Early Independence Award

Science Magazine ran an article today that I thought would be great to share with the readers of RateMyPI.com.

In 2011, the NIH started a program called the Director’s Early Independence Award.  This award was designed to fast track scientist directly out of graduate school to independent research positions, essentially skipping post doctoral research.  Recipients of this grant are awarded $250,000 per year for a total of five years to essentially manage their own laboratories at a host institution.  Host institutions are required to provide laboratory space and equipment, but the NIH advises against appointment to tenure-track positions.  This allows the awardees to focus on research without hearing the tick-tick-tick of the tenure timeline. 

This program started in response to the increasing age where researchers achieve a tenure-track position.  Currently, the median age to achieve research independence is 37.  Achieving scientific independence at such a late stage in life dissuades many young scientists from pursuing careers in academia and greatly reduces the lifetime earning potential of extremely intelligent individuals.

The biggest hurdle facing this program is helping transition awardees away from institutions where they earned their PhD’s.  It becomes difficult to gain a sense of independence when your graduate school advisors are just a few doors away.  After five years of going to them for advice, it becomes difficult to break that pattern and start standing on your own two feet. 

This is where RateMyPI.com can help.   By providing a portal to locate the best institutions and research groups to help progress your careers, we help remove the uncertainty of moving across country, or even out of country, for a career opportunity.

The 2013 Early Independence Award deadline is approaching.  Please visit the NIH website to learn more about this amazing opportunity for young scientists. 

Kevin Hascup

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Teaching and Mentoring: A Consistent Weakness at the 2012 Best Academia Places to Work

The results of a survey conducted by The Scientist determined the best places to work for life science academics.  Many of the names on the list were not a surprise (J. David Gladstone Institutes, Massachusetts General Hospital, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the University of Groningen to name a few).  What was surprising was that 9 of the top 25 places to work listed “Teaching and Mentoring” as one of their top weaknesses.  9 out of 25.  And we wonder why it takes so long for an academic to get their first independent grant funded.  Even at the top institutions supportive infrastructure is not in place to prepare young scientists to succeed at the next level.  The top three institutions (and 5 out of the top 6) are considered to be weak in teaching and mentoring yet according to the survey they receive approximately 55 million US dollars in federal funding (~517 million US$ for the top 6!).  The Institute for Systems Biology (Seattle, WA) is the highest rated institute to have teaching and mentoring as a strength…and they are ranked 7th!  In light of all of this, it makes it even more important to know who you are working for.  Many researchers incorrectly assume that working at one of these top 25 institutions is enough to advance their careers. Unfortunately, you might not be receiving the much needed support and guidance from senior scientists during the early stages of your career.

Don’t leave your career to chance.  Visit RateMyPI.com (going live September, 2012) to read and write reviews about your fellow researchers, mentors/supervisors, and mentees/employees.

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5.8 Billion

Five billion, eight hundred million

We’re looking at an estimated 5.8 billion dollars being spent by the presidential and congressional races to buy your vote this year.  According to Time Magazine, the combined amount Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will spend on their presidential campaigns is 2.5 billion dollars.  I hope you love presidential mud-slinging commercials; there’s going to be a lot of them as we near Election Day.  I could spend an entire article discussing how the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United changed the political landscape, but I’m trying to avoid putting my readers to sleep…unlike my previous blog posts.

It’s extremely hard to put 5.8 billion into perspective.  Especially for us living off of research scientists salaries.   But let’s see what else we could buy with that money.

15.3% of scientific funding appropriated by the NIH (30.9 billion) and NSF (7.0 billion) in fiscal year 2012.

We could send two more Curiosity rovers to Mars (2.5 billion a piece).  The extra 800 million could be used to equip them with flipper arms and circular saw blades to create a NASA version of Robot Wars.  Seriously, can someone bring that television show back?

Google could buy Groupon, again….and again (2.5 billion acquisition).  Maybe a third time if they offered a groupon.

A little more than a third of the cost of the London Olympics. 

We could fund 145,000 post-doctoral positions for 1 year ($40K each).  This would actually help provide the jobs necessary for President Obama’s mission to increase the number of scientists and engineers in the US. 

Apple?  No.  We’re not nearly in that ball park.  Current estimates put cash on hand at over $110 billion.  But give it a few more presidential elections and we might reach that mark.

Even though politicians will spend all this money, little attention is given to scientific topics.  Why?  First, topics like stem cell research and alternative energy are hot button issues that are bound to upset large groups of people regardless of how the question is answered.  Second, the majorities of politicians know very little about scientific research and simply don’t want to look foolish.  This might explain why the focus always goes to the ethics of scientific research rather than the actual implications of the research itself. 

While RateMyPI.com has no political affiliations, we would like to encourage you to turn off the television (or at least forward through the election commercials) and head over to AAAS.org for a breakdown of the presidential candidates Science and Technology platforms.  Let’s make informed voting decisions this election rather than allowing the politicians to simply buy our vote. 

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Support for international Science collaboration: A good start, but…

In an effort to promote collaboration and the number of U.S. scientists in Europe, a joint venture between the U.S. NSF and Europe’s ERC was finalized earlier this month at the Euroscience Open Forum when NSF Director Subra Suresh and European commissioner for research and innovation Máire Geoghegan-Quinn signed the agreement.  The deal allows for selected early career scientists funded by the NSF CAREER awards to spend 3-12 months in labs funded by the ERC.  While at first glance this seems like a good way to accomplish their goals, the funding might better be directed towards scientists still in the postdoctoral role.  In an era when scientific funding is scarce and the average age for a scientist to receive their first grant as a PI is in their 40s, it is imperative that early-career scientists remain in their own lab to establish themselves, their lab, and their careers.  A new PI does not have the luxury of leaving their lab without leadership and an established crew.  Their lab needs oversight and leadership to be productive and pump out papers so that they can obtain more funding and have a successful career.

A better idea is to target postdocs as tools to increase worldwide scientific collaboration.  Postdocs are often more available and willing to move to a different country/lab where they can learn new techniques and establish connections with future collaborators, provided that it will help them further their careers as scientists.  However, the current situation for the U.S. postdoc abroad is dismal.  While it should open new doors and promote future collaborations, there is very little funding for postdocs to explore these options and it is harder still to return to the U.S. and obtain a PI postition, mainly because of the difficulty in getting your first independent funding.  One thing that makes it easier to get your first independent funding is to establish yourself as a fundable postdoc, which must almost exclusively be done within the borders of the U.S.  It is a vicious cycle that makes it almost impossible to remain in academics for those that try.  If today’s scientific leaders and policy makers truly want worldwide collaboration, they should aim more of their efforts at postdoctoral scientists and reward those that have spent time honing their skills abroad.

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