Elsewhere in Science, 6 February 2015

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

►How do you spend $150 million on pediatric research, fast? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is asking itself that question, according to an article by Jeffrey Mervis posted last Saturday at ScienceInsider. Two windfalls—the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act and the end of the huge National Children’s Study—left NIH with an extra $150 million and a mandate to spend it on pediatric research. “ ‘Given the diffuse nature of what you have described, and its complexity, I don’t want to use the word “nuts”, but it’s a daunting challenge,’ Lila Gierasch of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told Principal Deputy NIH Director Lawrence Tabak after his presentation to a Council of Councils meeting in Bethesda, Maryland. ‘Thank you for changing “nuts” to “challenging,” ’ Tabak replied, tongue-in-cheek.”

► China’s top science prize is so prestigious and so selective that for 9 out of the last 15 years, it hasn’t even been awarded. “The government has said that it is better to have no winners than to award the prize to undeserving work,” Hao Xin wrote in a Monday Insider post. So why did this year’s prize go to work that “at most is an application of some open-source software,” Liu Yang, “a computer engineer who builds and hosts websites,” wrote in a blog post that was later deleted by government censors. “Wang Xiaoping, a computer scientist at Tongji University in Shanghai, wrote in a blog post that Zhang’s work is ‘a far cry’ from the standard required for winning the science award.” On 21 January, the China Computer Federation “posted an appeal on its website, calling on the government to stop meddling in science awards. The statement was replaced 2 days later with a notice saying that the appeal was not related to last year’s science awards and was removed ‘in order not to mislead the public.’ ”

► On Monday at ScienceInsider, in anticipation of the release of the president’s FY2016 spending request to Congress, David Malakoff presented a very useful primer on science spending and the federal budget.

► Then, throughout the day, ScienceInsider provided extensive coverage of the budget request as details became available, starting at 7:45 a.m. with the top-line R&D number and continuing until 8 p.m. with reactions from Lamar Smith (R-TX, not happy) and Bernice Johnson (D-TX, happy), the top Republican and Democrat on the House science committee.

► There was more budget coverage in this week’s Science. Jocelyn Kaiser and Kelly Servick took on the biomedical research budget, noting that NIH would play key roles in two headline campaigns: the $215 million Precision Medicine Initiative and the $1.2 billion effort to combat antibiotic-resistant infections. Under the president’s budget proposal, NIH would receive a 3.3% increase.

► Also in the magazine, Mervis wrote that the president’s budget “accentuates the practical,” noting that while overall discretionary spending is up by 7.2% in the request and R&D spending is up by 5.5%, basic research—the kind most often done by academic researchers—is up by just 2.6%.

► Anne Glover, former European Commission chief science adviser, spoke at “a sometimes tense briefing,” Erik Stokstad wrote at ScienceInsider on Wednesday, about what she called “the good, the bad, and the ugly” from her time in that role, which was eliminated in November 2014. “Glover talked at length about her frustration with the ‘lack of honesty’ among opponents of GM [genetically modified] crops,” Stokstad wrote. “Another clear source of frustration for Glover was an accusation that her office was not transparent.” She also “described disappointments working on the fringes of an enormous bureaucracy” and “highlighted her accomplishments.”

► The National Science Foundation “has poured half a billion dollars into the [Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program]” since Congress created it in 2002, Mervis wrote in this week’s Science, but some are now questioning the effectiveness of its approach to addressing the shortage of good K-12 science teachers. “The lawmakers’ key premise [was that s]tudents would learn more science and math if taught by those who knew—and loved—the subjects,” Mervis wrote. The program offers training and financial support to turn scientists into teachers, but “a recently completed evaluation by Abt Associates of Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggests that the initiative is not having nearly the effect its supporters anticipated.”

One reason it may not be succeeding is that, for those with a science background, factors besides lack of education training likely keep them out of the classroom. “Despite the terrible job market for academic scientists, many mentors of undergraduate STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] students still express disapproval if one mentions a desire to teach in the public schools after graduation instead of pursuing a research career. There’s also the low prestige, poor salary, and difficult working conditions attached to the profession. … It often takes an external force—a boring job, perhaps, or the relocation of a partner—for a STEM professional to turn to teaching.”

► “A high-profile effort in the U.S. House of Representatives to speed the development of new medical treatments has borne its first fruit: a sweeping draft proposal that would overhaul many policies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” Servick reported in this week’s Science. “Biomedical research advocacy and industry groups … welcomed the proposal but expressed some concerns.” Some are worried about “language … that would favor early-career researchers in the competition for NIH grants by setting aside funding in the director’s office for younger scientists” and “a proposal that the director of each NIH institute personally sign off on every grant, taking into account whether its goals are ‘a national priority and have public support’ and are ‘worth the potential scientific discovery.’ … Perhaps most troubling, research advocates say, the plan doesn’t address the need to boost NIH funding after a decade of flat budgets—a trend that the 2016 budget proposal, rolled out this week, does little to change.”

► In a Thursday ScienceInsider, Servick reported that Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, will be “leaving the agency well-positioned to fulfill its responsibilities to the American public with great success.” Servick noted that “FDA Chief Scientist Stephen Ostroff will fill her position until President Barack Obama appoints a new commissioner. Duke University cardiologist Robert Califf, who will step in as deputy commissioner later this month, is rumored to be a likely successor.”

► A new study on entrepreneurship published in this week’s Science—and briefly described in a Shot by John Bohannon—makes some intriguing observations. “Researchers scoured registration data for every for-profit company founded in California between 2001 and 2011,” Bohannon wrote, “They found that companies with short names—think Google and Facebook versus long-named failures like Cryptine Networks—are 50% more likely to succeed. Having a trademark boosts a firm’s chances by a factor of 5. Having patents multiplies the chances 25 times. And if a patent-holding company is also incorporated in Delaware—home to an extremely high concentration of corporate lawyers and an efficient corporate court system—it boosts the chances of success a whopping 200-fold.” Failure rates, though, are impressive: Even companies that optimize their location and conditions succeed only about 5% of the time.  

► Few would be surprised to find that an interest in Legos often presages a science career. But it’s rare to find as direct a connection as this between Legos and science: Researchers from the Natural History Museum in London have used Legos to build a series of “insect manipulators.” The devices allow researchers to “move and rotate insects every which way while keeping them stable and positioned under a microscope. The design improves on previous insect manipulators because it’s cheap, customizable, and easy to build, the researchers report online this week in ZooKeys.” Emily Conover wrote about it Thursday in a ScienceSHOT.

► In this week’seditorial, AAAS CEO Alan Leshner passes the baton to incoming CEO Rush Holt, noting the “stunning state of contradiction” in today’s science: “Science has never been more productive. And yet, the overall climate for science is more difficult than I have ever seen in my scientific career.” “[L]aunching an independent academic research career has been taking longer, the result of constrained funding and a scarcity of jobs,” Leshner wrote. “It is not surprising that many talented young scientists are abandoning the idea of a research career altogether.” Noting the backward-slipping relationship between science and the rest of the public, he expressed his hope that AAAS members and constituents will “continue to pursue ambitious goals, embrace a spirit of innovation, and work with the greater scientific establishment not only to tackle the most pressing problems of the day but also to build a societal culture that champions science and thrives on the rewards of strong science-society relations.”

► This week’s Science Careers-produced Working Life column profiles neuroscientist Erich Jarvis, whose civil rights upbringing provide some tools for success as he pursued studies of human language via songbirds.

► In a November Working Life story titled “Reflections of a woman pioneer,” physicist Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus noted that “[m]en’s careers wind down when they reach their 70s. Women don’t retire so quickly.” In this week’s Letters section, Chenggang Yan of Tsinghua University in Beijing pointed out that “in China, the statutory retirement age of Chinese female researchers is age 55, a full 5 years lower than that of Chinese male researchers.” Yan also points to “the average childbearing age for Chinese female researchers,” which is 30, as an obstacle to productivity because “[i]t is usually women who take care of their young children before they begin kindergarten (at about 3 years old), which prevents the female researchers from spending as much time applying for grants and publishing as male researchers.” Policies have been put in place “to help female researchers deal with childbearing and raising children,” but the retirement-age issue has yet to be addressed.   

► This week’s Books Et. Al section features a review of I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That by Ben Goldacre. The book is a collection of “more than 100 short pieces … that break down systemic problems with how science is presented and discussed in the public forum.” The reviewer, Joel Best of the University of Delaware, found that “[t]he underlying message is that we need to think critically about how science finds its way into the media. The scientific literature is impossibly vast. As Goldacre points out, ‘there are over 24,000 academic journals in existence, 1.3 million academic papers published every year.’ Yet only an infinitesimal fraction of this work attracts news coverage. Given these realities, he maintains that both reporters and readers should demand transparency from researchers.”

► Is undergraduate research a good thing? Almost everyone agrees that it is. But in this week’s Science, five researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, reviewed the literature, asking some basic questions: “[W]hat are authentic research experiences? How do they benefit undergraduates? What forms of mentoring are successful? What needs improvement? And how can these experiences meet the needs of interested students while at the same time be cost-effective in large research universities?” They didn’t learn much. “While most undergraduates give high ratings to research experiences, specific benefits have not been documented,” the authors wrote. “Of the 60 empirical studies published in the last 5 years, only 4 directly measured gains in research capabilities or conceptual understanding. Most studies draw conclusions from self-report surveys or interviews, notoriously poor methods for documenting impacts. These studies leave us with few insights into what works and little idea about how to make the experiences more effective.”

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