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Science Careers Blog

July 2012

We constantly hear complaints from companies that they can't find enough American workers with technical skills.  So it's good to hear that a company is actually doing something to train smart young Americans for the highly-skilled jobs that are in demand.  As reported by National Public Radio, Siemens is convincing high school graduates who are definitely college material to enroll instead in a four-year apprenticeship program to become trained as machinists.

"When I was growing up, science and engineering were really cool," Sally Ride said in 2009.  She was right.  In Ride's childhood half a century ago, astronauts like John Glenn (and later, Ride herself) and researchers like Jonas Salk, developer of the first polio vaccine, were national heroes and household names. 

"That's generally not the case today," Ride continued. "And that's a problem."  Again she was right, especially insofar as recruiting the most talented young Americans to careers in science and technology.  According to the Washington Post article by Ride's friend Susan Okie, from which I've borrowed these quotations, the first American woman in space, who died at age 61 on 23 July, worked to remedy this problem by developing materials and programs that would interest young people, and especially girls, in science, and help their teachers nurture that interest.   Efforts by Ride and others to convince girls they can do science have met with considerable success in recent years, with women now earning the majority of doctoral degrees in life and health sciences. Their percentages in physical sciences and math are also rising.

Ride "realized that elementary and middle-school students were endlessly curious about space travel, and that sharing her experience was a way to get them excited about science and engineering," Okie writes.   So, lack of wonder and fascination at the marvels of science is not the only reason that so many of today's able young people seek careers other than science. 

Back when Ride was young, science and engineering were not just enticing and prestigious fields of study; they were pathways to secure, admired, exciting, and well-paid jobs.  In many fields, that is no longer the case.  Instead, scientists in various disciplines spend years as poorly paid postdocs or struggle with record unemployment.  Until steps are taken to restore scientific and technical careers to their former glory, it's unlikely, despite excellent educational efforts such as Ride's, that young people will again consider science "really cool."

Early information from the courtroom in Los Angeles indicates that the regents of the University of California have settled the case against them in the death of Sheri Sangji. Science Careers has not seen the settlement document yet, but has learned that it requires the university to obey the law (obviously), cease denying that the university is responsible for the conditions leading to her death, and establish a scholarship in Sheri's name in environmental law--the field she had hoped to pursue in her future studies. The judge granted yet another delay for the arraignment of Patrick Harran, Sheri's boss at the time of her death.

The university appears to have gotten off very easily, considering the punishments that conviction could have carried. This settlement does, however, appear to open up the University of California to a lawsuit, which the Sangji family has thus far not sought. 

The Harran case, meanwhile, has turned even more sordid, given the defense's ad hominem attack on the credibility of the state investigator whose report is an important element in the case against the professor. Obviously, there is much more to come.

In what the Los Angeles Times tems a "bizarre turn" in the criminal case against UCLA and Patrick Harran in the death of Sheri Sangji, the defense is attempting to discredit the investigator who wrote the state report, which severely criticizes Harran and the university and forms an important element of the prosecution case.  In court papers filed on 26 July, the day before the scheduled arraingment in the Sangji case, the defense charges that the investigator, Brian Baudendistel, has a juvenile criminal record arising from a murder.  Baudendistel has reportedly denied involvement.  Juvenile case records are not publicly available. The defense papers request that the arrest warrant for Harran be quashed.

With the long-delayed arraigment of Harran and UCLA scheduled for 27 July, this move introduces a new element of surprise.  The delays have reportedly been justified by efforts to strike a plea agreement between the prosecutors and the defense.  This new development suggests a different defense strategy, to say the least.

Stay tuned.

From the Could-Be-A-Barometer-of-How-Things-Are-Changing-But-Maybe-Not department: This past Tuesday, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) presented a product fair and technology seminar for its postdocs. The event was written up in a short article in the Daily Pennsylvanian, a Penn campus newspaper. According to the article, the equipment on display ranged from pipette tips to PCR gear.

What makes this even newsworthy--if anything does--is that normally you don't think about postdocs buying things for the lab. They're just the worker bees. So wouldn't it be better to pitch the principal investigators instead?

We should note that this was a postdoc event hosted by Penn's Postdoctoral Biomedical Council; it's not that a bunch of lab equipment vendors got together and said, "Let's try to sell stuff to postdocs." The event was a fundraiser; I'm not sure how, but presumably the 20 vendors who displayed their wares paid booth fees. This year's take wasn't yet tallied when the article was written, but at least year's show--this isn't the very first--they raised about $15,000. Proceeds will go to support postdoc research, the article says.

What's behind the idea of staging an equipment show for postdocs? With postdoc positions becoming longer--and postdocs therefore becoming more experienced on average--they're particpiating more in running the lab and in making purchasing decisions. "Postdocs do a vast amount of ordering for a lot of their labs at Penn, so they're able to better see what's available," fundraising committee chair and postdoctoral fellow Todd Waldron said, quoted in the article. It's implied, I think, that PIs don't know their way around the lab so well anymore. If you'd like to sell something to established PIs you'd be better off selling grant writing services or something more closely related to how they spend their workdays.

This wasn't mentioned in the article, but there's another reason for laboratory vendors to try to sell things to postdocs: A few will soon be setting up their own independent labs, spending startup funds that range into seven figures.
 
 
On CNN this morning, golfer Phil Mickelson swung by the set of the morning news program Starting Point to talk about the supposed need to train more American students in STEM skills. The points he raised were typical: that STEM workers earn more and are hired more frequently than non-STEM peers, and that there are thousands of unfilled jobs just waiting for people trained enough in STEM to fill them. (For a more enlightened understanding of the so-called skills gap, read this book.) In fact, Mickelson noted, a student who graduates with a STEM degree today would have no trouble finding a job.

Tell that to the many highly trained Ph.D. scientists who were scouring the classifieds that very second. Many of them would be happy to accept one of those jobs, even if they're intended for recent college grads.

A recently launched Web site, LabSafetyWorkspace.org, offers free, short safety training courses to scientists everywhere. It is a joint project of the New Hampshire IDeA Network of Biological Research Excellence (NH-INBRE), a consortium of 10 New Hampshire colleges and universities that is funded by the National Institutes of Health; the Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) office at Dartmouth College; and BioRAFT, a company providing lab safety monitoring and compliance software systems that we have previously mentioned. The site is primarily aimed at students and the courses are open to scientists at any stage and any age who wish to use its materials. 

The courses range in length from about 20 minutes to 2 hours. Successfully completing a quiz on the content qualifies the student for a certificate, which colleges can choose to accept as proof of knowledge of safety procedures. Michael Blayney, head of Dartmouth EHS, played a major role in developing the content. BioRAFT provided expertise in online preparation and NH-INBRE provided inspiration and funding.

To get an idea of the style and level of the presentations, your reporter watched the 20-minute video on safely transferring pyrophoric liquids, the process that UCLA lab assistant Sheri Sangji was attempting when she sustained the burns that two weeks later took her life. Clearly and deliberately, in language fully understandable to this non-chemist, the video explains and demonstrates the proper preparation, equipment, procedures and safety precautions necessary to carry out this potentially very dangerous task safely. 

The video emphasizes the need for proper personal protective equipment; a nearby partner, fire extinguisher, shower and eyewash; meticulous preparation of the appropriate equipment and materials; careful attention to technique; and a deep respect for danger. In short, it constitutes a virtual catalog of everything Sheri was not taught about pyrophorics. Those 20 minutes of detailed explanation, one suspects, might have saved her life. One wishes safe and successful work to the many young scientists the Web site's creators hope will watch.

July 24, 2012

Remembering Sally's Ride

When Sally Ride applied to be an astronaut in 1978, it was one of most prestigious and macho jobs an American could hold--but the woman who became the first American of her gender to travel in space had already proven she had the "right stuff" to take on major physical and intellectual challenges and hold her own in an exclusive boys' club.  Her accomplishments by then included a Stanford Ph.D. in astrophysics (as well as a dual Stanford bachelors degree in physics and English) and national ranking as a tournament tennis player.  NASA had already made clear it was looking for women who could meet its exacting standards.  She more than filled the bill, beating out nearly 3000 applicants for the post, all but a few of them men.

The first American woman in space--she was preceded by two Soviet women, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982--Dr. Ride died of cancer on 23 July at the age of 61.

July 19, 2012

How You Write Matters

Recently our department received an unusual application for an ophthalmology residency. The applicant seemed impressive, a top student at a prestigious medical school with several publications and strong letters of recommendation. What made the application unusual was that the word "ophthalmology" was consistently misspelled throughout the application. I never had the opportunity to inquire how or why this happened, because the student wasn't invited for an interview.

I work at my university as a mentor for undergraduates applying to medical schools and medical students applying to internships and residencies. I also review manuscripts submitted by physicians/scientists at the start of their careers to the peer-reviewed journal I edit. In all these areas, accurate spelling, correct grammar, and even proper punctuation greatly influence how seriously I--and doubtless others in similar positions--consider the submitted material. What you write is a proxy for who you are, and careless and sloppy writing reflects strongly on the impression the acceptance committee or reviewers will have of you.

Two more interesting developments that were announced at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin are the publication of a peer review guide for young researchers and the launch of a global umbrella organization for research staff associations.  

Produced by Sense About Science's Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network, Peer review: The nuts and bolts explains the peer review process, offers tips to new reviewers, and discusses the advantages and limitations of peer review. On the same day of the ESOF session, VoYS released an open letter to Sir Alan Langlands, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council of England, advocating recognition of peer review activities within the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is a new system in the United Kingdom that is intended to replace the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the evaluation of U.K. higher education institutions.

"Recognising reviewing as part of the REF would ensure that it is prioritised and safeguarded by university departments in the longer term so that these activities will continue to be a significant part of the contribution we make to scholarly publishing throughout our lives. More immediately it will ensure that reviewing is approached professionally and seriously, enabling senior researchers to spend time mentoring early career researchers like ourselves in these activities," the young researchers argued in the open letter.

The second development at ESOF was the announcement on Sunday of the launch of the International Consortium of Research Staff Associations (ICoRSA). ICoRSA "serves to nurture communities of researchers and provides a global voice for research staff and postdoctoral scholars." So far, the consortium has 16 members, 9 of them young researchers associations from around the world. 

As announced last Friday during the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin, and reported by our colleagues on Science Now, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the European Commission are putting in place a new initiative to help young scientists across the two sides of the Atlantic enter closer research collaborations.

The idea is to give NSF-funded early career scientists the opportunity to come to Europe to
work in the lab of their European Research Council-funded counterparts. The ERC will invite its young PIs to host NSF-funded researchers and engineers, and on the U.S. side NSF will seek proposals for collaboration from junior faculty supported with a NSF CAREER award and NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellows. 

Further details are to be announced, but the winners of the U.S. call are to be incorporated in the ERC-funded teams for 6 to 12 months, where they will receive ERC support like other members of the team. NSF will cover travel costs for U.S. scientists (and their families), and CAREER grantees will be able to keep their NSF grants running during their visit to Europe. As reported by Science Now, about 100 awards will be offered. 

"Connecting U.S. and European researchers with shared interests and complementary strengths will advance the frontiers of science and engineering and address societal challenges," NSF Director Subra Suresh stated. This is an opportunity for U.S. early career scientists and engineers to gain international experience and exposure for their research, he added.

On 16 April th ;European non-profit researchers' association Euroscience launched a survey exploring the working conditions and career development of young researchers. The aim: to fill in gaps in comparable data across European countries to better identify the career needs of young researchers and help improve their situations. So far, about 1900 Masters' students, Ph.D. candidates, postdocs, and industry employees have taken part.

Yesterday, on the last day of the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin, Pauline Mattsson of the Karolinksa Institutet in Stockholm in Sweden, David Feltz of Euroscience in Strasbourg, France, and Niki Vermeulen of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, presented some preliminary data from the survey.

Here are some of the main results that are emerging:

Maybe I've just not been to the right conferences before, but it has always seemed to me that references to personal life don't fit well in the context of scientific conferences.

But here in Dublin at ESOF 2012 I have seen several speakers use examples drawn from family life to convey a scientific message or concept. I found the strategy effective at driving home a point and helping the audience remember it. It also helped me relate to the speaker on a deeper level and made me want to listen closer.

Last time I talked to Romanian chemist Daniel Funeriu, he was a group leader in chemical biology at the Technical University of Munich in Germany and vice-president of the Romanian presidential commission for science and education. This was 2009 when I was researching an article as part of a Science Careers feature examining how science had fared in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall some 20 years ago. 

Romania's government had recently launched an initiative offering scientists with a foreign affiliation up to €1.5 million to spend half of their time at a Romanian host institution for 3 years. Back then, Funeriu called the initiative "a step forward" even though he noted that the application forms were "extremely unfriendly. ... Many people are put off by the bureaucratic requests." 

Funeriu got a chance to change the system from the inside when he became Minister of Education, Research, Youth, and Sports in Romania in December 2009. Today, he is Adviser to the President of Romania on education and science issues, a position he took in February 2012 following a change of government. 

During a session at ESOF 2012 in Dublin, Funeriu talked about his own career path and shared the lessons he learned from his unusual experience both as a researcher and politician.

Difficult ethical issues can present significant challenges to graduate students and early-career scientists, but few receive adequate training and guidance in dealing with these problems, agreed a panel of experts at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2012 in Dublin. Formal training in ethics was unknown in science before 1990, when it became a requirement in the United States, said Nicholas Steneck of the University of Michigan, who is a consultant to the Federal Office of Research Integrity. In recent years, he continued, interest has increased in other countries as well. Concepts of ethics and responsible research vary among countries and disciplines, however, the speakers agreed, and there is no uniformity in the content of training even within countries. And, although various initiatives are underway in a variety of nations, nowhere is training sufficient to the needs of young researchers, the panelists said.

The competitive pressures that young scientists face today are much more severe than in the past and can make ethical problems more acute, said Maria Leptin of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in Germany and the Initiative for Science in Europe. Today's intense competition greatly increases incentive to produce the maximum number of publications and to have one's name on as many papers as possible. This in turn produces temptation to engage in a number of questionable practices, such as "beautifying" data and developing biased research designs in order to produce desirable results, she said. The attitude that "everyone does it" can seriously threaten the integrity of research, she added.

As predicted, on 13 July, a judge delayed the arraignment of Patrick Harran and UCLA on the charges arising from the death of Sheri Sangji until July 27.

July 13, 2012

The Power of Stereotypes

Explanations of women's relatively low representation continue to proliferate, and now Shankar Vedantam reports, at National Public Radio, on a intriguing new one: unconscious stereotypes. This doesn't mean the kind of stereotyping in which powerful people--say, men, in the case of science--hold inaccurate views about the characteristics of all members of a less powerful group--that women are no good at science and math, say. This sort of thing used to be rampant among male scientists, but, Vedantam reports, today neither male nor female scientists believe that women inherently lack the ability to do excellent science.  So it's not that men are discriminating against women based on their abilities.

Does gender matter in entrepreneurship? Absolutely, agreed a panel of experts (all female) at the Euroscience Open Forum 2012 meeting on 12 July in Dublin. In line with information we've previously discussed, showing that women researchers hold many fewer patents than males, Eucharia Meehan of the Irish Research Council presented data showing that many fewer women than men start companies and that those women who do start companies have, on average, more education than men.

Can women researchers overcome the obstacles to commercializing their research? Absolutely, the panelists agreed.

Today saw the launch of the 5th Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF), a pan-European and biannual conference mixing science, technology, society, and culture that this year is being held in Dublin, Ireland between 11 and 15 July. 

The opening keynote address was given by Jules Hoffmann, a professor of immunology at the University of Strasbourg and research director at the French National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. Hoffmann, who has dedicated his career to understanding the mechanisms underlying antimicrobial defenses in the fruit fly Drosophila, won a share of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for his contribution to "discovering the sensors of innate immunity." 

There are three points I would like to convey from Hoffmann's talk, From Insects to Mammals: Reflections on a European Journey Through Basic Research on Immune Defenses:

I'm a bit late in blogging this--sorry about that, but I've been busy.

The 29 June issue of Science includes two letters written in response to AAAS CEO Alan Leshner's 20 April editorial citing the need to establish standards for postdoc training.

The first letter, from Neal Sweeney, a postdoc in the Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology, University of California-Santa Cruz, makes a case for the importance of labor unions and collective bargaining to protect postdoc rights. Sweeney is also the president of UAW Local 5810, the union that represents more than 6000 postdocs in the University of California system.

The second letter, from the board of directors of the National Postdoctoral Association, promotes the NPA's less confrontational approach of setting standards and engaging in dialogue.

A Science site license or AAAS membership is required for access.

On 8 July, on its front page, the newspaper of record in the capital of the world's only superpower broke a big story: There are too many scientists for the number of available jobs.  I repeat this news flash from the Washington Post: There is no shortage of scientists. Yes, you read that right: Despite what President Obama and industry and university leaders have been insisting for years, there is a surplus--repeat, a surplus--of scientists.

It must have taken some bold reporting in the tradition of the Post's legendary Woodward and Bernstein to nail this scoop. Why, reporter Brian Vastag even goes so far as to quote our own Science Careers Editor Jim Austin to the effect that "Anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed." Seriously, Brian deserves credit for getting onto the front page a story that contradicts the prevailing media narrative

So, what Science Careers has been saying for years, and years, has finally been corroborated by the Post. Now, if only some of the policy makers who claim to read the paper every day would finally do something about this Washington D.C.-created mess. They could, for example, follow some of the rather mild recommendations in the National Institutes of Health and National Academies reports issued last month. Or, they could--heaven forfend--do what really needs to be done and institute root-and-branch reform of the academic pyramid scheme that depends on grad students and postdocs as cheap, temporary labor on grant research. 

Doing anything, of course, will require overcoming the blandishments of industries and universities with financial interests in keeping supply of labor up and costs down. That sort of thing happens all too rarely here in Washington D.C. But now at least policy makers can say that they read about it in the Post.

Two reports were released this week offering divergent outlooks for the success of the lethargic economic recovery--one somewhat optimistic and the other rather more pessimistic. 

The good news first: According research organization The Conference Board's monthly Help Wanted OnLine Data Series, vacancies advertised online rose by 232,000 openings over the month of June, bringing the total number of available jobs posted online to 4,947,100. The spike was bolstered by a late-month surge after sluggish growth earlier in the month, the report notes. Especially bullish was growth in "Computer and mathematical science" job openings, where June saw 42,400 new ads advertised online--approximately a 7% jump. Other science fields saw more limited growth: New ads categorized as "Life, physical and social science" grew from 73,200 jobs posted in May to 73,400 jobs posted in June.

Now the bad news: Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced that 80,000 more people became employed in June, the unemployment rate failed to budge, sitting at 8.2%. (Economists estimate that we need about 120,000 new jobs per month to keep up with new workers entering the workforce.) While it's not possible to separate out science jobs specifically from BLS's analysis, it's safe to say that a stagnant unemployment rate is as disappointing to science job-seekers as it is to the rest of the country's unemployed.

The upshot? If The Conference Board's numbers are to believed, those seeking computer science careers can breathe just a hair easier. That jibes with other reports seen here and elsewhere that computational science jobs remain in demand in spite of the overall depressed economy. (On the other hand, some people claim that those numbers are being manipulated--that in IT much more than in other fields, every job opening yields several job ads, and that this redundancy isn't adequately offset in the Conference Board report.) For everyone else, it's still a waiting game.

Back in the 19th century, American employers regularly posted signs warning that "No Irish need apply." Now, according to a report issued by a group called Bright Future Jobs, similarly blatant discrimination is rampant among certain tech employers in the United States. This time, however, the message is "No Americans Need Apply," which also happens to be the title of the report. 

Bright Future Jobs describes itself as "Techies working on the real American Dream." The report analyzes 100 listings posted on the jobs Web site Dice.com, which claims to be "the leading career site for technology and engineering professionals." The ads noted in the report all appear to be aimed at hiring foreigners rather than Americans for jobs in the United States. Some of these jobs appear related to offshoring of work. Although the study only covers IT jobs, it's unclear whether similar practices are also occuring in science fields, especially as companies in the pharmaceutical industry and elsewhere are moving increasing numbers of science jobs abroad.

The ads cited in the report use abbreviations that refer to particular short-term visas and are generally unfamiliar to Americans. They also often promise sponsorship for permanent residency. They therefore "may involve multiple legal violations of discrimination law for a U.S. citizen job applicant who is bypassed based on his or her national origin," says the Bright Future Jobs Web site. The group urges Dice.com to remove such discriminatory ads, which apparently form only a portion of the site's listings.

Writing about the report, Grant Gross noted in an article at PCWorld, "A search on Dice.com Thursday [July 5] found more than 300 job listings for OPT jobs." The Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa is aimed at people who recently received degrees from U.S. institutions. Gross goes on to report an additional 200 listings aimed at foreigners still studying at U.S. colleges and therefore eligible for the Current Practical Training (CPT) visa, and 160 ads seeking holders of the H-1B temporary worker visa. "Exclusively for OPT/CPT students," announces one ad highlighted by Gross.

Discrimination by citizenship or national origin is generally prohibited by U.S. law. The report, however, discusses less upfront methods that some employers use to discourage or disqualify American citizens from applying for jobs. Dice.com's terms of service, for example, forbid "any job requirement or criterion...that discriminates on the basis of citizenship or national origin." Interestingly, with its home office in Urbandale, Iowa, Dice.com is located within the state represented by Senator Chuck Grassley (R), an ardent advocate for stricter regulation of high-skilled immigration.

"It doesn't make sense for U.S. IT companies to complain about a U.S. worker shortage when they aren't looking for U.S. employees," Gross writes, paraphrasing the report's author, Jan Conroy, who is also executive director of Bright Future Jobs. Actually it does, if doing so helps to persuade politicians of a need to admit more foreign workers to meet the purported shortage, depressing wages and providing a cheap, compliant workforce.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund has announced the latest competition for its Career Awards at the Scientific Interface, which aim to advance the careers of physical, chemical, and computational science researchers and engineers whose work addresses biological questions. The preproposal Deadline is September 4, 2012. From the press release:

BWF's Career Awards at the Scientific Interface provide $500,000 to bridge advanced postdoctoral training and the first years of faculty service.  These awards are intended to foster the early career development of researchers with backgrounds in the physical/mathematical/computational sciences and engineers whose work addresses biological questions.

These awards are open to U.S. and Canadian citizens or permanent residents as well as to U.S. temporary residents.

Eligible candidates for this award may self-nominate by submitting a preproposal by September 4, 2012.

Preproposals will be reviewed by the Interfaces in Science Advisory Committee and selected candidates will be invited to submit a full application. Full invited applications must be submitted by January 10, 2013.
 
See our video: http://www.youtube.com/embed/7BUCJzQJoxg

For full grant details, see www.bwfund.org
BWF is a long-time supporter of Science Careers.

The arraignment of Patrick Harran and UCLA on the criminal charges arising from the death of lab assistant Sheri Sangji will not take place as scheduled on 14 July, according to reliable sources who asked not to be named.  This postponement, the fourth for Harran since the charges were brought in late December, appears to indicate that the two sides have still not reached a plea agreement. We have no information on when the arraignment may take place.

The recent STEM Solutions conference in Dallas provided a platform for the usual industry complaints about the supposed lack of American workers able to fill available STEM jobs despite today's high unemployment. But one keynote speaker, Merrilea Mayo, presented a contrary--and apparently far more accurate--idea: that America has plenty of able workers and employers simply aren't using the right tools to find them, reports our colleague Michael Price. 

Using a method that measures workers' skills (rather than their paper credentials) and then matches those skills to the demands of particular jobs, one employer Mayo mentioned successfully filled every technical opening with workers who performed satisfactorily throughout the first year. Some of those hires lacked the conventional credentials supposedly required for their jobs, but they did well anyway.

American employers, Mayo said, rarely try to find out about what potential employees actually know and are capable of learning and instead simply review résumés to see what credentials they have amassed.

That wasn't always the case. Not all that long ago, American employers used to hire for many technical positions based not on certificates but on employment tests related to the skills or knowledge needed for the specific jobs. Many fewer now do this. The reason, argue economist Richard Vedder, who retired from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and co-authors, is the unintended consequences of the case of Griggs v. Duke Power and the potential consequences of the case of Ricci v. DeStefano

The Griggs case found that an employment test was racially discriminatory. This outcome persuaded many employers to eschew such tests in hiring decisions and instead evaluate candidates on the basis of the more "objective" criterion such as degrees and certifications. As Mayo persuasively argues, it's time to rethink this approach, and develop new methods of evaluating skills and knowledge in candidates for various kinds of jobs without regard to their paper accomplishments. That, her experience seems to argue, would go a long way toward ending the illusory shortage of American workers who know or can learn how to do things.

The implosion of employment in the pharmaceutical industry continues, as Roche recently announced plans to close the distinguished research center that has been located in Nutley, New Jersey, for over 80 years. The facility gave the world the benzodiazapines, including Valium and Librium, which opened the way for modern pharmacological psychiatry and the tuberculosis drug Isoniazid, among numerous other important advances. It currently houses research in virology and oncology, and a thousand employees, including many scientists, are set to lose their jobs.

I've written before about the massive job losses that have hit my home state's pharma workers. But over at Chemical & Engineering Newsblogger David Kroll provides a revealing insight into what the Nutley research campus meant to those living nearby. A beacon of opportunity, for generations the campus made becoming a scientist an exciting and highly desirable ambition, explained Kroll, a chemist and former Jersey boy. An uncle of Kroll's was a maintenance man for the company that was long the town's leading employer. Kroll's relatives "hoped I'd be like Uncle Tommy and work at Roche, but as a scientist," he writes. Kroll did, in fact, interview for a research post at Nutley after earning his Ph.D. "I chose to go elsewhere but I credit the presence of Roche with inspiring me to a career in pharmaceutical sciences." Kroll became a molecular cancer pharmacologist and took a professor position in a state university in North Carolina.

That's what we at Science Careers have long observed--it's not only an interest in science that persuades bright young people that they ought to be scientists. It's also believing that they can have excellent, worthwhile, prestigious careers--certainly not what talented students in northern or central New Jersey are observing today. We'll get more of our brightest young people to follow Kroll into research when they, like his younger self, see that as the path to secure, successful careers. 

When aspiring science writers ask me for advice on how to make the transition from the lab to the press room, I often say that a great way to get started is to take part in writing competitions. With so much else going on, it can be hard for early-career scientists to find a focus for their writing--but without that experience they cannot know for sure whether science writing is a good career choice. Competitions offer a topic (however general), a deadline, and short-term incentives, providing a focus for your science-communication efforts.

Chemistry World's Chemistry World Science Writing Competition 2012 is open to students and early career scientists anywhere in the world. You can enter in one (or both) of two categories: writing and multimedia. As you would expect, you must write or talk about the chemical sciences. The deadline is midnight UK time, 31 August.

Winners in each category will see their entry published on Chemistry World and receive a £300 cash prize. Runners-up--one in each category--will receive a £100 cash prize. 

The winners will be announced during an evening reception in London at The Chemistry Centre on 10 October. Twenty shortlisted entrants will be invited to join the reception (but overnight accommodations will be reimbursed only if you are traveling to London from more that 2.5 hours away).

More information can be found on the competition's Web site. The FAQ also offers sound advice on science writing and multimedia communication.

We've long criticized the low compensation that many university researchers receive, but the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom hit absolute rock bottom when it advertised openings for "honorary" research assistants to work on a "voluntary basis," reports Times Higher Education (THE).

The successful candidates, if that's the word, not only needed "excellent" degrees, but vehicles of their own. The university would be generous enough to provide reimbursement for gas, space to work, and "regular supervision." Gosh, could the research project really afford all that? After critics pointed out that advertising for people to work for nothing is exploitative and illegal in Britain, the School of Psychology at Birmingham cited a generous motive for the ad: In a statement, it claimed that it had wanted to make this "opportunity" to work for free "available to all" rather than just to those "with existing networks and contacts." The university says the "honorary" posts were intended as "training positions," but the ad did not reflect that.

The university has withdrawn the offer. But, as the THE article indicates, unpaid internships are widespread in today's depressed job market. There's a fine and murky line between positions that actually provide interns valuable experiences or training and those that merely exploit people's desire to add a line to their résumés. 

On this side of the Atlantic, some are also concerned that many unpaid so-called internships may be illegal and a number of lawsuits have been brought against employers. Specific requirements must be met for an unpaid position within a for-profit employer to be legal.  Basically, the position must benefit the intern and not the company and cannot be work that paid employees would ordinarily do. At nonprofit organizations, which include universities, however, doing unpaid volunteer work is permissible, even if it is routine work that provides no educational benefit to the volunteer. Thus the door is open to potential exploitation. 

The University of Birmingham was shamed into withdrawing its ad. But young researchers eager to better their credentials need to be wary of academic entities that seek to exploit that desire in exchange for uncompensated scut work.