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Science Careers Blog

April 2012

Women scientists in the United Kingdom find academic careers far less attractive than do their male counterparts, according to a report, 'The chemistry PhD: The impact on women's retention', that was issued jointly by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) and the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2008. No surprise there for people who have been following the research into the experiences and aspirations of women scientists on this side of the Pond. A peripheral comment Curt Rice, vice president for research at the University of Tromsø in Norway, recently made on the report at Inside Higher Ed, however, brought the document to my attention. 

The British study arrived at the same conclusions as the researchers whom I quoted on the subject elsewhere on Science Careers this very month: many women qualified for careers in academic science decide against them because of the conflict they see between pursuing a faculty position and having a family. There's at least one difference between the American and British findings, though: 'The chemistry PhD' uses the term "repellant" to describe how some women chemists perceive the "'all-consuming' nature of a career in academia." The American researchers used milder terms to convey the distaste that many of their female subjects expressed at the prospect of competing for a faculty post and for tenure.

Rice is particularly concerned about another of the British report's findings, which he finds "alarming": Early in their Ph.D. education, over 70% of women and over 60% of men hope for research careers, whether in academe or industry. By the time they are nearing the end of their Ph.D. programs, those hoping for academic research careers amount to 12% of the women and 21% of the men.
 
I can certainly understand his dismay at the gender gap in the percentage of new Ph.D.s wanting to persevere into academic careers. But from another standpoint, these figures look like good news. 

The figures are still way above the percentage of new Ph.D.s who have any realistic chance of landing a job on the tenure track (at least in the United States). Thinking about the welfare of the young scientists who have devoted many years to preparing for their careers and are about to begin them, it does not appear "alarming" to me that they have traded in their formerly unrealistic notion about the possibility of landing an academic post. 

Rice finds the situation "alarming", he explains, because he fears that "universities will not survive as research institutions...because we have no reason to believe we are attracting the best and the brightest." Rice puts a great emphasis on the necessity to improve the experience of Ph.D. students and recognizes young scientists' concerns about having to go through a string of postdoc positions and face competitiveness in this stage of their careers. But did he miss the part of the report that mentions the "fierce competition to secure a permanent post" in academe? Or the passage that explains that this level of competition exists because "there are many more PhD students and post-docs than there are permanent [faculty] posts"? Isn't it the universities themselves that admit students in numbers they know far exceed the academic career opportunities available to their alumni?

So why shouldn't we cheer the fact that young people appear to realize that they should adjust their aspirations to the reality of the circumstances they will face? Isn't it the responsibility of universities to prepare their students for the world that they will find rather than one that their professors wish existed? 

The fact that the majority of Ph.D. students understand that they will not make their careers as faculty researchers-despite the prevalent pro-academe bias in so many university departments-doesn't strike me as "alarming" but as encouraging, even a sign of progress. It means that these soon-to-be Ph.D.s can devote their energies not to pursuing a goal that will only end in frustration and disappointment but to making the informed plans that will, one hopes, lead them to careers and lives that they find satisfying and fulfilling.  

The late Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin) used to ridicule federally-funded research he considered frivolous by periodically announcing to the media that a certain scientist had won his highly publicized--and controversial--Golden Fleece Award for wasteful government spending. Now, a trio of congressmen (Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, Charlie Dent, R-Pennsylvania, and Robert Dold, R-Illinois) and a gaggle of high-powered organizations are offering awards to apparently quirky federally-funded research projects-but, rather than to denigrate them, this time to celebrate the handsome payoffs they produced in the long run. 

The Golden Goose Award are to be presented to celebrate "the often unexpected and serendipitous nature of basic scientific research by honoring federally funded researchers whose work may once have been viewed as unusual, odd or obscure, but has produced important discoveries benefitting [sic] society in significant ways," according to a press release that was issued jointly by Cooper's office and the Association of American Universities on 25 April. "The name of the award is based on the fable about the goose that laid the golden egg," the release explains. 

Know of researchers who you think fit that description? You can nominate them for the honor. Nomination forms are available by writing to info@goldengooseaward.org.

Proxmire, by the way, did relent on some of his Golden Fleece choices, acknowledging that despite their apparent obscurity and risibility, the projects did produce worthwhile outcomes, as Mitch Smith reports at Inside Higher Ed.

Are you an early-career health researcher -- a physician, veterinarian, dentist, or scientist -- with an idea for a project that could help advance the cause of health in poor or middle-income countries?  If so, the National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center has announced a program that could get your research off the ground, broaden your horizons, and boost your career. 

The Fogarty Global Health Program for Fellows and Scholars has awarded $20.3 million over 5 years to allow consortia of institutions (coordinated by "support centers" at five universities) to support members of the "the next generation of global health scientists" in nearly year-long, mentored research projects in any of 27 countries.  General information about the program  is here.  Applications can be submitted through any of the 5 support centers.  You can find specific application requirements for each of the five consortia here.

For people who love to teach, community colleges can offer satisfying career opportunities. And, notes Rob Jenkins in an essay published yesterday in The Chronicle of Higher Education, more and more Ph.D.s are showing interest in working at those institutions. 

One motivation is the bad academic job market in many fields. "In any hiring cycle, 40 percent of the available teaching positions are at two-year campuses," Jenkins writes. But another part of it is also that, despite pressure at many graduate schools to consider research the be-all and end-all of academic activity, these people who show growing interest in community colleges have "discovered (as I did) that what they really enjoy most is teaching." 

The qualifications that community colleges look for are different from those sought by other kinds of institutions, Jenkins notes. Teaching experience ranks high and scholarly brilliance is less important, so a snazzy Ph.D. may not be the advantage it is elsewhere. Candidates with high-powered credentials need to be careful how they present themselves, making clear that they share the college's priority on teaching and avoiding any appearance of feeling superior to their future colleagues.

The essay offers more useful advice on how to navigate the community college job market. You can find it here.



Over the past few months, we've been following the continuing saga of President Obama, Jennifer Wedel, her still-unemployed, mid-30s husband Darin, and the case of the vanishing engineering jobs. Now, over at Bloomberg, the ever-astute Norman Matloff offers a crucial clue that may help solve the mystery: for many technical people, "employability starts to decline at about age 35." 

Matloff has been arguing for years that the dirty secret of the so-called shortage of technically trained American workers is age discrimination, specifically that many employers prefer young workers, who are energetic and cheap, to older workers who have years of experience and expect their paychecks to reflect that. The argument often made that only young workers have the up-to-date skills that employers need "doesn't jibe with the fact that young ones learned those modern skills from old guys like me," he writes. (Matloff is a professor of computer science at University of California-Davis.) "Basically, when employers run out of young Americans to hire, they turn to young H-1Bs, bypassing older Americans."

Not a very attractive prospect for a lot of the young Americans whom President Obama wants to encourage to invest their youth in education in the hope of a good long-term career, Matloff suggests. But don't take it from me. Get more on this idea from Matloff himself.

Do university programs provide their students the information they need to plot post-degree careers? Anyone familiar with the situation of grad school alumni can provide the answer. Many programs -- often those preparing students for professional or business careers -- do a decent job of equipping their students with realistic job market information. But many other programs -- often those leading to the Ph.D. -- fail to prepare their students for anything but the traditional academic job market, which today yields far fewer career opportunities than the number of doctorates the programs produce. 

Nothing new in those statements, but it's nice to see two prestigious organizations analyze them in a new report that could attract some attention to the issue. Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers, sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service, takes a look at the ways graduate students learn about possible careers and how extensive and accurate their knowledge is. (For more coverage, see Science Careers staff writer Michael Price's article in Science Insider.) The report considers the question from the viewpoints of students, employers, and university officials. Despite a few mentions of professional programs such as law or medicine, the document essentially focuses on on arts and sciences graduate programs.

Students' career information before they enter graduate school is often quite scanty, the report finds. During grad school, faculty members are students' main source of career information, although they, too, often have only a limited understanding of career options outside academe. Very few grad students appear to take advantage of the career counseling services at their universities.

So new is the field of Environmental Science (ES) that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the first generation of scientists in the field are beginning to reach retirement age -- one reason that some people anticipate growth in the number of available jobs in the field.

ES came into being as a real branch of science in the 1960s and 1970s, answering a need to understand complex environmental problems and deal with a flood of new environmental laws that required specific environmental investigation protocols. The ultimate cause was public awareness and concern about the environment raised by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's exposé Silent Spring, and later reinforced by the energy crisis, global warming, Hurricane Katrina, and the Gulf oil spill, among other changes and events. (1)

The times, they are a-changin' -- or are they? Whereas our laboratory forebears scribbled their research records with pen on paper, today you can plug your findings into electronic or online notebooks and, if you want to, share them with colleagues across the world.

But how many people are actually doing that? Are scientists actually making the switch to this new technology, or are they clinging to their tried and true pen-and-paper method?

We're conducting a poll to find out. Please take our short survey at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LHLBPLD. It won't take more than a minute. Thanks.

April 17, 2012

Tell It to the Judge

Talk about innovative, real-world applications of science! According to the Physics Central blog, physicist Dmitri Krioukov of the University of California-San Diego talked-or, actually, wrote-his way out of a traffic ticket by composing and posting a scientific paper (entitled 'The Proof of Innocence'). In his paper, Krioukov, who was being fined for allegedly running a stop sign, explains how the police officer who claimed to have witnessed the alleged offense was deceived by an unusual combination of physical effects. Krioukov claimed on the spot that he had actually stopped but the officer couldn't see it. 

The judge bought the argument and even the officer agreed that Krioukov was right (or maybe he just dazzled them with his equations). This may seem a lot of work to beat an accusation of a moving violation, but conviction would have meant a $400 fine. (There's no mention of whether conviction would have also meant penalty points on Krioukov's license).

Krioukov invites readers of his paper to point out flaws. An anonymous commenter on the blog offers, "The flaw?  The paper is dated April 1st...."

The Budget Control Act of 2011, which Congress passed in August to end last summer's total struggle between the Republicans and Democrats over raising the national debt ceiling has, as you may recall, a built-in booby trap. If federal spending this year exceeds certain predetermined caps, a process called sequestration will begin come January 2013. In plain English, it will bring across-the-board cuts to domestic programs in the neighborhood of 9.1%.

What does it mean for a graduate adviser or a department (or, in science, a postdoc's lab chief) to successfully "place" a protege? In academics, writes English professor Leonard Cassuto in an astute and provocative essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it is almost always taken to mean helping the person land a job on the tenure track. But, he argues, that definition is far too limiting and needs to change -- and not only at the level of individual faculty members, but all the way up to the National Research Council, which uses records of placement in "those pernicious lists" that show the relative rank of departments.

To illustrate why the current approach is erroneous, Cassuto presents the fascinating case of Nathan Tinker, who earned his Ph.D. in Cassuto's department but disappeared from the department's records until Cassuto looked him up on LinkedIn almost 10 years after Tinker finished his degree. There, Cassuto discovered a remarkable career.

Though Tinker studied literature, he has made a successful career in the nanotechnology and biotechnology industries. He is now executive director of a nonprofit bioscience trade group. All the university knew about Tinker during those highly productive years, however, was that he "did not seek academic employment."

Losing track of Tinker (and his success) was "an instructive mistake on at least two levels," Cassuto writes. First, it's a "practical loss" because the department couldn't take advantage of his experience and contacts to help other students plan and develop their own careers. Second, it is a conceptual mistake that demonstrates academe's limited thinking on the subject of careers in general. As Tinker's unexpected but extremely intriguing story illustrates, opportunities can be far broader than blinkered conventional thinking assumes.
A year to the day after Yale undergraduate Michele Dufault died while working alone, late at night, on her senior project in a university machine shop, the university's student newspaper, Yale Daily News, carries two remembrances of the 22-year-old physics major who was just weeks away from graduation. She strangled to death after her hair became entangled in a lathe that, according to later investigation, lacked required safety features.

In an affecting essay Dufault's roommate, Merlyn Deng, recalls that terrible night and her friend's intellectual boldness, appealing humility, determined efforts on behalf of women in science, and impressive work ethic. A news story describes efforts by Dufault's friends and the physics department to fund a memorial foundation intended to support educational opportunities for female science students.

What neither article mentions, however, is exactly what Yale has done in the past year to better protect those working in its labs and other scientific facilities. A photo shows a smiling Dufault with her long hair that, in combination with faulty equipment and the lack of a workshop companion, doomed her. The caption states that in addition to establishing the foundation, "Yale has tightened workshop safety regulations." But it doesn't say how, and it doesn't say what else the university has done or not done on the safety front. And it doesn't mention that, because Dufault was a student rather than an employee, occupational safety laws did not cover her case and therefore government sanctions are not possible. In the case of the death of University of California lab technician Sheri Sangji, by contrast, felony charges have been brought against the university.

Both Yale Daily News articles, furthermore, describe the fatal event as an "accident," a word that safety experts have advised me not to use in cases like this. It implies that something happened unpredictably, almost at random. That's hardly an accurate description when many easily avoidable factors combine to cause a death--rather analogous to not using a seatbelt while riding in a car.

It is, of course, good and worthy to remember Dufault's many fine personal qualities, the brilliant promise that was needlessly lost, and to endeavor to continue her admirable efforts to advance the cause of women in science. But sorrow is not enough. Also necessary is a determination by powerful institutions like Yale--and universities everywhere--that such events are utterly unacceptable and that every effort will be made to see they don't happen again. That must also be part of a fitting memorial to Michele.
A judge has for the second time postponed the arraignment of Patrick Harran and the regents of the University of California on felony violations in the death of Sheri Sangji -- this time until 7 June.  

April 11, 2012

A Week in Stockholm

If you're looking for a scintillating read, I strongly recommend you check out Yudhijit Bhattacharjee's News Focus article, "A Week in Stockholm," in this week's Science. It's a "you are there" account of the encounter between competing research groups at the events surrounding last year's Nobel Prize ceremony. It's full of color, texture, elation, regret, fire (literally!), and insight into what goes on in the minds of scientists at a moment in their lives that few people experience, when they are at once human and larger than life.

Highly recommended. Subscription or site license required for access.

Regulating the products used in health care is both a vital function of government and a professional area that employs scientists trained in a number of disciplines.  A new report from the Board on Health Sciences Policy of the National Academies' Institute of Medicine, entitled Strengthening a Workforce for Innovative Regulatory Science in Therapeutic Development, examines a number of aspects of the work, including needed competencies, potential career paths, labor force considerations, and international applications. Scientists interested in learning more about this career field will find much of interest.

This is a big week for those of us interested in safety.  This coming Sunday, April 15, will mark the hundredth anniversary of one of the most notorious design failures in history, the sinking of the supposedly "unsinkable" Titanic, flagship of the then-prestigious White Star line, with the loss of 1514 lives.  And tomorrow, April 11, is supposed to be the day when Patrick Harran and the regents of the University of California will finally be arraigned, after two postponements, on charges of felony violations leading to the death of Sheri Sangji.

I see a connection between these two events not because I am obsessed with the Sangji case (though I suppose I am), or the Titanic, but because of a provocative article in the Washington Post by engineering professor Henry Petroski about what the old song calls "the ship that they thought the water couldn't come through."

American academe, with its ethic of openness and its dedication to cutting edge research,  offers tempting pickings to foreign governments (sometimes disguised as companies) seeking to steal the latest technology, reports Bloomberg News.  And in recent years, the number of such instances has been growing.  "We have intelligence and cases indicating that U.S. universities are indeed a target of foreign intelligence services," says Frank Figliuzzi, assistant director for counterintelligence at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), quoted in the article.

The two months -- and countless phone calls and media interviews -- since Jennifer Wedel famously spoke with President Obama about her husband have not yet produced a job for Darin Wedel, an engineer who has been out of work for 3 years.  Instead, reports the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Wedels' phone, which  for weeks rang with inquiries from recruiters and potential employers, is quiet now and  Ms. Wedel has assumed the role of family breadwinner by taking a job at an insurance agency.

One thing that has not changed is her focus on the H-1B visa, which admits high-skilled immigrants, as the cause of her husband's unemployment.  He has been, however, unable to pursue many of the potential job leads offered him because of a child custody agreement from a previous marriage that keeps him from leaving North Texas.

"We didn't do the interview with the president to get a job," Ms. Wedel told the Star-Telegram. "We did it to get a voice for so many Americans who, like my husband, are in the very same situation."
"Women, to some extent more than men, really want to see the application of what they do in people's lives," says Marissa Meyer, one of the leading female figures in a highly masculine field.  A Google vice president and the first female engineer hired by the then-tiny startup, she adds in an article at Huffington Post that, "For a lot of women, they don't see how computer science touches people."

This preference for a human effect in fact plays an important role in the under-representation of women in some scientific and technical fields, researchers Amanda Diekman of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and Stephen Ceci of Cornell University have told Science Careers.  Although individuals of both genders of course vary widely, studies have revealed certain general tendencies that on average differentiate men and women. In these results, attaining intellectual understanding of abstract problems appears to rank higher with men than with women, who on average tend to prefer work that benefits people and other living things.

This month's "Taken for Granted" column on Science Careers examines the role of motherhood in the careers of women trained as scientists.  "The single most important factor in explaining women's underrepresentation" on science faculties is "a desire for children and family life," says an article by Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams of Cornell University's Institute for Women in Science that is quoted in the piece. 

Over at Inside Higher Ed, a thoughtful essay by Sue V. Rosser, provost and vice president for academic affairs at San Francisco State University, concurs.  Research shows that "balancing career with family...is perceived to jeopardize the careers of women scientists and engineers more than any other factor," she writes.  She also presents illustrative anecdotal evidence from her own and other women's experience and offers suggestions about what women scientists and engineers and their advisers and supervisors can do to improve the situation.  The essay is here.

This week, Science's Letters section features the results of their most recent NextGen VOICES poll, in which early-career scientists are asked to respond to career-related questions. In January, the poll asked, "What is your definition of a successful scientist? How has this definition changed between your mentor's generation and your own?" 150 scientists responded, and 21 of their answers are printed in this week's Science. Those 21 and 50 more responses are posted online.

This week's issue also presents a new assignment: Describe a specific experience and how it changed your science, training, or career goals.

To submit an answer, go to http://scim.ag/NextGen3. The deadline for submissions is 18 May. A selection of the responses will be published in the 6 July issue of Science. Submissions should be 250 words or less. Anonymous submissions will not be considered. Readers are asked to please submit only once.

Applicants for academic jobs face the daunting task of preparing a number of daunting documents.  People without faculty experience may not understand the importance and impact that well-prepared materials can have in making the case for why the hiring committee should choose you over all the other worthy candidates vying for an opening.  To help aspiring academics create the most favorable presentation of their qualifications, Joshua R. Eyler examines "The Rhetoric of the CV" in a thoughtful and practical essay at Chronicle of Higher Education. 

The curriculum vitae -- literally, the account of your life -- is the single most important document you will submit, he writes, and the one that your potential employers will read the most closely.  It is therefore generally crucial to your candidacy that it be constructed strategically and with utmost care.  Eyler gives astute advice about what to include, and in what order, and why such apparently minor matters as headings and white space require careful thought in order to achieve maximum beneficial impact. 

At the end of his remarks, he also offers an affecting apology for his inability, as a lone academic, to remedy the real problem, which is the shortage of positions.  Though he "cannot, on my own, open more tenure-track jobs in universities across the country," he writes, he can help aspiring academics "prepare their applications in a way that gives them the best chance of success."

And that, in a nutshell, is also why Science Careers exists.

When last we encountered Georgia State University economics professor Paula Stephan, Science Careers writer Beryl Benderly was reviewing her book, How Economics Shapes Science, which outlines many of the ways economic incentives pull science this way and that, affecting the quality and direction of scientific research and shaping a big chunk of the scientific employment market.

In this week's Nature, Stephan touches themes covered in her book and in Benderly's piece: Setting postdoc salaries so much lower than those of staff scientists gives research institutions incentives to create postdocs instead of those more permanent posts. Postdocs are cheaper, after all -- not to mention young, eager, and likely to be attuned to the cutting edge. There's an incentive to employ more and more postdocs -- but not to create faculty positions for them to eventually fill (except, during boom times, grant-supported soft-money faculty positions, which can't be sustained during leaner times).

It's much the same for graduate students, Stephan writes. The current structure of research grants motivates institutions to support graduate assistants on research grants rather than on training grants, which produce better outcomes.

A potential solution, she writes, is to do more of our research at institutions that don't produce Ph.D.s, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Ashburn, Virginia-based Janelia Farm research campus, or that produce fewer of them. Cutting back on the number of Ph.D.s  while still maintaining research positions at such institutions will "lead to a better balance between supply and the limited number of research jobs," Stephan writes, and we'll no longer be wasting money training scientists for jobs that don't exist.

Any innovator hoping to turn a bright idea into a marketable product or successful company needs to know how to protect their intellectual property (IP). They may now find help from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which have joined forces to develop the Intellectual Property Awareness Assessment Tool. The tool is designed to help aspiring and actual entrepreneurs and business owners in the United States find out how much they know about this arcane yet crucial aspect of innovation and fill the gaps in their knowledge.

The free online tool takes about 20 to 30 minutes to provide a detailed assessment of one's awareness of patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, and design patents, as well as of strategies for protecting and using valuable IP. It then offers appropriate learning resources based on what the assessment reveals.

The site emphasizes that its resources do not constitute legal advice and that people thinking of filing for IP protections should get knowledgeable legal help. But the site can help orient non-lawyers to the issues they need to understand in order to safeguard IP. The tool is here.

Last month, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, part of the National Science Foundation, released a report called "Diversity in Science and Engineering Employment in Industry." I took a look and learned something new -- or maybe more accurately, the numbers caused me to look at things in a new way.

Not only are minority scientists and engineers under-represented in their fields, the proportion of minorities trained in science who stay in science for a career is also smaller.

Counting everyone with a science or engineering degree (bachelor's, master's, doctorate, or professional), 30.2% work in scientific or engineering (S&E) occupations. The rest work in either "S&E-Related" occupations (including, for example, doctors and nurses: 24.4%) or in "Non-S&E occupations" (45.4%).

That number varies a lot by group. Asians with S&E degrees, for example, stay in S&E occupations far more than any other group: 45.6% of them work in S&E fields. Among Asian men, it's 53.5%; this is the only subgroup where more than half of those with S&E degrees were working in S&E fields.

For those who described themselves as Black or African American, the number is 22.4%. Among Black or African-American women, the number is 15.5%.  For Hispanics, it's 24.6%, and for Hispanic women, 14.4%. In the American Indian or Alaska Native category, 24.9% of those with S&E degrees continue to work in S&E professions, and 18.7% of women. Among those with disabilities, 17.9% of those with S&E degrees work in S&E professions, and 15.7% of women. Across all demographics, just 18.1% of women with S&E degrees work in S&E fields.  

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with having an S&E degree and working outside of science; work is a very personal thing and it's important to find the right fit. And I won't speculate on what drives these differences. But when percentages vary this widely -- when Asian men with S&E degrees stay in science with nearly four times the frequency of Hispanic women --  powerful forces are at work.

Research and development spending at US universities reached $61.2 billion during federal fiscal year (FY) 2010, which ran from 1 October 2009 to 30 September 2010.  This represented an inflation-adjusted increase of 6% over the previous year, although the rise resulted primarily from one-time payments totaling $2.7 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ARRA), also known as the stimulus.  These figures come from a National Science Foundation report issued in late March that covers a survey of 742 institutions. 

President Obama is not the only member of the administration who appears to lack an understanding of how the H-1B visa works. Several months after the president's awkward and widely reported conversation on the subject with Jennifer Wedel, the wife of an engineer who has been out of work for 3 years, a reporter recently asked Vice President Biden whether he thought the U.S. grants too many high-skill visas. 

Biden's answer, writes Patrick Thibodeau at Computerworld, reveals that the vice president "doesn't know a thing about the H-1B visa." Biden, for example, did not know that "there's almost nothing to stop an employer from replacing a U.S. worker with an H-1B visa holder," Thibodeau notes. "Those who have had to train their visa-holding replacement" could have set him straight.

But "even odder" than Biden's apparent failure to brush up on the issue after the "embarrassing" Wedel incident is that the vice president appears so uninformed even though "his own former Chief Economist and Economic Policy Adviser, Jared Bernstein, has spoken negatively about the H-1B on various occasions," writes University of California-Davis computer professor Norman Matloff in an e-mail newsletter. Rather than suffering a true shortage of qualified technical personnel -- Matloff quotes Bernstein as saying -- what employers claiming they need to hire employees using the H-1B "really mean is that they can't find enough people at the rate they want to pay."

Matloff goes so far as to "wonder whether one of the reasons Bernstein left the Obama administration is that his bosses simply didn't want to hear statements like the one above.  Or worse, they understand what he said only too well, and don't want such statements coming out under their imprimatur."

Matloff is admittedly speculating here, rather than offering any evidence one way or the other.  Thibodeau, however, is on much firmer ground when he writes that confusion about the realities of the H-1B "is not a partisan issue. The Republican candidates are as clueless as the Democrats. One exception is Newt Gingrich, who is for unlimited work visas. There will never be a complete or honest discussion about the global shift of high skilled jobs overseas unless the political leadership understands the basics."