Lab size – is bigger always better?

A ton of blog posts and a few papers have been written on the issue of the optimal size of a biomedical research lab. If you would like a nice digest, see this Youtube video by Jon Lorsch, the director of one of the NIH institutes. Jon makes a very good case for smaller labs. They allow for more diversity, better mentoring, are more efficient with their use of funds. Unfortunately, almost all incentives in academia are for group leaders to have bigger labs. The PI of  a larger group has more security in terms of funding and employment, more prestige, more negotiating power in almost any situation. Almost no one in academia looks at how efficient in terms of output per dollar a group is – they invariably look at the total output of the lab, ie. the total number/prestige/citations of pubs where the PI is senior author. Similarly, no one looks at how well the PI’s trainees do on average – they only look at the few superstars that have come out of the lab.
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Polish funding agency gets its own public grant database

Those of you familiar with the US National Institutes of Health are probably aware of the NIH RePORTER – a public database of grants funded by the NIH with an advanced search system. I was really impressed that the Polish national funding agency (NCN – Narodowe Centrum Nauki – National Science Centre) set up its own equivalent – the “projekty” database. Continue reading

The geography of NCN grants

The principal Polish agency that funds basic research – the National Science Centre (Narodowe Centrum Nauki – NCN) recently published data on grant success rates and total awarded amounts divided by institutions and departments. I decided to play around with the data a little bit to see the geographical distribution of NCN largesse. The results are pretty striking: Continue reading

Salary support for technicians in National Science Centre grants

The NCN (National Science Centre) website has recently published a report from their April Council Meeting. There are quite a few interesting tidbits of information there, including plans for “mini-grants” that would support scientists that have not held an NCN grant before and who need some seed money for preliminary work or other expenses, such as conference participation. What caught my attention, however, was that the Council discussed the issue of bringing back salary support for technical staff as a legitimate expense in NCN grant budgets. In 2015 there has been a major shift as to who can receive full salary from an NCN grant. Before the change, any team member could be supported on NCN money, afterwards only the PI, PhD students, and post-docs were allowed to have their full salary/stipend included in the grant budget. This was significant, because according to NCN regulations, a post-doc must have received their PhD at most 5 years prior to being supported. Continue reading

Success rate for the major Polish biomed grant dips below 15%

Funding decisions for the 7th edition of the major Polish research grant, the OPUS, have recently been announced. For those of you who are more familiar with the American system, the OPUS is sort of like the R01, except it’s for 3 years rather than 5. I had submitted a proposal and was fortunate enough to  secure funding, but many others, including some excellent research groups, did not. I was curious as to how the statistics for this funding mechanism had changed over the years, and the results don’t look pretty (source the Statistics page of the National Science Centre and, for Opus 7, preliminary statistics on the NCN website). Since I am most interested in the NZ section (Biomedical sciences), I will focus on this one. Here’s a breakdown of the success rates by call for proposal:Funding_rates_Opus Continue reading

Polish national funding agency under scrutiny

A series of opinion pieces in the bulletin of the Polish Academy of Sciences (1, 2, 3, 4, all in Polish) discusses the process of research grant evaluation by experts at the National Science Center. This institution (pol. Narodowe Centrum Nauki; NCN) is the principal science funding agency in Poland – the equivalent of ERC in the EU and NIH/NSF in the US. It supports science in Poland by a variety of research grants depending on the stage of scientific career of the applicant. All applications are evaluated in two stages. First they are scored by a group of experts who are selected from Polish research institutions. Once the application passes the first “filter” of the expert opinion, it is sent out for formal review by independent reviewers, often from abroad. Continue reading

Doubly-anonymized peer review

Scientists tend to be idealists – they would like the world to be the way it “should” be and often forget about basic constraints of doing research. That’s why time and again I see discussions on Internet fora about the merits of doubly-anonymized peer review, where not only the identity of the reviewer would be hidden from the author, but anonymity would be mutual. Implementing this idea would, in its proponents’ view, level the playing field – even someone without a reputation could get a Nature paper or a big grant. There are two major issues with this proposal. First, the author’s identity is pretty much impossible to hide. It would require removing all references to “we” in the paper or grant application, and would make the narrative difficult to follow. Second, reputation is, at least to a large degree, earned. You don’t want to judge a grant application solely based on the ideas within – ideas are a dime a dozen, and you want to know if the person has the required expertise to bring the project to fruition. This second argument is a little weaker for papers – sometimes an awesome paper will come out of a relatively unknown lab. At the same time you do want to know who did the work – if they have a reputation for “massaging” the data or for presenting stuff that cannot be reproduced, you may want to scrutinize the paper a little more closely. I do agree that the current system has its flaws. It creates “old-boys” networks and cliques within fields, and sometimes stifles innovation. Nevertheless, introducing doubly-anonymized peer review is not a realistic solution to these problems. I am happy to hear arguments to the contrary. Please comment below.

Grant writing in Poland

It’s been an insanely busy couple months for me. I have just gone back to Poland to pursue my research career here. Not only did I have to finish up all my experiments at Stanford, but I also wanted to apply for a Polish grant for young investigators who want to start their own research group. It has been a great learning experience and also an opportunity to compare the grant proposal submission process in Poland and in the US. There are marked similarities, but also significant differences. Just to be clear, I will be comparing the NIH R01 type submissions, which are the most common ‘big’ grants for biomedical research in the States with the Opus or Sonata Bis grants from the National Science Center (Narodowe Centrum Nauki; NCN) in Poland, again a typical ‘big’ grant, but one not limited to biomedical research.
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Economics of public science funding

Times are tough for science funding. The economic crisis is tightening public science budgets all around the world. Scientists, quite naturally, protest vehemently various austerity measures that the governments are instituting – they insist that science should be the last area to be cut down. On the surface their protests seem reasonable – you cannot support economic development without investing into science and technology. It is pretty clear that publicly funded science has contributed in crucial ways to pretty much all areas of modern technology. Lasers and the Internet were first developed for the tax-payer’s buck at publicly funded universities. However, when you start digging deeper, the question of exactly how much of the public money should go to fund university-based science projects is not all that clear. Is basic science funding really the area that should receive preferential treatment when all other areas, such as health care, education, and law enforcement, are suffering severe funding cuts? The question really boils down to this: if we cut basic science funding by 1%, how badly will the economy be hit in the long run? In other words, what are the marginal returns on public investment in basic sciences?

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Pedigree vs. prodigy

What determines success in science? Many a hiring committee and granting agency asked themselves this question, either explicitly or implicitly. Is it the sheer genius of the candidate/applicant, the breadth of their ideas, or perhaps their ability to focus, or maybe finally the places they have been trained, the infamous “pedigree”. If you look at successful scientists, at least in the biomedical field, it would seem like the last factor is the most predictive, but that’s perhaps of the self-fulfilling positive feedback, where the people with the best “pedigree” end up getting hired and getting grants, etc. because of their famous mentor’s seal of approval, and so per force become more successful.

There is definitely a lot to be said about coming from a famous lab. On average, you will be dealing with more talented people and will probably learn more along the way. You will also get the feel for what the important questions in the field are, since glamor-seeking labs will off hand discard projects that don’t yield major insights. However, there are also advantages to being in a smaller/younger lab, where the PI is there to guide you, and where there is less cut-throat competition and plain douchebaggery. So perhaps an outstanding person from a small lab is better than an average Cell-paper-toting graduate from a super-duper-famous lab at a Top 10 institution. I really don’t know what the right answer is. There was an interesting discussion on the DrugMonkey blog not so long ago about whether a postdoc/grad student is better off working in a lab that publishes only Cell/Nature/Science type of articles, and the jury is still out, so far as I can tell.