Archive for: January, 2012

Harvest time?

Jan 09 2012 Published by under Careers

Are we reaping what we have sown?

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth discussion on the blogosphere of late regarding the dismal success rates with getting funding and the recent reorganizations at NSF's BIO directorate. Check out Joan Strassmann's thoughts on preproposals at the IOS and DEB divisions and the resulting comments, and Prof-like Substance's thoughts on potential changes at the NSF. Lots of good fodder for discussion at both places.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and repeat something I said over at the now long-silent NSF is Broken forum:

The NSF is not broken.

At least it wasn't prior to the BIO reorganizations.

In my experience as an NSF grantee, proposal reviewer and review panel member the system worked. Good science was funded. Sure, some, maybe even a lot of good science wasn't. Peer review ain't perfect. And there's never been enough money at the NSF to fund all the science that deserved it, but neither of those things are symptoms of a broken NSF.

The two most common themes that come out of discussions regarding whether or not the NSF is broken and how to fix it focus on just those two issues - the peer review system as implemented by the NSF and the horrendous funding rates we are now experiencing.

A major reason cited for the reorganization of the BIO directorate is the difficulty PO's are having finding people to review proposals. As funding rates have gone down at both NSF and NIH the number of proposals appears to have gone up. I tend to believe it, although I haven't seen any real data supporting the assertion. That puts a lot of strain on reviewers and review panels. Hence the BIO response of cutting back on the number of deadlines, limiting the number of proposals you can be PI or Co-PI on, and in the case of IOS and DEB, instituting preproposals. But that's a case of treating the symptoms, not the root causes.

According to PO's I've spoken with, it's become increasingly difficult to find people willing to review proposals and sit on panels. People are just saying no. Does that not mean we as a community are at fault here? It's our responsibility to step up and review. Whether it be grant proposals or manuscripts. You expect people to review your work, shouldn't you be reviewing the work of others? Of course we're all doing more than our fair share, but we all know people who aren't, don't we? I don't really know what the answer to this is, but the changes at the NSF seem to be mere bandaids.

Of course the big issue is the lack of money at the NSF. They just don't have enough to fund everything that should be funded. As I noted above, they never have, but in recent times it's gotten worse. And as NIH funding rates have plummeted, PI's previously funded by them are trying their luck at both agencies. As they probably should. Funding for Federal agencies is set by Congress of course, not by we scientists. But we should be trying to influence Congress, shouldn't we? Should have been all along, right? But let's face it, we as a community have pretty much sucked when it comes to lobbying for more money for science. It's all too easy to leave that up to others, our professional societies etc. Surely we should be concentrating on doing the science and let others worry about finding the money? Ummm, no. That's not how the world works.

Maybe it's our community that needs some repairs...

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On the value of research experiences

Jan 04 2012 Published by under Careers, Life

It's a new year. Already. And applications for positions in the NSF REU program I run are beginning to arrive. Already.

Of late I've been thinking, once again, about the value of providing research experiences to undergraduates. Or anyone for that matter. My recent thoughts were catalyzed by a conversation I recently had with a non-scientist. This person had just read a newspaper article reporting on a recent study that found some kind of link between carbohydrate intake and breast cancer. I haven't read the study, or even the newspaper article. Indeed, the details of the study are unimportant as fas as this post is concerned. What is important is the statement the non-scientist made concerning the article. They said they don't believe any of these kinds of studies because there are far too many things going on and it would be impossible to pinpoint one factor that might be involved in a particular human condition. Or words to that effect.

It certainly is true that scientific research can be very, very complex. At times mind-bogglingly so. But research scientists are trained to deal with exactly that. And someone who has had some research experience, even if just a few weeks over a summer, will know that. Even if they don't know exactly how a study into possible links between carbohydrates and breast cancer would be done.* Should one believe every newspaper report on a scientific study? Of course not. Neither should one believe everything published in the primary literature. But one should not dismiss something out of hand simply because you don't know how it's done.

A research experience is scientific literacy.

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* I don't. It's rather far removed from what I do.

10 responses so far