Thursday, June 15, 2017

Is resilience the name of the game in academia?

As I was going through one of the hardest days in my tenure-track experience, struggling getting grants and keeping projects staffed, a friend advised me: "Resilience is the name of the game in academia. Just keep going." And so I did, I doubled down on my efforts and ticked every possible box on the tenure check-list...apart from one...an NIH R01. I applied at every cycle revamping old applications and drafting new ones, went from Not Discussed last year to two not-fundable, but decent scores in 2017. And so we keep going through the slog of applying to an NIH grant every four months until something hits. "Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'..."

Lately I've been faced with what happens if something does not hit. A very close friend was let go and will close her lab in the next couple of weeks. Then, this week Dr. Becca (@doc_becca) who has been a beacon for junior faculty everywhere got one more not-fundable score on an R01 application, and may not get tenure. In both cases, these women are recognized young leaders in their respective fields, speakers at national conferences and part of national society committees, in addition to being great mentors and good citizens at their universities. In Dr. Becca's words...

What if you do everything you are supposed to do and the NIH still doesn't believe you? What if you are doing cool and innovative science which doesn't fit a certain mold and the reviewers don't get it? You can say: "Well, maybe you did not explain it well enough." "Maybe, though it was explained well enough to get nice papers and talk invites." It just feels like there is something fundamentally broken with the system and that wishin' and hopin' is not going to cut it. I have completely changed strategy with every grant I have sent in. When I have responded to reviewers comments by doing everything requested, things have gotten worse instead of better. Taking a look on the inside of NIH peer review earlier this year gave me some prospective. I don't necessarily think that peer review itself is broken. I enjoyed participating and found that everyone was fair, but I realized that the 10-15% pay lines introduce an element of pure luck which has nothing to do with your worth as a scientist. And this is particularly punishing to women as they receive lower scores than men. I have some hope in the new NIH initiative to increase new investigator pay lines to 25% across the board, but this still doesn't fix the overall lack of support that many junior and mid-career faculty receive from their institutions.

I didn't mean to start this as an hopeless post. I'm still wishin' and hopin'. Still hustlin' to come up
with some new ways to tell my stories so that journal referees, conference attendees, AND NIH reviewers are wowed. I'm just wondering if resilience is necessary but not sufficient, and if luck is the defining factor. The good fortune to have the right mentors at the right time to guide your applications, the right reviewers, the right star alignment for a favorable outcome. Then everything is a gamble, and all a young scientist can do is her/his best. If you are one of the lucky ones, how do you move forward from there? How do you motivate your trainees through such instability? But  also how does this impact the status of scientific development and innovation at a national and global level? These are the days I would really want to move into policy-making to fix this, but then the most exciting science of my career is sitting there waiting to get done...and I need to find money to do it. So, I get back to my work and try not to think about any of this, while somewhere in the back of my mind still lurks the suspect that I'm being conned...