Scales of progress

I’m feeling lately like I’m not doing “enough” with my time, as though I’m caught in a rut emotionally and mentally in my off hours. Work is great. I love the new job – the day-to-day tasks and the bigger project directions. But time at home less… fulfilling? Satisfying? Nourishing?

Maybe I’m unsure of the right word because I’m not totally sure what I’m looking for. Maybe I don’t know what I’m looking for because this is the first time, in a very long time, that I’ve had a significant amount of time, at home, consistently, that’s really all to me. This is the first time I’ve had an eight-hour/day job. I get in early, so I get home early. And this is the first time (aside from a few months last year) that I’ve lived alone. Ever.

The past 18-months have been eventful, to put it mildly. Separation and divorce. Two moves. A new romance. A new job. A new career direction. And that’s not even all of it. There have been nights and weekends, typically when I’m alone, that the stresses have weighed on me, broken my composure, bringing pieces of my past life to the fore. Often I find it frustrating, sometimes infuriating. “It’s been x year(s). When will I be done with this thing? I just want to move forward.”

Tonight, an idea struck. In fitness, I know that comparing today’s fitness level to yesterday’s is meaningless. Today I may feel better emotionally, psychologically, even physically if I exercised yesterday. But to see an objective change in performance, I know that I have to take a longer view – how do I compare to where I was last week? Last month? Last year?

Such are many aspects of life – especially recovery from or adjustment to those foundational shifts. Progress can’t really be measured day by day. It’s in the long view that I can see the difference. I’ve been pressuring myself to be in “top form” emotionally every day and to make tremendous leaps in “fitness” just… because. But, like when I exercise, there will be bursts of improvement, slow gains, and plateuas – and of course, declines can happen too. These can be tweaked by my approaches. But before I get too frustrated about a lack of progress, I need to take a step back and see just how far I’ve come.

If look back at where I was a year ago, I’ve come a very long way indeed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Living in the Void: The postdoc “contract”

Prompted by a discussion on the Twitts…

You got the offer for the postdoc position you wanted. The letter outlines your salary and benefits, and it notes that you’ll have a one-year appointment with an option for renewal. You take it.

You show up and find out that there’s only salary support for six months. Unless something else comes through (and chances aren’t looking good), you’ll need to find another lab, after barely starting in this one.

Sadly this is not an unfamiliar scenario for a number of postdocs. Maybe it happens when they show up. Maybe it takes a few months for the realization to hit. Or maybe it comes just after being reappointed for another year. No doubt it’s a shitty situation. In many cases I’ve heard of, it’s not that the PI wants to boot the postdoc out of their lab. It’s just the plain, simple, bleak reality of finances. They were expecting (or hoping desperately) something would come through, but it didn’t. And now the postdoc has to scramble to find another lab or job.

An understandable reaction is, “How did this happen? What about my contract?”

The devil is in the details.

I can’t generalize (and I’m not sure these things really can be generalized). This is what I have seen in my limited experiences and have heard from some others. (In other words, take the following to apply to “some institutions”.) Postdocs often exist in this weird void between “student” and “employee”. Institutions have separate policies dealing with postdocs, which are sometimes laid out in a postdoc handbook (this is, in fact, one of the practices recommended by the National Postdoc Association). Even with that one-year appointment in hand, postdocs can be terminated at any time without cause. Supervisers may be expected or required to give you a notice of early termination, maybe somewhere between 30 and 90 days before the termination date. But they are well within instituional rules to kill your appointment before the year is up.

So if you’re considering, starting, or in the midst of a postdoc, find out what your institution’s policies are. Find the documents and read them for yourself. Don’t rely on the best guesses and reassurances of others (even PIs can get it wrong). See if your institution has a postdoc handbook; this will likely also have other important information dealing with benefits, vacation, and extended leave. Don’t know where to look? Check in with your institution’s postdoc association or office for postdoc affairs. Don’t have one? Offices for training and education or career development might be good places to check.

Bottom line: Know your institution’s policies. That “contract” might not be quite what it seems.

Posted in biomedical workforce, postdoc life | 3 Comments

Trainees, claim your seat or get left behind.

This is a point I was planning to bring up later, but since a comment on the last post has already hit it, let’s start now. IHStreet said,

My worry with this discussion for sustainability is that Ph.D.’s and postdocs will not be considered ‘major stakeholders’/not be a voice in the room (we have numbers but no money, and sadly money matters more than people do in many, many cases– I really am trying not to be cynical).

I replied in the thread, but I think it’s worth pulling this out as a separate thread. My comment:

I didn’t include it in the post, but I especially had trainees in mind when I close, “It’s time to pull up a chair”. Because in these discussions, I’m looking around and wondering, Where are the postdocs and the students?

The National Postdoctoral Association is probably the biggest advocate for this group in the US, and they have some very engaged participants. They’re pushing important issues for postdocs and gathering data.

But having an advocacy organization doesn’t diminish the need for individual engagment. Trainees talk and vent a great deal, but I feel it’s often only in their own circles and often without broader context, e.g. data and understanding the complexity of the system. I was both surprised and not by the lack of trainees present in the session. I don’t know if it’s disenfranchisement, complacency, fear… I understand that many might not feel comfortable speaking up, but at the very least, I think they should be showing up to learn more about the issues in broader contexts, beyond their personal experiences, and to understand the solutions proposed and how these might affect their futures.

Students and postdocs, this is your future we’re talking about, and I’m concerned in many places it’s happening without you. So few of questions for the trainees out there:

  • With regard to participation in these discussions, where are you?
  • If you’re not showing up to at least listen, why not?
  • How are you going to get your seat at the table?
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Changing equilibria in the research enterprise – An #xBio #SBRE debrief

Many scientists spend years and even decades learning how their favorite systems – growth factor signaling, for instance – work and how to fix them when they go awry. We now have a daunting system to define and modify – the biomedical research enterprise.

On Sunday, the ASBMB Public Affairs Advocacy Committee brought together scientists at Experimental Biology to discuss the state of the biomedical research enterprise and the changes that need to happen to make it sustainable. Before opening the floor for questions and comments, four panelists set the stage for discussion:

  • Jeremy Berg – ASBMB president, faculty member and Associate Senior Vice Chancellor for Science Strategy and Planning at the University of Pittsburgh, and former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences
  • Paula Stephan – Professor of economics at Georgia State University and author of How Economics Shapes Science
  • Michael Marletta – Chair of Chemistry and Chief Executive Officer of the Scripps Research Institute
  • Teri Melese – Assistant Vice Chancellor, Industry Research Alliances at University of California, San Diego

Berg and Stephan provided a picture of the current state and how we got here. Although it may seem counterintuitive, it started with what scientists dream of – more money.

The big boost in research funding in the late ’90s and early ’00s was an important investment, but it had unintended consequences that damaged the biomedical research enterprise. More faculty, more postdocs, more grad students. This meant more grant applications (and applicants) and a surge of new PhD graduates onto the market just as the budget increases ended, with economic crises just over the horizon.

“Economics is about costs and incentives. That’s what put us in this position,” Stephan said. As early as 1977, National Research Council reports were recommending slower growth of the biomedical sciences workforce – recommendations repeated in 1994 and 1998. But compared to staff scientists, graduate students and postdocs are relatively cheap labor. So when more money became available, Berg noted, PhD production grew to fill the need to do research in academic labs, not training to fill a hole in the job market. Expanding the trainee pool was cheaper than hiring staff scientists, and there was no incentive to discourage it.

However, economics is also about finding more than one way to generate the desired product, in this case output of quality scientific research. Stephan suggested some contentious but concrete ways to change the system, such as increasing postdoc salaries (in part, to help promote a shift towards staff scientist support) and discouraging soft money positions. Another was changing the mix of support for students, moving students off research grants and providing fellowships that might give them a little more leverage. She also proposed that students should pay a nominal portion of training costs, the rationale being that students might give more thought to their trajectory and the necessity and desire for a PhD.

As I said before, this is a complex problem. There’s no single change or even single player that can significantly alter the current course of the biomedical research enterprise. So it should come as no surprise that, when discussion began in earnest, there was disagreement over what solutions were appropriate and even what issues were or were not problems. Some pointed the blame at pharma or capitalism. Bruce Stillman contended that science isn’t “broken”, rather funding is, and that’s a separate problem. He felt that getting “fresh blood” in the lab on a regular basis is important for research, but that it might be worth considering shrinking the size of labs by other mechanisms. An emeritus faculty seemed to suggest that there really wasn’t a problem with the number of postdocs or the training provided (at least at her institution).

Everyone sees problems (albeit different ones) in the system, but the vision for the future of biomedical research – beyond “not this” – remains murky. Nigh to the end of the session, Jeff Moran (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) asked perhaps one of the most critical questions – and one of the hardest to answer:

Has anyone defined what a sustainable research enterprise looks like?

Marletta nailed it during his initial remarks. “We agree [we need sustainability], but we might disagree on what it looks like.” For his part, Marletta emphasized scientific merit as the major driving force in a sustainable enterprise. Melese noted the need to redefine academia-industry partnerships, finding the balance of propriety and pace that suited for both parties. On the training issue, we can’t really know what balance should look like, in part because there’s no real data on where PhDs go. Stephan remarked, “I think it’s a killer that we don’t require PIs and universities to report placement data.” Stephan thinks that grant funding should be contingent upon collection of this data.*

Defining a vision of a sustainable research enterprise is likely the first step in moving forward. We need diverse perspectives for it to be truly sustainable, and it’s in the best self-interests of scientists at all levels to get involved. One approach is participating in discussions like this that are happening at national meetings. ASBMB has invited comments on the associated white paper and intends to keep the discussion going.

“Pain-free solutions are unlikely to exist,” Berg said. The pain will be distributed. The ones who will lose the most are those who don’t have a voice in the room, either their own or that of an advocate. As Marletta put it, quoting a lobbyist, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” It’s time to pull up a chair.


*  It’s important to note, Stephan was not advocating that funding decisions should be contingent on actual placements, only on submitting the data. My impression was that Stephan did not have a bias regarding specific areas of science (e.g. research vs. non-research, academic vs. other sectors), just that in healthy system most PhDs would continue to work in some related field.


If you’re interested in more notes & rapid responses from the session, check out the Storify. There are some gems that just didn’t fit here.

For this post, I attempted to minimally editorialize. There’s plenty I have to say on some issues, in due time.

Correction via Jeremy Berg: I incorrectly identified the 4th panelist as Lana Skirbol; she was scheduled to participate but was unable to attend due to illness. The post has been updated to reflect the comments made by Teri Melese. I will also add a note to the Storify.

Posted in science policy, troubles of science, xBio2014 | 8 Comments

#xBio Preview: Building a sustainable biomed research enterprise

I just arrived in sunny San Diego for Experimental Biology 2014, where I’ll be blogging for the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). Here’s a preview of a major topic I’ll be covering tomorrow. For more from Experimental Biology, check out the peeps in this post, or follow the #XBio hashtag on Twitter.

The biomedical research enterprise is in crisis. It has been for a while. Initially, some scientists thought it would get better. After all, there were previous valleys, but ultimately the environment improved. But this time was (and is) different. A confluence of issues hit. Expansion of the biomed workforce, despite warnings to halt growth. Economic crises contributing to a massive recession that hurt many sectors. A divided legislature that has invoked extreme measures to balance the budget.

The result: Labs struggling for funding, some shutting down. Students and postdocs staying in “training” positions longer, and still having trouble finding jobs. On the training side, ASCB has an infographic that explains the current problem pretty well.


What’s to be done?

Often it has seemed that much of the scientific community believes the answer is, more federal funding. I’m a proponent of federal support for research (and I have benefited directly from it), but I’m not convinced that simply throwing more money, even if it could be found and the investment in research justified, will solve the problems. Why? Just over a decade ago, biomedical funding increased rapidly over a few years years. But immediately after that planned rapid growth ended, grant success fell quickly. More applications went in and grant budgets rose. At the same time, the annual production of PhD graduates began to surge (coincidentally, just five years after the start of the funding influx). More cash was put into the system to fix the problems of the day; the system responded by creating an even greater demand for funds (or as DrugMonkey says, too many mouths at the trough).

From Nature News (2006), “Grants fall victim to NIH success”

The title of a perspective recently published in PNAS is accurate and telling: “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws”. The authors include a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS), a member of the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, and the head of a major federal research institute institute. In the perspective, the authors outline what they view as the problems, their causes, and some possible solutions to begin repairing the research enterprise. I could probably spend a week’s worth of posts talking about different points, some I appreciate and others I have issues with. I might get around to some of them, but for today I will say, if you’re in the biomed workforce, I think it’s worth a read.

It would be nice if throwing money at the problem would make it go away. But it’s not that easy. The system is enormously complex. There are multiple players, each with their missions and conflicts of interest. To have a sustained effect, you can’t just fix one part of the system. You have to take a broader view, understand the contributions of different pieces and how they fit together.

It will take time to implement changes, some of which will inevitably hurt some individuals, but the system can’t go on as it is. But where do we start, and how do we move forward? Tomorrow I’ll be attending a forum sponsored by the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee titled, “Building a Sustainable Biomedical Research Enterprise”. Jeremy Berg, former director of NIGMS and current president of ASBMB, will moderate the discussion. Other participants are:

  • Michael Marletta, President and CEO Scripps Research Institute
  • Lita Nelsen, Director of Technology Licensing, MIT
  • Lana Skirbol, Vice Presisent of Academic and Scientific Affairs, Sanofli
  • Paula Stephan, Professor of Economics, Georgia State University

ASBMB recently released a whitepaper with some of the issues, goals, and questions that they’re hoping to address. As an overview, here’s part of the session description:

A sustainable biomedical research enterprise (SBRE) will meet national strategic goals by training a scientifically competent workforce and creating new knowledge while guaranteeing an ongoing and vibrant innovation stream that will improve health and drive economic growth. To reach sustainability, uninterrupted federal research funding sufficient to maintain world leadership in scientific research must be balanced by breakthroughs leading to tangible improvements in therapies and products that justify the federal investment. To achieve the sustainable biomedical research enterprise, the three major stakeholders; that is, Academia, Industry, and Government, must each make significant reforms while working together to solve problems in technology transfer, education, regulatory burden, and product development. ASBMB has identified four components of the biomedical research enterprise that will need significant modification to become sustainable: Training, Workforce, Academia/Industry/Government Relations, and Funding. During this session, we discuss the roles of the three major stakeholders, the four components of a SBRE and the primary issues that must be addressed in order to establish a truly sustainable enterprise.

I will post a recap of the session as time allows, but I (and no doubt others) will also be live tweeting the session, which is scheduled to run from 12:30-3 PDT. Look for the hashtag #SBRE.


Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments