Scientists: Engage the public!

Science and technology play important roles in the nature and quality of our lives, so it is not surprising that as a society, we are increasingly challenged by problems that have a scientific component. Individual decisions about vaccines, regional choices about water availability, or global agreements about climate change all require that science have a voice during the decision-making process. The microbial sciences touch upon such a wide range of issues that scientists in those fields are particularly relevant to these discussions. If scientists do not participate in these dialogues, then others will fill the void and the information may not be accurate or science based. Scientists must communicate about science with public audiences in order for members of the public to make informed decisions about the complex issues that face us in our technologically advanced society.

Read the remainder of this article at mBio

TWiV 352: Science art with Michele Banks

On episode #352 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent meets up with Michele Banks in Washington, DC to discuss her career as a creator of science-themed art.

You can find TWiV #352 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

Be curious

During my visit to the University of Vermont today I had lunch with seven talented Microbiology Ph.D. students. One of them asked me what was an important quality to have for achieving success in science. I said without hesitation, ‘Be curious’.

It’s the answer I always give. Being curious is the first step to being a scientist, and it’s the quality you must always have to be a successful scientist. If you are not curious about the world around you and how it works, do something else.

Which is why I find this statement by Aaron Swartz extremely moving:

When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. I kept being curious and just followed my curiosity.

(from Dave Winer)

If Swartz is right – and I suspect he is, at least in part – then by driving curiosity out of kids, we are destroying future scientists. Except for the rare few who keep on following their curiosity.

This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For

Death star 1Yesterday I noted the petition to ban intelligence involvement in public health campaigns. While exploring We the People I found another interesting petition, this one to secure resources and funding to build a Death Star by 2016. Because it garnered over 34,000 signatures, it was noted by the White House and received a response from Paul Shawcross, Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget:

The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon.

Among other reasons for not building a Death Star, Shawcross noted:

Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

But the real reason for posting this interesting item on virology blog is that Shawcross brings it back to science:

We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field. The President has held the first-ever White House science fairs and Astronomy Night on the South Lawn because he knows these domains are critical to our country’s future, and to ensuring the United States continues leading the world in doing big things.

If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star’s power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

It’s a thoughtful and amusing response from Shawcross. Please read it.

The gender bias of science faculty

If you were a science professor, and you received two equally strong applications for the position of  laboratory manager, one from a female, one from a male, which one would you pick? The answer might surprise you.

It is well known that women are underrepresented in many fields of science. Whether or not this disparity is a result of gender bias by science faculty has not been investigated. To answer this question, a randomized, double-blind study was conducted in which science faculty from research universities were asked to rate the application of a male or female student for a laboratory manager position. Identical applications were sent to all participants in the study, except that half (n=63) received materials from a male student, John, and the others (n=64) received materials from a female student, Jennifer. The faculty were then asked to rate the student’s competence and hireability, and the amount of salary and mentoring that they would offer.

The results clearly show that the faculty felt that the female applicant was less competent than the male student, and offered Jennifer less career mentoring and less starting salary than John. Faculty gender, scientific field, age, and tenure status did not affect this bias. The data indicate that the female applicant was less likely to be hired because she was considered less competent than the male applicant.

What might be the reason for the subtle gender bias observed in this study? The authors suggest that it is due to a belief that women are less competent in science than men:

The fact that faculty members’ bias was independent of their gender, scientific discipline, age, and tenure status suggests that it is likely unintentional, generated from widespread cultural stereotypes rather than a conscious intention to harm women.

I found the difference in mentoring offered the male versus female applicants most disturbing. An understanding and supportive mentor is an important component required for a successful career in science. Lack of encouragment and positive judgements may cause women to leave academic science before they reach university positions.

How can this subtle bias be eliminated? The authors suggest educating faculty and students about the existence and impact of bias within academia, an approach that has reduced racial bias among students.

We need more scientists in the US – one million over the next ten years, according to a 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Achieving this important goal is jeopardized by faculty gender bias.

We discussed this work with Jo Handelsman, senior author on this gender bias paper, on episode #48 of the science show This Week in Microbiology. You can find TWiM #48 at microbeworld.org/twim.

TWiV Special: Ignorance with Stuart Firestein

On a special episode of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent and Stuart Firestein, author of Ignorance, discuss why ignorance – all of what we don’t know, and even what we don’t know we don’t know – is the driving force of science.

You can find this TWiV Special at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

TWiV 184: Reforming science

On episode #184 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Rich, and Alan consider how to reform the scientific enterprise to make it more effective and robust.

You can find TWiV #184 at www.microbe.tv/twiv.

How to read a scientific paper

On episode #169 of This Week in Virology we had a good discussion about how to read a scientific paper. Many individuals have asked about making this into a separate audio file, so here it is.

Click the arrow above to play, or right-click this link to download our thoughts on how to read a scientific paper (22 MB .mp3, 30 minutes).

Transcript of this discussion (pdf).

Epidemiologist Michael Walsh has shared a PowerPoint presentation on this topic (482 KB PowerPoint file).

The dwindling American science majors

stem educationAccording to the New York Times (Why Science Majors Change Their Minds), the decline in the number of science majors in the United States has come about in part because the subject matter is too difficult. If this explanation is true, then we have not properly prepared these students in grades K-12. I also believe that the poor state of funding of American science is an important factor. My Columbia University colleague Stuart Firestein expressed this idea in his letter to the Times:

Why do science majors change their mind? They wise up.

Your article makes it sound as if American science students are stupid or lazy, unlike their workaholic Chinese and Indian counterparts. This is glib and insulting.

It is in their second year that students typically join laboratories and see firsthand that their dreams of a scientific career include low-paying and highly competitive professorial jobs, that getting grants for scientific research is increasingly difficult and unpredictable, that they are facing many years of postgraduate work at ridiculously low salaries and that they would have a hard time supporting a family.

Compare this future with that of the economics major (lots of math) who goes to business school and can look forward to million-dollar yearly bonuses.

American students change their majors because they recognize that this country has stopped providing a reasonable future for scientists, with slashed budgets for the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and National Institutes of Health.

For Chinese and Indian students, science remains a way out of poverty. For American students, it’s becoming the path into it.

Cliff Mintz at BioJobBlog adds the problem of outsourcing:

…it is important to note that outsourcing and consolidation in the life sciences industry that has occurred over the past decade has all but eliminated the option of industry jobs for those who were unable to secure academic positions. Put simply, there are no longer enough jobs in the US to support the numbers of sciences students that we annually train.

I also agree with Cliff’s idea of eliminating tenure in American universities as a way of infusing new ideas and enthusiasm into the system. The notion of a guaranteed position seems untenable in 2011 and beyond.

American science and the budget crisis

Eugenie Samuel Reich speculates about the effect on US science should the debt ceiling not be raised by 2 August 2011:

Republicans have made it clear that they will not cut defence spending, and Democrats are keen to protect social security and health-care programmes such as Medicare and Medicaid. Thus, the cuts are likely to fall on the roughly $600-billion discretionary, domestic budget, which includes funding for scientific agencies including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. A reduction of $100 billion, applied across the board, would result in a 17% cut to such agencies.

Excellent discussion of best- and worst-case scenarios and their effect on science, ‘an investment in future prosperity’.