Science Careers Blog

September 2007

If you had the feeling that federal research money was getting tighter, a report this week from the National Science Foundation confirms it.  "Universities Report Stalled Growth in Federal R&D Funding in FY 2006," from NSF's Division of Science Resources Statistics shows that federally-funded academic R&D spending rose 2.9% in 2006, to $30 billion. But taking inflation into account, that's a 0.1% decrease from 2005. (The federal government's fiscal year runs from 1 October to 30 September.) Federal money accounts for 63% of all R&D spending at academic institutions.

Add in the other 37% and the picture looks much better. Including non-federal money, total research spending rose 4.3% in FY 2006. After the federal government, the largest source of research spending was from institutions' own funds, and that total increased 9.7% in FY 2006, to $9 billion. Industry spending gained 5.8% to $2.4 billion, the second annual increase in a row, reversing a 3-year decline. State and local funding gained only 2.5%, even further below the inflation rate than federal spending. Research spending by other sources, largely non-governmental organizations and other not-for-profits, increased to $3.2 billion, a 4.2% rise.

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The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the parent department of National Institutes of Health, accounted for 57% of all federal academic research spending in FY 2006, concentrating on biomedical disciplines. HHS was also the leading funder of research in psychology and the social sciences. The National Science Foundation was the leading funder in the physical sciences, mathematics, environmental sciences, and computer science. The Department of Defense spent more money for engineering research than any other agency.

The life sciences grabbed $28.8 billion in total spending (including non-governmental sources), accounting for 6 out of every 10 dollars spent on R&D in FY 2006. Total spending on the  life sciences  rose 4.4% in FY 2006, with medical sciences rising 6.3% to $15.8 billion. Research in engineering increased 5%, rising to $7.1 billion. Physical science spending managed to keep pace with inflation, registering a 3.2% increase, with funding for chemistry research increasing 4.3%.

Among other disciplines, total gains in funding for computer science (2.3%) and environmental science (2.0%) fell well below the 3% inflation rate.  Within the environmental category, atmospheric science spending rose 11% over 2005. Among the social and behavioral sciences, spending on psychology increased 5.9% to $875 million. Research funding in sociology rose 7.9% and economics increased 4.3%, but funds for political science research fell 2.2% in 2006.

Johns Hopkins University continued to rank first in FY 2006 as the leading academic recipient of research funding, bringing in $1.5 billion. However, $709 million or 47% of that institution's total went to its Applied Physics Laboratory. University of Wisconsin at Madison, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Michigan (all campuses), University of California at San Francisco, and University of California at San Diego each brought in $700 million or more. The rest of the top 10 recipients included Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, and Duke University. All of the top 10 institutions registered increases in research funding from FY 2005 to 2006, except for Stanford, which dropped from $715 million in 2005 to $679 million in 2006.

Hat tip: Inside Higher Ed.

September 28, 2007


European science trainees who want to add an American dimension to their studies, and American students wanting to experience European culture, now have more international degree programmes to choose from. The Atlantis scheme, which aims to foster collaborative education between European and American universities, has existed for a while, offering funding for education research, scholarships, and joint degree programmes. But it's now expanding, with:

- a B.Sc. degree programme in international field geosciences offered by Potsdam University in Germany, University College Cork in Ireland, and the University of Montana in the United States.

- a Bachelor 's degree programme in materials science and mechanical engineering with Saarland University in Germany, Luleå University of Technology in Sweden, and Oregon State University as partners.

- a masters' degree programme in electrical and computer engineering, and computer science (ATLAS) offered by the University of Trento and the Politecnico di Torino in Italy, Munich University of Technology in Germany, and Georgia Institute of Technology.

- a masters' degree programme in engineering mechanics and materials engineering (EMME) with the University of Rouen in France, Luleå University of Technology in Sweden, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln as partners.

The scheme will pay for 284 students to spend a full academic year on the other side of the Atlantic in pursuit of a joint or double degree.  The number of scientists will be lower, since the scheme also caters for other disciplines. There is also a provision for short-term exchanges. Since it was created in 1995, the scheme has served 4,000 students.

"Atlantis will help promote mutual understanding between the EU and the USA by allowing hundreds of European and American students to spend between one and three semesters on the other side of the Atlantic with full academic recognition of that period of study abroad," said Ján Figel, European Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Youth, in a press statement.

More information about new and existing Atlantis degree programmes can be found on the European Commission Web site.

The reasons for the falling numbers of women getting computer science degrees are a mystery to educators and computer industry planners, but according to a recent Associated Press story, a new Ph.D. in computer science may have identified one of the causes: the design of software, a computer scientist's main product.

Laura Beckwith, a 2007 doctoral graduate in computer science at Oregon State University in Corvallis, wrote her dissertation on gender and human-computer interface issues, looking particularly at how men and women use software differently. Beckwith learned that men tend to use advanced features of software more than women, and that the use of advanced features correlated with confidence. She also learned that women generally have less confidence in their hands-on computer skills than men.

In one of her investigations, Beckwith surveyed groups of subjects, both women and men, on their perceived ability to find and fix errors in formulas in spreadsheets. Then she asked the subjects to actually perform tasks that required finding those errors. The key to finding the errors easily was to use the spreadsheet program's debugging feature, one of those advanced features men tend to use more than women. One could also try and find the errors by eye-balling the formulas one at a time and fixing them by hand, a time-consuming and error-prone process.

Beckwith's findings showed that for men, confidence in their computer skills had no effect on their use of the software's debugging features. Men with high confidence and low confidence used the features, while other men with high and low confidence in their skills did not. For women, however, those with confidence generally used the debugging tools, while women with low confidence in large part used manual editing rather than the debugger.

Beckwith took the investigation one step further, to the design of the software itself, to see if she could encourage more women to use the debugging tools. The debugging feature on the spreadsheet program required a user to indicate that a formula was either "right" or "wrong", which required the user to be certain about their choice. Beckwith introduced two more choices -- "seems right maybe" and "seems wrong maybe." And for those choices, she gave the users buttons to click displayed in subdued colors. In further tests with these new choices added, Beckwith found that women used the debugger as much or more than the men.

Computer science has seen a significant drop in the percentage of women earning bachelors degrees in the past two decades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1985 women earned 37% of bachelors degrees in computer sciences. By 2005, that percentage had dropped to 22%. The problem likely has multiple intersecting causes, but Beckwith's research suggests that software design might be part of that mix. "[If] the software you're using isn't a good fit for your learning style, your problem solving style, " asks Margaret Burnett, Beckwith's dissertation adviser, in the AP story, "how likely are you to be to say, 'I'm going to grow up and be a computer scientist?'

The Wall Street Journal on 18 September 2007 tells the story of the Gotham Prize for Cancer Research, a new philanthropic venture that offers prizes to biomedical researchers, or anyone for that matter, for ideas on curing cancer. The funders hope their offer of prizes -- $1 million for the top award -- will stimulate ideas and approaches well outside the mainstream of conventional research and thus speed the development of new diagnostic tools and therapies.

The Gotham Prize is a venture philanthropy project like the one Peter Fiske discussed in his Science Careers column in June, but with some important differences. It's the brainchild of financier Robert Goldstein, a managing partner of the hedge fund Gotham Capital, who lost his mother to ovarian cancer in 2004. Goldstein wanted to apply some of the thought processes used to discover new investment ideas to cancer research. The Gotham Prize looks for ideas that may not get funding elsewhere because they lack preliminary data, or do not fit into conventional research paradigms, or because the people behind the ideas do not have the traditional scientific credentials. The prize has some other unusual features; this is from the Wall Street Journal article:

The winner of the Gotham Prize doesn't have to present a shred of evidence that the premise will work. To attract ideas from people outside the field of cancer research, there is no requirement that the winner be capable of seeing the idea through. And the prize money is earmarked for personal use, to be spent on anything the winner wants, even a fancy car or a bigger house.

The application process and follow-on activities are also different from most scientific prize competitions. There's a two-stage review process that asks for a short thesis or proposal rather than a detailed research plan. The submissions are screened by an advisory panel of scientists, with the finalists' ideas then considered for the awards. There's no second-round of full proposals.  After the competition, the ideas submitted, whether they win an award or not, will be offered to foundations and other funding sources. Participants can also be put into contact with potential collaborators to follow up on their ideas.

The panel of judges--all scientists--will consider the novelty and potential impact of the submitted ideas in making their decisions. Submissions do not need to include evidence, but further testing of the ideas must be feasible. So far, according to the Wall Street Journal article, the panel has accepted about a quarter of the ideas submitted from 1,030 registered submitters, with only 54 of the ideas posted on the Gotham Prize site. Even some of the advisory board members, the article says, are struggling with the balance between novelty and feasibility. Says one board member, "It is data that shows us the way, not a wild idea that comes out of nowhere."

The competition is open to scientists and non-scientists anywhere in the world, in academia or elsewhere. The deadline for applications is 31 December, but because of the time needed for the pre-qualification process, new applicants should submit their applications before December.

While our lead article this week discusses the question asked by many undergrads, "Should I Do a Ph.D.?", many bachelors-degree grads are already jumping at the chance to do a masters degree. The New York Times this week delves into dual explosions in masters degrees, both in the numbers of students enrolled in masters programs and the institutions offering the degrees. The Times says the number of students earning masters degrees has nearly doubled since 1980. And since 1970, the growth rate has reached 150%, more than twice the rate of bachelors or doctorate degrees.

The highest rates of growth in enrollees between academic years 1980-81 and 2004-05, according to statistics cited in the article from the National Center for Education Statistics, are in education (124%) and business (114%). However, science and technology disciplines are not too far behind: Science masters have increased 92% since 1980 and social science and engineering have each gained 81%

The article explains how masters degrees apparently are a sweet deal for both students and institutions. For students, a masters degree opens up more employment opportunities as well as advancement potential in their current jobs. For institutions, new masters programs can provide a large shot of income: Graduate tuition is often significantly higher than for undergrad degrees, with less overhead than new doctoral programs. For example, schools can use the same labs and professors for many masters courses as they do for existing doctoral offerings, which means much of the income from masters students goes right to their bottom lines.

For masters students, however, gratification is delayed until after the degree's completion. The article says masters candidates at private institutions need to borrow as much as $50,000 for each year of school. Public institutions may not be that pricey, but a 2-year masters degree from University at Minnesota required a recent hire at 3M to take out $35,000 in loans. Doctoral students typically find more financial support, from research stipends and other grants, than masters candidates.

According to a recent article written by Paz Álvarez in the Spanish finance newspaper Cinco Días, success in entrepreneurial families like Grupo Uriach, a Spanish pharmaceutical company spanning 5 generations, results from the founders and their successors transmitting their entrepreneurial spirit and vision during normal family life. "The company maintained itself over these years with our entrepreneurial spirit and our capacity to innovate, an attitude that has been transmitted naturally, day after day, by example," Joaquín Uriach, general secretary of the company, told the newspaper.

You can't change your family but you can change your attitude to entrepreneurship. The article, which reported on the preliminary findings of an international academic research project called Successful Transgenerational Entrepreneurship Practices (STEP), says that entrepreneurial families have in common the altruistic goal to contribute to well-being and employment in society; the vision that their company must take risks to grow; the belief that there is no limit to their ability to compete; the ability to make the most of new business openings; a client-oriented approach; and a good balance between short-term and long-term goals.

In addition, founders of such family companies most often showed great intuition, an ability to exploit opportunities to grow, and a great capacity to work and overcome difficulties.

If you too have such entrepreneurial a spirit, who knows where your ideas to commercialise your research may lead you...and your descendants.

Read the full article (in Spanish).

The European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics (ERCIM) is inviting Ph.D.-holders from all over the world to apply for their Alain Bensoussan fellowship program. The fellowships are addressed to scientists having gained their Ph.D. less than 4 years ago, or to final-year Ph.D. students graduating in time to start the fellowships by October 2008. The fellowships allow recipients to go and work at two of the 18 ERCIM institutes successively for a total duration of 18 months. The institutes offer a wide range of topics in informatics and maths, and applicants have to state which topics they'd be most interested in working on. The preferences of successful applicants are then matched with the needs of the various institutes.

Fellows will receive a monthly stipend and have their traveling expenses covered from their country to the institute (which needs to be outside their home country). The ERCIM doesn't say how many grants will be available this year, but currently there are 18 Alain Bensoussan fellows.

To apply you need to send an online application before 30 September.

September 10, 2007

Funding for Study in Asia

The Freeman-Asia program, a joint undertaking of the Freeman Foundation and the Institute of International Education (IIE), offers grants to undergraduates for study in Asia.  The awards range from $3,000 for a summer program to $7,000 for an academic year, and have no discipline restrictions. The Freeman-Asia program has supported more than 3,000 students since it began in 2000.

Grantees must be accepted into academic programs in Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Macao, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, or Vietnam. Applicants must have little or no experience in the countries in which they desire to study. Likewise, applicant must be receiving need-based financial aid or demonstrate a need for assistance.

The deadline for the Spring 2008 term, as well as early consideration for the 2008-09 academic year, is coming up on 17 October. The summer program deadline is 5 March 2008 and the deadline for fall term and 2008-09 academic year is 2 April 2008. You can find more details on the IIE Web site.

Grad students interested in Asia, here's something for you too: Just last week, National Science Foundation announced its East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes (EAPSI) program for 2008. NSF increased the EAPSI stipend to $5,000 and added Singapore as a destination. The deadline for applications is 12 December. See the NSF Web site for details.

September 7, 2007

The Perfect E-mail

Two weeks ago, our colleague Babette Pain reported on a story in the French daily Le Monde about ways to better manage the increasing flow of e-mail. Today, Wired magazine's blog offers a look at the problem from the other end of the telescope, offering advice on how to write better e-mail messages.

This entry, part of Wired's "How-To Wiki", makes a distinction between letters and e-mails. Those of us who were taught as kids how to write letters need to put some of those practices aside. "[A]n email is not a letter," Wired notes, "and you’re not typing at a Selectric II typewriter. You may look at the days of formal graces in written communication with some sadness, but rest assured that they are as dead as Dillinger."

Wired breaks down its advice about writing e-mails into four categories: (1) brevity, (2) context, (3) something to act on, and (4) a deadline. Here are some examples ...

Brevity. "If you’re passing a thread along, trim what isn’t needed. Why make the email look longer than it really is?"

Context. "When you’re asking a question, anticipate any missing details that could cause an extended back-and-forth. Each time someone sends you a reply, you’ve gone to the back of that person’s line. Do what you can to make your emails count the first time."

Something to act on. "Make your requests clear. You should set them apart from the rest of the message by paring them down to one sentence, with white space before and after. Make lists with dashes, asterisks, or bullets if you use HTML email."

A deadline. "There comes a time when the response you seek is no longer useful. If you know when that is, tell your recipient. This can be a good way both to prompt a speedy turnaround, and to let people off the hook in the long term."

Other e-mailing tips, from our collective experience: 

- Double-check the addressee. Do you intend for a reply to go to one individual, just some of the recipients, or an entire list-serve? 

- Consider how your words will be interpreted by the recipient. Unlike conversations, with e-mail messages you have no vocal inflections or non-verbal cues. Your words carry the entire meaning of the message.

- Don't send an e-mail written in anger. Give yourself time to cool off, gather your thoughts, and consider the implications of an angry e-mail.

My favorite piece of advice from Wired: "And for god’s sake, have a subject line. One that makes sense."


September 7, 2007

Prayers for Dollars

A rally this week in Bulgaria brought together religion and science, but not for the typical debate: A group of young scientists went to the Bulgarian parliament building to pray for more science funding.

The scientists, reportedly from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and universities throughout the country, walked around the parliament building and stopped at each corner to pray that "God endows the MPs with wisdom to take care of its people," according to a news story posted this week by the Sofia News Agency

Bulgaria, which joined the European Union in January, spends just 0.3% of its GDP on research and development, compared with the European average of 1.84%, according to the news story.

Hat tip: CORDIS

September 6, 2007

Scholarships for Bloggers

Blogs have become a fixture in the Web universe, a favorite way for individuals to express their feelings on topics great and small. If you're a post-secondary student in the U.S. and have a blog, there's a scholarship contest just for you.

The Daniel Kovach Scholarship Foundation is offering its second annual Blogging Scholarship contest. The winner gets $10,000, up from $5,000 last year. The process for selecting the winner differs from most other scholarships. The application consists of a few pieces of personal information, GPA, your blog URL, and an essay with a 300-word limit. Applicants can chose essay themes from among the 5 topics presented.

The deadline for applications is Saturday 6 October. will select and announce the 10 finalists by Monday 8 October. At that point, the public votes to select the winner from among the 10 finalists. The winners will be announced on Sunday 28 October.

There's a remarkable and (potentially) hugely useful article by Anita Houghton in the career section of the British Medical Journal, called How to Do Just About Anything. The title is self-explanatory. Check it out.

As communicated in a recent report by the European Commission, altogether women in the 27 European Member States were still earning an average of 15% less than men in 2005--a situation that has not changed since 1995.

The study looked across all economy sectors so it is difficult to say how much this pay gap actually affects women scientists. But what doesn´t bode well for them is that, according to the report, women with third-level education experienced a pay gap of more than 30%, compared to 13% for those with secondary education. And it sounds as though the gap will only grow as women grow older. According to the report, the professional progression of women tends to be slower because of more frequent career breaks and more obstacles along their career paths. As a consequence the gap grows with age, with female employees with over 30 years of service in a company being paid 32% less than men on the payroll for the same period of time, while the difference was 'only' 22% for those with 1 to 5 years of service.

"Girls out-perform boys at school and more women enter the labour market with a university degree than men, but a pay gap of 15% persists. This is an absurd situation and needs to change," said Vladimír Špidla, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities in a press release. "The pay gap is a complex issue with multiple causes. Sometimes we see pure discrimination. But often reasons are hidden: women do more unpaid work, like taking care of the household and dependents; more women work part time and often the women-dominated sectors are on a lower pay scale."

Many European countries are increasingly trying to tackle the issue and the EU intends to shift up a gear. But no-one can serve your own interests as well as yourself. The issue is more complex than asking equal pay for equal work, but be aware of what you´re worth and whenever possible, negotiate family responsibilities.

September 4, 2007

Plotting Success

Michael Barton over at Bioinformatics Zen recently took a step back to, ahem, plot his career options and considerations as he enters the third year of his Ph.D. The resulting graphs are a hoot! Check them out for yourself in the post, "The Ph in a Bioinformatics PhD."

Monday's Washington Post had a front-page story illustrating the impact that commercialization of science has on economic development. The story, by reporter Peter Goodman, focuses on North Carolina, which has staked much of its economic future on the pharmaceutical and related biotechnology industries. While the immediate effects of R&D spending are felt by universities and research institutes, the eventual, full effects can be felt throughout the economy, and this story gives examples of how that happens.

Goodman first talks about the town of Pittsboro, where until the late 1950s the main employer was a hosiery company that, like many American textile producers, moved its manufacturing facilities offshore. In its place -- in the same building as the old hosiery mill -- are the production facilities of Biolex Therapeutics, a company with a patented method for processing a local aquatic plant called duckweed into peptides used to manufacture drugs for treating Hepatitis C and B, as well as certain cancers. The company first opened its Pittsboro facility in 2004, expanded it a year later, and now employs some 90 workers.

The article tells how the state of North Carolina created biotech training courses in its community colleges. The state encourages community college training of specialized pharmaceutical and biotech workers statewide in a network that links its institutions. The Post story tells of a participant in this program, Regina Whitaker, a high school graduate and second-generation textile worker, who saw no future in the old manufacturing jobs. She completed an associate's degree in biotechnology at a local community college, and now works as a lab technician with a biotech start-up in Winston-Salem for more money than she made in her last textile job.

The article also discusses the macroeconomic aspects of R&D and other manufacturing case-studies involving biotechnology and materials science.

A Dear Colleague Letter from Peter March, the director of NSF's mathematics division, explains what NSF means by "broader impacts," the National Science Foundation's second review criterion (along with "intellectual merit"). I see nothing new here, but the fact that thy bothered suggests that substantial numbers of applicants for NSF grants must be getting it wrong. So if you plan to write an NSF grant soon--and if you're not completely clear about what "broader impacts" are--it's worth a quick but careful read.