the year when the 'doubling' was essentially undone. As of 2008, NIH is funded less well than if it had simply not been doubled and kept on it's annual growth rate of 3.3%.

Remember all those universities and research institutions that hired and expanded in the early 2000s? Well now what do you think is happening to those researchers? Maybe we shouldn't care, I mean those institutions didn't have to expand. But this is a lousy argument in my opinion. Congress let it be known that they and by association the country cared about biomedical research (FYI: this was under a republican president). Of course the government also cares about the troops, at least when it comes to sending them overseas to fight. Once research institutions expanded and hired more scientists to make use of this additional funding, Congress changed its mind about caring. Kind of like support dries up when the troops come home. So we hired more scientists who also trained more researchers to help conduct the research. These trainees obtained PhD's and actually wanted jobs too (go figure). And the cycle continued over the short term. If you look at the number of PhD's awarded over time in the biomedical sciences, which is primarily funded by NIH, you see a large increase in the number awarded beginning around 2003. This is 5 years after the 'doubling' began, which is the average time to completion for a biomedical PhD.

The problem as you might have realized is that with the lag between the initiation of the doubling and the graduation time of PhD's, as the first round of PhD's arising from the increased funding during the doubling entered the workforce, the downturn began. Of course there was already 5 more years of researchers in the midst of their training. So we see a huge increase in the number of PhD's being conferred between 2003 and 2008, when ~8000 biomedical PhD's were conferred (remember there are ~24,000 more PhD students in years 1 - 4 still being trained).

So concomitant with reductions in funding, we were still churning out PhD's. Armchair quarterbacks will state the biomedical community should have planned for a decade plus contraction that reversed the NIH doubling and put us in a position where biomedical funding is comparatively worse than at any time in my life time. (I am not arguing absolute dollars are less, they are not, but for the number of scientists that were trained and put to work under this system, we are much much worse.) Of course if we could have predicted that, we could all fund our research programs by visiting Las Vegas every year. This would reduce a ton of paperwork.

At this point when I talk to undergraduates interested in graduate school in biomedical fields, I tell them about the problems and encourage them to think about what they want to be doing in 10 -15 years. If it's running their own labs or being in a science leadership position, then I ask if they would consider moving to a different country. They might have a chance elsewhere.

Birthday wishes

Alright, so today is my birthday. YAY me, I managed to survive another trip around the sun (despite what many Americans think). Not really a big accomplishment considering ~20,000,000 other people are alive world-wide that were born on this day at some point during the last 115 years. Similarly,  ~880,000 other people in the US were born on this day. Hell, I share a birthday with ~150 people in Greenland (Inuuinni Pilluarit! fellow birthdayers). The disconcerting thing to me is that tomorrow is the first anniversary of a set of major seizures I had, which basically destroyed all memory of last year's birthday and most of the surrounding few months. While there is no reason to consider tomorrow especially concerning, it does give me a reason to think about that event more than I have over the last few months. While this year has been an interesting one (with all the baggage associated with 'interesting'), it has also been an amazing one. First, I didn't die. Second, I have mostly recovered from the seizures (I think), although there are some issues associated with the medications I'm on or the psychological impact of knowing there's a potential bomb in my brain. Third, I met an amazing person who I thoroughly enjoy being with. Fourth, watching my son grow up. He's currently 12 with a standard deviation of ± 6 years, depending on the day. Fifth, I am actually generating some data, although given the current funding climate may be a waste of time. Regardless, I love learning new things about the world in which I live. Sixth, I am enjoying making beer and can brew some decent ones (although a solid blueberry ale has still escaped me). Seventh, I enjoy writing and am able to it again (broken hand), but hate that I have not done more with this blog since my brain blowing up. So this is a simple way to dip my toes back in the water. Hope to get a couple more papers out the door this year as well as some grant applications (waste of fucking time probably) and post some items at least a couple of times a month.

Birthday cake (hopefully cream cheese frosting)
If I get a cake with candles, my birthday wish for this year is to not almost fucking die again (included in the previous statements is to not successfully die either).

What I read (2014)

(Grade A-F, no E's) Title-Author Additional thoughts

B+      The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Good story, can see why it was wildly popular. Not a fan of the ending though, Collins sets up issues with the system government and rebellion, but then ignores it at the end. I realize there are sequels, but it seemed to me to be an obvious missing piece.

D      Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk. Bleh. Not clear this is a sequel (to Damned) and sadly it seemed like the first needed to read to understand what the hell was happening in this story. Characters were all horrible and no reason to care about them.

C      Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett. Some amusing scenes, but not as fun a romp as many of Pratchett's other books. Also lacked the social commentary found in many of the Disc World novels. Or maybe I just don't like trains that much. 

B      It by Stephen King. A good story working back and forth in time with great character development. While the monster is horrific, the bullies are worse (like in real life).

C+      Sleeping Late on Judgement Day by Tad Williams. The last of the three part Bobby Dollar story. (Though probably not the last incarnation of Bobby Dollar or his world.) This book gets a boost from the first two, which I enjoyed more. Much gets sorted out, although not all, but it requires a "from right field" plot twist that I found a bit of a stretch. Maybe with more development I would have more readily flowed with it, but it was abrupt IMO. 

B-      The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett. Pretty good read, hits on issues of rapid communication (clacks) and the intrinsic antagonism between fundamentalism and reform.

D+      Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie. Meh, unlike the Garrett PI, this was not a fun read. Good idea on a revenge story, but weak in execution in my opinion.

A      A People's History of the Supreme Court by Peter Irons. Excellent brief history of the US Supreme Court, focusing on important decisions both good and bad and important.

B      The Fell Sword by Miles Cameron. Does not live up to the first book, TheRed Knight, but still a good read. A few too many characters that prevents depth. Strongly recommend the series.

A      The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Excellent book! A must read. Extensive references that support the positions taken. Thoroughly engaging and damning.

B+    V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Llyod. Because 1984 could never be rewritten as a graphic novel.

F     Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson. What the hell was I thinking? Oh wait, I was just recovering from a life altering seizure. Will take another seizure before I read the next installment.

B      The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Loved the movie, which does the book justice. In fact, I would argue the movie is better because it establishes more of the back story with the mother.

B+   Religion and Science by Bertrand Russell. I know it is only recently that atheists have become militant and clearly articulated the endemic problems with religion. Of course that viewpoint requires ignoring Bertrand Russell's 19XXX book.

A     Spillover by David Quammen. Outstanding book, reminiscent of Laurie Garret's 'The Coming Plague.'

B+   Introducing Garrett PI by Glen Cook. Funny, a blast of a read.

B     Sandman: Preludes and Noctures by Neil Gaiman. Great rewriting of the god of sleep.

17 books this year, worst outing ever, but considering I was mostly dead for the spring and part of summer I'm not too surprised. Probably my son read as many books as I did if not more (including the Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series). Of the 17 books: 13 were fiction for fun (and 2 were Graphic Novels, which some people may not count but they should),  2 were US history/sociology, 1 was philosophy/religion, and 1 was science.