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Science Careers Blog

Beryl Lieff Benderly: December 2011

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.