Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Power of the Internet

My group recently published a paper and my university's media department was cajoled by one of the other faculty in the department into writing a piece about the findings. It feels really great to have colleagues promote my research. (Unrelated, it's frustrating to have senior faculty tell me that I should have more funding by now based all of the results my group already has, I really think they don't understand how hard it is to get funding as a new PI these days). Having heard stories of faculty/media relations gone bad, I did some background research and read some tips. There are actually several good books to help scientists and engineers navigate through the world of reporting. One of the main tips was to have very clear and easily understood message. I knew this, but reading about all the example about how uninformed and what short attention spans the public has these days really drove the point home. I felt very much like a politician during the interview. I'm not so comfortable doing this sort of self promotion, but I think this is what faculty and the entire scientific community really needs to do more of to stay relevant in the U.S. I was selling what the future holds and the end goal of our project without over-selling our current results, which are still very preliminary. Of course very few people in the world would care about this particular set of results, so I followed another piece of interview advice, which is to focus on what this can lead to. Maybe 10-15 years from now, there is some tiny chance that our work can significantly change medicine. It's also a pet peeve of mine when I see researchers in my field say that they've done something, implying that no one else should study the problem, when they have clearly just barely begun to even think about the problem or only solved it one convoluted way. There's a guy in my university that claims to have done just about everything known to science. He would have you think that he invented nanoparticles, plastic, medical imaging, etc. when in reality he's made a few minor contributions to several fields.

Also, as a new TT person, I'm always a bit worried about stepping on other people's toes. I tried to be very explicit in the interview that this is not something we came up with out of the blue. Maybe this is more of an engineering specific problem, but I feel like most research has been already done or at least thought about before. This work is not an exception. There is a group that published nearly the same results, but using a different device a few years ago. We cited them and their paper clearly states that they are working toward the same goal as us, but they haven't publishing another paper on that topic or anything related since that initial paper that came out a few years ago. How much credit do I give this other group? Should I not care at all? After all, they could have gone out and promoted their results.

Anyway, I did a search this morning with some of the key words that I mentioned in my initial interview and I found multiple related stories written about complete strangers and small internet news outlets (I don't know what to call websites that have multiple professional writers, maybe internet magazines? they are clearly more than just bloggers). Everyone is very excited about what I'm selling as a potential life saving sensor in the future. This is really exciting, but at the same time disappointing that I haven't been able to get funding for this very medically relevant project. I'm tempted to cite all of the internet articles in my next proposal, pointing out that the public wants to see this research move forward. Would this have any influence on reviewers or program managers, positive or negative?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Summer Salary

It's almost summer research time and this year, I think/hope because of the sequester, I'm getting some strange emails from the administration. We've had multiple emails sent telling us to consider student funding and to put the needs of the students first when we decide on how much summer salary to pay ourselves and the latest one says that our requests are being reviewed and scrutinized by a department that is normally not involved in research finance. I don't quite understand what this means.

For those unfamiliar with the process, when you put in a proposal you have to justify your budget, including if you will be paying yourself any salary. There are NSF as well as university limits and rules about how much salary one can get paid. My university is primarily hard-money 9 month appointments and you are on your own to find summer salary. Almost everyone does research full time during the summer, except for a few strange faculty that are out of place and annoying, and these few give faculty a bad rep. Almost everyone does research full time during the rest of the year and also teaches. With the current unwritten limits on NSF grants, you are lucky if you can budget one month of summer salary for yourself, usually it's one half month or even less. So essentially, I'm doing research for free most of the summer because I like research and because I want to get tenure.

So what really confuses me are these emails. Is the administration saying implicitly that I shouldn't even pay myself a little so that I can provide a month or a semester of additional support for a student that I didn't budget for in a project anyway? I know NIH is a bit different and cuts budgets on existing grants, but that doesn't apply in general at my university, and I have no problem adjusting to make sure that a student's stipend is covered if it's scaled back 5-10%, although you would think the university could use its overhead to make up that difference if it really cares. Are there actually people out there that pay themselves more than what they budgeted for summer salary? (Many agencies don't follow up to see what money was used for once the grant is awarded). Am I supposed to voluntarily take a pay cut for what was deemed as appropriate pay for my time for a proposal? Am I missing something here? The administration isn't cutting its salary. This feels like yet another way that scientists and researchers are getting screwed over and taken advantage of when we are already being pushed to our limits.