NIH biosketch change as “Kick Me” sign?

Will deviating from TheOneTruePath of academic science result in penalties during NIH grant review?

I say “no.” But a non-scientific poll of researchers at GenomeWeb.com says otherwise.

Last month, NIH grantees learned that the US medical research agency will now allow grant applicants to include in their biosketch any explanations for a reduced productivity due to career disruptions – read: gaps in one’s publication record. The 16th February announcement, NOT-OD-11-045, reads in large part:

The NIH is aware that personal issues can affect career advancement and productivity. Such considerations have shaped the implementation of the Early Stage Investigator Policy (see http://grants.nih.gov/grants/new_investigators/index.htm).

That policy permits Principal Investigators to describe personal factors that may have delayed their transition to research independence. Such factors can occur at any point in a scientist’s career and include family care responsibilities, illness, disability, military service and other personal issues.

This modification of the Biographical Sketch will permit Program Directors/Principal Investigators and other senior/key staff to describe personal circumstances that may have reduced productivity. Peer reviewers and others will then have more complete information on which to base their assessment of qualifications and productivity relevant to the proposed role on the project.

Beginning with applications submitted for the May 25, 2011 and subsequent receipt dates, the biosketch instructions will include a modification of the personal statement section to remind applicants that they can provide a description of personal issues that may have reduced productivity. The revised instructions for the personal statement are shown below and should appear in applications toward the end of March:

Personal statement: Briefly describe why your experience and qualifications make you particularly well-suited for your role (e.g., PD/PI, mentor) in the project that is the subject of the application. Within this section you may, if you choose, briefly describe factors such as family care responsibilities, illness, disability, and active duty military service that may have affected your scientific advancement or productivity.

Personally, I think this is a fantastic idea, one that has been commented upon by my scientist-blogger colleagues, DrDrA (Twitter) at Blue Lab Coats and DrugMonkey (Twitter) at Drugmonkey blog. DoubleDoc’s post is particularly noteworthy because she includes a 2008 letter she wrote to NIH’s Dr. Vivian Pinn, Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health, on how such a consideration would work toward leveling the playing field for women grant applicants. DrugMonkey’s post cites a comment from Cath@VWXYNot? that such a policy has been in place for some time at the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR).

Before I start getting mansplaining about how this policy favors women unfairly – because any deviation from the time-honored system of white male privilege is viewed as a threat by some – I can think of at least one time in my career where explaining a gap might have been relevant to reviewers. In fact, my bout with pneumonia this time last year definitely impacted my research productivity because of lingering effects of the illness.

So, I was interested to see a poll earlier this week on the frontpage of GenomeWeb.com, the online presence of Genome Technology magazine, where the question was asked:

Do you think you will make use of the new option in NIH grant applications to include possible disruptions and delays to your research?

During the week the poll was posted, they received 105 responses to the various choices. The results were as follows:

17%  Yes, I’ve been waiting for NIH to do this.
17%  Yes, it sounds like a good idea.
16%  Maybe, if it becomes applicable to me.
2%    No, I don’t foresee any delays.
46%  No way, why would you want to potentially hurt your grant’s chances?

Sometimes you have no choice but to face the funding situation you were given. (Photo believed to be in the public domain.)

I was struck, but perhaps not surprised, to see that the majority of respondents to this non-scientific poll felt that this allowance might hurt their grant’s priority score. In this tight funding environment, grantees become exceedingly conservative and try not to give reviewers any cause for negative comments and dings on one’s score. It’s certainly tough to come into a funding situation where you have no control over the history, trends, and repercussions of decisions that came before you.

However, I am encouraged that 34% welcomed this new policy and another 16% recognize that they might use the mechanism. The other 2% who don’t foresee delays might be a bit delusional – you never know what life will throw at you. As Bruce Springsteen wrote and sang, “[T]here’s things that’ll knock you down you don’t even see coming.”

Here’s what I think – scientists involved in grant review have a responsibility to ensure that this policy is viewed as a valid caveat when reviewing applications by investigators invoking these explanations for productivity gaps. We owe it to our colleagues to incorporate an appreciation for situations where, “There but for the grace of God/FSM/or equivalent, go I.”

Good job, NIH.


The author offers his thanks to the good folks at GenomeWeb.com for responding so quickly to my inquiry for the poll results after the poll was over: Andrea Anderson and Editor, Ciara Curtin, a SHERP graduate of NYU’s well-known science journalism program. Ciara immmediately deflected credit to her colleague:

As for credit, please give it to my colleague Tracy Vence who came up with the idea for this particular poll, and she does the Careers blog we have here: http://www.genomeweb.com/careers. I merely posted this one.

Thank you kindly.

Update: An excellent follow-up to this discussion has been posted by DoubleDoc at Blue Lab Coats.

Author: David Kroll

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5 Comments

  1. It is an interesting question. You want to say that having children is a wonderful thing, and that certainly women should not find themselves at a disadvantage because they had to have time off to do it. And I think that is the right answer. But I could easily see someone retort “children are wonderful, but all the same they really do take people out of the game for a while, and it makes sense to award people who have been out of the game, for whatever reason, less of our limited funds.”

    I also couldn’t help but notice your note about the “time-honored system of white male privilege.” That was once a problem, but certainly is no more. Just think of all the programs, scholarships, grants, and hiring preferences that are directed at everyone except white males. Virtually all the institutionalized discrimination today is against that demographic, not for it.

  2. This is just another excuse to ding people and not own up to it being not about the science, the proposal, or anything objective.

    Of course if you have any excuses why you didn’t work 80 hours in the lab for the last 10 years it will be held against you.

    It is about making the process more opaque so that bad decisions can’t be questioned.

  3. “But I could easily see someone retort “children are wonderful, but all the same they really do take people out of the game for a while, and it makes sense to award people who have been out of the game, for whatever reason, less of our limited funds.”

    Yeah David- see but the problem with that argument is that that argument only gets made against the 50% of the population that actually bears the children, because they are largely the part of the population that take the time off.

    One great solution would be to make fathers take 50% (or some reasonable fraction) of the “maternity” leave… we’ll just retitle it “parental” leave.

  4. I’d like to see a section requesting specific information about bad actors in academic science and medicine who interfered with one’s career.

  5. Great idea, drAdrA, about enforcing parental leave for both genders. But just forcing science dads to take three months off isn’t going to cut it.

    To more evenly level the playing field, be sure to tear apart the father’s private parts at the beginning, have him wake every 1-3 hours to have the baby chew on his nipples, and don’t forget to give him a nice combo of puking and/or back pain for the nine months preceding, including a travel ban for some period before and after birth. And make sure he takes equal share of night wakings, last-minute childcare cancellations and sick days once the child arrives. I will likely be leaving those details out of the personal statement on my biosketch, but they certainly impacted my productivity.

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