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Quick Takes: Obama Adds to Science Team, RIAA Shifts Strategy, Milgram's Shock Experiment Still Works, Unusual Ethics Choice, Tufts Loses $20M, E-Mail About Va. Tech Killer, Morris Brown Survival in Doubt, Witch Sues Nebraska

December 22, 2008
  • President-elect Barack Obama used a Saturday radio address to both pledge commitment to the values of free inquiry in science and to add members to his science team. He stressed that the government needs not only to provide funds for science, but to respect its findings. "Right now, in labs, classrooms and companies across America, our leading minds are hard at work chasing the next big idea, on the cusp of breakthroughs that could revolutionize our lives. But history tells us that they cannot do it alone. From landing on the moon, to sequencing the human genome, to inventing the Internet, America has been the first to cross that new frontier because we had leaders who paved the way: leaders like President Kennedy, who inspired us to push the boundaries of the known world and achieve the impossible; leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respected the integrity of the scientific process," Obama said. "Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources -- it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology." In his talk he formally announced two picks that had previously been reported: John Holdren, director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard University, will be assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Jane Lubchenco, a professor at Oregon State University, will be nominated as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Obama also announced the co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology: Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Eric Lander, a key player in the mapping of the human genome and founder director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • The Recording Industry Association of America is abandoning its practice of suing students and others who download and share music in violation of copyright, The Wall Street Journal reported. The shift could alter a legal dynamic in which colleges have many times felt caught between the music industry and students. (See related essay elsewhere on Inside Higher Ed today.)
  • One of the most famous and controversial psychology experiments has been replicated. The San Jose Mercury News reported that Jerry Burger, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, is about to publish results from a new version of the late Stanley Milgram's shock experiment, in which subjects believed they were injecting gradually stronger electric shocks on others who were failing to learn various tasks. The shocks -- and the cries of pain that participants heard -- were fake. But the results are seen as evidence on how people will follow instructions to perform ethically dubious acts.
  • One of the co-chairs of a University of Minnesota Medical School panel drafting ethics rules for professors was disciplined in 2004 for steering a research grant to his own company, The Star Tribune reported. Leo Furcht, the professor and co-chair, declined to comment, but a university official said that his experience with conflict of interest issues was "a compelling reason" to appoint him.
  • Tufts University announced Friday that it lost about $20 million -- about 2 percent of its endowment -- through investments controlled by Bernard Madoff, who is accused of running a worldwide Ponzi scheme. "It is personally painful for me to communicate this information to you," wrote Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts, in a message announcing the loss. "We deeply appreciate the trust and confidence that each donor places in the university. We also have an obligation to our students and faculty to manage these resources wisely for their benefit. You have my word that we will look closely at our experience in this case so that we can strengthen our investment process for the future." Fortune, meanwhile, reports that Yeshiva University, which lost more than $110 million in the scam, has lost four gifts as a result of the scandal.
  • The student newspaper at Virginia Tech has published a series of e-mail messages between members of the English department about their encounters with Seung-Hui Cho, who would become known widely only when he went on a killing rampage last year. The messages, sent prior to the murders, detail the frustrations of professors who couldn't get him to utter a single word in class or in private conversations, and who were clearly unnerved by his mannerisms and behavior. The documents were recently released to the families of the murder victims.
  • Morris Brown College, a historically black institution in Atlanta, has faced the loss of accreditation (and most students) and a financial aid scandal. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that due to unpaid bills, Atlanta cut off the college's water supply, and that the institution does not plan to open for classes for the spring semester without water.
  • A woman is suing the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, saying that she was dismissed from her job running a youth program when officials learned that her religion is witchcraft, The Lincoln Journal Star reported.
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