spreading the wealth

S L Forsburg forsburg at nospamsalk.edu
Fri Jun 27 09:40:36 EST 1997


> Valerie Cardenas Nicolson (valerie at itsa.ucsf.edu) wrote

> > grants is that the applicant must have a real position and
> > "institutional commitment" (ie, money and space).
> > Some institutions will create job titles for postdocs
> > easily, but many more will not.
> 
> Ah, well, it would certainly be a hardship if you worked
> at an institution where titles were hard to obtain. My comment
> was based on my experience at my institution, where soft-money
> positions are relatively easy to come by, and *nobody* has
> a guarantee of space. I know several people who have written
> grants as post-docs (and yes, submitted with their boss
> as PI and the post-doc as co-PI because post-docs aren't
> allowed to submit grants at my institution either), and
> their reward was promotion to a titled, soft-money position
> (adjunct or in residence positions). 

I've served on several study sections that have identified
such submissions and been quite cross--they want the applicant
to have the position before he submits (actually, that's
in the rules for most agencies).   They can, and do, return 
such grants without approval....I've seen it happen. If
"institute commitment" is a corner of the current PI's bench
space, they may not go for it.  Perhaps they are becoming 
more unwilling to throw these neither-fish-nor-fowl positions
against people who are out there without the safety net, I 
don't know.  My experience on study sections is only a few years
old.  I have seen this reluctance however on more than one
study section. In short, although some people may pull it off,  it 
isn't common and shouldn't be counted on.

At my institution, for example, the intitution disallows submission
of grants from anyone who is not a faculty member or a staff
scientist.  (remember, since the grant is awarded to the institution,
institute approval is required....you can't just wildcat submit
these things).  A staff scientist must be appointed by the same
committee that reviews and appoints faculty hires and promotions.
We have a number of staff scientists, but they are more
permanent than senior postdocs looking to move on in a year or two.  

And for the record, most of our junior faculty hires come in
without grants.  We do not base our hiring decisions on whether
or not someone has gotten a grant already.  

> > Remember, grants are NOT awarded to the individual. They
> > are awarded to the institution.
> 
> It sounds like you're more familiar with the numerous award
> mechanisms at NIH and NSF than I am. Last I checked (several
> years ago), except for mentored research awards, most grants
> were transferable to a different institution if the PI moved.

Yes, they can move at  the discrection of the agency. But
they are not awarded to the PI, they are formally awarded to 
my institution.  The institution is responsible for their
administration and that all the rules are followed, and to
ensure that the PI doesnt run off to Rio with the money.  :-)

> > Yes, but his rate of return is better. He needs more
> 
> I think this would only be true if my boss was the *only*
> person writing these grants, which is not the case.

Well, we'll have to disagree here.
 
> > > write some excellent grants but don't get funded because they
> > > don't have a list of publications as long as their arm,
> >
> > That's usually not the reason.
> 
> Are you saying that the best grants get funded? 

No, I'm saying that long publication lists are not the reason
grants get funded.  

We all agree that there are too many "best grants" for them all to 
be funded.  So, how do you distinguish?  You have 60 grants in
your study section, and 10 or 15 are really good, but in reality
only about 6 will be funded.  What do you do?  What's the best
return to your money?  (Note that at this point the study 
section bows out and the program people come in.  Program people
have a lot of discretion).  

> I would complain if I were writing
> excellent grants and not getting funded because I didn't have
> an established record (something I have worried about, because
> at a mock study section I attended, the reviewers spent about
> 2 minutes summarizing the grant and saying the science
> was excellent, but spent the rest of their review rhapsodizing
> about the PI's excellent publication and funding record).

That it doesnt happen often.  In my experience
study sections actually discuss the science and while they
may rhapsodize occassionally, that isn't a major part of it. 

> > the pie isn't going to change, do you continue to let one
> > guy eat 4 pieces, or do you let those 4 pieces feed 4
> > people? Because funding the big labs at big lab rates means
> > that you can't fund as many labs. So other people with
> > good ideas don't get a chance.
> 
> I don't like this analogy, only because the big guy getting
> 4 pieces may be feeding 4 people. 

Yes, but what happens to the people when they leave?  The model
of feeding the big labs means that we support a few senior
people and their projects and their junior scientists.  It
means that fewer junior scientists can climb up to being
senior people.  I think we will have to disagree here too.

> You are correct that
> funding big labs means you can't fund as many labs, but
> that doesn't mean you aren't funding/supporting as many
> scientists. If the big guy getting
> 4 pieces just kept getting a bigger salary and wasn't hiring
> more scientists, I would agree with you. 

Maybe it's me, but I'd rather be an assistant professor with my
own lab (and independence), then a postdoc in someone else's
for the rest of my career. 

>  The grants I've worked on
> were rejected for valid, scientific reasons, or because the agency
> just wasn't interested in the kind of work we were proposing.

It's touching that you have such faith in the system that good
work is always identified *and funded*.  But the realities of the
situation are that the agencies do not have enough money to fund
all the grants that they find of high merit. 

> I've never been under the impression that "big labs" were to
> blame for our problems.

They aren't, per se, it's just that 
1) resources are limited
2) funding is tight
3) the more you fund big labs of 30 people, the less you fund
small startup labs. 
That's the exchange.  

Are labs of 30 people really doing work
THAT much better than a small lab of 5?  I argue that by
narrowing our support to a few labs, we lose the advantage
of new and different ideas and approaches.  Yes, it will cut
into the big labs.  They won't be able to do everything.
But more people will get to contribute, and that's how
science advances, by sampling the most ideas possible.  

The profession is changing.  We can react to changes that are
made for us, or we can actively contribute to shape
 its new structure.  Do we want it to be more like the German
academic system, where you have one senior person, directing
several assistant professors, and the juniors underneath that?
Or do we want it structured so that more people are independent
and can make independent contributions? 

The qeustion for Valerie is:  what do you want it to
be like when you are out on your own?

-- 
-susan
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S L Forsburg, PhD  forsburg at salk.edu
Molecular Biology and Virology Lab          
The Salk Institute, La Jolla CA 
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