Have you recently put an incredibly amount of work in a grant proposal and got rejected? I know how it feels. I have recently received twice in a row the dreaded "not discussed" from the NIH. I am writing this piece as a counterpoint to all the "look how I great I am" posts of twitter. Yes, I have been rejected. Yes, it hurts. And, yes, it will get better.
Research grants are the core of our existence as scientists. They pay for our staff and students and thus any grant application that fails puts us a step closer towards not knowing how to cover the salaries. That does cause worry! Also, it often pays for our own salary, so every grant rejection also has the implication of a potentially reduced income (this is more prominent in medical schools). Also, of course, we are convinced that our ideas are really cool and worth pursuing. What I find is that for scientists there is often no real (healthy?) divide between their own personal existence and the science they do. As a result, any rejection (paper or grant for that matter) feels very personal despite it is (hopefully) never meant that way. Despite all this, we need to learn how to constructively deal with (grant) rejections. Below I am listing some pointers and ideas that I hope will help!
I would like to ask your opinion on something that has fermented in my mind for a long time. What I present to you today are not my own ideas but something that has been inspired by numerous people over the last few years who have engaged in conversations about the topic of scientific publishing. Too many to list to give fair credit but you know who you are. Thank you for all you do for the science community!
I am getting truly fed up with commercial scientific publishing. It just feels so wrong that the tax payer enables our research and once it is done (and has passed peer review), we are asked to pay again for publication and to give ownership away at the same time (copyright). Even worse, the science is then hidden away from the tax payer behind a paywall. What adds to that is how many hours we are spending on additional free work for the publishers by reviewing papers. Now, if academic publishers were struggling to keep the lights on, I would perhaps understand. But hey, they are doing financially really well! Yes, margins are close to 40% in this business!
I think it may be the time to get organized and agree on what on a manifesto along the following lines.
(1) I will not review papers for for-profit publishers unless I am fairly paid for my work. An initial review costs $200 and a re-review costs $100.
(2) I will not submit my papers to journals of for-profit publishers. Instead, I will favor journals by our scientific societies and other not-for-profit groups who fully support open science.
(3) I will not judge scientists (promotion, grants, etc) by the fancy names of the for-profit journals they have published in, but rather by their actual science. No more "Great scientist, she published 3 papers in XYZ the last year. What a smart person."!
What are your thoughts - agree/disagree? Are you ready to sign this? Just wondering.
This past week, I had the privilege to teach a series of three lectures entitled "Short Course in Network Neuroscience" to a diverse audience of neurologists, psychologists, medical students, and neuroscientists at the 1st Sleep Science Winter School in Switzerland (by the way, this is a yearly event and I highly recommend it). My teaching style is perhaps best described as "interactive" and "whiteboard instead of slides." Today, I would like to share with you some of my experiences and observations of what happens if we stop lecturing but instead start building a dialog with the people who we are asked to teach. I have structured it as a Q&A - hope you will enjoy this.
Q: Isn't it nerve wracking to stand in front of an audience without the emotional safety of slides?
A: Yes, it is. Though, with practice the fears subside since they are unfounded. The reward of excited students who are engaged in the discussion is worth the price of being perhaps nervous when you first start teaching like that.
Q: What do you do to get students to engage?
A: I often start my lectures with a little funny, self-deprecating story about myself to make sure that nobody forgets that we are all just humans with all the baggage we have as humans but that we have come together to teach and learn since we are passionate about the content. I also openly acknowledge that my teaching style is a bit different and that it takes time to get used to.
Q: What do you do if you have one participant who engages "too much"?
A: There is often one person who is eagerly engaged (for whatever reason, does not matter). In principle this is great but if it becomes too much it unfairly reduces the learning and participation opportunities of the other students. I thus usually say something along the lines of "Thank you very much for all your contributions. I am delighted to have you be so engaged. I am sure you understand that I would like to make sure that others also get the chance to participate so for the next question I would like somebody else to answer."
Q: What if through dialog you get to a point where you as the teacher do not know the answer?
A: Very simple. I often say something along the lines of "Great question. This is well beyond of what I wanted to focus on today and in fact I need to think myself what the best/correct answer is. Are you cool with us revisiting this after the lecture?"
Q: With slides I can communicate so much more material per unit of time. So I use slides!
A: Fair point. But then, are you sure your "communication" actually reaches your audience? Also, I find that our main responsibility is to teach how to reason through problems and questions. The interactive teaching style works really well for this because students are engaged (better learning, you know, acetylcholine and all that) and can model after you how you reason through a question.
Q: Is your teaching style in essence the Socratic method?
A: In some ways, as I am trying to find the limits of existing knowledge to build on that. In some way no since I never insist with a single student and I always make sure it is not stressful but rather very rewarding to participate and engage during my lectures.
Q: I am curious to experience your teaching style.
A: Come and join us for the tACS/tDCS workshop at the Carolina Neurostimulation Conference. You will see me in action. I am looking forward to meeting you there.
As you may be aware of, scientists enjoy controversies. After all, spirited discussions are often the source of innovation, intellectual advances, and inspiration. Also, let's face it, sometimes they are not. In any case, recent papers have started to seriously question some of the assumptions that build the foundation of many tDCS/tACS studies. Some of the objections are likely appropriate, others I would disagree with (this is material for another post). One thing that is clear to me is that the field has grown so fast and attracted so many researchers with little background in using brain stimulation, or even neuroscience, that I often see studies that are unfortunately tainted by some newbie mistakes. So here is my mission: let's talk about some of these challenges to improve the quality of our studies.
As some you may know, I love to steal ideas from the business world and see how they could be applied to my research group. We had a long meeting for planning our epic brain stimulation conference in May, after which I decided to mix things up and start a conversation about a near-philosophical question: "What is our reason for being (as a research group)?" The conversation that ensued was truly inspiring. The "reason for being" is often also called the core purpose (in the language of Collins and Porras) and is defined as something which cannot be reached within anyone's lifetime. It is not to be confused with strategy or goals of an organization.
The reason for being of our Carolina Center for Neurostimulation is to develop innovative treatments that heal patients with CNS disease.
I am sure you pick up on the not-so-subtle distinction to how today's medicine is mostly turning patients into patients with chronic illnesses that require lifelong medication treatment. Our reason for existence is to develop treatments that surpass current (pharmacological) treatments and heal patients by restoring brain function and structure. Tough challenge. YES! Solvable in the next few years? NO! A core purpose that motivates us to work extra hard and smart. YES!
What is your organizations reason for being?
Where does innovation come from in academic science labs? How do research projects become innovative? I find the answer to these questions not as trivial as it might seem at first glance. As the principal investigator (PI) of a group of about 20 scientists in training (mostly graduate students and postdocs), these are key questions for me. After almost seven years in my job as faculty at UNC, many of my original (crazy back then) ideas have transformed into solid research programs (e.g. use of tACS in clinical applications, mechanism of action of tACS). Thus, it is particularly important for us not get stuck with these ideas and concepts but to aggressively innovate, and find and explore the next frontiers in addition to these established lines of research. Here is how I think about the required innovation process.
My experience and expertise should allow me to generate new ideas (on most days I think I can succeed in this task). Inspiration comes from our ongoing work, comments and feedback by peers through grant review, paper reviews, questions when I give talks etc. Also random thoughts at random moments are not to be underestimated! I look at these ideas as seeds that ultimately will have to be grown into trees. My responsibility as the PI is to provide the resources to grow the tree, but the responsibility - I think - of the actual process should be in the hands of a graduate student or postdoc. Growing the tree from a seed (of innovation) requires a lot of hard work at the bench, intense literature study, and uncountable moments of thought and discussion. This is an ideal opportunity for my trainees to take on an important leadership role early on. As a mentor, I am focused on guiding the process, providing feedback, and creating a constructive and supportive environment. To take this one level further, in an ideal world trainees are inspired, creative, and passionate about science - quite likely some truly innovative ideas originate from them. Now that is paradise! I am privileged to have experienced these moments in my role as the PI of the Frohlich Lab and the director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation.
I am thrilled to announce that registration is now open for our Carolina Neurostimulation Conference (May 21-23). We have an amazing speaker lineup. We are pleased to offer a hands-on tDCS/tACS course on May 21 (separate registration).
We are committed to an inclusive and diverse meeting. To ensure that a broad range of academic participants can join us, we have set the registration fee (ridiculously!) low. Thanks to multiple generous sponsors, we are able to offer registration for $95 to trainees and for $165 to everyone else. We have designed this meeting to address several urgent needs that we feel the community has:
This past few days, I started to reaching out to some of my former (outstanding) mentors to say thank you for the important role they played in my life.
I invite you to do the same thing - these few messages/exchanges (all replied in the most humble and kind way) are very meaningful to me and greatly contribute to my own feeling of meaningful existence and dedication to something bigger than my own struggles to stay ahead in the rat race of the modern professional world.
One important way how to connect as a scientist with others in the field is to get invited to give a seminar talk. This usually encompasses a short 1-2 day trip filled with giving a seminar and meetings with faculty at the host institution. Typically travel is reimbursed and some places pay a symbolic stipend. I have experienced many flavors of these kind events and I would like to share with you some insights from behind the scenes in the hope that it helps junior faculty and trainee to better understand the process.
PS In case you are curious, this post is inspired by a truly outstanding visit I had at the University of Washington, organized by the graduate students of the neuroscience program.
In science, we are constantly asked to resolve a truly tricky trade-off. On the one hand, we are supposed to innovate and jump head first into the unknown to make discoveries. On the other hand, we are supposed to establish the truth, which at least in theory will require an infinite number of control experiments and replications. How do we resolve the conflict between these two opposing concepts?
Guidance comes mostly from peer reviews, for both papers submitted to scientific journals and grant applications sent to funding agencies such as the NIH. It is my observation (and I would suspect many would agree with me) that the implicit message from peer-review is often that the less-innovative and thus "safer" studies and results are (strongly?) preferred. The system is mostly designed to favor established ideas and established researchers, which often results in the lack of new conceptual progress, it seems. I note that funding agencies are actively addressing this issue, yet much more needs to be done. In fact, a frequent scenario is that new ideas are labeled as "too early", "not well supported by preliminary data", "not supported by previous work of others", etc. The same idea leads to paper rejections and requests for bizarre amounts of control experiments that contribute little value to the story. Some journals such as elife are actively countering that trend, which I applaud.
But ultimately, we are the reviewers of others' work and perhaps the most important step is that we start to reflect on how we react to novelty and innovation. I suspect we all fear novelty at some subtle, subconscious level... Any truly novel work will have some "gaps" in the story but as long as they are appropriately discussed I would suggest we as a community should start to react more positively to innovation and novelty. An obvious objection to this approach is that science should not move too fast since otherwise what appears to be scientific facts will have to get revised at a later stage and thus hindering the overall progress and hurting the public perception of science. Ultimately, this is a trade-off that society will have to weigh in. My guess would be that the public who pays for our research will be leaning towards more innovation and is more than willing to accept that not everything will ultimately work out the way the initial results looked like.
Personally, I hoping to get many exciting and novel ideas and stories to review this year. I will focus my attention on the innovation in the overall assessment of the work. How about you? Please share your perspective in the comment section below.