Elsewhere in Science, 22 August 2014

Each week, the Science family of publications publishes articles that are likely to be of interest to Science Careers readers. So, every Friday, we’re pointing our readers toward articles that hold some relevance to careers in science and other technical fields. Note that many of the articles appearing in Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, and Science require AAAS membership (AAAS is the publisher of Science Careers), a Science subscription, or a site license.

► Last month, Science’s news department reported an incident in March in which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent the U.S. Department of Agriculture a sample of low-pathogenicity H9N2 avian influenza that was contaminated by deadly H5N1 avian influenza strain. The mistake was discovered when test chickens died. The incident was disclosed at a July news conference.

“The research enterprise has become unsustainable in its current form.” —Viviane Callier and Nathan Vanderford

Last Friday, the CDC released a report explaining that an experienced but overworked federal scientist “did not follow proper decontamination or other protocols between inoculating cell cultures with the H9N2 flu strain and H5N1 using the same biosafety cabinet,” wrote Jocelyn Kaiser at Insider. “The worker was ‘being rushed to attend a laboratory meeting at noon’ and was also under a ‘heavy workload’ as his or her team hurried to generate data for a February vaccine meeting at the World Health Organization,” Kaiser wrote, quoting the report.

► Looking for a research grant and tired of historically low success rates? On Wednesday at ScienceInsider, Jeffrey Mervis reported on a funding program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with success rates that are astonishingly high.

Last year, NSF funded just 22% of the 50,000 grant proposals it received—but the agency’s EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) program, which allows program staff to issue grants without the usual peer review, funded more than 90% of the proposals it received. In 2011, 95% of EAGER proposals were funded.

EAGER grants have some disadvantages. They last just 2 years, instead of the 3-year NSF standard, they’re capped at $300,000, and they cannot be renewed. But they have advantages, too: shorter applications, faster turnaround—and that 90% success rate.

There’s a catch of course. While NSF funds more than 90% of the proposals it receives, proposals are only submitted after a conversation with a program officer, and many proposals are “nipped in the bud” at that stage. Former NSF director Arden Bement, who launched EAGER in 2009, urged program officers to make many more EAGER awards, up to 5% of their total budgets. But “[p]rogram officers are very reluctant not to involve the community,” says Jeryl Mumpower, division director for the social and economic sciences.

► On Thursday at ScienceInsider, Mervis profiled—and then interviewed—Amanda Curtis, the Montana high school science teacher who last week became the Democratic nominee for the open seat in the U.S. Senate. 

► Also on Thursday, Mervis reported statistics from a new survey by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) on international applications to U.S. graduate schools. For the second straight year, applications from China were flat, and admission offers to Chinese students held steady. The flattening out of applications from China is important because the country is the largest source of foreign graduate applications, representing about a third of all foreign graduate school applications. This raises a real possibility that universities’ unquenchable thirst for graduate student labor could soon go unquenched.

India, though, is doing what it can to make up the difference. Applications from India jumped 33% this year following a 22% increase last year. Despite the impressive surge, India remains a distant second to China, comprising some 18% of the all foreign graduate applications. Offers of admission to Indian graduate students were up 25%. “ ‘We started seeing these trends last year,’ says CGS’s Jeff Allum, who authored the report, part of an effort to monitor the graduate admissions process for foreign students at some 500 U.S. institutions. ‘Now we are more and more convinced it’s real and not just a blip.’ ”

The largest increase in applications in percentage terms was from Brazil. Although the absolute number is small—about 2% of the number from China—applications from Brazil were up 61%.

► In a news feature in this week’s Science, Ken Garber described the surprisingly, frustratingly messy path of palbociclib, one of the most promising cancer treatments to come along in years, from its conception in 1995 through its recent, successful phase-II clinical trial. “Palbociclib has traveled a long and tortuous road,” Garber wrote. “The … buzz is that these are extremely impressive data that are really way beyond what anybody had expected,” says Frank McCormick, a veteran cancer researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

► In this week’s Science Careers-produced Working Life column, I interviewed Igor Lovchinsky, who, after years as an accomplished concert pianist, is now enrolled in Harvard’s physics Ph.D. program.

► In a letter, Viviane Callier of the Ronin Institute in Montclair, New Jersey and Nathan Vanderford of the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center and Graduate Center for Toxicology in Lexington responded to Carrie Arnold’s 1 August Working Life column, “The stressed-out postdoc.” The problems postdocs face, the letter’s authors wrote, “are a symptom of a bigger issue: The research enterprise has become unsustainable in its current form. Research funding levels/mechanisms, the peer-review process, and the methods of training Ph.D.’s are flawed, and these issues are crippling the pipeline of future, successful academic researchers. We believe that the value system in academia perpetuates these issues and thus prevents positive change.” They propose solutions.

► In another letter, responding to Mervis’ June profile of Richard Tapia, three Howard University scientists (Fatimah Jackson, Clarence M. Lee, and Sherese Taylor) call for greater respect for minority-serving institutions and their graduates. “Minority-serving institutions continue to do the lion’s share in producing minority STEM Ph.D.’s.,” the authors write. “These scientists are well qualified and on par with those graduating from the top-tier schools. The only impediment to their being recognized as such and hired by elite, predominantly white institutions is the intransigent racism that still haunts the academy.”

► In a retrospective, Jaap Goudsmit remembers Joep Lange, the world-renowned cancer researcher who was killed (along with his partner Jacqueline van Tongeren and other experts) in the 17 July downing of the Malaysia Airways plane over eastern Ukraine:

As a passionate person, Joep could be caring and difficult at the same time. He could shout at his loved ones and write offensive e-mails to his best friends. Joep was also enigmatic in his ability to be both meticulous and careless. His research was impeccably executed and reported, and he was fastidious about the wording of manuscripts. Yet, he lost the raw data for part of his thesis in an Amsterdam tram and left the entire manuscript in “an even more improbable place,” from where it was rescued by his mother-in-law. Joep will be remembered for many things. He was a scientist, clinician, activist, father, opera lover, bird watcher, debater, intellectual, and marathon runner. The only consolation we have is this: The AIDS fighter Joep Lange died in action on the frontline, with his Jacqueline by his side.

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