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Science Careers Blog

October 2007

October 31, 2007

The Science Education Myth

A new report from the Urban Institute, writes Vivek Wadhwa in Business Week, finds that our education system is doing a better job of science and technical training than it has done in decades. Furthermore, the report says, the system actually produces more science and engineering graduates than the market demands.

Hat tip: Ric Weibl of the AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology

People who believe that wisdom comes only from age and experience may be skeptical, but the folks at the Arete Initiative at the University of Chicago think we need more excellent young minds working to figure out what wisdom is. "Once regarded as a subject worthy of the most rigorous inquiries in order to discern its nature and benefits, wisdom is currently overlooked as a topic for serious scholarly and scientific investigation in many fields," reads the program prospectus. "Yet it is difficult to imagine a subject more central to the human enterprise and whose exploration holds greater promise in shedding light and opening up creative possibilities for human flourishing."

In 2008, the Initiative will award up to 20 grants to scholars from around the world no more than 10 years beyond their Ph.D.s. The foundation seeks to support "highly original, methodologically rigorous projects from a broad range of disciplines: neuroscience, psychology, genetics, evolutionary biology, game theory, computer science, sociology, anthropology, economics, philosophy, ethics, education, human development, history, theology, and religion."  The average grant size should be around $100,000.             

I first came across this months ago but I never blogged it, and I stumbled on it again recently. MIT's Philip Greenspun is a keen observer of issues related to scientific careers. Just after Larry Summers left Harvard, Greenspun offered up a better reason for women's under-representation in science than the ones Summers proposed: they found better jobs.

"Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States," Greenspun writes. He continues:

This is how things are likely to go for the smartest kid you sat next to in college.  He got into Stanford for graduate school.  He got a postdoc at MIT.  His experiment worked out and he was therefore fortunate to land a job at University of California, Irvine.  But at the end of the day, his research wasn't quite interesting or topical enough that the university wanted to commit to paying him a salary for the rest of his life.  He is now 44 years old, with a family to feed, and looking for job with a "second rate has-been" label on his forehead.

Why then, does anyone think that science is a sufficiently good career that people should debate who is privileged enough to work at it? Sample bias.

And while you're at it, don't miss his Career Guide for Engineers and Computer Scientists:

I am fascinated by the 30-year decline in the relative salaries and prestige of engineers and scientists that has been accompanied by 30 years of statements by politicians and university administrators that there is a shortage of engineers and scientists.

Be sure to scroll down to the "Achievement Gallery," which contains "portraits of people who are putting their advanced training to good use." "Dr. Albert Meyerstein," for example--formerly of the abandoned superconducting supercollider project--reflects, "I miss working with Dr. Gerald Abelson on more efficient sources of pulsed spallation neutrons but I'm glad that we can continue our collaboration on the polymeric properties of automotive pigment in a detergent-rich environment."

After reading this, science trainees should probably steer clear of gas appliances, firearms, and other potential instruments of self-immolation.

The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) has announced the winners of this year's Young Investigator Programme (YIP) awards. In total, 18 new EMBO Young Investigators were selected for 2007: 3 each in the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Germany, and one in Italy, Sweden, Belgium, Austria, Israel, and the Netherlands.

Launched in 2000, the EMBO YIP programme aims to support talented young life scientists as they establish independent careers in Europe. It does so by offering them a grant of 15,000 euros a year for 3 years, financial support for networking activities among EMBO members and lecture visits to international meetings, access to a mentoring programme, and courses in lab management. "Europe’s young independent scientists are often not yet sufficiently established and have to fight hard for recognition and funding," programme manager Gerlind Wallon said in a press release. "Along with the financial support, EMBO focuses on helping these young investigators develop the network and skills they need to become successful group leaders."

The application deadline for the next competition (usually in Spring) still needs to be confirmed, but you may already find some information on the application process here. To be eligible, you must have been establishing an independent molecular biology laboratory for more than one but less than 4 years in one of the 26 European Molecular Biology Conference (EMBC) member states--though applicants getting established in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Portugal, Poland, and Turkey may apply for an EMBO installation grant. More information on the EMBO Web site and Science Careers.

We at Careers like to track down scientists who have unique jobs, but Sunday's Observer Magazine has found one of its own: Kevin Powell, laboratory director of Gillette, the company behind products such as the Venus and Mach3 razors. Writer Simon Garfield follows Powell around the Gillette Technology Centre in Reading, U.K., as Powell describes the engineering and testing that went into the company's latest product (here in the U.K., anyway), the Fusion Power Stealth razor for men, which features, among other things, five blades, a battery, and a microchip.

This article doesn't dwell on Powell himself, but according to a different article, the 39-year-old Powell has a Ph.D. in applied ceramics (as in, applied to fighter planes, not dinner plates). The article is an interesting read and good example of the R&D behind everyday products.

Last week, the Partnership for Public Service, a not-for-profit but publicly funded group devoted to improving the quality of the workforce in public agencies, kicked off a campaign to attract more college graduates to U.S. federal employment. The centerpiece of the campaign is its new report on student attitudes towards federal employment, which includes practical recommendations for agencies and institutions to increase the numbers and quality of new graduates to fill their professional ranks. The report's results suggest that getting more students to consider federal employment is achievable, but it won't be easy.

The big news for the audience of Science Careers is that many openings are expected in the federal workforce in the coming years, and these will include opportunities for engineers and scientists. The need for new blood in federal agencies is real and growing. The Partnership estimates that over the next 2 years, federal agencies will have 193,000 professional vacancies, including many scientific and technical positions. With less than 3% of the workforce under 25 years of age, they are eager to attract younger, accomplished candidates to match to these openings.

The group's report gives some results from surveys of students in 2005 and 2007 at five universities--Clark Atlanta University,The George Washington University, Louisiana State University, Ohio State University, and Stanford University--on knowledge about and attitudes toward federal employment, participation in federal recruitment activities, and the role of federal employment in their career plans.

The 2005 survey showed that the biggest problem in recruiting new graduates was the lack of knowledge among students about opportunities at federal agencies. To meet this knowledge-gap problem, the Partnership conducted e-mail blasts to students at the five schools about federal job openings, brought more agency representatives to their campuses to talk about employment opportunities, and hosted career fairs to educate students and faculty alike. The visits by representatives from federal agencies, either in their classes or at career fairs, made it possible for students to see and hear real people doing real jobs often on critical policy issues.

Using the 2005 surveys as a baseline, the Partnership conducted follow-up surveys at the five schools in 2007, using the same students to gauge the impact of these outreach activities. In both years they also interviewed students at institutions beyond the five pilot schools as comparison groups. The Partnership was able to pinpoint changes in knowledge and attitudes occurring at the five pilot schools that were not reflected in the responses from students elsewhere.

The results showed that these recruiting steps can increase awareness of employment opportunities. At all five campuses, higher percentages of students in 2007 reported hearing of federal employment openings than in 2005. The comparison groups showed little or no change in that same period.

In the report the Partnership notes that simple and inexpensive methods, such as e-mails and campus visits, can be effective in raising awareness of federal employment opportunities. Also, the combination of personal and electronic methods, along with involving faculty members who serve as advisers and mentors to the students, increase the chance of getting the message across. And at three of the pilot schools, many of the students who learned about federal employment opportunities took the next step by following up to learn more about internships or full-time jobs.

Taking the next step after that -- actually applying for a federal job -- seems to have had a discouraging effect. Some 21% of the student participants in the project applied for an internship or full-time job at a federal agency. However, when asked if federal employment is part of their immediate career plans, only 4% answered "yes." The report attributed the disparity to the lengthy and often convoluted application process, which often includes a background security check that can take many months.

The report concludes that "The time for excuses regarding federal recruiting on campuses is over." The steps outlined in the survey, many of which are relatively easy and inexpensive, can improve awareness of federal employment opportunities. However, fixing the federal application and clearance process will likely take legislation, which is by no means certain nor will it happen any time soon. Also, news like this from last weekend, doesn't make federal employment sound any better.

October 29, 2007

Career Resources from SACNAS

For you science-career wonks out there, there's some good stuff in the latest SACNAS News (SACNAS stands for the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science; this is a pdf download). And you don't have to be Native American or Chicano (or, for that matter, a science-career wonk) to benefit from it. Among the highlights of this "sustainability"-themed issue:

* Sustaining a Career in Science by Jenny Kurzweil

* How to Start Your First Lab: The Roots of Career Sustainability, by Martin Farias

* An interview with "Featured Mentor" Donna Nelson of the University of Oklahoma

* Could You, Would You, Should You Do a Postdoc? by Chris Blagden and Ivonne Vidal Pizarro.

Because it's a pdf download, I can't direct you to the particular articles. So just download the whole journal and flip through the pages. I especially enjoy reading the profiles of recent Ph.D. recipients.

The SACNAS News is published twice yearly, in the fall and in the spring.

October 29, 2007

'Rising Stars' Reunite

Despite the mixed metaphor--and its evocation of--cosmic collisions, a story in the 8 October Chemical and Engineering News makes for a pleasant and informative read. In the article, Linda Wang revisits 12 women chemists the magazine first profiled in 2002, asking 'where are they now?' (Access to the article is limited to subscribers, but if you're on a university campus it probably has a site license.)

We received the following response to our 25 October blog entry Gen-Y Is Tech-Savvy--But Not Interested in Tech Careers:

As a member of Gen Y and someone who has worked in a lot of different businesses in temp roles while studying, this doesn't surprise me terribly much. The net-savvy Gen Y'ers are able to pick up programs and systems very quickly, and the more adaptable can even pick up some programming skills along the way that are on a par with those who have been through formal courses.

Schools nowadays are preparing students better for the 'real world' of business; but a lot of business communication skills, project admin skills, etc., seem to be the kinds of things that one 'learns on the job' as they go along. Science and tech courses may be lacking in business skills simply because of their focus on specialties.

As for IT as a viable career choice--when there are constantly mixed messages in the media about IT booms and busts, as well as issues of gender equality in the workplace, the media-attuned Gen Y do pay attention!

Just raising some points, I welcome other points of view.

                                                                                -LV

October 26, 2007

Too Cool for School?

Yes, it is possible to be too good at your job. This essay, written by Alison Wunderland (a pseudonym, obviously) and published in Inside Higher Ed, about a faculty member with a poor "fit" with her department and institution, is a must-read for people aspiring to academic careers. The lesson: Make sure motivated, serious faculty are represented well among the tenured faculty before accepting a job, especially if it's at an institution that's likely to value different things than you do (i.e., collegiality instead of scholarly excellence).

This is hardly the first time I've heard, or read, stories about teachers and scholars being punished for their excellence. I've even seen it up close.

That, anyway, is the message of this article in ComputerWorld. "Members of Generation Y -- roughly, the group born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s -- are arriving on the job market armed with up-to-the-minute technology skills, but they're lacking in other areas, such as business communication skills, employers say. Moreover, many are wary of IT as a viable career choice."

Hat tip: Slashdot.

We've just gotten our first Google-Analytics results for the blog, so we know our posts are being read. So can we please have a little interactivity? Other science-career bloggers, please pick this up. Let's see if we can get a nice thread going. (If you're selling Viagra or fancy-watch replicas I'm not talkin' to you.)

Until recently the only pop-song lyric I was aware of that's related to careers in science was one-hit-wonder Timbuk3's 1980s hit "The Future's So Bright, I gotta Wear Shades:"

I study nuclear science
I love my classes
I got a crazy teacher who wears dark glasses
Things are going great, and they're only getting better.

I'm doing all right, making good grades
The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.

In 1986, when this song was on the charts, I was a  junior and then a senior in college, majoring in physics--including nuclear science. And for what it's worth, the song had no influence on my career path.

Recently I came across another song with at least a token reference to careers in science, and this one's far superior to the one from Timbuk3. It's from Ani Difranco's album "Revelling/Reckoning"--specifically, from Disc 1, "Revelling," in song 2, "Garden of Simple:"

Science chases money
And money chases its tail
And the best minds of my generation can't make bail.

The album contains several references to science, and to careers, but this is the most explicit science-career related lyric I've so far detected. Here's one other that's likely to ring true to people on the job market, from the third song, "Tamburitza Lingua:"

She's getting plenty of little kisses but no one's slipping her the key.

(Admittedly, that lyric could be interpreted differently. ;-)

It's a great album by the way, the smartest pop record I've heard in ages.

So, readers, it's your turn? Any other science-career-related lyrics you're aware of?

October 23, 2007

NSF's Fastlane is Back

Yesterday (Monday 22 October), National Science Foundation suffered a power blackout for most of the day, and with it went NSF's Fastlane system used by researchers and their colleagues to submit their funding proposals. By 12:45 pm ET today (23 October), Fastlane had returned.

A message on NSF's home page says proposals due to NSF on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday of this week (22-24 October), are extended to Friday 26 October at 5:00 pm, submitter's local time.

 

The 21 October Los Angeles Times has an article (free registration required) that tells how some American technology companies are choosing to keep their technical and service operations in the United States rather than moving them overseas. In some instances, American companies that had moved these functions to India a few years ago are coming back, and one Indian company has found the U.S. an attractive place to expand.

Much of the motivation is economic--small towns and cities in rural areas can now compete financially with offshore sites. The article quotes the president of Northrup Grumman's Information Technology Defense Group who says his company can find a "very high quality and a dedicated workforce" in Corsicana, Texas at about the same cost as sending the work overseas. The company is opening five other software development and technical support centers in small cities like Lebanon, Virginia, and Helena, Montana.

Non-economic factors also enter into the companies' "onshoring" decisions. Many rural areas now have broadband communications, which they did not have a few years ago. Xpanxion, an Atlanta, Georgia, software company, moved its test operations center from India to Kearny, Nebraska, because the widely different time zones were making coordination with headquarters difficult. Dell Computer, one of the more active offshoring companies, moved a technical support facility to Twin Falls, Idaho, after complaints from customers about the English language skills of the  overseas staff.

One leading Indian company is even starting a software design center in the U.S. Wipro Technologies, a software developer headquartered in Bangalore, plans to open a facility in Atlanta that will employ as many as 500 programmers. Wipro's president says, "The work we're doing requires more and more knowledge of the customers' businesses -- and you want local people to do that."

Onshoring may be now trendy, as the article notes, but there will still be plenty of offshoring. The article cites a survey last year of 500 large U.S. companies where six in 10 reported sending some work overseas.  Another study predicted 3 million high-tech American jobs would move offshore by 2015.


If you're fortunate enough to win a grant from NIH, don't look for the award notice in your postal mail box after 1 January 2008. Beginning on that date, NIH will issue its Notice[s] of Awards only by e-mail.

In its announcement last week NIH urges grantee organizations to make sure e-mail addresses on their organization profiles in eRA Commons, NIH's e-business portal, are accurate and up-to-date. In case an award notice from NIH might have been routed to your Spam folder, NIH provides a search page for locating awards made to your organization, using NIH's Institutional Profile File (IPF) number. If you don't know your IPF number, you can search for that as well.

For e-mail notices of funds transfers from Nigerian banks, however, you're on your own.

As researchers advance in their careers, they often have space to pursue professional activities outside their core research and teaching duties. They may, for example, choose to get involved in communicating science to the public or to take part in the management of their department or institution. Younger scientists should, of course, lay a solid research foundation before moving on to such things, but having a broad view of what might be coming can help them make better choices and make their profession more rewarding.

Achieving a comprehensive view of what research careers entail has just become easier now that the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) has released a referential list of all the professional activities scientists should or could pursue across all disciplines and career stages. The Referential for Researcher's Professional Activities, available in French and English, is the fruit of a 4-year project called MCPI: Métier de chercheur-e, profils et itinéraires.

Rather than providing a rigid set of duties researchers should perform or a model of the typical researcher, "the referential list gathers a body of activities that are all inherent to the profession of researcher, but can be performed in a smaller or greater extent relative to the profile of the researcher him or herself," the CNRS document states. The authors add that the document may be used either by scientists or host institutions to help them gauge career progression.

The most recent Education at a Glance report, released last month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), tried to answer an interesting question. As the report's executive summary puts it, "Graduation rates from higher education have grown significantly in OECD countries in recent decades, but has the increasing supply of well educated workers been matched by the creation of high-paying jobs? Or will everyone with a university degree some day work for the minimum wage?"

Thirty-six percent of individuals at the typical age of graduation within the population have completed a university degree--that's a 12% increase since 1995. Have employment rates improved commensurately, or has "credential inflation" resulted,  the value of qualifications being watered down as the number of people with those credentials increases? The report found that a university degree still guarantees higher employment rates than upper-secondary education. It also found that the longer people study, the greater their chances of finding a job. Furthermore, the study found that individuals with advanced degrees earned at least 50% more than individuals without high school qualifications.

It seems then that degrees are still appreciated on the job market. Based on this snapshot of the current situation and many other data, the report concluded that "there are, so far, no signs of an inflation of the value of qualifications."

A report issued last week from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services) shows scientists and engineers are among the groups in the American workforce least likely to experience clinical depression. But the details show a more complex picture suggesting that scientists and engneers are hardly immune from this disease.

The report combines data from the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health collected in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Of the 21 categories reported, 4.3% of those in the engineering-architecture-surveyors category said they had one "major depressive episode" in the past year, as did an almost identical 4.4% of those in the life-physical-social science category. That's the good news.

The not-so-good news is the large difference between men and women. Among those in the life-physical-social science category, 7.2% of the women reported at least one bout of depression in the past year compared to 2.3% of the men. In the engineering-architecture-surveyors category, the gap is even larger: 3.3% of the men experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year, compared to 11.1% of the women.

And there are other noteworthy findings. Our colleagues in mathematics and computer science are more likely overall than other scientific and engineering disciplines to experience depression.  In this group, 6.2% reported one major episode in the previous year, with women (10.4%) more likely than men (4.6%) to be afflicted.

The assistants and hourly wage workers in our labs and offices are also more likely to experience depression. Overall, 9.6% of the health care practitioners and technical workers said they had at least one bout of depression in the past year, as did 8.7% of education, training, and library staff, and 8.1% of administrative and office support. In all three groups, more women than men reported these episodes.

If you have had to deal with depression, either in yourself or a member of your family, you know how damaging this disease can be. If you have not had this first-hand experience, read the moving account from 2004, by former columnist Kat Arney, of how even scientists can get the blues.

During the first day of debate on the FY 2008 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill, the Senate agreed to add $1.0 billion to the NASA budget to restore funding that had been reallocated from the "Exploration Capabilities" and "Science, Aeronautics, and Exploration" accounts, reports Richard M. Jones of the Media and Government Relations Division of the American Institute of Physics. The amendment passed by Unanimous Consent with wide bipartisan support. Provided the bill becomes law with this amendment intact, it should go part way towards addressing some of the problems with NASA science that we have reported on in recent months (here, here, and here ).

Echoing those articles, co-sponsor Richard Shelby (R-AL) described the result of the previous budget cuts: "Science funding has been cut significantly, and programs not directly associated with the exploration vision [Moon, Mars and beyond] are being deferred, delayed, or canceled.  By showing down cutting-edge science carried out by NASA, we are mortgaging our future.  The foundation for technological leadership and the successes of tomorrow are built on the investments that we make in NASA today."

The Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST), issued the eighth report (PDF, registration required) in its Workforce Data Project today describing a tepid environment for science and technology careers. The report asks and answers the question, "Is U.S. science adrift?" with a resounding "Of course it is." And it provides some numbers from the Current Population Survey maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to back up its assessment.

To begin, in 2006 some 7.3 million professionals in the United States worked in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields, down from a high point of 7.6 million in 2001. As a proportion of the American workforce, STEM professionals dropped from 5.6% in 2001 to 5.0% in 2006. To put these declines in historical context, the numbers of STEM professionals and their percentage of the workforce, generally rose from 1984 (4.4 million/4.4%) to 2000 (7.6 million/5.6%). The 7.3 million STEM pros working in the U.S. in 2006 is about the same as in 1999. The 2006 percentage (5.0%) of the total workforce is the same as in 1996.

Looking at the job and pay growth of individual science and technology specialties, there are more losers than winners. Compared to the rest of the employed population between 2003 and 2006, the number of employed medical scientists, aerospace engineers, and, to some extent civil and mechanical engineers grew more quickly than the employed workforce overall. On the other hand, the number of chemists, chemical technicians, operations researchers, computer scientists and systems analysts, engineering technicians, and industrial engineers underperformed compared to the national workforce. New IT technologists (e.g. software engineers and database managers), electrical and electronics engineers, computer hardware engineers, psychologists, computer programmers, and bio/life scientists had growth rates about on par with the U.S. workforce as a whole.

Compensation for STEM professionals in 2003-2006, compared to the workforce as a whole, is even more depressing. Only a few specialties -- operations researchers, computer scientists, systems analysts, and chemists -- saw their pay increase more than the whole workforce. Psychologists, electrical and electronics engineers, computer hardware engineers, and mechanical engineers experienced somewhat lower pay growth than the national workforce. And the rest of the STEM professions stayed about even with the rest of the country's employed population.

The report crunches more numbers, and provides some analysis. It notes, for example, that despite some glimmers of hope for more research funding from the newly signed America COMPETES Act, no one is addressing labor market issues such as off-shoring and guest workers (which I assume refers to H1-B visas, not farm workers). The report's author also bemoans the lack of an aggressive, unified policy voice for the STEM workforce.

CPST is an affiliated organization with American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the publisher of Science magazine and Science Careers.

Today the U.K. Council for Science and Technology, the government's science and technology advisory body, released a report focused on career development for early-career researchers. Naturally, we were interested in seeing what it had to say.

"There is clearly a fragmentation of responsibility for ensuring that a career structure is in place which nurtures research staff," the report states. "There needs to be a wholesale improvement of the management of early research careers."

The two overarching recommendations are that a national framework for research careers should be developed, and that research staff (that's British for postdocs) must be allowed greater independence at an earlier stage.

On a more specific level, CST's report calls for supervisors and principal investigators to take a leading role in the career development of their early-career research staff. It also asks funding bodies such as the U.K. Research Councils, to increase funding opportunities for early-career researchers.

There's loads of other recommendations, which you can read here (links to PDF), and you can read the Guardian's news story here. It's not clear who will be charged with implementing CST's recommendations, and it remains to be seen whether drawing the government's attention to the issue of career development among young researchers is a good thing or whether more structure just makes for more bureaucracy.

The new (2008) fiscal year for the U.S. government started on 1 October, and naturally there's no NIH budget yet. So the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is operating on a continuing resolution (CR) that currently extends through November 16, 2007. The CR applies the terms of the FY 2007 appropriations for the period covered by the CR, which means that until the final FY 2008 appropriation is enacted, NIH will issue non-competing research-grant awards at "up to 80% of the previously committed level," just as it has done in each of the last 2 years. NIH will consider upward adjustments to these levels after the final appropriation is enacted, but "expects institutions to monitor their expenditures carefully during this period."

October 5, 2007

More Data on ERC Finalists

In August, I blogged about some preliminary stats on the finalists for the European Research Council (ERC) starting grants. This week, the ERC released even more preliminary statistics on the finalists. Gretchen Vogel highlights some of the numbers in this week's Science (subscription required).

Some numbers you might find interesting:

Counting all applicants, Italian researchers submitted the most proposals--more than 1500--with the U.K., Germany, France, and Spain rounding out the top five. The U.K. had the highest number of proposals in the finalist pool, followed by Germany, France, the Netherlands, and then Italy.

Sixty of the 559 finalists intend to move to another country to carry out their research, and 23 of those 60 are coming from outside the European Union.

The principal investigators had received their Ph.D.s an average of 5.9 years before April 25, 2007, the proposal deadline for the starting grants. The PIs on the 559 finalist proposals were slightly older: 6.4 years post-Ph.D. (The starting grants are open to young researchers 2 to 9 years post-Ph.D.)

According to the ERC stats, 368 of the 9167 submitted proposals were "ineligible." Although the ERC's document doesn't specify why all of those proposals were ineligible, it does note that 43 applications were thrown out because they didn't include the required support letter.

There's also stats on number of proposals per million inhabitants, per thousand researchers, per gross domestic expenditure, and per million Bunsen burners. (OK, I made that last one up.) Click here for a PDF document with the numbers and graphs from ERC.

New data from the American Chemical Society study has some good news about the representation of women, African Americans, and Hispanics among recent chemistry graduates.

The data, contained in the annual report of the society's Committee on Professional Training and described in the 17 September issue of Chemical & Engineering News (see the article by Michael Heylin--subscription/ACS membership required for access), show that over the last 3 years women are earning a greater share of chemistry master's and Ph.D. degrees. Women have out-numbered men at the chemistry-bachelor's level for years, but lag in advanced degrees. During the 2005-2006 school year, women earned 36% of all chemistry Ph.D.s compared to 33% 2 years earlier. Women earned 49% of master's degrees compared to 47% 2 years earlier. Women earned 52% of chemistry bachelor's degrees awarded in the more recent school year, just slightly more than 2 years earlier.

The article, using data from the 2005 ACS Starting Salary Survey, also compares the demographics of recent graduates with the population of employed chemists and uncovered some trends towards greater diversity. Six percent of recent bachelor's degree recipients are African-American, and another 6% are Hispanic. This compares favorably with the 2.8% of African Americans, and 3.6% of Hispanics, in the employed population.

At the master's-degree level, these groups made even bigger gains, in percentage terms. African-Americans represent just 2.4% of the master's-level chemistry workforce, but 5.3% of recent graduates. Hispanics earned 7.2% of recent chemistry master's degrees, compared to just 2.8% in the master's-trained workforce. At the Ph.D. level the gains were smaller--but they were gains. Another way of slicing it: 66% of recent Ph.D. graduates were white compared to 82% in the workforce.

While not as large or well-known as some other government research agencies, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) supports a wide range of research in the life, physical, environmental, and social sciences.  Last month, USDA released its comprehensive research solicitation for fiscal year 2008, which started on 1 October. This extramural research program is called the National Research Initiative (NRI) Competitive Grants Program.

The NRI offers 44 different programs focusing research topics that range from basic microbial genomics to translational research involving animals and applied studies of food safety. Other programs address key policy issues such as biosecurity and climate change as well as business and economic matters related to agriculture. USDA anticipates spending about $190 million through the NRI in FY 2008.

Each of the 44 programs has its own deadline date and may require a preliminary letter of intent. Check the request for applications for details.