Science Careers Blog

Beryl Lieff Benderly: January 2012

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.