Science Careers Blog

James Austin: February 2010

Follow the money that drives science research in the United States, and more often than not you'll end up in Washington, D.C. The dollars don't reach labs on their own, though: Institutions, interest groups, and individuals help legislators decide what to fund -- and science competes with every other federal program for resources.

This year scientific research is one of the few areas slated to gain ground in the proposed federal budget, but that budget is not law yet. "If people want to see the research and development funding increase they're going to need to get up there and say, 'Look we feel that we need those increases, they're vital for the future, they're vital for job creation [and] our future economic competitiveness,'" said Bob Simon, staff director of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, at a session of the American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, on Saturday in San Diego, California.

Along with Tobin Smith, associate vice-president for federal relations of the Association of American Universities, Simon laid out a map of the roads through which scientists can offer their insight to their elected officials in Congress. Smith, who described his job, with his tongue in his cheek, as "cross-cultural communications," said that for scientists to help policymakers they need to make the effort: "You're scientists, you don't have time...but you can learn to navigate it just as if you were going to a foreign country."

Simon explained that most legislators leave the nitty gritty of science policymaking to legislative assistants, who are based in D.C. offices. Scientists can start by reaching out to "Constituent Services Representatives" -- a senator or representative's ears to the ground in their home district or state offices. These people can help a scientist reach the right legislative assistant in D.C. Legislative assistants act as gatekeepers for the committees they serve, helping decide who can testify before a committee, for instance. Home offices, university lobbyists, and professional-society lobbyists often organize springtime group visits called "fly-ins," where constituent groups can meet with committee staff in D.C., Simon said.
Knowing who to speak with and when are important: No legislative aide wants to hear advice on a vote the week after it takes place, Smith noted, but the way scientists communicate with legislative aides is also critical. "Build a relationship," he advised, instead of just barging in with a data set and an opinion. He cited the example of one university that organized science-outreach days on campus on behalf of their representative, who was then able to take credit for promoting science. He also advised catching legislators at their home offices, where they often feel more comfortable and have less hectic schedules than in the capital.

Legislative Committees Scientists Should Know

House of Representatives: Science and Technology, Energy & Commerce, Natural Resources, Homeland Security, Appropriations, Ways & Means

Senate: Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Environment and Public Works, Energy and Natural Resources, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Appropriations, Finance

Both speakers stressed the importance of putting science in context in clear, simple language for government decision-makers, very few of whom have a science background. "Science is only one piece of the policy-making puzzle," Smith said.  Legislators think on electoral timeframes and must weigh economic and security issues, and public opinion, whereas scientists usually think more about a decision's long-term impact. Yet the public still has great respect for scientists, and when they -- scientists -- speak in a unified, clear voice, the public and their leaders take notice. It may not be easy to bridge the language barrier, Smith said, but if they take the time to cultivate a better understanding of how to reach legislators and their staff, scientists have the potential to make a big impact.

-    Lucas Laursen
I've just stumbled on Better Posters -- a blog on scientific poster design from Zen Faulkes (aka DoctorZen), a neuroscientist at the University of Texas Pan-American. All the advice is top-notch, and he critiques real posters from real conferences -- and in some cases actually revises them.

While general advice on oral presentations is common (if not always sound), specific information on how to make a good poster is rare.

DoctorZen also runs the blog NeuroDojo, which also sometimes includes scientific career advice.

(Please follow me on Twitter: @SciCareerEditor )

At Science Careers, we've written a lot about dual-career -- and especially dual-scientist -- couples. The most recent example is the excellent piece by Chelsea Wald, A Husband and Wife Play Science on the Same Team.

This article started me wondering what other current, prominent scientist-couples are out there,  with both partners making important contributions to science. I quickly realized that I don't know very many. The example that comes immediately to mind is Eva Silverstein and Shamit Kachru, who moved together last year from Stanford University to the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UCSB. Another example is Amy Palmer and Alexis Templeton, both at the University of Colorado, whom I wrote about in 2005. This article in The Scientist lists three more couples. And there are, of course, several important historical examples (including very recent history, like Kirschstein and Rabson), but that's not my focus here.

What other important, current scientist-couples can you think of where both are currently making important contributions to science?

(Please follow me on Twitter @SciCareerEditor )
The excellent physics-and-math blog Not Even Wrong, published by Columbia mathematician Peter Woit (who has a book with the same name as the blog), has an interesting post about an analysis of the job market in high-energy theoretical physics. The post describes data compiled by Erich Poppitz, a theoretical physicist at the University of Toronto. Poppitz's analysis is available as a pdf download. The data were taken from the Theoretical Particle Physics Jobs Rumor Mill maintained at UC Davis; Poppitz insists that there's no guarantee of accuracy. 

Among Poppitz's interesting conclusions (most of them noted by Woit) are these:
  • A typical recent year brought 20 new faculty appointments in high-energy theoretical physics in the United States; over the last 16 years the average number of new U.S. appointments in the field is about 17. The best recent year was 2007, when 28 new high-energy theory faculty were hired.
  • Two years later, in 2009, U.S. universities made just 9 new faculty appointments. 
  • In the same year, Princeton University alone hired 8 new postdocs in theoretical particle physics, so that one university cohort could nearly fill all of America's theoretical physics faculty slots in a bad year. The stats don't say how many postdoc appointments there were nationwide.
  • If you want a job in high-energy theory, the numbers suggest, you'd better get your Ph.D. from one of a handful of universities, since that's where most new faculty members come from. And all six are in America: Princeton (24 new Princeton Ph.D.s were hired into faculty slots over the last 16 years), Harvard (19), Berkeley (18), Stanford (13), MIT (12), or the University of Texas (10). Those six schools produced 35% of all new high-energy theory faculty members since 1994; the other 180-or-so positions were distributed among another 76 or so universities throughout the world.
  • Another key to getting hired is to choose your subfield carefully. "You pretty much have to work in cosmology or phenomenology to have some sort of job prospects," since no one is hiring at the more formal end of the field, Woit writes.
(Follow my science-career-related posts on Twitter @SciCareerEditor)

A press release from Robert Madore, the Director of Region 9A of the United Auto Workers says that postdocs at 3 University of Massachusetts campuses have voted to unionize.

According to the press release, a majority of the 300 postdocs at the Dartmouth, Amherst, and Boston campuses of the University of Massachusetts "have signed cards authorizing UMass Postdoctoral Researchers Organize/United Auto Workers (UMass PRO/UAW) to represent them in collective bargaining, triggering a process that will require the university to negotiate over wages, health insurance, job security, and other workplace issues." The release says that a certification petition has been filed with the Massachusetts Division of Labor Relations.

This is the same union that is in currently in negotiations with the University of California on behalf of some 5000 postdocs at that institution. We'll have more about those negotiations in this week's "Taken for Granted" column, which will be posted tomorrow afternoon on Science Careers. 

Readers interested in knowing how science fared in the President's (U.S.) budget request should check out Science Insider, from Science's news department. SI is posting frequent updates and analysis of the proposal. The news for science is generally very good for such a tight budget year.