Science Careers Blog

August 2011

The pharmaceutical industry may have arrived at its own version of 'publish or perish': 'Develop or disappear'. In 2008, as reported in Chemistry World, Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) instituted a policy requiring its research teams to pitch and defend their research programs to executives and outside analysts, a la the U.S. television show Shark Tank. Three years later, as reported on 21 August in The Sunday Times (and freely accessible on the Ottawa Citizenthose teams are up for a progress review -- and not everyone will make the cut.

According to The Sundays Times, GSK's research and development program is starkly different from the traditional model, which follows a more top-down approach with creativity arising from the top and responsibility for production filtering down the chain of command. The sagging economy has forced pharma companies like GSK to reduce their R&D investment, and combined with federal regulations requiring more and more stringent clinical trials, the traditional model just isn't pushing out top-tier creative ideas right now, say industry watchers mentioned in the Times article.

According to the Times, the new policy puts more responsibility and creative control directly into the hands of the scientists themselves. They decide which diseases they want to target, come up with a research and production plan, and then try to sell their higher-ups on the idea.

GSK hopes that process will spur the pharma industry's lately sluggish drug development. The pressure is on for pharma companies to create the next blockbuster drug, as patents for many of the big names such as Lipitor, Flomax, and Aricept expired last year, opening GSK and other drug companies up to competition from makers of cheaper generics.

You may read the full Sunday Times article here.

August 31, 2011

Dance Your Ph.D.

It's official: The 2011 'Dance your Ph.D.' contest is now on.

Launched by the "Gonzo Scientist" (Science columnist John Bohannon) and sponsored by Science, the annual contest challenges scientists to explain their doctoral work to a lay audience through the medium of dance. Scientists from any discipline with a Ph.D. or working toward one are invited to apply. There are four categories -- physics, chemistry, biology, and social sciences -- each with a cash prize of $500. Whoever wins the 'Best Ph.D. Dance of 2011' gets an extra $500 and a paid trip to Brussels to attend the TEDxBrussels event in Belgium this November.

You have until 10 October to submit your dance video. More information on how to enter the contest on the Gonzo Labs Web site.

Come on, it's fun!

August 26, 2011

Equality in Academe

Gender inequality in academic science is a much-discussed issue. But a new study reported 23 August by Inside Higher Ed has identified one segment of academe where women's representation and pay match those of men: community colleges. Not only that, female faculty members at two-year institutions are "happy" and "love" their jobs, say sociologists Cynthia Anderson and Christine Mattley of Ohio University, members of the research team.

The article did not explain the reasons for the high level of satisfaction among female faculty at two-year institutions. One factor they ruled out however is shorter working days: The researchers found that the female faculty members did not have workloads any lighter than their colleagues at four-year colleges. Teaching loads at community colleges, for one thing, are twice as heavy as at universities and four-year colleges. The study has thus far looked at faculties at 29 community colleges in Ohio and will look at other states in the future. 

This has been a tough year for new graduates seeking jobs. But the newest class to earn Professional Science Masters (PSM) degrees are landing well-paying positions in a generally dismal economy. 

That, at least, is the conclusion of a report about the class of 2011 from the Council of Graduate Schools (CSG). The report found that 82% of the PSM alumni were working "soon after receiving their degrees," 88% of them in positions "closely or somewhat related to their field of study," said CGS president Debra Stewart in a statement. About half are working in industry, a quarter in government, and the rest in academic or non-profit organizations, and 38% of those who have new jobs found them through the internships they took as part of their degree work. More than half are earning over $55,000. Not suprisingly, 82% of the alumni expressed satisfaction with the programs they had just completed. As we have noted earlier in this space, the programs are attracting plenty of students.

Last week, Science published a study that found that black biomedical scientists are 10 percentage points less likely than their white peers to receive an R01 research grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). (See Science Careers's discussion of what that means for the career prospects of black scientists.) And earlier this month, a government study found that men out-earn women in the sciences by about 12% and outnumber women in the science, technology, math, and engineering fields by about 24%.

NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other U.S. agencies have funneled large sums of money into programs designed to reduced such disparities, but clearly minority scientists still face significant challenges to their professional success. What will it take to achieve real equality in the sciences?

Science Live will host a live chat on Thursday, August 25, 3:00 - 4:00 p.m. EDT to explore that question with two former NIH researchers: Laure Haak, chief science officer at the scientific consulting firm Discovery Logic, and Chad Womack, founder, president and chair of TBED21, a technology and education development company.

Join in and let your voice be heard!

Last week, the National Academies announced the creation of a new committee that will explore the state of the modern postdoctoral experience for scientists and engineers. By identifying the current number of postdocs, number of tenure-track positions available, tenure success rates, and the working conditions, salary, and benefits for postdocs, they hope to inform future policies that could better the situations of postdoctoral researchers in the United States.

"There's an awareness that we have a lot of capable people in their twenties and thirties that are in these holding patterns in their careers," says Kevin Finneran, director of the National Academy of Science's (NAS) Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy and responsible staff officer for the new committee, in an interview with Science Careers.

With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks only weeks away, the disproportionate  representation of technically and scientifically trained young men among violent extremists -- from the engineers who flew the planes into the Twin Towers to the army doctor who shot up Fort Hood in 2009 -- has a tragic relevance. According to the book 'Human Being to Human Bomb: Inside the Mind of a Terroristby London psychiatrist Russell Razzaque, for example, "every one of the bombers [involved in the 2005 London bombings] earned any academic success mainly in literalist, logic-based subjects [such as] science, mathematics and engineering."

Razzaque studies the process by which educated young people (overwhelmingly male) are recruited and radicalized and has uncovered factors that appear to make the technically minded especially susceptible. A British-born Muslim, practicing clinician, independent researcher, and advisor to British government agencies, Razzaque discussed his findings at a conference entitled "After 9/11"  being held in Cambridge, England, and sponsored by the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships program. (This reporter received a fellowship to attend the conference.)

Yesterday, physicist Chad Orzel from ScienceBlogs' Uncertain Principles called out a disturbing trend in academia: When it comes to tenure decisions and grant reviews, he says, engaging in public outreach is all too often considered an impediment to success.
People are generally in favor of outreach activities, of course, but in the same diffuse way that the general public is in favor of tax increases. If you ask them whether they're in favor of outreach to the general public, they'll say yes, but pressed to support it in a concrete way, they'll find reasons not to. Any discussion of outreach requirements like the NSF's infamous "broader impact" criteria invariably includes the argument that forcing scientists to do outreach as a condition of receiving government research funding is a wholly unreasonable imposition. But nobody's willing to hire and promote outreach specialists who want to do that sort of activity. Directing any significant money toward outreach activities is questioned, because it could've been spent on "real" science.
To buck that trend, last year AAAS created the Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science. Awarded annually, the award pays out $5,000 and a scholarship for travel to the 2012 AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver. The contest is open to early-career scientists and engineers -- defined as being in your current field for less than seven years and pre-tenure -- who engage in public outreach. Last year's recipient, Lynford Goddard, organized summer camps to promote electrical engineering careers to high school girls.

If you're out there fighting to educate the public in the ways of science, AAAS has a bit of cash to support your efforts. Eligibility and application information can be found here.

Reuters reports that Yale University  finds "significant inaccuracies" in the letter sent by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration concerning safety deficiencies in the university machine shop where student Michele Dufault died in April.  In a statement issued yesterday, Yale claims that the lathe was up to national standards, contrary to OSHA's finding that it lacked required safety features.  Yale also stated that it provides extensive safety training to students using the equipment and also did regular inspections of the machine.

Because Dufault was not an employee, OSHA lacks jurisdiction to impose fines in the case.
The Associated Press is reporting that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has found that the lathe that killed Yale University student Michele Dufault in April lacked necessary safety features and that the university's safety policies were deficient.

AP used the Freedom of Information Act to get a copy of a letter sent by OSHA to Yale.  The lathe, which dates from 1962, had neither an emergency shut-off switch nor a part known as a guard that shields the person working at the machine.  Both are required and considered basic elements of using the device safely. Dufault's hair became fatally entangled in the lathe.  In addition, OSHA noted numerous other safety deficiencies in the machine shop where she died,  such as missing warning signs and inadequate record keeping.

Safety experts, furthermore, consider working alone, as Dufault apparently was doing when she died, to violate a fundamental safety rule.

AP reports that Yale had not responded to a request for comment.

[[Please click here for an update to this story.]]

Winston Churchill called Russia a "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."  The same could be said of the notorious and appalling Bengu Sezen fraud case at Columbia University.  In a detailed report in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), William G. Schulz lays out the facts of the elaborate deception, and they lead to a series of difficult questions.  The first big piece of the puzzle: why did Sezen, an apparently accomplished chemist, even make up her research in the first place?   "Details of the case make clear," Schulz writes, "that Sezen, at the very least, has a sophisticated understanding of chemical principles.  The effort she put into faking it and covering her tracks, say many people who have reviewed the case, easily match that required for legitimate doctoral work in science."

And then there is the even more disturbing question of how she got away with it.  Several members of the lab where Sezen worked attempted to alert their professor, Dalibor Semes, to problems they had perceived in her work.  Three of them, graduate students who failed--not surprisingly, it is now obvious--to reproduce Sezen's results, were dismissed from the lab for their efforts, their hopes of scientific careers presumably wrecked in the process.

August 12, 2011

The Dark Side of Science

An apparently growing number of high-profile retractions of published papers has caught the scientific community's attention lately.  Such admissions of serious flaws, it turns out, are more likely to happen when a paper is published in a high-impact journal than in one of lesser prestige.  That is the conclusion of an article by two scientists who edit journals, Ferric Fang, editor-in-chief of Infection and Immunity, and Arturo Casadevall, editor-in-chief of mBio. They write in their article that "the frequency of retraction varies among journals and shows a strong correlation with the journal impact factor."  They also believe that the number of such incidents is rising.

"Maybe the pressures to try to get papers in prestigious journals was a driving force in encouraging people to engage in misconduct" such as faking data to get spectacular results, Fang speculates in an interview with The Scientist.  What he and Casadevall call in their article "the dark side of the hyper-competitive environment of contemporary science" seems to arise, Fang suggests, out of the intense need some scientists feel to publish in a top journal in order to gain funding, keep their jobs, and, in some cases, avoid losing visas and facing deportation.  

But Fang does not excuse such practices, nor does he know of a system for assuring the honesty of scientific publications that would work better the present one, he says in the interview.  With luck, Fang and Casadevall's exploration of this important and disturbing problem will open a wide-ranging discussion and a search for solutions.  You can download their article here.

Tseen Khoo, a research grant developer at a Melbourne university with 5 years' experience editing an academic journal, gives some tips on how to deal with journal editors on The Research Whisperer blog. 

Khoo's blog post "is a plea for a basic level of etiquette when submitting your work for consideration," she writes. In 'Build your journal karma' (which she alternatively entitled 'How not to piss off editors'), Khoo reminds academics of basic yet too-often-forgotten rules on how to be "professional and considerate" with journal editors, like sticking to deadlines, honoring your commitments, following the house rules, and delivering a finished product. 

Hat Tip: Guardian Higher Education Network

Alastair Matheson, a science studies scholar based in the United Kingdom and Canada with more than 15 years' experience as a freelance consultant and medical writer for pharmaceuticals and medical communications companies, takes an uncompromising look at industry's unethical publication practices in this week's issue of PLoS Medicine. 

"The current ICMJE" -- International Committee of Medical Journal Editors -- "guidelines provide pharmaceutical and medical communications companies with the opportunity to sequester their contributions in the small print of publications, despite bearing responsibility for conception, design, and analysis of many studies, retaining control of databases, and frequently writing manuscripts, scheduling publications, and selecting journals," Matheson writes in his PLoS Medicine Perspective article.

This week's PLoS Medicine offers a rare personal account of the ethical conflicts that can come with a medical writing career. The account was provided by Linda Logdberg, who worked as a medical writer for medical communications companies for 11 years, performing writing jobs contracted by pharmaceutical, biomedical, and medical device companies. She left the medical writing industry in 2006 and is now a high school science teacher at Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia. 

In 'Being the Ghost in the Machine: A Medical Ghostwriter's Personal View', Logdberg explains why and how she went into medical writing, the factors that kept her in the business, and the ethical concerns that finally forced her out.

Here's more evidence that American students of all kinds will seek science careers when they perceive real opportunity and that there's not a "shortage" of qualified applicants.

Almost 4,400 students applied to professional science masters (PSM) degree programs last year and about half were accepted, reports Inside Higher Ed, using numbers form the Council of Graduate Schools. The applicants were 55% male and 44% female, and 83% were U.S. citizens. Nearly a quarter were members of underrepresented minorities. Two year PSM programs prepare students to work in scientific posts in specific industries.

"Through the PSM, U.S. citizens, minorities and women are being drawn to advanced study in STEM fields," said CGS president Debra Stewart in a statement.  "Clearly this helps meet U.S. workforce needs."

August 10, 2011

A Shortage of Pro Athletes?

"When was the last time we saw a shortage of investment bankers, lawyers, brain surgeons, or pro athletes?"  That intriguing question was posed on the blog of David Finegold, Dean of the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations.  "Our young people are lining up to compete for these positions," he writes, because "we're prepared to pay top dollar in these professions." 

Quoting data presented by labor force expert Hal Salzman at a recent conference, Finegold notes that the same is true for scientific and technical fields when the pay is also good enough.  Shortages of petroleum engineers (a real shortage this time!) have caused starting salaries to shoot up from $56,000 to $86,000 in the last few years.  And guess what those supposedly science-averse American students have been doing about it?  Why, flocking to enroll in petroleum engineering programs, which have seen the number of US students more than double in four years.

"The supply of graduates in the US is very responsive to changing wage-levels," Finegold writes.  Of course, you don't need to be dean of a management school to suspect that that may be true.  Economics 101 ought to be enough to let you know that the law of supply and demand works when it is allowed to.  In fields where there are actual shortages, wages rise, and when they do, more people are attracted to enter those fields.  American students are, as this case shows -- and as labor market experts been saying for years -- staying away from scientific careers not because they can't do science, but because they don't see that it leads to promising opportunities.  When they do see that, as Finegold says, they'll "stand in line" for the chance.  You can read the blog post here.

When Bernadine Healy entered Harvard Medical School, her class included 9 other women and more than 100 men.  When she joined the Johns Hopkins cardiology faculty, she was the first women named to a full-time position.  When President George H.W. Bush appointed her director of the National Institutes of Health in 1991, she was the first woman to hold that post. Healy's pioneering career ended on Saturday with her death, at age 67, of brain cancer. 

The posts cited above are only a few of the distinguished positions that crowded the resume of a woman who began by earning both her college (summa cum laude at Vassar) and medical degrees on full academic scholarships.  She also served as president of the American Heart Association, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, chair of the Cleveland Clinic Research Institute, and dean of the Ohio State University medical school.  In addition, she practiced cardiology, did research of her own, and even ran for the United States Senate.  

An article published today on Inside Higher Ed reports new findings on how scientific careers affect family decisions. "Nearly half of female faculty members in top science departments wish they'd had more children, but didn't because of their careers, while about a quarter of their male counterparts feel the same way," the article says. 

The study, which was performed by sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University in Houston and Anne Lincoln of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, looked at the marital status, number of children, and weekly hours spent at work of more than 3,400 scientists across all careers stages in top university departments. 

August 7, 2011

Non-Progress Report

When the start of the last academic year brought a spate of books examining the the state of American academia, we offered a round-up of several with particular relevance to science. These volumes offered a range of diagnoses and possible cures for fiscal, administrative and career ills on the nation's campuses (Ending or reforming tenure to provide greater funds and flexibility for hiring younger scholars was the single most commonly proposed solution.)

The authors of these volumes obviously hoped and expected that America's professoriate, with its universally proclaimed devotion to analysis, innovation, empiricism, criticism of the status quo outside academe, and dedication to the welfare of the academic enterprise, would take these examinations to heart. Perhaps, the authors hoped, academics would even start thinking about reforms aimed at solving problems like the difficult financial situation of many students, the dismal career prospects of young Ph.D. scholars, the precarious work lives of contingent faculty, and other festering inequities in academe.

So how, to paraphrase a certain politician, has this hopey-changey stuff been working out?

A new U.S. Department of Commerce report on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields shows that, though they earn less than men, the wage gap is smaller than in comparable non-STEM fields.  On our sister blog, our colleague Jeffrey Mervis quotes Rebecca Blank, the economics PhD who is Acting Secretary of Commerce, as wondering why the smaller income discrepancy fails to draw more women into STEM jobs.  "It adds to the puzzle of what we are doing in our schools or our families that makes STEM jobs seemingly less attractive to girls," she says.  Though constituting half of all college-educated workers in the economy at large, women are only a quarter of STEM workers, the report found.

The report goes on to suggest a number of the usual explanations for women's lower propensity to work in STEM, including stereotyping, family conflicts and scarce role models, and Blank calls the income discrepancy "one of the big research questions in economics."  The report fails to note, however, that economics is not the only discipline looking into the question of how people choose careers.  

As we have previously reported, research by psychologist Amanda Diekman of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and associates found that academically able men and women, on average, expressed different value orientations regarding their careers.  Women appeared less motivated than men by economics and more by a desire to help others and serve the larger community.  We noted at that time that a STEM field with that explicit goal, biomedical engineering, has the highest proportion of women students of all engineering. fields. The Commerce Department report, in fact, even notes that women who earn STEM degrees are likelier than comparable men to pursue carers in education or healthcare, but appears to consider that a problem to be corrected.

So what our schools and families may be doing to girls is teaching them to value other goals, such as service and helping, perhaps more highly than income.  Whether that's a good thing or not is certainly beyond the purview of economics.

Anecdotally, cases of nepotism in Italian academic institutions appear to abound, but just how widespread the phenomenon is has been difficult to pin down. A statistical study published today in PLoS One suggests that nepotistic practices are rampant in Italy, with medicine and industrial engineering among the most inbred disciplines. 

"I often meet other Italian immigrants abroad, and the first 20 minutes of conversation are regularly spent complaining about the state of disarray of academic institutions in Italy," including nepotism, writes the study's author, Stefano Allesina, an Italian researcher who holds an assistant professorship in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago's Computation Institute in Illinois, in an e-mail to Science Careers. So, upon coming across a public database of Italian researchers, Allesina could "not resist the urge of checking if it's really 'a few bad apples' (as the Ministry and other politicians always say) or not," he says.

Between 9 August 2011 and 31 March 2012, the United Kingdom intends to give as many as 1000 visas to "exceptionally talented leaders in the fields of science, humanities, engineering and the arts," in a new visa category: Tier 1 (Exceptional talent). The announcement was made by the UK Border Agency on 20 July.

The Careers blog for postgraduates from the United Kingdom's University of Salford yesterday published an entry highlighting the writing, memory, and organizational difficulties faced by students with dyslexia. The entry was prompted by word circulating in social media about a series of videos produced by Emma Jefferies on how she coped with dyslexia while doing a Ph.D. in design, which she obtained last year.

Jefferies's series of 8 videos is well worth watching, as it offers a rare insider's perspective on the challenges (and even some positives) associated with dyslexia, practical advice on how to cope with the condition, and the attitudes of peers and supervisors who supported Jefferies during her Ph.D. You can watch Jefferies's 'DpH: The Dyslexic PhD' on her Web site.

The Careers blog for postgraduates' entry goes on to provide a list of the services the University of Salford offers students with dyslexia. Nowadays, most universities offer support services to students with such special needs. If you need help, ask your careers services or office of student affairs about the range of services that your university offers.

The Careers blog for postgraduates points to additional sources of information about dyslexia.

You can read the entire entry here

Many job ads from Germany published in scientific journals contain a statement that says language like, "Persons with disabilities will, with appropriate qualifications and aptitudes, be employed preferentially." While equal opportunity statements are common enough, it's rare to find overt statements of preference. We were curious.

Martin Kock, a lawyer specializing in employment law based in Düren, Germany, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers that statements of preferential treatment are not mandatory under German law, even for the public employers with whom these statements most often originate.

The Journal of Postdoctoral Affairs, aka the Postdoc Journal, has launched on the Web.  Run by a group of postdocs based mostly in California, the new peer-reviewed online publication aims to be an "international platform for addressing conceptual and practical issues that pertain to the foundations and contexts of the postdoctoral experience," declares a mission statement  fully worthy of the academic enterprise to which its founders aspire.  Volume 1, Number 1 lists the range of materials the journal expects to carry, including scholarly articles on postdocs and their working lives and video presentations of postdocs' research.

"Anyone can write articles [for] this journal provided they are related to postdoc affairs," says editorial board member and first-issue contributor Hady Felfly of the University of California-San Francisco, by e-mail.  The journal gives instructions for submitting articles and videos for consideration for future issues.  In addition, it has a job-announcement section, which already carries an opening in Germany.  Besides scholarly papers, which will undergo "a rigorous peer-review process conducted by an expert editorial team," according to the mission statement,  the journal also seeks opinion articles, letters, and comments and hopes to reach a wide range of readers and contributors, including "current and former postdoctoral scholars, their faculty advisors, postdoctoral policy analysts, administrators and labor affair specialists."