Sunday, August 12, 2012

Fortune-Telling, Part One

You were all so kind to me when I told you about my grant rejection last month!  It’s only fair for me to give you an update on what happened with that grant, even though it’s not the most pleasant blogging topic.  I have decided to forge ahead and share it with you in the interest of providing my readers with some insight into the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant review process.  Remember, the NIH is entirely funded by taxpayer dollars, so I’m telling you how your money is spent (or not, in this case) on academic science.

Prior to submitting my NRSA application, my prediction was that funding was a long shot for me.  The top reason for this?  I have not published any papers from my postdoctoral work.  The reason for that, in a nutshell, is that I had a massive project failure in year one.  I’ve spent years two and three developing my current project, which I think (hope!) is getting close to publication stage.  My current project is the basis for the grant.  I think I’ll talk a little more about that failed project in a future post, but for now, I’ll say this: innovation, by definition, means doing something that’s never been done before. That requires risk and a willingness to fail.  Though my project failure didn’t make me happy, I recognize it as a necessary part of my work, so I don’t feel the need to flog myself over it.

In the grant review process, reviewers take a long, hard look at your publication record.  It seems like your past productivity may, in fact, be the first and most important thing they examine.  I think most people would consider me successful: I got good grades in college, I was a productive graduate student, and I completed my PhD in six years.  I was an author on several papers with my graduate advisor, so I do have a publication record.  It’s just that it’s been a while since I’ve had something new come out.  And frankly, in my field of genetics and behavior, that’s pretty common.  I’ve noticed that my peers tend to publish something new every 2-3 years—it takes us a while to develop a new project.  The standard for work in my field is very high, so we spend our years meticulously conducting experiments and analyzing data.  Maybe our rate of production is low compared to other fields—I suppose that means we value quality over quantity.  How can anyone criticize us for that?!?

Anyway, so yes, my grant reviewers were less than pleased by my recent lack of papers.  The other point they made (which I had also predicted) is that my career goal is not the best fit with this award.  So be it: I’m not going to lie about what I want to do with my scientific training.

Finally, and this part is truly baffling to me, they were very critical of what is called the “training environment.”  In other words, my work environment, including the institution, my lab, and my advisor.  To my mind, there are no major problems for me in those areas.  I’ll be the first to say that in research, advisors and advisees have complex relationships, but generally, my advisor and I have a professional, productive relationship.  It’s not perfect—no relationship ever is—and we’ve been through a lot, but I like to think that we’ve done the best we can.  I think that from an NIH perspective, I’m not learning enough new techniques.  But the thing is, I came out of graduate school having learned a huge number of techniques.  I don’t need a dozen more techniques in my arsenal.  What I need is an advisor who will give me the right balance of freedom and guidance to help me become an independent researcher.  My postdoc advisor has been doing that for me—he doesn’t hold my hand, metaphorically speaking, but if he thinks I’m on the wrong track, he’ll point me in a different direction.  Training-wise, I have been very happy with my overall experience as a postdoc.  It’s that question of funding that has loomed over my head.  But the price of innovation is that you have to be dedicated to the project, funding situation be damned.

Stay tuned for Part Two, an update on the other grant application…


Shannon said...

interesting... the thing that strikes me most is how nothing was about the actual proposal! I suppose if they don't feel you are "worthy" ( say this in a mocking tone) w/o papers or proper training environment, they don't want to "waste" their time reading it, but it seems baffling to me!

Rosiecat said...

It's true, Shannon: I only talked about the problems with my application! Generally, the reviewers said positive things about the research proposal, but obviously the other "issues" loomed large in their imaginations. And not to toot my own horn too loudly (HONK!), but I was very happy with the final research proposal that we submitted. It was innovative and supported by good preliminary data (if I do say so myself!). :-) Of course it wasn't perfect, but it was solid and well-written.

Rosiecat said...

(And honestly, if I thought the proposal was terrible, I would have felt awful about submitting it. I think a research proposal needs to be pretty good before it's worthy of being submitted. Otherwise, it's just a waste of everyone's time.)