Science Careers Blog

August 2008

The Boston Globe reports today that 11 unions representing faculty and staff at state colleges and universities in Massachusetts filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the state's board of higher education and the University of Massachusetts (UMass) board of trustees. The complaint accuses the boards of bargaining in bad faith by not submitting any new salary proposals after months of negotiations.

The unions represent some 10,000 faculty and staff at the three UMass campuses and nine state colleges. The Globe says negotiations began in January 2008 and most contracts expired in June. The unions are seeking a 4% salary increase. Governor Deval Patrick has offered 3.5%, but the unions say that amount will not cover the full rate of inflation.

The last time Massachusetts university unions filed an unfair practices complaint was in 1997.  According to the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission, each complaint triggers an investigation, and if supported by the evidence, can lead to further hearings and even litigation.

In statements responding to the complaint, officials of the board of higher education, UMass, and the state's administrative and finance office promised to continue negotiations to find an equitable solution.

Hat tip:

August 26, 2008

Postdoc or Technician?

DrugMonkey has a nice take on a dilemma faced by many beginning faculty.

Kathryn Chval got 10 interviews for math-education faculty jobs without even applying. All she did was put the word out that she was interested in changing careers. Writing in News of the Week, in Science, Jeff Mervis calls it "one of the hottest job markets in academia." (Subscription of site license required for access.)

At the Chronicle of Higher Education's Career Network, David Perlmutter writes that faculty, too, benefit from improved time-management. Of course, here at Science Careers, we knew that already.

A report from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) confirms what most of us have suspected: That federal support for research and development is declining. According to NSF, real support for research and development fell 1.6% after inflation between 2006 and 2007. This decline is much larger than the 0.2% decline between 2005 and 2006, the report says.

Here's the report, and here's a press release.

Do you have buzzing around in your head the Next Big Thing in biomedical research, some revolutionary and innovative breakthrough?  If so, NIH wants to hear it, by 28 October.
NIH announced last Friday this year's competition for Exceptional Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration (EUREKA) awards. With EUREKA, NIH seeks "unusually bold and potentially transformative research ... that, if successful, will have an unusually high impact on the areas of science that are germane to the mission of one or more of the participating NIH Institutes." To underscore NIH's seriousness about breaking the mold, it has set up new proposal requirements and reviewing procedures.
EUREKA is a joint undertaking of National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), the National institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and the National Library of Medicine (NLM). For proposals to even get in the door, they need to address the goals of these participating institutes. The announcement recommends including cover letters to one or more institutes spelling out the relevance of the proposals to the institutes' work.
Proposal requirements for EUREKA funding generally follow the basic R01 procedures, but have a few novel wrinkles all their own. Research plans are limited to eight pages and must be self-contained. No appendices are allowed, but a one-page 'Literature Cited' section may be added. Biosketches of each research team member cannot exceed four pages, with no more than 10 publications cited. The announcement suggests that those citations include the most risky and innovative projects undertaken (and brought to fruition) by the investigators. And you better get your proposal right the first time; no updates are accepted.
NIH will convene special interdisciplinary study sections to review EUREKA proposals. While the reviewers will consider a series of factors in making their recommendations, significance and innovation are the important variables ...
- NIH explains 'significance' with questions, such as: "Does this study address an important problem? If the aims of the application are achieved, how will scientific knowledge or clinical practice be advanced? What will be the effect of these studies on the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field?"
- For EUREKA reviewers, 'innovation' covers the degree to which the research ideas challenge existing paradigms or methods.
Another difference from the usual R01 proposal: There's only one proposal due date, 28 October 2008, not the usual three dates per year. Letters of intent are due on 29 September; while not required, they are highly recommended.
GrantsNet has an overview of this year's EUREKA announcement. NIH's Web site has the full details.

August 15, 2008

Directing a Life in Science

In Science, Mitch Leslie has written an excellent profile of Olivera "Olja" Finn, an immunologist who, according conventional wisdom, did everything "wrong"--having children early, deferring to her husband's career--yet has succeeded on all fronts, celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary and grandkids while enjoying success as a cancer researcher.

In a Policy Forum in Science, two scholars from the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania investigate something I've long wondered about: What happens to people after they're found guilty of scientific misconduct. The answer: Productivity declines drastically, suffering ensues, careers end--but at least some of the guilty scientists--the ones most willing to talk--have managed to continue their scientific lives.

Read it for yourself.

August 13, 2008

Don't Try This at Home

I don't know about you, but chemistry sets were a big part of my childhood. I used to use my allowance each week to buy new chemicals, alcohol burners, and so on, at Cowger's Toys and Hobbies (yes, that was its real name) in the Searstown Shopping Center in Ft. Pierce, Florida.

According to the Worcester Telegram and Gazette
, Victor Deeb, a retired chemist, had is home laboratory in Marlboro, Mass. raided by the state Department of Environmental Protection. This is from the article:

None of the materials found at 81 Fremont St. posed a radiological or biological risk, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. No mercury or poison was found. Some of the compounds are potentially explosive, but no more dangerous than typical household cleaning products.

Nevertheless, “Ultimately, they will be disposed of,” said DEP spokesman Joseph M. Ferson.

Allegations of wrongdoing are vague. "Pamela A. Wilderman, Marlboro’s code enforcement officer, said Mr. Deeb was doing scientific research and development in a residential area, which is a violation of zoning laws," the article says.

“It is a residential home in a residential neighborhood,” says Wilderman, quoted in the article. “This is Mr. Deeb’s hobby. He’s still got bunches of ideas. I think Mr. Deeb has crossed a line somewhere. This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation. … There are regulations about how much you’re supposed to have, how it’s detained, how it’s disposed of.”

Hat Tip: MAKE magazine's blog, and Slashdot.

August 13, 2008

Our New Look

Regular readers will have noticed that Science Careers has a new look. Behind the scenes, there's also a new content management system that will help us serve you better. Thanks to our excellent technology team, the transition has been smooth, but there are still a few kinks to work out. Hopefully not too obvious. One thing we've had intermittent problems with is our search function from certain platforms, including OS X and the latest Firefox. The quick search (notice the small search box, upper right) works from any of the home or portal pages but not from article pages. Again, this affects only a small proportion of users, apparently--those using a Mac and Firefox, and not all of those. Still, we care about all our readers and hope to get the problem resolved soon.

Also, as we get things adjusted, we hope you'll forgive the occasional missing punctuation mark or image.

Jim Austin, Editor
Science Careers

August 7, 2008

It's the Money Stupid

Science Careers columnist Beryl Benderly publishes a scathing critique of  scientific-workforce expansionism at Science Progress. A must-read.

August 6, 2008

UC Unionization, Redux

As long-term readers know, we've been following the postdoc unionization issue for years, and the unionization drive at the University of California system almost since it started. Most recently, we posted a column by Beryl Benderly on the apparent success of the latest unionization effort.

The last time organizers tried to form a union, some people--including some postdocs--were opposed. But this time there was no evidence of organized opposition.

Still, since publishing Beryl's latest, we've received some mail from people who aren't happy with how things turned out, or with Beryl's treatment of the issue. But, interestingly, everyone we've heard from was involved--and had bad experiences with--the previous unionization drive. We've heard nothing bad--not a single complaint--about the recent, successful one.

Below, we're reproducing an email we received from Karl Magnacca, who was around for the first unionization drive but has since moved on to Trinity College, Dublin. He writes,

I am writing regarding the article "Taken for Granted: The Fat Lady Sings", about the postdoc unionization effort at the University of California.  It's frustrating to see AAAS be a party to the whitewashing of the previous unionization drive, as if the lies and deceptions that I experienced firsthand were spurious rumors spread by the cowardly caricature Anne T. Union. [Editor's Note: Anne T. Union was not a caricature, but a real person who requested anonymity.]  The fact that the leaders of current union effort actually use their names rather than hiding behind anonymity as before is, I suppose, a positive change from the previous time, when they refused to hold public discussions with postdocs.  But I'm still skeptical that this drive is any more honest than the previous one.

For the record, here is my own experience from 2006 (I am no longer at UC, but collaborate with people in my former lab at UC-Berkeley and still have an interest in what goes on there).  First, I was visited by a person who said she was a union representative during work time (which is illegal).  When I told her I needed to research it more, she explicitly told me that signing the card wasn't an endorsement of the union, but that if enough people signed, then an election would be held.  I did not ignore the fine print and pointed out to her that it said "I authorize the union to act as my representative", she again said no, that was just a statement of support, and repeated that an election on unionization would be held.  I signed in part because I didn't think that a fellow scientist would outright lie to my face like that--the last time I will make that presumption.

Later, I was one of many postdocs who wrote to the PERB to withdraw their signatures.  I don't know how many did so, but the perplexed messages that came from the PERB suggested that it was a considerable number. The claim, made by PRO/UAW after the failure of that drive, that they were only 100 short of a majority, and that this was due to turnover and miscounting of the number of eligible postdocs, is unverified and frankly untrustworthy.  It also begs the question of why they did not hold a vote, which would be the standard procedure if 30-50% of people signed cards.  I suspect it is because they knew it would be a catastrophic loss.  None of the 20 or so postdocs I asked supported the union, and in a widespread email I sent out, only one gave lukewarm support.  I doubt the ground has shifted so dramatically in two years, and I fear we will again see the same secrecy and dishonesty that characterized the previous union drive.

Karl Magnacca

A respectful correspondence followed, during which I argued that it was unlikely that postdocs--smart people--were the unwitting  victims of yet another dishonest unionization drive. I find it plausible--though I really have no idea--that the union used questionable tactics the first time around, then withdrew their petition, not because they realized they were a few votes short once the postdoctoral fellows were excluded, but because they feared the rising opposition and the potential for a legal challenge. In this scenario (which, again, may or may not be true), they learned from their mistakes and behaved better the second time around. In this scenario, there was no organized opposition because there was no reason for it. During the first drive, after all, opponents argued that they were not against unions per se; they were merely opposed to the union's tactics.

But this is all idle speculation. I'd like to hear from people who were there for the recent, successful unionization drive. No organized campaigns please; I'm looking for individual, first-hand accounts. Tell me what you witnessed. During hte most recent drive, did you sign the union card? Did you do so fully cognizant of the implications, or were you misled? Did you observe any illegal activity by the union? Email me at, or just enter a comment below.

August 5, 2008

Praise for Dave Jensen

A Note from a reader:

I am writing this in regard to the monthly "Tooling Up" series written by Dave Jensen at the Science Careers Website,

I would like to congratulate Dave on the valuable resource he provides to the grad students, postdocs, and early career researchers  For students, who have inadequate career guidance support from their advisors/universities, this is a column which provides an invaluable resource on how to move to the next level in their career.

Personally, it helped me reflect on the choices I have after grad school, how to craft a good resumé for applying to industry jobs, how to go about my job search, and how to create the right mindset in the interviews. Recently, I was selected for a job which I really wanted, and I cannot over-emphasize how valuable Dave's articles were in preparing for this job. I also know a lot of students at my former university who have had similar experiences.

In conclusion, I would like to congratulate Dave and Science Careers on having such a positive effect on so many students/scientists, and I am very much looking forward to his articles in the future.

Thanks and regards,

Houston, Texas, immigration attorney Mark Harrington sends rare good news on the immigration front for a subset of the nation's foreign-born researchers seeking permanent residency.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Texas Service Center, one of two main offices that handle  immigration cases for foreign-born researchers, has started a pilot  program through which they will approve a specific set of Green Card  cases (the set known as "concurrently-filed 140/485 cases" because, well, forms 140 and I-485 are filed concurrently) in as little as  3 months.

The Texas Service Center handles cases from along the East Coast and the South, including the Southwest--Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.  The Nebraska Service Center, which handles the Midwest out to California, is not participating in the pilot program. The  "140" is the "Immigrant Petition" and the I-485 Form is the application to become a Permanent Resident.  The I-485 form can't be approved until the 140 is approved. 

The U.S. government prioritizes employment-based immigration cases into three categories.  EB-3-level cases are for jobs that require a bachelor's degree; currently, there is a long backlog for Visa numbers that would allow beneficiaries of EB-3 level cases to submit I-485 applications. EB-2 is for jobs that require a Master's Degree (including the 'National Interest Waiver,' which is used in petitions by many researchers), and EB-1 is for immigrants with "extraordinary ability" (EB-1A) and "outstanding researchers" (EB-1B). The great advantage of most of these is that they do not require the assistance of, and are not bound to, a particular employer. The EB-1B, however, does require employer sponsorship.

The 90-day Pilot Program is especially useful for researchers because currently, with few exceptions, only people who file EB-1 and EB-2-level immigration cases can file I-485 applications (the last step in the Green Card process); the backlog for the other (non-researcher) categories is long. There is also a backlog in the EB-2 category for individuals from China and India.  So anyone from the East and South who files an EB-1-level case, and EB-2 filers who are not from China or India, can take advantage of the new program.

What's more, the Texas Service Center seems to have extended the rapid service, without announcement, to cases where the 140 and I-485 are not filed concurrently. "I've recently handled a few I-485 cases for researchers who had previously filed 140 cases," says Harrington. "These new 485 cases where not concurrently filed with a 140 Form.  Nevertheless, in the past few weeks I've received approvals on 485 applications that were only pending for 3 months." Such cases routinely take 6-12 months, or even longer.

So, right now, there's potential for a certain subset of researchers -- the subset described above -- to get a green card much more quickly than usual.

A recent Science Careers article on the career impact of animal research controversies noted, "animal researchers must walk a tough line, balancing the needs of science and society, the welfare of their animal subjects, their personal ethics, and--occasionally--threats to their personal safety and the safety of loved ones." That danger to researchers and their families became all too real on Saturday in Santa Cruz, California.

The San Jose Mercury-News reported on Saturday that two researchers suffered firebomb attacks, one on the victim's home and the other on a car, in Santa Cruz. Both victims are faculty members at University of California at Santa Cruz.

One of the faculty members targeted, David Feldheim, is a neuroscientist who uses mice in some of his experiments. According to police, the attack on Feldheim's home took place early Saturday morning, while his family was at home. The entire family, including two young children, managed to escape, but Feldheim later said he suffered bruising that will require him to walk on crutches until he recovers.

In a separate incident, a car was firebombed while parked in a driveway of a campus residence inhabited by another university researcher. Police have not yet released the name of the car's owner.

Feldheim was one of 13 Santa Cruz researchers listed on fliers found at a local coffee shop on Tuesday. The fliers said the researchers used mice, fruit flies, and other sub-primate species in their experiments, and included home addresses, telephone numbers, and photos of the researchers. The owner of the firebombed car was not one of the researchers listed on the fliers.

The Mercury-News reports today that the FBI has taken over the case. Santa Cruz police chief Steve Clark says his department is investigating the attack on Feldheim as an attempted homicide because his family was at home at the time.

In this week's Science Careers, Susan Gaidos talks about research administration and support as an alternative to mainstream bench science, with profiles of three researchers who chose careers in this field. Last year, in an article on electronic grant applications at NIH, we discovered a useful resource for research administrators that can give you a eyewitness view of their work, as well as leads for jobs in this field.

We're talking about the Research Administrators' Listserve, known by aficionados as RESADM-L. As we discovered, many subscribers on the list are eager to help out their peers, and they use the list to post job openings. Check it out on the Health Research Inc. Web site.

The Sloan Foundation's Michael Teitelbaum has once again proven himself one of the smartest analysts of scientific workforce issues with his Policy Forum article in today's Science. If you're seeking a career in science, you must read this piece to understand what you're facing. We've had too many scientists dive naively into science in recent years, oblivious to conditions in the marketplace for scientific labor.

It's almost an aside, but it's an important one, and relevant: Apparently, NIH's budget doubling really did increase the number of science faculty, by almost a factor of 2. Teielbaum suggests that many of these new applicants for NIH grants are on soft-money--that they're expected to earn a big chunk of their own salaries from outside grants. But they are new positions nonetheless, and positions that allow them to apply for NIH research grants. They're faculty gigs.

I find it fascinating that a near-doubling of the number of applicants for NIH grants--a near-doubling, that is, of the biomedical-research professoriate--occurred largely unnoticed by job seekers. For a while there, I did notice, anecdotally, an apparent increase in the number of people getting multiple offers. But for the average faculty-job applicant, competition seemed just as stiff as ever during the period of expansion.

Now, of course, those glory days--which we hardly noticed--have passed. Several consecutive years of flat or declining budgets, following a vast expansion in the part of the workforce that requires grants (and, apparently, in the amount of money they need to bring in to pay their salaries) may be having a catastrophic effect on American biomedical science, and on its future workforce. And that's the context into which today's graduate students and postdocs are crawling.

Science is too important to be managed like this. Read Teitelbaum's article.