Friday, October 29, 2004

Everybody's talking at me

Surprisingly after yesterday's efforts I did not sleep well, and my mind was churning with things I should do for work. I had some ideas about new experiments (sad but true) and I thought about a phone call I got yesterday. More news of a failed grant application. I really couldn't understand it. This guy had a great CV and his project was on the patients that he was treating in his clinic. However he was changing fields and some of the referees didn't like it. He sent me the comments of one particularly poisonous reviewer. I recognized the pompous style immediately. Nothing constructive, and putting the knife in at every opportunity. The guy had put in enough detailed criticism to make it seem to a casual observer (average grant committe member) like he knew what he was talking about. But he didn't. Why am I getting so upset? Because I am convinced this sod has knifed a few of my grants too. Now the first thing I write in a new grant application is " I would appreciate it, if Prof X, of X uni, is excluded from being a reviewer. He is a competitor in my field, and would have a conflict of interest."

I spent the morning buggering about, deluding myself that I was working well but still relieved I had sent grant#2. On a whim I had a look at the file I had sent off. Wait a minute, none of the corrections/additions were in the document. Arghh! Panic! Had I deleted the file by mistake? Did I lose more than 5 hours of work? After a frantic search of the hard-drive I discovered that opening the same file 6 times won't make non-existent text suddenly appear. Then I had a brain wave, and looked in the "Saved files" directory created by Entourage. Thank god it was there. I had of course been lazy and started working directly on the file that had been attached to an email. But I sent back the file that was on the desktop. Then I remembered how I made the mistake. Just as I was about to send the file, I got the phone call about the grant. Simulataneously a colleague came in for a chat. It's called taking your eye off the file. It just shows that some people are not cut out to be multi-taskers!

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Some stupid with a flare gun

What a week. Monday had the kids all day because of half-term. Took them to macdonalds and Toys r us. Didn't hear any complaints. Started work on business development grant (grant#2) . It's like learning a new language. Milestones? Deliverables? Quarters? It's the complete opposite for research grants. In today's competitive environment, you submit the grants knowing that most of the milestones have already been reached. Then you can do something interesting instead. That's if you are smart. Naive people like me write grants to do work they want to do. They then find it takes longer than they thought, so they have to write a new grant to finish it off and get further behind. Did someone mention the misery of credit card debt?

Tuesday AM, made 27 copies of grant#1 and then played "hunt the envelope". Helped to move two large liquid nitrogen tanks from one building to another. This heralds the start of the migration lead by MC (see previous posts). PM, lots of meetings with my lab. Including a depressed PhD student, a research assistant with time on her hands, and a research assistant actually producing good results. Well, 1 out of 3 ain't bad.
Also had a meeting where MC outlined his takeover bid for our floor. He told us the rennovation of his current labs would be a complete disaster, and there was the possibility of money running out before completion. Then it dawned on us that the move was not going to be temporary. He told me that my lab which has been out of action for 4 months, could be easily fixed for a cost of £300 and within 2 weeks. If true this is depressing and makes me wonder if the HOD is ineffectual or whether MC is a fibber. I suspect the latter and have already made a bet for £10 that it won't happen. Evening spent on grant #2. Resolved to get a more comfortable chair for my home office and to book an eyetest.

Wednesday, building wide power cut. Sat in the dark in my office until the laptop battery ran down. Had a good whinge with my colleague about the MC and his plans for global domination. Basically did bugger all and suffered for it.

Thursday (today). Had to work until 1.30AM on grant#2 (missus not pleased), then woke up at 6.30 AM to deliver first draft to technology transfer office. Worked on it during the day with frequent interruptions. Finally sent another version at 5pm! This weekend I have to read a PhD thesis. Arghhh!

Friday, October 22, 2004


Cream crackered this week, due to waking early to work on grant, full day at work, then more writing in the evening. Eyesight is going and the bags are under the eyes are getting bigger. Not quite in the Barry Norman league, but getting there.

Anyway for a while, I have been thinking that something has been missing from squalid professional life. Today I realised what it was-academic politics!

Before embarking on my latest rant, however I should introduce the some key characters. First there is the mumbling caledonian (MC Stammer). He is a senior member of the department who is a master of the hidden agenda, spreads poisonous gossip, and has always looked out for number 1. Well enough of his good points. Since we moved into the blue palace, I have seen much less of him and I'm now off the beta blockers.

Yesterday MC told us that his lab space is being refurbished and will be effectively out of action for the next four months. Given his many redeeming features, there was much sympathy among the audience for his predicament. Today he sent over three of his minions (witches of eastwick) to measure up lab space for relocation of his staff. Did I miss something? Aren't you supposed to ask people before you move into their space? He told one of my colleagues that he no alternative but to move his people and equipment next week. Conveniently the HOD is away next week and he is operationally deputy head. I smell a rat. I wasn't the only one, and the day was spent in a series of rather futile discussions with my colleagues. I emailed my HOD to find out the "official" position. It turns out that there wasn't one, and he wants us to sort it out between us like responsible adults. This is improbable given the personalities involved.

I will have a lot to cope with next week, so my plan is one of masterly inactivity!

Thursday, October 21, 2004

I come from a land down under?

The excitement never ends in this throbbing metropolis. On the news, various sightings of a wallaby in the suburbs of our fair city. Lots of questions- what is the poor creature doing so far from home? Where is the nearest zoo? Is marsupial meat as tasty as they say?

Sadly, all these questions was answered when our visitor from the outback turned out to be a Fox. Yes a fox, that had mange, so it had lost all it's fur. It had also injured a leg, hence the hopping around. The poor animal was in great pain, so a vet put it down thus spoiling the week for the newspaper reporters.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Black Tuesday

Yesterday I stayed at home to write the grant. It went quite well until I checked my email inbox which seemd quite full. An in tray full of bad news. A colleague in our department had two grants submitted to a research charity. Despite a recommendation that one of them was to be funded, he was unsuccessful. How can this happen you might ask? Well if there are more "fundable" grants than money available, then the grant committee must prioritise. Five year and three year grants come out of the same pot, so if there are a lot of excellent 5 year grants, then there will be proportionately less money for projects. One guy may have produced 20 papers over 5 years, another has 10. Which one is the better scientist, who has the greatest potential to make landmark discoveries? Anyway the net result is that my colleague will be saying goodbye to two members of staff, and potentially to his research career.

Elsewhere in the blue palace, there were grant rejections for four other members of staff. Sorry seems to be the easiest word.

I also got an email from a collaborator at another University, who had her programme grant turned down by the Medical Research Council. Despite high scores from the referees and universal recommendation for funding, it was rejected by the committee. We don't know the precise reasons for the rejection, but she was understandably gutted. She has been trying to get this work funded for the last 18 months. She is a tough and talkative lady, but when I phoned her up, there were many silences. I did not do a very good job of counselling, mainly because I was scared I would start crying myself.

Perversley, after all that bad news, I actually made very good progress on the grant writing. Maybe because in the back of my mind I realised that all the details I was worrying about, don't amount to a hill of beans, when the reviewers will probably decide within 5 minutes of reading it whether it's "yah" or "nay". So get a good title, a punchy first paragraph and don't sweat the small stuff. Hey that could be a title for a self-help book? On second thoughts maybe someone has already thought of it!
I also realised that my chances of getting any of the project grants I am applying for are slim. Even a "yah" decision, could be overruled by a committee. So despite my earlier reluctance, I have nothing to lose by trying for "business development" money. Proportionately, the odds of success appear much higher. At the very least it could keep staff employed, while I apply for yet more research grants. It could also make me rich beyond my wildest dreams. Ha, ha.

Exam question. The whole grant funding crisis is a direct result of mismanagement of scientific research by the UK government? Discuss. If I have any bile left in my body I will do this tomorrow.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Dark side of the room

After a busy and not particularly relaxing weekend of childcare I was glad to be back in the Blue Palace. Not for long, because there was a powercut, that left us in the dark (well, it is October).

A brief meeting with my post-doc, who showed me a couple of experiments that hadn't worked. She has very low esteem, so I have to choose my words carefully and be very upbeat. She had a couple of months off because of depression. She also had an eating disorder. So things have not been right for quite some time. I had to tell her at her annual appraisal in April that she was not really cut out to be a post-doc, having only produced 1 paper in 3 years. This sounds like I am being a bastard but she has deep-rooted psychological issues, that need addressing outside work. On a cycle of 3 year project grants, productivity is extremely important. Your biggest assets and your biggest problems come on two legs! This time next year I may have no grants and no lab. In the meantime I have this blog as therapy.

On a lighter note, the windows and entrance of the building were finally jet-washed to remove the guano. Despite the cordon, a few lazy sods took shortcuts past the guy with the jet-washer. One of them, slipped over on the wet surface and collided with the door. There is some justice in the world!

Tomorrow I will spend all day working on a grant application.

"I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour but heaven knows...................."

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Thank fook its Friday

The end of a spectactularly unproductive week. My diary says "start writing grant". Well I started writing this blog, but unfortunately this will not keep my staff in employment.

Oh my god, only 2 weeks to go before the deadline! Arghhhhhhhhhh! This is urgent, so I will start next week.

In the meantime, I have been looking at a manuscript that if it was a puppy, would have been put down. I am middle author among a bunch of medics. None of them seem to be that bothered to do any writing but still want their name in lights. It describes a clinical trial of a new treatment, that unfortunately does not produce better results than any conventional treatment. The first author is desperate to get this paper out and has tried some minor surgery. Today my job is to rebuild it, make it better than before, stronger, faster, errrrr .... making it leap buildings at a single bound. I think I am getting my TV quotes mixed up but you get the picture. Two hours later and I realise that the only way to make it better is to tell the truth. On a cost:benefit analysis, this treatment is actually worse than than what preceded it. However it is more likely the conclusion will be that "more studies are warranted".

Three more meetings. My new research assistant (in her 2nd week of work) showed me her results today. They were completely negative. Nevertheless she knew why the experiment hadn't worked and had thought about what to do next, so I was happy. I only wish that my post-doc had similar powers of analysis.

I then spent some time with my PhD student. She had been staring down the microscope and seen some strange looking cells. I reassured her that it was normal for cells to have little legs and to dance everytime the radio came on. I don't think my counselling was very effective and I can see her arriving at work on Monday with two dark rings round her eyes.

Final meeting was with the technology transfer officer for the University. She has been helping me file a patent. Now she wants us to make a joint application for a business development grant. Over 100K of "free" money. I can already envisage fact finding missions to the Caribbean and a state of the art laptop. Sounds too good to be true and there must be a catch. Well there is, we have to come up with a business plan for a non-existant product, including proposed licensing opportunities. Even worse, the deadline is 2 weeks away. Wait a minute that's the deadline for the research grant. Doh!! Decisions, decisions.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Heaven knows I'm miserable now

Another day of meetings. Started with Departmental meeting in which one of the Senior Lecturers gave us an overview of their research. He had baked some apple cake which made the talk that much more agreeable. I always like some food before my morning nap.

Afterwards the HOD called an extraordinary Departmental meeting for the senior staff. He gave us feedback from a high level meeting he had attended. As expected there was not much in the way of good news. First the budget that pays for the running of the department (equipment, stationary, repairs etc) has been halved. This wasn't a surprise, nor were the messages about tightening our belts, you never had so good, and Ich bin ein berliner (made the last one up). Second, new bureaucratic measures have been put in place to make it more difficult to get things done. This includes reducing the number of approved signatories for official documents. ie the HOD will no longer be able to sign things off, only the head of the school (Dean) will be able to do this now. This lead to groans of "We're doomed" as this individual is known to be more elusive than Ronnie Biggs. While we are thinking about criminals it struck me that reducing the number of signatories will simply lead to more forged signatures when there is a danger of missing a deadline. The HOD continued to describe other examples where common sense had not only deserted the administrators but was actually in orbit around a planet in another universe.

After lunch another meeting, a Research Building Users Group. Another happy gathering of researchers, initially established as a working party to identify problems that could then be rectified. Basically its a big moaning shop but no counsellors are on hand. We relate tales of woe involving the building facilities. These include doors that don't lock or fall off their hinges, leaking windows, sinks that drain onto the floor, poor ventilation, electrical pecularities and the inevitable pigeon guano. Despite many design flaws, the architect is blaming the contractors and suing the different companies that he hired. They in return claim that they were only following instructions. The net result is that my lab remains closed.

Good news, my research assistant came in and told me all about her latest experiments. Beautiful results that made me forget about all the other crap and reminded me why I do this job. Spent some time after she left, looking at published papers, to see if there was an explanation for the results.

Then it was back to the paperwork. This time I had to write a reference for a medical colleague. This was not a problem because she is very good and the reference form was like a multiple choice questionaire. Fantastic! What a time-saver!

The rest of the afternoon was spent diagnosing the fault on a dead imac. After an hour I confirmed that it didn't work.

So my time sheet today reads Science-1 hour; Assorted Bullshit-6 hours; Moaning about my lot-1 hour . This fully justifies my categorisation as being "research active".

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Mo and Larry were there

Yet another committee meeting this AM. I have lost track of which subgroup of which research theme of which national network it is supposed to represent. Seems I am not the only one because the clinicians who chaired the meeting (Mo and Larry were there but Curly sent his apologies) wanted to change the title of the working group (or is it a focus group?). Anyway a mailshot to the whole campus inviting interested parties to attend resulted in two new suckers rolling up. Meanwhile several people had sent their apologies so we were down to 5, plus the secretary taking minutes. I felt sorry for her listening to the windbags. How can you generate useful minutes from egocentrical rambling? I would suggest one action point- no more meetings! To add insult to injury, there was supposed to be a talk but the speaker did not turn up. Apparently she got lost going to the last meeting, so it would be advisable to send a cab for her next time. Or invest in video conferencing technology. As usual the main conclusions were that informal soundings needed to be taken, and that another meeting should be organised.

After this painful ordeal, I will be going to the dentist. I must be a masochist!

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Oxford exodus

I think I must have caught something from the pigeons, my guts were churning last night. Not too many side effects apart from insomnia and the lingering taste of Rennies.

So a bit weary this morning when i sat down and stared at the probation forms. The big event of the day, was the visit of yet another researcher from Oxford.
The visit was "informal" and he was here officially to give a seminar. But in the last few months we have had a stream of them sniffing around our campus. At this rate there will be no-one left in Oxford. Will the last one out please turn out the lights. It has been asked, that if Oxford is so good, then why do they want to come here? Well, despite the pigeon guano and bureaucracy, our University has recently made it into the Rough Guide "Attractive Alternatives to the Big 3" book. Although depth of talent can't compare to the big 3, there is a corresponding decrease in the number of egocentric eggheads and public schoolboys. Furthermore the city is quite a pleasant and (compared to London) cheap place to live. Very attractive if you have a young family or if you made too many enemies at all the famous universities.

Our distinguished visitor had a lot going for him. A medic, educated at Cambridge, then Oxford. Worked for a nobel prize winner and more papers in Nature than I've had hot dinners. Apparently quite good on the old joanna too. Makes you sick doesn't it? Clearly very clever but seminar was a bit of jumble of results pulled together for a grand unifying theme. Not entirely convinced. Meeting him in person confirmed he was clever but also somewhat effete. Not sure what our place could offer him, unless it is simply a bluff to get a better deal at Oxford. Shock, horror, who would think of such of thing. Well about 90% of the people who visit us.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Gnashing teeth

The week has got off to a good start.

My lab have been out of action for 3 months. Without getting into specifics it is all down to airflows. Anyway after considerable nagging from my head of department (HOD), some fans were replaced last week. However the problem persists and my lab is still shut! Apparently the airflow needs to be "balanced" but it is not clear who is supposed to be doing this. Arghhh!

The irony is that I left a perfectly good lab last March to move to "state of the art" facilities. That lab is still empty. I spoke to my HOD and asked if I could move back. But he said no because it was "politically sensitive" and would cause a "ruckus". Presumably it would disrupt the plans of Professor Genghis (the current landlord) to take over the campus. So now the 4 people in my lab wander around the corridors looking for a "room at the inn", when plenty of rooms are available!

So the week was off to a good start. My mood got considerably better when I was told that I would have to fill out yet more forms. My new research assistant is on a 1 year grant, but still requires a probation period of guess what, 1 year! We have an initial meeting, then one at 3 months, 6 months and 9 months. After which time we decide whether employment should be continued! It gets better, the worker on probation requires a mentor. So we have to drag someone else into this bureaucratic nightmare. Incidentally I had to download 7 documents from the Human Resources website to start this process. That's why scientists need access to high speed internet facilities!

Arghh again. The week can only get better.

Friday, October 08, 2004

More information than you need

Let me describe my environment. I work in a research building that is tastefully finished in a blue and white trim, giving it the appearance of a legotown building. Appropriate for the level of thought put into the design. It is supposedly "start of the art", but that art would be the art of bloody incompetence. The architect thoughtfully provided several horizontal metal grille structures above the windows. What they are supposed to do is a frequent topic of tea room chatter. What they actually do is provide a perch for flocks of gatrically challenged pigeons. David Attenborough would not approve of this guano! Some of the perches are outside my window. They tell you to rest your eyes after computer work by looking at distant objects. In my case my focus stops short on the white streaks on my window. When the pigeons fail to hit the window they drop it on the floor outside the main exit door. Slippery when wet as Bon Jovi once sang. Its always funny until someone gets hurt! Hopefully it will be captured on CCTV and we can watch it on "you've been framed".

First post

Occasional ramblings and rants about my world. I am a research scientist but seem to spend all time typing things into this computer for my work. So why not have some fun, open some eyes to the seedy world of academe and hopefully make someone laugh out there (even if it's only me).
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