Thursday, June 26, 2008

Scientific fields within Biology: How different but similar...

I am endlessly fascinated by the discussions over at DrugMonkey. The DrugMonkey world to an ecologist is kinda like being an American in England....things are so similar yet so startlingly different. Some of the content over there is very foreign to me - R01s, and other NIH jargon (though the glossary at the site is very helpful, kinda like having a travel phrase book). Other content, while using different words, is very much applicable to navigating the academic world of ecology as well.

There's currently a brouhaha over there over a recent post about how the scientific system works (or does not, depending on your point of view) with regards to training, mentoring, and employing young scientists. Much of background for this discussion has been generated by posts from the post-doc realm (e.g., Young Female Scientist) about everything from the lack of utility of PIs (ecology translation: advisor) to frustration with the job market (translation unnecessary, that one's universal).

In particular, I have found interesting indications that the role of a post-doc is very different in the biomedical/cellular biology world. There's a feeling that their post-docs are in the post-doc phase longer than their ecological counterparts. Calls for retirement benefits for post-docs caught me by surprise in particular. I actually did receive retirement benefits as a post-doc and it was the most useless benefit I received. I wasn't on that post-doc for long and now I have a couple thousand dollars stuck in an state benefit account in a state I have no intention of returning to and I was not a part of long enough for the bit of money to qualify for earning long-term interest in. What a waste. Most post-doc positions in my field last on average 2-3 years, though 1 year postdocs are not all that uncommon. This undoubtedly reflects the fact that our grants are on average 2-3 years long and we cannot guarantee funding for any longer than that. NIH R01's apparently are 5 year grants - perhaps if I knew I was going to be someplace for 5 years I'd want retirement too. Most of my friends have been obtaining jobs after that 2-3 year post-doc, so there's also not this same sense of the post-doc being a long-term career phase that I sense from the biomedical fields....though finding a post-doc in ecology may be more challenging because there are fewer out there (most labs are lucky to have 1).

I don't know if the system is "broken" in the field that many of the DrugMonkey subscribers belong to, I'm not qualified to comment. In ecology, I think our system is not perfect. I've seen good people get shuffled out of the system through no fault of their own. I've seen people whom I would classify as mental midgets get very good jobs instead. However, good people generally seem to manage to find positions that give them toe-holds on the ladder of academia and the DrugMonkey blog seems to generally be giving good advice (relevant across fields) on how to turn your academic toe-hold into something more secure. While the process may not be perfect in ecology, I also think that equating not perfect with broken is also....not perfect.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Whispers from the NSF frontlines

After a more light-hearted post about ISI rankings, it's time to return to more serious topics: NSF.

The deadlines for many...if not all...of the ecology and evolution-related panels at NSF are looming and we have hit that time when those of us preparing to storm the castle are getting feedback from those that the castle repulsed. The funding "no"s are trickling out now from the last round at NSF and some of the feedback on why certain proposals have been turned down is...interesting.

Colleagues on at least two different proposals that went to at least two very different panels have now spoken to at least two different program officers. Their proposals were ranked with "excellent"s and given "funding recommended" stamps of approval by their panels. They were turned down because the PIs already had money and/or tenure. In other words, untenured people who did not have money were apparently being given priority. (I should note that this does not mean that they were the only ones being given funding).

I want stop here and make it crystal clear that I am NOT ranting about NSF (though I understand this would be a funnier posting if I was). When funding rates hit 8% (or lower, which I suspect happened on this last round), program officers have to make some tough choices. I may have my opinions on their recent decisions, but all I know with any certainty or clarity is that I REALLY do not envy them right now. So, what might this new, unofficial policy mean? Well, if the whispers are true, then this means that NSF has stepped in to prevent the kind of decimation of the assistant professor ranks that was prophesied over at the DrugMonkey blog. I voiced my skepticism at that site that such mass non-tenurings were feasible for universities, though I was also accused of living under a rock for having said opinions. I will qualify my previous stance on this to say that a) mass firings in the medical sciences may more common (I'm not in the medical sciences and I'm happy to assume that the people over at DrugMonkey understand their field better than I do) and b) I should add that I agree increased non-tenurings over the short-term (next 1-2 years) might happen but that over the longer-term, would not be sustainable for most universities. When I'm in one of my cynical but amused moods, I'll play out what I think would happen to the State University of the Short-Sighted if they implemented the mass-firings policy over the long-term.

I'm still digesting what the new filter at NSF might mean for individual researchers and also broader impacts on collaborative research (what happens if the lead PI has money but the co-PIs don't or vice versa), university practices (do people now have problems being promoted to full, and do I even care about that?), and a host of other things. Whether in the long-term I agree with what NSF is doing (which hopefully will only have to happen for the short-term), I at least find it comforting that someone in a position of power (i.e., not me) is thinking about these things too!

Friday, June 20, 2008

And the #1 ISI ranked journal in Ecology is....


This week the new ISI impact factors came out and I eagerly perused the new standings among my favorite academic journals. I don't know why I am so interested, but the journal scene has become something of a soap opera to me. Will Ecology Letters continue its meteoric rise or will it pay for its disturbing corporate control of author's intellectual materials? Will Nature continue it's mysterious, drunken, plummet from the stratosphere leaving the field clear for Science to dominate..well, science.

I eagerly looked to see where the respected journals of my field were ranked relative to each other. I pulled up the subject category for Ecology and sorted by impact factor. I was immediately shocked into silence. The #1 ranked journal in the field of ecology is.....B. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist? General Disarray and I were doing this simultaneously in our living room on separate laptops. As we sat there in stunned silence, he was the first to find his voice, "What is that?" Well, "it" is the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History and in 2007 is published such ecological classics as:

The anatomy of Effigia okeeffeae (Archosauria, Suchia), theropod-like convergence, and the distribution of related taxa


The braincase in Paleozoic symmoriiform and cladoselachian sharks

I have nothing against these publications. I am sure they are lovely and important contributions to some field. Zoology, perhaps, or Systematics/Evolution. Paleontology, seems like a good guess. However, I honestly do not understand the titles in this journal, which I take as a bad sign for it being an ecology journal, since I am...well.. an ecologist. There are a couple of papers that might be classified as ecology, but in general it is completely and totally inconceivable to me that this is, in any way shape or form, the top journal in my field.

So, how did it get there? Well, aside from the obvious answer that someone at ISI was smoking something when they put that journal into the ecology category, the more interesting answer is in the impact factor itself. This journal has an impact factor of 16.85. To put this in perspective, Science, Nature, and PloS Biology, and PNAS have impact factors of 26.372, 28.751, 13.501, 9.598, respectively. This means the Bulletin of AMNH is between those of Science and PLoS Biology. How the heck did this thing get there? Well, it publishes around 6-7 papers per year and each paper is approximately 100 pages or more (i.e., they're BOOKS!). I am very sure that each of these papers is extremely valuable because of their comprehensive coverage on a topic.

I find the whole thing very fascinating and I have had a great deal of fun imagining the rush of papers the Bulletin of AMNH will be receiving from those wanting to tell their promotion and tenure committee that they published a paper in the top ecology journal. Having milked the Bulletin of AMNH for the total amount of fun I can, it is time to return to more serious insights to be gained from the new rankings. Apparently the intervention by the other Nature publishing group journals successfully shook Nature out of it's drug-induced stupor, convincing it to take back control of the Nature Corporation and challenge Science's hegemony over the world....

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

NSF funding rates and University tenuring policies

I read with interest a posting by DrugMonkey on the "undoubling" of the NIH budget. I poked around for similar information on the National Science Foundation, but did not find anyone who put the NSF budget in the context of inflation.

NSF's funding rates have been at ~8% for my field for the past few years. There were rumors that NSF was to undergo a doubling like NIH, but it really never materialized. I suspect, that given various budget cuts, NSF has at best kept up with inflation. At worse, it hasn't even done that.

General Disarray and I have speculated on what the 8% funding rate at NSF means for the tenuring process at universities. Our university, like many others, requires a "federally-funded" grant as part of the promotion and tenure process. Really, though, the requirements for the grant are usually more stringent than that. Grants run through other institutions do not count for the tenure process because the tenuring university does not "see" that money (seeing has nothing to do with it being visible on your CV and everything about whether the accounting office can roll around in the Facilities and Administration returns in some secret back room). At my institution, the grant must be "in operation" at the time of tenure (i.e., if you had a grant while an assistant professor but it ran out before you came up for tenure, it wouldn't count.) I have a friend at another institution who was told the grant must be at least $500,000 to count, meaning his $150,000 in NSF funding did not. (I always meant to ask him if he had 5 grants each $100,000 or 10 grants each $50,000, would that count, but it always sounded too much like an SAT or GRE question).

The current 8% funding rate has us curious. Can universities afford to be so picky about grants now or do they risk losing their untenured faculty because their expectations no longer meet funding reality? I haven't done the math on this, but I am very curious to see what tenure decisions really look like for assistant professors in my cohort. Will the less-mighty and more scarce dollar really play such a big role for us as it has for cohorts past? While I suspect that the answer is "no", I have no intention of being the guinea pig for our brave, new, less-funded world, so back I go to my NSF proposal.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Advisors (Pt II): How important is the name?

As an older graduate student/young postdoc, I often noted that the people who received lots of job interviews tended to have stellar academic lineages (i.e., either their Ph.D. supervisor or post-doc advisor, or both, were scientific rockstars). The cynic in me assumed that this reflected more about the psychology of academia than anything else. However, I am beginning to wonder if there really is something about the "pedigree" that may be important.

Over the past couple of years I have run into the following scenario again and again: bright, capable student wants to publish papers in Ecology, American Naturalist, Ecology Letters, etc, but has no concept of how to write a paper that could possibly get accepted. The reasons for this vary. Some are working on projects that their advisor told them to do, but if it ever was cutting edge it was 20 years ago. Some are doing cutting edge science, but haven't learned how to write for big journals. The latter is a common scenario I run into; somewhere along the line the basic lesson has not been learned that writing for The Journal of Your Favorite Specialized Taxonomic Group probably results in a very narrowly written paper that is not acceptable for the broader, higher impact, ecology journals. Invariably these students seem to have one thing in common: they would never be described as having a great pedigree.

What I am wondering is if there is something important about who you train with. Having a big name advisor is obviously no guarantee of becoming a successful scientist. Having less than lustrous pedigree is not some unalterable death knell. I still believe a good pedigree says nothing about the inherent quality or potential of a scientist, but I am beginning to suspect that it does indicate something about the "scientific level" that someone has been trained to operate at.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Advisors (Pt I): One size does not fit all

Being a new Ph.D. advisor, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what makes a good adviser. I was very fortunate to have a great advisor as a student (after I switched out of the lab of the crappy one I started with). My advisor (Prof. Mentor) always took time to help me when I was intellectually stuck. His enthusiasm about science was infectious and no matter how demoralized I was when I stepped into his office, I came out charged up to wrestle my project into submission. I received wonderful training on how to recognize where the cutting edge of my field was and how to formulate questions to test ideas on that front. I learned a lot of my philosophy on what type of scientist I want to be from discussions with him about different approaches to science that people take. I learned that the cutting edge was not necessarily synonymous with the most popular research areas. Most importantly, Prof Mentor gave me the freedom to develop my own questions and did not micro-manage (micro-managing always brings me to a halt with a mule-like stubbornness that I am unable to control). There is not a day that goes by that I do not find myself in some situation asking myself what Prof Mentor would do. But even when I was a student, I understood that while he was the perfect advisor for me, other students in the lab thought he was an awful advisor. They felt that he ignored them, that he gave them no direction. They floundered, never latched onto a project, or became convinced that their project was fatally flawed. Several of them dropped out of the Ph.D program. As I talked to more and more of my labmates about why they were unhappy, it became clear that my perfect Prof Mentor really was a bad mentor - for them. What was a perfect amount of intellectual freedom for me was a lack of intellectual guidance for them. What was a blessed lack of micro-managing for me was a lack of management at all for them. It is always easy to dismiss those who fail in situations where others succeed as "not having the right stuff", but many of the people who dropped out were smarter than me.

In some ways it's really too bad that there isn't an on-line "dating" service like "Matchmakers" for student advisor relationships. How great would it be for both student and adviser to know in advance that they were simply incompatible!