Science Careers Blog

January 2013

Recently we reported on a study of students at Duke University showing that minority students admitted to competitive colleges with large admissions preferences transfer out of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields much more often than do white students, who generally don't receive such large preferences.  The authors show that large preferences place the minority students, who generally have academic preparation inferior to their white classmates, at the bottom of the admitted class. This, in turn, puts them at a disadvantage when competing in STEM courses, usually the most demanding that colleges offer. Students of all races who earn STEM degrees overwhelmingly enter college with credentials that place them in the top or high middle of their classes.

The Duke study, we noted, offers support for the book Mismatch by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., which we also reported on. The book shows that minority students who attend colleges where they are in the middle or the top of the admitted class are far likelier to study STEM subjects than those who receive preferences at elite schools. Admissions preferences, the authors argue, perversely contribute to low minority representation in STEM fields.

Now, surprisingly, comes further confirmation from a Duke alumnus suddenly in the news, the newly appointed interim U.S. senator from Massacusetts and prominent Boston attorney William Cowan. 

A survey carried out at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM) suggests that the majority of researchers see interacting with patients' associations in a positive light. The preliminary results were presented today at the French senate as part of a conference gathering INSERM and patients' associations.

Yesterday, the French government announced the adoption of a charter aimed at helping France reach true gender equality in higher education.

The "Charter for Equality" (link goes to PDF) was put together by the Conference of University Presidents (CPU), the Conference of Grandes Ecoles (CGE), and the Conference of the Directors of French Engineering Schools (CDEFI), which together represent 300 universities and other higher education institutions in France. The charter is articulated around the wish to include gender-issues considerations at all levels within institutions; keep track of gender statistics; raise awareness of gender equality issues among staff and students; prevent all forms of gender violence; and use "non-sexist, non-discriminatory, non-stereotyped" language in institutional communication.

Some time back, Science Careers reported on the push by Qatar, the tiny but hugely wealthy Persian Gulf emirate, to achieve scientific eminence. In that article we also noted the similarly vigorous ambitions of Qatar's nearby and equally mega-rich neighbor, Saudi Arabia, to do likewise. And we mentioned how these efforts can spell real opportunity for scientists around the world who are willing and able to live and work in technologically advanced but socially conservative Muslim countries.

The opportunities in the Muslim world are even broader than we initially thought, suggests the 26 January edition of The Economist, because these two Arabian oil states are not the only Muslim-majority nations making rapid advances in building up science.

Recently Science Careers commented on Mismatch, a provocative and persuasive new book that examines the effects of giving large admissions preferences to minority college students. One of the unintended consequences of such measures, write authors Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., is to steer minority students away from majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This happens, they argue, because large preferences encourage students to attend colleges where their academic credentials place them toward the bottom of their college classes. Science majors, however, overwhelmingly come from the upper end of their college classes, regardless of where they go to college. Students admitted with large preferences--as many African American and Hispanic students are--are therefore deprived of the realistic opportunity to earn STEM degrees.

On 9 October 2012, by coincidence the same day that Mismatch hit the bookstores, the IZA Journal of Labor Economics published "What happens after enrollment? An analysis of the time path of racial differences in GPA and major choice." This study of Duke University students carried out by three Duke professors--economists Peter Arcidiacono and Estaban Aucejo and sociologist Ken Spenner--provides further evidence to support Sander and Taylor's argument. It tracked two classes of Duke undergraduates in all fields of the schools of arts and sciences and of engineering--a total of 1563 students--over the 4 years of their collegiate careers.  It found "dramatic shifts by black students from initial interest in the natural sciences, engineering and economics to majors in the humanities and social sciences."

The judge who last year convicted seven scientists and engineers of manslaughter--and sentenced them to 6 years in prison--for the advice they gave in advance of the 2009 Italian earthquake explained his verdict in a statement released last week. Edwin Cartlidge wrote about the decision on Monday in ScienceInsider, our sister publication. He also wrote a News Focus article on the trial last October.

The judge's decision raises a frightening but seemingly reasonable prospect: that, under certain circumstances, scientists may be held accountable for placing PR considerations ahead of their basic responsibilities as scientists. It's unclear whether the seven actually did so, but that is the judge's claim.

A new study that looked at data from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) found
that scientific misconduct occurs all along the academic career ladder, and that male
researchers are more likely to engage in misconduct than their female counterparts.

In the study, which was published today in the online open-access journal mBio®, Ferric Fang of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, Joan Bennett of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, and Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City analyzed the findings of the cases of misconduct investigated by ORI. Based on the ORI annual reports, the study's authors found a total of 228 individuals to have committed misconduct since 1994.

A study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania reveals that psychiatrists who were exposed to conflict of interest (COI) policies during their residency are less likely than peers who lack similar training to prescribe brand-name antidepressants, which are heavily promoted to psychiatrists and tend to be more expensive.

"Our study clearly shows that implementation of COI policies have helped shield physicians from the often persuasive aspects of pharmaceutical promotion," first author Andrew Epstein stated in the press release. The results will be published in the February issue of the journal Medical Care, and are already available online (though you'll need to have a subscription or buy the article if you want to read more than the abstract). 

If the results are correct, the significance may extend far beyond the very important issue of COI in medical training.

January 18, 2013

Do-It-Yourself Outsourcing

Why wait for your employer to outsource your job to a low-wage country and pocket the difference in wage levels when you can enhance your own income by doing it yourself?  With many research workers, engineers and tech workers worried about their jobs moving overseas, a "star programmer" at an American firm figured out a creative and lucrative variation, reports Steven Poole in the Sydney Morning Herald.

This worker, identified only as "Bob," hired a programmer in China to do his work for a fraction of his "six-figure salary," Poole writes.  "Bob" then split his office days between leisurely web surfing and taking on additional gigs from other clients that he also outsourced to China.  He ended up earning not only several times his main salary, but also kudos from his main employer as one of the company's best producers.

As part of the sweeping program to curb gun violence that President Barack Obama announced on 16 January, he issued a Presidential memorandum calling on federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to study both the causes of gun injuries and ways to prevent them. With this action, he lifted the ban on such research that Congress established with the encouragement of the National Rifle Association.  He also urged Congress to provide $10 million to fund the studies.

Most of the articles Science Careers publishes are written by professional writers, but in addition we publish two types of articles that are usually contributed by readers: Perspectives and In Person. For these, we welcome your submissions.

Perspectives are op-ed articles that offer lucid, well-informed analyses of issues relevant to careers in the sciences: diversity, work-life balance, career opportunities, management skills, workforce policy, and so on. They typically are written by people with standing or expertise on the issue. For example, last October, sociologist Ruth Müller, whose dissertation focused on the academic landscape that today's postdoctoral scientists are working in, wrote about how career "bottlenecks"--that is, the widely known challenge of finding a job--affect the attitudes and choices postdocs make. In April, Stephanie Pfirman and Melissa Begg wrote about the career-related challenges of working in an interdisciplinary field. Perspective pieces should have something interesting and original to say, and be written in an engaging, accessible style; we're not seeking technical journal articles.

January 15, 2013

Marketing Yourself

Last fall, I was interviewed by F. Kay Kidder, a writer for Lab Manager magazine, on the topic of marketing--specifically, whether and how scientists should market themselves using tools similar to those that people selling products and services have long deployed. Here's the resulting article, which I just found yesterday.

The assumption behind the self-marketing ideas is that in the age of ubiquitous publicity and networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and blogs, professional scientists need to decide whether, to what extent, and how to put themselves out there before their peers and the general public.

This was the second time I'd been interviewed on this topic; the first time was for Marc Kuchner's blog. Kuchner is an astrophysicist and the author of Marketing for Scientists. (If you click on that link and read the interview, please ignore the provocative title.)

At the core of this discussion is an important career-related issue. It has to do with the fact that as a professional scientist you have more than one audience: the primary one--your scientific colleagues--and the rest (mainly the general public, but also policy makers and other potential stakeholders). In one camp are those--I'd say Kuchner is in this camp--who say that in order to succeed, scientists should use all the tools at their disposal to get their names out there. In the other camp is--well, me. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are fine tools--but early-career scientists aiming to become established within a research community need to be aware that although it is changing, science remains a conservative culture--one that may punish you for seeming to care too much about the wrong things.

Medical students are selected as much for their character as for their knowledge. The trait most valued (or that should be the most valued) is empathy. Ironically, studies show an erosion of empathy during medical school. Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

More than 70 prominent researchers from epidemiology, neuroscience, psychology, economics, psychiatry, biostatistics, criminology, sociology, surgery, law, business, nursing, emergency medicine, forensic science, public policy, and other fields have joined forces to send a letter to Vice President Biden asking that his forthcoming recommendations to President Obama on preventing gun violence include removing "the current barriers to firearm-related research, policy formation, evaluation and enforcement efforts."  In addition, the researchers urge, the federal government should "make direct investments in unbiased scientific research and data infrastructure" on gun issues.

Last month, Science Careers profiled three young scientists who contributed to proving the existence of the long-sought Higgs Boson, at the European particle physics laboratory (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland. Science declared the discovery the Breakthrough of the Year for 2012.

But this isn't the only thing young scientists at CERN have been up to. A small group of physics Ph.D. students and postdocs have been shooting a 75-minute zombie movie set at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

New penalties for academic fraud went into force across China on 1 January.  The Ministry of Education has announced its intention to crack down on students, faculty members, and other academics who commit plagiarism, fabricate research results, or engage in the widespread practices of purchasing or dealing in academic papers, dissertations, or other academic writings produced by the country's thriving composed-to-order trade.

"The regulation, seen as part of a broader campaign to stamp out academic misconduct, which is harming the country's reputation internationally, is being described in state-run media as the 'first of its kind' in the country," says the University World News.  Under the new rules, plagiarism on theses can result in denial of degrees at all levels, as well as withdrawal of degrees awarded in the past.  Misconduct could also lead to the expulsion of students and banning them from reapplying for a period of years, as well as the dismissal of university faculty and staff members.

We recently reported on the growing confusion over the treatment of adjunct faculty members under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The law requires that large employers provide insurance for full-time employees, who are defined as those working more than 30 hours a week. Despite that seemingly simple definition, exactly who qualifies is often unclear, and on some campuses, adjuncts' hours have been cut to prevent institutions from being responsible for their health insurance. Faculty groups have declared that such moves are "unfair and represent an over-reaction to the situation," notes Inside Higher Ed. "(Most faculty leaders say that colleges should be paying the health insurance for these adjuncts anyway.)" (I couldn't agree more!)

The Internal Revenue Service, meanwhile, has partially clarified the murky situation with proposed rules issued on 2 January. This document also invites members of the public to submit written comments by mail or via the Internet by 18 March and announces a public hearing on 23 April. You can be pretty sure that the major academic lobbying organizations will be weighing in on this question; it wouldn't hurt if some of the people actually toiling as adjuncts were to do likewise. Instructions for submitting comments and obtaining further information on the commenting process, the hearing agenda, and how to attend can be found here.

Academic researchers generally consider their labs safe, even though the great majority of labs routinely violate basic principles of safe practice and many fail to provide adequate training and emphasis on safety.  This dismaying--though not surprising--conclusion emerged in a preliminary analysis of data from an international survey conducted through a collaboration of Nature, the safety company BioRaft (which has a financial relationship with Digital Science, a sister company of NPG), and the University of California (UC) Center for Laboratory Safety.  Results from what is apparently the first large-scale survey of lab safety practices were announced on 2 January. They were not encouraging.

Most people seeking their first faculty position have spent much of their recent time immersed in research. But, as Messiah College department chair and hiring committee veteran John Fea reminds job seekers at Inside Higher Ed, "the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities ... stress teaching over research." These institutions, which also account for the majority of faculty jobs, include "elite and not-so-elite liberal arts colleges, private comprehensive colleges, and non-flagship state universities," he writes, not to mention community colleges.

Landing a faculty job, therefore, could very likely entail convincing a hiring committee that, whatever your research qualifications, you can also deliver what they need most: high-quality instruction for their students. This means, Fea notes, that your ability as a researcher is not nearly "as important to the search committee at a teaching college as it might be if you were interviewing at a research university." Committee members will probably show interest in your research, but what they really want to know--and on what they will ultimately judge you--Fea writes, is "what you will do for them in the classroom."

Florida's Governor Rick Scott has proposed giving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors a break on tuition at state universities on the theory that those fields provide great career opportunities and that more STEM  graduates will boost the economy.  But, "More STEM degrees may not equal more jobs," reports Michael Vasquez in a generally thoughtful article published in the Miami Herald on 8 December--despite a couple of cheap shots directed our way.