Thanks NSF! This site is funded partly by you!

Hey folks, I’m working on a final report for a grant and am reminded that I must both acknowledge NSF support and put in a disclaimer. I view this work as broader impacts for the funding I have received from NSF since I began the blog. Here is what I’m supposed to tell you, quoted directly from NSF.

You and your institution are responsible for assuring that any publication including World Wide Web pages developed under or based on NSF support of your project includes an acknowledgment of that support in the following terms:

“This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (NSF Grant Number)”

You and your institution are also responsible for assuring that every publication of material (including World Wide Web pages) based on or developed under award, (other than a scientific article or paper appearing in a scientific, technical, or professional journal), contains the following disclaimer:

“Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.”

I am guessing you will not be surprised to hear my views don’t reflect those of NSF necessarily. But I think they support my goal of opening up the process of academia to a broader set of investigators.

I think I should put this acknowledgement and disclaimer on another more general page, like the About one, but forget how for the moment.

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Women, don’t avoid field work for fear!

I’ve been seeing a lot of stuff lately on women who were sexually harassed while doing field work. There was a study published in  PLoS ONE by Clancy et al. that went into some details on inappropriate comments and unwelcome advances in a variety of field settings. This is both dangerous and infuriating. It should absolutely not be tolerated by anyone.

I have only two things to add. The first is that field work is a wonderful thing. In the field you can focus on your research in ways impossible elsewhere. In the field you not only learn about your study system, you expand your natural horizons in glorious ways. Why I am a biologist comes from field work. I’ve worked alone and in groups, formally and informally, in the US, Europe, and the tropics. I’ve slept in waspy meadows. I’ve marched through Brazilian Atlantic forests looking for bees. I’ve crossed picket lines in Venezuela to get at wasp nests. I’ve snorkeled in Belize. I’ve dug for Dicty at Mountain Lake Biological Station. You get the idea, that field work is wonderful.

Field work at Mountain Lake Biological Station

Field work at Mountain Lake Biological Station

My second point is that field workers are generally great people, men and women. So when you experience or witness annoyances, hostile climate, or real dangers, expose them and their perpetrators.  You don’t only have to turn to women either, for men do not like this kind of issue either. So speak up! Remember that field sites are usually safe in all ways, though they will reflect the community they are in. Turn to the community to shame and control the creeps and jerks. The power of support is profound.

Just please don’t forgo the field trips!

Posted in Field work, Gender bias, Natural areas | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Why you should use the word “evolution” if that is what you study

How often do you hear people say evolution when that is actually what they are working on? If you do not use the word, then some people will not get the connection of your work to this unifying theory. If people don’t hear the word, they will think it is not a central and important concept. If they do hear it all the time it is appropriate, then it will become more normal and people will understand this important process because they will have heard of lots of examples. If you use the word, reporters picking up your work will be more likely to use it.

I am particularly reminded of this right now because of its general absence in the discussion of the Ebola virus epidemic, and because of its complete absence in the titles at the retreat I am at for Washington University’s Molecular Genetics and Genomics and Computational and Systems Biology retreat at lovely Cedar Creek in New Haven Missouri.

A researcher in our group, jeff smith, pointed out that with Ebola clinicians say adapt, change, modify and the like and not evolve when that is clearly what they mean. Why? Evolution is what is going on, and certain kinds of evolved adaptations by the virus are our biggest fears. Use the word.

I really don’t know why evolution is absent at this retreat. Is the topic missing among the blizzard of completely mechanistic talks? Is there a subtle pressure not to use the term even when it is appropriate? Maybe people just didn’t think about it. I know we did not in titling our own poster, but I’ll try to be more aware next time.

Keith Blanchard has a great piece on why you should stop believing in evolution. His basic point is that it is not a matter of belief. We don’t believe in blue, we don’t have to believe in evolution. It is a fact that is demonstrated and does not need belief. The more broadly we use the word when it is what we mean, the easier it will be for the public to understand this process that explains life.

Posted in Outreach, Presentations and seminars, Public Communication, Science writing for the public | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Are there secret standards at funding agencies?

Wouldn’t you be horrified to hear there is a secret standard at your funding agency that you could easily meet, had you been told about it? I sure would. It is easy to see imaginary secret standards when funding rates are so low, but what if they really exist?

Why would an agency have secret standards anyway? I don’t get it. Standards should be open or they should not exist. Frankly, I’m guessing these are only rumors, but they are making it to the halls of my university and to Dear Labby, of the ASCB July 2014 newsletter. Actually, Dear Labby looks quite interesting, so check it out!

As far as secret standards go, find out if they are true and help ferret out why, or spread the word. In this particular case, the so-called secret standard is that all proposals in a generally non-mathematical, statistically naive field must have models. Is it true? Can it be true? Does anyone dare say?

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NSF Preproposals – a failed idea at DEB and IOS?

DSC00855Preproposals came to DEB and IOS about three years ago to solve the problem of too many proposals and too few willing reviewers. They were also thought to solve the problem of too much investigator time wasted on writing unfunded proposals. There are probably other reasons for beginning them at that time. After all, many big programs with many investigators and institutions or other complexities have preproposals, so it wasn’t a new idea, even for NSF.

Preproposals have generated tons of controversy. Some people like them, but most seem to loathe them. I know NSF DEB and IOS have done their own careful study and that it is going to come out soon. Here are my thoughts developed from talking to many people and from personal experience. I bet you can think of additional points.

1. Preproposals are not less work, for the writer or the reader.
The idea was that a preproposal was only 5 pages and so they would not take so much time. But trying to squish your ideas into 5 pages can be more work than explaining yourself fully as anyone who has tried to write a paper for Science knows. You don’t know what to include and what to leave out. You agonize over balance between ideas, background, and experimental detail, not to mention broader impacts.

There is another way in which preproposals are more work. Two get funding you have to write two proposals with different target audiences, different lengths, and different times of year. The second time may be exciting, but about half those proposals are also declined.

2. Referees have to keep two different standards in mind, 5 page and 15 page. In many countries the whole proposal is about 5 pages and all judgements are made at that level. Then everyone gets used to that standard and has a clear idea of what level of detail to expect. Here we have two standards making it hard not to expect something from 5 pages that cannot be there.

3. Preproposals are only judged by a committee, so you are less likely to have an expert in your field read it. Sometimes I feel like no one who really knows the field of the proposal read it. This is inevitable when the preproposals are only read by a committee. The comments that come back on the preproposals can seem shallow and off the mark. You may have had a weakness in your proposal that you addressed as well as possible, yet no one noticed it. Instead the panel went after something you did not detail because it is routine for your field. Doesn’t everyone deserve a team of experts to read their proposal, or at least a level playing field?

4. Preproposal reviewers still focus on methods. The idea originally was that you would be judged just by your big ideas and you don’t need to go into detail on the methods. Taken to an extreme you could propose to do amazing and impossible things that anyone should want to fund. Of course you don’t do this. I have been discouraged by how much NSF panels at all levels focus on methods, no matter how much program officers entreat panels to do otherwise. People may feel more comfortable with challenging methods. They may feel less able to really judge what is a big idea and what is not. In a way the biggest ideas will have no audience of experts. This can be particularly true when there is no one on the panel that really knows your field.

5. If the top preproposals translate into the top proposals, we don’t need two steps. I do not know if this is true, but I bet it is. Excellence tends to be correlated across different arenas. Taking away the chance to ever get fully evaluated can really hurt struggling investigators, perhaps keeping them from performing to their optimum and only rewarding the people that already know how to do this.

6. Preproposals do not solve many problems once a year deadlines would not also solve. A once a year deadline with full proposals and a mix of panel and ad hoc reviews would keep researchers from churning proposals. It would allow early career investigators to submit twice, once regular, once CAREER. It would give everyone the thoughtful advice in comments on a full proposal. It would require greater support from the community to get all the ad hoc reviews, but it would be worth it.

7. Preproposals create another status ranking among investigators, which can be very demoralizing. The countries with the longest lifespans are those with less hierarchy, like Sweden, many studies show. While it will help your longevity to be high status (see study of Nobel laureates), isn’t what we really want longer, fulfilled lives for everyone? You get that from less ranking. We can’t get rid of the most fundamental rank, funded and unfunded (but see a soon-to-come post), but we can get rid of the shameful not asked for a full proposal category.

8. Preproposals are terrible for researcher morale. I suppose this one could have been predicted, but I did not think of it before. Somehow having your precious ideas not even be considered worthy of a full proposal is really discouraging. Any time that writing a shorter proposal might have saved is lost to gloominess about the whole scientific enterprise. It is bad enough not to get funded. It is simply horrible to have this be the result of something less than a full chance to explain yourself. There is tons of evidence of low morale. This is the biggest problem with preproposals. Say what you will about whether it should have happened. It did happen. We need to fix it.

9. What to do next? I recommend that we drop the preproposals, go to a single full proposal a year, and as a community commit to careful review of the adhoc proposals we receive. If you are not getting any, contact your program officer and let her know you are available. Change is complicated. I think this was a good idea, but it did not work. It is time to drop it.

Posted in Creativity, Grant proposals, Grants, New ideas, NSF | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

What I learned at the National Science Foundation

Here are some things I learned last week at NSF while serving on the Advisory Committee for Biological Sciences. I expect every time I go I’ll learn something new, but in some ways what a beginner learns first can be important.

France Córdova, NSF director, and John Wingfield, AD Biological Sciences

France Córdova, NSF director, and John Wingfield, AD Biological Sciences

1. Anything to do with the federal government has a lot of rules. It would be impossible to try to teach us all those rules at once. Rather, the permanent people at NSF guide us away from areas we cannot change. This makes sense even if we strongly disagree with something, because there is no point in tilting at something that is not in our purview. I’m only beginning to learn what this applies to, but here are a few examples. Our committee is an advisory committee. These committees have rules under FACA, the Federal Advisory Committee Act. We don’t get to mess with these rules, so get over it. Another example is we might have ideas on making the description of Broader Impacts more clear, but we don’t get to do that. They are NSF wide, and come also from evaluations of the National Science Board. I think there are tons more things like this, so when a permanent person at NSF tells you something is off limits, listen to them. We have plenty to do within our limits.

2. The mix of temporary rotators and permanent staff at NSF is very useful,

Our leader, Kay Gross

Our leader, Kay Gross

but very confusing. I imagine the rotators come in full of energy, determined to make a difference, with big plans for change, but then settle in to understanding what the nature of possible change is. The permanent people seem to welcome the rotators and help them mold their enthusiasm to things that are feasible. The wise rotator figures out how to be mentored by the permanent people. The wise permanent person figures out how to use the new perspective of the rotators.

DSC008513. The people at NSF see more science than I’ll ever see. These people see the earliest forms of new ideas. They see so many different ideas from different perspectives, research institutions, and disciplines, that they develop a sense for what is really innovative in a way that is much more profound that I can do from my relatively narrow corner. This is not because I don’t try to be broad, but simply because with all the things I do, I have no time. If we want insight into what areas might be new and needing more funding, as was the case for molecular evolution a couple decades ago, the program officers are the people most likely to know.

4. When funding rates are so low, decisions are complicated. Proposals at IOS and DEB require pre-proposals, once a year. Proposals at MCB have a single annual deadline. A lot of thought has gone into both these processes. People who don’t like the preproposals for example, generally also want to submit twice a year. They think that if they can do this they will have more chances to get funding, therefore getting tenure, a promotion, whatever. But what they forget is the NSF is not giving out any less money with the pre-proposals. Isn’t writing a careful pre-proposal once a year a better use of your time than writing twice a year, often bouncing back from comments you don’t have time to digest? Isn’t the real question about how we can convince our universities to understand that some excellent researchers may simply not have NSF funding?

5. The workload at NSF is horrendous. Our program officers have to be really efficient with their time. They have to justify every decision they make. There are all kinds of reports they do that we don’t necessarily see. The workload is also not even with some divisions handling many more proposals and dollars than others with the same staff. I guess the rotators do this for all they learn in a short time.

6. NSF is exciting. It is a really great feeling to be part of the heart of curiosity driven science in America. It is really fun to be with so many smart, caring people, all trying to help make this nation a better place.


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What is NSF’s Advisory Committee for the Biological Sciences supposed to do?

When I got asked to be on the Advisory Committee (AC) for the Biological Sciences at NSF, I said yes. I supposed this was an important thing to do. I have been trying to say no and preserve time for my own interests and those of my group, but am vigilant to opportunities where I feel I might make a difference.

I didn’t know exactly what being on the AC would entail, and will not look up the email that enticed me. I’m not sure how far this open meeting thing extends. But what NSF does is give out money for research, education, and for broadening the reach of science in America, all things that are important. Would we be asked to weigh in on what gets what percentage of the money?

One might think so because the top of page one in the orientation materials tells about that money, all seven billion dollars of There if you can read this, you can see what we have to play with. Keep reading through this report, likely available on the page for the AC.

There is a lot of other interesting stuff in the orientation booklet. There is also some other stuff we were given. I tried to read it before I came, but I kept looking for what we were supposed to do with the information and did not find that, so stopped reading. After all, I have plenty of other things I have to take action on every day. I figured we would learn this at the meeting.

We got a schedule which basically consisted of talks followed by discussion. To talk, our leader, Kay Gross, had us turn our name cards on end. She did an amazing job of calling on people in order and it meant that while you were waiting for your turn you did not have to fret or waive your hand, or interrupt. But the problem was that we couldn’t really have a discussion with 30 people at the table. For example, one person said that he had a hard time figuring out how to get minority undergraduates in his research laboratory. That is something I know how to do, but I didn’t tilt my card. After all, it would be 5 or 10 people before I would be called on, and the discussion would have moved on.

The whole day went like this, very interesting talks about important subjects, like is there a shortage in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) or not? Michael Teitelbaum thought not, at least not overall. I’m going to believe him because he was Science’s Person of the Year in 2013 and published this in the Atlantic. He also wrote an important book on whether the US is Falling behind in science. It was exciting to hear him, to have him seated only a few seats away, someone I had only before talked to on the phone, back when I was involved on the NSF/Sloan molecular evolution panels. It makes me really happy when such amazing, famous people are so nice.

Still, I’m confused. I guess I expected a really clear set of concrete tasks. I expected maybe we could ourselves decide what we do. They gave us the AC Charter. It says we are established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, FACA. We are “To provide advice and recommendations to the National Science Foundation concerning support for research, education, and human resources in the biological sciences.” There is some more detail that includes advising on program management, overall program balance, and some other stuff. We cost about $100,000 a year, of which 40K is for NSF staff support cost. We meet twice a year. We report to the Assistant Director of the Biological Sciences Directorate.

All that makes sense and seems consistent with what I figured was our charge. But I was still puzzled that this did not seem to be what we were doing. But then there is Item 8 on our list, the Designated Federal Officer (DFO). This person is an NSF employee who will be the DFO. This person can approve or call the meetings, prepare and approve meeting agendas, attend the meetings, and “adjourn any meeting when the DFO determines adjournment to be in the public interest.” This seems bizarre to me. I guess I just assumed that part of an advisory committee would be a certain degree of independence. After all, they are free to ignore what we say, so why can’t we organize ourselves?

It isn’t like there aren’t other committees at NSF that are free to act quite independently. The Committee of Visitors, for example can ask for anything they want and try hard to understand the operations and fairness of a program. I was on one once for DEB (can’t get away from acronyms if it is the federal government, I give up). I tried so hard to find bias, asked for all kinds of things, and was really delighted with the depth of fairness I found.

It isn’t that the DFO isn’t a nice person, or doesn’t want the same things we want, the best for the research and education future of the country. It’s just it seems an odd way to do things. Maybe I’ll understand it better tomorrow. Or maybe they will decide I’m not the kind of person likely to be effective on this committee.

Another way to understand how this committee works is to look at the minutes from the last meeting, before I joined. It met in March, in this same room. Someone took minutes, which we approved today. These minutes give the flow of the meeting, introductions, items. The first item is the Bio budget. It was presented. The committee discussed it, according to the notes, nothing substantive. Then they went on to a CoV report. The committee discussed it and approved it. Basically all the rest of the minutes go on this way, with presentations followed by discussions. Occasionally the AC had a more meaty discussion, as when they were enthusiastic about GoLife. Well, there was really a few more substantive comments, but I’m not going to go into them here.

This is unlike any other advisory committee I’ve been on, but it is late, so I’ll save my thoughts on what an advisory committee should do for another time.

Posted in Grant proposals, Managing an academic career, NSF, Outreach | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments