August 26, 2011

November 1, 2011

The PI, rather than wishing to keep good people around him or her, doing useful stuff to further their own career, needs to step back and be more altruistic. This is where the ‘management of human capital’ phrase I cited above comes in. Maybe, for a while, provision of a safe berth while a particular individual expands their skills and gets the opportunity to produce some key papers simultaneously with training the next generation, is beneficial to the postdoc. But at all times the PI should be thinking, do I need to push this person out so they can make their own mark as individuals, not under my wing or guidance? How can they demonstrate independence and innovation? And, if the person is less than stellar – but still undoubtedly a real boon to have around – then they need to be encouraged to explore a wider range of options and not just sit tight until the money finally dries up.

David Willetts and the Round Table | Athene Donald’s Blog

Thank god my PI is so wonderful…. but I can’t assume I’ll always be so blessed

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January 6, 2012

Academia’s Crooked Money Trail

The troubles plaguing academic science — including fierce competition for funding, dismal career opportunities for young scientists, overdependence on soft money, excessive time spent applying for grants, and many more — do not arise, Stephan suggests, from a shortage of funds. In 2009, she notes, the United States spent nearly $55 billion on university- and medical school–based research and development, far more than any other nation.

The problems arise, Stephan argues, from how that money is allocated: who gets to spend it, where, and on what. Unlike a number of other countries, the United States structures university-based research around short-term competitive grants to faculty members. The incentives built into this system lead universities to behave “as though they are high-end shopping centers,” she writes. “They turn around and lease the facilities to faculty in [exchange for] indirect costs on grants and buyout of salary. In many instances, faculty ‘pay’ for the opportunity of working at the university, receiving no guarantee of income if they fail to bring in a grant.” Those who land funding staff their labs with students enrolled in their department’s graduate program, or with postdocs. Paid out of the faculty member’s grant, both types of workers depend on the primary investigator’s (PI’s) continued success in the tournament.”

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January 21, 2012

Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up

Dunbar brought tape recorders into meeting rooms and loitered in the hallway; he read grant proposals and the rough drafts of papers; he peeked at notebooks, attended lab meetings, and videotaped interview after interview. He spent four years analyzing the data. 

…Dunbar came away from his in vivo studies with an unsettling insight: Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. …“The scientists had these elaborate theories about what was supposed to happen,” Dunbar says. “But the results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn’t make sense.”  …The details always changed, but the story remained the same: The scientists were looking for X, but they found Y.

Dunbar was fascinated by these statistics. The scientific process, after all, is supposed to be an orderly pursuit of the truth, full of elegant hypotheses and control variables. …However, when experiments were observed up close — and Dunbar interviewed the scientists about even the most trifling details — this idealized version of the lab fell apart, replaced by an endless supply of disappointing surprises. There were models that didn’t work and data that couldn’t be replicated and simple studies riddled with anomalies. “These weren’t sloppy people,” Dunbar says. “They were working in some of the finest labs in the world. But experiments rarely tell us what we think they’re going to tell us. That’s the dirty secret of science.”

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February 17, 2012

How Schools Can Help Moms Stay in Science

"In a study published in the March-April issue of American Scientist, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci write, "It is when academic scientists choose to be mothers that their real problems start. Women deal with all the other challenges of being academic scientists as well as men do. Childless women are paid, promoted and rewarded equivalently to their male peers (and in some analyses at even higher rates). Children completely change the landscape for women — but do not appear to have the same effect on the careers of men."

Why does this happen? Basically, prospective scientists finish grad school and postdocs and can apply for tenure-track jobs at an average age of 33. That means they won’t get tenure until they’re 35 or older. Until then, they have to work their asses off doing research and publishing papers. Which isn’t so compatible with being a mom.”

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August 9, 2012

“In the past couple of decades, we all have noticed an enormous expansion in university administrative ranks,” with some schools’ administrative staff-to-student ratios rising by more than 300 percent between 1997 and 2007, says Ben Ginsberg, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, and author of the recent book The Fall of the Faculty. (See “Faculty Fallout,” The Scientist, August 2011.) “This greatly undermines both research and teaching,” he says. “To the faculty, the purpose of the university is research and teaching.” To the administration, “research is valued only in terms of the dollars it brings in.”

This pressure to commercialize research is compounded by increased competition for funding. “The money has dried up, both federally and at the state level,” says Martin Snyder, Senior Associate General Secretary at the American Association of University Professors. “One place that [academic researchers] are going is to private sources—the oil industry, tobacco industry, pharmaceutical companies. But the research money comes with strings attached.” The companies will have particular topics that they want researched, for example, and may want to avoid publishing results that reflect negatively on their products. “It’s just the antithesis of academic freedom and research,” says Snyder.

Moreover, while the commercialization pressure continues to mount, full-time faculty who are in a position to deliver such products are getting cut. “Seventy percent of faculty in the U.S. are part-time, or [on] short-term contracts,” and don’t have traditional tenure or tenure-track jobs, Snyder says. In the last 30 years, the proportion of university faculty working full time has fallen from about 60 percent to less than 40 percent. Now, for many academics, the “only security is the state of their funding,” Synder says. “I’m not sure how you build a research career on that kind of unstable foundation.”

Best Places to Work Academia, 2012 | The Scientist

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October 4, 2012

The problem is that the difference between private and social return on innovation is much larger than the current subsidies. Bloom and Van Reenen estimate that the social rate of return on R&D is about 38 percent, almost twice as large as the private return. The implication is jarring. The United States is not just underinvesting in R&D; our current level of R&D investment is barely a fraction of the socially optimal level. This is not just an American problem, but it is more salient for the United States than for other countries because of the role that innovation will play in our future growth.

Here’s One Tax Break All Americans Can Support - Enrico Moretti - The Atlantic

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March 28, 2013

William Brinkley, vice president for graduate sciences at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and a coauthor of the report, says the conclusion was based on concerns that “PhDs were just being hired for benefit of mentors and their careers, treated as hired hands, and true mentoring wasn’t taking place.”

The report was met, perhaps predictably, with outcry from a faculty that was happy with the way things were. And any momentum for change the report may have created was smothered with money: Shortly after it was issued the economy began its upswing and Congress began the doubling of the NIH budget. “The future looked very promising then,” says Brinkley. “I thought … we are going to double the opportunities in America for research and biomedical science and therefore we needed graduate students and there was a great future for them. In 2003 it all looked so optimistic.”

Since then, of course, the NIH budget has flattened, and Brinkley’s optimism has fallen. Additionally, while the total amount of R01 grants awarded annually has been holding steady at approximately $1.3 billion since 2000, the success rate has been falling from about 26% six years ago to just shy of 18% in 2005, according to the NIH. Even if the number of R01s awarded had remained at its high of 4,521, the success rate - thanks to an increase in applicants from 16,827 to 21,745 - would be just 20.8%. In other words, the drop can’t be fully explained by reduced funding levels. “We don’t want to train too many in any field and ignore their ability to find work, that’s my view as the dean,” says Brinkley. “We need to be concerned about what we say to young people who are coming into graduate school about the market.

Are We Training Too Many Scientists? | The Scientist Magazine®

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Why do smart people – and those recruited into PhD programs are smart – put up with such a pyramid scheme? Are students blind or ignorant to what awaits them? Several factors allow the system to continue. First, there has, at least until recently, been a ready supply of funds to support graduate students as research assistants. Second, factors other than money play a role in determining who chooses to become a scientist, and one factor in particular is a taste for science, an interest in finding things out. So dangle stipends and the prospect of a research career in front of star students who enjoy solving puzzles and it is not surprising that some keep right on coming, discounting the all-too-muted signals that all is not well on the job front. Overconfidence also plays a role: students in science persistently see themselves as better than the average student in their program – something that is statistically impossible.

Too many scientists? | Chemistry World


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June 26, 2013

In short, the “baby panic”—which has by no means abated since it hit me personally—is based largely on questionable data. We’ve rearranged our lives, worried endlessly, and forgone countless career opportunities based on a few statistics about women who resided in thatched-roof huts and never saw a lightbulb. In Dunson’s study of modern women, the difference in pregnancy rates at age 28 versus 37 is only about 4 percentage points. Fertility does decrease with age, but the decline is not steep enough to keep the vast majority of women in their late 30s from having a child. And that, after all, is the whole point.

How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby? - Jean Twenge - The Atlantic

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