The 54…

My colleague and friend T, sent me this link to a Jeff Mervis piece in SCIENCE. Apparently 54 scientists have lost their jobs as a result of essentially hiding their connections to China while taking funding from the NIH. As with other funding compliance issues (for example protection of human subjects), violations can be career-enders. I am quite sure that other US funding agencies are taking a close look at their PI’s also.

The key issue here for me is not declaring a conflict of interest. If they had, then if I were on the enforcement side of the equation, I’d be looking at ways to manage that conflict. So if I were to hand out advice, it’d be to disclose as much as you possibly can to a funder all the time about anything that might have questionable optics. I suspect these 54 individuals would still be gainfully employed if that had pursued that approach.

That said, I’m disturbed by the implied national distrust of Asian scientists. The use of ethnic background as a trigger for suspicion has a long and sordid history, both here in the US and around the globe.

I’m also saddened by the de-coupling that’s occurring in science collaboration between nations–particularly between the US and China. That’ll be a loss for everyone because the really big science questions can’t be solved in isolation–Manhattan Project not withstanding.

And just when you think things couldn’t get worse…

This news from today’s Washington Post on new procedures for entering the Bethesda Campus. The NIH where I did my postdoc was like the United Nations. We came from all over the globe to improve help humans stay well. In my lab alone, there were individuals from Chile, Spain, Nigeria, Italy, Israel and Australia.  Biomedical research is qualitatively different from defense R&D–Zika and Malaria do not respect political boundaries. Nor does Alzheimer’s. I hope my former colleagues in positions of authority there are listening.

Putting a chill on international science…

I saw this piece by Jeff Mervis in SCIENCE today. Basically, if you are supported by NIH and you appear to them to be more “connected” to other nation states than you have explicitly disclosed, your institution may have some explaining to do. As Jeff points out, this can be somewhat confusing, since most productive scientists (particularly in biomedical research) do their work in a manner that crosses-borders–just like Ebola or SARS. This new NIH action affects the many, not the few.  As I’ve said from my time at the bully pulpit: science is inherently international. When you publish a journal article, it is read by your colleagues all over the globe (at least if it’s good science). And that dissemination is key to producing more excellent science.

I have no problem with disclosing contacts (although there is a paperwork burden). But creating a culture of intimidation that puts a chill on international collaboration–that is a problem.

The curse of soft money….

UCSF’s Henry Bourne has an interesting piece out in PNAS about the boom/bust cycle in biomedical research and specifically how the most recent version played out with vast over-building of infrastructure combined with a shift to soft-money support for PI’s. The documentation of the problems is very impressive, however the notion that this can be fixed piecemeal at a few “pioneer” research institutions I think is dead wrong. To my mind, such elitism is exactly how we arrived at our current situation. And in fact, I’m pleased to report that it’s actually at non-elite institutions where the hard money regime still exists, supported by tuition and, in the case of publics, some state support.

Do I have a solution? Here’s a possibility: I urge my biomedical colleagues to take a hard look at the decadal surveys of other fields (e.g. astronomy or oceanography) where hard prioritization choices are made nationally on the basis of evidence.

Graduate Tuition Support at NSF

One thing that I didn’t know, before I came to NSF in 2014 was that support for graduate student research assistants as part of regular research grants includes tuition support that is not capped. According to this NSF FAQ:

Tuition remission is generally treated as part of an organization’s fringe benefit rate or as a direct cost. NSF’s policy is that colleges and universities should budget tuition remission consistent with its established indirect cost rate methodology and negotiated rate agreement. If tuition remission is budgeted as a direct cost, it should be listed in the “Other” category of the Budget under “Other Direct Costs.

Note that there is nothing about a cap in the above guidance.

In contrast, NIH does cap tuition support for graduate research assistants at around $16K. Here is the relevant NIH policy:

Undergraduate and Predoctoral Trainees and Fellows:  For institutional training grants (T32, T34, T35, T90, TL1, TL4) and individual fellowships (F30, F31), an amount per predoctoral trainee equal to 60% of the level requested by the applicant institution, up to $16,000 per year, will be provided.

This difference between the two science agencies is trivial for a lot of cases, were graduate students are paying in-state tuition at a public university. You can find some of the relevant data from the College Board here. However, in the case of some of the private research universities, this can be a very large amount of money. Here is the relevant tuition information for Princeton. And here in the same for Boston University. Even for public institutions, the out-of-state tuition can be very large in comparison to $16K (Rackham graduate school, University of Michigan).

Taken to its logical conclusion, NSF risks becoming a tuition-support agency instead of a science agency as tuition costs continue to rise across the country. This makes no sense. NSF should cap tuition support just like NIH does.