Archive for: January, 2013

How committed is NIH to addressing its race problem? Hint: kinda sorta

Jan 16 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

"Now we know, and now we have a chance to do something about it. The leadership here is absolutely committed to making that happen"
-Francis Collins (NIH Director)

Remember that  NIH race thing?


No? I quick reminder, in the summer of 2011 a paper published in Science reported that NIH grants showed a racial disparity. When controlling for a host of factors, African-American scientists still tended to have less of a chance to be awarded a grant from NIH.  There was a minor storm of commentary and coverage, including Science and the New York Times. NIH officials stated that, 1) the disparity was a big concern and 2) they were going to do something about it (NIH reactions here and here). Initially that something was, of course, to form a committee. Not exactly a dramatic action, but I suppose understandable given the giant bureaucraticness of NIH. There needed to be a report written and recommendations made. That was well over a year ago and what have the results been? (a reaction here).

Basically four things have been recommended,

1) Increase undergraduate research opportunities
2) Create a mentoring network
3) Hire a Chief Diversity Officer
4) Test some possible bias interventions, e.g., "diversity training".

Even if these recommendations were enacted tomorrow, and worked exactly as hoped, the  gains would be slow and marginal. #1 seem to more address the problem of under representation. The report is not about under representation it is about an outcome disparity. #2 I'm not sure how this will work. Is this network going to be the Facebook of science mentoring? Pick-a-Mentor? Mentoring is great but it's not as simple as being assigned a mentor who then provides you with all knowledge needed for professional development. In my own experience it is a constant active slog to find people and pick their brains. #3 Seems good enough. Of course this person will have to take actions and have the power to take actions other than issue more reports. #4 The standard diversity training response. How well this will work may depend on the source(s) of the disparity.

I want to contrast this with NIH actions regarding other issues. In that same blog post I linked there is also discussion of the ongoing early career investigator issues. Here is a selection of some of the actions directed towards that problem.

NIH plans to increase the funding of awards that encourage independence like the K99/R00 and early independence awards, and increase the initial postdoctoral researcher stipend.

In the past NIH has also taken actions in modifying how grants are awarded. The whole Early Stage Investigator designation is part of that. Grant pickups, etc.

A commenter on the Rock Talk NIH blog put the contrast this way:

A grant outcome disparity for younger investigators leads to a massive and immediate initiative to fund proposals out of order.
A grant outcome disparity for African-Americans leads to….”initiatives” and “study”. In other words, nothing.

It's tough for me to disagree with this. I don't want to get all Kanye ("NIH doesn't care about black researchers"), but priorities, be they individual or institutional, really come though not in talk but actions. Now, I don't have any special knowledge about the source or solution to the racial disparity. But the NIH response here seems more along the lines of adequate than overwhelming.

If it is the case that NIH leadership believes the report flawed, or the effect due to something beyond their control, then they should say so. Thus far I have not seen any indication. The optimistic view of NIH's plans is that a multifaceted approach is more likely to show some effect. Another view is that NIH is throwing a few okay plans at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Two interesting notes:

  1. The NSF numbers don't seem to show nearly as much a disparity.
  2. Interesting wrinkle in the data: black scientists had less co-authors per paper.

21 responses so far

Do you jailbreak your papers?

Jan 14 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Do you usually make your published articles available by putting them on a personal/lab webpage?

Am I missing any options?
For some reason I suspect this varies a lot by field. Especially with regard to ArXiv use.

2 responses so far

Public Engagement Begins at Home

Jan 07 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

In light of some recent discussions a slighted modified repost from the old blog.

For a fair portion of scientists/academics holiday gatherings can provide ample practice with you elevator speech. What is it that you do exactly? Some sort of bio-scio-chem thing? With beakers right?

During a quiet moment at on such a family gathering one of my relatives slid in the following bomb

“So, why do we do research at all?”

My relative is a fairly regular guy without extreme predilections on any direction. He just doesn’t get why we pay money for someone to just…figure things out. He wasn’t meaning to be provocative, he just didn’t get it. What’s the value in trying to figure out anything without clear immediate, important (and lucrative) applications? Why not just do that stuff? As if the ideal situation would be 100% of scientists working on cancer research.

As a person who has been ensconced in science since an early age, that question seems so obvious and ridiculous that of course I stammered though a pretty sub-par answer. That particular missed connection is the most extreme example, but indicative of a lot of the conversations I've had about science/academia with them.

There have been plenty of smaller things, questions about having summers off, why I'm not teaching more, and such. The misconceptions have slowed over the years as I have provided feedback. Folks get that research is not something I am simply dabbling in on the side. That despite having a 'flexible' schedule I do not have summers off.

I guess public engagement begins at home. Even for me with a group that is very supportive and generally predisposed to appreciate work in higher education, it's been more of a slog than you might imagine. It's not an uphill battle for me at all, so I wonder how it is for folks who encounter more skepticism, and with the public in general.

Do the people close to you, relatives and friends get what you do? Not in the technical sense, but broadly as a scientist/academic? Do they all think you have summers off?

4 responses so far

12 Months of Bashir

Jan 03 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

The usual meme. The first line of the first post of each month the last year. This includes my old blog up until the October move here at Scientopia. (I may do some reposts of old stuff at some point)

January: A fair portion of scientists may find themselves the “only ones” in their family. Holiday gatherings can provide ample practice with you elevator speech..

February : Blacks in America do not have the luxury of your intellectual talents being wasted on astrophysics

March: Just last week I had a manuscript officially accepted (high fives)

April: Being a scientist is not a particularly positive experience.

May : I think I do a reasonable job of pursuing career development opportunities

June : Question: How long does it take to run an experiment?

July :[None]

August: I’ll have a real post one day, I swear.

Septembre : Way back in the early days of grant preparation I went on to NIH Reporter and printed out a list of the currently funded projects for the grant type.

October: If you’re still here I have up and joined Scientopia and will be posting there.

November these demands are entirely covert, completely unguessable, and totally ridiculous, if not impossible

December: Many of you science peeps are familiar with NIH and their constant worry over the careers of early investigators.

One response so far