Science Careers Blog

James Austin: October 2008

Dear Editor,

My name is Debora Keller, I am a 1st year PhD student in Molecular mechanisms of Cancer at the Federal Polytechnical School of Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, and also member of the Young European Biotech Network (YEBN).

While reading your article on the "political scientist", I could not help but agree.  Yes, young scientists tend to focus on the scholarly output first (if not only), and yes, the advisors (aka "boss") also tend to see any other activity apart from being in the lab and doing experiments as a waste of time. And trying to communicate with the media or with policy makers is the worst of betrayals and will keep you from becoming an excellent scientist...or so it seems!

Scientists in general, be they younger or older, also tend to lament themselves when politicians reduce the funding, or pass laws that just make no sense, scientifically speaking! But how can these politicians take "informed" decisions when only 5% of them have a scientific background (at least in the European Commission, according to Zoran Stancic, deputy director general of the European Commission's Directorate General Research)? Can we expect the same politicians to take the right decisions to promote research and development, and life sciences in general?

During the EuroBio2008 conference (the european counterpart to BIO) that took place in Paris from October 7th-9th, 30 young scientists and students in Life Sciences from the Young European Biotech Network and coming from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Switzerland decided to get involved in the political process and engage with policy makers and stakeholders of Europe.
This event, bringing together researchers, industry and decision makers, was meant to discuss the future shape of the Life Sciences and Biotech sectors and issue a "Call for Change" report to Make Change Happen in a Europe that wants to become THE leader of a knowledge-based economy (according to the Lisbon Agenda).

The "rising generation" was key in bringing forth their vision of the future and debated passionately with international stakeholders on several hot topics such as "axe the CAP and spend money on R&D instead" or "nationalism is the greatest enemy of Biotechnology in Europe" during the House of Commons. They contributed actively with critical comments and concrete questions and proposals to the BioDialogues on Red, White and Green Biotechnology. After all, they would be working in these areas in the coming years and, as Professor Federico Mayor (former director general of the UNESCO) pointed out at the reporting plenary,  the future is indeed in the hands of the young generation!
The enthusiasm and dedication of these young scientists that dared to set aside for a few days their important scientific experiments and take vacation to attend EuroBio2008 and become "politically active" led to the comment by Eric Poincelet - Commissioner General of EuroBio2008" : "next time, you will not be thirty only, you will be one hundred"!

This comment is already a success in itself. It was definitely NOT a waste of time for these young scientists to participate to these debates, and the appreciation for this will be measured by the outcome of the conference, the "Call for Change" report, as our YEBN chairman Francesco Lescai pointed out: “The YEBN contribution to EuroBio2008 was an example of the fresh inputs these kind of discussions need most: our students and young researchers were capable to break the schemes of the discussions and highlight some critical points to be addressed with high priority. Everyone seemed to appreciate: we will be able to measure this appreciation with the number of suggestions that will actually appear in the Green Paper to be delivered to the European Commission".

So, as stated in Peter Fiske's article, when "many members of the scientific community retreat to the comfort of their laboratories or lecture halls" we believe that it is the "Science's next wave" that has to take a step forward and make their voice heard. We encourage our young scientists that pursue excellence in their research to become "political YOUNG scientists" and Make Change Happen!

Yours sincerely,

Debora Keller
Young European Biotech Network (YEBN)
Communication Task Group Leader

October 10, 2008

Cool Videos

There's one other thing I wanted to mention about the Beckerle presentation. She showed some movies, made by Julie Theriot, that I found astonishing. In one, a white blood cell chased a bacterium, PacMan like, around a cell. Another showed the little bacteria trying hard to escape the cell, finally discovering an opening at the spot on the cell wall where the cell had just divided. Am I the last one in the scientific community to learn about these?

I don't have time right now to seek out those particular videos, but I bet there are many others on Julie Theriot's site that are just as fascinating. Here's the link.

I admit that the career connection is tenuous, but I think there is one: It's inspiring: How can you watch this without getting excited about biology?

October 10, 2008

Blogging SACNAS

Today and tomorrow I'm in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the 35th annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. This morning over breakfast, the first keynote speaker of the day offered some advice that, though it's hardly new, is worth repeating.

Mary K. Beckerle, a prominent cancer researcher from the University of Utah, advised the young researchers in attendance to choose an important research question, then make sure the tools at their disposal can address that question in interesting ways. It's a significantly more sophisticated version of the old cliche´ (which, in fact, she later repeated), 'do what you love.'

I'd put it a little differently, but the advice is basically sound. You can be the best scientist in the world technically, but if you don't choose important problems you're odds of having a real impact, on the world of science and the world at large, are much reduced.

I could quibble. I believe an intense commitment to quality has a way of paying off, even if the problem it's applied to isn't obviously important. Yet, there's no doubt that choosing an obviously important problem improves your odds.

Here's the take-home: look for opportunities to apply your talent to things that matter. Otherwise you might as well be out playing golf.

The National Institutes of Health announced this morning that starting after the 25 January 2009 submission date, NIH will begin considering ONLY ONE RESUBMISSION. After that, a proposal will be regarded as new and assigned a new number. Second "amendments" will no longer be considered.

Reportedly, NIH has been considering a move like this--initially the proposal was to eliminate resubmissions entirely--for some time now. The thinking, I believe is that reviewers and study-section members may feel an obligation to reward investigators who have jumped through the reviewer's hoops enough times. That kind of thinking can lead to the funding of proposals that hang around long enough (a lot like awarding Ph.D.s to certain graduate students we've all known)--that is, it can lead to more conservative funding decisions. People were also concerned that many proposals were being funded only on resubmission, delaying the awarding of a grant (and the subsequent research), and increasing the burden on reviewers and study-section members who have to review a proposal several times.

The new policy is comprehensive, covering all proposals that currently allow resubmissions: NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, Career Development Awards, Individual Fellowships, Institutional Training Grants, Resource Grants, Program Projects, and Centers.   

Here's the NIH announcement, in full:

New NIH Policy on Resubmission (Amended) Applications

Notice Number: NOT-OD-09-003

Key Dates
Release Date:  October 8, 2008

Issued by
National Institutes of Health (NIH), (


NIH announces a change in the existing policy on resubmission (amended)
applications (see Beginning with original new applications (i.e., never submitted) and competing renewal applications submitted for the January 25, 2009 due dates and beyond, the NIH will accept only a single amendment to the original application.  Failure to receive funding after two submissions (i.e., the original and the single amendment) will mean that the applicant should substantially re-design the project rather than simply change the application in response to previous reviews.  It is expected that this policy will lead to funding high quality applications earlier, with fewer resubmissions.


Following the release of the Peer Review Report that was drafted with extensive consultation with the external community, Dr. Zerhouni, NIH Director, established a Peer Review Oversight Committee (PROC) to finalize the recommendations and begin immediate implementation of those recommendations.  Of particular concern was the marked reduction in the number of awards made in response to original applications.  An increasing number of projects were funded only after one or more resubmissions.   In
periods of constricted funding, a greater number of projects require resubmission, and review committees are more likely to show greater preference for amended applications.  These trends have increased the time from original submission to award and the number of submissions per
investigator. As a result, there has been greater burden placed on applicants and reviewers as well as a delay in funding for meritorious science.

To change this trend and increase the likelihood that meritorious original applications will be funded, the NIH will decrease the number of amendments allowed.  Accordingly, the NIH will begin to phase out second amendment applications starting with the January 25, 2009 due date. This policy will increase the numbers of high quality original and first amendments that can be funded earlier.

NIH Policy on Resubmission (Amended) Applications

Beginning with applications intended for the January 25, 2009 due date, all original new applications (i.e., never submitted) and competing renewal applications will be permitted only a single amendment (A1).  For this and subsequent cohorts of original new and competing renewal applications, any second amendment (A2) will be administratively withdrawn and not accepted for review.   Applicants who fail to receive funding after two submissions may resubmit but only if the application is fundamentally revised to qualify as new.  A new application is expected to be substantially different in content and scope with more significant differences than are normally encountered in an amended application.  Note that there is no time limit for the submission of the original and subsequent A1.

Original new and competing renewal applications that were submitted prior to January 25, 2009 will be permitted two amendments (A1 and A2).  For these "grandfathered" applications, NIH expects that any A2 will be submitted no later than January 7, 2011, and NIH will not accept A2 applications after
that date.

This policy applies to all applications, including applications submitted under the NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, Career Development Awards, Individual Fellowships, Institutional Training Grants, Resource Grants, Program Projects, and Centers.  Currently no amendments are permitted for applications received in response to a Request for Applications (RFA) unless it is specified in the Funding Opportunity Announcement, in which case only
one amendment will be permitted.  ations (RFA) unless it is specified in the Funding Opportunity Announcement, in which case only one amendment will be permitted.

Applicants are strongly encouraged to discuss their questions with their NIH IC contact.  For additional information or questions, please contact:

Division of Receipt and Referral
Center for Scientific Review
6701 Rockledge Drive MSC 7720
Bethesda, MD  20892-7720
Voice:  (301) 435-0715
Fax:  (301) 480-1987

In an otherwise dismal report from the Bureau of Labor statistics, one bright spot was in the oil and gas extraction industry, which added 8000 jobs in September. Oil and gas extraction has added 241,000 jobs since April 2003. Only a small fraction of those jobs are for scientists, of course, but that's still a pretty good report for times like these. We covered careers for geologists in oil extraction in August.

Another relative bright spot was the health care industry, which has been adding jobs rapidly in recent months (averaging 30,000 new jobs monthly). Last month's report was considerably worse than previous months--17,000 new jobs--but it remains a bright spot.