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Science Careers Blog

Beryl Lieff Benderly

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."

California state investigator Brian Baudendistel continued his testimony on 20 November in the hearing to determine whether UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran will stand trial on felony charges of occupational safety violations that resulted in the death of Sheri Sangji. From a detailed summary of his statements during his first day testifying (19 November) by Michael Torrice at Chemical & Engineering News, it appears that Baudendistel recounted information in the 95-page investigative report he prepared for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. 

Also testifying on 20 November was chemical safety expert Neal Langerman. Sangji "absolutely did not have sufficient skill, knowledge or training to be handling tert-Butyllium," Langerman testified, according to the San Jose Mercury News. He added that the Harran lab lacked appropriate equipment and protective clothing.

Because of scheduling issues, cross examination will take place on 18 December, the Mercury News reports.

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.

In a year when many recent graduates are struggling to find work, those who received Professional Science Masters (PSM) degrees during the 2010-11 or 2011-12 academic year appear to be enjoying high levels of well-paid employment, according to a report released on 18 September by the Council of Graduate Schools, an association of more than 500 North American universities. The survey was conducted in June and July 2012.

Graduates of 81 different programs run at 44 universities responded to the survey, out of the total of 291 PSM programs currently offered by 126 universities. Just over 90 percent of the respondents graduating in 2010-2011 and 78 percent of those graduating in 2011-12 reported being employed, more than 90 percent of them in jobs related to their field of study. [Editor's note: Those employment rates may not sound that great--9+% reported not having jobs a year after graduating--but the majority of those not employed reportedly were pursuing more education; presumably that means that after completing the PSM they decided to learn some more science, most often, one suspects, pursuing a Ph.D. Readers can decide for themselves whether that is a good outcome. According to the survey just 3.2% of 2011 PSM graduates were unemployed in the usual sense.]

Two thirds of all respondents reported earning above $50,000 a year, with 20 percent reporting a salary of $60,000 to $69,000 and 4 percent over $100,000. The earlier graduates, not surprisingly, commanded higher salaries than the more recent ones. More than three out of four of the total respondents worked in industry. More than four out of five of the respondents declared themselves satisfied with the degree.

The lower employment rate for the 2011-12 graduates may, the report suggests, reflect the fact that the survey was taken soon after many members of that cohort finished their studies. 

September 19, 2012

Parenting On The Tenure Track

The other day, this blog discussed an assistant professor's controversial solution to the sick child problem, one of the many challenges facing academics who are parents. Now Kirstie Ramsey, a pseudonymous untenured faculty member in a STEM field, considers the larger question: when is the right time for an academic try to "expand your family?" Her thoughtful and helpful essay at Inside Higher Ed combines her own experience with what has obviously been deep thinking on the topic. 

No answer is right for everyone, she knows, and things don't always work out how or when we plan or hope. (Note that she sagely speaks of trying to have a child). But there are questions that can help faculty members of both genders to clarify both the practicalities of the issue and their own values. She lists and discusses some of the important ones. You can find her essay here.

When a working group from the National Institutes of Health issued a long-awaited report in June on securing the future of the biomedical workforce, one of its most important recommendations was to establish many more positions in research labs for career staff scientists. Now HHMI Bulletin has profiled five such long-term lab members, dubbed "The Indispensables," and the crucial work they do in some very prominent labs. Providing stability and deep expertise, these highly skilled and dedicated professionals are "critical to that lab's success," writes HHMI president Robert Tjian in an accompanying editorial.

"Recognizing the role of research professionals in today's laboratory organizations is important not only to the individuals who contribute their services but also to the research enterprise as a whole," Tjian adds. Very true. Such recognition will both inspire talented people to consider such careers and encourage institutions to give them status and remuneration commensurate with their crucial contributions. Take a look at the profiles to see just how crucial--and just how interesting and challenging--their work is. Without these frequently under-appreciated scientists, the article quite accurately states, "modern science could not get done."

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives plan to hold a vote this week on a bill to create a new category of automatic green card for foreign scientists and engineers who earn doctorates in the United States, reports the National Journal. The White House and other Democrats are reportedly trying to dampen enthusiasm by arguing that the vote is premature and there has been insufficient time to examine the bill and its ramifications.

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), for example, also intends to introduce a "staple" bill of his own, reports Computerworld. The House bill and Schumer's are not identical, however, and Schumer's bill is "being used as a vehicle to attack" the Rebublican's House Bill, Computerworld adds. The Senator's bill, for example, limits the proposed green cards to graduates of non-profit institutions, while the House bill to be voted on would permit degrees from certain for-profit institutions to be eligible.

A cluster of personality traits predicts success in graduate school, according to an overview of research on the subject in the current issue of gradPSYCH, a magazine published by the American Psychological Association.  Topping the list of characteristics contributing to successful graduate work is intellectual curiosity.  Intelligence, both cognitive and emotional, is also crucial, but conscientiousness, "which includes self-discipline, future planning and the ability to work hard," ranks even higher, the article says.  Resilience and the ability to take criticism and use it to improve also play major roles.

How's this for the ultimate in work-life balance? 

Stuck with a sick baby and no good back-up daycare on the first day of class, anthropologist  Adrienne Pine, an assistant professor at American University in Washington, D.C., took the child to class.  While she lectured--aptly enough on "Sex, Gender and Culture"--she kept an eye on the crawling baby.  For part of the time, Pine's teaching assistant went beyond her job description, overriding Pine's insistence that she didn't have to help out, and held the child.  Finally, Pine quieted the baby by breastfeeding as she taught.

Our coverage of the Sheri Sangji case, in which a 23-year-old research technician suffered fatal burns, has concentrated on its ramifications for academic research laboratories. The potential repercussions of the accident, however, extend beyond the research enterprise to the clinical and pathology labs that do studies to determine the medical condition of patients, says an expert on that industry. 

Writing in DARK Daily, a trade publication covering clinical and pathology labs, editor-in-chief Robert Michel notes that the Sangji case "may create a precedent for liability in research laboratory settings as well as for accidents in pathology and clinical laboratories." A spokesman for the American Clinical Laboratory Association tells Science Careers that the United States has more than 100,000 clinical labs. Michel advises clinical chemists, and by extension, others employed in such labs, to follow the case. 

"What bears watching as this case moves toward a final resolution is what new legal precedents may result," Michel states. "It is the first time that criminal charges have been filed against a university and a professor following a laboratory accident and legal experts believe it won't be the last."

Michel also discusses the case of another "young laboratory research associate," 25-year-old Richard Din, who died in May 2011 less than a day after being exposed to the deadly Niesseria meningitis virus while working at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

"The deaths of both Din and Sangji--along with the criminal charges filed in the Sangji case--are warnings that the laboratory safety bar is being raised, along with penalties for not taking required safety precautions," Michel warns. "For that reason, everyone associated with clinical laboratory medicine and anatomical pathology should take notice of these developments and take the necessary steps to maintain the highest level of safety in their clinical labs and research labs."

The fact that Michel sees beneficial effects of these cases on lab safety standards in his industry is very good news indeed.

Representatives from higher education institutions in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia met last week in Seeon, Germany, at the Sixth Annual Strategic Leaders Global Summit, an event co-hosted by Germany's Technische Universitat Munchenthe and the Council of Graduate Schools, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. The meeting's theme was "From Brain Drain to Brain Circulation: Graduate Education for Global Career Pathways."

"Brain circulation," meeting attendees noted in a consensus statement issued 6 September, is the "mutli-directional flow of talents, education and research that benefit multiple countries and regions and the advancement of global knowledge." In an era when many scientists and scholars move between several countries to pursue training and research, the statement suggests, "brain circulation" often more accurately describes international mobility than "brain drain," which implies a unidirectional flow that only benefits certain countries.

"Today's doctoral and master's students will enter and lead a rapidly globalizing research enterprise. In a world where technology and research offer new opportunities for global collaboration, all early-stage researchers must be prepared for the challenges and opportunities of a globalizing workforce," declared educational leaders from 15 countries.

The statement also lists 10 "principles for supporting global careers" that educational institutions should follow. Among other advice, the principles state that institutions should "integrate international experiences and training into graduate degree programs"; "provide robust support systems, programs and services for international students and early-state researchers"; "prepare graduate students for ethical issues ... in a globalizing workforce"; and "encourage funding agencies to allocate funding for international research experience and global competency training for PhD candidates."

Meeting organizers plan to publish the proceedings in 2013.

Marc Hauser, the former Harvard psychology professor whose career and reputation imploded amid university findings of scientific misconduct, "fabricated data," "falsified coding," "falsely reported...results", and committed other violations, according to a report issued 5 September  by the federal Office of Research Integrity. As stated in the report, Hauser "neither admits nor denies" wrongdoing, but "accepts ORI has found evidence of research misconduct."

As reported by the Chronicle of Higher EducationHauser appears, however, to acknowledge only limited responsibility for the tainted results published under his name. In fact, in a move that highlights the vulnerability of young researchers who work in the labs of unscrupulous senior scientists, Hauser seems to be trying to lay off onto unknown others the blame for actions the ORI report ascribes to him. By way of explaining the situation, he declares in a statement quoted in the Chronicle that "I let important details get away from my control, and as head of the lab, I take responsibility for all errors made in the lab, whether or not I was directly involved."

These so-called "errors" of supposedly uncertain origin occurred because "I tried to do too much, teaching courses, running a large lab of students, sitting on several editorial boards, directing the Mind, Brain & Behavior Program at Harvard, conducting multiple research collaborations, and writing for the general public," he goes on. The arduous duties of a big-time academic apparently led him, the statement seems to imply, to making up or changing data.

Who are the unnamed others purportedly "involved" in the "errors"? Hauser's statement seems to implicate lab members, who would very likely be powerless and dependent "at-will employees and graduate students," in the words of a former research assistant of Hauser's quoted by the Chronicle. Some of them, at great cost to their own careers, brought his wrongdoing to light. All of them, it appears, were at risk of blame they did not deserve from a man whom, in the research assistant's words, "they should have been able to trust."

A plea of not guilty was entered today at Los Angeles Superior Court for Patrick Harran, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) professor facing felony charges for violations of California occupational health and safety laws that resulted in the death of laboratory assistant Sheri Sangji. The defense objected to Harran being arraigned, but the judge entered the plea and scheduled a preliminary hearing on October 9 to determine whether evidence is sufficient to merit a trial. Harran faces up to 4 1/2 years imprisonment if convicted.

The Regents of the University of California were also charged in connection with the case, but in July they reached a settlement that resulted in the charges being dropped.  As part of the settlement, they accepted "responsibility for the conditions" in the laboratory at the time of the fire that caused Sangji's fatal injuries. The settlement also requires extensive corrective actions by the university.

September 4, 2012

The Worth of a Science Ph.D.

Is getting a science Ph.D. worth the effort? Daniel Lametti, who expects to finish his in the coming academic year, thinks it definitely is. His reasons, as he explains in an essay at Slate, come down to an admirable love of science, especially of research, and an enjoyment of the freedom and intellectual stimulation that the graduate school lifestyle can afford. He also takes justifiable pride in the Ph.D. as a major accomplishment and as a contribution, through his dissertation research, to the world's supply of knowledge. (The article does not identify his university but suggests that it is in Montreal.)

But Lametti also offers his opinion on the state of the scientific job market, expressing his doubt that it is, as labor force experts have long known, quite weak. I wish that the skills he deployed in researching this topic came anywhere close to those he is presumably using to earn his neuroscience PhD. He seems unaware of the voluminous scholarly literature on the scientific job market and cites no recognized authorities in his opinions.

A naturalized American citizen born in China who earned a master's degree in physics at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and worked for nearly a decade at Motorola, today received a 4-year prison sentence and a fine of $20,000 for what a judge in Chicago called a "very serious raid" on the company's trade secrets, the Associated Press reports. 

A random security check at Chicago's O'Hare Airport led to officials finding that Hanjuan Jin was attempting to board a flight to China carrying 1000 confidential company documents and $31,000 in cash. In addition, she had with her confidential materials from the Chinese military and it was discovered that she was also an employee of a Chinese company that does development work for China's military. Though convicted of stealing trade secrets, she was not convicted of the more serious charge of committing economic espionage to help the Chinese military. The judge ruled that the evidence for that charge was insufficient.

The patents held by U.S. universities, hospitals, and other research institutions produced a total of $1.5 billion in licensing income and $2.5 billion in overall income for the institutions in 2011, according to a survey of 183 U.S. institutions by the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). Up 2.6% and 5% respectively from the previous year, these figures indicate "very strong" activity in licensing products and creating startup companies, "despite continuing economic difficulties," states a summary issued yesterday by AUTM. 

The survey also noted increases in the number of new patent applications the institutions filed (13,271, up 11% over the previous year), the number of companies they formed (671, up 3%), and the number of already established companies that remained in business (3,927, up 7%). Overall, 591 new products were commercialized in 2011. The products helping to finance universities include, notes the Chronicle of Higher Education, sophisticated medical devices and computer applications and the supermarket favorite Gatorade sports drinks, long a standby of the University of Florida's income stream.

Northwestern University led the 157 universities that responded to the survey with patent income of almost $192 million, according to a useful chart published by Inside Higher Ed. Though second in patent income, at $182 million, the University of California (UC) system (with its 10 campuses listed as a single entity) was far ahead of the pack in the number of patents issued--343, followed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with 174. UC also had the highest number of new startups established-- 58, to 21 for second-place University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. 

Researchers who work on campus-based innovations can also often share in the proceeds, whether as patent holders or as principals or key employees of startup companies. Much of this income goes to senior faculty members. Depending on their contribution to a project resulting in a patent, however, junior researchers can also get to participate. Considering that good jobs in academe and many large industrial companies remain hard to find these days, commercialization and patenting therefore appear to offer increasingly significant potential career opportunities that creative and ambitious early-career scientists should consider.


August 27, 2012

A "Giant Leap for Mankind"

No one who heard them live will ever forget two sentences that Neil Armstrong spoke in July 1969, in his flat, calm, Middle American voice. That voice, an indelible part of human history, has been stilled by his death, at 82, on 25 August. During his career Armstrong modestly described himself as a "white-sock, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer," reports the Los Angeles Times. But he also proved himself a steel-nerved, dauntless, and extremely skilled flyer as a Korean War pilot, a test pilot, and the commander of Apollo 11, the mission that became a milestone in the history of space exploration.

Back in those days Armstrong, along with his crewmates and fellow astronauts Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins, became the world-famous human faces of the U.S. space program. Combining technical training and expertise with dramatic physical courage, the astronauts inspired in countless young people an interest in science and technology. Armstrong held a bachelors in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University and a masters in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California, and in his post-astronaut years he served as professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Aldrin held a D.Sc. in astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Collins a bachelors degree in engineering from the United States Military Academy. 

Armstrong's death brings memories not only of an unforgettable day, but of an era when the excitement of vast new frontiers of discovery gave work in science and technology tremendous prestige and when ample government support of the space program offered qualified persons attractive careers. The landing on the moon highlighted the work of the many thousands of scientists, engineers, and other workers who had contributed to the effort.

The 16,000 graduate students who work as research assistants on the campuses of the University of California (UC) and California State University may soon gain the right to unionize, reports the Associated Press (AP). A bill to extend that right, which is already enjoyed by teaching assistants and UC postdocs, has passed the state senate on 25 August. It had already passed the legislature's lower house and now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature to become law.

Introduced in both houses by Democrats representing UC Berkeley, the bill faced opposition by Republicans wanting to avoid additional costs to the state that would likely follow unionization. "Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from Twin Peaks, blamed most of the extra costs on benefits and pay for university employees who belong to public employee unions," the AP writes. People in authority aren't usually so blatant about the institutional benefits of exploiting graduate students.

An erstwhile academician is facing criminal charges of stealing nearly a third of a million dollars as a result of falsely claiming to have earned a Ph.D. at Rush University, the health sciences institution in Chicago. The indictment alleges that, because of her bogus assertion of graduate studies and a doctorate, Carol Howley, who taught at Chicago's Richard J. Daley College, received $307,000 more in salary than she would have based on her actual qualifications, reports the Chicago Tribune.  

Howley allegedly told a hiring committee she was doing graduate work at Rush when she landed the job at Daley in 1995. She later claimed to have completed her doctorate, the indictment states. It was not until a potential employer in Colorado contacted Rush to confirm Howley's qualifications that the falsehood was discovered. Not only did Howley not receive a Ph.D. from Rush in January 1997, she never even studied there, the university stated.

And in case prosecutors want to further strengthen their case, there's additional evidence that Howley lacks the ability even to adequately research her false statements: According to John Gasiorowski, inspector general for the City Colleges of Chicago, as quoted in the article, "Rush told us, 'We don't even have graduation in January.' "

A while back we commented on an astute essay about choosing an adviser written by Karen Kelsky, a former tenured anthropology professor and department chair who now uses her ability to decode cultural systems as a professional career consultant to aspiring academics. Now, at Inside Higher EdKelsky turns her penetrating eye to another sensitive subject, the relative weight of a Ph.D. from a very elite institution, such as a member of the Ivy League or one of a handful of other ultra-high-profile universities. 

From her experience as an academic job seeker, search committee member, and career consultant to hundreds of academic job applicants, Kelsky has concluded that the aura of eliteness that those schools project counts for much less in today's brutal academic hiring jungle than many people (especially graduates and faculty of those schools and some graduates of less prestigious institutions) appear to believe. That aura doesn't count for nothing, she admits, but, in her opinion, it is way overrated.

For science-based careers, some people assume that graduate school is essential.   A program at Montgomery College (MC), the public community college--yes community college--for Montgomery County, Maryland, on 18 August graduated 18 people trained to work as managers of clinical trials. (Unlike most community college programs, by the way, this one requires that students already have a bachelors degree). 

Located in "DNA alley," a region with more than 500 life science companies close to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, the program appears to be only one of its kind, reports the Gazette of Montgomery County.   The college's offerings also include a program that teaches scientists the industrial skills they need to work as companies' chief science officers.

The Journal of Commercial Biotechnology invites aspiring biotech entrepreneurs to enter their business pitches in its Biotech Pitch Contest. Each quarter of the year, the person submitting the best business pitch will win a free one-year subscription to the journal. 

"This contest promises to deliver enhance [sic] visibility for nascent biotech enterprises, and to provide valuable feedback to emerging entrepreneurs. It is also the perfect opportunity for biotech students to prepare business pitches and receive feedback from active biotechnology practitioners," the journal states in a media release. Information on entering the contest is here.

Ordinarily, students are trained to provide correct answers.  But, coming up with original ideas--the kind that really make a difference--often requires first being wrong, and sometimes repeatedly, notes Williams College math professor Edward Burger in an eye-opening and inspiring essay at Inside Higher Ed.  So, to teach students that it's right to be wrong, he rewards their mistakes, going so far as to require a certain level of creative failure to ace his courses. 

For many graduate students and postdocs, a tenured position at a reputable university is the most devoutly desired goal. Computer scientist Terran Lane, a former associate professor at the University of New Mexico, however, attained the position so many dream of and then gave it all up, including tenure, to go work for Google. He explains his reasons for walking away from the many advantages of a lifetime academic job in a thoughtful and provocative essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The factors that affected his decision are both personal and professional, and some of them may apply more to computer fields than to other disciplines. But anyone considering an academic career could benefit from his trenchant observations about the disspiriting trends--budget cuts, increased pressure to win grants, lessened autonomy, decreasing interest in exploratory research--that affect academic scientists generally and that, to Lane at least, make working in industry more attractive.

August 20, 2012

Monkey Business in the Lab?

Giving new meaning to the term "laboratory misconduct," a lab technician found "drunk and not fully clothed in the locker room for technicians of an animal research lab" at Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta has been placed under arrest, reports Inside Higher Ed. In addition to the errant technician, two of the lab's monkeys were also found on the loose. "No animals were harmed during the incident," says a university statement, adding that "employees are expected to conduct themselves, at all times, with integrity and respect."

Most laboratory misconduct appears motivated by a desire to advance a scientific career, but a piece of research reported elsewhere in Inside Higher Ed suggests another possible motivation for this unusual behavior: Sociologist Carolyn Hsu of Colgate University and New York University law student Landon Reid reported at the American Sociological Association on a survey revealing that "students who engage in binge drinking were happier" than non-bingers, writes Inside Higher Ed. What's more, male fraternity members are "likelier than others to binge drink and to be happy about it" than others. Who knew?

But clearly, the 32-year-old technician, not being a frat boy, was mistaken if he expected drinking to increase his happiness. No information is available about the happiness of the monkeys.

Vannevar Bush, who designed the architecture of American research at the end of World War II, called science "the endless frontier." Last week, while vacationing at Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies, I got a surprising insight into what he meant.

I first rode the gondola lift to the top of Sulphur Mountain overlooking the town of Banff. There, at 7500 feet above sea level, you find an awesome vista of majestic peaks in every direction as far as the eye can see, the products of immense geological and meteorological forces over enormous stretches of time. 

You also find the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray National Historic Site, which consists of a large plaque (in English and French) and a small, one-story stone building. It commemorates a research station established in 1956 as part of Canada's contribution to the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58, a worldwide effort to understand our planet and the forces that created it and continue to affect it. Sulphur Mountain was one of nine cosmic ray stations Canada built for the project, among 99 devoted to the subject around the globe.

So you want to become an Internet sensation, pick up 20,000 Twitter followers in a day and have your name turn up hundreds of times on Google?  How's this for a clever strategy: Get a bachelors in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at the University of Washington and a masters at MIT, and work for nine years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.  Then, on the night when the whole world is glued to television screens for Seven Minutes of Terror, sit behind your computer at the mission control sporting, above your blue NASA shirt and under your headset, a thick black Mohawk adorned with yellow and red stars.

A piece of mail arrives addressed to "Dear sir" when you're more accurately addressed as "madam." A clueless colleague remarks upon meeting you that he couldn't tell from reading your scientific publications that you are a woman. What should you do when you're a member of a group with low representation in your professional field and you suffer a small but noticeable slight? 

The examples above actually happened to a female science professor who writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education under the nom de keyboard of, well, Female Science Professor about these experiences and how she dealt with them. She advises that sometimes objecting to the slight can bring change but can also make enemies. And sometimes a response isn't necessary. A male scientist who heard Prof. Clueless's comment, for example, called him an idiot to his face before a group of colleagues.

As we noted a couple of months ago while discussing Breaking Into the Lab, a new book by Sue V. Rosser of San Francisco State University, slights of this kind--which the literature on discrimination calls micro-inequities--may mean little when considered as individual instances, but over time their effects can accumulate into genuine harm to one's career. As a "real and persistent feature of our professional lives," they demand attention, although knowing exactly what to do in each case can be tricky, Female Science Professor writes. If you have experienced such small indignities--or if you have ever inflicted them--her essay is worth reading.


Does this sound familiar?  Bright, ambitious young people make huge investments in an educational program they have been led to believe will lead to interesting, significant, and financially comfortable careers.  Once through their studies, however, most find themselves not only unable to land the jobs they thought they were preparing for but struggling to achieve any sort of decent standard of living. 

No, this isn't another critique of the Ph.D./postdoc academic Ponzi scheme.  Instead, I'm summarizing the situation of many newly minted lawyers, as reported in a Washington Post review of a new book entitled Failing Law Schools. The author, Brian Tamanaha, is a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Presumably, he knows what he's talking about when he writes, (quoted by reviewer Charles Lane), "Many law professors at many law schools across the country are selling a degree that they would not recommend to people close to them."

That too has a familiar ring. 

For former rock musician Adam Steltzner, the performance planned for 5 August ranks as the biggest, most nerve-wracking, most important, and potentially most brilliant debut of his career. Though Steltzner still wears an Elvis-style duckbill haircut along with snakeskin boots, National Public Radio's Joe Palca reports, it isn't an audience's reaction to their performance that has had him and his cohorts on pins and needles for months. Rather, it is how the NASA Mars rover Curiosity will perform in its extremely tricky landing on the planet's surface.  Steltzner headed up the design team that has spent nearly 10 years dreaming up and bringing to fruition a totally new approach to landing a vehicle on Mars. 

In his route from rock music to Mars rocks, Steltzner made some career choices unusual for people in his line of work.  An indifferent student throughout his school career, he heard from his teachers and even his father that he was unlikely to accomplish anything of value in life, let alone triumph in rocket science.  After intensely studying "sex, drugs and rock and roll" in high school," Steltzner told Palca, he tried for stardom on the bass guitar--unsuccessfully--when he graduated, bypassing college. But one night while returning home from a gig, he became enthralled by the movement of the constellation Orion. 

His fascination led him to sign up for a community college physics class.  His newly discovered love of learning and need to know about the heavens led to a Ph.D. in engineering physics and a career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he and his team designed Curiosity. And that could lead, as the King of Rock and Roll might have put it, to good rockin' on Monday.

Steltzner is not the only rock guitarist to combine spacey music with space science. Brian May of the band Queen has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, along with more hit songs than Steltzner could dream of.  But if Curiosity functions as hoped, Steltzner will be the only rocker in the known universe whose team has scored a hit of interplanetary proportions.

We've all heard warnings to be careful with our credit card receipts, checks, and online passwords to avoid identity theft.  But now it appears that academics with common names may have to be careful with their scholarly publications as well. 

A faculty member at Beijing University of Chemical Technology falsely claimed seven publications of a Yale University researcher with a similar name, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The Beijing fraudster, who has since been fired, was applying for research funds that the Chinese government offers to scholars who have come home from overseas.  Fang Zhouzi, an internationally known campaigner against academic fraud,  exposed the identity theft.

(Incidentally, such abuses would be much more rare if a researcher ID system, such as ORCID, were widely adopted.)

A physics graduate student who abandoned a Ph.D. in science for an MBA and the world of finance--and went on to make an Internet fortune--has decided to make some of the people who stuck with physics rich.  Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, an investor in Facebook and other internet companies, has established an annual prize in fundamental physics that awards nearly times as much money as the Nobel, the Guardian reports. (The Nobel take is split among up to three winners, whereas winners of the Milner prize receive the full amount.)  The first nine winners, selected by Milner himself and just announced, will each receive $3 million. These nine winners will constitute next year's selection committee.

In contrast to the Nobel Prizes, which are limited to three winners each, Milner's prize can go to any number of winners and anyone can submit an online nomination. 

There's good news for young physicists, too.  Milner will award a yearly New Horizons in Physics award to scientists who shows great promise early in their careers. None of the first nine awards were New Horizons awards.

So, thanks to Milner, lucky (and brilliant) physicists no longer have to go to Wall Street to become multimillionaires.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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. 

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.
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?

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

The Debate Club at US News has taken up an issue dear to our hearts here at Science Careers: the STEM labor force: The 25 March edition focuses on the widely publicized proposals to "staple a green card" to every scientific and technical diploma earned in the United States in order to meet a purported shortage of STEM graduates.

Seven writers square off on the issue, several of whom--Ron Hira, Norm Matloff, and Hal Salzman--will be familiar to many Science Careers readers. These three are widely respected as scholars of STEM labor force issues--in stark contrast to the figures from business and industry who regularly argue for increasing the current supply of cheap, highly skilled scientific and technical labor.

Hira, Matloff, and Salzman, two other writers (one of whom US News misleadingly counts as favoring the overall "stapling" proposal) present cogent, well-documented arguments against any such blanket action. They show that no shortage of able STEM graduates exists in the United States and why the proposal would harm both the already overcrowded U.S. STEM labor force and the nation's ability to attract talented Americans to STEM fields.

The writers who strongly favor the proposal are a politician and a representative of a small-business lobby. 

One wonders why the debate includes no representatives of the large tech firms and universities that are the usual advocates of admitting more foreign STEM workers. Did they not wish to defend their position in writing against the arguments of true experts?

But you needn't take my word for any of this. You can find all the articles here.

Jyllian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News conveys a safety alert, first reported 21 May, from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, chemistry department concerning an explosion in one of its labs. The incident is reportedly under investigation; the alert (included in the linked article) provides a fairly technical account of the kind of research that was being done in the lab.

What's important from our point of view is this: "Fortunately, because the researcher was wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and working in front of a sliding blast shield, only minor injuries resulted from the explosion," the alert states.

Dangerous accidents are a reality of scientific experimentation, but it's great to report this kind of news for a change.

We've just reported on a scientist-founded satirical group called Americans for a More American America. Now Inside Higher Ed is reporting in a serious vein on what I suppose could be called "Indians for a More Indian India." It's a proposed plan for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in the northern city of Kanpur -- one of the celebrated IITs that are the country's most prestigious scientific universities -- establish an office in the United States to lure some of the many Indian-born scientists working or studying on American campuses back home to faculty posts in their native country.

Unlike at comparable institutions in the U.S., where hiring is highly competitive, at IIT Kanpur, one in three faculty slots goes unfilled, writes Inside Higher Ed's Kaustuv Basu. This faculty shortage reportedly limits the courses and research projects the institution can undertake. 

Low salaries and high levels of bureaucracy are major factors that discourage many Indian Ph.D.s from returning to become professors in their home country. The office, tentatively slated for Washington, D.C., or New York City, would have access to private funds to boost the salaries offered to new hires at the government-supported IIT.

Plans to establish the office are not yet definite, and whether it could succeed at its mission is even less clear. However, given the current debate over high-skill immigration in the United States, it's interesting to speculate on what might happen if the office does succeed in attracting talent to IIT. Who would fill the positions that homeward-bound Indians vacate? What effect might their departure have on the brutally tight faculty job market here in the United States? If expanded faculties allow more extensive offerings at the IITs, would fewer Indians come here as students, postdocs or professors in the first place?

Should the office actually come into existence, I suspect that many people in both countries will be watching with great interest.
This presidential election year, super PACs, political actions committees that can accept unlimited contributions and make independent campaign expenditures, have proliferated to support candidates of all ideological stripes.  Among the least likely superpacs is Americans for a More American America (AFAMAA), established by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) postdoc Michael Invernale.

Baffled by U.S. high-skill immigration policy? A report issued by the Congressional Research Service on 11 May provides a clear, concise, balanced, and brief overview of the programs and policy issues in this highly contentious area, as well as a history of the legislation affecting it. One interesting fact: about 10% of the H-1B visas issued for 2011 were for work at universities.  Another fact: though a number of bills to make changes in the current situation have been introduced, none has advanced as far as to clear a committee, which is a vital step toward a bill becoming law. In other words, nothing to bring about any changes has happened yet.
Kathleen Bongiovanni is "pretty low on the totem pole" at the Seattle Children's Research Institute and, being a program manager, is not even technically a researcher. But a "passing comment" made by a senior medical expert gave her an idea that has already merited a $100,000 research grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It may eventually be developed into a simple test that could save the lives of millions of premature babies in poor countries, reports Tom Paulson at Humanosphere, a website that reports on global health.

Nobody believed a young program manager like Bongiovanni could win a research grant from a prestigious foundation, but she applied anyway. Now she's preparing to begin her study and  is even traveling to Uganda to look into organizing a pilot project there.

Bongiovanni's brainwave occurred when, during a meeting, neonatologist Tom Hansen, MD, mentioned a test for respiratory distress that can kill premature babies that was used early in his career, but which has now been superseded in the United States by high-tech monitoring  methods. In the "old days," Hansen said, doctors tested babies for the conditions by mixing alcohol with fluid obtained by amniocentesis. If the mixture was bubbly, the baby's lungs were healthy. If not, the baby was in respiratory distress.

"My idea was to revamp the old test so that it can be used with oral fluid from a newborn's mouth," the article quotes Bongiovanni. "I thought to myself that this could be really useful in poor countries." Thanks to her gumption in applying for a Gates Grand Challenges grant, she now has the chance to find out. And if she's right, countless babies may survive infancy who otherwise wouldn't.

It's wonderful that something so cheap and simple might do so much good. And it's possibly even more wonderful that someone of low academic status, whose colleagues "expressed doubt" (to put it mildly, I'll bet) that she could succeed in attracting funding, will actually have the chance to put her elegant insight to the test. Who knows what brilliant ideas are hatching among people "not qualified" to receive funding? Here's hoping that Bongiovanni was right; not only about her chances of winning the grant, but about saving babies as well.
As the academic science world awaits the next development in the case against UCLA and Patrick Harran over the death of Sheri Sangji, chemical safety expert Russ Phifer has been looking at the efforts UCLA has been making to improve safety in its labs. Writing at Chemical & Engineering News, he reviews the work of the University of California's Center for Laboratory Safety, founded in the wake of the catastrophe.  He also introduces Petros Yiannikouros, UCLA's new chemical hygeine officer, whose hiring, Phifer said, is part of UCLA's effort "to fundamentally change its safety culture."

After spending "a number of hours" with Yiannikouros, Phifer finds him not only technically well qualified but also "engaging, communicative, and fun to talk with"--all qualities needed to help him convince errant lab chiefs to change their ways.  "It is clearly a challenge to get principal investigators to 'buy in' to structured safety behavior," Phifer writes, "but it looks like Yannikouros has the tools to do that at UCLA."

That's good news, and also ought to be an example to other institutions.


Where can a scientist in his early 30s make major advances in a cutting-edge field while enjoying stimulating colleagues, intellectual freedom, and the resources to take risks?  According to a short article in the print Metro section of today's Washington Post, as well as a longer online piece, the answer is the federal government, specifically the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Building a successful, lifelong career in a technical field requires the strategic development of a range of skills, a resilient network, and a solid professional reputation, John Meredith, former president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA (IEEE-USA), advised on 5 May at the IEEE-USA annual conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. Meredith described how these principles helped him build his own successful, 40-year career with a number of prominent companies. While Meredith went through times of economic upheaval in specific industries, he has never been laid off, he said.

Now retired from a career that included work in nuclear energy and integrated circuits, Meredith remains an active volunteer at IEEE and a member of the board of the IEEE Foundation. His presentation was aimed at engineers but the ideas he outlined will serve anyone with advanced scientific or technical training who seeks a successful industrial career.

Actually, that headline is a take-off on the long-time Dupont slogan, but it encapsulates the possible result of a pilot program announced 31 April by the Dow chemical company and the University of Minnesota to improve safety in the university's chemistry and chemical engineering labs.  As Jyllian Kemsley reports at Chemical & Engineering News, the program will focus on "building and sustaining a good safety culture," although "neither Down nor UMN comes to the program with the expectation that the university will duplicate Dow's safety program."

"This unique safety partnership"--in the words of a university release--will extend to through the summer and will try to address, among other issues, the training problems caused by the high rate of arrivals and departures in academic labs. The program will also involve a "Joint Safety Team" composed of safety officers from every chemical engineering and chemical research group on the campus and will expose university people to Dow's best practices, with the goal of adapting them to academic research.

With industry widely recognized as enforcing much higher lab safety standards than academic institutions, this effort appears to hold real promise for improving safety practices at UMN, and perhaps even as a model for other institutions. We will never how many hideous incidents the program may prevent, but the students, postdocs, and researchers who improve their practices because of it might wish to consider a paraphrase of another advertising slogan long popular in days gone by:  The lives they save may be their own.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced today at a joint press conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the launch of edX, a system of online courses that will be available to learners worldwide. MIT's previously announced MITx program has been folded into the new program, which will use an open-source platform and may eventually also carry courses from other institutions.

MITx made big news and launched much speculation and rumination earlier this year when it announced that it would allow online students to earn certificates for courses they successfully complete online through the program, after paying a small fee. Many observers have wondered what this new credential might do to the value of taking on-campus courses at MIT and other institutions around the world. In response to an question posed online by this reporter (and maybe others), MIT's Anant Agarwal, who will direct edX, said that the first MITx course, which is currently ongoing, allows students to earn grades and a completion certificate. He implied, but did not state outright, that the same would be true for edX courses.

A major theme of today's news conference was that edX will provide researchers the opportunity to study the mechanism of learning in order to strengthen education for students on the two Cambridge campuses. Speakers also noted that many details still need to be worked out, including a financing model for the non-profit undertaking.

There will be a lot more to learn as this project unfolds, so stay tuned.
Beginning July 1, the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) of Claremont, California, will house the office that manages review of graduate programs for official recognition and affiliation as Professional Science Masters (PSM) programs, gathers information about programs and their graduates, and controls use of the registered PSM logo. KGI won the contract to run the office handling these functions, which have until now been carried out by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS).

As James Sterling of KGI, and Carol Lynch and Sally Francis of CGS, explain in an article in the May issue of the CGS Grad Edge newsletter, affiliation with the PSM program does not constitute accreditation of curricula and programs, but rather recognition that they comply with a set of formal guidelines that have been developed by CGS. 

Full-scale, separate accreditation of PSM programs, apart from the overall accreditation of the their home institutions, is not necessary, the article asserts. "The PSM is a professional degree but there is no single clearly-identified profession that graduates enter, and there is no single profession whose interests warrant licensure of PSM graduates or accreditation of this degree. Therefore, in contrast to many professions, there is no need for an independent accreditation organization. Similarly, there is no single type of risk that is presented to the customers of the employers of PSM graduates that could lead to a specific form of malpractice, the need for licensing, or the need for specific continuing education requirements for PSM graduates."   

There does exist, however, "a perceived need to ensure that a new program [calling itself a PSM program] meets [the official guidelines] and that some form of re-affiliation review system be in place" to guarantee that existing programs continue to meet them as well. The new office at KGI will carry out these functions. It will also manage the www.sciencemasters.com website used as the central repository for information about PSM programs.

Hallmarks of PSM programs, which generally run two years, include close cooperation with advisers from industry, extensive mentored experience for students in industrial settings, and a curriculum that combines study of both a scientific discipline with study of business, management, regulatory affairs, or other topics relevant to a specific science-based industry. About 250 PSMs currently exist, up from 80 in 2006. In the academic year 2010-2011, 173 graduates received PSM degrees, and about 5500 students were enrolled in programs at the beginning of the current academic year.

In addition, the new office at KGI will continue efforts to increase awareness of the PSM degree and its benefits among both potential students and company human resources officials nationally, KGI president Sheldon Schuster told Science Careers in an interview.
How can you make your application for that grant, fellowship, job, or award stand out from the great pile of other applications the judges will read? Hester Blum of Penn State University has read more than (gasp!) 740 such documents in the past year, and she offers some sage, judge's-eye-view advice on how to catch her attention at Inside Higher Ed

Some major points: 
  • Be specific and give examples. How, exactly, will you use the money or equipment or whatever? Clearly the judges already know you believe you're qualified and deserving, but exactly why should they agree?
  • Make sure the people who write your recommendations actually know your work, not just your personality. The judges are sure you're a swell person, but that isn't why they're giving the award.
  • Only list things on your CV that have actually happened. That paper under consideration at the International Journal of Really Prestigious Research might never see print or pixels.
"I really do love to read applications for things and am ever keen to learn more about what everyone is working on," Blum writes. "The more specific and detailed you are, the more successful you will be, and the more I will learn."

But don't take it from me.  Read her own specific and detailed advice here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

April 17, 2012

Tell It to the Judge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is, of course, good and worthy to remember Dufault's many fine personal qualities, the brilliant promise that was needlessly lost, and to endeavor to continue her admirable efforts to advance the cause of women in science. But sorrow is not enough. Also necessary is a determination by powerful institutions like Yale--and universities everywhere--that such events are utterly unacceptable and that every effort will be made to see they don't happen again. That must also be part of a fitting memorial to Michele.
A judge has for the second time postponed the arraignment of Patrick Harran and the regents of the University of California on felony violations in the death of Sheri Sangji -- this time until 7 June.  
Regulating the products used in health care is both a vital function of government and a professional area that employs scientists trained in a number of disciplines.  A new report from the Board on Health Sciences Policy of the National Academies' Institute of Medicine, entitled Strengthening a Workforce for Innovative Regulatory Science in Therapeutic Development, examines a number of aspects of the work, including needed competencies, potential career paths, labor force considerations, and international applications. Scientists interested in learning more about this career field will find much of interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How should someone aspiring to an academic career choose a graduate department and an adviser?  According to a provocative and clear-eyed essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Karen Kelsey,  a former anthropology professor who now runs a consulting firm specializing in the academic job market, the paramount factor should be the department's and the adviser's records in getting graduates onto the tenure track. (The essay assumes that this is your career goal.)

"Choose your graduate program based both on its focus on your scholarly interests and its tenure-track placement rate.  If it does not keep careful records of its placement rate or does not have an impressive record of placing its Ph.D.s in tenure track positions, do not consider attending that program."  Kelsey's essay is focused on humanities and social science fields, but those in scientific fields where postdoc appointments are customary should substitute "postdoc" for "graduate program" to get the idea.

"Choose your adviser the same way," she continues.  "Before committing to an adviser, find out how many Ph.D.s the mentor has placed on the tenure track in recent years."

An amazing number of departments, advisers, and labs do not have, or do not wish to divulge, this information.  You may, of course, be able to discover something about a lab chief's placement record by using the Internet to look for its alumni. But the fact that an adviser or department does not make the information readily available ought to give a strong hint about what applicants might expect at the end of their time in that department or lab.  

This leads to the issue that many people do not want to think about: If your major goal in investing years of your life in a grad program or a postdoc is getting into an academic career, and your institution or adviser doesn't have a proven record of delivering jobs for alumni, then you'll likely be  wasting your time and probably ought to rethink the venture and your goal.

That's because, Kelsey emphasizes, when it comes to tenure-track academic jobs, the past performance of the adviser and department carries immense weight.  In fact, "the placement history of a top department tends to produce its own momentum, so that departments around the country with faculty members from that department will then look kindly on new applications from its latest [alumni].  That, my friends, is how privilege reproduces itself.  It may be distasteful, but you deny or ignore it at your own peril."

So if you don't get one of those top programs, or labs, or advisers, the outlook for moving on to the academic career you want is probably dim, and sooner or later you'll need to think about seeking your future in another line of work.  Harsh advice, perhaps, but wise and, in the long run, more compassionate than spending years fostering false hope.  Of course, advanced scientific training opens doors to numerous fine career opportunities outside the academy.  Landing a tenure-track job is certainly not the only valid reason for studying science.  But if you want an academic career, it's best, as Kelsey advises, to choose a grad school and adviser with your eyes wide open.

Jon Bardin, a neuroscience graduate student at the Weill Cornell School of Medical Sciences, has no plans to seek a research career.  In fact, he intends to return to the career as a writer that he pursued before starting his graduate studies.  But, as he explains in an intriguing essay at  Chronicle of Higher Education, his graduate science education has been and will be extremely useful nonetheless.

His graduate education has equiped him to compete for desirable writing assignments, and also taught him such valuable life lessons as bouncing back from rejection (a skill he will have ample opportunity to exercise as a writer), analyzing and solving unexpected problems, and communicating effectively before an audience.  Since only a small minority of science graduate students will ever have a career on the tenure track, the others -- including Bardin -- can use these skills in any number of endeavors that they pursue in later life, Bardin rightly notes.

"If graduate students can learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long interview, I think that many who choose to leave  would find that they have not wasted their time but rather that they had learned a great deal in a safe environment, while being paid to boot," Bardin writes.  "As the world becomes more data driven, our experiences in collecting and analyzing data make us increasingly valuable commodities in any number of fields."

He's right about that, too.

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has extended the deadline for applying to attend its Life Science Ventures Summit scheduled for June 22 and 23 in San Francisco.  At the summit, up to 200 aspiring founders in the biomedical sciences will learn from experts and experienced entrepreneurs about the practicalities of starting a company.  Registration costs $100.  Information on the program and on applying is here.

Following three safety incidents -- including explosions in October 2011 and January 2012 that occurred in the same laboratory -- the chemistry department at the University of Florida is placing new emphasis on safety, reports the Alligator, an independent, student-run newspaper affiliated with the university.

"We're trying to change the culture so people will take safety as seriously here as they do in an industrial lab.  Where we've fallen down is really stressing the importance that safety is everybody's responsibility, all day, every day," says department chair Daniel Talham, quoted in the article.

Among the steps taken is organizing a committee including people representing the departments of chemistry and chemical engineering and the office of environmental health and safety to review potentially hazardous experiments.

The unemployment rate for chemists who belong to the American Chemical Society (ACS) reached a record 4.6% in 2011 -- 6.2% among bachelors degree chemists, 5.2% for masters degrees, and 3.9% for Ph.D.s, according to Chemical & Engineering News.  Each of these figures represents an increase in joblessness over the year before,  each is the highest in the 40 years that ACS has tracked unemployment.  Strikingly, the proportion of ACS members holding postdoc positions dropped by more than half, from 4.0% to 1.8%, between 2010 and 2011.

Overall U.S. unemployment dropped by almost a full percentage point, to 8.8%, between 2010 and 2011.  Historically, unemployment among chemists often reaches its peak a year after the general economy, the article notes. 

Here in Washington, DC, where I live, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, aka VPI&SU, or VA Tech [Editor's note: Thanks to the commenter for the correction] shooting massacre and the just-ended trial that grew out of it are heartbreakingly local.  The killer grew up around here, as did 6 of his 32 victims.  Many families hereabouts send their kids to study in Blacksburg, and thousands of alumni live in the metropolitan area.  At strategic points in the athletic calendar, maroon-and-orange Hokies banners go up all over town.

But that hideous day in 2007 has important national implications as well, as the Chronicle of Higher Education points out.
That young biomedical investigators are getting a raw deal in the competition for funding against older, more established, competitors is a widely held suspicion these days (and not only among young investigators.)  It especially rankles because history suggests that young scientists, not well-connected graybeards, are the ones likeliest to do transformative new science.

I had no idea just how large the the discrepancy is until Stephen Apfelroth of Albert Einstein College of Medicine told me about some calculations he has done based on information he received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

Given the discouragingly tiny number of faculty openings available in the United States and the large number of able applicants vying for them, it's refreshing to read of a country that has an oversupply of jobs and a shortage of qualified candidates. According to P. Pushkar's essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, India is short some 300,000 needed professors, and the deficit grows by 100,000 each year.

More than two thirds of U.S. medical schools rate a grade of B or better for their policies regulating faculty relations with pharmaceutical companies, according to survey results released on 8 March by the American Medical Student Association

Two schools -- University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine and Florida State University College of Medicine -- prohibit campus visits by pharmaceutical company sales reps.  A quarter of schools have shown improvement in their policies over the past 2 years and Harvard has moved from having no policies in 2008 to receiving an A in the current report.  Seventeen schools prohibit or "severely" limit work with company speakers bureaus.

Full details of the survey results are here.

The National Aeronautical and Space Administration wants to fund research by "outstanding early career faculty beginning their independent careers," according to an announcement issued 8 March.  Grants awarded under the new Space Technology Research Opportunities for Early Career Faculty will begin in the fall. Notices of intent are due March 30 and proposals are due May 3. A wide range of fields are eligible including communication and navigation systems, health, and materials.  Information is here.

Life scientists seeking to turn a brilliant idea into a viable company can learn about the process of company formation at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's 2-day Life Science Ventures Summit planned for San Francisco on 22 and 23 June. 

The Foundation will choose up to 200 would-be entrepreneurs, using as the main criteria "how much they will benefit from the experience based on where they are in their early-stage entrepreneurial journey" and the "commerical viability of their plan," according to the Foundation's announcement.  Registration for the program will cost the selected participants $100.  The deadline for applying is 2 April.  More information and application materials are here.

We have just learned that arraignment of Prof. Patrick Harran and the regents of the University of California on criminal charges in the death of lab technician Sheri Sangji has been postponed again, until April 11.  This is the second such postponement in the potentially precedent-setting case. It is the first time a professor or academic institution has been criminally charged in a laboratory safety incident.

The first postponement was granted on 2 February in order to give the prosecution and defense additional time to negotiate a disposition of the charges.  The judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court at that time stated that the delay until today would be the last.

In recent weeks, rumors have persisted that efforts to reach an agreement short of a criminal trial continue. Today's development appears to indicate that that goal is still out of reach.  Sangji's sister, Naveen Sangji, and supporters have been encouraging the Los Angeles County district attorney to proceed to trial.  The university, on its own and Harran's behalf, has denied any criminal wrongdoing.

The union representing 12,000 research, technical, and professional employees at the University of California has dedicated its new contract with the university to the memory of Sheri Sangji, the union member who died in 2009 as the result of burns sustained while working in the laboratory of Prof. Patrick Harran at the University of California, Los Angeles. Known as University Professional and Technical Employees, or UPTE-CWA Local 9119, the union today issued a release announcing the dedication and and stating that the university "refused to allow" mention of the dedication "in the official text" of the document.

The ability to give a good presentation -- both at the all-important job talk and at conferences -- is a key skill in an academic career.  Kathryn Hume, who apparently has sat through her share of really bad talks, offers practical advice for job seekers in an astute essay at Inside Higher Ed. (Also not to be missed: Science Careers' Content Collection on delivering a great presentation.)

Norman Matloff, the University of California-Davis computer science professor and prominent critic of the H-1B temporary worker visa, has been saying for at least a decade that the true impetus behind employers' desire to hire foreign workers on H-1Bs is not any shortage of American talent.  Rather, it's wage suppression resulting from the visa holders' inability to change jobs while in the country on a visa (a visa, by the way, that belongs to the employer not the employee).  Until now, no one had quantified that crucial difference in pay.

Now Matloff is drawing people's attention -- including mine -- to a recent article, by University of Nevada-Reno economist Sankar Mukhopadhyay and graduate student David Oxborrow, that does exactly that.

March 2, 2012

Want to Be a TV Star?

A new Public Television Service series on the history of chemistry is in the works, we have learned from the Newscripts blog at Chemical & Engineering News, and the producers are seeking a host who combines chemistry chops with an engaging onscreen personality. 

Could this be your big break?  "The host needn't be famous, a Nobel Prize winner, or even a leading researcher," project director Stephen Lyons told C&EN.  He or she might be a college, community college, or even a high school teacher--so long as the person is also a "gifted chemical communicator," the production's website says.

The producers don't want a CV or list of publications, but rather a link to a YouTube video featuring the aspring Carl Sagan in action.  For more information on the planned production and how to apply, check out the series website.  These are the folks, by the way, who did the fine PBS documentary about the groundbreaking African-American chemist Percy Julian, so they know their way around both chemistry and television.  Can't wait to see whom they pick for this gig.

PS.  The Percy Julian program is well worth viewing, by the way.  Julian was a distinguished scientist who overcame severe discrimination and even a vicious attack on his and his family's physical safety. As the daughter of chemist who spent a decade in Chicago and knew Julian personally during that time,  I grew up hearing repeatedly about both aspects of Percy's life.

The residency programs that train new physicians to practice medicine will begin to change in July 2013, according to an announcement by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). The requirements of the so-called Next Accreditation System will increase attention to such skills and personal characteristics as the ability to communicate with patients and to exhibit a high level of professionalism. The system will focus on fostering  "the actual behaviors you should see in order to be confident that resident physicians are progressing to the point where they will be ready to practice on their own," according to Carol Aschenbrener, chief medical education officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, as quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The change is necessary because under the 31-year-old existing system, "program requirements have become prescriptive, and opportunities for innovation have progressively disappeared," write ACGME CEO Thomas Nasca and co-authors in the New England Journal of Medicine.  "As administrative burdens have grown, program directors have been forced to manage programs rather than mentor residents." The new system, however, will aim to "take the best of the current system and [enhance] it with a more explicit focus on attributes of the learning environment that carry over into a lifetime of practice in a clinical specialty."

February 28, 2012

Who Watches the Watchers?

On 13 February, Celltex Therapeutics Corporation, a Houston, Texas, stem cell company, announced the appointment of Glenn McGee as its new "president of Ethics and Strategic Initiatives." The "internationally respected bioethicist" would be responsible "for assuring that all of the firm's work...will meet the highest ethical standards....," said the company release. "We wanted Glenn at Celltex because...we have been determined to do things right," said Celltex chairman and CEO David Eller, quoted in the release.

Earlier in the month, we reported on President Obama's online conversation with Jennifer Wedel, the wife of an unemployed engineer.  The president expressed surprise at Wedel's 3-year effort to find work because, he said, industrial leaders have told him "they don't have enough highly skilled engineers."

We have belatedly learned that the Washington Post's "Fact Checker" column has examined the president's claims about the employment situation in engineering and given him One Pinocchio for his comments to Mrs. Wedel.  The Post's Pinocchio Scale ranges from one Pinocchio for "Some shading of the facts.  Selective telling of the truth.  Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods." The Post awards four Pinocchios for "whoppers."

The employment outlook in the semiconductor industry, where Mr. Wedel worked, looks "bleak heading into 2020, and the president should have known that,"  the Fact Checker writes.  The president earned his Pinocchio "for suggesting that demand remains high for engineers in high-tech industries.  He can't gloss over this area of unemployment."

Failure to maintain equipment properly has apparently resulted in another academic lab safety incident, but one that, fortunately, caused no injuries, reports Jyllian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News. On 23 January, undergraduates in a physical chemistry class at the University of California, Davis, were working with a piece of equipment called a bomb calorimeter when it exploded. (Despite its name, that is not supposed to happen.) The lid of the metal instrument was "forcibly propelled upward" until it hit the ceiling and other metal fragments and pieces of a mercury thermometer were sprayed into the room, according to a report on the event by a university chemical hygiene officer.

Entitled "Lesson Learned, UC Davis Chemistry Event, Oxygen Bomb Calorimeter Failure," the report attributes the explosion most probably to the failure of a valve seat within the calorimeter. The manufacturer, the report states, "recommends that all O-rings and valve seats be replaced annually or after 5000 firings....With proper maintenance, these particular calorimeters can operate safely and accurately for decades." The machine's serial number "indicates that it was manufactured in 1985," but "there are no records of routine maintenance" of the device however.

A 1985 manufacture date does make the calorimeter 23 years younger than the lathe that killed undergraduate physics student Michele Dufault at Yale University in April 2011, which had also apparently gone decades without servicing. Of course it's possible, perhaps even likely, that the O-rings and valve seats may have been replaced at some point during the now-defunct calorimeter's 27-year life. The lack of records, however, makes a proper maintenance schedule highly unlikely.

The "lesson" that those responsible for labs at UC Davis and many other universities need to learn from this incident--or re-learn after the unnecessary death of Dufault--is that servicing equipment in a timely manner is a potentially life-and-death responsibility. The fact that the academic science world doesn't have once again to express shock and sorrow over yet another needless death or injury following this incident is pretty much a matter of luck rather than anything the university did to assure safety.

As the academic job interview season approaches, two hiring committee veterans offer good advice for making the campus visit work for rather than against you.  Common mistakes that applicants make, these faculty members explain, can not only lose them a specific opportunity but also damage their career prospects later on.

Looking for a science or technology career that (according to the employer, at least) offers challenging work, good pay and fringe benefits, long-term security, and the chance to make a real difference? If so, you might want to consider working for the U.S. federal government, which employs scientists, engineers, and technologists of every kind as researchers, science administrators, and in other roles in dozens of agencies across the nation and around the world. U.S. citizenship is generally required, though non-citizens can be hired in certain circumstances.  

For many job seekers, the complexity and apparent opacity of the federal hiring process can pose a challenge. To help orient scientists to the often unfamiliar federal job market, a number of agencies have joined forces in a Web site called INSPIRE that is aimed specifically at answering scientists' questions about whether and how to seek a position with the feds. Its features include interviews with federally employed scientists, engineers, and technologists working in a number of fields as well as links that explain how federal hiring works, what federal employment offers, how to find agencies that want your skills, and where to get additional information.

In August 2010, postdocs at the University of California's ten campuses ratified their union's first 5-year contract. Now, after its first full calendar year under the pact, the union known as UAW Local  5810 is looking back with satisfaction at its accomplishments. These include the "first-ever guaranteed experience-based raises upon reappointment" and a 2% increase in the overall wage scale for 2012, according to the union's website.

The union also helped individual postdocs resolve issues involving back pay, vacation time, attempts to terminate postdoc appointments because of pregnancy, and other instances of unwarranted termination, the website continues. Advocacy efforts included pressing the California Congressional delegation to oppose cuts to research funding and to support comprehensive immigration reform.
We're happy to report that the graduate student injured in a laboratory explosion at the University of Sydney suffered injuries "not as serious as initially reported in the news media" in Australia, according to University of Sydney chemistry professor Gregory Warr.  "The student has advised me that he is happy to share that he is recovering well, has spoken to a number of colleagues and has been out of bed and walking around," Warr tells Science Careers by e-mail.  "He will have a skin graft on one area later this week, and expects to be discharged after the weekend."  No one else was injured in the blast, which "occurred in a small research laboratory," Warr writes.

An investigation into the cause of the incident is underway, Warr continues, and should "be finalized in a few days."  Warr offered to provide additional information after the investigation is complete.

A laboratory explosion in the chemistry building of the University of Sydney, Australia, severely injured a 29-year-old research student (equivalent to a graduate student), reported the Sydney Daily Telegraph on 11 February.  Emergency personnel brought the man by helicopter to a burn unit with burns over 40 percent of his body.  A search of the websites of Australian news media and the university yielded no further information on either his condition or the cause of the incident.

Burns over 40 percent of the victim's body sounds eerily reminiscent of the lab fire injuries that killed Sheri Sangji in 2009.  Here's hoping that this student makes a good recovery.

Few things count as much in landing an academic job or fellowship as terrific letters of recommendation from professors or lab supervisors who love you and your work.  Maximizing your chances of getting someone to compose such an encomium requires an understanding of both strategy and etiquette, writes Yale professor Chris Blattman in an essay on Inside Higher Ed.

The key strategic issue is selecting the right people to ask to write your letters, a task Blattman suggests you approach with "seriousness and care."  "Strong letters usually come from long and close relationships with faculty," he explains.  But writing them is far from trivial from the faculty member's point of view.  "Since we often write these letters to our colleagues in the same pool of colleges and employers," professors "take [writing] these letters seriously."  After all, "our reputations are at stake."

The essay covers such points as the criteria faculty members use to decide whom to write letters for, the number of writers an applicant should seek, and the etiquette of making the task as easy as possible for the faculty member and of providing the information he or she will need to give the most favorable possible account of your qualifications.  You can find Blattman's thoughtful advice here.

As we have noted several times, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is a leading critic of the H-1B visa and the co-sponsor, along with Senator Dick Durban (D-Illinois), of a bill to reform and tighten the rules governing the high-skill temporary visa. Grassley is also the Ranking Member -- the senior member of the minority party -- of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. On 7 February he sent a letter to President Obama about the response the president gave last week to the plight of Mrs. Jennifer Wedel, the wife of an unemployed Texas engineer, during an online town meeting.

A while back, we reported on how lucrative patents boost the incomes of some inventive faculty members.  Highly profitable discoveries, of course, can also mean major paydays for the universities where the research took place.

Now the New York Times reports that the potential payoff of "groundbreaking research" has sparked a lawsuit by a University of Pennsylvania cancer institute against the president of the Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.  Penn's Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute alleges that Craig B. Thompson "chose to abscond with the fruits" of work he did while at Penn.  Thompson denies the accusation.

The article calls the tangle between the prestigious institution and the major researcher a "billion-dollar dispute" and gives other examples of the big bucks at stake in certain struggles over the ownership of research.

We recently reported on an article in Salon, a site well know for its liberal, pro-Democratic views, that discusses the politics of President Obama's conversation with Jennifer Wedel, who is  currently the nation's most famous wife of an unemployed engineer.  In the interests of journalistic even-handedness, we'd also like to draw your attention to a piece by Mark Krikorian that appears on the conservative, pro-Republican National Review Online (NRO).

Though it's said here in Washington that the two ends of the political spectrum can't agree on what day of the week it is, these two articles have a lot in common.  Where Salon speaks of "Obama's high-tech labor lies,"  NRO cites the "phony 'missile-gap' style panic about U.S. competitiveness created by lobbyists for tech companies that desire cheap labor."

Right and left seeing nearly eye-to-eye on an important issue?  You heard it here first!

In its October 2011 report on the 2010 lab explosion at Texas Tech University (TTU) that maimed a graduate student, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board leveled blistering criticisms against the the university's lab-safety culture.  According to pair of front-page articles on 5 January in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, the experience has led TTU  and some other Texas universities to make changes in how they think about and deal with safety. 

Ever since President Obama's spoke with Jennifer Wedel, the Texas woman whose engineer husband has been unemployed for 3 years, during an online "town hall" last week, the internet has been alive with comments about the president's apparently puzzled reaction to her husband's plight.  Over at Salon today, in an article titled "Obama's high-tech labor lies," David Sirota offers an explanation of  the politics the situation.  To wit: Why would a president who proclaims himself devoted to American technological and scientific progress and prides himself on his policy prowess appear ignorant of some pretty basic economic realities?  And why would his press secretary, who had time to check the fact, repeat the same line?

(PS.  I, like a number of other writers, have misspelled the Wedel's name.  My apologies.)

Yesterday, this blog discussed what appeared to be promising developments in the national discussion of the scientific and engineering labor market. A new report from the National Institutes of Health indicates that the agency is getting the picture that oversupply rather than shortage is the big problem. But President Obama, not so much. His online encounter on 30 January with Jennifer Weddell, the wife of an unemployed microprocessor engineer, appeared to create an opportunity for him to take in this idea.

A subsequent briefing by White House press secretary Jay Carney reveals, however, that this apparently did not come to pass. Answering a reporter's question, Carney indicates that the White House regards Ms. Weddell's out-of-work husband as an anomalous individual case and not an indicator of any larger phenomenon possibly related to the number of H-1B visas awarded. "Business leaders," he says, tell the White House that shortages exist, and the White House apparently believes them.

Ms. Weddell did her spunky best to bring her message to the president. Why don't other hard-pressed engineers and scientists try to do the same?

The arraignment of Patrick Harran and the regents of the University of California on criminal charges arising from the death of lab assistant Sheri Sangji, originally scheduled for today, has been postponed until March 7. After a brief discussion in Los Angeles County Superior Court this morning, a judge announced the delay, which "will allow plea negotiations to continue between prosecutors and the defendants," according to the Los Angeles Times.
Amazing things have been happening in recent days in the national discussion of the scientific and technical labor force. As Science Careers has reported, the National Institutes of Health issued a report stating that oversupply of scientists is a chief concern among those working in the biomedical job market, and even suggesting that supporting fewer students and postdocs could help alleviate the problem.  

Perhaps even more more significantly, President Obama, a staunch advocate of the view that America produces too few scientists and engineers, came face to face -- apparently for the first time -- with the reality of highly trained but out-of-work Americans.

At an online "town hall" coversation with ordinary citizens held January 30, Jennifer Weddell, the wife of a Texas engineer who has been out of work for 3 years, asked a question that's on the minds of many similarly situated Americans: "Why does the government continue to extend the H-1B visas when there are tons of Americans just like my husband with no job?"

Obama began to tell Mrs. Weddell that, although there is generally a great demand for engineers across the country, some specialties, such as civil engineering, are less in demand due to the depressed construction industry. When she told him that her unemployed husband is a specialist in semiconductors, the President appeared puzzled. "The word we're getting is that somebody like this should be getting work right away," he said.

The key to the condundrum, as Unversity of California-Davis computer professor Norman Matloff suggests, is that Mrs. Weddell's husband is not one of the young, cheap, newly minted graduates who get the great bulk of the H-1B visas. Instead, he is a professional with 10 years of experience, and therefore an expectation of higher pay. Mr. Weddell (assuming he shares a surname with his wife) has probably reached the crucial mid-to-late 30s, when high-tech companies begin sloughing workers off.

Obama did not seem to get the big picture during his brief interchange with Mrs. Weddell, who showed real gumption in standing her ground when the President spoke of the purported technical skills shortage and the supposedly vigorous demand for technically trained personnel. Obama appeared to see the questioner's husband as a special case and asked Ms. Weddell to send her husband's resume so that White House staff could look into what was wrong.  

So here's the really crucial question: Will they look beyond this single fruitless job search? Will they see only a lone individual whom they can help get hired through industry connections? Or will they begin to appreciate Mr. Weddell for what he really is, a victim of a serious national problem that Obama simply does not seem to understand?

"The word we're getting" most likely comes from the employers who benefit from policies that glut the scientific and technical labor markets, and not from the many struggling scientific and technical workers like Mr. Weddell, or from scholars like Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who know the effects of these policies on many American workers. As Matloff observes, industry figures will probably race to find a good position for Mr. Weddell so that the White House need not probe deeper and discover what is really going on. The President's staff needs to look not only at Mr. Weddell's credentials, but at the voluminous literature on the disastrous state of the scientific and technical labor market.

So, hats off to the gutsy Mrs. Weddell, not only for what she did for her lucky husband but for what she tried to do for people like him across the country. Because of her, there's at least a chance that the views of the scientists and engineers caught in the glut may get through to the White House. Here's hoping that Obama gets the full picture, and not just the impression that the Weddells alone need special help. What he would learn will contradict many of his own statements on the dearth of scientific and technical expertise in this country. But the President is a highly intelligent man with an inquiring mind, and this really isn't rocket science. On this issue, he and the nation need him to hear the whole truth.

Yesterday, Science Careers reported on the new National Institutes of Health (NIH) report on the career issues that most concern biomedical scientists. (Topping the list--no surprise to Science Careers--is one we have been highlighting for years: the "imbalance between supply and demand", which the report calls "vast.") The report summarizes the comments sent by hundreds of scientists working inside and outside NIH.

There's also an additional chance for scientists to tell what they think. In January, NIH announced that it wants to hear from scientists on another topic: increasing the diversity of the biomedical research workforce. A Request for Information invites scientists to share their opinions and ideas on how to "cultivate diversity" throughout the educational process and early stages of a career, the role of mentors and roles models, ways to encourage more scientists from underrepresented minorities to compete for NIH funding, and more.  

The comment period closes on February 24. Full details on how to convey your views on this topic to NIH are here.

Asking scientists for their throughts and insights on the important issues that affect their careers and then publishing the results is a great idea. But even more significant will be what NIH actually does about the opinions and suggestions the scientists have sent. As Michael Price and Jim Austin have already noted on this blog, the report on the concerns of biomedical scientists includes a recommendation to "[r]educe the number of students and post-doctoral fellows supported," presumably to help slow the production of career-seeking scientists in the future. Will they actually follow up on this? Will something really be done about the current mess? We'll be watching.

January 31, 2012

Science and the 1%

Anger at the top 1% of earners has become a well-established theme across the country, but it's still good to report that the vilified ranks of the very rich include some scientists and technology professionals. That's according to a recent paper by Jon Bakija of Williams College, Adam Cole of the U.S. Treasury Department, and Bradley T. Heim of Indiana University that analyzes income tax returns to determine the occupations and incomes of those enjoying the biggest paydays.

In 2005, the authors reveal, you'd have needed to make at least $94,000, measured in 2007 dollars and excluding capital gains, to squeak into the top 10% of earners, $129,00 to qualify for the top 5%, $295,000 for the top 1%, and $1,246,000 to count among the top 0.1%. This may, of course, present a distorted picture of the nation's income distribution because, as Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's recently released tax return shows, excluding capital gains cuts out some very major incomes.

So where do science and tech types fit into this picture? At every level of affluence, the authors found. Using 2005 figures, and still excluding capital gains, they note that "computer, math, engineering and technical people" (excluding Wall Street "quants," or quantitative financial experts) constituted 4.6% of the top 1% and 2.9% of the top 0.1%. If capital gains are counted in, those figures are 4.2% and 3.1%, respectively.  

In that same year, "professors and scientists" accounted for 1.8% of the top 1%, if capital gains were excluded. At this income level, they narrowly edge out "arts, media and sports" figures, who weighed in at 1.6%. In the top 0.1% that year, however, again excluding capital gains, the scientists and professors constituted only 0.9%, trailing far behind athletes, actors, and rock stars, who constituted 3%. With capital gains counted in, professors and scientists were 1.8% of the top 1% and 1.2% of the top 0.1%, again way behind the assorted sports and entertainment celebrities.

So who are these ultra-affluent geeks? The paper doesn't say. It does note, however, that "the incomes of managers, executives, financial professionals, and technical professionals who are in the top 0.1%...are...very sensitive to stock market fluctuations," suggesting that they own many shares in companies.  

As to the professors and scientists, the paper gives no clue. In her recent book, How Economics Shapes Science, however, economist Paula Stephan discusses the effect of "blockbuster" patents on the incomes of a small number of inventive faculty members. She estimates that in 2004, some 400 professors at about 50 U.S.institutions divided up $650 million in royalties from "megapatents" that each produce a million dollars a year or more. "Indeed, on more than half of the research-intensive compuses in the United States," she writes, "there are a handful of faculty who earn more than than their salaries each year from royalties"--and some, obviously, considerably more.

American culture places a high value on "just being yourself." But, according to Karen Kelsky, an academic consultant who was formerly a tenured professor and department chair, "'yourself' is the very last person you want to be" during interviews for tenure-track faculty jobs. 

For several weeks now, the smart money has been against the criminal case of UCLA and professor Patrick Harran in the death of Lab worker Sheri Sangji ever getting to trial. Informed sources close to the case who spoke with Science Careers on the condition of anonymity have said that the university's clout and a pressing state court mandate to reduce the number of prisoners in California state prisons make it likely that a resolution short of a trial will occur.

That was before a state report highly critical of UCLA and Harran became public this past week. It's unclear whether the new revelations will have an effect on the district attorney's decision of how to proceed.

A new party has now entered the discussion. Sheri Sangi's labor union at UCLA, University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE), which is Local 9119 of the Communications Workers of America, a national union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, today issued a statement "urging the Los Angeles County District Attorney to prosecute the case to the fullest extent of the law."

Signing on as an author of a journal article actually written by a ghostwriter can get a scientist a lot more than a publication to list on a CV without doing any work.  If the purported author is a medical researcher and physicians use of the article to make treatment decisions, the result could be lawsuits or even criminal charges, according the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Yesterday we published an item about the 2009 report on the investigation by California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health into the death of Sheri Sangji. I suspect that some readers were frustrated that we didn't describe what went wrong during Sangji's fatal attempt to transfer a quantity of tert-Butyl lithium. The report's author, Senior Special Investigator Brian Baudendistel, provides an account that goes on for pages. The basic issues come down to missing training and inappropriate equipment. Of course, these issues are related because a properly trained worker would know to use the right gear. 

Here's a summary of what the investigation found.

Though much in the news today, scientific misconduct goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, according to an essay in The Nation by Charles Gross. The astronomer Ptolemy of Alexandria, Gross reports, may have pinched unacknowledged work by an earlier researcher, Hipparchus of Rhodes, who did likewise with discoveries made by even earlier Babylonians. Other miscreants may include Isaac Newton and Gregor Mendel, both apparently guilty of fiddling their data to produce more elegant results. In 1830, Charles Babbage went so far as to categorize the scientific wrongdoing he saw around him into "several species" including "hoaxing, forging, trimming and cooking," as quoted by Gross.

The essay concentrates on the much more recent case of disgraced cognitive researcher Marc Hauser, formerly of Harvard, but along the way traces the interesting history of the development of modern concepts of scientific integrity and misconduct. You can read it here.
On 21 January, Kim Christensen of the Los Angeles Times broke the story detailing the investigative report issued on 23 December 2009 by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health into the circumstances leading to Sheri Sangji's death. Science Careers has also obtained the 95-document, which made for a harrowing weekend of reading.   

Through page after page of detailed interviews with UCLA officials, present and former members of Patrick Harran's lab, Harran himself, Sangji's college chemistry adviser, and her former employer, the investigator -- Senior Special Investigator Brian Baudendistel -- presents a nightmarish picture in the dispassionate language of bureaucracy. Reading it, one senses fury straining against the limits set by his official capacity. In the report's detailed, 3-page conclusion, his anger flashes hot.

Some day we will no longer have the opportunity to mark the passing of distinguished women who were the first at what they did. That time has not yet come, however, and the encomiums published after the 4 December death of physician and medical researcher Mary Ellen Avery at the age of 84 note that she was the first female physician-in-chief at prestigious Children's Hospital Boston, the first female head of a Harvard Medical School clinical department as the Thomas Morgan Rotch Professor of Pediatrics, and the first female president of the Society for Pediatric Research.

Yet, the true glory of Avery's life was not those positions but what, according to the New York Times, she called "one moment of insight." That moment came in the course of years of research to find why premature babies died in horrifyingly large numbers. The fact that fewer than a thousand a year now die in the United States of an inability to breathe -- as opposed to 15,000 annually several decades ago -- is a direct result of her discovery that the lungs of those who perished lacked a surfactant present in the lungs of healthy babies born at term. The development of substitute surfactant is credited with making the difference, reports the Washington Post.

Two major midwestern public campuses have seen efforts by graduate student employees to unionize that have made headlines in recent days.

At the University of Michigan, graduate student Jennifer Dibbern alleges that working on a campaign to organize her fellow graduate research assistants led to her dismissal from a post in the lab of materials science and engineering professor Rachel Goldman, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

At the University of Minnesota, meanwhile, graduate students belonging to Graduate Student Workers United (GSWU/UAW), a union affiliated with the national United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), claim success in their own unionizing effort. They hand-delivered a letter to university president Eric Kaler informing him that "a majority of graduate assistants have signed cards to form a union" and asking that he join them in "filing...a joint petition for union certification with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services." A joint petition would eliminate the need for an election to determine whether a majority of the graduate assistants want the union certified as their respresentative.  In case Kaler declines that suggestion, the letter continues, GSWU/UAW is also filing a petition for a certification election.

The numbers of students applying to, attending and graduating from professional science master's (PSM) degree programs continue to grow, according to a report released today by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). Programs offering the innovative two-year degrees -- which combine science studies with business, regulatory or other real-world training -- received more than 6300 applications for fall 2011 enrollment and accepted 44% of them. Nearly 1700 new students entered PSM programs in 2011, bringing total enrollment to almost 5500. PSM programs granted 1573 degrees in the academic year which ended this past June -- up from 1102 the previous year.

Because changes were made in the demographics surveyed, however, direct comparisons with last year's overall performance are not possible, the report notes. Programs that responded in both 2011 and 2010 experienced a 13% rise in applications, a 4% gain in new enrollments, and a 27% jump in degrees awarded.

The current PSM student population is about 55% male and 45% female, the report shows, and about 80% are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Almost 20% of the 2011 graduates are members of underrepresented minorities.

"We know from student outcome data that PSM graduates are highly successful in finding employment in their field," adds CGS president Debra Stewart in a statement, but the survey presents no evidence on this question. Just last week, however, Science Careers reported reported on industry interest in scientists with master's degrees.


Drug and medical device companies will soon have to report to the federal government all payments they make to physicians who are not their employees, reports the New York Times. Under requirements likely to go into effect after a public comment period ends on 17 February, every company selling products approved for use under Medicare or Medicaid will have to disclose everything they pay to non-employee physicians, ranging from research grants and consultancy and lecture fees to snacks for meetings. 

Reports must include payments for royalties and to teaching hospitals, and also all "ownership or investment interest" apart from "publicly traded stock" held by physicians or their close relatives.  Information from the reports will be available to the public on a website.

The new regulations don't attempt to define what makes a payment proper or improper, the article states. Penalties for incorrect reporting start at $10,000 per payment missed and could reach $1 million per year per company. Each companies' top officials will have to certify that their reports are complete and accurate. The Times article is here.
What could possibly be good about not one but two explosions in 3 months, both with injuries,  in the same academic lab?  What could be good is the apparent progress the laboratory made between the two incidents.

In the more recent of two explosions in Alan Katritzky's lab in the chemistry department at the University of Florida (UF), on 12 January, "Preliminary investigation determined that appropriate safety procedures and protective equipment were in use, likely significantly mitigating the effects of the explosion," says UF chemistry department chair Daniel Talham, quoted by Jyllian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News.


Kaitlin Gallagher, a self-described introvert and serious grad student in kinesiology, had always shunned campus clubs to save herself both time and what she viewed as the awkwardness of putting herself forward. But, when applying for a fellowship, she reports in an essay on Inside Higher Ed, she noticed a big empty space on her application: leadership experience. So, out of fear that this "obvious gap on [her] CV" would "affect [her] negatively in the future," she volunteered for a position on the executive committee of the departmental graduate student association.  

To her surprise, she gained a lot more than a line on her CV. The advantages include important new skills and contacts as well as a big boost in confidence, which she sees as necessary for future career success in academe or elsewhere. Her bottom-line advice to fellow grad students:  "Don't pass up the opportunity to learn invaluable lessons that will help make the student-to-career transition a less rocky one." It's well worth the time, she believes.  But better yet, let her tell you in her own words here.

The literature addressing the conflicts that women face trying to build academic careers and raise families is vast and has inspired a wide range of policies aimed at making faculty life more "family friendly."  But what about tenure-seeking dads with young kids?  How do they balance the needs of family and career?

"Research on male academics with young children is limited," write Richard Reddick and co-authors from the University of Texas-Austin in the current issue of the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity.  Turns out that fathers, too -- or at least those "trying to play an active, meaningful role" in their kids' lives while also striving to impress the tenure committee -- also feel "pervasive conflict and strain," says a feature article from the University of Texas that describes Reddick and colleagues' study of young faculty fathers.

Some of the ways that faculty fathers deal with these stresses will sound familiar to their female counterparts: "overextending themselves in work and family responsibilities" and "significant time management," according to the journal article. But, just as men and women often express problems such as depression differently, their ways of dealing with career-family conflicts may also differ.  Men, for example, appear to share less about their family issues with colleagues, and limit such discussions to fellow faculty dads of young kids, according to the feature piece.

The "progressive" fathers whom the researchers studied believe in equal sharing of home responsibilities and feel misunderstood in the workplace, the article continues. Adding to their stress is the fact that they appear to have little awareness of and make little use of university policies or services intended to help ease the conflict between home and work. 


Yale University's physics department has announced the establishment of the Michele Dufault Summer Research Fellowship and Conference Fund in memory of the undergraduate physics student who died in April 2011 in a university machine shop. Dufualt was working on her senior project late at night, apparently alone, when her hair became entangled in a lathe that, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, lacked required safety features. The department hopes to raise $100,000 to support summer fellowships for Yale female physics students and also conferences "that encourage young women to pursue the physical sciences," according to a statement by the department.

January 10, 2012

The Graying of NIH Grantees

As everyone who has every read anything about the history of science knows, brilliant new ideas generally come from brilliant young people.  But as many familiar with the funding practices of the National Institutes of Health are also probably aware, the scientists it supports have been getting older and older.  In 1980, the average NIH-funded investigator was 39 years old, according to a paper in PLoS One.  In 2008, the typical NIH grant recipient was 51.  In 1980, researchers got a first NIH grant at an average age of 36, but in 2008, that milestone came at 42.

Does the graying of the research community "impact innovative ideas and research"? ask Kirstin R.W. Matthews of Rice University and co-authors.  Indeed it might, they conclude from a statistical comparison of several bodies of scientists.  The average age when researchers who won Nobel Prizes over the last thirty years did their "groundbreaking research" was 41; more than three quarters had done it by age 51.  This suggests, the authors write, that the trend toward seniority can "inhibit research potential and novel projects, and could impact biomedicine and the next generation scientists in the United States."

But speaking of getting long in the tooth, the observation itself, though patently accurate, is hardly new.  On 18 March 2005, for example, a century and a day after 26-year-old Albert Einstein mailed off the first of his 1905 string of epoch-making papers, Elias Zerhouni, then director of the National Institutes of Health, remarked that "in today's world, [Nobel laureate] Marshall Nirenberg would get his Nobel Prize before he got his first NIH grant." Nirenberg won his Nobel at 41, a year younger than Einstein, who had to wait for the call from Stockholm until the ripe old age of 42.  

As it happened, Zerhouni made the remark at the press conference that announced the National Research Council study of the crisis for young biomedical researchers, Bridges to Independence.  That document detailed the rising age of first NIH grantees and suggested some methods of aiding young researchers.  The committee that wrote the study, as we reported at the time, was chaired by Thomas Cech, whose own Nobel had come at the same age as Einstein's.

But even if the point has been made before -- although Zerhouni hadn't made a statistical study and the proposals in Bridges have done little to improve the situation -- it is well worth making again.  Young people are likelier to make transformative discoveries than older people. If you want to encourage those ideas, you have to make it possible for young people to develop them.  The current structure of scientific funding, which encourages long postdoctoral appointments and overproduction of Ph.D.s and provides scanty opportunities for them to establish independent research careers, continues to do exactly the opposite. 

As debate rages over what to do about high-skill immigration to the United States, the vast complexity of U.S. immigration law can make issues difficult for non-experts to understand. A report from the Congressional Research Service helps clarify one option that, it says, "has become increasingly popular": eliminating the ceilings that currently limit the number of individuals from a given country who can be admitted on the basis of work skills. This would not change the total number of persons admitted on this basis. A bill to this effect passed the House of Representatives in November.  

As University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) chemistry professor Patrick Harran faces arraignment on February 2 on felony charges for willful violation of safety requirements in the death of Sheri Sangji, the university will "provide for his defense," says UCLA Chancellor Gene Block in a January 6 statement. "Dr. Harran, a talented and dedicated organic chemistry professor who is making great strides in the global effort to cure cancer, has my full support," he continues. Harran is free on his own recognizance following a court appearance.

The young lab assistant's death was a "tragic accident," Block maintains, and the charges are "unwarranted" because "exhaustive investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health [Cal/OSHA] found no willful violations of safety rules."  Cal/OSHA, did, however, cite the university for "serious" violations in Sangji's death, resulting in the university paying fines of more than $30,000.  

Block's use of the words "accident" and "willful" is significant because a core issue in the criminal case is the technical, legal definition of what they mean, which does not correspond exactly to the everyday understanding of the words. At a trial, guilt or innocence could well hinge on which interpretation prevails. Block's statement, not surprisingly, stakes out one that would work strongly in the defense's favor.


With the Iowa caucuses over and the New Hampshire primary looming, incessant media attention to the GOP presidential nomination race will (groan!) be well-nigh inescapable from here on out.  In the nick of time, the Scientific American Geek Guide comes to the rescue of the perplexed sciece-oriented non-news junkie.  It rates the contenders on their orientation to science including their personal geekiness and the more serious criteria of their "associations" -- each candidate's ties to "causes and people in science and technology" -- and their "policies" or their stands on science-related issues.  

Published on January 3, the list still includes now-former candidate Michele Bachmann, who ranks last.  Among the remaining contenders, last place now goes to Rick Santorum.  Narrowly leading the pack, according to author Christopher Mims, is tech buff "Newt Skywalker" Gingrich, whose strong "geek cred" allows him to pull ahead of sci-fi fan and evolution and global warming (though not necessarily human causation) believer Mitt Romney, who holds second place, and physician Ron Paul, who comes in third.

Is it just my imagination, or is this blog beginning to resemble a police blotter?  In the past 2 weeks, we have reported on felony cases involving three different researchers, Yves Benhomou sentenced for insider trading, Kexue Huang sentenced for stealing trade secrets, and Patrick Harran accused of criminal violations of safety regulations in the death of Sheri Sangji.

On December 27, the very same day that the unprecedented charges were brought against Harran, yet another researcher, Vincent Dammai, an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, was arrested for unauthorized distribution of stem cells to be used in unapproved treatments, Nature reports.  He is one of three people arrested on federal charges in the case; a fourth has also been charged but not yet arrested, according to Nature.

Maybe I've been watching too many "Law & Order" reruns -- I admit to a mild addiction -- but I'm hoping that this is all a coincidence and not the beginning of some nasty trend toward increasing geek criminality.  On the other hand, since science offers so many opportunities to break laws--either for illicit gain, as in three of these cases, or through apparent negligence, as is charged in the Sangji case -- perhaps four cases in two weeks is not a high number.  It's much higher than we're used to, however, and that makes it scary.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court yesterday released University of California-Los Angeles professor Patrick Harran on his own recognizance after he returned from a trip and surrendered to authorities, reports the Los Angeles Times. The district attorney for Los Angeles County brought charges against Harran late last month. Arraignment is set for February 2 on the felony charges issued last week in the 2009 death of UCLA lab assistant Sheri Sangji. Conviction could carry a sentence of up to 4 1/2 years in prison.

Struggling to write an application letter that's sure to make a strong impression on a scientist whose lab you'd like to work in? University of California-Davis professor Jonathan Eisen blogs about some true-life application letters that really got his attention -- though not, alas, in the way the applicants had hoped. Check the comments, too. They provide additional examples of applicants who showed a real knack for career-killing prose. (E.g., " Address me as 'Dear Sir'. This shows that you're not making sexist distinctions between men and women.")

Thanks to journalist David Dobbs for bringing this to my attention.
The controversy over the H-1B high-skill visa is the subject of today's Debate Club, a daily feature of U.S. News & World Report. Eight prominent commentators on the subject -- Jason Dzubow, John Feinblatt, Ron Hira, Tamar Jacoby, Norman Matloff, John Miano, Bruce Morrison, and Daniel Stein -- offer short essays on the question of whether the visas should be easier to obtain. They represent a range of viewpoints, pro and con, and their comments cover a number of aspects of the issues.
The Los Angeles Times reported on December 27 the district attorney for Los Angeles County has brought felony charges against University of California-Los Angeles professor Patrick Harran and the regents of the University of California for willful violations of safety rules that resulted in the 2009 death of 23-year-old Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji.   

Nearly 3 years ago, on December 29, 2008, the young lab assistant suffered burns in a preventable laboratory fire that took her life 18 days later. The district's attorney's office has issued an arrest warrant for Harran, who could face up to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted. The university, if convicted, could be fined $1.5 milllion for each of 3 separate counts. 

UCLA has termed the charges "outrageous" and plans a "vigorous defense," the Times reports.  

Sangji's sister Naveen Sangji, who has long expressed the hope that criminal charges would be brought in the case, says she hopes that the charges may "help keep other young people safe," according to the Times. 

Sangji's death sharply raised attention to the lax safety standards in academic labs across the United States, playing a major role, for example, in encouraging the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to undertake a groundbreaking report highlighting the issue.  Safety expert Neal Langerman told Science Careers in May that when the day comes when adequate safety standards are universal in U.S. academic labs, Sheri Sangji's death will be recognized as the "turning point" that made the change inevitable.  

The action of the Los Angeles County district attorney clearly move this long-running and pivotal case to a new level.  We will await developments with the greatest interest.

Lots of scientists want to very badly to get ahead in their careers -- or, as the slang expression has it, they want it "in the worst way."  In an odd coincidence, on December 21 two researchers who had taken that expression way too literally were sentenced in separate federal courts for crimes involving the misuse of scientific information.  In unrelated cases, each had taken advantage of their expertise in fields of major commercial value to put information to illegal uses.

December 21, 2011

MIT for Everyone?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, perhaps the world's most celebrated and prestigious scientific and technological university, is also among the hardest to get into.  But now, according to an announcement made on 19 December, anyone anywhere in the world who has an Internet connection, the requisite intellectual ability and determination, and enough money to pay a "modest fee" can earn credentials showing "mastery" of coursework bearing the nonpareil imprimatur of MIT.  

This new program, known for the time being at least as MITx, will expand on MIT's existing OpenCourseWare initiative, which for a decade has made "virtually all MIT course content," including syllabi, notes, exams, and more freely available online.  

December 19, 2011

Surrey with a Campus On Top

Cliché has it that academe is an ivory tower. But at the Simon Fraser University campus in suburban Surrey, British Columbia, (one of three campuses the university maintains) the tower is built of glass and steel and rises from a shopping mall.  Yes, you read that right: Built atop the Surrey Central City shopping center, the new academic facility serves 5000 students enrolled in a range of undergraduate and graduate programs in liberal arts, science, technology, and business.  

A big advantage of the location is accessibility, writes architecture critic and University of Pennsylvania professor Witold Rybczinski in Slate. The location allows the university to share all the retail facilities of a major shopping center, including plentiful free parking, and it abuts Vancouver's nifty SkyTrain mass transit system, which zips riders around the city in high-tech, computer-controlled rail cars and makes for easy car-free commuting. The mall's food court serves as a cafeteria for students and faculty. The university at the mall provides all the usual academic accoutrements, including study areas and an indoor atrium that serves as the campus center.  You can see photos of the clever new campus and read Rybczinski's account of how it came to be, here.

What is the lesson of the Fukushima nuclear disaster?  For some people, it's that nuclear power plants are unsafe and should be closed.  For others, reports Corinna Wu in Prism, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education, it's that the people running the plants need much better training. 

In South Korea, which is in the process of increasing its nuclear power plants from 20 to 28, that need appears particularly great.  In response to that need, Wu writes, a facility that already houses 5 working reactors will add something completely new: the world's first graduate school devoted entirely to the practicalities of producing nuclear energy.

Slated to open in March, 2012, the Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO) International Nuclear Graduate School (K-INGS), located at the Kori nuclear facility, will offer two degrees: master of nuclear engineering and doctor of technology.  As the doctorate's title indicates, "this is not a traditional doctoral degree program," says KunMo Chung, chairman of the new school's founding board, as quoted by Wu.  Rather than preparing students for research or traditional engineering work, the curriculum will focus entirely on the systems involved in running, building, and improving nuclear power plants.  The combination of industry participation and practical orientation bears a resemblance to the Professional Science Masters programs gaining popularity in the United States, although those programs are based at and run by universities.  The K-INGS program was developed with the cooperation of a U.S. institution, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.  

The first class is projected to consist of 50 Koreans and 50 students from other countries around the world.  People with this training are "in demand to the point where nuclear power companies, including KEPCO, are expected to cover the cost of students' tuition," Wu writes. "If his 'experiment' succeeds," she adds, "Chung envisions a similar nuclear graduate school springing up in the United States."

In March, 2009, shortly after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (popularly known as the stimulus) was signed into law, we wondered what the resulting huge 2-year windfall would mean for science and scientists.  More than $21 billion of the largesse, all of which had to be obligated (but not necessarily spent) by the end September 2010, was slated for science. The National Institutes of Health came in for $8.2 billion of the special funding, much of it going, ultimately, to some 21,500 short-term research grants to university-based principal investigators. 

On December 12, the  Government Accountability Office (GAO) provided a partial answer to our question with a report entitled Employment and Other Impacts Reported by NIH Recovery Act Grantees.

December 9, 2011

Decoding the Grassley Hold

A couple of days ago we reported that Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has placed a hold on a bill that would remove the caps on how many green cards could be issued to persons from particular countries.  The bill had passed the House of Representatives by a huge margin, but the move by the powerful Senator Grassley kills its chances of coming up for a vote in the Senate, at least for now.

This turn of events has apparently mystified many foreign nationals hoping to receive green cards, according to Norman Matloff, the University of California-Davis computer professor who is one of the most astute and informed commentators on high-skilled immigration.  He has written a clear and comprehensive explanation of the issues that motivate Grassley's drive for reform of U.S. policy toward high-skilled immigration.

I won't try to paraphrase Matloff's precise and penetrating analysis, except to say that he ties Grassley's move directly to the "internal brain drain" about which Matloff spoke (and we reported) at a Georgetown University event in March. Matloff is hoping that "Grassley can push through some real reform" of the system that now benefits employers and those foreign workers permitted to enter the United States, but at the expense of America's abundant supply home-grown high-skilled workers, who are suffering high rates of unemployment even as employers claim a shortage of skilled people.

Two interesting publications concerning scientific integrity appeared recently. Felicia LeClere, a principal research scientist at the University of Chicago, suggests, in an essay on Inside Higher Ed published on December 8, that requirements for data sharing now in place at some granting bodies and journals should be broadly extended because they could serve as a "cure for scientific misconduct." And on December 7, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a policy on scientific integrity that asserts scientists' right to speak freely with the media. Over a number of years, journalists have criticized the practice by many government agencies of requiring requests to speak with scientists to go through public relations offices. The policy also protects both whistleblowers and scientists wrongly accused of misconduct, limits conflicts of interest, and requires policy decisions by the agency to reflect "the best available science." Critics have argued that policy decisions by public agencies sometimes place political considerations above scientific findings.

Requiring all researchers to reveal their data "in a timely and accessible manner," as some journals and funders now do, "will change incentives and behavior," LeClere asserts. Other scientists can "immediately" begin trying to replicate results, which will promptly reveal any flaws, she believes. In addition, the prospect of close scrutiny will discourage anyone from "fraudulent data [or] fraudulent findings."

The NOAA document, meanwhile, states that, "consistent with their official duties, NOAA scientists may speak freely to the media and the public about scientific and technical findings based on their official work, including scientific and technical ideas, approaches, findings and conclusions," states the NOAA policy. They are also "free to present viewpoints, for example about policy and management matters, that extend beyond their scientific findings to incorporate their expert or personal opinions," so long as they make clear that those opinions are their own and not the agency's. "In no circumstance may any NOAA official ask or direct Federal scientists or other NOAA employees to suppress or alter scientific findings," it also says.

In addition, the agency will inform employees about and "abide by existing whistleblower protections," which are designed to prevent harm to the careers of people who raise issues in good faith. The Code of Scientific Conduct included in the NOAA policy requires honesty and accountability in handling research and results, and encourages people "immediately to report any observed, suspected or apparent Scientific and Research Misconduct." 

This all sounds great. But experience teaches that few systems, no matter how excellent they appear, are automatically self-enforcing. Making data public will only serve as a safeguard of integrity, as LeClere suggests, if other people have an incentive to spend the time to examine and work with it. But as indicated in last week's special section of Science devoted to replication, the issues involved can be far from simple.  

The same certainly goes for working, as some NOAA and other government scientists do, on potentially controversial topics in a highly charged political environment. And enunciated organizational policies may be, as Shakespeare's put it, "more honor'd in the breach than the observance." Still, progress requires high aspirations. Here's hoping that these come to fruition.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the powerful ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a longstanding advocate of reform of the H-1B temporary visa and other aspects of U.S. high-skill immigration policy, has placed a hold on the "Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants" bill, reports Computerworld. This legislative tactic is considered tantamount to announcing an intention to filibuster.

The bill, which passed the House of Representatives with a lopsided vote of 389 to 15, would abolish caps on the number of employer-sponsored green cards that can be granted to citizens of any given country, but would not increase the total number of green cards. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

Grassley's action makes it highly unlikely that the bill can advance toward a Senate vote, at least for now. He opposes it because it does not "better protect Americans who seek high-skill jobs during this time of record unemployment," he stated in the Senate, according to Computerworld. Grassley and his committee colleague Dick Durban (D-Illinois) have long fought to improve protections for high-skilled American workers.

Lights are twinkling in the neighborhood, Christmas music is playing in the supermarket, and the notice about the departmental holiday party has already gone out. But, as you prepare to share a festive cup with your colleagues and superiors, beware.  "Situations wherein alcohol and academics are turned loose together are fraught with the potential for disaster,"  Nate Kreuter sagely observes in an essay on Inside Higher Ed.  Lured by the pseudo camaraderie of Yuletide celebrations, not to mention the free booze,  many an unwary young (and not-so-young) grad student, postdoc, or professor has blown the chance to be taken seriously ever again by overindulgence in the sauce.

Former postdoc Selina Wang offers an illuminating peek into her post-postdoc job search and her search for the meaning of her work, in a short, sweet essay entitled "The Quest for a Purposeful and Passionate PhD" at Chemical & Engineering News. An egregious lunch with faculty members during a "failed" job interview at a prestigious university ends up teaching her a profound life lesson: "It's not so much about what I do, but it's about how it makes me feel when I do it -- how it makes me come alive."

Wang wisely concludes that these apparently unfeeling, self-absorbed people, "despite how this department looks on paper," are not the ones she wants to spend her time with.  But it's better for her to tell you in her own words.  You can read her essay here.

November 29, 2011

"A Life That Saved Many Lives"

I learned from my friend Valeria Roman, science reporter at the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarin, of the death on November 27, at the age of 101, of the physician and virology researcher Eugenia Sacerdote de Lustig. I hadn't previously heard of the woman whom Clarin called a "pioneering and passionate physician," but I immediately knew that a woman doctor and medical researcher of her age just had to have a remarkable story.

When I started reading about her, I found that it was even more remarkable and inspiring than I had expected. (Unfortunately for some readers who might want to know more, all the information I found about her was in Spanish.)

The deadline for entering the Kauffman Foundation Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Awards competition has been extended by two weeks, to December 12, the National Postdoctoral Association has announced.  The original deadline was November 28.

Open to persons who have done a postdoc in the US, the competition will award $10,000 to a founder of an established company based on the person's research and $2500 to someone in the process of starting a company.  Information on entering is here.


"It's not humanly possible to be a good wife, a good mother and a first-class scientist. No one can do it--something has to go." That discouraging statement, contrary to what you may suppose, comes not from a snobbish misogynist but from Lynn Margulis. At the time of her death on November 22 at the age of 73, Margulis was Distinguished University Professor of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

A prominent biologist, Margulis's accomplishments earned her, among other honors, the National Medal of Science and membership in the National Academy of Sciences. But Margulis apparently considered herself a failure in at least one important area in life, according to the Washington Post (the source of the previous quotation). "I quit my job as wife twice," it quotes her as saying. Margulis's marriages to the celebrated astronomer, best-selling author, and TV presenter Carl Sagan and to the chemist and lawyer Thomas N. Margulis, which produced a total of four children, both ended in divorce.



Okay, so Black Friday's come and gone and you haven't made a dent in your holiday shopping. No need to despair. If your gift list is heavy on physics nerds, chemistry geeks, or, generally, lab rats of the humanoid variety, the online science and science fiction publication io9 has put together a roundup of items perfect for science-oriented recipients (especially those with a sense of humor). I particularly like the soft stuffed subatomic particles for that super-precocious toddler and the designer lab coat for that always-hard-to-shop-for nerdo-fashionista.

Ho ho ho and happy gifting. 

As just about everyone knows by now, new companies are responsible for a great many of the new jobs in the United States. What most people (including many scientists who have a good idea that could possibly form the basis of a new company) don't know is how to go about joining the ranks of entrepreneurs. Some investors who want to be in on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing are helping fill that knowledge gap by sponsoring organizations known as technology accelerators (also known as incubators). Such organizations provide access to potential funds and crash courses in business and finance for would-be company founders who lack connections or training in those crucial skills.

So how exactly do accelerators work, and whom and how much can they help? An informative segment that aired on the PBS Newshour, public television's flagship news show, aims at beginning to answer those questions. It and several other related videos are available on the show's Web site, offering a painless introduction to a potentially very promising opportunity for would-be entrepreneurs.

By the time people get to graduate school, they generally have acquired some familiarity with the principles of probability.  So why, asks Nate Kreuter in an essay in Inside Higher Ed entitled "You Aren't the Exception," do so many fail to grasp the simple concept that those laws also apply to themselves? Kreuter describes how, early in his his graduate school program, a professor marched the new students into an auditorium and explained to them in detail just how dismal were their prospects of achieving the academic career they aspired to. (This incident called to mind the famous set piece in Sinclair Lewis's novel Arrowsmith. In this former staple of high school English classes, as young Martin Arrowsmith enters medical school, a professor assembles the class and issues a similarly dire prediction about their odds of success.)

The reason for the widespread failure to believe that such warnings apply to oneself, Kreuter suggests, is that graduate students were, "almost by definition, exceptional students as undergraduates...,exceptionally bright [and] hardworking."  Their experience of outstanding success in their studies has made them "very good at disregarding warnings" and conditioned them "to seem themselves as exceptions, as exceptional."  So they're likely to think that the same will hold in the next stages of their careers.

Nearly half of foreign-born people in the United States who have bachelor's degrees earned them in science or engineering fields, as opposed to a third of native-born degree holders. Nearly a third of all bachelors degrees in engineering in the United States are held by non-native individuals.  The majority of those people are from Asia.  The place with the highest percentage of S&E degree holders among its foreign born population is Pittsburgh.

These are only a few of interesting facts about foreign-born holders of science and engineering degrees that you can find in a just-released Census Bureau report on this population based on data from the 2010 census.
I'm a bit late to the party, but I only just became aware of an illuminating Wall Street Journal article  published in October that explains why so many employers claim they can't find skilled workers (and may need to import them from abroad) while so many highly educated people can't find jobs.  "I believe that the real culprits are the employers themselves,"  writes Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School, one of the nation's leading business schools. 

"The perceptions about a lack of skilled workers are pervasive," he continues. " The staffing company ManpowerGroup, for instance, reports that 52% of U.S. employers surveyed say they have difficulty filling positions because of talent shortages." he continues.  "But the problem is an illusion."

You may not have realized that this is National PharmFree Week, but the American Medical Student Association and students on various campuses nationwide are celebrating by calling on medical schools and medical centers to strengthen their conflict of interest policies, educate students more effectively about the issues involved in pharmaceutical marketing, and help make medicines more widely available throughout the world.  

The effort aims to "change the culture of medicine from relying on the convenience of marketing and the luxury of free gifts to a culture which puts patients first by prioritizing evidence-based medicine," said Tim Anderson, a fourth-year medical student at Case-Western Reserve University, who heads the ASM PharmFree campaign, in a statement.  Key to accomplishing these goals, the association argues, is more awareness of the issues, and more transparency, among both students and faculty.

ASMA's PharmFree activities include a scorecard rating the conflict of interest policies of medical schools and medical centers across the country and curricular materials for teaching students about drug development, pharmaceutical companies' marketing practices, and conflict of interest issues. 

A new report entitled Jobs Americans Can't Do? The Myth of a Skilled Labor Shortage examines the claim that employers cannot find sufficient numbers of Americans trained for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs.  Issued by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a non-partisan policy group in Washington, DC, the study finds "no evidence that there is, or will exist in the foreseeable future, a shortage of qualified native-born scientists or engineers in the United States."  

In fact, within 2 years of earning science and engineering degrees, "65 percent are either employed or training for a career in another field," the report states.  Why? One reason for the outflow of talent, it suggests, is that because of large influxes of foreign workers on temporary visas, "wages in [STEM] occupations have not kept pace with those of other college graduates, and in some occupations have actually decreased."  Between 2000 and 2009, it notes, 94% of applications for H-1B temporary visas nonetheless received approval.

The U.S. immigration system, the report concludes, "encourages foreigners to enter the U.S. and gives employers strong reasons to prefer them over natives.  With up to 12 million more S&E [science and engineering] graduates than job openings in these fields, it is simply untrue that there is a shortage of available candidates already in the United States, yet almost 675,000 H-1 and L-1 workers were approved in 2009.  Tech firms promote the myth of manpower and skill shortages because it results in public policies that help them cut wages and exploit workers."

A while back we reported on the efforts of the minute, mega-rich Arabian oil state of Qatar to develop world-class science. Among Qatar's goals is to encourage Arab scientists who have left the Middle East for study or work to come back and do their research in their home region.  The nation's major research funder, the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, has now announced that it will be hosting an Arab Expatriate Scientists Symposium (AESS) from November 19 to 23 in Qatar's capital city of Doha. The initiative is "yet another move to reverse [this] brain drain," the Foundation said in a statement

AESS, which is held in conjunction with the foundation's annual research symposium and was organized by the foundation's Arab Expatriate Scientists Network, is expected to attract more than 80 expatriate Arab scientists and "provide ample opportunities for [them] to network and contribute to scientific enhancement in Qatar and the region," said the foundation's vice president for research, Abdel Haoudi, in the statement.  

The meeting is just one aspect of Qatar's rich, long-term commitment to research. Scientists from the Middle East who have a hankering to return home should investigate the opportunities that these efforts could make available to them.

November 11, 2011

For Safety, Put It In Writing

Investigators looking into the lab incidents that killed Sheri Sangji and maimed Preston Brown have identified poor communication and lack of training as the major factors in both disasters. Texas Tech University grad student Brown, for example, was working with far more of an explosive material than his professor, Louisa Hope-Weeks, allowed.  She thought that Brown was aware of the size limit.  He obviously was not.

Since the explosion that cost Brown three fingers and inflicted eye damage and burns, Hope-Weeks has instituted new policies to ensure that everyone working in her lab is clear on what they are doing and what is permitted.  In an interview with Jyllian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News, she explains that the new procedures require students to write up protocols describing in their own words what they intend to do.  "After the accident what became clear to me was that oral communication with students was never enough to ensure that they understood," Hope-Weeks says.

Having to explain their planned actions in writing helps students to think clearly about acts and consequences; it also reveals holes in their understanding and knowledge, Hope-Weeks adds.  But the new system also raises the issue of how to weigh allowing students the independence to explore against the risk of micromanagement.  And reading the students' writing takes time. But, she advises her professorial colleagues, "If you think you're providing enough vigilence and oversight, double it, because it is amazing what students will do when your back it turned."

To build a successful career in industry, scientists must master the folkways of the industrial job market, which differ from those of academe.  People who already have industrial experience often find corporate recruiters to be valuable allies in this endeavor.  Popularly known as headhunters, these recruiters are hired by employers to find the right person for a specific job. They generally concentrate their efforts prospective employees who have strong industrial resumes.  

But, says Susan J. Ainsworth in a very informative article called "Recruiter Rapport" in Chemical & Engineering News, learning how to work with headhunters can also benefit early career scientists, if not in the immediate future, then possibly later on as their careers mature.  People just getting their industrial careers underway would  therefore probably find it worth an investment of time and effort to learn how headhunters work and to make connections with some who are active in the branch of industry they want to enter. "You never know where that relationship will lead -- if not today, it could pay off in the future," Ainsworth quotes a recruiter as saying.

In addition to knowing about specific job openings, headhunters "provide [job seekers] a wealth of benefits and services, including job search advice and access to positions a candidate might not otherwise find or consider," Ainsworth writes.  These assets can include demystifying the processes of succeeding at interviews and negotiating a salary.

"To tap these benefits, however, candidates need to know how to successfully start and nurture relationships with headhunters, who are," she emphasizes, "ultimately working to serve their employer clients rather than the job seeker." 

Ainsworth's article offers a range of helpful suggestions for how enterprising scientists can  establish these relationships.  Because headhunters' stock in trade is deep and detailed knowledge of and connections in particular industries, getting to know the right one could give a career a matchless boost.  

Though unlikely to pay immediate benefits for those very early in their careers, learning about headhunters appears to be a wise long-term investment.  You can find Ainsworth's article here.

With industrial innovation a major issue these days, on Monday the National Park Service dedicated the nation's newest national park on the spot where the Industrial Revolution first began in America. The Paterson Great Falls National Park in Paterson, New Jersey, stands where the Passaic River drops 77 feet in the second-largest waterfall east of the Mississippi (second to Niagara). The two billion gallons of water that crash over the falls each day inspired  American founding father Alexander Hamilton and fellow investors in the Society for Useful Manufacture to finance, in the 1790s, the infant country's first purpose-built industrial town, kick-starting the rise of the great urban manufacturing centers and the tradition of industrial innovation that, as we recently noted, has for more than two centuries made New Jersey one of the research and invention hubs of the nation.

In planning your visit to the new park, don't miss another Park Service monument to Garden State ingenuity, the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, in nearby West Orange. There, you can see the labs and workshops where the sage of Menlo Park perfected the countless inventions that helped create the modern age. As this old Jersey girl can testify, the first phonograph recordings, motion pictures, and such have impressed generations of school children (and adults, too).
Present and potential master's or doctoral students in fields relevant to advancing space technology are invited to apply for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Space Technology Research Fellowships. Open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents studying at accredited U.S. institutions, the competitive awards can last up to 4 years and will support work at both the student's home campus and at a NASA lab or other R&D facility. Each fellow will also receive guidance both from their academic supervisor at the home institution and from a "technically relevant and community engaged researcher" chosen by NASA to serve as the student's "professional mentor."  

NASA plans to award "100 or more" new fellowships a year, with "the typical award being for approximately $250,000."  The application deadline for this year's awards is January 11 2012.  Information on the program and the application process is here.

Starting in March, 2013, the new America Invents Act, which President Obama signed in September, will change the ground rules that govern filing for patents on inventions.  The changeover will create a number of issues for researchers, including student researchers, and for the universities where they work, writes John Villasenor in the Chronicle of Higher Education. While the issues involved are beyond the competence of this reporter, Villasenor's essay offers an introduction to what they are.  This can help you decide what to ask about how to protect that brainstorm that, you hope, will make you rich.

For years now, career experts have emphasized the importance of clear communication to a scientist's advancement, whether in the academic world, industry, government, or the non-profit sector.  Science journalist Chris Mooney, who writes the Intersection blog at the Center for American Progess, has called to our attention a very illuminating (not to mention hilarious) video illustrating why this is true.  Try to avoid the Hyper-Risibility Syndrome while viewing it.

Just in time for the annual celebration of synthetic spookiness, Cheryl Reed and Dawn M. Formo, two professors who've written a book about the academic job search, offer advice on dealing with something truly scary: the academic job interview. In an essay at Inside Higher Ed, they expand an observation by Stephen King, the, well, king of the creepy, into a sensible strategy for preparing for that deeply desired--but also dreaded--day when a job seeker may have to face a search committee in person.

People like horror because it lets them "dare the nightmare," the two authors quote King as saying. In just the same way, job seekers ought to use the months between the Halloween season--by which time their applications may have been sent out--and the period when actual invitations to interviews may begin to arrive, to consider the most horrifying things that could happen at an interview--and prepare to deal with them.  

Are you a student (graduate or undergraduate) with an idea for an experiment that really should take place in space? If so, the opportunity to fly your research to the "edge of space" may just have arrived.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced a competition for research slots on its balloon-borne High Altitude Student Platform.  Open to graduate and undergraduate students, the competition has an entry deadline of 12 December.   NASA will be answering questions about it during a teleconference on 11 November.

You can get more information on the project, the teleconference, and the application procedures here.

Again this year, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the National Postdoctoral Association have teamed up to offer the Kauffman Foundation Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Awards with prizes totaling $12,500.  

Present or former postdocs at U.S. institutions who have founded or are in the process of founding a company to commercialize research results are eligible to apply for one of the two awards.  The $10,000 Outstanding Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Award honors the founder or co-founder of a U.S. firm that is at least 3 years old.  Applicants for the $2,500 Emerging Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Award must be working toward commercialization.  

The deadline is November 28.  You can find application information and forms here.

Almost 150 firefighters spent 50 minutes on Tuesday bringing under control a fire in a lab at the Center for Health Sciences of the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), reports the Los Angeles Times. The blaze, which apparently caused no injuries, reportedly occurred in a lab containing hazardous materials.

Since the 2009 death of Sheri Sangji from burns she sustained in a lab fire, UCLA has instituted reforms of safety policies and procedures and become the home of the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety

Stay tuned for further details.
In February 2010, we reported that the United States Chemical Safety Board (CSB) was undertaking its first-ever look at the safety situation in academic labs after one explosion critically injured and maimed a graduate student at Texas Tech University (TTU) and another, not long before, killed a technician at the University of California-Los Angeles.  The following May, the lead investigator on that study, Cheryl McKenzie, told us that the TTU incident appeared to reveal "widely applicable" safety issues "that need to be explored."

On Wednesday, the CSB proved itself as good as its word by issuing an incisive, detailed, and wide-ranging report entitled Texas Tech University Laboratory Explosion.  This groundbreaking document lays out what went wrong at TTU; what it means for that institution -- and, by extension, for thousands of other institutions across the nation; and what needs to be done about the situation right away. 

Among the non-academic careers open to people with scientific training, science writing offers a wide variety of opportunities.  Science writers explain science to readers ranging from school children and subscribers of popular magazines all the way to officials of granting agencies and researchers seeking summaries of conferences they missed.

Is a Ph.D. a requirement for a successful science writing career?  Definitely not, says Robert Irion,  director of the prestigious science writing graduate program at the University of California-Santa Cruz.  Speaking at the ScienceWriters2011 conference held in Flagstaff, Arizona, 14-18 October, Irion shared results of a survey of graduates of the program who held Ph.D.s when they entered,  A background in science, but not at graduate degree, is a requirement for admission to the program.

The Ph.D. science writing alumni Irion reported on have all established credible careers, and all believe that holding the terminal scientific degree confers advantages in establishing credibility, especially with publications aimed at scientists; at getting higher starting pay; and at understanding and interpreting the process and results of research,  But, though useful, the Ph.D. is in no way "essential for someone going into science writing, particularly given the amount of time and effort it takes," says 2011 UCSC graduate Sandeep Ravindran, a microbiologist currently working at Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, as quoted by Irion. 

Years in the lab do give a "valuable perspective on the culture of science," according to 2001 grad, neuroscientist and Science staff writer Greg Miller, as quoted by Irion, But, Miller adds, staying "too long" creates the "risk of developing too much reverence for the influential people and ideas in your field," an attitude at odds with the skepticism required for effective reporting.

Irion's advice to aspiring science writers: pursue a Ph.D. only if you so love doing that work that you have to -- or, by extension, if you're so close to the degree that the time to finish is relatively small.  But don't start or slog through to the end because you think you need the degree to succeed as a science writer.  Having a Ph.D. "is by no means the only way one can geek out on something" and gain the knowledge needed for success, says 2004 grad and mathematician Davide Casstelvecchi, who blogs for Scientific American and freelances in his native Italy.

If you already know that science writing is the career you want, Irion advises moving ahead on it "no matter your degree level."  A good way to start learning about opportunities the field offers is checking out the resources at www.nasw.org. the web site of the National Association of Science Writers (full disclosure: this reporter is NASW's secretary.)


This month's "Taken for Granted" (TFG) column discusses the importance -- but the often low prestige -- of the work that safety officers do on the nation's campuses.  In an essay in today's Chronicle of Higher Education, Gary A. Olson also clarifies the  role of an "indispensable" job that is widely misunderstood.  As safety expert Nathan Watson tells TFG this month, the role of campus safety offices is not filling out forms but minimizing risk.

"it's amazing how many fires and safety hazards faculty and staff will create if left unchecked," Olson quotes a safety officer as saying.  Although the reportage on safety in Science Careers tends to concentrate on the risks to life and limb common in research laboratories, carelessness about such ordinary matters as storing supplies and plugging in appliances by faculty and staff members in all the disciplines and offices can also lead to serious harm, Olson notes.  "The most successful safety officer is one who continually focuses on accident prevention and regulatory compliance rather than reacting to safety crises," he continues.

Accomplishing this ever-challenging task requires the cooperation of all members of the campus community, even though many people are unaware of what safety officers are trying to do, Olson writes. It's not only scientists who have a stake in safe working conditions.  "The rest of us, too, can take steps to improve the safety climate on our campuses," he adds.  A major may to contribute, he advises, is consulting and cooperating with the safety officials on one's campus.

A new, independent postdoctoral association will take over from a university-established advisory council as the representative of the 1100 postdocs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reports The Tech, an independent student publication at MIT.  Individuals serving on the Postdoctoral Advisory Council, which currently represents postdocs and operates out of the office of MIT's vice president for research, worked on creating the postdoc-run Postdoctoral Association (PDA) over the past year.  The association, currently run by a group of volunteers, will be electing officials in the near future according to a member of the group.  The PDA is also reportedly looking into a number of issues to improve opportunities for postdocs both on the campus and in the labor market.  More information is available at the PDA website.

The contentious issue of high-skill immigration returned to Capitol Hill again today at a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement.  Unlike the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on immigration held in July, which covered a range of topics, this one focused on a single question: "STEM the Tide: Should America Try to Prevent an Exodus of Foreign Graduates of U.S. Universities with Advanced Science Degrees?"

The idea of "stapling a green card" to the diploma of every foreign science and engineering graduate has gotten a lot of influential support lately.  This hearing, however, highlighted a number of weaknesses with such a policy. 

Always longed to travel in space?  Well, if you have the "right stuff" (which can include graduate study or a work history in science or engineering), the opportunity you dream of may be ready to launch.  American citizens who have "significant qualifications in engineering or science," excellent academic backgrounds, good eyesight, and, perhaps most importantly, a desire to participate in space flight, are invited to apply for the next class of astronauts.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced that the application period will open early next month, with the incoming class slated to "support missions to the [space] station" and to "have the opportunity to participate...in missions beyond low Earth orbit."

You can find information here and here on the qualifications, pay and benefits, application process and more.

(Speaking of astronauts, we encourage you to read these recent Science Careers articles on astronautic careers:

How Many Astronauts Do We Need, by Michael Price,

Space Cadet, by Vijee Venkatraman,

and

A Rare Opportunity Into Space, by Elisabeth Pain)





October 3, 2011

How Big a Help is an Ig?

Winning an important scientific prize doesn't just acknowledge outstanding work.  Often, it also gives a matchless boost to the recipient's career and reputation. This week, for example, the world's attention is riveted on the announcement of the Nobel Prizes, the incomparable honors that propel scientists to the top rung of prestige and recognition.

Last week, on the other hand, media around the world (including our sister blog, Science Insider) covered the awarding of a rather less coveted -- but much more comical -- set of prizes, the IgNobels, which annually honor -- if that's the word -- science "that makes people laugh, and then makes them think."  

Well, they got us thinking, too.  Specifically, since we're Science Careers, we wondered what winning a spoof award does to the career prospects of recipients, a number of whom, we noticed, are quite early in their careers.  Do tenure and promotion committees look with favor on a publication that garnered the authors and their institution world-wide attention for being, well, downright laughable?  Or do they recoil in horror from a piece of work that might be taken, at first at least, as, er, exceptionally frivolous?  Or do they just take the dignified approach of ignoring the whole thing?  To find out, we asked Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, which sponsors the annual IgNobels.

Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic cleric and leader of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by an American drone on Friday, received a degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University in 1994. His excellent computer skills, fluent English, and familiarity with American culture made him a potent recruiter of disaffected young men in English-speaking countries, most famously Nidal Hasan, the military doctor charged with the 2009 Fort Hood shooting; Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the so-called "underwear bomber" accused of attempting to blow up a plane over Detroit 6 weeks later, on Christmas Day; and Faisal Shahzad, who allegedly tried to bomb Times Square in New York in 2010.

What's the relevance of Awlaki's engineering studies?  Just that it provides support for the research of Dr. Russell Razzaque, the British psychiatrist about whom we blogged some weeks back.  Razzaque studies the process of radicalization that has made violent extremists out of a number of highly educated young Muslim men who were either born or received a considerable part of that education in Western countries. Among the characteristics shared by those susceptible to such a transformation, Razzaque identified a background of studying a technical field, often engineering, technology, or a similar subject.  Abdulmuttalab holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the elite University College London.   Hasan graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (better known as Virginia Tech) with an honors degree in biochemistry and minors in biology and chemistry before attending Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.  Shahzad received a computer degree from University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.

So is Razzaque -- himself a trained in the technical field of medicine -- saying that there's something about science or technical studies that makes people terrorists?  By no means.  But he does think that certain individuals have characteristics that attract them to both that type of subject and to extremism.  You can read about Razzaque's work here.

Finding a suitable and sustainable career is a major challenge for new Ph.D.s not only in the United States but in nations around the world.  Thirty-five leading academic figures representing 16 countries, including such major Ph.D. producers as the U.S., China, India, Canada and Korea, have been looking for answers at the Fifth Annual Strategic Leaders Global Summit, sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools and the University of Hong Kong.

Today they issued a statement of "Principles and Practices for Building Pathways from Graduate Schools to Careers."  Among the recommendations: graduate schools and professors should play a "key role in ensuring that students are aware of, and prepared for, a wide array of careers in the academic, public and private sectors."  To accomplish this, universities should provide students "the opportunity to develop essential transferable skills."

September 28, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

Only months ago, Felisa Wolfe-Simon was probably the most famous postdoc in the world, the lead author of perhaps the most talked about scientific paper in years.  Her work appeared liable to revise some long-understood facts about life on earth, if it was confirmed.  The bacterium she and collaborators had humorously named GFAJ-1 -- short for "give Felisa a job" -- had hurled her into an epic media and scientific maelstrom.  The combination of a dramatically publicized press conference and an immediate storm of criticism, both scientific and personal, made the young scientist the center of intense -- and generally far from friendly -- interest in both the media and scientific worlds.  

But now, "it's quite possible that my career is over," she says in an engrossing profile by Tom Clynes in the current Popular Science.  Quite apart from the validity of her research claims -- which I am utterly unqualified to evaluate -- the story of an unknown and apparently rather naïve young researcher's brutal initiation into the realities of high-profile scientific controversy is both poignant and illuminating.  

For a while it seemed that Wolfe-Simon might have captured, at an astonishingly early stage of a scientific career, the great prize that all scientists seek: a brilliant and transformative finding that appeared capable of opening vast new realms of possibility.  But soon some fellow scientists were acting toward her in ways that were "unprofessional, and at times became downright shameful," admits one of her work's early critics. 

The story isn't over yet, but what it reveals about politics and emotion in the world of high-stakes science is far from pretty.  You can read the article here.

Yesterday was definitely early-career scientists day at the White House.  In addition to the announcement of new policies at the National Science Foundation aimed at helping researchers with young families and a program to attract women to science that included a talk by First Lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama named the 94 winners of this year's Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.

Termed in a White House statement the "highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers," the awards go annually to scientists distinguished for their "innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach." Significantly, though most of the winners are affiliated with universities, a sizable number work at other research organizations, such as national laboratories.

Sixteen federal agencies collaborate with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to compile each year's list.  Congratulations to all the winners on their outstanding achievements!

Today the White House and the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a new effort, called the "NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative," to make research careers mesh more easily with the family lives of grant recipients -- particularly female ones.  

This appears to be very good news for women seeking to pursue academic scientific careers during their peak childbearing years.  Under the plan, researchers of both sexes will be able to delay the beginning of grants for up to a year because of the birth or adoption of a child and to suspend grants while they take parental leave.  They may also apply for funds to pay technicians to keep projects running during these leave periods.   NSF will "expressly promote these benefits" in its announcements and other publicity, according the the announcement.  

Of course, the new opportunities to spend time with family while advancing a scientific career will only work if universities also slow the tenure clock by comparable amounts of time -- and if delays don't count against people in personnel decisions.  Research has found some academics, especially at the most competitive institutions, unwilling to avail themselves of such family benefits for fear of appearing "not serious" about their careers.  It will be interesting to see whether the official NSF impirmatur for parental leave makes a difference in such attitudes.

Announcement of the initiative is part of an larger effort, which includes an event hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, to encourage girls to pursue scientific and technical careers.

The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) announced on September 20  a newly rewritten and updated version of its 2006 handbook for establishing Professional Science Master's Degree programs.  Entitled Professional Science Master's: the A Council of Graduate School Guide to Establishing Programs, the new publication provides to institutions considering establishing PSM degrees the benefit of over a decade of experience with the 2-year programs that prepare students for science- and technology-based careers in industry, government, and the nonprofit sector.  The volume includes best practices based on successful programs and explains how to assess a proposed program's feasibility, how to develop and operate a program, how to seek formal affiliation with the national PSM movement, and more.

Over the past decade, over 110 universities in 31 US states and the District of Columbia,  Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom have founded a total of nearly 240 programs that together graduated more than 1,100 students in 2010.  Increasing numbers of institutions have expressed interest in starting programs of their own.  Information on ordering the manual is available here.

The Laboratory Safety Institute, a non-profit organization that gives a variety of training courses in various parts of the country, is offering scholarships to school science teachers to receive lab safety training.  The awards are part of a gift from the Dow Chemical Company and the Dow Education Foundation that will also support an online LSI reference library of lab safety materials, which is projected to go live in November.  The application deadline for the scholarship is December 31.  Application information is here.

September 20, 2011

Scientific Chutzpah

Innocent graduate students and a postdoc may once again have become "collateral damage" of professorial fraud, this time in what Margaret Munro of Postmedia News terms an "unusually creative case of academic misconduct."  The Canadian scientist in question went far beyond the usual enhancement of experimental data or massaging of conclusions.   He listed entirely fictitious publications on the CV he used in an application that won a research grant from the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Canada's major federal granting agency.

With academic openings scarce in some countries but plentiful in others, would-be faculty members may consider pursuing careers abroad. For those who decide to teach in foreign lands, says Zen Parry, an Australian teaching in South Korea, the "biggest cultural surprise" may well be the students.

In an intriguing article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he explains how the Korean education system, testing methods, family practices and means of financing college produce students with expectations, experiences, pressures, and study habits quite different from those familiar to teachers in English-speaking countries. This can lead to puzzling and disconcerting classroom interactions for the expatriate teacher. His Korean students, for example, "are very good under close supervision," Parry writes, "but they have few skills for...managing time and resources efficiently, or asking their professors questions outside of what pages to read and what questions will be asked in a quiz."  Requests to professors to change grades are common and generally granted, and students "will leave" a course that "emphasizes teamwork and collaboration," Parry adds.

The "nature of the students" is an "important factor impossible to put in ... contracts," Parry notes. That's why he advises that "professors should ask many questions about students and keep their eyes wide open before taking on an expatriate job."

September 16, 2011

Changing Campus Culture?

The Association of American Universities, whose 61 members include the major research universities of the United States and Canada, has undertaken a "five year initiative to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields at its member institutions," the group announced yesterday. 

According to a 15-page so called "discussion draft" released at the same time, 90 percent of the undergraduates who changed their intended major from STEM to non-STEM subjects "cited poor teaching as a concern."  Because the majority make the change between their freshman and sophomore years, keeping them in science will require attention to the very earliest undergraduate courses -- hardly the ones that generally rivet the attention of prominent faculty members. A good deal is known about methods that work well for undergraduate learners, the document notes, but, it frankly admits (in italics for emphasis), "Improving teaching will require cultural change" on campuses.

The 2001 terror attack on the World Trade Center caused more than unprecedented loss of life and physical destruction on a single, terrible day. It also became a long-running public health catastrophe for the New York region, forcing countless people to breathe a toxic mix of  pulverized asbestos, concrete, plastic, metals, and many other harmful substances. Just days after the towers collapsed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, confidently told the public that New York's air was safe -- an idea belied by the stench that lay over the region long afterward. A decade later, it is tragically obvious that many of those who breathed that severely polluted air have paid a heavy toll in lung disease and other illnesses.

The EPA claim had no basis in scientific fact and actually contradicted information the agency then possessed, according to the blog of Francesa Grifo, senior scientist and director of scientific integrity at the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).  But EPA announcements, like other federal communications on scientific topics, were subject to political concerns. 

"Ten years later," Grifo writes, "federal agencies" including EPA, the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "are now in the process of developing scientific integrity policies ... aimed at preventing similar violations of science ... in the future." Given what we now know about the health problems that followed the EPA announcement, it is "ever more essential that we hold our federal agencies accountable," she writes. Tens of thousands of citizens have commented on the proposed policies and UCS has done line-by-line analysis of the proposed policies and their drawbacks. The deadlines for public comment have passed, but you can read the policies and the analyses here.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Americans aspiring to scientific careers flocked to study at the great universities of Germany, then the world leaders in research. More recently, young scientific talent has flowed in the opposite direction, with the German government encouraging its best graduate students to come to the United States for a postdoctoral experience.

Germany wants its new Ph.D.s to go abroad to broaden their scientific knowledge. But once they're all trained up, Germany wants them to come home -- and many of them do. About 85% of U.S. postdocs with German Ph.D.s, and about 50% of German scientists who earned American Ph.D.s, return to Germany eventually, reports Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed. But Germany, Jaschik says, hopes to do even better.

At the recent annual convention of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Denver, the group's deliberative council devoted a portion of its meeting to hearing suggestions for what ACS can do to improve laboratory safety culture on the nation's campuses. The session grew out of efforts and proposals by groups within the ACS that have been working on safety issues for years. In a typically astute and informative blog post on Chemical & Engineering News, Jyllian Kemsley reports that the half hour devoted to the issue produced a wide range of ideas, from tying "faculty and adminstrator raises and contract renewal to safety performance" to encouraging TV shows and movies to show correct protective apparel and gear.

Significantly, Kemsley writes, "no one stood up either to defend academic laboratory culture or to say that ACS shouldn't get involved." One council member in fact declared that "[t]here is no college laboratory I want to work in because they're all so unsafe."

A number of suggestions involved increasing training for students, including possibly creating certification programs. Kemsley, however, sees "too much emphasis on training students and not enough on the role of faculty and administration" in taking responsibility for fostering and maintaining a strong and continuous focus on safety as a crucial element of daily life in the lab. You can read the post, including the list of more than 20 suggestions, here.



During the Senate subcommittee hearing on high-skilled immigration reported in this month's "Taken for Granted" column, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked witness Ron Hira, professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, to explain in writing for the record why his testimony differed from that of the other witnesses, especially Microsoft's general council Brad Smith. Smith had argued that the United States suffers a shortage of technical talent. Hira denied that claim, stating instead that the current unemployment rate among holders of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees is unusually high.

Hira now has made available to Science Careers the 8-page written reply that he sent to Grassley, which considerably strengthens his testimony at the hearing. Smith's argument, Hira wrote, depends on his assumption that economic "full-employment occurs with an unemployment rate of 5%." Since college graduates currently have an unemployment rate of 4.4%, Smith "concludes that there's a shortage" of such workers.

September 5, 2011

What Engineer Shortage?

On 1 September this blog reported on comments by Paul Ottelini, a member of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitveness, that the United States lacks sufficient numbers of engineers. That same day, in an article entitled 'Mr. President, There Is No Engineer Shortage', The Washington Post "Innovations" columnist Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at Duke University's Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization in Durham, laid out reasons why that claim is not true. 

Wadhwa's main argument will be familiar to regular readers of Science Careers: There is a conspicuous lack of what economists say is a major sign of shortage: wage rise. Except in a few specific fields, such as petroleum engineering, "salaries have not increased more than inflation over the past two decades," Wadhwa writes. 

He goes on to consider the large numbers of engineers supposedly being produced in India and China, who are often cited as a major threat to American competitiveness requiring an increase in graduates here at home. Many of these people are engineers in name only and have nothing close to the skills or intellectual preparation possessed by the products of U.S. engineering programs, Wadhwa writes. Often included in the touted figures are "auto mechanics or technicians," he continues. And in any case, only a minority of China's engineers even end up working in the profession, most becoming "bureaucrats or factory workers."

Read the full article here.

This has been a tough year for new graduates seeking jobs. But the newest class to earn Professional Science Masters (PSM) degrees are landing well-paying positions in a generally dismal economy. 

That, at least, is the conclusion of a report about the class of 2011 from the Council of Graduate Schools (CSG). The report found that 82% of the PSM alumni were working "soon after receiving their degrees," 88% of them in positions "closely or somewhat related to their field of study," said CGS president Debra Stewart in a statement. About half are working in industry, a quarter in government, and the rest in academic or non-profit organizations, and 38% of those who have new jobs found them through the internships they took as part of their degree work. More than half are earning over $55,000. Not suprisingly, 82% of the alumni expressed satisfaction with the programs they had just completed. As we have noted earlier in this space, the programs are attracting plenty of students.

With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks only weeks away, the disproportionate  representation of technically and scientifically trained young men among violent extremists -- from the engineers who flew the planes into the Twin Towers to the army doctor who shot up Fort Hood in 2009 -- has a tragic relevance. According to the book 'Human Being to Human Bomb: Inside the Mind of a Terroristby London psychiatrist Russell Razzaque, for example, "every one of the bombers [involved in the 2005 London bombings] earned any academic success mainly in literalist, logic-based subjects [such as] science, mathematics and engineering."

Razzaque studies the process by which educated young people (overwhelmingly male) are recruited and radicalized and has uncovered factors that appear to make the technically minded especially susceptible. A British-born Muslim, practicing clinician, independent researcher, and advisor to British government agencies, Razzaque discussed his findings at a conference entitled "After 9/11"  being held in Cambridge, England, and sponsored by the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships program. (This reporter received a fellowship to attend the conference.)


Reuters reports that Yale University  finds "significant inaccuracies" in the letter sent by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration concerning safety deficiencies in the university machine shop where student Michele Dufault died in April.  In a statement issued yesterday, Yale claims that the lathe was up to national standards, contrary to OSHA's finding that it lacked required safety features.  Yale also stated that it provides extensive safety training to students using the equipment and also did regular inspections of the machine.

Because Dufault was not an employee, OSHA lacks jurisdiction to impose fines in the case.
The Associated Press is reporting that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has found that the lathe that killed Yale University student Michele Dufault in April lacked necessary safety features and that the university's safety policies were deficient.

AP used the Freedom of Information Act to get a copy of a letter sent by OSHA to Yale.  The lathe, which dates from 1962, had neither an emergency shut-off switch nor a part known as a guard that shields the person working at the machine.  Both are required and considered basic elements of using the device safely. Dufault's hair became fatally entangled in the lathe.  In addition, OSHA noted numerous other safety deficiencies in the machine shop where she died,  such as missing warning signs and inadequate record keeping.

Safety experts, furthermore, consider working alone, as Dufault apparently was doing when she died, to violate a fundamental safety rule.

AP reports that Yale had not responded to a request for comment.

[[Please click here for an update to this story.]]

Winston Churchill called Russia a "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."  The same could be said of the notorious and appalling Bengu Sezen fraud case at Columbia University.  In a detailed report in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), William G. Schulz lays out the facts of the elaborate deception, and they lead to a series of difficult questions.  The first big piece of the puzzle: why did Sezen, an apparently accomplished chemist, even make up her research in the first place?   "Details of the case make clear," Schulz writes, "that Sezen, at the very least, has a sophisticated understanding of chemical principles.  The effort she put into faking it and covering her tracks, say many people who have reviewed the case, easily match that required for legitimate doctoral work in science."

And then there is the even more disturbing question of how she got away with it.  Several members of the lab where Sezen worked attempted to alert their professor, Dalibor Semes, to problems they had perceived in her work.  Three of them, graduate students who failed--not surprisingly, it is now obvious--to reproduce Sezen's results, were dismissed from the lab for their efforts, their hopes of scientific careers presumably wrecked in the process.

August 12, 2011

The Dark Side of Science

An apparently growing number of high-profile retractions of published papers has caught the scientific community's attention lately.  Such admissions of serious flaws, it turns out, are more likely to happen when a paper is published in a high-impact journal than in one of lesser prestige.  That is the conclusion of an article by two scientists who edit journals, Ferric Fang, editor-in-chief of Infection and Immunity, and Arturo Casadevall, editor-in-chief of mBio. They write in their article that "the frequency of retraction varies among journals and shows a strong correlation with the journal impact factor."  They also believe that the number of such incidents is rising.

"Maybe the pressures to try to get papers in prestigious journals was a driving force in encouraging people to engage in misconduct" such as faking data to get spectacular results, Fang speculates in an interview with The Scientist.  What he and Casadevall call in their article "the dark side of the hyper-competitive environment of contemporary science" seems to arise, Fang suggests, out of the intense need some scientists feel to publish in a top journal in order to gain funding, keep their jobs, and, in some cases, avoid losing visas and facing deportation.  

But Fang does not excuse such practices, nor does he know of a system for assuring the honesty of scientific publications that would work better the present one, he says in the interview.  With luck, Fang and Casadevall's exploration of this important and disturbing problem will open a wide-ranging discussion and a search for solutions.  You can download their article here.

Here's more evidence that American students of all kinds will seek science careers when they perceive real opportunity and that there's not a "shortage" of qualified applicants.

Almost 4,400 students applied to professional science masters (PSM) degree programs last year and about half were accepted, reports Inside Higher Ed, using numbers form the Council of Graduate Schools. The applicants were 55% male and 44% female, and 83% were U.S. citizens. Nearly a quarter were members of underrepresented minorities. Two year PSM programs prepare students to work in scientific posts in specific industries.

"Through the PSM, U.S. citizens, minorities and women are being drawn to advanced study in STEM fields," said CGS president Debra Stewart in a statement.  "Clearly this helps meet U.S. workforce needs."

August 10, 2011

A Shortage of Pro Athletes?

"When was the last time we saw a shortage of investment bankers, lawyers, brain surgeons, or pro athletes?"  That intriguing question was posed on the blog of David Finegold, Dean of the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations.  "Our young people are lining up to compete for these positions," he writes, because "we're prepared to pay top dollar in these professions." 

Quoting data presented by labor force expert Hal Salzman at a recent conference, Finegold notes that the same is true for scientific and technical fields when the pay is also good enough.  Shortages of petroleum engineers (a real shortage this time!) have caused starting salaries to shoot up from $56,000 to $86,000 in the last few years.  And guess what those supposedly science-averse American students have been doing about it?  Why, flocking to enroll in petroleum engineering programs, which have seen the number of US students more than double in four years.

"The supply of graduates in the US is very responsive to changing wage-levels," Finegold writes.  Of course, you don't need to be dean of a management school to suspect that that may be true.  Economics 101 ought to be enough to let you know that the law of supply and demand works when it is allowed to.  In fields where there are actual shortages, wages rise, and when they do, more people are attracted to enter those fields.  American students are, as this case shows -- and as labor market experts been saying for years -- staying away from scientific careers not because they can't do science, but because they don't see that it leads to promising opportunities.  When they do see that, as Finegold says, they'll "stand in line" for the chance.  You can read the blog post here.

When Bernadine Healy entered Harvard Medical School, her class included 9 other women and more than 100 men.  When she joined the Johns Hopkins cardiology faculty, she was the first women named to a full-time position.  When President George H.W. Bush appointed her director of the National Institutes of Health in 1991, she was the first woman to hold that post. Healy's pioneering career ended on Saturday with her death, at age 67, of brain cancer. 

The posts cited above are only a few of the distinguished positions that crowded the resume of a woman who began by earning both her college (summa cum laude at Vassar) and medical degrees on full academic scholarships.  She also served as president of the American Heart Association, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, chair of the Cleveland Clinic Research Institute, and dean of the Ohio State University medical school.  In addition, she practiced cardiology, did research of her own, and even ran for the United States Senate.  

August 7, 2011

Non-Progress Report

When the start of the last academic year brought a spate of books examining the the state of American academia, we offered a round-up of several with particular relevance to science. These volumes offered a range of diagnoses and possible cures for fiscal, administrative and career ills on the nation's campuses (Ending or reforming tenure to provide greater funds and flexibility for hiring younger scholars was the single most commonly proposed solution.)

The authors of these volumes obviously hoped and expected that America's professoriate, with its universally proclaimed devotion to analysis, innovation, empiricism, criticism of the status quo outside academe, and dedication to the welfare of the academic enterprise, would take these examinations to heart. Perhaps, the authors hoped, academics would even start thinking about reforms aimed at solving problems like the difficult financial situation of many students, the dismal career prospects of young Ph.D. scholars, the precarious work lives of contingent faculty, and other festering inequities in academe.

So how, to paraphrase a certain politician, has this hopey-changey stuff been working out?

A new U.S. Department of Commerce report on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields shows that, though they earn less than men, the wage gap is smaller than in comparable non-STEM fields.  On our sister blog, our colleague Jeffrey Mervis quotes Rebecca Blank, the economics PhD who is Acting Secretary of Commerce, as wondering why the smaller income discrepancy fails to draw more women into STEM jobs.  "It adds to the puzzle of what we are doing in our schools or our families that makes STEM jobs seemingly less attractive to girls," she says.  Though constituting half of all college-educated workers in the economy at large, women are only a quarter of STEM workers, the report found.

The report goes on to suggest a number of the usual explanations for women's lower propensity to work in STEM, including stereotyping, family conflicts and scarce role models, and Blank calls the income discrepancy "one of the big research questions in economics."  The report fails to note, however, that economics is not the only discipline looking into the question of how people choose careers.  

As we have previously reported, research by psychologist Amanda Diekman of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and associates found that academically able men and women, on average, expressed different value orientations regarding their careers.  Women appeared less motivated than men by economics and more by a desire to help others and serve the larger community.  We noted at that time that a STEM field with that explicit goal, biomedical engineering, has the highest proportion of women students of all engineering. fields. The Commerce Department report, in fact, even notes that women who earn STEM degrees are likelier than comparable men to pursue carers in education or healthcare, but appears to consider that a problem to be corrected.

So what our schools and families may be doing to girls is teaching them to value other goals, such as service and helping, perhaps more highly than income.  Whether that's a good thing or not is certainly beyond the purview of economics.


The Journal of Postdoctoral Affairs, aka the Postdoc Journal, has launched on the Web.  Run by a group of postdocs based mostly in California, the new peer-reviewed online publication aims to be an "international platform for addressing conceptual and practical issues that pertain to the foundations and contexts of the postdoctoral experience," declares a mission statement  fully worthy of the academic enterprise to which its founders aspire.  Volume 1, Number 1 lists the range of materials the journal expects to carry, including scholarly articles on postdocs and their working lives and video presentations of postdocs' research.

"Anyone can write articles [for] this journal provided they are related to postdoc affairs," says editorial board member and first-issue contributor Hady Felfly of the University of California-San Francisco, by e-mail.  The journal gives instructions for submitting articles and videos for consideration for future issues.  In addition, it has a job-announcement section, which already carries an opening in Germany.  Besides scholarly papers, which will undergo "a rigorous peer-review process conducted by an expert editorial team," according to the mission statement,  the journal also seeks opinion articles, letters, and comments and hopes to reach a wide range of readers and contributors, including "current and former postdoctoral scholars, their faculty advisors, postdoctoral policy analysts, administrators and labor affair specialists."


For Ph.D.s who aspire to academic careers that include a lot of teaching, the challenge of learning how to conduct courses and organize lab work appropriate to undergraduates can be a considerable challenge.  Most grad schools and postdoc positions ignore pedagogy entirely, viewing time spent away from research as time wasted.   Nonetheless, several types of postdoctoral opportunities include structured experience standing in front of a classroom, plus mentoring in how to do it well, according to  an article in the August HHMI Bulletin.  These range from so-called teaching postdocs at liberal arts colleges that emphasize instructing undergraduates to programs that add an element of teaching experience to postdoc positions heavy on research.

"If people want to go into academic positions, a pure teaching postdoc can be fatal," says Joe Handelsman of Yale University, quoted in the article.  Even scientists aiming for careers on undergraduate faculties need a solid research record because, the article warns, "schools at all levels -- liberal arts colleges, regional public universities, and major research universities -- look first at research" when they hire.  But the data also appear to indicate that participants in combined research and teaching programs can do well at landing faculty jobs.  For a consideration of these program's pros and cons, check out the article here.

Michelle Dufault, the 22-year-old Yale University undergraduate physics student who died on April 12 while working on a physics project, has become the namesake of an asteroid.  Her hair became fatally entangled in a lathe she was using, apparently alone and late at night, in the university's Sterling Chemical Laboratory.  The Yale physics department yesterday announced the astronomical memorial, formally known as Asteroid Dufault.  The citation, composed by department chair C. Megan Urry, called Michelle an "outstanding astronomy and physics student" who was "passionate about science and about encouraging others, especially young women, to pursue science careers."

Investigations of the circumstances of Dufault's death are apparently still pending.

Though it was published months ago, I just recently came across a revealing interview by Jyllian Kemsley of Chemical & Engineering News on the subject of lab safety.  Timothy Gallagher is chair of the chemistry department at the University of Bristol in England and a real stickler for safety procedures in his labs.  Admitting that he is a reformed offender who as a postdoc suffered two research-related hospitalizations, Gallagher considers safety rules so important that he routinely -- and instantly -- bans from his labs any student or postdoc who doesn't comply.

No one is permitted to work alone or out of the sight of another person at any time. Period. Everyone must carry out a risk assessment every time they undertake a procedure.  But, Gallagher admits, even such consistent vigilance cannot prevent every mishap.  Unexpected events can -- and have -- caused injuries in his lab.  Making people feel constantly responsible for their own and their colleagues' safety is key to a lab that's as accident-free as possible, he believes. Safe practices, he adds, don't hamper but rather "enhance" scientific work.

So, you think that a stellar academic record, terrific publications, a brilliant presentation, and enthusiastic recommendations will be enough to land you that faculty job?  Not so, says University of Utah computer scientist Matt Might in an essay in Inside Higher Ed.  Any number of unexpected screwups can derail your plans and degrade your performance on that all-important campus visit.  In addition to the obvious intellectual wherewithall, he suggests you bring an array of gadgets that he says can help prevent disaster and improve your outcome.

Want to make sure that your presentation slides are available no matter what and that they work in conjunction with the school's equipment?   That you appear dynamic and in control during your talk? That you can find your away around to explore the strange city where the campus is located--and that might be your home if you get the job?  That you can maximize your work time while you wait to change planes?  Might knows just the gizmo that can fill the bill.

July 20, 2011

Science in the Movies

Writing a blog post the other day, about the reaction of British scientist and filmmaker Christopher Riley to the last American space shuttle flight, got me thinking more generally about pop culture representations of science and scientists during the heyday of the space program. As I mentioned in that item, the image of space flight was very positive and the astronauts were portrayed in the media as handsome, virile, virtuous, all-American boys who also just happened to be experts at science and engineering. John Glenn, the photogenic Midwestern small-town boy who was the first American to orbit the earth, became an instant national celebrity in 1962. Twelve years later, after he retired from NASA, he won a seat in to the United States Senate from his native Ohio, which he kept for the next 25 years.

Beyond the exploits of the real astronauts, "Star Trek" and the TV epic of the starship Enterprise began in September 1966, almost three years ahead of the first manned moon landing in July, 1969. The landing, which "won" the space race with the Russians, was broadcast to astonished hundreds of millions around the world and brought the space program incalculable prestige and admiration. Millions of Americans (this reporter included) stayed up all night to catch the event "live from the surface of the moon," and many millions more in foreign countries saw it live in their respective time zones.

It used to be that mothers counseled their kids not to brag.  But in academe, as in the rest of our Facebook- and Twitter-obsessed society, the days of genteel modesty are over.  In an essay in Inside Higher Ed, Rachel Connelly and Kristen Ghodsee of Bowdoin College advise that "one of the most important things" a young would-be faculty member can do to advance a career is to get the word about publications out to influential senior members of his or her field.  

Letting aspring academics think that mere merit, hard work, excellence, and achievement will bring the advancement they seek is a "cruel disservice," write Connelly and Ghodsee, who recommend much more focused and strategic efforts toward this end. As evidence, they mention an economics study that found that gender did not affect the ratings or acceptances of submitted manuscripts, but "'mutual affiliation' of author and journal editors and co-editors" did.  In other words, you'll have a better chance of being published if the people making the decisions know you and your work.


With graduate employees and temporary, part-time, or non-tenure-track faculty now reportedly constituting 73 percent of those teaching in America's colleges and universities, obtaining affordable health insurance--or, often, any insurance at all--can be a challenge for many in academia. Now, however, reports Inside Higher Ed, a nation-wide organization for adjuncts and contingent faculty known as the New Faculty Majority (NFM) is making health insurance available to its members in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Membership in NFM is open to everyone who wishes to join and costs $15 a year. Though the coverage is "limited" and "less than that offered with traditional employer-sponsored group benefits, it's a step in the right direction," says the NFM website.

You can learn the details here.
The notorious scientific fraud of former Columbia University chemist Bengü Sezen harmed a lot more than scientific knowledge, reports William G. Schulz in Chemical & Engineering News on July 7. The graduate work and Ph.D. prospects of three other young would-be scientists working along with Sezen in the lab of their mutual mentor became collateral damage in Sezen's spectacular deceit.

Two "lengthy reports" by the university and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services reveal Sezen's "massive and sustained effort...over the course of more than a decade to dope experiments, manipulate and falsify NMR and elemental analysis research data, and create fictitious people and organizations to vouch for the reproducibility of her results," Schulz reports. The elaborate and skillful deception, for which she was ultimately found guilty of 21 counts of research misconduct, goes all the way back to the work for her Ph.D., which Columbia University is seeking to withdraw. 

July 8, 2011

A Giant Leap for PhDs?

In an open letter to President Obama published in The Guardian, scientist-filmmaker Christopher Riley of London University mourns the passage of the United States manned space-flight program and notes the positive effect that the once-glamorous effort had on young Americans' propensity to pursue Ph.D.s in the physical sciences.  

Whether having astronauts aboard would contribute more to science than sending out unmanned vehicles is something I can't judge, but Riley is right about something else: In the heyday of the space program, those at the cutting edge of technology were viewed not as bespectacled geeks but as the hunky ideal of every red-blooded American boy.

The Phi Beta Kappa Society's Key Reporter presents a wrap-up of recent reports discussing the situation of women in science, one of which we previously covered on this blog.  Pomona College biologist Laura L. Mays Hoopes concludes that "although women have come a long way as incipient or actual scientists, more work remains to be done for them to feel like full-fledged members of the scientific community."

The article includes links to the reports and also to an interesting self-test for implicit bias (which is often cited as a factor discouraging girls and women from advancing in science).  In addition, befitting a society of top college students, it gives full bibliographic citations.  (One of these, however, contains a spelling error -- not quite A-plus work, Phi Bet!)

Eight computer science experts discuss, in the New York Times "Room for Debate" feature, the meaning of a new boom in interest in the subject that appears to be happening on American campuses.  What does growing enrollment in the field mean for students, the economic outlook, and the field itself?   Contributors include such stalwarts of the science labor force debates as Vivek Wadhwa, who has gigs at University of California, Berkeley, and at Harvard and Duke Universities, and computer science professor Norman Matloff of the University of California, Davis. Numerous knowledgeable readers add astute comments.

 "If we want a real Sputnik moment, we need to create the same demand -- and excitement -- we had for engineers and scientists in the 60s, when it seemed the nation's survival was at stake," Wadhwa writes.  That's only one of illuminating points the contributors make about what differentiates the days of "The Right Stuff" from those of "The Social Network" -- and what those differences may mean for the future.

Science students and postdocs from China are a significant presence in university labs and graduate and undergraduate programs across North America and Europe. Would fewer of China's excellent aspiring scientists go abroad to study if more of the universities at home met international standards of research and, especially, undergraduate and graduate teaching?

Qingshi Zhu, a prominent chemist, education reform advocate and president of South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC), the country's newest university, believes that the answer is yes, according to an intriguing article in Chemical & Engineering News. Keeping highly talented students and postdocs in China's academic labs would, he notes, help boost the country's overall research effort. The institution Zhu heads, which currently is seeking accreditation, is based on a different model from China's older institutions and is designed to aim for world standards.

Bureaucracy, politics, and pressure to publish have stifled previous improvement efforts, including some by Zhu himself, reports Shawna Williams from Chengdu, China. Can SUSTC succeed in demonstrating a new model that could provide more Chinese students with world-class education without leaving home? It's too soon to tell, Williams notes, although Zhu is optimistic. The outcome of this effort, and the influence it may have on other institutions in China, could affect decisions by talented Chinese students and postdocs about where to seek their educations -- which would affect universities around the world.

A pair of essays in Inside Higher Ed by Yale University biology professor Stephen C. Stearns offers clear-eyed and sometimes counter-intuitive advice on how to succeed in graduate school. The first essay emphasizes the importance of knowing one's own mind and taking responsibility for one's graduate career. "Nobody cares about you" -- in the sense that no one is constantly looking out for you -- and "psychological problems are the biggest barrier" are two central messages; Stearns also suggests ways of coping. [Editor's Note: It's not online yet, but look for our article "Mind Matters: Resilience," which will be posted Thursday afternoon. When it's posted you'll be able to access it at http://scim.ag/mm_resilience.]

Stearns adds that one should stay alert for and open to opportunities other than sticking it out all the way to the PhD. Some such possibilities may work out much better for you in the long run. "There are a lot of interesting things to do in life besides being a scientist," he notes, "and in some the job market is a lot better."

But as long as you are in grad school, his second essay offers a straightforward approach to meeting one of the real challenges of building a scientific career: learning to write effectively. First, he suggests that to hone your skills you "write a proposal and get it criticized." He explains why and how to do this, and how it will help to advance both your education and your career. He also suggests that you "start publishing early" because unless you are an author of "substantial articles in internationally recognized, refereed journals,...you can forget a career in science." Harsh words, perhaps, but sound advice. For learning how to do this, Stearns again lays out some very useful suggestions.

When Rosalyn Yalow was young, her mother often expressed gratitude that the girl "chose to do acceptable things," Yalow recalled many years later.  Yalow was such "stubborn, determined" girl that, she continued, "if I had chosen otherwise, no one could have deflected me from my path." Fortunately Yalow, who died on May 30 at the age of 89, chose the acceptable -- if, at the time, highly unconventional -- path of science. But, as she recounted in her Nobel Prize autobiography, it took all the stubbornness and determination she could muster, plus the aid of some very supportive teachers and the good luck of the World War II draft, for her to achieve the career that made her, in 1977, only the second female laureate in medicine or physiology.

She also achieved the life she wanted beyond science.  She felt a "duty to speak to young women, to encourage them to have careers, and particularly careers in science," according to the Washington Post.  But she also advised that "all women scientists should marry, rear children, cook and clean in order to achieve fulfillment, to be a complete woman."  Live-in hired help supplemented her own domestic efforts while her two children were small.  Her daughter, the Post reported, considered her "a pretty wonderful mother."

What is the common element in many catastrophic safety failures, ranging from the explosion that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 to the needless deaths of Sheri Sangji at UCLA in 2009 and Michele Dufault at Yale in April of this year?

A penetrating analysis in chapter 12 of the independent experts' report on last year's Upper Big Branch mine disaster, in which 29 miners perished, suggests an illuminating answer: the "normalization of deviance." (I learned of this chapter, by the way, from the blog of Jillian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News.) This interpretation derives from research into the Challenger disaster presented by Columbia University sociologist Diane Vaughan in her 1996 book The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture and Deviance at NASA.It is important because it goes beyond the usual explanations of academic laboratory safety incidents, which often blame the lack of a safety culture. Rather, it suggests something more pernicious: the presence of cultures not only indifferent but actually inimical to good safety practices.

It probably shouldn't come as a surprise to physical scientists finishing up their Ph.D. that choosing a postdoc position requires doing more of same thing one did in graduate school: research.  That's the basic message Rice University physics and astronomy professor Douglas Natelson imparts in an article on "Picking a Postdoc Post" in Inside Higher Ed.  Careful investigation of the opportunities and practices in different fields is crucial to finding a suitable spot.  So are "word of mouth and self-motivation," Natelson says.

Among the issues a would-be postdoc should investigate: the structure of funding within a given field (because it can differ across disciplines) and the possible existence of "hidden" opportunities that may not have been advertised. Natelson advises taking the initiative and writing to scientists whose work appears exciting, even if they haven't announced a vacancy.  

Beyond scoping out the market, getting a clear picture of one's own goals and preferences is also vital to finding a good fit.  Do you want to stay close to your dissertation subject or move toward another field?  Are you aiming for academe or industry?  And, perhaps most important, what is it you want out of a postdoc experience? 

For more advice on choosing a postdoc, in physical science or any other scientific field, read our own take in "A Perfect Postdoc: A Primer".
A debate has lately been brewing in educational circles about whether a college or graduate education is really worth the price, given the ever-rising cost of tuition.  If those loans and savings are bankrolling college degrees in science and, especially, in engineering, the answer is decidedly yes.  That's according to a fascinating new report, based on census data, from Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce.  What's It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,  by Anthony Carnevale and co-authors, shows that it matters a great deal to future earnings what a college student majors in.  The undisputed winner in the financial return  department is a petroleum engineering. Thanks to a current boom in the field, the median income for those with bachelor's degrees in petroleum engineering is a whopping $120,000.

Matthew Stremlau, a postdoc at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., also has experience doing research in China, at the National Laboratory for Agrobiotechnology and Peking University.  Writing on the op-ed page of the Washington Posthe advises fellow young scientists unable to achieve academic science careers in the United States to seek opportunity abroad.   Countries that also include Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore are currently quite hospitable to foreign scientific talent, he notes.  That's not bad given that in the United States, "Only a handful of my friends will go on to run their own labs, though many more would like to," he writes.  "Some go into industry or consulting or law. Others leave science altogether."

Stremlau's description of the current prospects for young scientists in the United States is certainly accurate, but he misconstrues the cause for their plight.  "Twenty years ago, most molecular-science PhD graduates in the United States went on to start up their own labs at universities across the country," he claims.  He then blames recent cuts in "public funding for science and technology" for the current desperately tight academic job market. 

In fact, it has been been many more than 20 years since the majority of young American biomedical scientists have routinely had the opportunity to start labs of their own. According to Bridges to Independence, published by the National Academies Press in 2005,  in the early 1990s there were already almost 12,000 biomed PhDs aged 35 or younger in the United States, but fewer than 2000 of the tenure-track positions that allow scientists to launch secure, independent academic research careers.  (That's fewer than 2000 positions altogether, not 2000 openings at any one time.  Only a much smaller number of openings became available each year.)  By 2001, the young PhDs numbered almost 18,000, but the number of suitable tenure-track positions had barely budged.  Even twenty years ago, therefore, many fewer than "most" young biomedical scientists got to fulfill their dream of a lab of their own.

Inside Higher Ed blogs that an exposé of ethical infractions by medical faculty that was published by ProPublica has prodded medical schools to tighten their enforcement of conflict-of-interest rules. Stanford University, for example, has disciplined 5 faculty members who, despite university policies to the contrary, took money from drug companies for giving talks.  

ProPublica had reported in December that medical schools' stated ethical policies often were going unenforced.  Among the schools mentioned in that report, and now reportedly examining or strengthening their policies, are the Universities of Colorado, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh and California-San Francisco.

With the academic job market in United States overcrowded, and this year's American hiring season nearing its end, the aptly named Katrina Gulliver suggests that aspirants to faculty positions can expand their pool of opportunities by seeking openings in other countries.  Gulliver, who has held posts in Europe, Asia, and Australia, has never been imprisoned by tiny people or kept as a pet by gargantuan farmers. But she has encountered cultural differences that matter in an international job search. Gulliver offers enlightening advice on how to do this in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is making it possible for more foreign students to extend their visas and stay in the United States for "optional practical training."  By doing so, it is also giving companies an economic reason to hire them in place of comparable Americans, says David North of the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit research institute in Washington, DC.  Because neither the holders of these extensions nor those who employ them will have to make Social Security or Medicare contributions, "companies would get a 7.56 percent discount by hiring a foreign student under this program, something that creates an 'unequal playing field' for other college grads," reports Fox News.

This "gives the employer a bonus for hiring the foreign worker," which will make "some people very attractive," says North in the article.

"The Immigration and Customs Enforcement [part of DHS] statement announcing the expansion said the change is meant to 'address shortages in certain high tech sectors of talented scientists,'" the article continues.  For those talented scientists who don't pay Social Security taxes because they can't find work in a brutal job market, the existence of this talent shortage may also come as news.

With apologies to the great poet John Milton for butchering his immortal words (those who followed Dan Albert's recent advice to include humanities in their education may recognize my paraphrase of Milton's majestic "On His Blindness"), I'd like to call attention to an intriguing set of charts issued by the Association for Women in Science as part of their project on Recognition of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. (I learned of this from Inside Higher Ed.)

One chart shows that among the 72 people it elected to membership this year, the National Academy of Sciences deemed only 9 women worthy of the honor.  A second chart reveals that when women do win recognition from major scientific societies, they are much more likely to get prizes for service than for scholarship.  "In many societies," AWIS observes, "the proportion of female scholarly award winners is smaller than the proportion of female Ph.D.s awarded 20-40 years ago [and] female full professors in the field...."  

Now, why does the fact that women are doing the work but not getting the honors somehow not surprise me?  And what, if anything, does this tell about, er, blindness?

President Obama's May 10 speech in El Paso moved immigration reform back into the political spotlight, and with it the perennial debate about the H-1B visa, which is heavily used both in academe to recruit postdocs and in the IT industry to import workers and for outsourcing. Though many argue that admitting technically trained foreigners on temporary work permits benefits the United States, Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, says that just the opposite is true. "Instead of providing foreign workers who complement the American workforce, employers are bringing in workers who substitute for Americans," he told the Economic Times, a leading Indian publication.  

Echoing remarks he made in March 31 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, Hira said, "It is wrong to equate the profits of U.S.-based companies with America's national interest." In the Economic Times interview he also quoted former U.S. Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-CT), one of the creators of the H-1B, as saying "If I knew in 1990 what I know today about the use of [the H-1B] for outsourcing, I wouldn't have drafted it so that staffing companies of that sort could have used it."

Incidentally, I happened to hear about Hira's comments from an American engineer with many years of experience who was recently laid off from his long-term job. "Profits are at record levels," Hira noted in the interview, "but the labour market is still not creating enough jobs." 

For many young scientists aspiring to academic careers, learning to be an effective teacher can present a considerable challenge. For many, developing that ability takes years of practice.

Now, a study published in Science (links to free summary; subscription required for full text) finds that postdocs without significant teaching experience can outperform experienced and well-regarded senior professors at teaching physics to undergraduates.

Louis Deslauriers of the University of British Columbia and coauthors compared what two groups of engineering students learned when the groups were taught the same physics material through different instructional methods.

The Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI) has established an online Lab Safety Memorial Wall to preserve the memory of individuals killed while working on scientific research. At present the Wall lists some 70 incidents over the past 8 decades that have claimed more than 200 lives.

"The real problem is that we forget that these are real people, real lives, real families, real situations," says Christina Dillard, assistant director of the nonprofit institute based in Natick, Massachusetts, in an interview with Science Careers. LSI aims to raise awareness of the need for lab safety by restoring the humanity to the victims, many of whose names appear to have been lost to the historic record.   

LSI hopes the project will help to expand the record of those who have died in laboratory incidents. Dillard encourages anyone who has information that can "fill in the blanks" in the existing list of events or "tell us about ones that we have missed" to write to memorialwall@labsafetyinstitute.org with names or details of an any lab incident that "resulted in someone losing their life."

The last time this blog mentioned the role of religion in an academic career, it was to consider the case of astronomer Martin Gaskell, whom the University of Kentucky did not hire, reportedly because of his religious beliefs.  But what of the opposite situation, becoming a faculty member who does not share the faith commitment of a college or university that has explicit religious ties?  

With all the votes in Canada's federal election now counted, former postdoc Peter Ferguson, whom Science Careers profiled last month, did not win the Parliamentary seat for the southern Ontario riding (electoral district) of London West.  He did, however, make a pretty impressive showing for a candidate whose campaign, he told us by e-mail, consisted of "all volunteers (not a single paid staff member) and...spent about 1/3 of what the other two leading parties did locally."

According to CBC News, Peter Ferguson, candidate of the New Democratic Party (NDP) got 25.9% of the vote in a five-way race, coming in third behind Ed Holder, the incumbent and candidate of the Conservative Party, who got 44.5%, and Doug Ferguson (no relation), the candidate of the Liberal Party, who got 26.78%, or 543 more votes than Peter Ferguson.  The Conservatives swept southern Ontario and the province at large, taking 73 of its 106  seats with 44.4% of the vote as against 25.6% for the second-place NDP.   The Conservatives also won a convincing majority of seats nationwide --167 of the total of 308 -- with NDP coming in second with 102, the party's "best electoral result ever," Peter Ferguson says.

Peter Ferguson is far from the only former academic to run (or, as Canadians say, stand) for office this year.  Both Jack Layton, leader of the NDP and now of the Parliamentary opposition, and Michael Ignatieff, who led the badly defeated Liberals, are Ph.D.s and former professors, Layton of political science and Ignatieff of history.  Stephen Harper, Canada's Prime Minister and leader of the victorious Conservatives, has a masters degree in economics and has also given university lectures.

After Peter Ferguson winds down his campaign -- including, he told us, donning his orange rain parka (the NDP's official color) to 'help gather up election signs and meet up with my team for the post-mortem" -- we hope to get some observations from him about his experiences as scientist in politics.

EDIT: We've added a link to the interview with Shirley Tighman in the HHMI Bulletin, which is now public.

Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman is in a position to make a major impact on the lives and prospects of many young scientists.  As chair of the newly announced National Institutes of Health panel that will look into the future of the US biomedical workforce, she believes that "changes must be made if we are to sustain the vibrancy of the U.S. biomedical workforce," according to an interview in the May HHMI Bulletin. (The issue is now publicly available.)

"The root of the problem" is overproduction of Ph.D.s, she continues, and, if nothing changes, the situation stands to worsen in the years to come.  But, she adds, helpful "changes could be made to the structure of the typical biomedical research laboratory."  Specifically, she suggests reducing the number of trainees, who currently outnumber technicians 10 to 1,  and increasing the number of "permanent employees.... We need to explore such options."

One issue that will need careful examination is how to make any such change stick.  Using grad students and postdocs is much cheaper than paying the salaries that would give permanent employees a decent career ladder as well as career-style benefits. Cost, of course, is why PIs use grad students and postdocs in such numbers, turning ostensible trainees into cheap labor.  Will the NIH panel bite the bullet and favor paying permanent employees an appropriate wage?  Will it consider ways to get budget-conscious PIs to adopt this more expensive approach?

The answers to these questions lie in the future.  For now, Tilghman's comments are encouraging, implying as they do not only some new thinking but, potentially, some new career opportunities for scientists.  

A panel held on Thursday at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), site of the 2009 death of lab worker Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, observed Workers Memorial Day in part by tying lab safety to the larger issue of worker safety, according to the UCLA Daily Bruin. The program, sponsored by UCLA's Labor Occupational Health and Safety Program, also discussed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, a pivotal event that killed 146 workers and sparked a movement for safer working conditions, along with more recent workplace catastrophes such as last summer's Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and the Fukashima nuclear power plan crisis.

Inside Higher Ed reports that the National Institutes of Health yesterday announced a new panel to study the "future of the biomedical research workforce."  The group appears to be looking at some of the right questions, such as the size of the workforce and the types of positions that would allow people to advance their careers as they advance science.  As Inside Higher Ed notes, however, it is "dominated by academic researchers and administrators," who may, consciously or unconcsiously, have vested interests in the current pyramid system of training.  It includes one expert in careers and technology, but none of the researchers who have long studied the arrangements that have created the current career crisis for young scientists.  

To see what a difference the composition of a panel can make, check out two reports on science workforce originally published in the same year (2005), the highly publicized Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which popularized the idea of a scientist shortage, and the much more realistic and lesser known Bridges to Independence, which objectively examined the causes of the glut.

Anyway, here's hoping that this new panel digs deep and thinks hard.

Few processes are more crucial to a scientist's success or more mysterious to the uninitiated than peer review.  How do journals choose reviewers? What does a good reviewer do?  What should a scientist do if it appears that the peer reviewers erred in evaluating one's paper?

A journal editor elucidates these and other mysteries of the scientific publication process in an essay in Chronicle of Higher Education.  Writing as Female Science Professor, this pseudonymous physical scientist offers insights that will help both people hoping to get their work published and those invited for the first time to be a peer reviewer.

The Pain & Policy Studies Group of the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison has announced that it will not longer accept funding from pharmaceutical companies that sell opioid drugs.  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal, which had previously investigated PPSG, a recipient of $2.5 million from producers of opioid pain medications, reported the decision on 20 April.  

The bulk of the money, $1.6 million, came from Purdue Pharma, which makes the widely abused drug OxyContin.  After charges that the company falsely claimed that the drug is safer and less addictive than competing medications, Purdue and several of its officials took guilty pleas.  The court imposed fines and restitution amounting to $635 million, according to the Journal-Sentinal.  Some observers accused PPSG of furthering the company's agenda despite an inadequate basis in research and therefore contributing to overuse of the drug.

PSSG, a World Health Organization collaborating center, "decided to meet WHO's new conflict of interest standard and will no longer accept funding from industry involved in the sale and marketing of opiods," the Journal-Sentinal quotes medical school dean Robert Golden. Golden also said in a statement that funds received by PPSG from pharmaceutical industry sources had met university standards.

Announcement of the decision, incidentally, happened close to the release of a National Institutes of Health report critical of over-prescription of opiods and the announcement of a White House-backed plan to curb abuse of prescription drugs.

No Westerner who visits India can fail to be impressed by the influence of the dazzling boom in information technology, pharmaceuticals, and other technical businesses on the country's economy and culture, or  by the blazing ambition of the country's tech-savvy young people and their parents.  That certainly goes for the Washington Post's excellent business columnist, Steven Pearlstein, who, like this reporter, has recently made a shortish visit to the rising South Asian giant.

Perlstein's business expertise gives him an interesting take on the present and future of India's technological economy.  In a perceptive article, he sees obstacles ahead for the continuing expansion. "India's succes," he writes, "has come at the expense of some Americans whose livelihoods are being hurt by the low-cost competition."  But those cut-rate competitors may not be selling their services at bargain-basement prices that much longer, he predicts.  Rising salaries for the most able and talented Indian scientists, programmers, and engineers are already fast eroding the country's cost advantage, Pearlstein writes, especially because India's educational system graduates many people not up to international standards.  

Pearlstein quotes an Indian executive who fears that some firms' cost advantage over American counterparts may be gone within 5 years.  Change is coming so quickly that the level of savings that some American companies expect to realize by outsourcing to India are, another says,  already "unrealistic."

What is the right time for a Ph.D. or Ph.D. student to leave academe?  What if a person has put down roots while living for years in a college town and doesn't want to move away?  What if a person can see that the program of study stretching ahead most likely won't lead to a reasonable career, but no good alternatives to continuing are apparent?

Julie Miller Vick, senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong, associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources, offer guidance to dealing with these quandaries in a thoughtful article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The key to resolving both situations, they advise, is being honest about one's own values and desires and realistic about opportunities, which requires strategic thinking and information gathering as early as possible in one's educational program.

Furlong, for example, writes that she "moved into an administrative position, rather than continue to pursue a tenure-track position in my field, because I really loved living in Philadelphia."  No matter when it happens, "a career transition takes time and energy," Vick adds, but it can be especially "tough to build a solid non-academic career in a place where your university is the only game in town."  Too few people take this "obvious" fact into account in picking where to study or postdoc, she suggests.

People "who assess their own feelings periodically are better able" to decide whether to stay or to go, Vick adds.  "Such assessments may sound like a chore, but they are an effective way to regain a sense of control when so many things feel like they are out of your hands." 

The New Haven Independent is reporting that an official at the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration has stated that the agency will investigate the death of Yale student Michele Dufault, whose hair became entangled in a lathe she was operating in the university's Sterling Chemistry Laboratory.  Although the OSHA law technically covers only employees and not students, "OSHA has determined that it can launch an investigation, since the lab does employ technicians and faculty members [who] also work there," the article continues.

This unusually broad interpretation is very good news for students everywhere.  In numerous previous cases -- generally at lower-profile institutions -- universities, colleges, and schools have escaped the scrutiny of trained safety investigators after serious safety incidents.  Many safety experts believe that this has contributed to the lax safety and safety-training standards in force at many academic labs.

Though the needless loss of a young life is an unconscionably high price to pay to bring academic research institutions under the same standards that apply to other employers, perhaps this interpretation by OSHA can prevent other similar catastrophes in the future.

I had hoped never again to have to write about a needless death at a university research facility.  But only two years after Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji succumbed to burns sustained at UCLA in the lab of Prof. Patrick Harran comes the hideous news that Michele Dufault, a Yale senior, died when, according to the New Haven Register, "her hair got caught in a lathe" while she was working on the machine at the university's Sterling Chemical Laboratory.  

"Her hair got caught in a lathe"?!!?  Did I possibly read that right?  The smiling young woman in the photo accompanying this horrifying article does have wavy tresses that fall below her shoulders. The clear implication of the article is that she either did not have her hair securely tied up over covered by a cap while she worked on a piece of potentially lethal industrial machinery or, if she did, that it came undone.  Working on a lathe with anything loose about the body would certainly seem to violate the basic safety standards that would be enforced by any organization aiming to provide a safe workplace.  

Sheri Sangji died because of elementary safety and training violations that caused the California Division of Occupational Health and Safety (Cal/OSHA) to cite and fine UCLA.  That university has since improved safety standards and even begun a center to study lab safety. Did the same horrible, totally unnecessary fate -- death by lax safety and training standards -- also befall Michele Dufault?  It seems likely.  And did this catastrophe arise from the same root cause, the careless disregard for the dangers of research procedures that safety experts say is extremely widespread in academic science?  I wouldn't be surprised.

And here is something else that is appalling: "A spokesman for the Bridgeport office of the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration said they have no jurisdiction over the incident as it is not a workplace incident involving a paid employee," the Register reports.  Yes, you read that right, too:  By law, OSHA only protects people who collect a paycheck, not those who pay tuition.  Sheri was an employee, which at least gave Cal/OSHA jurisdiction to get to the bottom of what happened.  Michele Dufault, as a student, had no such protection.  What's more, the Register continues, "city officials do not inspect laboratories and workplace safety at Yale, which has its own occupational safety division."  If so, what kind of standards does it enunciate, and how are they enforced?

So, what agency is going to investigate this catastrophe?  Will anyone pay a price?  We will try to find out. This reporter had nightmares while working on the Sheri Sangji case.  It appears that she can expect more reporting this one.

The financial crash and resulting deep recession have convinced many people that the outlook for startup companies is bleak.  But just the opposite is true, according to an article in Today's Engineer, a Web-based publication of IEEE-USA. 

"Angel funding is readily available compared to a few years ago. Startup founders are keeping more ownership than they used to. Startups are frequent acquisition targets.  And the service economy is creating more and more opportunities for new small companies" that can fill very particular needs," writes John R. Platt.  

True, often -- including now -- entrepreneurial activity can be motivated by a lack of good employment opportunities, Platt writes, so in that sense entrepreneurship can be associated with marginal economies. But a weak employment market doesn't mean the timing isn't good for the success of a new venture. Depending on the nature and quality of the idea, the strength of the business plan, and the skill and determination of the would-be business founders, today's objective conditions can be very favorable to taking the entrepreneurial plunge, he writes.

April 11, 2011

Acing the Interviews

On the way to landing an academic job, few steps are as crucial, as challenging, or as (justifiably) anxiety provoking as the interviews, whether an introductory one at a scholarly association meeting or, for those who have the skill and luck to excel in the first round, the final series of interviews and job talks during the campus visit.  

But, explains hiring committee veteran Alain-Phillippe Durand in a pair of invaluable articles on Inside Higher Education, doing well requires discipline, determination, and, above all, preparation.  The first article dissects the convention interview and the second the campus visit.  Durand's advice covers everything, including matters that applicants might not think of: how to reply to an invitation delivered by phone, how to order during a restaurant meal with potential employers, and of course, what to wear and how to greet interviewers.  

Durand repeatedly emphasizes the importance of diligently applying those well-honed research skills to the institution and its representatives well before arrival, and trying to foresee possible difficulties.  And he hammers home the point that small things can matter a great deal, so keeping one's head is key.

Be sure to read the comments, too, which provide additional helpful advice.

Biomedical and bioengineering researchers who want to learn how to commercialize an idea are invited to apply for the inaugural Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy at the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of California-Davis.  The one-week course, held June 27 to July 1, provides seminars plus opportunities to network with venture capitalists, angel investors, and established entrepreneurs.  

The fee for students, postdocs and faculty members is $150 and includes a shared room, board and class materials.  Participants pay their own travel.  Applications are due May 20.

Do you need to find a scientific job but don't know where to start?  Are you flummoxed about how to write an effective resume?  Do you dread having to do interviews?  If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you can benefit from informative, hour-long presentations on these subjects available free and online from the American Chemical Society.

Though the sessions in the ACS Job Search Webinar Series understandably focus on the chemical industry, the principles they present are applicable to any scientist looking for work, whether a first job or the next step in an established career.  Just scroll down to the screen with the topic of your choice, then click to begin the webinar.

(By the way, in case you've been living under a rock, Science Careers offers it's own career-related Webinars.)

Just when we thought that women faculty were making "stunning progress" and that outright discrimination is on its way out in academe, Inside Higher Ed reports on a study finding an "enduring gender gap" in faculty pay.  In a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, University of Washington doctoral student Laura Meyers found an average 6.9% discrepancy between male and female faculty pay that could not be explained fully by such commonly cited factors as institution type, emphasis on teaching versus research, length of the career, or academic field.

Meyers also found a "significant and negative connection" between a field becoming more female and the salaries its members earn.  Meyers found, furthermore, that women who are active in service or disciplinary affairs outside their home campuses suffer a salary penalty while men who render similar service do not.  Meyer finds the situation "problematic" and in need of further attention.

The six teams who enter the "most innovative ideas that drive green technology commercialization and entrepreneurship" will divide $12 million in this year's i6 Green Challenge competition, sponsored by the United States Economic Development Administration.  Teams from universities and private organizations as well as entrepreneurs are among those eligible to compete. Projects can focus on renewable energy, energy efficiency, green manufacturing, reuse and recycling, green buildings, or ecosystem restoration.   Each group must submit a letter of intent by May 2 and a final proposal by May 26.  More information is here.

On January 16, 2009, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) lab technician Sherharbano "Sheri" Sangji died of burns she had sustained over 2 weeks earlier from a fire in the lab of Prof. Patrick Harran.  Yesterday, UCLA announced the creation of the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety.  "Believed to be the first of its kind in the country," the center will do research on ways to improve safety in laboratories, at universities and other organizations, says the UCLA press release.

In 2009, the California Division of Occupational Health and Safety cited and fined UCLA for "serious" safety violations in the fatal incident, including failing to provide appropriate training and protective attire.  Since then, UCLA has reformed its safety practices.

The new center "fills an important gap" in knowledge about what safety regulations work, says Nancy Wayne, UCLA's associate vice chancellor for research, in a video that accompanies the release.  The center's goals, she says, are to support research in lab safety, develop best practices based that knowledge that can be applied at UCLA and the other University of California campuses, and provide information to help other universities and organizations improve their safety practices. 

The press release, which alludes to Sangji's death but mentions neither her name nor the circumstances that led to the needless fatality, cites the importance of empirical data in improving standards.   Wayne, in the video, also mentions the importance of getting principal investigators to understand why lab-safety standards are important. 

For lab chiefs in industry, that question does not arise.  They generally know from the outset of their employment that a serious safety incident will mean major harm to their careers.  This is not the case in academe, where powerful PIs who bring their universities large grants generally operate with much impunity.  

With $400,000 in initial funding from offices of  UCLA's  chancellor and the University of California's president, the center will seek grant funding to support research.  But will it be able to bring real change to what many safety experts believe is a deep-seated cultural problem on campuses?

Without doubt, the center will endeavor to produce and publish findings with the potential to increase safety.  But real change will not come unless the academic culture also changes to make protection of the people working in labs a truly top priority, alongside publications and grants.  Accomplishing that will require new incentives and serious buy-in from university administrators and research funders.  If the new center can help encourage that, it will be valuable indeed.

It's gratifying indeed when people who really know what they're talking about agree with what one has been saying for a long time.  So it is with a commentary by Rudy Baum, editor-in-chief of Chemical & Engineering News, that underscores points that Science Careers has mentioned a lot more than once.  Commenting on the summary of a workshop held by the Council for Chemical Research, he highlights the four recommendations that emerged from the program.  Two echo favorite Science Careers themes.

One of them, that graduate schools should "require or at least strongly encourage internships as part of the Ph.D. program," seems fairly obvious and unexceptional in light of the widespread current interest in scientists developing "soft skills."

But the other recommendation is much less expected, long overdue, and, potentially, of the utmost -- indeed, of literally vital -- importance.  It advises graduate programs to "share industry/government lab nonproprietary training curricula on intellectual property, ethics, safety, etc."  In plain English, this means that graduate students should be taught the safety standards required in industrial and government labs, which, as Science Careers has repeatedly reported, are far stricter than those prevalent in academic labs.  As the former chair of the United States Chemical Safety Board, John Bresland, told Science Careers a year ago, this discrepancy is an issue needs systematic attention.

Indeed, Baum writes, "The difference between the safety culture of academia and that of industry and government labs is apparent in the workshop report."  One reason that industrial employers prefer to hire chemists who have done industry internships, the report notes, is that they have already been taught the safety standards routinely enforced in industrial labs.

Given the horrific incidents that have maimed or killed people working in university labs in recent years -- including the totally needless 2009 death of 23-year-old Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji from burns sustained while working in the lab of Prof. Patrick Harran at the University of California, Los Angeles -- this recommendation would doubtlessly save lives and prevent future suffering. Hooray for the Council for Chemical Research panel for making it!  Graduate schools everywhere should implement it immediately, not only in their chemistry labs, but everywhere scientists work.

Criticism is mounting of the plan by the medical school of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, to sell to 10 seats in each year's entering class to Saudi Arabia at $75,000 each.  As previously reported on this blog, Dean Tom Marrie argued that there were "no downsides" to admitting English-speaking Saudi students with North American bachelor's degrees in exchange for cold cash to make up for funding cuts by the provincial government.

Among those who disagree is Dr. Noura Hassan, vice president of the Federation of Canadian Medical Students, according to the Telegraph-Journal of Fredericton in the nearby province of New Brunswick.  "We think it's important that all new seats be dedicated to improving the health Care system for Canadians," she said.  Under the plan announced by Marrie, the Saudi students would return to their home country after receiving their medical degrees.  

 The main reasons cited by politicians and doctors skeptical of the plan are shortages of both doctors to serve rural areas of Atlantic Canada and places in medical schools where more such doctors can be trained, the paper notes.  Marrie has argued that the 10 seats the Saudis would occupy are not otherwise needed because of expansion of the Dalhousie medical school.  In most places, of course, the suggestion that there are more medical school places than are needed to train doctors for domestic service would be met with skepticism.  Stay tuned for further developments.

Scientists who know how to put together successful grant proposals now have a new career option.  Rather than doing the research themselves, they can use their analyzing, organizing, communicating and persuading skills to help other scientists win funding.  In other words, writes Jacob E. Levin, assistant vice chancellor for research at the University of California-Irvine in the Chronicle of Higher Education, they can become research-development professionals.

As the incoming president of the newly organized National Organization of Research Development Professionals, Levin notes that, though only months old, the "fledgling" professional association has already enrolled more than 200 dues-paying members.  Scientists who, like himself, enjoy "the discussion and communication of science perhaps even more than the practice of bench science itself," or than the complications of managing a lab, may instead want to consider joining him in spending their careers "helping people formulate and finance their research and doing what we can to make things a success.  It's a good feeling," he writes.

As America's and the world's pre-eminent scientific and technological university, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has long projected an image of geeky masculinity inhospitable to women.  Fifteen years ago, a mere 15 of its more than 200 tenured science professors were women, as were only 2 of its tenured engineering professors. So, for a current female faculty member to state that "I feel supported, included, and protected from gross inequities by the network of tenured women faculty and by the now many more enlightened male administrators and colleagues who are aware of these issues" signals "stunning progress" in improving the position of women at the school, according to a recently issued Report on the Status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT, 2011.

With an introduction by MIT President Susan Hockfield, herself an emblem of the change described, the document updates reports on women faculty in the science and engineering schools issued in 1999 and 2002, respectively.  Those earlier reports highlighted the feelings of marginalization and the instances of outright discrimination experienced by the relatively few women who had then attained senior faculty status at MIT.  

The current report details such successes as increasing the percentage of women science faculty from 8% in 1995 to 19% today, and of engineering faculty from 7% in 1995 to the current 16%; "removal of the stigma of women bearing children" while on the faculty; "making the use of family leave policies standard practice for female (and male) faculty throughout MIT;" "more equitable distribution of resources and rewards," including appointment of women to leadership positions including deanships and department chairs; and "change in attitudes among some male faculty."

As that "some" indicates, however, the report found that various issues troublesome to women persist.  What many women see as removal of bias, for example, appears to at least some men as special allowances for a privileged minority.  And many women still feel excluded from various professional circles dominated by men. 

Some also find that stereotyping endures, "especially among older male faculty." And, with the empirical acuity so characteristic of a great scientific institution, one faculty member observed that "the biological constraint of pregnancy and childbirth is gender specific" -- an inequity that even MIT's improved family policies cannot wholly erase.  Furthermore, the desire to have a female viewpoint represented on most or all faculty committees can impose a serious burden of service on female faculty members, who still constitute only a relatively small percentage of MIT's professors, some women complained.

The report includes a discussion of issues that still need work as well as recommendations for further changes.  But as to the progress thus far accomplished, the overall message echoes a comment reportedly made by several senior women (and, by the way, endorsed by this reporter), "Who would have thought it possible in our lifetime?"

Much like the famous poster by James Montgomery Flagg, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has issued a call for Americans to help meet some of the nation's most critical defense needs.  But unlike the iconic image of Uncle Sam, she is calling for scientists and engineers, not soldiers.  The nation must "engage our best scientific talent in support of our common security," she writes in an essay in Inside Higher Education. In it, she also provides specific information on research and employment opportunities available to scientists and engineers in a variety of fields and at a variety of career stages.  

"Three areas, in particular,...stand out" as currently needing scientific and engineering expertise: aviation and airport security, the challenge of gleaning useful information in real time from the "millions-- billions- of data points" now available, and "securing our cyber networks and critical infrastructure," she writes.  "I believe there are many scientists and engineers interested in working on scientific issues for the public benefit who, perhaps, have never considered the idea of government service."  Now, Napolitano suggests, is an excellent time for them to explore the possibility.

The essay summarizes a lecture entitled "The Future of Science as Public Service" that she gave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on March 14.  You can read the lecture in full here or watch it here.

March 18, 2011

"An Internal Brain Drain"

The United States is suffering from a serious scientific and technological workforce problem that harms innovation, according to Norman Matloff of the University of California-Davis computer science department. But it is not the supposed shortage of American scientists and engineers widely bemoaned by politicians and industry representatives.

Rather, because of "an internal brain drain" of able Americans out of scientific and technical fields, "we are wasting our talent," he told he told an audience of legal and immigration experts, IT workers, and scientists at a March 18 policy briefing held at the Georgetown University Law School. This loss of talent largely results from the nation's policy of admitting large number of scientists, IT workers, and computer engineers, he said.

 Entitled "Are they they best and brightest?  Analysis of employer-sponsored tech immigrants," the talk was arranged by the Institute for the Study of International Migration of Georgetown's school of foreign service.  Matloff's answer to that question is a resounding No. Despite widely publicized claims that foreign tech workers and scientists represent exceptional ability and are thus vital to American innovation, Matloff called that argument merely "a good sound byte for lobbyists" supporting industry proposals for higher visa caps. The data, on the other hand, indicate that those admitted are no more able, productive, or innovative than America's homegrown talent, he said.

In fact, Matloff went on, the nation is "wasting the innovation" that Americans could create because they are being driven from technical and scientific fields by the influx of foreigners.  "There are a lot of good people who are displaced," he said. In the tech field, this does not occur because of  talent, education, productivity or ability but with age, and ultimately with pay, he stated.  Employers prefer to bring in young foreign workers who are cheaper in preference to employing experienced Americans who are more expensive.  In a number of tech companies, a majority of workers are foreign-born while many Americans being displaced "are of good quality."    Over 20 years ago, he noted, experts predicted that encouraging immigration would discourage citizens from entering these fields.  

"It's an issue of money....It's all due to an oversupply of people" created by immigration policies, he said. The issues applies to both the IT industry and scientific research, he added.  One result is that young American "would have to be crazy to go into lab science today," he said.  "No study except for industry studies has ever shown a shortage" of scientific or technical workers, he said.  One indication of non-shortage is that "salaries are flat," whereas in a shortage situation they should rise.

Advanced postdocs or new assistant professors who belong to underrepresented minorities and have "demonstrated research productivity" are invited to apply for one of the 6 Postdoctoral Professional Development and Enrichment Awards presented annually by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).  Each winner receives $3000 in unrestricted career development funds plus $2500 in travel funds.

Applicants must be US citizens or permanent residents and members of one of the FASEB constituent societies.   The deadline is May 31.  Application information is here.

March 15, 2011

Seats for Sale

With universities across North America facing grim economic times, one Canadian institution has come up with a novel -- if controversial -- approach to filling its fiscal hole, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has announced a plan to sell places in its medical school to Saudi Arabia for $75,000 each.

In exchange for the money, ten Saudi students will enroll at Dalhousie each year "for the foreseeable future," the Chronicle quotes medical school dean Tom Marrie.  They will, he said, meet the same standards as other applicants, speak fluent English, hold North American college degrees, and return home to do their residencies.  "There are no downsides," Marrie continued. "We are confident they will fit in well with our student bodies."  Although the infusion of Saudi cash would undoubtedly help the Dalhousie deal with financial problems, some Nova Scotia politicians reportedly a lot less enamored with the proposed deal.

The recession is taking a toll on both the employment prospects and the starting salaries of newly minted chemists, according to a sobering article in Chemical & Engineering News. Just-reported results from the 2009 edition of the American Chemical Society's annual survey of new graduates reveal higher unemployment rates than a year earlier, at all degree levels. Among bachelor's degree holders, joblessness rose a percentage point over the previous year, to 15%.  Ph.D. unemployment rose 2 percentage points to 9%.  But unemployment among master's degree graduates nearly doubled, from 10% to 18%, in a single year.  

Meanwhile, the percentage of the employed holding full-time and permanent positions fell.  Overall,C&E noted, "survey respondents of all degree levels [were] significantly less employed than the national average" of workers.  These national unemployment figures  mask large numbers of workers so discouraged that they have given up the hunt for work; it could be that the recent graduates surveyed by C&EN have not yet had enough time to give up hope.

Given these conditions, C&EN expressed "relief" that starting salaries for new bachelor's and doctoral graduates fell only 5%, while those of new master's degree graduates,  counterintuitively, rose 15%.  The article also details the sectors where employed graduates have found jobs -- at all degree levels, about half in academe -- and the areas of chemistry in which they specialized.  Since universities and colleges are hiring very few faculty members, one can only surmise that many of those jobs are for postdoc, other soft-money research positions, or non-tenure-track teaching posts. Because of the dire financial position of many academic institutions as well as continuing "layoffs of scientists in the pharmaceutical industry," it's obvious, as the article predicts, that future surveys will most likely reveal further "downward trends" in both pay and employment.

India has ambitious plans for expanding its higher education system.  But to reach its goal of making higher education available to one in five young Indians by 2020, the country needs a million qualified college teachers -- far more than its own universities can produce.  "The most promising way" the country can "fill this gap is to recruit back" some of the thousands of its citizens who are now doing or have done graduate study in the United States, says a report issued Monday by Rutgers University, Penn State University, and the Tata Institute of Social Studies in Mumbai.  Entitled "Will They Return?", the report concludes that for the overwhelming majority of the 100,000 Indians now doing graduate study in the United States, the short answer is "Yes."  Over 90% of those the report surveyed indicated they are willing, and in some cases eager, to return home to pursue their careers.  

The report's authors, David Finegold, dean of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations; B. Venkatesh Kumar, a professor at the Tata Institute currently visiting at Penn State; and Rutgers doctoral student Anne-Laure Winkler surveyed a sample of Indians who have done graduate work in the US and are currently either grad students, postdocs, or employees of various concerns in the United States and India.  Most are scientists or engineers and nearly all came to the United States seeking high-quality teaching and involvement in cutting-edge research.

The study's "most striking finding," the report states, is the "openness" of the "vast majority" of respondents to pursuing their careers in their homeland.  Under 10% expressed a strong desire not to return, although most wished to stay in the United States for at least a few years. Family ties and "a desire to give back to the motherland" were the strongest attractions of returning to India, while "corruption, red tape and the academic work environment" in India -- especially inadequately attractive research opportunities -- were the most often cited reasons to stay in the U.S.

From the standpoint of educational planners in India, therefore, "a great opportunity exists to attract this group back to India," states the report.  It also discusses other factors motivating decisions to stay or return and offers suggestions for making India a more attractive place for these highly educated individuals to choose to pursue their careers.