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Science Careers Blog

June 2007

June 29, 2007

YouTube for Science

This week, the European Commission's Research Directorate-General relaunched AthenaWeb, a video portal of sorts where science communicators, organizations, and institutions can upload and share videos with the public.

According to a statement released this week, AthenaWeb already hosts 750 or so videos and has a subscriber base of 8,000 people across Europe. A quick scan of the library reveals mostly video news releases and videos produced by regional European Commission offices. 

"We've tried to envisage the different ways our users...could benefit from better access to science audiovisuals and smarter ways of communicating their activities," AthenaWeb's manager Kathleen Van Damme said this week at an international conference on documentary films. "We came up with a new 'pro-zone' (for science broadcasters and film producers) with its marketplace and intelligent web workstation for managing projects, as well as a host of new tools (blogs, syndicated links) for educators and scientists in need of a place to profile their research and develop their communication skills."

The site was originally created in 2005. The rapid proliferation of video-hosting sites such as YouTube led to the rethinking and redesigning of AthenaWeb. The developers have dubbed it "Athena Web - Take 2."

June 29, 2007

Worst Jobs in Science

For the last 4 years, Popular Science magazine has presented a lighthearted list of what it considers the "worst jobs in science." This year's list was posted earlier this week. No, "postdoc" didn't make the list. Popular Science's choices range from Whale-Feces Researcher, through Microsoft Security Grunt and Elephant Vasectomist, to Hazmat driver. Also fun: Gravity Research Subject and Coursework Carcass Preparer. You can find links to lists from the previous years at Slashdot (scroll down to "Related Stories"). Hat Tip: Slashdot  

This week's Science has an article (by Adrian Cho in News Focus) about a small group of Fermilab scientists  trying to make a big discovery--of a new particle--on a small budget: about $30,000. Aaron Chou, a co-leader of the 11-member team, is a postdoc.

The stakes are high, but the researchers admit the odds are not in their favor. "When the potential payoff is big and the time and effort and cost are all small, it's easy to say 'Go ahead,' " Chou says. Still, adds David Christian, head of Fermilab's experimental physics projects department, "Almost for sure, [the] result is wrong." Subscription required for access.

For more about working at Fermilab, see Science Careers' article on this subject from last October.

June 28, 2007

Update on U.S. Passports

In mid-May, we reported on the increasing delays Americans face in getting new passports and renewing expiring passports. I offered my own renewal as a test case. Our mail at home yesterday included a Priority Mail envelope containing my new passport. From the time I mailed in the renewal on 24 April to delivery on 27 June, the process took 10 weeks. I chose not to pay the extra $60.00 for expedited service.

Pat Kushlis, a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer and a current blogger, has followed this issue relentlessly since February, well before the mainstream media noticed the problem. Kushlis says 10 weeks has become the normal turnaround time for a routine application. In an e-mail to Science Careers, Kushlis says the State Department, which issues passports, is advising applicants to allow 10-12 weeks for routine service and 2-3 weeks for expedited service. She warns, however, that "we're still receiving horror stories for people who have been waiting 13 and 14 weeks."

By the way, Kushlis has put together a comprehensive FAQ/tip sheet/telephone directory/Web page listing on her Whirled View blog that anyone needing a new or renewed passport should read and bookmark. Meanwhile, we're making holiday plans for the Amalfi coast rather than our fall-back, the Jersey shore.

Spain and India are about to get closer to each other. No, this isn't a story about plate tectonics; it's about a new agreement, signed in June, in which Spain and India decided to promote the exchange of researchers in science and technology. As part of the agreement, co-access to facilities in both countries will be facilitated and joint conferences will be organised. Spanish Education and Science Minister Mercedes Cabrera sees "food processing, transport, health, biotechnology, nanoscience and nanotechnology, information technologies, mathematics, physics, and chemistry" as promising areas for collaboration. The initiative builds on an existing programme, called India & Spain Innovating (ISI), which supports cooperation between companies from the two countries for technology development, innovation, and technology transfer.


For further announcements of opportunities under this new agreement, keep an eye on the Spanish Ministry for Education and Science and the Ministry for Industry, Tourism, and Trade.

Also see our recent feature for research opportunities in India and experiences of researchers who've lived and worked there.

A letter from a reader:

I've been a working medical/science writer for almost 40 years now and it isn't for the weak at heart or anyone who has to earn a reliable income. Deadlines are tough and until that check is in your hand you usually don't know if you'll actually get paid. And the most interesting writing, at the [name of old, high-profile professional society--not AAAS--expunged by the editor/blogger] for example, pays little or nothing. Staff is certainly more reliable but in truth all writing is freelance; the med ed companies don't last all that long, and the client who loves you invariably leaves and when his or her successor moves the account someplace else and there goes your job. Advertising is much more fun and pays better, but consumer copy writers are your competition so anyone coming from a lab had better be exceptionally creative (an advanced degree is usually a handicap in medical advertising, not an advantage).

As far as science journalism goes--I've had three editors in less than 5 months at one place; two liked my last pitch which died in committee last week. Martha Graham used to say that if you have to ask "should I dance? Don't." The same is true for science and medical writing. Unless you really love to write and are obsessively curious about science, don't. And doing the bread-and-butter stuff, ghost-writing papers and company-sponsored CMEs [continuing medial education units] is so boring it could make your teeth fall out.

I still love it.

Marcy Stone

In last week's article Working as a Medical Writer, freelancer Sarah Webb wrote , "Academic papers and conference proceedings make lousy writing samples because they are dense and jargon-laden, whereas the emphasis in medical writing is on clarity."

Phillipa Rispin, a Montreal, Canada, based medical writer and editor takes issue with this claim, in an email. "Well-written papers or proceedings can be fine examples of the writer's skill in presenting the facts clearly and crisply in a sometimes-difficult format," Rispin writes.

Press Esc is reporting that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is distributing guidelines to administrators at U.S. universities that if implemented would restrict the freedoms of students and others, according to at least one report.

"US university students will not be able to work late at the campus, travel abroad, show interest in their colleagues' work, have friends outside the United States, engage in independent research, or make extra money without the prior consent of the authorities, according to a set of guidelines given to administrators by the FBI," writes "Canada IFP" on the Press Esc blog. Quoted in the 12 June Boston Globe, FBI sources insist the goal of the program is merely to increase awareness and let people on campuses know how to report perceived threats.

"Federal agents are visiting some of the New England's top universities, including MIT, Boston College, and the University of Massachusetts, to warn university heads about the dangers of foreign spies and terrorists stealing sensitive academic research," goes the blog entry. "FBI is offering to brief faculty, students and staff on what it calls 'espionage indicators' aimed at identifying foreign agents."

The FBI guidelines are available on the Web site of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive.

Last week, National Science Foundation announced this year's call for proposals for its Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. In this program NSF funds activities at institutions that engage and encourage undergraduates in hands-on research projects. REU Sites, as these activities are called, can focus on one discipline or cross multiple disciplines. Interested students should apply directly to the REU Sites--a list of REU Sites is on the NSF Web site--not NSF itself.

A second part of the REU program, called REU Supplements, provides funds for undergraduate researchers to participate in current NSF funded projects. Students participating in either REU Sites or Supplements must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents. GrantsNet has an overview of the announcement, while the NSF Web site has the full text.

GE Healthcare, formerly Amersham Biosciences, and Science/AAAS have joined forces in creating the GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists. Since 1995, the aim of the prize has been to recognize outstanding Ph.D. graduate students from around the world and reward their research in the field of molecular biology. Both Science/AAAS and GE Healthcare believe that support of promising scientists at the beginning of their careers is critical for continued scientific progress. Each year, the grand prize winner receives a prize of US$25,000, while runners-up receive prizes of US$5,000. The staffs of both GE Healthcare and Science/AAAS salute the efforts of past winners and look forward to research findings from future entrants.

Donald Kennedy, Ph.D.
Editor-in-Chief
Science

Spanish authorities believe their country isn't as big a science and technology player in Europe as the size of their economy justifies. According to official figures, Spain is Europe's fifth-largest economy (of the 25 E.U. nations) with a Gross National Income--which partially determines the contribution of individual member states to the European pot--close to 8% of all the income generated in Europe. Spain is aspiring to a larger share of the funding for pan-European research projects and mobility fellowships, a share that's in line with its economic weight within the European Union. Yet, under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), the previous framework programme, Spain only got 5.9% of the money available from the European Union, even less than the 6.5% share the country obtained under FP5.

Now that FP7 is under way--it started in January--the Spanish government has launched the EuroIngenio programme, which they hope will help Spanish researchers get at least 8% of the FP7 funding (which totals more than €50 billion). "The Spanish R&D system has to face the challenge of increas[ing] its participation in the production of knowledge and innovation at a global scale, taking advantage of the opportunities of co-operating through FP7 and other multilateral programmes," Violeta Demonte, director general of research for the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.

EuroIngenio's budget of €15.6 million for 2007 will be spent on four fronts. The EuroCiencia programme will help public research institutions attract European funding, whereas EuroSalud will help hospitals, the TecnoEuropa programme will help large businesses, and InnoEuropa will expend its efforts and resources to help small- and medium-sized companies. 

EuroCiencia aims in particular to encourage universities to offer more supporting services to their researchers by asking institutions to come up with a concrete plan and rewarding those that succeed in increasing their participation to European projects.

How does this affect young researchers? EuroCiencia is addressed to research centres rather than individual researchers, so "young scientists … should contact the European Project Office (or similar office, depending on the particular institution) in [their] own institution expressing [their] willingness to participate in FP7 initiatives," says Demonte. "In the present context of globalisation, … the participation in international R&D activities, [e]specially in FP7 activities, is a must for all young scientists wishing to develop a scientific career as [a] researcher."

 

Early in your career, it's easy to feel as if you have to gain more and more experience, and establish a wider reputation, before you can begin to make a big impact. But this is not always so, as a five-page story written by Richard Stone and published this week in Science shows.

Last Spring Zeb Hogan, 33, a fisheries biologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, and his colleagues set out to study and protect "megafishes"--species of fish that weigh more than 200 pounds or are longer than 6 feet--in the world's rivers and lakes. Hogan had studied fish in Thailand with a Fulbright fellowship in 1996-97, when he also learned to speak Thai. He became concerned that the giant species were in trouble in 2001, when, while a Ph.D. student in ecology at the University of California, Davis, he visited Thailand for the traditional hunt of the buffalo fish, a species of giant catfish. In that year's hunt, no one caught a buffalo fish.

Recognizing that this and other giant freshwater fishes were in trouble, Hogan sounded the alarm. Since then he has been working to raise the awareness of the public and policy-makers in an effort to keep giant freshwater fish from going extinct. Last year he was appointed scientific councilor for fish for the U.N. Convention on Migratory Species.

The full story may be accessed here (Science subscription required).

June 21, 2007

Calling All Loners

If you thought your postdoc was long and lonely, try spending 500 days in a hermetically sealed laboratory in Moscow or 13 months on an over-winter crew in Antarctica.

The European Space Agency issued a call this week for applications for 6 candidates and 6 alternates for the Mars500 program, which will simulate a mission to Mars, complete with 250-day journey, 30-day planetary exploration, and 240-day return. Candidates have to be 25 to 50 years old, in good health, highly motivated, have a background in science or engineering, and be fluent in either Russian or English with a working knowledge of the other. The psychologically disturbed need not apply.

The agency is also looking for one person with a medical background to spend 13 months at Concordia Station, high on the Antarctic Ice Cap, including a brutal winter with temperatures approaching -60 degrees C. The ESA has partnered with the French Polar Institute and other groups because the autonomy and confinement of Antarctic missions mirrors that of future space exploration missions. In addition to the usual chores of isolated lab life, the successful candidate for this job will administer medical and psychological tests to the crew throughout the expedition.

- Kate Travis

A new National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on the state of research in condensed matter and materials physics concludes that outreach, K-12, and undergraduate science education should be funded via supplemental or stand-alone grants administered by separate programs from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Education. (This prepublication draft of the report requests that writers "do not quote, cite, or disseminate" its content because the text isn't final. I will honor that request in this blog entry.)

It is easy to read this as a criticism of NSF's "broader impacts" criterion, one of the two principal criteria by which reviewers are instructed to evaluate NSF grants. (The other is scientific merit.) NSF's definition of "broader impacts" is, well, broad, encompassing scientific impacts as well as, for example, impacts on society. But many researchers have come to interpret the criterion as meaning that if you add on something about outreach, workforce diversity, or public communication to your proposal, your chances of getting funded increase. The NAS committee's point, I believe, is that the current approach encourages skilled professional scientists to devote precious limited resources to areas in which they are, at best, dilettantes, while denying those resources to education and outreach professionals whose ideas it would be better to consider on their own. (Hat Tip: Greg Laden)

The report also notes the plunging success rates of NSF investigators--including new investigators, who, it notes, were funded at about a 12% clip in 2005, down from 28% just 5 years earlier. Success rates for all investigators fell from 38% to 22% over the same period. Also of interest: Renewal rates are extraordinarily high. Renewal rates in condensed-matter physics and materials physics were in the high 90% range until the recent decline. In 2005, they had fallen, but only to 87%. Renewal rates at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are typically below 50%. It's hard to believe that such high renewal rates are justified. And every dollar that goes to a renewal is one that DOES NOT go to a new investigator.

June 19, 2007

Get 'em to Stay

In a characteristically smart post, Noted video-game hacker Andrew "bunnie" Huang (who spells his nickname with a small 'b') recounts a conversation with University of California, San Diego, engineering professor Jim Buckwalter about UCSD's grad-school applications. "Of the thousands of applicants, only 80 were from the US," bunnie recounts. "To put this in perspective, he had more applicants with the surname 'Lee' alone than he had domestic applicants."

Huang (an American child of Chinese immigrants) concludes that, with numbers like this, the only sound strategy is to try to get as many foreign-born tech workers as possible to stay. (It's worth noting that, as we reported in a recent blog post, only a third of the Chinese people who went abroad for their educations eventually returned home.) "We need to compete to retain foreign talent, but instead, we hassle them away," he writes.

- Jim Austin

June 18, 2007

Win a Grammy ... Grant

Only on occasion do we see the world of music intersecting with science, but now The Grammy Foundation is funding research to make that connection more common. The foundation, which is affiliated with The Recording Academy, the organization that gives out the Grammy Awards, announced this year's call for proposals for grants of $10,000 to $40,000 for "original scientific research projects related to the impact of music on the human condition." Examples cited in the announcement include the impact of music on early childhood education, effects of music therapy, and the medical and occupational well-being of music professionals. The deadline for applications is 1 October 2007.

GrantsNet has an overview of the program; full details are found on The Grammy Foundation site. There's no indication who's hosting the grant awards ceremony.

A committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved yesterday the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007, which promises to reduce the cost of government student loans and increase the number and size of Pell grants.

Provisions of the bill call for cutting student-loan interest rates by half over the next 5 years, increasing federal loan limits so borrowers can rely less on more costly private loans, increasing the maximum Pell Grant scholarship by at least $500 over the next 5 years, and expanding eligibility for student loans to serve more students in financial need. The bill also provides upfront tuition assistance to qualified undergraduates who commit to teaching in public schools in high-poverty areas or in high-need subjects.

An analysis by the House Education and Labor Committee, which authored the bill, says the interest-rate provisions would save the typical student-loan borrower, with a need-based debt of $13,800, some $4400 over the life of the loan. The expansion of Pell grants in the bill would make another 600,000 students eligible for these awards. Graduate and undergraduate students can apply for federal student loans. Pell grants are reserved for undergraduates.

The committee's Web site has more details about the bill, including a detailed fact sheet. The committee claims in its announcement that the bill will pay for itself through reduced subsidies paid to private lenders, a savings of about $19 billion.

June 14, 2007

Rate Your Science Boss

ScienceBoss.com allows you to rate your research adviser on a variety of scales, from "Independent" to "Smothered," from "Slave Driver" to "Take it Easy," and from "Exit Help" to "Kicked Out the Door," among others. You can also leave comments about your mentor/tormentor.

Currently there aren't many reviews, so the site really isn't that useful. But it's an interesting idea, and if it becomes popular it could become a useful tool for grad students and postdocs seeking research advisors.

June 14, 2007

Are You Serious?

Or are you funny? Here at Science Careers, we're very serious about careers in science. That's a good thing, but sometimes I worry that we're a little too serious. Our coverage can seem a little ponderous and heavy, even to me, the editor.

Don't get me wrong; we've had our funny moments. Almost all of Kat Arney's stuff was really funny...except when she decided to be serious. They're all good, but check out Dr. Bridget's Postdoctoral Diary. And I don't mean to suggest that Kat was our ONLY funny writer. We've had others. It's just that, well, I can't quite remember who they were.

But the point is, I'd like to publish more funny stuff. Problem is, really funny writers are rare, while writers who think they're funny are all too common.

Can you be funny? Can you write funny stuff about scientific training and careers? I'd love to hear from you. Send a sample to me at jaustin@aaas.org .

Over the last decade or so, many universities have expanded their research facilities by building new labs on their campuses. Yale University has done this too, but recently they've taken a different approach, buying an existing research campus from Bayer Healthcare AG. Yale says the campus covers 136 acres and includes 550,000 square feet of laboratory space, along with 275,000 square feet of office space, and 600,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space. In a press release, Yale president Richard C. Levin described the purchase as "part of [Yale's] $1 billion commitment to strengthening science and medical research." Still more new buildings, he said, "are in the planning stages. These major new facilities house departments and interdisciplinary research centers that are changing the course of modern scientific inquiry." So expect a hiring boom in New Haven--or, rather, West Haven, where the Bayer facility is located--in the next few years, as Yale fills its new laboratories with scientists.

Hat tip: The Chronicle of Higher Education

Since April, Beryl Benderly has written three articles for Science Careers on the experience and impact of early-career foreign researchers that have attracted a steady stream of responses:

Huddled Masses, 13 April 2007
A Tunnel to Atlanta, 4 May 2007
Who Speaks for Early-Career Scientists?, 1 June 2007

How do you feel about the influx of researchers from overseas on your career prospects? Do you believe as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that "any foreign student who gets a Ph.D. in our country — in any subject — should be offered citizenship." Or as a Science Careers reader said recently , "plans to import more scientists into the US via the H-1B visa program reflects a troubling disconnect between the experience of young scientists working in the US and the self-serving view of science being portrayed to Washington by some senior scientists."

Use the COMMENTS feature below to provide your thoughts. Thanks for sharing them with us.


At a conference today in Washington, DC, three organizations studying Alzheimer's disease announced a joint grant program for younger researchers. The program, called "Tomorrow’s Leaders in Alzheimer’s Disease Research," will award $100,000 annually to a promising M.D. or Ph.D. investigator to recognize the individual's contributions to the goal of eliminating Alzheimer’s disease.

The award will take the form of a "genius" grant designed to inspire and encourage, and reward, that the recipient can use as he or she sees fit. The organizations sponsoring the grant are the Alzheimer’s Association, the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, and the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute. Details, including submission deadlines, are expected to be released in November 2007.

June 11, 2007

Mixed Marriages

This essay, by David D. Perlmutter, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas, is from the Chronicle of Higher Education's Career Network:

But in some "mixed marriages," with no malice or sabotage intended, the nonacademic partner's behavior or ideas can undermine or even cripple the scholar's career -- because of mutual ignorance and mistaken assumptions. And in those cases where the relationship is failing, the academic's work can be but one collateral casualty of a wider war.

Sir,

I am grateful for your publication of Beryl Lieff Benderly's article, "Who Speaks for Early-Career Scientists?" As a postdoctoral fellow working in the US, I have seen far too many talented colleagues leave science in dissatisfaction over dim career prospects, improper allocation of credit for work and ideas by supervisors, and competitive pressures that are at odds with the integrity of their work. These colleagues choosing to take leave of science have disproportionately been US citizens. Given this, plans to import more scientists into the US via the H-1B visa program reflects a troubling disconnect between the experience of young scientists working in the US and the self-serving view of science being portrayed to Washington by some senior scientists.

I write to you because I am deeply concerned about the way young scientists are treated in the US at present and what this means for the future of science in this country. My hope is that your journal will continue to explore this very important and underreported issue. I strongly believe that whoever can crack the "wall of silence" prevalent amongst graduate students and postdocs will find the information that could firmly put to rest the idea that America is not producing enough talented young scientists. Rather than "temporary-workers", America needs to ensure scientific leadership that matches the talent of these young people and can live up to their expectations for integrity, ingenuity, and fair allocation of credit that have been the historical bedrock of US science and which must be revitalized if US science is to thrive in the future.

If you see these comments as fit to reprint, I ask that you do so with my name and affiliation withheld due to very real concerns of repercussions that early-career scientists such as myself face for being openly critical on this topic.

Toronto-based TheStar.com has a short piece on three female presidents at Canadian universities. Two of them are scientists. According to the article, 16 university presidents in Canada are women.

On the brink of quitting her metallurgical engineering studies at the University of British Columbia, her Ph.D. advisor grabbed her by her lab coat lapels and exclaimed, "You have no right to do that. You have been given all these talents. Don't waste that."

(In other news at TheStar.com: 17 foods to try before you die. On the list: Kobe beef sashimi, scallop roe, and horse.)

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced earlier this week that it will collaborate with four other foundations to establish 16 more postdoc positions at its Janelia Farms Research Campus in Virginia. The four partner foundations are the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund, the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, and the Life Sciences Research Foundation.

While the 16 postdocs will conduct their research at HHMI, the partner organizations will screen the candidates and make the awards. The postdoctoral associates, as they are called at HHMI, will have 3-year terms and, according to the HHMI Web site, work under the supervision of a resident research group leader or HHMI Fellow. HHMI says it intends to expand the number of postdocs supported by this program to 48 positions.

The 1 June issue of Forbes magazine reports on "The New Activist Givers," who, according to the article, are changing the way private foundations interact with their funding recipients (hat-tip: Philanthropy News Digest). This new breed of donor, many of whom made their money in the Internet boom of the 1990s, gets involved with funding recipients in much the same way that venture capitalists get involved with their investments.

The article tells about software entrepreneur Mario Marino, who put $9 million of his own money into Venture Philanthropy Partners. VPP gives money mainly to inner-city educational and health-care projects. Its due-diligence approach includes "top-to-bottom reviews of the handpicked charity, identification of expansion opportunities and management goals, and clear targets backed by quarterly reviews to ensure benchmarks are getting hit."

This merger of hands-on venture capitalism with philanthropy is spreading to scientific research funding as well. In Science Careers this week, "Opportunities" columnist Peter Fiske talks with entrepreneur Avi Spier about the partnership between his company, Allon Therapeutics, and the Institute for the Study of Aging (ISOA). In their arrangement, ISOA provided early funding to the company, and with that support Allon Therapeutics developed promising new treatments for Alzheimer's disease.

But ISOA didn't just write a check. Spier reports that ISOA "acted as a venture investor, which meant that Allon had to make a strong business case for realizing clinical and commercial success. The institute put the company's business plan and supporting documents through more extensive review and due diligence than typical VC deals." Spier says that other philanthropies are beginning to use this more activist approach, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Editor,

Beryl Lieff Benderly's recent articles, Huddled Masses and Who Speaks for Early-Career Scientists?, are outstanding.

Thanks,
Philip S. Clifford, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Postdoctoral Education
Medical College of Wisconsin

June 8, 2007

Open-Source Science

An interesting report in this week's Science tells how two graduate students and a postdoc, working with publicly available data, have produced what seems to be an important paper in cosmology.

Kendrick Smith of the University of Chicago in Illinois and Oliver Zahn of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are both graduate students. Olivier Doré of the University of Toronto is a postdoc. The three used data from the Very Large Array (VLA) of radio telescopes in New Mexico and NASA's orbiting Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) to detect gravity-induced distortion of the cosmic background radiation. "What they saw is what they expected," says David Spergel, a cosmologist at Princeton University, "but this is groundbreaking because this is a new tool that could be very powerful." You can read Adrian Cho's article in this week's Science. An institutional subscription or AAAS membership is required for access. Discounts are available for students, postdocs, K-12 teachers, and emeritus members.

In January, Science Careers reported on preparations by researchers and NIH for the first wave of electronic R01 applications on 5 February.  NIH's second deadline for R01 submissions was yesterday (5 June) and it appears that Grants.gov, the government's funding portal that receives electronic grant submissions from all agencies, is reeling under the traffic load.

NIH's Electronic Research Administration Web site has a notice today that "Grants.gov is experiencing some processing delays." NIH is giving applications with a 5 June time-stamp on their Grants.gov receipts 2 extra days (to 14 June) to fix errors and warnings. R01 awards are NIH's main funding vehicle, accounting for some 22,000 proposals submitted to NIH in 2006, nearly half of all competitive proposals the organization received.

June 5, 2007

China's Brain Drain

Fewer than 30% of Chinese students who have gone abroad for their education since 1978 have returned to China, according to a report released this week by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. News articles about the report appear in the Guardian and China Daily.


According to the China Daily article, between 1978 and 2006, about 1.06 million Chinese went to study overseas, and 275,000 of them returned home during the same period. Among the reasons for the brain drain, the new report states, are the social and economic gaps in personal income, employment opportunities, working conditions, and research facilities.


The news articles don't say whether the number of returning students has changed over time. However, a February report from the same academy indicates that, among the 100,000 students who go abroad each year, a mere 20,000 returned to China in 2003. The numbers improved in subsequent years: 25,000 students in 2004 and 30,000 in 2005 returned to China after finishing their studies.


It isn't clear why the numbers dipped so low in the early 2000s. But it is clear that the recent trend is likely to continue if some recently approved policies are effective. The Guardian reports that the Chinese government issued new regulations earlier this year aimed at enticing senior scientists, engineers, and corporate managers to return to China. The regulations give those scientists higher salaries, preferred housing, and guaranteed places for their children at universities. Given the variety of reasons graduates offer for not returning to China, it will be interesting to see how successful these incentives are.

It's no secret that science and politics are often at odds. Some cases are obvious, such as National Institutes of Health funding of embryonic stem cell research in the United States and agricultural biotechnology in Europe. But the collision often plays out in ways that, if more local, are still important in determining what science gets done and who gets to do it.

Two examples are in the news today. A while ago Larry Ellison, founder of the software company Oracle, promised to fund a new center for global health at Harvard University. But Ellison rescinded his gift when Lawrence Summers, its former president, resigned under pressure. Not national politics, but politics nonetheless.

Now that center will go to the University of Washington (UW) instead of Harvard, funded by Bill Gates and not by Ellison. The amount of the grant (from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) has not been announced as of this writing, but some say it will top $100 million, making it the biggest gift ever to UW. It's a happy ending--the science will get done--but now it will get done on the West Coast instead of on the East. There's a nice story on this development in the Seattle Times; the story includes a short profile of Chris Murray, the Harvard-educated Harvard professor who will head the UW institute.

In an unrelated story, religious conservative organizations are boycotting the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which supports breast cancer research, after it was revealed that the foundation affiliates made grants totaling $475,000 to Planned Parenthood last year. The Saint Louis Respect Life Apostolate, part of the St. Louis Catholic Archdiocese, issued an announcement urging a boycott of the Komen Foundation "due to its policy allowing affiliates to offer financial support to abortion providing facilities and its endorsement of embryonic stem cell research."

Now, a range of conservative and religious organizations apparently is trying to pressure the Komen Foundation to cut ties with Planned Parenthood. Another business leader, Gary Heavin, who founded the Curves chain of health clubs, is also involved in the effort to defund the Komen Foundation and to pressure it to cut its ties to Planned Parenthood. For an indication of just how hot this issue has become in conservative and religious circles, just Google "Komen Planned Parenthood." Since 1982, the foundation has funded more than 1000 research grants totaling more than $180 million. Less support for the foundation, of course, means less support for cancer research--and fewer jobs for cancer researchers.

For its part, the foundation says that its grants to Planned Parenthood are for the dissemination of breast-cancer-awareness information and says it has no plans to alter its funding decisions.

Last month, the American Chemical Society publication Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) reported the impending retirement of John L. LaMattina, the company's longtime president of research and development. C&EN's Rick Mullin said the development "herald[s] further reorganization" by the company and described LaMattina as a "fiery advocate for a strong research effort at the giant drug company." Pfizer currently spends about $7 billion annually on drug development, Mullin noted, but LaMattina, he said, has been criticized for "the dearth of significant new drugs" coming from the company's research programs in recent years.

LaMattina's retirement seems to be connected to a change in direction for the company's research efforts that was announced by Jeffrey B. Kindler, Pfizer's new CEO, who previously worked at McDonalds. Kindler has said that the company will continue to invest in internal drug development but (quoting the Mullin article) "will place a heavy emphasis on acquiring drug candidates and technologies from outside the company."

All this seems to suggest that Pfizer intends to invest less in basic science. If that happens, it would mean fewer science jobs at Pfizer and, perhaps, more jobs at smaller drug-development companies. It might also mean more entrepreneurial opportunities for pharmaceutical scientists working in academic labs.

Dear editor,

This one paragraph from the article "Who Speaks for Early-Career Scientists?" tells it all:

Far from signaling a shortage of trained scientific talent, current conditions suggest that what this country fails to produce is suitable career opportunities for thousands who have extensive scientific and technical training. That many of America's most gifted young people eschew science in favor of other careers shows neither a lack of ability and intellectual interest nor a failure of our finest schools to teach the subject well. Rather, it reveals the decay of a system that once offered a life so captivating that many of our brightest students dedicated themselves to years of hard intellectual labor to attain it, but that now offers years of hard study followed, in too many cases, by years of disappointment and frustration.

As a father of a high schooler who is thinking of a technical career, this is really the heart of what I've been thinking for the last few years.  Recent reports from the scientific community talk of a depressed American economic future due to a lack of superior scientists driving innovation, and so there is a push to educate better and inspiring teachers.  But there is a giant hurdle that my son will have to overcome to achieve a fulfilling career. Personally, I know my son would make a great scientist or engineer but instead of guiding him that way I find myself highlighting my son's non-technical attributes so that he may have the opportunity to succeed with or without an advanced technical degree.

Thanks for bringing this to light.  I hope this spreads to other technical societies so that a comprehensive solution is considered.

Steven Ernst
Torrance, California

In this week's Science Careers, Beryl Lieff Benderly describes the debate over proposals in the new U.S. immigration bill to increase the number of scientists and technical specialists from abroad. A critical piece of the bill, especially to scientists and engineers, is a merit-based system to determine the priority of candidates for permanent residency in the U.S., a status that can lead to citizenship.

Many news accounts of the bill refer to this part of the bill as a "point system," but so far at least few of those stories tell how the proposed system will work. In this week's news section of Science (subscription required), Yudhijit Bhattacharjee describes the system in detail, with an example of a typical scientist applicant. Bhattacharjee shows how younger scientists and engineers would benefit more than most others. As the story notes, this bill is far from being a done deal, and the merit system will likely undergo close scrutiny.

Dear Editor,

I never ever comment on these things, but I have to say I think this is one of the most important articles I have ever read!   It really hits a cord with me as a struggling early-career scientist.   

This article is so true and brings out a great point that is not just specific to immigration, but the real challenges young scientists face and where the one of the real gaps lies in this country's science deficit.  I feel like someone typed this article from my own fingertips, except that I usually apply the same arguments to a slightly different issue.  With the increasing focus on K-12 education and outreach from NSF and other funding agencies, I find myself increasingly asked to talk to young kids about how great it is to be a scientist.  I agree 100% that these programs are critical and are really great. I think we do need to draw more kids into science and it should be part of our responsibility as scientists to make our work understandable to the public.

However, like this immigration article argues, there is a MAJOR issue here that no one seems to get.  There are already tons of people with Ph.D.s out there who can't get jobs!  People  who can't find employment in the field they trained in for more than 10 years of their lives, delayed having children, delayed buying a house, moved to four or more different states for undergrad, grad, and then 3 or more postdocs, lived with poverty-level income and no benefits, no retirement accounts or savings until their late-30s or 40s, and made many other major life sacrifices for. And then those same barely employed Ph.D.s are supposed stand there and tell kids that being a scientist is a great thing and they should all aspire to this kind of life? Let's be realistic. If you want kids to have young scientists for role models, the role models have to be gainfully employed and reasonably happy with their life styles! How about some changes that address the issues young scientists face? I would love to be a part of an organization that argues for the rights of young scientists, both lifestyle changes and for intellectual property rights.  Do you know of any?

Thanks for publishing the immigration article and listening to me rant!

             - A Reader