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Wisconsin Halts Gender Reassignment Coverage

The State of Wisconsin Group Health Insurance is no longer covering procedures, services or supplies related to gender reassignment as part of its uniform benefits. The University of Wisconsin System shared news of the change, which was effective last month, with employees this week via email. Steph Tai, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said the Committee for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer People in the University is planning a formal response to the change. A university system spokesperson referred requests for comment to state officials.

Wisconsin halted gender reassignment coverage for transgender state workers after a brief period of availability in January. The Group Insurance Board, which oversees benefits, decided in July to add coverage for transgender services this calendar year, according to guidance that the Affordable Care Act required such coverage, the Wisconsin State-Journal reported. But Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, asked the board to reconsider, via the state Department of Justice. It said that providing transgender services was based on “unlawful” rules that “improperly interpret” Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibit gender discrimination in education. A state consultant reportedly estimated that two to five people would have used the transgender services per year, at a cost of up to $250,000 annually in a $1.5 billion program that covers 250,000 employees and dependents.

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A professor examines why her students seem to act so helpless (essay)

Teaching Today

We might provide the most detailed of instructions, but students will still find a reason to challenge those instructions as inadequate and shift the responsibility of the work to us, writes Lori Isbell.

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Friday, March 3, 2017
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The importance of using science to solve social problems (essay)

The Future of Science

Science is under attack. We have been hearing this for decades, and it is truer now than ever before. The Trump administration's attempt to obtain names of civil servants who attended climate-related meetings, the proposal to cut the EPA's research office by up to 42 percent (including the entirety of the Global Change Research Program), the overturning of policies that are grounded in scientific consensus and vital to our survival, the disdain with which Trump and his allies dismiss scientific evidence -- these all constitute clear assaults on science. In response, scientists are mobilizing to resist the Trump agenda, including with a proposed March for Science (previously called the Scientists' March on Washington).

If we strike while the iron is hot, this could be an opportunity not just to defend some abstract understanding of “science” but also to advance a much stronger vision of how science can serve the common good. Scientists and others in the STEM fields should make lasting commitments to stand in solidarity with the people of the world most harmed not just by the Trump administration but also by oppression and exploitation in all their forms.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge for the betterment of society has already long been shackled. Ask Marc Edwards. He's the Virginia Tech professor who worked with people in Flint, Mich., to expose the poisoning of their water supply. In an interview titled “Public Science Is Broken,” Edwards criticized the “perverse incentives” offered to faculty members and the risks involved in challenging the people who provide research funding. He concluded, “We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill -- pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index -- and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.”

That treadmill is not the science we need to defend. Nor is the science that profits agribusiness at the expense of impoverished farmers, torments villagers with the threat of drone strikes or otherwise privileges the acquisition of knowledge beneficial to corporate and military interests above that which supports human needs.

We should also be wary of defending science when it is imagined to be the province solely of an expert elite. We can respect the knowledge science produces while recognizing the many people from diverse social backgrounds who contribute to it: not just Ph.D.s but also farmers, members of environmental justice communities, people living with illnesses under research and many others.

The science we should rally to defend is that which people pursue with political consciousness for the benefits it brings to society and the planet. Lest anyone see that as too utilitarian, I would hasten to emphasize that charting the stars, learning the language of dolphins and pursuing a great many other subjects that bring us enlightenment qualify as benefiting society, provided we keep a sharp eye on how such knowledge is acquired and applied.

More than just defending such science, we must create a vibrant movement of STEM workers who see their survival and liberation as tied to the survival and liberation of poor people, people of color, people in the global South and others who are most vulnerable to the disasters our political and economic systems have produced.

This is hardly the first time scientists have organized to engage politically. In the United States today, the Union of Concerned Scientists is perhaps the most familiar organization that continues to promote, mainly through policy advocacy, what it calls “science for a healthy planet and a safer world.” Their work remains invaluable.

However, we should also recognize other groups in different times and places, many of which have adopted more activist approaches and an analysis more sharply focused on wresting science from the oppressive power structures of capitalism, racism, sexism, militarism and imperialism, and placing it in the service of social needs. The British Science and Society Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, the Indian Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad founded in 1962, and the Philippine AGHAM: Advocates of Science and Technology for the People founded in 1999 are just a few examples.

The United States once had its own activist science organization, called Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, better known as Science for the People. The original organization formed in 1969 out of the rising tide of opposition to the war in Vietnam. Although it folded in 1989, its members carried their cause forward. Former SftP members have been involved in improving health and safety for factory workers, mobilizing farming communities to document and resist pesticide exposure, working with communities in Eritrea and Malawi to develop sustainable energy technologies, researching and promoting agro-ecological approaches to farming in the United States and Latin America, and many other areas of politically engaged, socially conscious science.

The Science for the People movement is currently being revitalized; chapters are now forming on campuses at Columbia, Cornell and Emory Universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the Universities of Massachusetts at Amherst, Pennsylvania and Tennessee at Knoxville. Numbers will no do doubt swell as the Trump administration helps make the stakes clearer to STEM workers and students across the country and the world.

In times of political crisis, some people may be tempted to embrace science as an apolitical force of reason. While science does offer reason, it does not do so in a political vacuum. We have political choices to make. We have to decide what kind of science is worth making and worth fighting for. We have to make that science. And we have to fight for it.

Sigrid Schmalzer is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-editor of Science for the People: Documents From America's Movement of Radical Scientists, forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press.

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The new administration must recognize and support the job-creating power of science (essay)

The Future of Science

I spent a recent weekend interviewing blow-your-socks-off-smart applicants for my biology department’s Ph.D. program. I was uncertain how to respond to their need for reassurance about the future of American science. Since then, I’ve continued to reflect on what to say to the next generation of scientists, and what their collective decisions mean for the future of science and the economy in the United States. How do I reassure such bright young people as they decide whether to start their careers during an administration hostile not just to scientific integrity and independent inquiry, but seemingly to science itself?

How will we keep America’s reputation for scientific innovation if aspiring applicants to Ph.D. programs decide to forgo science or find that opportunities are reduced or constrained because of new federal policies? The anxiety I see in them is the first nick to the reputation of American universities and national laboratories -- regarded by most people as the best in the world -- a reputation that is now being harmed, as is the country’s economic competitiveness. Unless the statements and actions from the new administration change quickly, such weekends at universities across America this spring will, like our recent weekend, be overshadowed by dismay, disorientation and fear instead of the usual mix of optimism and excitement about future careers in scientific discovery.

Ordinarily, I am cautiously optimistic when confronted with potentially troublesome news, but continuing pronouncements from the Trump administration imposing gag orders and grant freezes on scientific government institutions have left me rather pessimistic, at least for the near future. Never in my 32 years as a university scientist have I experienced such high-level disregard from our government for expert information -- indeed, for facts of any kind -- and for the contributions of foreigners to the economic engines driven by scientific and technological research. This disregard, this disdain, for facts is troubling enough on its own. But for scientists it strikes at the very heart of our enterprise: working within constraints that require rigorous, logical evaluation of information before any conclusions are published or promoted.

A generous interpretation of what’s been occurring in these first months of the new administration is no longer possible. While it is normal for new administrations to issue gag orders for a temporary settling-in period so that new priorities for programs and external communications can be set, it is obvious that the new policies coming out of the Trump White House are lining up with base and baseless campaign rhetoric denying the strong scientific consensus on climate change, the values of environmental protection and the contribution of immigrants -- including Muslims -- to our nation’s scientific enterprise and economic innovation.

It is imperative that university faculty and the public are not distracted by the reckless stream of pronouncements coming from the White House. Behind the tweets, substantial long-term damage is quietly being inflicted on the integrity of science and therefore on the formulation of effective policies for improvements in medicine, technology and environmental management -- with negative long-term consequences for human welfare and our economy. Those potentially staggering changes are occurring by both omission and commission and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, thanks to similarly minded congressional GOP leadership.

The strong bipartisan support for environmental protection that prevailed for most of the last 50 years -- which gained the greatest momentum under President Richard M. Nixon -- is giving way to the fictions that environmental quality is not linked to human health and that environmental improvements always come at the cost of economic activity. Of course, policy making requires always requires balancing competing priorities, but what is being set in motion by the new administration can hardly be described as a rebalancing of trade-offs.

For example, House Bill 589 would limit funds for climate research at the national laboratories where some of the world’s greatest advances occur in understanding how our planet’s climate works and relates to the extremes of weather that pose such an increasing threat to our coastal cities and infrastructure. Think of the experience of California in the last year -- switching from the worst drought in recorded history to some of the worst flooding.

House Bill 673 would prohibit American contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been a model of global scientific consensus building, and which has in turn fostered international policy cooperation vital to future human welfare. That same bill would prevent future contributions by the United States to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Green Climate Fund, which could be the most economically efficient way to adapt to changing climate globally. We can help vulnerable countries prepare for continuing climate change now, or we can deal with climate-driven conflicts and refugee crises later. The relentless civil war in Syria has its roots partly in drought-induced internal migrations of farmers and in food insecurity.

Closer to home, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rick Perry, U.S. secretary of energy, are the antitheses of the scientists, including Nobel laureates, who have led such agencies in past Republican and Democratic administrations. Pruitt, who spent much of his career as Oklahoma’s attorney general suing EPA, is dismissive of overwhelming data on the value to human health of EPA’s efforts to reduce air and water pollution. He and Trump have vowed to reverse the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Furthermore, a combination of executive and congressional actions have demolished the U.S. Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule, as well as its rule to reduce leaks of methane from natural gas wells. Methane is a far more potent cause of climate change than carbon dioxide.

Finally, House Bill 861 would terminate the EPA entirely. Not only do these actions not add up to a recipe for clean air and clean water, which the president purports to support, but they also are in fact a direct assault on human health.

The administration’s disregard for science is also manifest in what has not been done. No one has been nominated for most senior positions usually occupied by scientists, including the science adviser to the president and the administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (an agency that provides most of the weather data used by most news broadcasts in the country). At this same point in most recent administrations, most of these vital positions had been filled. Scientists are being omitted from decision making, even while decisions are rolling back the effectiveness and use of American science.

The lack of leadership on scientific and environmental issues couldn’t make China happier. Currently leading the United States in the use of renewable energies, Chinese competitors of American companies in renewable energy technology see new markets and expanded prosperity opening up to them. The same can be said for European competitors. What the Trump administration fails to realize is that technology doesn’t just build engines; the scientific enterprise is itself an engine that creates jobs from the lab to the land -- an economic multiplier with extraordinary reach. According to a recent National Science Foundation report, “Asia now accounts for 40 percent of global research and development, with China as the standout.” Given the trajectory of the current administration, the United States will not be first for much longer.

Good reputations take a long time to earn but can be destroyed quickly. That is true for individuals, institutions and countries. Intellectual capital and scientific programs take a long time to build. The current candidate pool for faculty jobs in my department has a higher than usual number of scientists with strong careers in national laboratories. The ongoing exodus of prominent, highly motivated scientists from national laboratories and other agencies portends a potentially quick decline for the quality of policy-relevant federal research.

So what should I have said to the worried Ph.D. candidates, and what will I say to the postdoctoral candidates from Australia, Canada and Germany who I am currently interviewing?

Do not let the relentless onslaught of tweets distract you. Do not respond in kind.

Keep your eyes and ears on the people who are being appointed and on what policies are actually being considered. Become engaged in your scientific society to amplify your scientific voice. Advocate for the value of scientific information.

Without anger, with patience and practicing humility, engage in civil discourse about what we scholars have been privileged to spend our lives learning: scientific practice is rigorous and winnowing; facts are hard won; science produces reliable information; and in the long run, human health and happiness depend on effective and efficient environmental protection. Encourage your representative to spend a few days breathing the air in Delhi or Beijing if they seem to doubt that.

Do not pretend that scientific information often leads clearly to any particular policy action. Rather, acknowledge that many other considerations are required in democratic decision making, but that scientists are not merely another special interest. Advocate for science and scientists to be appointed to high positions and sought out for their information and advice.

Make it clear that, ultimately, truth and civility must prevail.

David M. Lodge is the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a professor in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

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Questions to ask when selecting a mentor and trying to nurture a mentoring relationship (essay)

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Pallavi Eswara raises the most important ones -- and also provides some answers.

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Professor's Kids Make Cameo in Live Interview

Many academic parents saw their lives reflected in a BBC interview gone viral last week. In case you haven’t seen it, Robert E. Kelly, an associate professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea, was being interviewed via Skype about President Park Geun-hye's impeachment when his pigtailed young daughter marched into the room. She was promptly followed by her baby brother in a rolling chair -- and by Kelly’s mortified wife, who cleared the howling children out of the room, live on the BBC. 

Take a look and try not to laugh.

Twitter lit up with reactions from others who had been there. Here are a few examples, including one from Kelly himself.

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Art Historian Leaves $1.1 Million to U Kansas

The estate of a distinguished professor emerita of art history professor at the University of Kansas donated $1.1 million to the institution, to support its Spencer Museum of Art and the study of art history, the Lawrence Journal-World reported. The gift brings Marilyn Stokstad’s total lifetime gifts to the university to more than $2.3 million. Stokstad died last year at age 87, but the university announced her most recent donation last week.

“Stokstad had a profound impact on the Spencer Museum of Art through her leadership, scholarship and progressive ideas. She focused her life, resources and formidable intelligence on works of art and their role in education and human experience,” Saralyn Reece Hardy, museum director, said in a statement. “We are especially honored that she chose to support aspects of the museum that help us sustain opportunities for publishing scholars and provide a welcoming space for bringing art and people together.” Stokstad, who specialized in medieval and Spanish art and wrote widely used textbooks, began teaching at Kansas in 1958 and retired in 2002.

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Amid Misconduct Allegations, Professor's Name Stripped From Building

St. Olaf College is removing the name of the late Reidar Dittmann from a campus building after receiving "credible evidence" that he engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of his career there, The Star Tribune reported. Dittmann taught art and Norwegian at St. Olaf for more than 45 years and died in 2010. The allegations surfaced in the last year as part of an effort by the college to reach out to victims of sexual assault. When several allegations were made, the college conducted an investigation and confirmed details of some of the allegations, and so decided it needed to remove the Dittmann name from the building.

David Anderson, president of the college, said, “You reach a point where you have a sufficient degree of evidence that’s credible and verifiable and comes from multiple sources …. Then you’re in a tough spot. Are you going to say, well, because the alleged perpetrator is deceased, we’re not going to take any steps, even though we have this very high degree of certainty of what happened? Or, knowing what we know now, we can’t go forward with that name on the building.”

Family members of Dittmann issued a statement that said in part, “The allegations of sexual misconduct from decades ago deeply trouble his family, many members of whom proudly attended the college and grew up with it as an integral part of our lives. We abhor sexual misconduct without exception, but we are also devastated by the impossibility of due process for the person we knew and loved.” The statement also criticized “the process used to indict our father posthumously; the haste with which the college reached its conclusion; and finally, the public humiliation our family is experiencing as a result of the college’s communications of their actions.”

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A professor describes how she teaches students about sexual assault (essay)

Sexual Violence on Campus

Helping students become familiar with the concept of rape culture provides an opportunity for them to recognize their own values and beliefs in action, writes Cat Pausé.

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Spanish academics criticize new accreditation requirements for those who teach

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New requirement to become individually accredited angers university instructors, who complain of paperwork and an erosion of academic values.

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