Subscribe

Science Careers Blog

October 2012

In their latest sampling of U.K. industry, released today, business lobbying organization CBI and recruitment specialists Harvey Nash have found a cautious but continuing trend toward growing employment, with job prospects looking especially good for highly-trained people and college graduates.

October 19, 2012

A Facebook Furor

Being a serious scientific publication, we resisted commenting when we saw heated discussion in the blogosphere (link not suitable for work) about the unfortunate observation that University of Chicago evolutionary biologist and neurobiologist Dario Maestripieri posted on Facebook. But now that Inside Higher Ed has reported on the resulting "furor," we figure it must be serious enough for Science Careers.

Maestripieri's self-inflicted troubles began because he felt that the researchers assembled in New Orleans for the Society of Neuroscience annual meeting did not meet his exacting standards of feminine pulchritude.  "The super model types are completely absent," he confided to his Facebook friends, and the "concentration" of "unattractive women" is "unusually high."  He also wondered if "beautiful women [are] particularly uninterested in the brain." He closed with the feeble proviso, "no offense to anyone."  So, despite knowing his comments were ill-advised, he made them anyway. 

Some of those commenting online suggest that Maestripieri intended his post as an objective observation by an evolutionary biologist, but the great majority aren't buying that. Along with the jokes--too obvious even to mention--about the level of physical attractiveness prevalent among the men at scientific meetings, there are some serious points being made about Maestripieri's boneheaded remark. 

 First, there is something truly creepy and repellant--at least to this veteran of many scientific gatherings--about a faculty member trolling for beauty at an academic meeting, where professionally vulnerable young researchers of both genders come in hopes of making contacts that can help build their careers. I haven't been in graduate school for some time, but back when I was, sexual predation by male faculty members on female grad students was far from rare.

Some of the things considered permissible then for men to say to female subordinates are now legally actionable harassment, but cases of powerful men exerting pressure for sexual favors on less powerful women certainly still occur. With the power balance in academe between men and women still tilting heavily in the male direction, and the sense of impunity powerful academics often possess, it seems very unlikely that some men don't take advantage. Indeed, the Inside Higher Ed piece offers testimony to this effect.  And Maestripieri's blithe assumption that a mere "no offense" would make things right, when the offense is obvious, implies an infuriating sense of entitlement.

There's another unpleasant implication embedded in Maestripieri's post. He apparently assumed that some of his Facebook readers would find his observations interesting or amusing. This indicates that, in at least some circles, women scientists are still not evaluated on their work but rather on qualities irrelevant to their science. It brings to mind the famous anecdote, told by one of Maestripieri's fellow neurobiologists, Stanford's Ben Barres (who, until the age of 42, did science as Stanford's Barbara Barres):  Unaware of Barres's gender change, a male colleague commented on what great work Ben had done, so "much better than his sister's."

The wide attention that the Maestripieri post has garnered indicates that Maestripieri likely has suffered a painful comeuppance.  But the point of the story is not one faculty member's egregious slip.  It is the apparently more widespread attitudes that this slip reveals.  And that's no laughing matter.

People will probably remember the second Presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, held on 18 October, mostly for moderator Candy Crowley's dramatic correction of a statement by Romney and for Romney's odd image or "binders full of women."  But buried in the wrangling over tax plans, health care, and the security of U.S. diplomatic installations was a brief mention by the President of an issue much closer to Science Career's heart, the contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs.

This also appears to be an issue close to President Obama's heart.  As we've previously reported, he has spoken of it before.  And, as he has done in the past, he once again used inaccurate and misleading examples to illustrate immigrants' role in the nation's innovation and economic vitality. 

"Look," the President said during the debate, "when we think about immigration, we have to understand there are folks all around the world who still see America as the land of promise.  And they provide us energy, and they provide us innovation." Thus far the statement is entirely true.  "And," he continued, " they start companies like Intel and Google, and we want to encourage that."  Here he departs from accuracy.

The death of Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania on 14 October, at the age of 82, has occasioned widespread mourning in the biomedical community, as our colleague Jocelyn Kaiser notes on our sister blog.  "I am greatly saddened by the death of [this] towering champion of biomedical research and of the mission of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)," says NIH director Francis F. Collins in a statement that doubtlessly expresses the views of many fellow scientists.

Specter was "a tireless proponent of increasing the NIH budget," Kaiser writes, and a highly successful one, too.  He was, for example, instrumental in two of the biggest boosts that that budget has ever seen. Together with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), he pushed through the doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003.  Then, essentially on his own, Specter landed a $10 billion bonanza for NIH as part of President Obama's 2009 stimulus package.

And yet: One of the strongest of the laws apparently ruling our nation's government is the law of unintended consequences, which decrees that even the best-intentioned legislation can produce effects that its framers neither foresee nor desire.  Unfortunately, such effects befell some of the legislation that Sen. Specter championed. 

We at Science Careers have long urged graduate programs to track and make public their graduates' and postdocs' career outcomes so that people considering Ph.D. programs and postdoc appointments can make informed choices. Recent studies from the National Academies and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) include similar recommendations. Now two U.S. senators, Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), have also joined forces to require institutions to reveal to prospective students and their parents what kind of return they may expect on their investments of time and money.

The "Student Right to Know Before You Go Act," which the senators are co-sponsoring, would require colleges to provide data about graduates' earnings. As presently written, the bill applies only to undergraduate degrees. As economist Richard Vedder of Ohio University in Athens writes in Bloomberg, it's not at all clear that income is necessarily the best measure of educational outcome because the specific fields that students pursue and career choices they make also greatly influence their earnings.

This bipartisan effort could, however, be a significant first step toward making educational institutions more accountable to those they ostensibly serve. Once a requirement for tracking student outcomes were in place, it probably could be relatively easily extended to include graduate programs. 

The bill, of course, is nowhere near becoming law. Vedder, furthermore, predicts that "the higher-education establishment will fight" any such requirement in order to safeguard elite colleges' cachet. Many graduate programs that recruit Ph.D. students and postdocs on the basis of faculty members' need for low-cost laboratory and instructional workers rather than on the basis of the career opportunities later available to graduates have also shown strikingly little interest in publicizing alumni outcomes.

As the reports from the National Academies and NIH propose, another approach to getting out information about graduate programs would be for funding agencies to require universities to report on the fate of the students and postdocs supported on their grants. To date, however, the largest agencies have shown no inclination to do so. 

Real progress on this issue therefore lies in the future. Still, it's encouraging that a serious conversation has at least begun.

Winning the Nobel Prize must be a very sweet experience.  But the connection between sweetness and science's highest accolade is closer than that, according to an (apparently serious) note in the  New England Journal of Medicine that found a "powerful correlation" between the number of Nobel Prizes a country wins and how much chocolate its people eat.  Does this suggest a new strategy for ambitious researchers hoping for that fabled call from Stockholm?

Switzerland, home of some of the world's most delectable confections, scored highest out of the 23 countries examined in the study in both "chocolate consumption per capita and and the number of Nobel laureates her 10 million people," writes physician Frank Messerli.  Sweden, however, bucked the trend in Messerli's data by producing almost 50 percent more Nobelists than its people's taste for cocoa products would have predicted. Masserli suggests that "an inherent patriotic bias" among the Stockholm-based committee that chooses the laureates or a special sensitivity to chocolate among the country's inhabitants may account for the country''s "outlier" status.

"Chocolate has been documented to increase cognitive function," Messerli wrote, by way of explaining the hitherto unnoticed connection.  He acknowledged, however, that "The cumulative dose of chocolate that is needed to sufficiently increase the odds of being asked to travel to Stockholm is uncertain." 

News of Messerli's finding caused Sven Lidin, who chairs the Nobel committee on chemistry, to laugh so much "that he could barely comment," reports the  Associated Press  (AP).  Lidin did, however, manage to state that doesn't "think there is any direct cause and effect," the AP continues.

Even so, boosting one's consumption of the delicious sweet not only is pleasant but can't do any harm, and may, as Messerli notes, also lower one's blood pressure--especially, I suspect, as one waits for the call from those men with the fluty accents.  It may even provide consolation when the call doesn't come.

Initially scheduled for today, the preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran on charges relating to the death of Sheri Sangji has been delayed until November 16, reports the Westwood-Century City Patch.

This delay was expected, we are reliably told, because Harran's legal team has filed a number of motions in advance of the hearing that require the judge's attention before it can be held.

Stay tuned for further coverage of this case.

October 9, 2012

The World Champion of Fraud

When the Nobel Prize committee announces this year's winners of science's highest accolade, one category they'll omit will be research fraud. But were there a prize for scientific malfeasance, the top contender would doubtlessly be Japanese anesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii, formerly of Toho University in Tokyo.

"Perhaps the greatest academic fraudster of the last 10 years," in the words of the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required for this article), Fujii reportedly authored (if that's the word) 193 journal articles, 172 of which investigators have declared fraudulent. This astounding figure makes him the record holder for most retractions, and "nearly doubles that of the current unofficial retraction record holder, Joachim Boldt," according to Retraction Watch

In the course of 23 years of extraordinary achievement in the realm of fraud, Fujii faked not only whole studies but even his affiliations with hospitals. He also used the names, and sometimes the forged signatures, of other researchers as co-authors on phony articles. "His work was almost a complete fiction, but he kept saying that it stood up because it had been accepted by so many journals," the Chronicle quotes Koji Sumikawa, president of Japan's Society of Anesthesiologists, as saying. Sumikawa led the investigation into Fujii's oeuvre and found that of 212 papers by Fujii, 3 were found to be solid and 172 to be fraudulent. Evidence was inconclusive for the remaining 37.

This conclusion, states Sumikawa in the Chronicle with world class understatement,  "indicates that there is something wrong with the system." Apart from continuing to publish Fujii's fabrications, journal editors failed to notice that Fujii's publication rate of about 10 papers per year is, according to Sumikawa, "just impossible with original research." Questions about Fujii's results began to surface more than a decade ago, but in the intervening period Fujii continued publishing and even landed his $110,000-a-year post at Toho University, which fired him in March.

In countries around the world, doctoral education, especially in science, engineering, and technology, is growing rapidly, with many countries looking to international collaboration as a means of enhancing their research capacity, finds a report issued in September as part of the CODOC project of the European University Association. Titled CODOC--Cooperation on Doctoral Education Between Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe, the report culminates a two-year international effort.

Doctorates awarded rose by half in the European countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) during the first decade of this century, but they doubled in Brazil and quadrupled in China during the same period, writes the report's author, Thomas Ekman Jørgensen in an article about the report at University World News. China is now the world's second largest producer of Ph.D.s after the United States, and Brazil's output matches that of France. In 2008, China awarded more than 43,000 Ph.D.s and in 2009 Brazil awarded more than 11,000. The great majority of the Ph.D.s awarded in the three non-OECD regions studied are in scientific and technical disciplines (including social sciences)--83% in Asia, 78% in Latin America, and 58% in southern Africa, according to the report.

For many developing countries, the report notes, national development strategies include research and innovation, and doctoral education is a significant element of that. Building capacity for research and graduate education is essential to achieving those goals, as is creating a critical mass of well-qualified scholars for a vigorous research culture. Many countries are thus working to increase the percentage of the people in their research and teaching institutions who hold doctorates. In southern Africa, institutions included in the study predicted that the percentage of their research personnel and faculty holding Ph.D.s will rise over the next 3 years from the current total of 33% to 41%. For Asia and Latin America, the predictions for rises over the same period were from the current 49% to 62% and from the current 31% to 40%, respectively. 

The drive to increase the numbers and enhance the qualifications of research and faculty personnel has created significant employment opportunities for Ph.D.s in those regions, in contrast to the situation in the United States and Europe, where academic posts are highly competitive. In the countries covered in the study, "The career prospects of doctoral graduates are wide-ranging and quite good. They usually take up senior positions appropriate to their skill level, with roughly the same proportions entering government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the universities. This also implies that universities face a challenge in achieving their intended growth in numbers of staff with doctorates," the report states. 

This challenge occurs because, as we've reported previously in this space, newly established or remote universities and colleges in countries with rapidly expanding higher educational systems often have difficulty providing salaries, facilities, working conditions, locations, and scholarly cultures that doctorate holders find attractive. This is especially the cade with the many Ph.D.s who have studied or worked in Europe or the United States. 

As the report notes, training and working conditions vary considerably among the various countries and regions studied. It's clear, however, that the push toward increased doctoral education as a means of building the "knowledge society" is likely to continue in many countries around the world.

You can find the report here.

British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) was one of the pivotal scientific figures of the 20th century, with an influence on daily life that today continues to grow around the world. In the 1930s, Turing did work fundamental to modern computers. During World War II, he led the team of code breakers at Bletchley Park, Britain's topflight cryptography center, that cracked Germany's Enigma naval code, a step that proved essential to the Allied victory.

Instead of receiving the thanks of a grateful and admiring nation, however, this mathematical genius and national hero was persecuted and prosecuted in the 1950s for his homosexuality. He took his own life at the age of 41. As "Codebreaker," a new film about Turing's life, makes clear, a country's political atmosphere has a very strong impact on scientists' lives and work. 

The war effort desperately needed the skills and talents of Turing and the other brilliant eccentrics--who included scientists, engineers, linguistic experts, and even crossword puzzle champions--assembled at Bletchley Park. Behavior considered unconventional was tolerated in the closed world of the top-secret establishment. After the war, Turing continued his work in both computing and cryptography, at a successor organization to Bletchley Park, which also required top-level security clearance.

The intensifying Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western powers, however, soon heightened concerns about national security and the danger of losing scientific secrets to the enemy. This increased society's demand for conformity and the pressure on gay men, who were considered serious security risks because they were thought to be especially susceptible to blackmail by foreign spy agencies. Back then in Britain, homosexual acts were crimes punishable by prison. In 1952, a series of minor events escalated into Turing's arrest and conviction on indecency charges. He lost his security clearance, and in lieu of a prison term, he was forced to undergo chemical castration. 

The film, which will have its U.S. theatrical premier in Washington, D.C., on October 17 and in New York on October 25, is an affecting drama-documentary about Turing's life and times rather than a detailed examination of his work. It has already appeared on British television and in Australia, Canada, Brazil, India, and a number of European countries, according to the American executive producer, Patrick Sammon, who spoke at a preview showing held in Washington, D.C., on October 4 and co-sponsored by the National Press Club and IEEE-USA. "Codebreaker" will also be seen in other U.S. cities and on cable television, says Sammon, who did not specify a schedule for showings.

Only decades after his death did Turing begin receiving the full recognition that his epoch-making contributions deserved, as the importance of computing exploded and the work at Bletchley Park, long bound up in official secrecy, was made public. In 2009 the British government offered an official apology for its treatment of Turing.

Favorable comments from peer reviewers are essential for getting articles published in reputable journals.  To assure that the papers they submitted saw print, unscrupulous researchers have obtained that all-important peer approval the easy way: by fraudulently writing the reviews themselves. 

Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required for this article) reports on scientists in South Korea, China, and Iran who submitted papers to international journals and gave fictitious e-mail addresses for the potential reviewers they recommended to journal editors.  In some cases, even the reviewers themselves were fictitious. In others, the dishonest authors apparently managed to enter and alter a journal's own database of real reviewers. 

The fake e-mail addresses routed the journal editors' requests for reviews back to the articles' authors.  In the guise of the being the reviewers, the authors sent back comments positive enough to win publication.  In the cases the Chronicle cites, the journals discovered the fraud and retracted the articles.

"I find it very shocking," the Chronicle quotes Laura Schmidt of Elsevier, the journal publisher.  But this form of fakery ought to be very easy to prevent with even minimal checking. My experience tracking down academics for interviews shows that getting an established academic's correct contact information is generally quick and easy.  Just about every university has an easily accessible online directory, so ten minutes of an editor's time ought to suffice for finding evidence that a suggested reviewer actually exists, as well as his or her accurate e-mail address.  Beyond that, social networking sites such as LinkedIn can also provide ways of getting in touch with people.  

And editors do need to be vigilant these days. As another Chronicle article documents (subscription not required), the great majority of journal retractions result from misconduct rather than from honest mistakes.  Citing an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (PNAS) the Chronicle notes that the prevalence of wrongdoing is highest in the most prestigious journals.  "Right now we're incentivizing a lot of behavior that's not actually constructive to science," says Ferric Fang,  one of the PNAS atricle's authors.  That behavior is happening because hiring committees and funding agencies tend to count, rather than to examine, applicants' publications, Fang continues.

As the competition for academic jobs and funding increases, so does the pressure to get articles published no matter what.  And the Internet obviously provides some interesting opportunities for innovative cheating.  That ought to put journals on notice that they need to take the extra effort required to give honest researchers a fair chance.

October 1, 2012

The Science Of Democracy

A new career path appears to be opening for some holders of American scientific Ph.D.s: becoming the leader of a newly democratic Arab government. 

The recently elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, holds a Ph.D. in materials science from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.  He served as an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge, before joining the faculty of Zagazig University in his native Egypt.  Mustafa Abushagur, whom Libya elected in September as its prime minister, also studied in the Golden State, earning his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena before joining the faculties of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and the University of Alabama in Huntsville.  He later became founding president of RIT's campus in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Tunisia's prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, also holds engineering degrees, but he pursued his graduate studies at the University of Paris rather than in the United States.