Science Careers Blog

June 2012

On 28 July the nation witnessed an astonishing and historic spectacle: Chief Justice John Roberts of the United States Supreme Court, a jurist universally known for his conservative views and Republican background, joined with the court's four liberal justices to uphold President Obama's health care reform. The individual mandate to buy health insurance, which is the centerpiece of the program, is anathema to conservatives and Republicans. Roberts's support makes it the indisputable law of the land.  For Roberts to make a decision so unpopular with those who generally support his views was, to put it mildly, unexpected by just about everyone in the country. 

Commentators are speculating that he took this step for the good of the Court.  He wanted to avoid, this analysis argues, a 5-4 decision along strict partisan lines on a bitterly divisive case that has also been one of the most watched and significant in decades. Such an apparently partisan decision would have risked bringing the court--which until the morning of the 27th was experiencing unprecedentedly low levels of public confidence--into even lower general esteem. (The effect on public confidence of the decision is not yet known).

This reasoning makes sense to me, and it also makes we wonder whether another national leader--less prominent than the Chief Justice but still extremely important to the people whose fates his decisions influence--will have the courage to go against the powerful interests of the people who appear to be his natural allies and instead decide in favor of the greater good of the nation and the little people who cannot defend themselves.  I am thinking of National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, who recently received the Biomedical Workforce Working Group Draft Report, which was written under the leadership of Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman.
A study by a group called the Partnership for a New American Economy finds that 76% of the patents coming out of the 10 American universities producing the greatest number of patents listed at least one foreign author. The Partnership consists of "more than 450...mayors and business leaders who support immigration reforms" that will permit more high-skilled immigration. Immigrants, the report states, are "particularly effective job creators."   

But are the report's claims that immigrants "are reinventing the American economy" and are more innovative and entrepreneurial than the native-born actually founded?

Too many graduate students and postdocs chasing too few academic jobs has led to a dysfunctional biomedical research system. That's the conclusion of a draft report on the biomedical workforce released this month by an advisory panel to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The panel urged taking steps to shorten young scientists' career paths, including capping how long graduate students can receive NIH support and better preparing them for non-academic careers. The report also encourages university labs to rely more on staff scientists rather than trainees.

Numerous sources claim that Stephen Hawking once said that someone had told him that every equation he put in one of his books would reduce sales by half. Apparently, that's true of biology papers as well.

According to a study by Tim W. Fawcett and Andrew D. Higginson, scheduled to come out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), including lots of equations in a biology paper reduces its influence, with the most math-heavy papers receiving 50% fewer citations, on average, than other papers.

Strangely, while the article is about biologists--the article is titled "Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists"--the EurekAlert press release makes it sound as if this phenomenon applies to science articles in general. But one presumes that you would not find the same bias in, say, a theoretical physics journal.

So what should biology researchers do? Avoiding equations in science--even biology--probably isn't a good idea. Assuming the authors have drawn the correct conclusion--that is, that math-heavy biology papers aren't inherently less important than math-light ones--it probably makes sense to put your equations in an appendix, where, the article's authors say, they did not affect citation rates.

Once the article is live it will appear here

A study of minority college students participating in a selective scholarship program finds that those who majored in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects earn substantially more after they graduate than their high-achieving counterparts who instead chose education or humanities majors.  Those STEM majors who landed post-college positions closely related to their studies did still better.  The income premium for STEM majors over humanities majors is 25%, but the premium for STEM majors working in fields closely related to their college studies was 50%, reports Inside Higher Ed.

These results consider only college majors--they don't include more advanced degrees--and do not differentiate among the earning power of the various STEM fields.

Graduate student employees at private U.S. universities may regain the right to form labor unions, which has been denied to them since 2004. Eight years ago--ironically around the same time that the first union of postdocs was formed--the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in the so-called Brown University case that graduate assistants are predominantly students and not predominantly employees, who have the right to unionize. While private universities such as Brown fall under the jurisdiction of the NLRB, public institutions are governed by the laws of their individual states, some of which permit graduate students to unionize and some of which do not.  Postdocs, by comparison, are generally considered unequivocal employees by both the NLRB and state authorities.

Now, the NLRB has voted to revisit the Brown decision and could potentially reinstate graduate students' right to form unions. Because NLRB members are appointed by the U.S. President, the board's political complexion changes over time. The 2004 board was dominated by Republicans, while today it has a majority of Democrats. As Inside Higher Ed reports, the issue of grad student unionization has a long history of pendulum swings depending on which party is in power.

With a huge number of qualified applicants for any tenure-track job, how do hiring committees decide who gets the offer?  An important--if often unmentioned--factor is who among the top candidates really wants the job, writes hiring committee veteran David D. Perlmutter in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

That means that a candidate must not only sincerely desire the job but must convey that desire in a manner that is convincing but also dignified and effective.  Any sign of desperation will sink an applicant's chances, so to be successful you have to convey your wish to get the job--this particular job in this particular department--in a manner that is enthusiastic and that comes off as sincere.  Accomplishing this takes a strategic approach to writing your application, preparing your references, and handling the interview. Perlmutter's useful article explains how to do this.  His examples come from the humanities but his approach is just as applicable for scientists.  You can find his piece here.

A couple of weeks ago, we commented in this space about claims by Slate that "America Needs More Scientists and Engineers" and that "Slate's going to figure out how to get them."  We suggested that before they go to a lot of trouble solving a non-existent shortage, they should consult some actual scientists about what is really going on.

Chemist Derek Lowe provides that lowdown in an essay that Slate published on 17 June.  (Slate does deserve credit for showcasing a piece that demolishes their previous article's claims, although Lowe's article appears to have arisen from a different department than the original shortage piece). Lowe, who works as a researcher in a pharmaceutical company, points out in his essay that "since 2000, more than 300,000 people in the drug business have been laid off," himself included. Unlike many of those displaced workers, however, he was able to find a new job after his previous "employer closed down the entire research site where I used to work."  

That number was not entirely composed of scientists, Lowe notes, but it did include "plenty of chemists and biologists,...many of whom have been scrambling to find any work they can."  They "are not a good audience for stories about America's critical shortage of scientists."  Those stories have been around, he states, for essentially the entire quarter century that he has been a scientist. 

(Lowe, by the way, was quoted about the situation in the pharmaceutical industry in a Science Careers article in December.)
The ability of faculty members who are also new parents to stop the tenure clock for a year without penalty is a highly-touted "family friendly" policy at many universities.  It is supposed to lessen the stress of balancing career and family during the crucial run-up to the make-or-break decision on tenure.  A new study reported at Inside Higher Ed finds, however, that academics who exercise this right pay a price.  And, although stopping the clock was originally designed to help women, that price is higher for men.

The first-ever international survey of safety culture in academic labs is now underway.  The University of California Center for Laboratory Safety, Nature magazine and BioRaft, a company that provides laboratory management software, have announced a joint effort to get information on safety culture and practices from researchers of every status in labs around the world. (The company that owns Nature is a minority investor in BioRaft.)

"Everybody in the lab, from the undergraduate working there a couple of days a week up to the top principal investigator" is encouraged to complete the anonymous online form, which should take about 15 minutes, says BioRaft CEO Nathan Watson in an interview with Science Careers.  No personal or institutional information will be collected (unless an individual wishes to volunteer it); anonymous respondents will be classified only by country and status within their laboratory.  The United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan are likely to provide the largest number of responses, "but we'd really like to get people from China" and other countries as well, he adds.

"Researchers take pride in the scientific method," Watson continues--but until now almost no systematic information has been collected on the safety culture and procedures prevalent in academic labs.  Experts including the United States Chemical Safety Board generally believe that safety standards in many academic labs are inadequate.  The survey, Watson notes, provides an opportunity to collect data that can be used not only to learn about the current situation, but also to design better systems and procedures for fostering safety.  You can find the survey here.

A study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that male physician-researchers out-earn their female colleagues by approximately $12,000 a year, even taking into account factors such as specialty, academic rank, leadership positions held, number and prestige of publications, and research time.

A team of researchers led by University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, oncologist Reshma Jagsi analyzed self-reports from a 2009-2010 nationwide postal survey addressed to 1729 recipients of the National Institutes of Health's K08 and K23 research awards (which fund patient-oriented research) from 2002-2003. Of those contacted and deemed eligible for the study, 800 participated and reported their salaries as well as details about their research and clinical careers.

Jagsi and her colleagues broke the responses down by gender, age, race, seniority, degree earned, specialty, and more. When they ran a regression model to tease out which factors affected salary, they found that, all else being equal, a woman making $100,000 would make $112,000 if she were a man.

The authors say that their results should be a wake-up call for those who view the salary gender gap in academic-physician science (or really any scientific field) merely as a result of male physician-researchers working longer hours, holding more senior positions, being more productive, and so on.

Here's an idea that could catch on: using social media to find people you haven't heard from in a while.  And here's something even more amazing. Graduate schools and departments, especially those granting Ph.D.s, often lose track of their graduates and therefore often fail to provide information on the professional fate of their programs' alumni to prospective students.  It turns out they can can look for those alumni in places like Facebook, LinkedIn and Google +. Who knew?

We know of this astounding technological breakthrough because the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall) reports on two successful efforts to do so.  Karen Klomparens, dean of the graduate school at Michigan State University, decided to look for 3,000 Ph.D.s the school produced over the last 2 decades.  Sheila Tobias, who has a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to foster Professional Science Masters (PSM) programs, and Susan Richards, assistant dean of the College of Education at the University of Arizona, joined forces to track down 2,400 people who earned PSM degrees between 2002 and 2010 but whose whereabouts and occupations were not known to their universities. (See this related article in Science Careers.)

Both efforts were successful and relatively cheap. Armed with the names of graduates when they were students, their university, the name of their program, and the year they graduated--information universities already have--searchers could usually turn up people in minutes, although those who had changed their names or were living in foreign countries sometimes took longer.  It cost Klomperens approximately $10 a head to find 3000 alumni, using a team of paid undergraduates to search.  Tobias and Richards report finding about 80% of the graduates they sought.

Finding people on social media cuts out the need for getting them to respond to surveys, the article's authors claim.  Some critics argue that the information people post may be biased or inaccurate.  But given how fast, cheap, and effective the method seems to be, departments and graduate schools no longer have any excuse for not knowing what has become of their alumni.

To borrow a few words from the Bard, scientific misconduct cannot be hid long; lab notebooks may, but at length the truth will out.

The truth behind the discovery of Streptomyces griseus, the precursor to a powerful antibiotic drug, recently came to light in a New York Times story with the rediscovery of the decades-old lab notebooks of the late Albert Schatz, a graduate student and assistant in the lab of the late Rutgers University professor Selman A. Waksman.

June 11, 2012

Think, Write, Publish.

Interested in learning to write about science for the public?  If so, and if you can act really fast, the National Science Foundation (NSF) may have just the opportunity you seek.  "To Think, To Write, To Publish,"  an NSF-funded program run by two Arizona State University professors.

Graduate students have all kinds of ways of enduring the fatigue and frustration without giving up. Leiden University Ph.D. student Julio Peironcely explains what worked for him, and it  didn't involve alcohol or illegal substances, in "How Writing a Science Blog Saved My Ph.D."

Peironcely founded his Next Scientist blog several years ago and has found that it has had many benefits. Among the most important: it has given him hope that he too would succeed, allowed him to examine various strategies, and generally helped him stick with his Ph.D. program. In another post he lists 9 Reasons Why Running a Science Blog is Good for You?

Should other grad students follow his example and post their ideas and observations on the Web? That's a personal decision, but Peironcely makes an interesting case for how it worked for him.

The European Commission is running a consultation on how to improve immigration rules on the entry and residence of non-EU-national researchers, students, unremunerated trainees, and volunteers in Europe. You may offer your views whatever your citizenship and current situation.

"Questions regarding visa, EU mobility rules, or labour market access are areas in which the EU could possibly initiate further improvements for students, researchers and potentially other groups," the consultation Web site says. "Respondents are invited to point to areas in which in their view there is a particular EU added value that could be created or improved."

The current legal rules regarding the entry of students and researchers from outside the EU for more 3 months, and their mobility between the Member States, were defined in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The Commission now wants to revise these rules, starting with the release in 2011 of two reports--one for students and the other for researchers--evaluating the implementation of the rules and how well they fulfill their potential.
"We would like to know about any obstacles faced by non-EU nationals concerned when trying to access the EU. You are kindly invited to propose ideas about how to remove these obstacles and further develop the EU as a place to study, carry out research, volunteer, and participate in school pupil exchanges or unpaid training," the consultation Web site says.

The consultation is up until 23 August.

The arraignment of Professor Patrick Harran and the University of California that was scheduled to be held today on charges stemming from the laboratory fire that killed Sheri Sangji has been postposed for the fourth time.  This happened despite a statement by the judge at the time of the third postponement, in March, that the arraignment would definitely take place today.

Instead, the lawyers for both sides were ordered to appear before the judge on July 2 to report on the status of negotiations on a plea arrangement that has reportedly been in the works for months.  Following that, the judge said today, the arraignment would definitely take place on July 13, when either the terms of a deal will be announced or the defendants will enter pleas to the charges.

June 7, 2012

When Is Age 52 Young?

Next spring, some "promising young scientist in biomedical research" will find her or himself $100,000 richer thanks to the new Lurie Prize. announced 1 June by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH).  Due August 15, the announcement says, "nominations must be for an outstanding young biomedical investigator who has not passed his/her 52nd birthday on April 12, 2013."

So you thought that after an academic scientist overcame the huge obstacles of landing a faculty job and then--finally!--attaining tenure, everything would be smooth sailing?  Well, think again.  According to a Harvard University survey of associate professors reported in Chronicle of Higher Education, "associate professors are substantially less satisfied" than either the faculty members who have not received tenure or who are full professors.

"For new graduates, finding a job can be a challenge in the best of times.  But for students graduating in 2011, the gloomy economic conditions made that challenge insurmountable for a record number of chemists and chemical engineers."  That dire assessment came from Chemical & Engineering News on 4 June.

The American Chemical Society's annual survey of newly-minted degree holders found that respondents unable to find a job but still looking rose by 2 percentage points, to 13%, between the classes of 2010 and 2011. A bit over a third reported finding work. 

The news isn't all bad. Among those who have found work, new Ph.D.s are earning a median of $85,000--13% more than last year, the first rise in 4 years.  New master's degree holders who found jobs were earning a median salary of $46,700, 4% more than last year.  New bachelor's degree holders held steady at $40,000.  Women earned less than men at the bachelors and Ph.D. levels; information about masters degree holders was insufficient to draw a conclusion.  For Ph.D.s, the best pay was in industry.  For bachelor's degrees, the best pay was in government.  For master's degrees, again, the available information did not permit conclusions.

"New graduates continued to feel the effects of the recession in 2011 as the unemployment rate at all degree levels rose," C&EN continues. Whether the class of 2012 will fare any better is anybody's guess.

Despite the harsh realities facing so many science graduates, the drumbeat about the mythical shortage continues. Slate, for example, announced in a 1 June headline that "American Needs More Scientists and Engineers"-- that the need, in fact, is "desperate."  Fortunately, "Slate's going to figure out how to get them."  Maybe they could begin this rescue mission by talking to some of the already fully trained scientists who are struggling in today's job market, or by reading the comments left on their site by scientists who have actually experienced the current job market.

As Jeffrey Mervis reported on our sister blog Science Insider on 1 June, a recent report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) found a sharp increase in the number of Americans pursuing graduate education in science.  Their number, in fact, now "stands at an all-time high."

And now, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to school children, comes more good news: a "statistically significant increase" in the scores of America's eighth graders, report Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell in USA Today.

In the face of so much actual data, you'd think it would be hard for prognosticators of catastrophic shortages of scientific and technical personnel to keep up the ceaseless drumbeat of doom.  But, as Berezow and Campbell astutely point out, the tradition of complaining about American educational mediocrity goes back decades--and overlaps with the recent decades when Americans created Silicon Valley, biotechnology, and other major advances. Could it be, they ask, that test scores aren't the best indicator or a nation's ability to produce innovation?   And year after year, NSF's authoritative Science and Engineering Indicators finds that the U.S. graduates three times as many Americans with degrees in STEM fields as the economy can absorb into STEM occupations.

Notwithstanding all this evidence, reports of a major deficit in the supply of STEM workers" appear with regularity, as, for example, in a blog post by Jonathan Rothwell of Brookings institution published the same day as Mervis's item in Science Insider.  Rothwell bases his dire predictions of shortage in part on the numbers of job openings advertised by tech companies.  But, as experts have repeatedly told Science Careers, such ads may not represent true vacancies; instead they can be part of industry campaigns to justify hiring more low-paid temporary foreign workers.  Rothwell also notes that the top graduates of the best programs are in great demand--but that says nothing about the overall job market.  Each year's handful of stars always find excellent opportunities. And increasing the sheer number of people entering science doesn't necessarily increase the number of top candidates; in fact, by crowding the profession and making it less desirable, larger numbers overall may lead the best people to make different career choices. 

As Berezow and Campbell note, echoing a point made by such experts as economist Paula Stephan, in evaluating claims of shortage it's important to consider the economic interests of those making them.  Mervis expresses cautious optimism that actual facts may eventually influence the overheated discussion about the nation's supposed science talent dearth.  Call me cynical, but I'm less hopeful that accuracy will prevail.  The economic stakes involved in increasing the supply of scientific and technical workers to keep wages low are enormous-- likewise, the economic stakes involved in increasing funding for universities and schools at all levels.  But, as we've also mentioned repeatedly, increasing the number of people in a field depresses incomes, which reduces incentives for the very best people--who have a wide range of career options--to choose that field. 

Better science and technical education is always desirable and should be supported. But that is not the same thing as saying that we have an abundance of good jobs and career opportunities for people with STEM training or a serious shortage of people capable of filling the openings that really exist.  Just ask all the scientists and engineers currently trying to find those openings.

Adam Ruben's most recent column, "Experimental Error: The Unwritten Rules of Journalism," provoked this response from science writer Hannah Holmes. Footnotes are hers.

As our sister blog Science Insider reported on 31 May, the Kavli Foundation has honored seven scientists with its prestigious and lucrative biennial award for outstanding work in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. In the very week that Science Careers presents a special issue on women in science, four of these distinguished researchers are female: Jane X. Luu, Mildred S. Dresselhaus, and Ann M. Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and Cornelia Isabella Bargmann of Rockefeller University in New York City.

That more than half the winners of this major science prize are women seems especially remarkable in light of an obituary I happened to read the other day about a "major" yet largely unknown contributor to the field of immunology, Elizabeth Marion Press.