Monday, October 22, 2012


I love Italy. Friendly people, good food, great art, nice weather, etc. But there is something in Italian governance traditions that make me feel okay about not living there. Prime examples are Berlusconi and this, the conviction of six seismologists and a government functionary for failing to predict an earthquake in L'Aquila that killed 309 people in 2009. More exactly, they issued a report that said that it wasn't possible to predict whether or not their would be a major earthquake that year, but estimated the probability as fairly low. The earthquake came, and they are the scapegoats.

Imagine if you will that an Italian man goes to the doctor, and asks if he is going to have a stroke that year. The doctor gives him an exam, some blood tests and a questionnaire, then uses the best available methods to estimate that this man has only a 10% chance of having a heart attack that year. The man goes for a hike, has a heart attack, dies. Should the doctor go to jail for failing to know for sure that the heart attack is coming? Of course not. We don't put people in jail for failing to know things that no one could possibly know. We don't, but apparently the Italian courts do.

Now imagine the Italian government comes to you next week and wants you to produce an expert report on an unpredictable topic for them. Would you be eager to help?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Friendly advice for your first grant application, ERC edition

Earlier this year I wrote a fairly long post about the experience and lessons of completing my first NIH grant application (nightmare). While I still haven't heard back if NIH are going to fund me, the good news is that my application has been deemed to at least have the scientific merit for funding (the scientific review board ranked it ahead of almost all of the other applications). Now they have to decide if it makes sense for them administratively to fund it. I should hear some time this month, I hope.

In the mean time I've been applying for more grants (three applications I'm involved in have been submitted in the last three weeks), because what else is there for scientists to do? I've just completed my first grant application to the European Research Council (ERC). I've heard from several people that my NIH post was helpful, so I'm going to offer a few of my thoughts on the ERC process.

Before we start, think about how cool nature is. For example, consider this American Dipper my wife and I saw in Lassen Volcanic National Park a few years ago.
Now, with that in mind:

1. Don't panic.  The ERC process is far less brutal and inhuman than NIH's. Where NIH's instruction booklet is 264 pages and requires numerous supplementary online documents, ERC's is 77 (really only one 40 page section of it was necessary for me, and it is well organized) and requires very little outside information. It took me far less time to complete the ERC Starting grant application than just to figure out how one in theory applies for an NIH grant, despite the fact that I was applying for eight times as much money from ERC, and the funding rate is somewhat better. The whole ERC process, including a lot of reading relevant literature I wasn't previously aware of, took me about three weeks of very hard work. There is a reason so many American academics are in Europe these days. There is no industry of writing ERC grantsmanship advice the way their is for NIH because it just isn't necessary. That said, I'll offer a few bits that may be helpful.

2. The type of grant I applied for, the ERC Starting Grant, is the one most people applying for the first time will apply for. "Starting" in this case means early in your career (at least two and no more than I think seven years since you got your PhD) rather than necessarily your first grant. They also have other grants for people later in their careers. The idea is that a promising early-career scientist applies for money to start a research group at a European university (or other academic host, like a Max Planck Institute). The host is named in the grant and has to provide a letter promising to employ the applicant for at least the duration of the grant (up to 5 years) if that application is funded. It has often been the case that applicants would apply with one host and then upon getting funded used that wad of cash an enticement to get hired somewhere else, but I hear that the ERC is trying to clamp down on that. They retain the right to tell you that you can't take it with you.

2. Try very hard to get a copy of a successful ERC application, the more recent and the closer to your field, the better. While the instructions are pretty clearly written, it is always helpful to look at how a successful application is organized. That said, make sure you follow the latest version of the instruction. A friend of mine who is also applying for an ERC this year thought he was supposed to use the 2012 instructions, because it is 2012. Silly friend! If you write your application in 2012, your application will be reviewed in 2013, so use the 2013 instructions. They don't seem to change too drastically from year to year, but they do change.

3. Be aware that when they say you have to have your PhD for at least 2 years, they mean the date physically written on your diploma has to be at least two years before they publish that year's call for applications. I wasn't eligible to apply last year because while I finished my PhD more than two years before the deadline, the somewhat later date written on my diploma was less than two years before the somewhat earlier date when the call for applications was published. They don't care about your citizenship or residency, but they do care what date is written on your diploma.

4. They review in two rounds. The first time they look at your CV and publications and a five page project description called an 'Extended Synopsis.' (Sort of like an unabridged compact edition). If you make it through the first round, they look instead at a 15 page scientific project description that includes more detail, a methods section and your proposed budget. The five pager really is a compact version of the 15 pager minus the budget, and there is no reason you can't copy and paste almost all of your text from the first into the second.

5. ERC has a list of 25 topic-specific evaluation panels that review these applications. Before you start writing, decide which panel you are aiming it at. When they publish the names of the panel chairs, be sure to look at the recent publications of your panel's chair so you know your audience.

6. You will need the help of an administrator at your proposed host. Find out who that person is and give her at least a month notice that you are applying. Chocolate is not a bad idea.

7. Oh yes, one last thing. The amount of money you can ask for doesn't depend on which country your host is in, but what you can do with that money does. My proposed host is in Denmark, which means I can hire about one third the number of people that I could in Germany with the same budget, and perhaps one tenth as many as in the least expensive EU countries. But apparently they are so focused on the scientific merit of the project and applicant (and to a lesser extent the host) that which country you propose to work in or how relatively expensive it is isn't a big concern for them.

That's about it. The three weeks I gave myself to get this done was clearly too little time, and I'm now exhausted and behind on everything else. My application probably could have used another couple of days of polishing and reading through by friends. But all in all I think the ERC process is quite reasonable.

Good luck and happy grant writing. I'm going to try to remember what papers I was working on before I started writing grants again.

Monday, October 15, 2012

In which I use some strong words on the topic of a botched editing job

So this big long review article my collaborators and I sent to a very good scientific journal was sent for one last copy-edit before it was published. This is normal, most journals have a copy editor look things over right before typesetting. This particular paper had already been professionally copy edited, but hey, there is always room for improvement. So we get back the typeset version from the production editor (who works for the corporate publisher of the journal and is in charge of turning the accepted paper into a formatted, typeset publication), and an hour later, we get an email from the scientific editor (who is a scientist in charge of deciding what gets published and makes decisions about scientific content) that the copy editor (who works for the production editor and is only supposed to correct grammar, punctuation and such) is an "aggressive copy editor" and we should check the paper carefully. So we sit down to read through the paper and figure out what this means when HOLY SHIT! I notice that the very first sentence of our paper directly contradict the rest of its content. And then YOU ARE FUCKING KIDDING ME?! I notice that my coauthor's name is spelled wrong. Then LET LOOSE THE DOGS OF WAR! I see that the very central sentence of the paper, the one that defines the really important concept that we are introducing and talking about, no longer means anything at all. And then, ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME?! I see that a paper written by a very senior colleague who I've only slightly corresponded with is now attributed to me, as though I wrote it. To top it off ARE YOU SOME KIND OF IDIOT?! there are now all sorts of punctuation errors, formatting errors, random characters inserted in the middles of words. So I think maybe that's the worst of it, and then HOW HAVE YOU NOT BEEN FIRED YET?! I figure out that the copy editor went through and sorta tried to rewrite the paper, adding a sentence here, taking out a clause there, HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE inserting parenthetical phrases with no closed parenthesis. (I DON'T UNDERSTAND! Oh, and MAKE IT STOP! the names of the demographic phenomena have been changed to something the copy editor thought sounded nicer.
So we figure maybe the copy editor was high on crack, and we write to the production editor, whose job it is to make sure the copy editing was done right, and we politely explain the problem, and ask that we would like to make sure that we don't miss any errors that may have been introduced, and so could we please have the list that he has of the changes that were made, and he SATAN! SATAN! writes back a one sentence email telling us we just need to follow the instructions he already sent. Considering I spent more than a year in total working on this paper, I think I am handling it rather well. DOOM! DOOM!

I have now written a somewhat less polite email to the production editor demanding that the pre-vandalized version be used, as we can't possibly find and mark all of the hundreds of places where the paper was damaged. My hope is to end up working with a different production editor, one who is not so BLATTANTLY STUPID unconcerned about the quality of the product.