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Science Careers Blog

November 2008

The U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) has signed on to help the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) implement the 21st Century G.I. Bill, VA's third implementation strategy in as many months. This new plan, outlined by Keith Wilson, the VA's director of education services, was the focus of testimony on 18 November before the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Veterans and university administrators must be wondering if VA can implement the bill in time for its August 2009 mandated launch, given the department's abrupt shifts in strategy. In early September, the department first announced plans to have a contractor computerize the new bill's entire claims process. A month later, after veterans' groups and members of Congress complained about that plan, VA reversed course and announced it would use its own resources to implement the bill. Now, a third approach has emerged: use the resources of another federal agency.

Wilson, who talked to Science Careers about VA's implementation plans in September, told the House committee that SPAWAR will provide program management and information technology support that will help meet the August deadline. For the August launch, the VA and SPAWAR will develop a system based on the VA's current benefits-delivery system with extensions to meet the specific needs of the new G.I. Bill.

Wilson says the VA will add some 400 claims specialists to its regional offices to determine eligibility and benefits. They will work with the new computer system to generate the payment authorizations for the Treasury Department (where the money for tuition and other benefits comes from), track benefit usage, and store the beneficiary's claims history.

While this is a short-term solution to meet the initial deadline, VA also envisions a long-term solution with much more automation and fewer people. The long-term strategy, says Wilson, is for "an end-to-end solution that utilizes rules-based, industry-standard technologies for the delivery of education benefits." VA will partner with SPAWAR  on this longer-term solution as well.

The new G.I. Bill, for returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, provides funds to cover tuition at any public university in the veterans' home states. The previous bill offered fixed payments, which, as tuition increased over the years, covered less and less of veterans' costs. The new bill also provides more generous housing, books, and fees allowances. Science Careers has followed the bill since it passed Congress in June, because of the bill's potential to rapidly diversify the American science and technology workforce.

Most areas of science have made progress in increasing the representation of women--slow, inadequate progress in some fields, but progress nonetheless. Computer science is an exception.

This article, from yesterday's New York Times, asks, 'Why is the number of women entering computer science declining?'

On MSNBC today, contributor Eve Tahmincioglu talks about the pros and cons of non-compete agreements--mainly the cons. A non-compete agreement is a pact between you and your employer in which you agree that, if you leave the company, you won't go to work for a company in the same line of business for a specified period of time. It is often one of the forms you are asked to sign when you start work with a new company.

Companies in competitive scientific and technology industries often ask new hires to sign non-compete agreements. An employer may consider the knowledge behind its marketable goods or services its competitive edge; the non-compete agreement prevents another company from hiring away a staff member--and their knowledge.

Tahmincioglu recommends that new hires resist signing non-compete agreements because, she says, they make it difficult to change jobs within the industry or to start a new business in the same field. Worse, some non-compete agreements are written so that you are bound by the agreement even if the company lays you off.

In a tough job market--like the one we're in now--new hires will be tempted to sign these agreements even if they hurt their long-term interests. Tahmincioglu offers a few ideas that may give new hires a little more flexibility.

First, know what you're getting into. Check with your state's labor department or an attorney on the legality and scope of non-compete agreements. According to attorneys quoted in the article, courts in different states interpret non-compete clauses differently. Florida courts, for example tend to side with employers, while California is friendlier to employees.

Second, don't be afraid to suggest alternative language. The article suggests narrowing the scope, for example, so you might have a chance at landing a job at a company in a related but not competitive industry.  Tahmincioglu says the employer may say "take it or leave it," but who knows? You won't know if you don't try (tactfully, of course ... it is your first day on the job after all).

Third, if you are laid off by the company and stuck with its non-compete agreement, try and negotiate lifting the agreement as part of your severance package. Here again, check what the law allows in your state or city; a layoff may negate being held to a non-compete agreement. You may have more success escaping the non-compete agreement when leaving a company than when entering it.

November 12, 2008

Serious Postdoc Weirdness

There's no denying that life as a postdoc can be stressful. The pay is relatively low, the hours are long, the long-term prospects often aren't great, and sometimes bosses--and colleagues--can be real jerks.

But the events described in this story, from a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle (Hat tip: The Chronicle of Higher Education News Blog) are just too weird.

A postdoctoral researcher in the UCSF urology department has been charged with attempted murder after allegedly admitting that he twice tried to poison a colleague by putting laboratory chemicals in her drinking water, authorities said Tuesday.

The chemicals used by Benchun Liu, 38--a "buffering solution used to control acid"--discolored the water. The disoloration was noticed by the alleged victim, Mei Cao, who drank the water anyway. The accused then confessed to the victim that he had tried to kill her, and was arrested Monday. He is being held in the county jail without bail. Liu told police that he had been "stressed out."

This article in Sunday's New York Times profiles Nate Silver, a numbers guy who started the political Website FiveThirtyEight.com and has won a popular following by correctly predicting the outcome of political races. Prior to that, he made a living analyzing baseball statistics. (Check out this In Person piece about another scientist who makes a living analyzing baseball.)

Some people who have analyzed his work say that Silver's methods are primitive and wouldn't pass muster on an undergrad lab report. But it's hard to argue with his record. (His most impressive achievement, in my view: Identifying the last-place Tampa Bay Rays as one of the top teams in baseball for 2008.)

November 10, 2008

Scientific Stimulus

Over at Talking Points Memo, a liberal political blog, economist and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich provides a prescription for getting us out what he calls our current "mini-depression"--not a full-on 1930's crisis but worse than the periodic recessions the country (and the world) goes through every few years.

Reich's prescription: government spending, and lots of it. On what? "Mostly infrastructure," Reich writes -- "repairing roads and bridges, levees and ports; investing in light rail, electrical grids, new sources of energy, more energy conservation." Reich points out that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke agrees that economic stimulus is needed, and that "Even conservative economists like Harvard's Martin Feldstein are calling for government to stimulate the economy through infrastructure spending." That's because "Infrastructure projects like these pack a double-whammy: they create lots of jobs, and they make the economy work better in the future." Reich proposes also spending on childcare and healthcare, and adds a parenthetical "Important qualification: To do this correctly and avoid pork, the federal government will need to have a capital budget that lists infrastructure projects in order of priority of public need."

I'm trained in science, not economics, but my generic analytical skills suggest that Reich has it almost right. Spending on infrastructure, and thereby creating jobs and stimulating consumer spending--seems like a good idea. But I think he leaves out a very important category of public spending that ought to be increased to stimulate the economy: spending on science.

The government should invest in infrastructure improvement because America's infrastructure needs to be improved; job creation is merely an essential side effect. Similarly, investing in science would not be primarily a program to employ scientists. While unemployment rates among scientists are likely to rise along with those in other sectors--see Alan Kotok's blog entry from earlier today for insight into the impact the current economy is already having on academic hiring and layoffs--they're starting from a lower level and will probably rise more slowly. Unemployment among scientists just isn't a major problem right now compared to unemployment in the economy at large.

On the other hand, investing in science is always a good idea in the long term because science and technology are major engines driving economic growth. That's a very good reason for directing a big chunk of the anticipated $600-700 billion in stimulus spending towards science--but there might be a better reason still. The big problem with a recession--or a mini-depression--as Reich points out, is underutilized capacity. People out of work. Parked delivery trucks. Under-funded science labs. Under-stimulated scientists.

While unemployment among scientists remains quite low compared to other sectors, UNDERemployment among (especially young) scientists is already too high. Postdocs in their 6th or 7th year, stuck in their current positions without hope of better jobs at universities that are also struggling, are a huge un-tappedresource for the world economy. Unleash their creativity and give them money to spend on research and you stimulate the economy not just now but for years to come. Some projects we already know are needed: A new electric grid; alternative energy sources and alternative fuels. But science always comes up big in the long term in ways we never anticipated.

I'll leave it to others to decide precisely what form this investment in science should take. But the program MUST be designed to create independent research positions for early career scientists, and not merely to increase the number of postdocs in existing labs. A billion dollars could endow several hundred permanent faculty posts. In addition, Congress MUST commit to funding steady, healthy increases in the budgets of the nation's scientific funding agencies--not short-term spurts like the NIH doubling, which can be counterproductive. These investments, together, could pay off in a stronger scientific infrastructure, generating growth in new industries and improving our world economic standing, as China, India, and Singapore have already done.

The nation has a huge untapped resource in its underemployed scientists. Investing in them will yield benefits in the short term--and even more benefits in the long term.

If you think the academic world might escape today's tough economy, think again. Saturday's New York Times reports on many institutions, private and public alike, cutting faculty jobs, freezing new hires, reducing financial aid, and in some cases raising tuition.

The economic downturn--what former Labor Secretary Robert Reich now calls a "mini-depression"-- has reduced the returns from many university endowments, which depend largely on investment income to fund a part of their operating expenses and student financial aid. Vassar College in Poughkeepsie , N.Y., for example, saw the value of its endowment drop almost 10 percent since June. And Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. saw its endowment drop 20 percent since that time.

The bad economic prospects are forcing students to consider public colleges over private institutions, but states are also facing tough times as sales, income, and property taxes go down. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed another $65.5 million cut for the state's university system, on top a $48 million cut already announced for this year. In New York , some state schools have already announced tuition increases to cover budget shortfalls.

Faculty at public and private institutions face job cuts and hiring freezes. University of Florida has cut 430 faculty and staff positions, and is expecting another 10 percent cut in state funding next year. Arizona State University has ended contracts with 200 adjunct faculty. Boston University, Brown, and Cornell have announced hiring freezes.

Some campuses, particularly private institutions, that had previously announced more generous financial aid for students, are finding it harder to stick to those plans. Tufts University in Medford, Mass., has had a "need-blind" policy for two years, where the university would admit the best qualified candidates regardless of financial needs. Tufts has suspended its capital projects to make more funding available for student financial aid, but that may not be enough.

Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts, told the Times, "The target of being need-blind is our highest priority. But with what's happening in the larger economy, we expect that the incoming class is going to be needier. That’s the real uncertainty."

Dear editor,

Thank you for this extremely well-written and exhaustively researched article!!  I'm a recent PhD graduate from a western university and everything written here pretty much sums up what a lot of us have been through but never hear.  At the beginning of my fifth and last year, I had the opportunity to have a group meeting with Barry Polisky, CSO of SIRNA therapeutics.  One of the students asked him if we should do a post-doc and he said, "Sure, kill some time, if you're young and immature, do it.  But, if you're in your late thirties, married with two kids I'd advise against it".  I'm that guy.  That was the first I'd heard that I shouldn't do the post-doc.  Everyone in academia advised me to do one, that I would be a great faculty member some day, I had an awesome pub record, gotten a grant or two, but it didn't make sense.  Then, I started reading the science careers website, and consulting with people OUTSIDE of academia, and it became clear to me that I would not do a post-doc.  Another student and myself made a pact to not take a post-doc, and this frustrated the hell out of our mentors, but we held our ground, and turned down offers from established faculty on a weekly basis.  After a short job search before I had even graduated, I was hired by a consulting firm to write for Johnson and Johnson, which put me in the loop, and now I'm a consultant for Assent working at Amgen. All of this occurred without a recommendation from my PI, (who takes advantage of her students and post-docs), and without a doing post-doc. My salary is 3 times higher, and my hours are flexible and 40 per week.

I'd also like to mention that during my time at my institution I attempted to organize the students into a collective bargaining agreement with the university but I feel that the 50% of the student body that's Asian wanted nothing to do with it, and we could never gain momentum.  I saw the victimization of our post-docs, especially the ones from China, who receive much less than the NIH recommended salary and no health benefits and work 60+ hours/week.  It's equivalent to indentured servitude.  And I saw it with my classmates, who talk about "grant time" like they were riding with General Custer.  Every single one of them worries about what kind of recommendation they'll get from their professor as if it's life or death.  I know, I did too.  And it makes sense, because we love doing science so much, that we want so badly to do it for the rest of our lives.  So we enter into PhD programs and (falsely) realize that one person controls our fate, our PI, and there's hardly a chance that we'll actually get to do what they do. It's like the movie "Hoop Dreams", where you find out that there's thousands of amazing basketball players vying for a handful of spots on NBA teams.

Anyway, thank you for putting this out there, and please keep the amazing work coming.  This website made a huge difference in my career.  It shone a light into the dusty halls of academia and said, "Hey, check this out" and it empowered me to step outside the box and forge a better path.

Sincerely,

PJB

The Associated Press yesterday identified the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an agency likely to benefit in the upcoming Obama administration, with employment implications for scientists. During most of President Bush's time in office, the FDA has languished in terms of both funding and a diminished mission, though this blog pointed out in May, that in the last year of the administration the FDA had begun recruiting more scientists at attractive salaries.

The AP story said that food safety and control of tobacco will be high priorities in the next administration. Senior campaign adviser Neera Tanden told AP that the president-elect thinks that it "is a fundamental role of government to ensure that people's food is safe" and that Obama "has been concerned that we are not in a position to ensure that." Democrats in Congress have also written legislation to increase inspections of food and drug imports, key FDA missions, prompted by tainted products in China and elsewhere.

Control of tobacco is another area likely to benefit from increased funding and attention. In this case, the president-elect's interests are personal; the AP story notes Barack Obama is a reformed smoker concerned about a potential relapse. As a senator, Obama co-sponsored legislation with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to give FDA more control over tobacco products. The Bush administration had opposed the legislation.

If the AP story is accurate, FDA should continue to be a fruitful and expanding source of scientific employment in the next few years.

The New York Times today (1 November) offers a feature, "Combat to College", on the 21st Century G.I. Bill described in a June 2008 feature in Science Careers on veterans returning to school to study science and engineering. The Times feature today includes a video of Ismael Valenzuela, a former U.S. Marine making the transition to studies at a New York City community college after two tours in Iraq. 

In the video Valenzuela describes many of the same experiences discussed by veterans in the Science Careers feature: his reasons for taking advantage of educational benefits, the battle with memory loss from post-traumatic stress disorder, and  the value of veterans' support groups on his campus. The clip also shows how an admissions officer at the school helped Valenzuela with the enrollment process; the admissions officer describes the importance of college administrators being sensitive to the needs of returning veterans.

Until the new G.I. Bill goes into effect in August 2009, community colleges, because of their lower tuition costs, will likely absorb many more of the returning veterans such as Valenzuela. Our feature in June told about eight veterans who returned from service in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea to undergraduate and graduate studies at universities. The veterans told Science Careers how the current (Montgomery) G.I. Bill defrayed some of their college costs, but most of the veterans interviewed had to supplement the G.I. Bill with other means, such as state or institutional financial aid.

The Times feature also has a primer on the new bill's benefits and a page with additional resources for veterans.