Archive for March, 2012

Rankling Ranks

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

We talk about global economies and global science, but when it comes to how we run our universities, higher education in the United States rarely looks outside. A joint project between the Higher School for Economics in Moscow, Russia and the Boston College Center for International Higher Education has collected data on universities in 28 countries.

Although the project’s focus is on comparisons of  compensation, I found another result more provocative. t1m_tnThe investigators asked how many ranks are used in universities across 28 countries. It turns out that only India and Italy join the United States in designating three rungs of academic promotion.

The most common systems is to have four ranks, but several countries used systems with five or six steps. Because number of ranks was not the focus of the study, the researchers did not make conclusions about the benefits of different systems, but it does raise the question of what promotion would be like if the choices were not simply assistant, associate, or full.

Kickstart Your Research

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Few startups are lucky enough to win backing from big investment firms, so innovators have drawn on the power of social media. Kickstarter allows people with an idea to appeal directly to potential financial backers. By collecting hundreds of small donations, new companies can get off the ground.

Now a new site has adopted crowdsourcing for research projects.  On 1investigators can explain the benefits of their projects and seek funding. So far the projects seem to involve wildlife conservation, which may make for more visually appealing descriptions. But any scientist can take a turn explaining the benefits of their research.

Online donations in amounts as small as $20 may not fully replace NIH funding, but it can support small projects and potentially demonstrate to larger funders that people see value in your projects.

Sentence of the Week

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

“The proportion of biopsies that occur because of these false-positive results that are retrospectively deemed unnecessary (that is, the woman did not have cancer) is about 7%; therefore, many more women will undergo unnecessary biopsies under annual screening than biennial screening.”

The University of Chicago Writing Program offered this passage from a medical journal as its sentence of the week. It’s not a particularly egregious example of bad writing, but it does not convey its meaning as clearly as possible. They identify three main weaknesses:

  1. A long wait for the verb in the first clause.
  2. A long chain of modifiers for “biopsies.”
  3. A missing statistic

Their rewritten sentence reads:

When women between the ages of forty and sixty-nine receive annual mammograms, they get almost twice as many false-positive results as they would if they received mammograms biennially. These false-positive results can lead to unnecessary biopsies. When women in this age group get a positive result on an annual mammogram and then get a biopsy, only X% of them prove to have cancer. But the other Y% prove to be cancer free. Therefore, many more women will undergo unnecessary biopsies under annual screening than biennial screening.

Significantly, the new version is longer than the original. Usually brevity is desirable, but in this case it can squeeze out important statistics and cloud meaning.

The Economics of Research

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

We think of lab mice as a relatively inexpensive way to do research. But in her new book, How Economics Shapes Science, economist Paula Stephan shows that some scientists spend $200,000 a year just maintaining mice populations. 9780674049710-lg

One of Stephans’s most provocative arguments is that staffing of labs represents a “pyramid scheme” because many PIs prefer cycling in postdocs to permanent staff technicians. As a result, doctoral students in biomedical fields find it increasingly difficult to land stable jobs. She recommends either decreasing the number of Ph.Ds produced or being very explicit with incoming students about their job prospects.

The most worrying conclusion of the book is that scarce funding has made scientists risk-averse. That is not what I have seen among my colleagues, but I can imagine the pressures to propose a more familiar project when a scientist’s continued employment depends on receiving funding.

Primary Care Pay

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

All clinicians are aware that much of the work they perform is not billable. The gap between effort and reward is particularly acute in primary care, where some doctors may be disinclined to accept complicated new patients because it could mean uncompensated work in coordinating care.

At Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General Hospital, a new compensation system is being introduced to incentivize primary care physicians to accept new and complicated patients. Ten percent of a doctor’s salary will now be based on patient volume and complexity.

The leaders of the plan admit that they have yet to refine measures of complexity, but they are optimistic that this plan will help meet the growing need for primary care services.

Faculty Assembly

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

You might remember the official-looking e-mails urging you to vote on an initiative to expand membership in BU’s Faculty Assembly. A positive vote would allow nontenure-track lecturers with more than 50% appointments to participate in faculty governance. With over 90% approval, the measure passed.

The issue did not seem to pertain directly to the Medical Campus because tenure does not exist for our faculty, though they are already members. The new rules will allow the 40% of faculty on the Charles River Campus with “lecturer” status to participate more actively in deciding academic programs and initiatives.

Including lecturers makes sense because many of them hold terminal degrees, conduct research, and perform valuable teaching duties. Their perspective on university matters will be useful. Moreover, it helps reduce their second-tier status while rewarding their commitment to the institution.