Archive for: December, 2011

Parting Potpourri

Dec 11 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

For my parting shot, somethings that I recommend. I was going to write full blow reviews for my blog but haven’t gotten around to it. This will do well enough.

Anathem, by Neal Stevenson. Speculative fiction. A brick of a book. Can be loosely described as a riff on academics and other “knowledge people”. In this world, all learned people live in cloisters, separated from others for intervals of either 1, 10, 100 or 1000 years. Apt and humorous observations ensue. There is adventure, of the mind and otherwise.

Morning Miracle, by David Kindred. Nonfiction on the newspaper industry, specicially the Washington post. If you have even a passing interest in newpaper reporting, then I would recommend this. The chapter about the Walter Reed hospital expose is worth it alone.

Where Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson. One of those businessy books on ideas and innovation. If you are super familiar with that sort of thing this book might not add a lot for you. I was not, and found most of it to be interestingly applicable to working in science.

The Master Switch, by Tim Wu. A history of information technologies. Particularly the open or closed nature of these technologies. What happens when a monopoly dominates a new and important technology? Worth it just for the section on early radio, which is odd and fascinating.

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Pubs are like home runs?

Dec 11 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I enjoy a good metaphor1. In the decade or so since I began pursuing an academic career I’ve had to explain how things work to friends and family dozens of times. As many other academics certainly know, metaphors can help, particularly sports metaphors.

For explaining the profession:

Let’s go with baseball. The players are the academics; the major league teams are the universities. First, there are a limited number of teams; particularly if you are talking research universities2. Also each team only has so many roster positions. Year to year the roster is mostly the same, full of known players many of whom have longterm contracts (tenure). Opportunities to break into the majors are limited, and can take some time. The minors are graduate school and postdocery. There’s a steady stream of new people every year, not everyone gets called up to the bigs. If you want an opportunity to be a starting shortstop, you may have to be geographically flexible3.

Trades don’t really happen, but free agent signing certainly do. Just as in baseball the "big market" teams tend to have an advantage in landing free agents.

That usually gets me some nods of understanding. The only odd wrinkle here is the idea of staying with the same team. Imagine if minor league teams were not officially associated with major league teams. So a promising AAA player might try out for several teams, no of which had exclusive rights to the player.

For explaining my field of research:

Let’s say I study cars. Now a lot of different types of people work with cars and car related things: mechanics, engineers, racecar drivers, civil engineers that make roads, car company execs, car sales people., etc. All have some knowledge of cars, how they work and what they do. Of course that knowledge can be very different. The skill set of a race car driver is not the same as the CEO of company that makes the car. Everyone thinks that their part is the most important or interesting part of the big picture.

That one works ok. In general the sports metaphors work the best, though since baseball isn't super popular I might have to switch to football.

1. Also puns, maps, and data. Any data really, sports, census data, etc.
2. The answer to the inevitable “What’s an R1?”, I go with: any big university that you’ve heard of is probably a research university, if it’s smaller and more local, then probably not. Obviously this isn’t a hard and fast rule.
3. An important point for the family.

4 responses so far

The state of the field

Dec 09 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

A few years ago at some graduate student party I found myself standing around with some eager new students. They were going on about the state of the field in a slightly more serious manner than I was prepared for while sipping on my third beer. Maybe this theory. Maybe that theory. I interjected “Maybe we’re all just twiddling our thumbs until [the field next door] develops the right methods and solves all the problems we’ve been quidiling about” I mean it half joking, but was met by the awkward silence of those who were far too earnest to consider my statement to be amusing.

My discipline has been going through a fair amount of exasperation about the state of the things. Perhaps I’m just more aware of these discussions now that I’m further along in my academic age; and maybe every field has this to some degree. Lately the water cooler talk, in departments, at conferences and on the Internet has been ramping up. Data sharing (or the lackthereof), useful theory (or the lackthereof), graduate training, publishing (openaccess), etc. Things like, "if only our graduate training included X, then we're really go places"

Are we going anywhere? Are we running in circles? Is some field nearby that does things a little bit better just going to consume us? Like an amoeba being absorbed by a slightly larger (and smarter) amoeba. Taking our scientific territory for its own sustenance. (Funny thing is, the other field next door thinks that we are trying to absorb them, and we kind of are.)

I feel like it’s somewhat productive, and somewhat pointless angst. For example there’s little use in going on and on about, how bad some people are at responding to data sharing requests. There’s no science police that can fine people for not using best practices1. The best recourse is to put energy into changing the culture, which takes time. You know, think global, act local.

Does your area engage in these sorts of discussions of "field wide issues"?
Any current big pushes to address some important issue?
Do these kind of things just tent to work out, given enough time?

1. Though doesn’t NIH require data sharing… do they actually enforce it?

One response so far

That NIH race thing is still a big deal, and completely forgettable

Dec 05 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently you’ve heard that the NIH came out with a report of a possible racial bias. Specifically the report concluded that African-American scientists were less likely to be granted funding from NIH, even when controlling for various relevant factors. There was a brief brouhaha, responses from NIH, and commentary from scientists (more links at the bottom).

Reactions ranged from “Well this couldn’t be true. I know people at NIH and they are very nice.” to “The whole grant system is rotten, so this isn’t surprising”, also “Maybe those people just aren’t good scientists” and “Actually I bet the opposite is true: a positive bias” Essentially, the typical distribution of responses for the possibility of such a bias.

Perhaps there’s no systemic bias on the part of the NIH grant system. There are a variety of reasons the NIH numbers could be low. The NIH is just one part of the a much larger system, there’s undergraduate education, graduate education, faculty hiring and such that feed into those numbers. Some have suggested that this is really just a reflection of biases in resource allotment at the home institutions. The obvious counterpoint is to take a look at the numbers for NSF, which aren’t perfect, but much closer to equal. I can't add much to the analysis of the actual report. I’m no statistics expert. The study sounded reasonable, though I’m sure there area some fair criticisms. All I can say is that it is entirely plausible that there is a systemic bias.

If the study results are taken at face value, it implies that NIH, an organization near the heart of the scientific endeavor in the United States, is exacerbating the problem; not improving things, or even being neutral. That is shocking. The stats that I have looked over show that the  proportion of black scientists reduces at every level of the academic ladder (figure 1). It is difficult to think of a more effective way of shedding black scientists than to throw a wrench in the NIH-R01 mechanism. The possible existence of such a powerful deterrent should give everyone pause when reading those ridiculous “we encourage diversity” statements that many institutions have written up for job ads and mission statements. Nice words I suppose. Who knows what the actual actions or results may be. Right now it's not looking so great for NIH.


Fig1. Percentages of African-Americans in my general field, which is one of the highest. Bachelors (18%), PhD (10%), Tenure Track (7%).

Given this possibility, what’s a black scientist to do?

Switch to that other granting agency down the road? Make a note in your tenure file? Complain?

NIH has promised swift action. Meanwhile, black scientists are going up for tenure, applying for jobs, submitting papers, and applying for more grants. From the perspective of the individual scientists there's not much to do if there were bias in any of these areas. So, while this seems like a big deal, it is rather forgettable. What’s going to be done by NIH? How would this change the situation for current or future black scientists? The report did push me to examine other sources of funding, which I had already been considering. Like other cases of systemic bias, there doesn't seem to be  much recourse for the individual. Were some African-American scientists negatively affected? Maybe. If so how could we even identify them for sure? If things are “fixed” how long will that take? There’s a possibility that things will be a little closer to fair for the folks coming up 5, 10 years from now?

I can see why a black scientist might read over this report and just shrug. Same shit, different day. Even if we all agreed that there bias in the grant system, the wants and needs of scientists with regard to obtaining grants remains the same. Even "proof" of past or current bias wouldn't change many people's situation one bit. Thus, even though it would seem that this story could not be more relevant for an early career African-American scientist, there doesn't seem to be much to do with it. Better to spend time working on writing those papers and writing those grants, even if it is the case that they might look at you funny.

New York Times
NIH blog
NIMH blog

8 responses so far

Always Bet on Black

Dec 01 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Given the history of African-Americans, it is not surprising that many historically noted black folks are so because they were a first. First back person to do this, first black person to do that. Some of these seem like impressive feats, either because the feat in general is impressive (going into space) or because the resistance faced was notably difficult (school desegregation). Here are a few examples with dates:

President of The United States (2009), Supreme Court Justice (1967), PhD from an American University (1876), Major League Baseball (1844, 1947), Surgeon General (1993), Astronaut (1983)

The good news is that the firsts seem to be getting worse. Trust me I know. Certain family members of mine seem to enjoy making all the children play trivia at family gatherings. A large portion of the questions involves naming the first black person to do X. Most of the good ones are taken, even the “impossible” one, President of the United States.

Note that I said most of the good ones.

Another year of Nobel Prize announcements have come and gone. And no black scientist has yet won a Nobel prize (plenty of non-scientists have won Peace and Literature). Physics, Medicine, Chemistry. 0, 0, 0.

I tried to come up with a person who might be of the “in the running” stature. Like the kind of people listed on the Nobel predicting website (apparently people also bet on this?). My mental search for prominent black scientists reminded me of a blog post at Urban Scientist, remarking on The Root’s lack of STEM folks in their list of influential African-Americans. I wandered around the Internet, asked around, and started making my own damn list1. Forget about possible future Nobel winners, just anyone out there doing science (I'll be rather broad with my definition). Some I know from their work, others I just found on the web. I’m sure there are some notable omissions, this is just a small start…

Maydianne Andrade - Biology

Shirley Jackson – President RPI, Physics

Ursula Burns – CEO Xerox, Engineering

Kristala Prather – Chemical Engineering

Andre Fenton – Brain & Behavior

Duane Watson – Brain & Behavior

John A.W. Harkless – Chemistry

Emery Brown – Brain & Behavior

Sylvester Gates - Physics

Neil deGrasse Tyson – Physics

Ronald McNair - Astronaut

Marcus Alfred - Physics

Winston Thompson - Medicine

Kimberly Jackson - Biochemistry(Spellman)

Julie Washington - Brain & Behavior

LaMonica Stewart - Biology

1. Standard disclaimer regarding not knowing the self identification of those listed.

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