Sciences/Tech/Engineering/Math

New Russian technical university has high aspirations

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Russia wants to build a top university, Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, from scratch. “Skoltech” enjoys the patronage of politicians and mentorship from MIT, but some fear the “best” is being built at expense of the base.  

Study offers new evidence that scientists are biased against women

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New study offers evidence that scientists -- men and women alike -- assume female students are less competent and less worthy of pay and mentoring than male students.

NRC report calls for greater investment and improved efficiency for research universities

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U.S. research universities' global dominance will be threatened in coming years unless governments invest more and universities become more efficient and better educate under-represented groups, according to new National Research Council report.

Senate bill hopes to speed up technology licensing process

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Commercialization offices are fighting a Kauffman proposal that would let researchers take potential commercial ideas to any technology transfer partner, not just their home institution.

Study tracks erosion of conservative confidence in science

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Survey tracks long-term erosion in confidence in research -- and suggests that evolution and social issues aren’t the cause.

Essay on ways to prevent scientific misconduct

The most recent case of scientific fraud by Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel recalls the 2010 case against Harvard University of Marc Hauser, a well-respected researcher in human and animal cognition. In both cases, the focus was on access to and irregularities in handling of data. Stapel retained full control of the raw data, never allowing his students or colleagues to have access to data files.  In the case of Hauser, the scientific misconduct investigation found missing data files and unsupported scientific inference at the center of the accusations against him. Outright data fraud by Stapel and sloppy data management and inappropriate data use by Hauser underscore the critical role data transparency plays in preventing scientific misconduct.    

Recent developments at the National Science Foundation (and earlier this decade at the National Institutes of Health) suggest a solution — data-sharing requirements for all grant-funded projects and by all scientific journals. Such a requirement could prevent this type of fraud by quickly opening up research data to scrutiny by a wider community of scientists.

Stapel’s case is an extreme example and more likely possible in disciplines with substantially limited imperatives for data sharing and secondary data use.  The research traditions of psychology suggest that collecting your own data is the only sound scientific practice.  This tradition, less widely shared in other social sciences, encourages researchers to protect data from outsiders.  The potential for abuse is clear.  

According to published reports about Hauser, there were three instances in which the original data used in published articles could not be found. While Hauser repeated two of those experiments and produced data that supported his papers, his poor handling of data cast a significant shadow of uncertainty and suspicion over his work.

Hauser’s behavior is rare, but not unheard of. In 2008, the latest year for which data are available, the Office of Research Integrity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported 17 closed institutional cases that included data falsification or fabrication. These cases involved research funded by the federal government, and included the manipulation or misinterpretation of research data rather than the violation of scientific ethics or institutional oversight.

In both Hauser and Stapel's cases, graduate students were the first to alert authorities to irregularities.   Rather than relying on other members of a researcher’s lab to come forward (an action that requires a great deal of personal and professional courage,) the new data sharing requirements at NSF and NIH have the potential to introduce long-term cultural changes in the conduct of science that may reduce the likelihood of misconduct based on data fabrication or falsification. The requirements were given teeth at NSF by the inclusion of new data management plans in the scored portion of the grant application.

NIH has since 2003 required all projects requesting more than $500,000 per year to include a data-sharing plan, and the NSF announced in January 2011 that it would require all grant requests to include data management plans. The NSF has an opportunity to reshape scientists' behavior by ensuring that the data-management plans are part of the peer review process and are evaluated for scientific merit.  Peer review is essential for data-management plans for two reasons. First and foremost, it creates an incentive for scientists to actually share data. The NIH initiatives have offered the carrot for data sharing — the NSF provides the stick. The second reason is that the plans will reflect the traditions, rules, and constraints of the relevant scientific fields. 

Past attempts to force scientists to share data have met with substantial resistance because the legislation did not acknowledge the substantial differences in the structure, use, and nature of data across the social, behavioral and natural sciences, and the costs of preparing data. Data sharing legislation has often been code for, "We don’t like your results," or political cover for previously highly controversial issues such as global warming or the health effects of secondhand smoke. The peer review process, on the other hand, forces consistent standards for data sharing, which are now largely absent, and allow scientists to build and judge those standards.  "Witch hunts" disguised as data sharing would disappear.  

The intent of the data sharing initiatives at the NIH and currently at NSF has very little to do with controlling or policing scientific misconduct. These initiatives are meant to both advance science more rapidly and to make the funding of science more efficient. Nevertheless, there is a very real side benefit of explicit data sharing requirements: reducing the incidence of true fraud and the likelihood that data errors would be misinterpreted as fraud.

The requirement to make one’s data available in a timely and accessible manner will change incentives and behavior. First, of course, if the data sets are made available in a timely manner to researchers outside the immediate research team, other scientists can begin to scrutinize and replicate findings immediately. A community of scientists is the best police force one can possibly imagine. Secondly, those who contemplate fraud will be faced with the prospect of having to create and share fraudulent data as well as fraudulent findings.

As scientists, it is often easier for us to imagine where we want to go than how to get there.  Proponents of data sharing are often viewed as naïve scientific idealists, yet it seems an efficient and elegant solution to the many ongoing struggles to maintain the scientific infrastructure and the public’s trust in federally funded research. Every case of scientific fraud, particularly on such controversial issues such as the biological source of morality (which is part of Hauser’s research) or the sources of racial prejudice (in the case of Stapel) allows those suspicious of science and governments’ commitment to funding science to build a case in the public arena. Advances in technology have allowed the scientific community the opportunity to share data in a broad and scientifically valid manner, and in a way that would effectively counter those critics.

NIH and NSF have led the way toward more open access to scientific data.  It is now imperative that other grant funding agencies and scientific journals redouble their own efforts to force data, the raw materials of science, into the light of day well before problems arise. 

Felicia B. LeClere is a principal research scientist in the Public Health Department of NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects, including the National Immunization Survey and the National Children's Study.

Author discusses his new book on the rise of English as the dominant language of science

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Author discusses his new book on science before and after the dominance of English as a global language.

Essay on Dr. Oz and academic freedom

Mehmet Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon and vice chair of the Department of Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center has attracted some attention recently because he has a TV show, The Dr. Oz Show, on which he spouts some incredibly stupid ideas about phony weight-loss cures and how psychics make you feel better.

But the recent debate about Oz centers on a question of academic freedom, after a group of 10 physicians wrote to Columbia University calling for him to be dismissed from his faculty position unless he stopped his dubious televised pronouncements.

In their letter, these doctors write:

We are surprised and dismayed that Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons would permit Dr. Mehmet Oz to occupy a faculty appointment, let alone a senior administrative position in the Department of Surgery.

As described here and here, as well as in other publications, Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops. Worst of all, he has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.

Thus, Dr. Oz is guilty of either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgments about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments, or both. Whatever the nature of his pathology, members of the public are being misled and endangered, which makes Dr. Oz’s presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution unacceptable.

One of the 10 letter writers, Gilbert Ross of the American Council on Science and Health, described Oz as “a true asset to Columbia -- as a surgeon” and called for him to “return to the operating theater, where he can do much real good.” This makes it clear that the opposition to Oz being on Columbia’s faculty has nothing to do with his professional abilities. Instead, these writers want to punish Oz for his extramural utterances, because they fear that Oz’s position at Columbia adds credibility to the dubious medical claims on his show.

It’s doubtful that many of Oz’s viewers know anything about his job at Columbia or would care if they did know. They find him credible because of his personality and because he has “Doctor” in front of his name, not because he works at Columbia.

So the real reason these writers are seeking to fire Oz from Columbia is as a form of public shaming. The numerous condemnations of Oz’s show haven’t changed his behavior, and they want to turn up the heat. But they are wrong: academic positions should never be threatened as a tool to argue with people who are in error.

Michael Specter wrote in The New Yorker, “Free speech must be defended vigorously. But to invoke those principles in order to protect the right of one of America’s most powerful doctors to mislead millions of people seems a bit excessive.”

There’s nothing excessive about academic freedom or free speech, even when you apply those principles to famous and powerful people. The point of academic freedom isn’t just to protect the little guy. It’s to protect everyone, celebrity academics included. When Bertrand Russell was banned from teaching at City College of New York in 1940 for not being sufficiently homophobic in the eyes of a New York judge, he was one of the most famous academics in the world. But his banishment was both a violation of Russell’s individual academic freedom and a threat to everyone else less prominent than Russell, since attacks on academic freedom create a chilling effect on everyone.

Oz might not “need” academic freedom to remain America’s most famous doctor, but what about all the other academics who make controversial statements? The letter demanding Oz’s firing linked to a Salon article about Oz’s support for labeling genetically modified organisms (GMO) in foods, even though there’s no scientific evidence that GMO products are harmful to consume. But it’s also true that there’s no scientific proof of GMO safety required before a new product is introduced, and that GMOs may contribute to negative consequences for the environment and for human health, such as possible increases in certain kinds of pesticide use and the overuse of antibiotics in cows given recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). And truthful labeling is required for food products even when those ingredients are safe.

If Oz can be fired, in part, because of his views on GMOs, what might happen to the scientists who find evidence about GMOs harmful to the bottom lines of powerful corporations, or who dare to join the overwhelming majority of Americans in expressing support for labeling?

Columbia University responded to the controversy with a simple statement: “As I am sure you understand and appreciate, Columbia is committed to the principle of academic freedom and to upholding faculty members’ freedom of expression for statements they make in public discussion.”

A group of medical faculty peers at Columbia wrote an article criticizing the information on Oz’s show, but noted, “Unless these foibles can be shown to render Dr. Oz inadequate or ineffective at Columbia, there is no justification for forcing him to resign from a well-earned position in academic medicine.”

Jennifer Gunter, a physician, argued, “The uproar from health professionals about Dr. Oz is has nothing to do with academic freedom -- it’s about false claims, bad information, ethics and conflicts of interest. Academic freedom is meant to support thoughtful ideas and research, not charlatans and liver cleanses.”

But academic freedom protects thoughtful ideas and research by limiting the reach of punishment for bad ideas -- especially when those bad ideas take place in a realm outside of one’s professional work. The fact that Oz talks about medical issues on his show makes him no different from Steven Salaita, whose tweets (which led him to lose a job at the University of Illinois) were extramural utterances even though the subject matter had some connection to his academic work on Israel.

An extramural utterance is defined by whether or not a university is paying a professor to speak, as they do with teaching and research. But if we say that extramural utterances should be judged by academic criteria, then we will chill the speech of academics in precisely the areas where they can benefit the public most with their knowledge. It’s tempting to imagine that we can force Oz to bring sound medical advice to daytime television by threatening his job. What will happen instead is that academic experts will keep silent on public controversies lest they endanger their academic positions, and we will be left with more charlatans to guide important debates.

The best response to Oz’s errors is counterspeech, not the removal of his academic freedom and dismissal from his academic position. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing Oz for having a show that dispenses dubious and often scientifically wrong advice to a gullible public, or even encouraging him to resign. But when people call for those who views they dislike to be fired even when they are fully qualified academically, it undermines academic freedom.

The University of Illinois initially responded to the Salaita controversy with the same principled defense of academic freedom that Columbia University invoked for Oz, before changing positions. But Columbia’s principles are sound: a true university should have academics judged by other academics based on their academic work, and should give them the freedom to speak -- on Twitter, in public speeches and letters, and on television -- without fear of censorship. We cannot count on the truth prevailing on daytime television, but we should not be afraid to allow an open debate of ideas in the public sphere.

John K. Wilson is the coeditor of AcademeBlog.org and the author of seven books, including Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.

Essay on how new Ph.D.s can work with mentors to develop their career story

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Engage mentors to figure out the best career path, even if that path is outside academe or isn't what a mentor may have initially expected, writes Stephanie K. Eberle.

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Essay criticizes idea of adding the arts to push for STEM education

The last few years have brought a call from some quarters to update the STEM acronym -- for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- to STEAM, with the A standing for arts. On the surface, such a move seems harmless. What’s another letter, right? But in my view, STEM should stay just as it is, because education policy has yet to fully embrace the concept it represents -- and that concept is more important than ever.

No one -- least of all me -- is suggesting that STEM majors should not study the arts. The arts are a source of enlightenment and inspiration, and exposure to the arts broadens one’s perspective. Such a broad perspective is crucial to the creativity and critical thinking that is required for effective engineering design and innovation. The humanities fuel inquisitiveness and expansive thinking, providing the scientific mind with larger context and the potential to communicate better.

The clear value of the arts would seem to make adding A to STEM a no-brainer. But when taken too far, this leads to the generic idea of a well-rounded education, which dilutes the essential need and focus for STEM.

STEM is the connecting of four separate, but similar, dots. The acronym was born in the early 2000s, when the National Science Foundation sought to promote a national conversation about the merits of pulling related areas out of their silos and teaching them in a more multidisciplinary way. Math and science were already well established in education. The thinking was that technology and engineering instruction was far less prevalent in public schools, despite society being dependent on both.

Over time, the four letters have served as the spark to rekindle America’s commitment to an innovation economy. The basis of that commitment is a larger, more skilled workforce in STEM areas. Policy from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations has emphasized the importance of preparing and encouraging more youth to pursue these fields at a time when they were less inclined to do so, and to provide more support and training for teachers in the subjects.

We cannot afford to be distracted from that strategy. A survey of executives by Business Roundtable last year revealed that 4 out of 10 companies still find that at least half of their entry-level job applicants don’t even have the basic skills in STEM. Yet these companies will have to replace nearly 1 million U.S. employees with basic STEM literacy (and 635,000 with advanced skills in STEM) in the next five years. This means that STEM education needs ongoing commitment and resources.

I like to think of STEM the same way I think of stem cells -- STEM is foundational. Just as stem cells are a platform for the growth of other tissues, STEM is a platform for many careers. It is too valuable to our nation’s future to be put at risk.

Gary S. May is dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering.

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