My review of Lab Girl for the LA Review of Books

How should I illustrate a review of Lab Girl? Let's go with a cool plant. This is bunchberry, Cornus canadensis (Flickr: jbyoder)

How should I illustrate a review of Lab Girl? Let’s go with a cool plant. This is bunchberry, Cornus canadensis. (Flickr: jbyoder)

You have surely, by now, heard all about Hope Jahren’s terrific scientific memoir Lab Girl, including as one of my “bookshelf” recommendations for Chronicle Vitae. My full-length review of Lab Girl is now online at the LA Review of Books, and it is, as you might expect, very positive — Jahren writes beautifully about the process of scientific discovery and the daily miracles of the natural world. As a postdoc still scrabbling for purchase on the lower rungs of the tenure track, though, Lab Girl managed to simultaneously tweak my anxieties and give me hope:

The world is heating up, and it often seems that the intellectual luxuries afforded to scientists of the past — Darwin’s leisurely publication schedule, Haldane’s dalliances with radical politics — are gone. Lab Girl’s rendition of the daily institutional frustrations of research marks it as a different kind of scientific memoir — but also as a product of twenty-first century science. If you navigate among scientists’ blogs or scroll through their Twitter feeds, you’ll quickly find the same fears and vexations and injustices Jahren describes, intertwined with accounts of the work that excites scientists’ passions. … Jahren does not makes science look like an easy career choice, but it isn’t her job to do so — and if Lab Girl chronicles the real and substantial barriers to becoming a successful scientist, it also makes that life compelling: she shows the fruit that can still grow from the rocky soil of a research career.

I do hope you’ll read the whole review, and pick up a copy of Lab Girl if you somehow haven’t already.

Coming soon: Crowd-funding a Joshua tree genome

Joshua trees at Tikaboo Valley, Nevada (Flickr: jby)

Joshua trees at Tikaboo Valley, Nevada (Flickr: jby)

I’m very excited to announce a new project, with a new model for doing science: The Joshua Tree Genome Project, in which I’m working with a bunch of smart, accomplished folks to sequence the genome of my favourite spiky desert plant. A sequenced Joshua tree genome will provide the framework to understand how coevolution with highly specialized pollinators has shaped the history of Joshua trees, and to use the landscape genomics skills I’ve developed with the Medicago HapMap Project and AdapTree to understand how the trees cope with extreme desert climates — and how to ensure they have a future in a climate-changed world.

Perhaps most excitingly (terrifyingly?) we’re going to raise some of the funds to do the genome sequencing by crowdfunding, using the platform. So please keep an eye on the project site, follow our Twitter feed, and Like our Facebook page to make sure you don’t miss your chance to help understand Joshua trees’ evolutionary past and ensure their future.

Give the NSF a piece of your mind

This last year, the Biological Sciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation—one of the biggest single funders of ecology and evolutionary biology research in the U.S.—introduced a new process for reviewing grant proposals.

Lots of other folks with better first-hand knowledge have written about the new process. The key change is that, where formerly NSF offered two opportunities per year to submit a proposal for funds, the new procedures introduced a “pre-proposal” stage in which biologists write a much shorter pre-proposal first. If this mini-proposal is judged worthy, the applicant is then invited to submit a full proposal several months later.

This effectively reduced the workload (in terms of full proposals) for NSF reviewers, and it makes the funding rate for “full” proposals look much better—as long as you don’t look too closely at the triage (i.e., rejection) rate for preproposals, which, eek. But it also cut the “real” opportunities to submit a grant proposal in half. If you’re trying to land NSF funding in the few short years before a tenure review, that might make you a bit … concerned.

So a bunch of biologists wrote to NSF about this [PDF], pointing out that the new process

  • Creates a much longer “lag time” between submitting a new idea as a proposal and recieving money to pursue the idea, effectively slowing down the pace of basic science;
  • Reduces the scope and complexity of ideas that can be proposed; and
  • Provides less feedback for applicants, which makes it difficult to improve rejected proposals for the next round of applications.

That letter, and followup discussions, got NSF thinking about (or maybe thinking about thinking about) some changes to the new process. I’ve just learned via an e-mail from the Society for the Study of Evolution that there’s a very short survey that interested parties (i.e., those of us who study ecology and evolutionary biology, and might like the NSF to pay for some of our work) should fill out by next Tuesday, the 18th. It took me about a minute. So maybe go do it now?◼

Adventures in funding applications

Just got back the decision on my proposal for the NSF’s International Research Fellowship, which would’ve paid for me to go to southern France and do kickass field experiments with the study plant I’ve currently only seen in a greenhouse, Medicago truncatula. Except my project was rated “not competitive.”

It looks like my chief mistake was writing with an audience of evolutionary ecologists in mind when, in fact, the IRF covers a broader range of science, and the reviewer panels reflect that. Which is to say, I got dinged for using “jargon” twice—the first time that’s ever happened in my grant-writing experience—and one reviewer (the third one, natch) had this to say under the heading of “Qualifications of applicant, including applicant’s potential for continued growth”:

The applicant is obviously able, and has written what, judging by their titles, are interesting papers of general interest. The proposal worries me because it was full of bureaucratic generalities about what we would learn and the benefits to be gained therefrom … The top half page of the project summary gave me precious little idea whether the author had any mind or not. He obviously does, but when reading the proposal I kept wanting to tell him to read Homer’s Iliad, or J-H Fabre’s Souvenirs Entomologiques. or Darwin’s Origin of Species, to learn how to liven his stuff with concrete, illustrative detail. But I expect the applicant has plenty of potential, and plenty of willingness, to grow. [Emphasis added.]

Ow. I guess I’d better try and shoehorn in some references to the “wine-dark sea” if I want to revise and resubmit next fall.◼

Tell Congress to increase NIH funding

Cross-posted from Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!.

For your consideration: a petition asking the U.S. Congress to increase funding to the National Institutes of Health by 3% in next year’s Federal budget. NIH is one of the biggest sources of public research funds in the U.S., and its support goes well beyond things immediately connected to human health and medicine—I did many analyses for my dissertation research on Joshua trees and yucca moths on a supercomputing cluster supported, in large part, by NIH funds.

Some would argue that the private sector should take over some of the lost funding for academic, basic research. The sad fact is that the private sector does not support the type of basic research that the NIH does; they take the results NIH-funded research and apply it to drug development. In addition, many entities in the private sector are currently slashing their Research & Development (R&D) budgets! For example, Pfizer recently cut its R & D budget by 1.5 billion.

Consider the following numbers. For 2011 budget, U.S. spending on:
Social security was $2564 per citizen (20.8% of the budget)
Defense was $2203 per citizen (18% of the budget)
Medicare was $1569 per citizen (12.8% of the budget)
Medicaid was $1172 per citizen (7.8% of the budget)
NIH was $99 per citizen (0.8% of the budget)

The original idea, as I understand it, is for this to be an “open letter” to Congress from working scientists across the nation, but supportive non-scientists should definitely sign on, too. ◼

Funding creative science

Stephen Quake laments the grant-approval process of most U.S. federal funding agencies, and suggests making room for risky proposals:

I wonder if this should also be the time to rethink the basic foundations of how science is funded. Could we stimulate more discovery and creativity if more scientists had the security of their own salary and a long-term commitment to a minimal level of research support? Would this encourage risk-taking and lead to an overall improvement in the quality of science?

The NIH model Quake describes – which sets aside specific funding sources for out-of-the-box proposals – seems sensible, given additional funds for such use.