Universities must confront a fossil fuels apparatus that seeks to rival legitimate science (essay)

America’s universities are home, more than any place else in our country, to the enterprise of science. That has been an important and proud role for our great universities, and it has produced wonderful discoveries. Besides providing technical progress, science gives our society its headlights, warning us of oncoming hazards. As the pace of change accelerates, we need those headlights brighter than ever. So when a threat looms over the enterprise of science, the universities that are its home need to help address the threat.

The threat is simple. The fossil fuel industry has adopted and powered up infrastructure and methods originally built by the tobacco industry and others to attack and deny science. That effort has coalesced into a large, adaptive and well-camouflaged apparatus that aspires to mimic and rival legitimate science. The science that universities support now has an unprecedented and unprincipled new adversary.

Researchers who study that adversary report that it consists of dozens of front organizations. Those organizations hire stables of paid-for scientists who recite messages that have been honed by public relations experts. The organizations often have common funding, staffing and messaging: the beast is a Hydra. One of the reasons we know about this science-denial machinery is from research conducted at universities by professors like Aaron McCright at Michigan State, Riley Dunlap at Oklahoma State, Michael Mann at Penn State, Robert Brulle at Drexel, Justin Farrell at Yale and Naomi Oreskes at Harvard. We owe them and their colleagues all a debt of gratitude.

The science-denial machinery is an industrial-strength adversary, and it has big advantages over real science. First, it does not need to win its disputes with real science; it just needs to create a public illusion of a dispute. Then industry’s political forces can be put into play to stop any efforts to address whatever problem science had disclosed, since now it is “disputed science.” Hence the infamous phrase from the tobacco-era science denial operation -- “Doubt is our product.”

Second, the science-denial operatives don’t waste much time in peer-reviewed forums. They head straight to Fox News and talk radio, to committee hearings and editorial pages. Their work is, at its heart, PR dressed up as science but not actual science. So they go directly to their audience -- and the more uninformed the audience, the better.

Our universities and other organizations engaged in the enterprise of science struggle for funding. Not so for the science-denial forces. You may think maintaining this complex science-denial apparatus sounds like a lot of effort. So consider the stakes for the fossil fuel industry. The International Monetary Fund -- made up of smart people, with no apparent conflict of interest -- has calculated the subsidy fossil fuels receive in the United States to be $700 billion annually. That subsidy is mostly what economists call “externalities” -- costs the public has to bear from the product’s harm that should be, under market theory, in the price of the product. These $700-billion-per-year stakes mean that the funding available to the science-denial enterprise is virtually unlimited.

And it’s your adversary. Those of you who either are scientists, or value and want to defend scientists, should beware. You have a powerful, invasive new alien in your ecosystem: it is a rival assuredly, a mimic at best, and an outright predator at worst. Make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail. That is its purpose.

Given the connections between the fossil fuel industry and the new administration, we can’t count on government any longer to resist this predator. Regrettably, that science denial machinery is now probably hardwired into the incoming administration, as shown by the appointment of the fossil-fuel-funded climate denier Myron Ebell to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. This considerably increases the denial machinery’s threat to the enterprise of legitimate science. The hand of industry now works not just behind the science-denial front groups but in the halls of political power.

That makes it all the more important for entities outside government -- notably universities as well as other scientific organizations -- to join together and step up a common defense. It is neither fair nor strategically sensible for universities and scientific associations to expect individual scientists to defend our nation against the science-denial apparatus. Individual scientists are ordinarily not trained in the dark arts of calculated misinformation. Individual scientists are ordinarily not equipped to deal with attacks and harassment on multiple fronts. Individual scientists don’t often have squadrons of spin doctors and public relations experts at their disposal. And they have no institutions devoted to ferreting out the falsehoods or conflicts of interest behind their antagonists.

Individual scientists are trained in the pursuit of truth through the tested methods of science. The science-denial machinery has truth as its enemy, and propaganda and obfuscation -- even outright falsity -- as its method. So the enterprise of science generally, and universities specifically, will need a common strategy to resist this potent and encroaching adversary.

In the Senate, I see the work of this apparatus, and its associated political operation, every day. Do not underestimate its power and ambition. Again, make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail.

Sheldon Whitehouse is a United States senator, a Democrat, representing Rhode Island.

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Scientists and physicians speak out on Trump

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Trump’s cabinet picks, other policy signals lead scientists and physicians to issue warnings on direction of incoming administration.

Scholar complains of how long it can take to publish interdisciplinary science

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Researcher sees his experience as emblematic of challenges of publishing interdisciplinary science.

Q&A with authors of new book on balancing home and work life as an academic scientist

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New book about balancing work and home life as an academic scientist warns that failure to address the challenge will cost institutions and science as a whole.

New NSF data show which universities are up and which down in total R&D expenditures

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Within NSF’s rankings of top 25 institutions in R&D expenditures, 14 institutions are up at least one spot, while six are down at least a notch.

Colleges need to find new ways to engage students in STEM fields (essay)

The STEM Fields

As the CEO of a tech start-up and a former professor, here’s what keeps me awake at night: half of college students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math end up dropping those courses and switching to another major. That is disturbing, not only because I am personally passionate about STEM innovators’ potential to improve lives, but also because it is no secret that we are in dire need of a STEM-proficient work force. If we continue at this rate of attrition, in the next decade, America will need approximately a million more STEM professionals than the field will produce. While we’re pumping much-needed investments into ensuring more K-12 students have access to worthwhile math and computer science education, these investments will mean very little if students abandon STEM once they get to college.

If these skills are so critical, why are students failing to complete STEM degrees? And what can we do to reverse the trend?

In recent years, we’ve gained a better understanding of why students drop STEM majors. Many leave the field early -- even during the first courses they take as undergraduates -- because they’re striving to get good grades in comparison to their performance in non-STEM courses. Some students who struggle the most are discouraged to the point of dropping out of college altogether, which is a devastating outcome for students who once hoped to be computer programmers, doctors and engineers.

The other largest driver of STEM attrition is a lack of engagement with the material. There is a mismatch between today’s students, who understand and interact with the world through technology, and the outdated, two-dimensional delivery of information found in too many STEM courses. This is a shame, given that STEM subjects are inherently engaging, interactive and rooted in exploration.

In classrooms around the world, instructors are tapping into the potential of new technologies to address this learning deficit, and interactive learning models are proving most effective at increasing student engagement and boosting student performance. In STEM programs in particular, these new technologies have been grafted to the established curriculum as one way to improve student retention rates, and the results are promising. Studies show improved student performance in these courses -- more A’s and B’s, fewer D’s and F’s -- with particularly significant gains for the lowest-performing students.

Interactive learning tools using web-based technology, such as digital textbooks and homework assignments, present endless possibilities to improve student engagement and achievement. And we’re not talking about digital copies of static text but rather materials that are alive with animation, graphics and instant-feedback question sets that emphasize learning through action. Such tools work because they disrupt the classic passive learning model and invite the student to become the doer.

Students taking these courses demonstrate not only improved results but also a greater desire to learn. In fact, most report a preference for interactive learning tools and choose to spend twice as much time with interactive textbooks than traditional textbooks, even though there is less text. Students are staying on track and moving on with a deeper understanding of the content.

When I taught at the University of California, Davis, many of my colleagues faced the same issue: traditional textbooks and teaching resources are simply not as effective as we need them to be, leaving even the most talented instructors equipped with inadequate tools. Embracing web-based resources allows us to show movement, cause and effect, and coding outcomes much better than a PowerPoint, chalkboard or old-fashioned textbook ever could. And without the costs of printing and physical distribution, web-based interactive tools address yet another barrier to student retention -- the burden of soaring textbook prices -- head-on.

This is a pivotal moment in developing the STEM work force. We are witnessing a generation of students with inherent talent and capacity give up before they’ve even begun. If we don’t focus our efforts on supporting greater numbers of students to succeed in STEM degrees, we may find ourselves navigating a STEM shortage more stark than the gap we see today. Fortunately, instructors are keenly aware of the challenge and are cultivating the necessary ingenuity to steer this generation back to STEM and to success.

Smita Bakshi is the co-founder and CEO of zyBooks digital interactive textbooks and a former electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of California, Davis.

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How colleges can increase diversity in the STEM fields (essay)

The STEM Fields

When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case Fisher vs. the University of Texas in July, university admissions officers cheered the affirmation of including race and ethnicity as admissions criteria when narrowly tailored to the institution’s mission. Despite the positive decision for affirmative action, however, university leaders are facing another challenge: making sure they have the right diversity practices in place to support the students they admit. Colleges and universities still have plenty of work to do to encourage students to pursue high-needs fields, like STEM and the biomedical sciences, where diversity is urgently needed.

In addition, universities continue to struggle with faculty diversity, which studies have shown is important not just for excellence in teaching and research but also for the overall campus climate. All the more reason, then, for us to redouble our efforts in researching and sharing effective practices for improving campus diversity -- and identifying ineffective practices that we should stop.

We’ve got a great base to start from. Take the many initiatives designed to ensure the success of underrepresented students -- programs designed precisely to ensure that we don’t lose them on their way to graduate school and the biomedical research work force. These efforts develop student talent along the educational and career continuum in biomedical and STEM fields, and ensure student persistence and success. Most important, some of these programs have developed successful models and gathered evaluative research to understand their success.

For example, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County has been widely recognized for its successful development of many underrepresented students in the sciences. An evaluation of the program found that the key levers of success were financial support, identity formation as a member of the community of Meyerhoff Scholars, summer research activities and professional network development.

Another example is the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, which aims to address the barriers facing underrepresented students in matriculating to doctoral programs. The program has produced a number of high-profile graduates, including Fabienne Bastien, the first African-American woman to be published in Nature and the first African-American recipient of the NASA Hubble Fellowship. Half of the program’s Ph.D. graduates are female, and 83 percent are minority-community individuals.

What would yet more research on these and other programs tell us about how to support the success of all students? We need more empirical evidence to close gaps in the existing research. We also need to bring exemplary practices to scale more quickly at many more institutions. For example, based on gaps in existing research we need to:

  • Identify effective interventions that universities can implement to reduce stereotype threat, a phenomenon that occurs when members of a disadvantaged group perform poorly when made aware of negative stereotypes about their group;
  • Learn more about how underrepresented students in STEM are accessing high-impact practices, such as internships and undergraduate research, and develop strategies for increasing participation; and
  • Identify effective teaching and learning methods that will boost underrepresented undergraduate student performance in required gateway courses.

These three areas, ripe for action, also demonstrate the gaps in the evidence. For example, high-impact practices are supported by a robust body of research, but less is known about how well underrepresented students are accessing these experiences. This is because most high-impact practices occur beyond the classroom, and it is difficult to track students’ participation and tie their experiences to academic outcomes.

In other cases, different interventions have been tested at the institutional level but have not been evaluated across institutions or in different contexts, such as adapting undergraduate interventions for graduate students. It’s a complex problem, and the research needs to get at that complexity.

Working together, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, its Coalition of Urban-Serving Universities, and the Association of American Medical Colleges have gathered the existing evidence in a recent report that also identifies what’s missing and where we need to go next.

To address these gaps in research, we will need more partners in government, industry, philanthropy and academe to take action -- testing the available models, researching new options, reporting on their results and revising approaches based on the evidence in hand.

Improving evidence for pilot interventions will help leaders build a case for adoption of those shown to be effective at many institutions. Learning more about potential barriers to access will help university leaders improve pathways into these experiences and track student outcomes more effectively.

And at a more basic level, probing more deeply into what works and what doesn’t in our efforts to support diversity will help us with a much more fundamental problem: we’ll get a clearer picture of the “systemic unfairness” that our blind spots prevent us from seeing, as Lisa Burrell pointed out in her Harvard Business Review article “We Just Can’t Handle Diversity.” More precise research will help us avoid such phenomena as hindsight bias, which, as Burrell describes, “causes us to believe that random events are predictable and to manufacture explanations for the inevitability of our achievements.”

In its decision in the Fisher case, the Supreme Court justices called on universities to “engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection” about how diversity is achieved. We go one step farther: higher education institutions and their partners need to research as well as reflect, demonstrate as well as deliberate and put a fine point on existing findings to close the gaps in the research. Only then can we counter the challenges to our efforts to diversify the biomedical research work force and ensure that we’re doing everything we can to support the success of all students.

Jennifer C. Danek is the senior director for Urban Universities for HEALTH, a collaborative effort of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities/Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and the Association of American Medical Colleges. Marc Nivet is the former chief diversity officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

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Science journal withdraws paper that suggested evidence some people are psychic

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Journal withdraws paper that argued -- based on flimsy evidence, critics said -- that some people are clairvoyant.

Study examines role of family ties in helping scientists advance

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Study compares the role of family ties in various countries.

How to help more postdocs find careers in STEM fields (essay)

Karen Kashmanian Oates explores why STEM postdocs struggle to land their first faculty position and how others in academe can help.

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