FOIA for fun and profit

(by bashir) Sep 05 2017

"I'm not saying you should do it, but I understand"

Recently folks were all a twitter about a BuzzFeed article on science grants being FOIA'd. This isn't a new new thing. My googles turn up a bunch of articles from at least 2009 including some on this here website. Understandably there seem to be mixed feeling about this. Some folks may be targeted by outside groups looking to get "dirt". I get that concern. The recent article is more about that guy you see at conferences FOIAing your grant. There may be some concerns about 'scooping' the intellectual property for your Opto start up. Black out as needed, I suppose.

Me, I personally wouldn't do it or suggest that people FIOA grants.


I think I understand why someone might see this as a useful or even necessary thing to do. When I read the quotes from the articles it seems less like someone trying to jump in and scoop Optogenetics 3.0 for Nature papers and profit. It seems more like junior scientists who feel like they have no idea why some grants get funded and others don't. I think most would agree that reading grants is useful in writing them. That's the basic logic of NIH's little "sit in on grant review" mechanism. Learning about the grant game is useful in playing it. The entire grant enterprise is a bewildering black box. I can't emphasize that enough. I empathize with folks who might feel desperate for information. Not everyone has these ideal mentoring experiences when they ghost write R01s and compile modular budgets as grad students.

"Almost all of the FOIA requesters who responded to BuzzFeed News said they were not interested in the specific plans detailed in the grant proposals, and simply wanted to learn how a successful bid for funding was put together."

I don't know these folks so who can say what there situation or reasons are. Maybe they just like bureaucratic mechanisms. Maybe they're jerks. It's worth considering why they may feel the need to resort to this. Maybe the flow of information and how mentoring "ought to work" isn't working for them. This seems mostly seems like another example of what people do to navigate the fog of war in their own science careers.

7 responses so far

How to roll 20s

(by bashir) Oct 07 2016

Some advice for new professors I've always heard is to not really say anything during faculty meeting the first few years. This may seem a bit constraining but I think it's useful to think about how little of the department you really know. The history. When some seemingly simple issue is brought up it is the first time? Is it the 5th time in the last 3 years? You'd be surprised (or not) what academics can turn into years long grudge matches.

The other thing is that you probably don't really know anyone's work personality. Not if they seem nice or personable. But when it comes to dealings about your academic organization where are they on this chart:


Eventually you will figure this out.

No responses yet


(by bashir) Oct 07 2016

I've probably told this story before. It's favorite of mine because it's not at all true. But captures a particular thing very well.

At one of my usual conferences I slipped out of a talk early for a quick restroom break. While walking in I run into a certain rising star I know. Fresh off his first year at Fancy Pants University and somehow already has more data than god. I say "how's it going" as he walks towards the bathroom exit with his laptop under his arm. "oh just taking a break to work on a grant or two".

I'm sure that's not actually what happened. The exchange was near the men's restroom, not in it. Less funny. Either way if you don't know this guy personally you probably know someone like him. Every free moment is ruthlessly absorbed by perfectly efficient productivity. I don't think he's a work-aholic. He takes breaks, hangs out with his kids, goes on vacation. But when he is on, every 5 minuets between meetings is a chance to "run a few regressions" or "knock out a paper review". If I have 5 minutes between meetings suddenly I've spent 10 reading about flat-earth rap beef. Even when I manage to eschew the net I don't find myself particularly good at pivoting between tasks. I'm more of the tanker ship that takes 15 minutes to make a small adjustment.

3 responses so far

A day of PI year 2

(by bashir) Sep 18 2015

6:45am. Wake up.

6:45-8:15. Chaos in the form of two small children. Coffee helps.

9AM: Arrive on campus. Grab coffee because I left my mug at home.

9-11: Prime time. Time least likely to have a meeting or talk scheduled. I put whatever is most important and involved into this slot if I can. This semester it's coding. Sometimes it's writing.


11-12:15: Teaching. Getting chalk on my shirt.

12:15 - 1:30. Lunch meeting and/or seminar talk.

1:45 meetings up: Meet with senior PI in other dept about possible collaboration.

2:30 meetings down: Meet with graduate student. Try to figure out if I am managing her well or not. Talk about how data collection is going. Try to remember which decisions I need to make.

3:15. Browse vendor website. Freak out about budget. Am I spending too fast or too slow? Order more stuff for lab.

3:30- 4:30. Work on application for some Young Investigator award.

4:45 Hallway gossip with other junior faculty.

5:05 Set code to run over night.

5: 07 Receive rejection email for some other Young Investigator Award.

5:15. End of day.  go pick up one of the kids.

5:45 - bed(??) Cook dinner, play with kids. put them to bed, etc.

2 responses so far

Fear Not a Reviewer

(by bashir) Aug 19 2015

Listen.. people be askin me all the time,
"Yo Mos, what's gettin ready to happen with Science?"
(Where do you think Science is going?)
I tell em, "You know what's gonna happen with Science?
Whatever's happening with us"
If we smoked out, Science is gonna be smoked out
If we doin alright, Science is gonna be doing alright
People talk about Science like it's some giant living in the hillside
comin down to visit the townspeople
We are Science
Me, you, everybody, we are Science
So Science is going where we going
So the next time you ask yourself where Science is going
ask yourself.. where am I goin? How am I doin?

2 responses so far


(by bashir) Jun 30 2015

Grants, fellowships or whatever seem to fit into three categories.

I could totally get that. Maybe it's a small award. Maybe it's right in your particular area of research. Maybe it's internal money and there's not too too much competition. Not a slam dunk, but...

At least worth a shot. Most things fit here. The big government grants. Maybe NSF, maybe NIH. Marshall some pilot data and start firing some specific aims.

Maybe once I ascend to Valhalla. Often very broad calls. Maybe also limited submission (1 applicant per university). Asking for trans-formative innovating. First question of application might be to list the *other* grants you have (seen it twice). We only give money to scientist who are so innovative they no longer require currency. I don't know if these are even worth the time.

One response so far

Doing work for the National Academy of Sciences

(by bashir) Apr 30 2015

There was a brief discussion on twitter about the demographics of members of the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS itself (or at least some intern) chimed in to note that the academy does not keep track of race/ethnic identification. As such they have no idea what those numbers are. This struck me as odd, since it's pretty easy to throw a basic demographic survey at new members. At least then you'd have some data. We are scientists after all. That's what we do.

So I did it for them (Method details below)

Out of 759 members in the last 10 years there appears to be 6 African Americans. That clocks in at 0.7% which is less than 1 per year. Here's what that looks like:


This data point actually fits in well with the trend of increasing homogeneity in science/academia as you go "up".


Method: I searched for members elected 2014-2004 with USA affiliations. 99% had pictures posted. Visual inspection isn't perfect but it's better than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

5 responses so far

Some Input for NIH

(by bashir) Feb 09 2015

The current wave on the science-Internets is all about a not-a-proposal-yet from NIH for what is current being called an Emeritus Award. I confess I don't entirely understand the logic but this would be funding for senior researchers on their way to closing up shop and passing the proverbial torch (I had no idea that was a costly proposition). In theory this mechanism taking researchers out of the active pool, though that is already happening all over with paylines they way they are.

Well, everyone hates it! Perhaps just in the way that everyone hates any potential new NIH move. What will this do for me? I am no different. Here is how I'd frame this potential move (yes I am going to submit a comment).

NIH's money is finite. Create a new mechanism the money has to come from some place. What they are not-proposing here is to create a mechanism aimed at the most demographically homogenous group of researchers. Take a look at the data for your field, your university or your department. I can almost guarantee you that the least diverse set of people are the most senior ones. When promotions through the ranks happen racial and gender diversity goes further out the door. This is not necessarily NIH's fault though it is certainly something NIH has to deal with.

After all that determination to do something after Ginther Report, with mentoring groups and other round-a-bout approaches aimed at eventually addressing racial disparities in grant awards, suddenly we may have a very direct new mechanism that, regardless of the underlying logic, is essentially un-diversity.

One response so far

Year 1 update

(by bashir) Oct 31 2014

An update from year 1 in a tenure track position.


Everything they say is true. Take that as a re-recommendation to read the various blogs of junior professors if you ever find yourself staring down the barrel of a vaguely worded offer letter. Nearly all of the prophecies have been fulfilled.

-Felt like I was being pushy during negotiation. Hmm, in retrospect probably not quite pushy enough.

-Faculty meetings are both awful and hilarious. Sometimes at once. Lean towards keeping your mouth shut.

-All of those "of course you can do/have access to that! It will be fun and easy!" things from the interview turn into "umm, gee that'll probably involve a lot of forms and money. I dunno who you give either to."

-It's going to be paper work and setting things up for a while. If you have old data to write up that helps with feeling that you're still a scientist.

-The situation regarding your department's space & money can change very quickly. Provost-level sh*t can intervene at any moment. Plan for rainy days if you can.

-Basically everything that was promised, implicitly or otherwise, might happen. You just have to fill out 1000 forms and wrangle several dozen cats for each. Hopefully you can do all that before you go up for tenure.



One response so far

Things to know

(by bashir) Jun 10 2014

I recently did a informal interview with some undergraduate students about grad school & academia (part of an assignment for them). I certainly did not know much about academia when at their stage. The students seems a little surprised by a few of my anwers. Here are a few things

Not every professor is a professor.
There are professors, lecturers, postdocs, etc. Many of these folks may teach a class from time to time. From the student's perspective perhaps a teach is a teacher. Though these folks may have very different status in the department.

Not everyone is a student or professor (ie what is a postdoc?)
They had no idea what a postdoc was, or more generally that there are people in the department who are mainly here for the research.

Everyone is, to some degree, winging it. Your career decisions may be as much serendipity as serious long term planning.

What drew you to your field? I turned to the wrong page in the class bulletin and saw something interesting.
What about your research topic? My undergrad advisor handed me a paper and said "figure this out"
Why did you go to the particular graduate school? I got in.

Ok, not that decisions were due to random chance. But there was not detailed grand master plan that I hatched junior year.

Relatedly, you don't have to pick a specific research project early and stick with it. They seemed a little surprised that I'd bounced around a bit while figuring out what I wanted to do. And even when I applied for grad school I wasn't totally sure.


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