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Science Careers Blog

Michael Price

Yesterday, Microsoft officials told policymakers at a Washington, D.C. Brookings Institution forum on immigration policy that it has 6000 open positions for computer scientists, programmers, and other IT professionals but can't find skilled workers to fill them, according to an article today in InformationWeek.

"[Microsoft chief counsel Brad] Smith said the problem is twofold: U.S. colleges aren't turning out enough grads educated in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and the U.S. government's immigration policies are preventing the company from importing enough foreign workers to fill the gap," reports the article's author, Paul McDougall.

Smith's claim should be familiar to anyone who's been following the debate over the so-called "skills gap" in the United States. He said the same thing at the U.S. News & World Report STEM Solutions 2012 leadership summit in Dallas, Texas, in July. Beryl Benderly of Science Careers argued then that as many employers say they aren't enough highly skilled workers, thousands of highly skilled Americans, with education that would appear to prepare them reasonably well for such jobs (with, perhaps, a bit of on-the-job training) are desperate for work.

In the past few years, most media reports have parroted these employers' claims uncritically; contrarian views were rare. That appears to be changing. McDougall's article includes the following passage: 

Not everyone buys Microsoft's claim that there is a shortage of American IT workers. Critics say the company simply wants to hire more foreign workers because they cost less.

"They probably have 6,000 jobs to fill because they are enamored of foreign labor," said Les French, president of WashTech, a Seattle are tech worker advocacy group that is affiliated with Communications Workers of America. "I doubt they couldn't fill the jobs from the available labor pool in the U.S.," said French, in an e-mail to InformationWeek.

It's good to see a critical perspective in the article (although we should note that for InformationWeek this is hardly a first). We're eager to see whether this critical perspective will be reflected in the mainstream media.

[Editor's Note: Next week, Science Careers will run a column by Beryl Benderly in which she reviews Peter Capelli's little book, Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It. Once it's published--at around 2p.m. on Thursday, 4 October--you'll be able to see it on our homepage.]

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) last week released its annual survey of employment trends among recent graduates with a bachelor's degree in physics. The survey consists of responses from nearly 12,000 graduates from the classes of 2009 and 2010. The results show that the following year 60% of them were enrolled in graduate school and 40% had entered the workforce--approximately the same ratio as in recent years

Of those 40% who entered the workforce, a slight majority--53%--went into the private sector. Of those private-sector workers, three-quarters work in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, of which engineering is the biggest draw, accounting for 32% of all physics bachelor's degree-holders employed in the private sector. Also popular in the STEM fields are computer and information systems jobs, which account for 21% of physics bachelor's workers. Rounding out the private sector statistics, 8% work in "Other STEM" jobs, 8% work in "Other Natural Sciences" jobs, 5% work in physics and astronomy (highlighting the necessity of a graduate degree to work in these fields), and 26% are employed in non-STEM fields, such as finance, accounting, or hourly-wage jobs.

Amy Bishop, formerly a biologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, pleaded guilty today in a Huntsville court to one count of capital murder and three counts of attempted murder in the on-campus shooting deaths of three of her biology department faculty colleagues in February 2010. Under the conditions of the plea, Bishop will not be eligible for the death penalty and will accept being sentenced to life in prison, according to reporting by The Huntsville Times.

The university had denied Bishop tenure in 2009, and she had recently exhausted the appeals process at the time of the shooting, The Huntsville Times says. Police reports indicate that Bishop brought a pistol to a faculty meeting and opened fire on her colleagues. Killed were fellow biologists Maria Ragland Davis, Adriel Johnson, and department chair Gopi Podila. In addition, biologists Joseph Leahy and Luis Cruz-Vera were injured, as was lab assistant Stephanie Monticciolo.

A jury is expected to hear a condensed version of the case later this month--as required by Alabama state law--after which she will be formally sentenced. Stay tuned for further details.

A great many studies over the years have looked into how female scientists manage their work-life balance, that is, how they divvy up time for professional and familial commitments. Fewer have focused on how male scientists do the same. A new survey presented at the American Sociological Association annual meeting last week in Denver and reported on by Inside Higher Ed suggests that a slight majority of male scientists prioritize their professional careers over their time [[helping?]] at home. "[T]he results illustrate options that male scientists have that many female scientists who have or want children lack," the Insider Higher Ed article says.

Notably, the survey done by Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University, Sarah Damaske of Pennsylvania State University, Anne E. Lincoln of Southern Methodist University and Virginia Johnston White of Rice University, queried 74 physicists and biologists at prestigious U.S. universities and found that 22% of male scientists fit into what the authors call the "neo-traditional" category, wherein men express some desire to help out with children and home duties but still offload the lion's share to their (also often working) spouses; 30% fit into the "traditional breadwinner" category, being married to wives who do not work outside the home. So altogether slightly more than half of the respondents reported having work-life balances that favored work and expected their spouses to pick up the slack at home. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Inside Higher Ed notes, these respondents tended to be older and more advanced in their careers. But interestingly, another trend emerged: "[M]any male scientists starting their careers (and whose wives work outside the home) do not attempt to have equal responsibility for raising children or managing homes."

A couple of weeks ago, current postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse (a pseudonym) contributed an article to Science Careers trying to put into words the overwhelming stress and pressure that so many science grad students face. It was an essay designed to help explain how the graduate experience can take its toll on one's mental well-being, and while it certainly doesn't excuse the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, by former neuroscience grad student James Holmes, it may provide some insight into just how delicate mental health issues can be for struggling academics.

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story looking into how universities are grappling with support services for distressed graduate students. The story notes that between January and June of this year, nearly 750 grad students called the 24-hour National Graduate Student Crisis Line (1-800-GRAD-HLP) seeking advice on problems such as difficulties with advisers, feeling disrespected in one's department, feeling isolated and alone, financial difficulties, and failing lab experiments and worrying about eventually finding a job.

Many of these concerns are ones DeWhyse addressed in her Science Careers article.

Last month, the biggest health-care fraud settlement in U.S. history was reached, with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) admitting to federal prosecutors that it essentially paid more than 20 academic researchers to attach their names to a ghost-written article that misrepresented the safety and efficacy of the depression drug Paxil for children. While GSK will pay quite handsomely for its misdeeds--to the tune of $3 billion--an article that appeared yesterday in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that the academicians who agreed to let their names be used have repeatedly ignored calls to retract the disgraced article and collectively still hold millions of dollars in federal grant money.

When Brazil launched its federally funded Science Without Borders program last year, its goal was to send 100,000 Brazilian undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs, mostly from STEM fields, to study in international host countries for up to a year. The agreement with the host countries called on Brazilian students to satisfy all the normal requirements for earning a student visa, including any tests for language proficiency. For at least some of the chosen students, that's proving harder than initially planned. The following was reported in Times Higher Education.

On CNN this morning, golfer Phil Mickelson swung by the set of the morning news program Starting Point to talk about the supposed need to train more American students in STEM skills. The points he raised were typical: that STEM workers earn more and are hired more frequently than non-STEM peers, and that there are thousands of unfilled jobs just waiting for people trained enough in STEM to fill them. (For a more enlightened understanding of the so-called skills gap, read this book.) In fact, Mickelson noted, a student who graduates with a STEM degree today would have no trouble finding a job.

Tell that to the many highly trained Ph.D. scientists who were scouring the classifieds that very second. Many of them would be happy to accept one of those jobs, even if they're intended for recent college grads.

Two reports were released this week offering divergent outlooks for the success of the lethargic economic recovery--one somewhat optimistic and the other rather more pessimistic. 

The good news first: According research organization The Conference Board's monthly Help Wanted OnLine Data Series, vacancies advertised online rose by 232,000 openings over the month of June, bringing the total number of available jobs posted online to 4,947,100. The spike was bolstered by a late-month surge after sluggish growth earlier in the month, the report notes. Especially bullish was growth in "Computer and mathematical science" job openings, where June saw 42,400 new ads advertised online--approximately a 7% jump. Other science fields saw more limited growth: New ads categorized as "Life, physical and social science" grew from 73,200 jobs posted in May to 73,400 jobs posted in June.

Now the bad news: Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced that 80,000 more people became employed in June, the unemployment rate failed to budge, sitting at 8.2%. (Economists estimate that we need about 120,000 new jobs per month to keep up with new workers entering the workforce.) While it's not possible to separate out science jobs specifically from BLS's analysis, it's safe to say that a stagnant unemployment rate is as disappointing to science job-seekers as it is to the rest of the country's unemployed.

The upshot? If The Conference Board's numbers are to believed, those seeking computer science careers can breathe just a hair easier. That jibes with other reports seen here and elsewhere that computational science jobs remain in demand in spite of the overall depressed economy. (On the other hand, some people claim that those numbers are being manipulated--that in IT much more than in other fields, every job opening yields several job ads, and that this redundancy isn't adequately offset in the Conference Board report.) For everyone else, it's still a waiting game.

A study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that male physician-researchers out-earn their female colleagues by approximately $12,000 a year, even taking into account factors such as specialty, academic rank, leadership positions held, number and prestige of publications, and research time.

A team of researchers led by University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, oncologist Reshma Jagsi analyzed self-reports from a 2009-2010 nationwide postal survey addressed to 1729 recipients of the National Institutes of Health's K08 and K23 research awards (which fund patient-oriented research) from 2002-2003. Of those contacted and deemed eligible for the study, 800 participated and reported their salaries as well as details about their research and clinical careers.

Jagsi and her colleagues broke the responses down by gender, age, race, seniority, degree earned, specialty, and more. When they ran a regression model to tease out which factors affected salary, they found that, all else being equal, a woman making $100,000 would make $112,000 if she were a man.

The authors say that their results should be a wake-up call for those who view the salary gender gap in academic-physician science (or really any scientific field) merely as a result of male physician-researchers working longer hours, holding more senior positions, being more productive, and so on.

To borrow a few words from the Bard, scientific misconduct cannot be hid long; lab notebooks may, but at length the truth will out.

The truth behind the discovery of Streptomyces griseus, the precursor to a powerful antibiotic drug, recently came to light in a New York Times story with the rediscovery of the decades-old lab notebooks of the late Albert Schatz, a graduate student and assistant in the lab of the late Rutgers University professor Selman A. Waksman.

Amid the #whatihadfordinner hash-tags and the inane ramblings of B-list celebrities, there's a thriving, useful, and potentially career-boosting culture on Twitter that scientists can tap into. A panel of scientists and science writers held a workshop earlier this week at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., to share their advice and perspective on how scientists can use Twitter to communicate their science more effectively and connect with fellow researchers. Among the advice:

  • Use direct messages or Twitter "mentions" to reach out to prominent scientists. Many of them won't respond to phone calls or e-mails, but they're more than happy to strike up a conversation on Twitter. --Jamie Vernon, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow - @JLVernonPhD
  • Listen to people's complaints and criticisms on Twitter. It's a often more polite environment than the comment sections of blogs, and the public appreciates knowing that you're taking their criticisms seriously. --Danielle Brigada, manager of social media at the National Wildlife Federation - @starfocus
  • Tweeting in real time can be an interesting way to cover an event. If you do a real-time tweeting experiment and something doesn't work, scientists following you might be able to help diagnose the problem. --Matt Hartings, chemistry professor at American University - @sciencegeist
  • Tweeting about your research and its implications can help shift the public's image of what a scientist is and about the value of scientific research and evidence. --John Ohab, public affairs specialist at the Naval Research Laboratory - @johnohab
  • If you think your work has been misrepresented in the media, use Twitter to set the record straight or respond to criticism. --Maria-José Viñas, science writer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center - @mjvinas
You can follow me and my perspectives on science career issues at @Michael_B_Price, and Science Careers more generally at @MyScienceCareer. Jim Austin, the Editor of Science Careers, tweets as @SciCareerEditor.

Richard Din, A 25-year-old research associate working in a San Francisco, California, Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center lab, died 28 April apparently due to a bacterial infection contracted at the lab. Details about the death were released last week and our sister publication, Science Insider, has full coverage.

Din was working with the bacterium Neisseria meningiditis, a biosafety level 2 pathogen that can trigger fatal meningococcal disease. It's not clear yet how Din became infected with N. meningiditis, nor is it known whether appropriate safety measures were in place and being followed. A preliminary internal investigation found no problems with the biosafety hood under which Din was studying the bacterium.

The lab remains closed while local and federal investigators from the VA, the Department of Public Health, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration carry out further inspections. Stay tuned for more details as they come available.

This blog post was edited on 7 May.

Often missing from the discussion over whether there are too many Ph.D. scientists being produced and too few jobs available in academia for them are empirical data on whether those scientists do, in fact, desire academic positions--and whether that desire changes over time. 

"We always assume that people want to get academic positions and not many get them, and so we think, 'Oh, they all want it and there's a big imbalance,' " says Henry Sauermann, a behavioral economist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "But maybe nobody really wants them. Maybe those people, when they've watched their advisers, have realized that it's a really tough job, not much time for research, a lot of time spent writing grants and so on. It could go either way. We don't really know what these preferences look like." 

In a paper out today in the Public Library of Science ONE, Sauermann and his colleague  Michael Roach, a decision scientist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, weigh in with some findings that could be important for framing future discussions: As students progress through their doctoral programs, they become less and less likely to want an academic job after they graduate.

To find that out, the researchers surveyed 4109 Ph.D. students across 39 tier-one U.S. research universities on their career preferences and how attractive they viewed academic, industry, government, and other career options. The students were enrolled in the life sciences (59% of those surveyed), physics (23%), or chemistry (18%).

Sauermann and Roach found that, on average, students in the later stage of their Ph.D. programs (defined as those actively looking for a job or planning to do so within the next year), held less favorable views of faculty teaching and research jobs than did students in earlier stages. While faculty research was rated the overall most attractive career path for all respondents in both the life sciences and physics, the percentage of life sciences students who rated faculty-research positions as either "attractive" or "extremely attractive" fell from 78% in early-stage students to 67% in later-stage students. In physics, those numbers fell from 81% to 72%. In chemistry, where the majority of students rated industry jobs as "most attractive," those who rated faculty-research jobs as "attractive" or "extremely attractive" fell from 62% to 47%, while those who preferred a job in industry jumped from 70% in early-stage students to 76% in late-stage students.

The times, they are a-changin' -- or are they? Whereas our laboratory forebears scribbled their research records with pen on paper, today you can plug your findings into electronic or online notebooks and, if you want to, share them with colleagues across the world.

But how many people are actually doing that? Are scientists actually making the switch to this new technology, or are they clinging to their tried and true pen-and-paper method?

We're conducting a poll to find out. Please take our short survey at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LHLBPLD. It won't take more than a minute. Thanks.

When last we encountered Georgia State University economics professor Paula Stephan, Science Careers writer Beryl Benderly was reviewing her book, How Economics Shapes Science, which outlines many of the ways economic incentives pull science this way and that, affecting the quality and direction of scientific research and shaping a big chunk of the scientific employment market.

In this week's Nature, Stephan touches themes covered in her book and in Benderly's piece: Setting postdoc salaries so much lower than those of staff scientists gives research institutions incentives to create postdocs instead of those more permanent posts. Postdocs are cheaper, after all -- not to mention young, eager, and likely to be attuned to the cutting edge. There's an incentive to employ more and more postdocs -- but not to create faculty positions for them to eventually fill (except, during boom times, grant-supported soft-money faculty positions, which can't be sustained during leaner times).

It's much the same for graduate students, Stephan writes. The current structure of research grants motivates institutions to support graduate assistants on research grants rather than on training grants, which produce better outcomes.

A potential solution, she writes, is to do more of our research at institutions that don't produce Ph.D.s, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Ashburn, Virginia-based Janelia Farm research campus, or that produce fewer of them. Cutting back on the number of Ph.D.s  while still maintaining research positions at such institutions will "lead to a better balance between supply and the limited number of research jobs," Stephan writes, and we'll no longer be wasting money training scientists for jobs that don't exist.

The Obama administration, in partnership with several federal agencies including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), today announced the creation of the Big Data Research and Development Initiative to improve the government's, academia's, and private industry's ability to collect and make sense of the vast amounts of data pouring in from health records, national labs, consumer-based reporting, and other sources.

Prostitution has long been seen as an unorthodox indicator for the state of the job market.  An essay in the British Medical Journal suggests that this might be especially true for debt-laden students with dwindling job opportunities -- including medical students.

Author Jodi Dixon, a final-year medical student at the University of Birmingham, U.K., describes a 2010 study of 315 students at London University in which 1 in 10 reported knowing a fellow student who had turned to prostitution out of financial necessity. "Jobs in shops and pubs that students usually take up to cover living costs are increasingly scarce and low paid," says Sarah Walker, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). "For women -- it's a survival strategy they are driven into by poverty." If many students are apparently turning to sex work to cover tuition and living expenses, that would seem to indicate that tuition costs are intolerably high.

Dixon speculates that prostitution could be even more prevalent among medical students than it is in the general student population. At the root of the problem is the issue of sky-high tuition which puts a large financial burden on young people, she says. Medical students in the United Kingdom, she points out, often graduate with a large debt burden. If we don't address the issue, she says, we shouldn't be surprised to see more and more students turning to a professionally risky, physically dangerous alternative source of income. (Dixon doesn't make this point, but in the United States, tuition -- and student debt -- is vastly higher than in the U.K. Choosing a U.S. medical school at random, Stanford's medical school charges $46,593. Undergraduate medical students from outside the U.K. at the University of Birmingham pay £9000 until their final year, which is free. Graduate medical students at Birmingham pay less than £6000. So if there's a prostitution problem, it's likely much worse over here than over there.) 

Many people who go into prostitution fail to adequately consider the risks, Dixon says. It's dangerous work, often far removed from its glamorous portrayals in the media, she adds. (Take, for instance, the story of Brooke Magnanti, who worked as a "high class call girl" while earning a Ph.D. in informatics, epidemiology, and forensic science at the University of Sheffield. Her story was turned into a U.K. television series.)

What's more, in the United Kingdom, prostitution itself is not illegal, and most medical schools apparently have no policies related to student prostitution. It's unclear whether engaging in prostitution would violate a school's honor or conduct codes. Even if it doesn't, students considering prostitution should consider the potential damage to their professional reputations. In light of the realities of high tuition and low job opportunities, medical schools should think about adopting clear policies so that students are informed about how a decision to go into prostitution could affect them, she says.

If all you remember from your philosophy of science course in college are the names Kuhn and Popper, you could be missing out on philosophy's important contributions to your own career or to training the next generation of scientific thinkers. A panel of philosophers of science spoke today at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, about philosophy's role in science education and maintaining scientific integrity.

Are your letters of rec a wreck? Barbara Gastel, a professor of humanities in medicine at Texas A&M University shared some advice for both the writers and requesters of letters of recommendation this afternoon at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 

Among her recommendations to letter-requesters were:
  • Provide all the relevant information they need to write the letter, including your CV or resume, a description of the program or scholarship being applied for, samples of your work, your own application essay, and a stamped envelope (if it's being sent via snail mail).
  • Request the letter at least 2 weeks in advance of the deadline.
  • If the person you're asking appears hesitant to write the letter, reconsider the request.
  • If it has been a while since you've seen the person, consider attaching a photograph and/or a description of your work to jog the writer's memory.
  • Thank the person with a follow-up letter or e-mail.
  • If you get what you're applying for, let your letter writers know and then thank them again.

If you're the one asked to write a letter of rec, keep these things in mind:
  • If you don't feel comfortable recommending the person, either because you don't know them very well or you don't feel their skills are up to the task, tactfully decline to write the letter. Gastel's preferred method: "I think you would be better served if someone who knows you better could write the letter."
  • If you teach a large class and predict you'll receive several requests for letters, consider announcing a policy at the beginning of the class outlining what information the students should provide you and how far in advance you'll need the request.
  • If you come across someone who stands out, volunteer to write a letter of rec for them.
  • Be aware that different countries and disciplines have different norms for letter content. In the United States, Gastel said, letters are almost universally positive in their appraisals. Other countries, though, typically expect a more balanced assessment of the candidate.

Horace Greeley implored young men to go West to seek their fortunes, but North American scientists (of all genders, mind you) would do well to remember that opportunities exist east of the continent, as well. The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, provides a number of funding mechanisms to bring North American scientists into European research projects. This morning at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Garth Williams, director of the European Research Area - Canada Project, discussed the most prominent of these programs, the E.U.'s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Inspiring young students to be interested in science is a laudable goal, but how can we inspire scientists to take time away from busy research schedules to spend time with those students? The answer, according to a panel of science communicators and outreach organizers convened for a Saturday session at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver, is for researchers to recruit those students as research assistants.


The European Research Council, an autonomous branch of the European Union's executive body that offers competitive basic research funding, is piloting a new grant program to encourage collaborative, high-risk, high-reward research that is at least partially based in the European Union. Jose Labastida, head of the council's Scientific Management Department, described the new program this afternoon at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver.

Like its two existing grant programs aimed at junior investigators and more senior researchers, the new "synergy grants" will require that at least 50% of the funded research be done at a host institution in a European Union Member State or an Associated State. Also like those awards, the council is intentionally leaving the criteria for the grants vague, asking only that the research be "excellent," Labastida said, as determined by members of a peer-review panel composed of experts from a wide range of disciplines.

However, unlike those earlier awards, the synergy grants require that research proposals have between 2 and 4 principal investigators and that the researchers make a dedicated effort to spending some of their time working in the same physical location. The grants are for between €10 million and €15 million (that is, from roughly $13 million to $20 million) over 6 years and are designed to foster "frontier research" that could only be accomplished by unorthodox collaborations between scientists, Labastida said.

How competitive is the program? Very. In its pilot phase, the program attracted 710 submissions, which will be evaluated during the spring. Labastida said that approximately 15 of these projects will be funded. That's a funding rate of about 2%.

A report released yesterday (free registration required to download) by BayBio, the California Healthcare Institute, and PricewaterhouseCoopers shows that after steadily rising for two decades, the number of Californians working in biomedical and drug development jobs "has flattened and slightly declined," returning to 2006 levels.

After peaking in 2008 at 273,559 biomedical jobs in the state, the latest numbers based on 2010 data put that number at 267,271 -- a 2.3% drop. "Stated differently, the recent contraction has resulted in flat cumulative growth from 2006 through 2010 in California's biomedical industry," the report says.

Most of the losses since 2008 have come from academic research institutions and medical device companies shedding jobs, dropping 3,121 jobs and 2,628 jobs respectively. The biopharmaceutical industry, by comparison, added 1,040 jobs over the last 3 years. Since 2006, academic research jobs have fallen by 0.59% and medical device jobs by 1.15%, while biopharmaceutical jobs are up 1.75%.

Although the overall number of jobs fell, those who are working in the state's biomedical industry have seen their wages go up. In 2010, the average salary for a California biomedical company employee was $76,500, up from $72,300 in 2009.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) last week released a report from its Working Group on the Future Biomedical Research Workforce exploring the career and workplace concerns of biomedical researchers working in the United States. NIH queried hundreds of scientists working both inside and outside NIH and received 219 responses.

In the surveys, NIH asked respondents to rate the eight issues listed below according to their significance to the respondents' careers:
  • Supply and Demand
  • PhD Characteristics
  • Postdoc Fellow Training Characteristics
  • Biomedical Research Career Appeal
  • Clinician Characteristics
  • Staff Scientist Career Track
  • Effects of NIH Policies
  • Training-to-Research-Grant Ratio
Respondents also commented on those issues and provided additional concerns. In these comments, four additional issues recurred frequently enough that NIH added them to its analysis:
  • Diversity
  • Mentoring
  • Early Educational Interventions
  • Industry Partnership
The working group further parsed the respondents' comments into 498 "quotations" and sorted those into the 12 broader categories listed above. The image below, taken from the report, shows the distribution of those concerns among the respondents' comments:
In a move designed to reduce costs and move students through the community college system more quickly and into 4-year colleges, the City University of New York (CUNY) network of community colleges and senior colleges has rejiggered its curriculum to fast-track students' entry-level classes to make extra time for upper-level courses, according to an article in our sister site Science Insider

Unfortunately, one of the ways they're speeding up the process is by cutting the traditional science course requirement to a single 3-credit-hour course. What's more, the new regulations require that 3-credit-hour courses take up no more than 3 hours over the course of the week, making lab work in science classes almost impossible, some CUNY science professors told Insider.

More than 400,000 students are enrolled in CUNY, the majority from underrepresented minority groups. Science Careers has in several past articles discussed how community colleges serve as a major catalyst for getting minority students involved in science and diversifying the scientific workforce -- and many of these articles emphasize the value of hands-on lab work in getting minority students to stay in science. Despite the noble intentions of CUNY's new regulations, they could have the unintended consequence of reducing its student body's exposure to science and stymieing career opportunities for would-be scientists.
The NIH research grant success rate -- the percentage of reviewed applications that receive funding, an important barometer for the larger research funding environment -- fell to its lowest mark ever in 2011, reports our sister blog, Science Insider. Last year, 18% of all reviewed applications were awarded funding, down from 21% in 2010 and around 30% a decade ago.

According to Science Insider's interview with NIH extramural research chief Sally Rockey, the reasons for the success-rate drop-off are varied and intertwined. For one thing, researchers submitted a record-high number of grant proposals in 2011. The success rate for large, lab-sustaining R01 grants fell from 22% in 2010 to 18% in 2011, even as the number of R01 proposals ticked up by 3%. The average size of the R01s granted also rose slightly last year, meaning more money was spent on fewer grants.

The most important factor identified in the blog post, though, is that more money than usual -- 78% of total available R01 funding -- was already committed to previously awarded R01 grants. This illustrates how funding levels in one year can have effects for years to come, especially if federal funding for NIH stagnates or falls, Rockey told Science Insider.

The European Union's Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, spoke yesterday at the European Institute in Washington, DC, to outline a funding proposal for Horizon 2020, a research-policy framework adopted last year by the European Union.

The commission is proposing that the European Union endow Horizon 2020 with €80 billion (approximately $103 billion) to re-energize flagging R&D programs, update scientific infrastructure, foster academic-industrial partnerships, and initiate prize-based funding for "societal challenges."

Geoghegan-Quinn also noted that if Europe's research and innovation centers are to continue and increase their success in a fast-changing world, they'll have to expand their collaborations with U.S. scientists and research labs, with whom they share many of the same research goalposts and scientific standards.

"International cooperation is a vital part of our research and innovation funding," she said. "It makes sense to bring the world's best research and the world's best researchers together, where possible, in order to tackle the common challenges that we face such as sustainable mobility, climate change, energy and food security, or our ageing population."

The commission's proposal will now go before the European Union's 27 member states for discussion. The decision will come in 2013.

"He was super smart, but so what? ... Pure intellectual heft is like someone who can bench-press a thousand pounds. But so what, if you don't know what to do with it?"

That's how math professor Paul Zeitz describes his high school friend and director of MIT's Broad Institute, Eric Lander, in an article in Tuesday's New York Times. Lander, whose Ph.D. is in pure mathematics, now heads up a molecular biology and medical genomics lab. Although he excelled in his math studies, he craved the more tangible fruits of biological research and threw himself into that work. In addition to his MIT post, he serves as co-chairman to President Obama's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

Lander's case illustrates well the role passion, creativity, and persistence play in the careers scientists carve out -- or fail to carve out. It's also a good reminder that your Ph.D. isn't your destiny.
Finding funding during the down economy is a hot topic this week at Neuroscience 2011 in Washington, DC. Times are tough even for seasoned PIs, let alone graduate students. That might be why a poster here at the meeting caught my eye.

Last year, a group of neuroscience graduate students at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, decided to start a local student-run grant agency. They appealed to their university's Biomedical Graduate Education Organization and received $10,000. They formed a student-run review committee and adopted a scoring system based on NIH's review criteria. They invited Georgetown biomedical graduate students to apply for small grants to help them, say, learn a new technique or fund travel to a conference.

The Conference Board Help Wanted Online (HWOL) Data Series, which examines employment statistics by looking at job recruitment classified ads, today released its findings for the month of October 2011.

The total number of vacancies posted on job recruitment and classifieds Web sites fell by 13,600 during the month of October, which follows drop-offs in September (of 44,000 jobs) and August (164,000 jobs). Scientific jobs -- categorized within the survey as "Computer and Mathematical Sciences" and "Life, Physical and Social Sciences" -- are included in that decline, but they still fare well compared to other types of jobs. The report notes that the number of advertised vacancies for science jobs remains higher than the number of unemployed people seeking those positions. During the month of October, the report tallied 60,200 job ads for 45,600 unemployed job seekers in the "Life, Physical and Social Sciences" category, and 515,100 job ads for 175,800 unemployed job seekers in the "Computer and Mathematical Sciences" category.

Are you a scientist who is running for office, or who does campaign work for a political candidate running in the upcoming 2012 elections? We'd love to hear from you about your motivations and experiences in the political realm. Please e-mail me at mprice@aaas.org.

NIH today announced the 2011 crop of researchers who will receive grants from the NIH Common Fund, which aims to fund big-risk, big-reward research projects. The Common Fund will award $143.8 million this year in three categories: 13 Pioneer awards ($10.4 million), 49 New Innovator awards ($117.5 million), and 17 Transformative Research Projects awards ($15.9 million).


NIH recently issued a call for applications for next year's Pioneer and New Innovator awards (the Transformative Research Projects award budget is still under consideration for renewal). You can learn how to apply for the Pioneer award here and the New Innovator award here.

For a full list of the researchers who won this year, see the press release.http://commonfund.nih.gov/pioneer

Rwanda, already recognized by the United Nations as East Africa's high-tech hub, is looking to boost its regional influence by partnering with Carnegie Mellon University to offer graduate degrees in engineering. Rwandan and university officials today announced the creation of Carnegie Mellon Rwanda, an academic program based in Kigali they hope will offer advanced engineering and management training, as well as international internships and job placement, primarily to students from Rwanda and its East African neighbors. It will be the first program to offer a graduate degree granted by a foreign university on African soil.

The program initially will offer a master of science degree in information technology, and more academic tracks will be added over time. A Ph.D. program has been proposed but that proposal isn't definite, says Pradeep K. Khosla, head of CMU's College of Engineering.

Carnegie Mellon Rwanda will aim to enroll approximately 40 students in its first semester in fall 2012, Khosla says, and then to raise that number to 150 by 2017. The program will use the same admission and academic standards as Carnegie Mellon's main campus in Pittsburgh. Khosla says the program will look to hire top-tier professors from all over the world, though he expects finding faculty could still be a big challenge.

But will Rwanda be prepared to offer jobs to a surge of new highly trained engineers? Khosla says that while that is indeed a concern, Rwanda is better prepared than most other African nations to do so. "Are they poised [to take advantage of the new engineers] today? Probably not," he says. "But are they on the right trajectory? I think so."

Rwanda is experiencing an economic boom, with sustained GDP growth of 8% annually over the past five years, numerous new telecom businesses, and an ambitious federal project to lay fiber-optic cable across much of the country. Khosla predicts that Rwanda's burgeoning wireless and mobile networks will see the most immediate benefit from the new engineers.

Khosla hopes Carnegie Mellon Rwanda will serve as an example to other universities, encouraging them to invest in degree-granting programs in Africa to help African nations build modern infrastructures. "There are a billion people [in Africa]," he says. "The world will not be better off if they're left behind."

Many studies point to a lack of representation by minorities in science and engineering fields, but the roots of that inequality are hard to trace. A new, non-peer-reviewed report finds that, contrary to the claims of some "white rights" activists, grants and scholarships are fairly evenly distributed by ratio of racial prevalence in undergraduate education. 

However, the picture changes somewhat when looking into the details. The report found that white students are significantly more likely to receive private and merit-based scholarships than are minority students, while minority students are slightly more likely to receive need-based financial aid. Since 2003, while both need-based and private scholarship funding has increased, funding for private scholarships has increased at a faster rate, suggesting that the gap between whites' and minorities' financial aid opportunities could be widening -- not good news for those looking to improve minority representation in science.

Report author Mark Kantrowitz, a stats analyst and publisher of the financial aid sites Fastweb.com and FinAid.org (which published the report), looked at data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, which collects data every 4 years on how students pay for college. He found that minority students make up 38% of the total undergraduate population in the United States and account for 40% of need-based grant and scholarship funding -- reflecting the fact that minority students more frequently come from impoverished backgrounds than their white peers -- but only 24% of merit-based scholarships. White students, on the other hand, make up 62% of the total undergrad population and receive 59% of need-based financial aid and 76% of the merit-based funding.

That inequality doesn't reflect explicit racism, Kantrowitz argues, but instead the propensity for donors, who are more likely to be white, to offer scholarships for activities like golf, archery, equestrian sports, water sports, and winter sports, all of which tend to attract more white participants than minority participants. "The sponsors of rodeo scholarships aren't motivated by a desire to indirectly discriminate against minority students; they just like to promote rodeo," Kantrowitz writes. "But the net result is that private scholarships as a whole disproportionately select for Caucasian students."

When you combine students' total odds of receiving financial aid, the "race myth" -- that is, that minority students receive more than their fair share of financial aid -- falls apart, Kantrowitz concludes. In fact, white students come out slightly more likely overall to receive financial aid of some kind. To correct the imbalance, he writes, more money is needed for need-based grants and scholarships.

The funders of rodeo scholarships and others may not mean to promote institutional inequality, but it does add to the series of cumulative advantages that allow white students to enjoy more and better educational and career opportunities than minority students. An independent study for example recently pointed out that white applicants to the National Institutes of Health are 10 percentage points more likely to receive an R01 grant than their black counterparts. These and other studies suggest that policymakers need to take a hard look at the systems in place to find ways to put future minority scientists on more equal footing.

Hat tip to Insider Higher Ed.


The President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness announced yesterday at a panel discussion in Portland, Oregon, that it had secured a commitment from 45 companies to double the number of engineering internship opportunities they offer by 2012. The move is part of the council's effort to train and graduate an additional 10,000 engineers from U.S. colleges and universities every year. Yesterday's announced commitments will add close to 6,300 new internships.

Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel and a member of the council, said that there simply aren't enough qualified engineers in the American workforce to meet the needs of the market. One reason so many companies are looking to relocate their R&D departments to China or India is that those nations are graduating about 10 times more engineers, making it all the more important that the United States bolster its own engineer-training programs, he said.

The pharmaceutical industry may have arrived at its own version of 'publish or perish': 'Develop or disappear'. In 2008, as reported in Chemistry World, Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) instituted a policy requiring its research teams to pitch and defend their research programs to executives and outside analysts, a la the U.S. television show Shark Tank. Three years later, as reported on 21 August in The Sunday Times (and freely accessible on the Ottawa Citizenthose teams are up for a progress review -- and not everyone will make the cut.

According to The Sundays Times, GSK's research and development program is starkly different from the traditional model, which follows a more top-down approach with creativity arising from the top and responsibility for production filtering down the chain of command. The sagging economy has forced pharma companies like GSK to reduce their R&D investment, and combined with federal regulations requiring more and more stringent clinical trials, the traditional model just isn't pushing out top-tier creative ideas right now, say industry watchers mentioned in the Times article.

According to the Times, the new policy puts more responsibility and creative control directly into the hands of the scientists themselves. They decide which diseases they want to target, come up with a research and production plan, and then try to sell their higher-ups on the idea.

GSK hopes that process will spur the pharma industry's lately sluggish drug development. The pressure is on for pharma companies to create the next blockbuster drug, as patents for many of the big names such as Lipitor, Flomax, and Aricept expired last year, opening GSK and other drug companies up to competition from makers of cheaper generics.

You may read the full Sunday Times article here.


Last week, Science published a study that found that black biomedical scientists are 10 percentage points less likely than their white peers to receive an R01 research grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). (See Science Careers's discussion of what that means for the career prospects of black scientists.) And earlier this month, a government study found that men out-earn women in the sciences by about 12% and outnumber women in the science, technology, math, and engineering fields by about 24%.

NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other U.S. agencies have funneled large sums of money into programs designed to reduced such disparities, but clearly minority scientists still face significant challenges to their professional success. What will it take to achieve real equality in the sciences?

Science Live will host a live chat on Thursday, August 25, 3:00 - 4:00 p.m. EDT to explore that question with two former NIH researchers: Laure Haak, chief science officer at the scientific consulting firm Discovery Logic, and Chad Womack, founder, president and chair of TBED21, a technology and education development company.

Join in and let your voice be heard!

Last week, the National Academies announced the creation of a new committee that will explore the state of the modern postdoctoral experience for scientists and engineers. By identifying the current number of postdocs, number of tenure-track positions available, tenure success rates, and the working conditions, salary, and benefits for postdocs, they hope to inform future policies that could better the situations of postdoctoral researchers in the United States.

"There's an awareness that we have a lot of capable people in their twenties and thirties that are in these holding patterns in their careers," says Kevin Finneran, director of the National Academy of Science's (NAS) Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy and responsible staff officer for the new committee, in an interview with Science Careers.

Yesterday, physicist Chad Orzel from ScienceBlogs' Uncertain Principles called out a disturbing trend in academia: When it comes to tenure decisions and grant reviews, he says, engaging in public outreach is all too often considered an impediment to success.
People are generally in favor of outreach activities, of course, but in the same diffuse way that the general public is in favor of tax increases. If you ask them whether they're in favor of outreach to the general public, they'll say yes, but pressed to support it in a concrete way, they'll find reasons not to. Any discussion of outreach requirements like the NSF's infamous "broader impact" criteria invariably includes the argument that forcing scientists to do outreach as a condition of receiving government research funding is a wholly unreasonable imposition. But nobody's willing to hire and promote outreach specialists who want to do that sort of activity. Directing any significant money toward outreach activities is questioned, because it could've been spent on "real" science.
To buck that trend, last year AAAS created the Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science. Awarded annually, the award pays out $5,000 and a scholarship for travel to the 2012 AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver. The contest is open to early-career scientists and engineers -- defined as being in your current field for less than seven years and pre-tenure -- who engage in public outreach. Last year's recipient, Lynford Goddard, organized summer camps to promote electrical engineering careers to high school girls.

If you're out there fighting to educate the public in the ways of science, AAAS has a bit of cash to support your efforts. Eligibility and application information can be found here.