The Economics of Research

March 14th, 2012 by pcahn

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

March 8th, 2012 by pcahn

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

March 6th, 2012 by pcahn

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.


February 14th, 2012 by pcahn

While scientists might feel gratified that the pursuit of knowledge keeps them out of the politics of Washington, researchers must learn to advocate for their projects. Especially with the increasing competition for federal grants where even outstanding proposals do not receive funding, one concrete step scientists can take is to lobby Congress to support the NIH.

To that end, FASEB, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology has developed a Congressional Visit Toolbox. It describes how to contact a legislator, plan for a visit, and present the case for more research funding. For the nervous novice, the site even includes videos of how to interact with elected officials.

There's a reason that corporations employ lobbyists--their influence works to direct funds toward favored projects. I heard one state representative explain once that he didn't have time to learn about every issue, so he appreciated it when lobbyists came to inform him. That said, he was open to any constituent coming to his office with specific arguments for a bill.

Biomedical researchers already have enough to juggle, but it may be worthwhile investing some time in talking to the decision makers who control the flow of federal funds. A small investment now will increase the chances of long-term research success later.

Quarter or Semester?

February 7th, 2012 by pcahn

According to an association of college bookstores, 71% of universities operate on a semester calendar while just 15% use the quarter system. And the gap is widening. In 1990 only 62% of universities had a semester calendar.

InsideHigherEd reports that more institutions are switching to semesters as a way to align courses and credits from transfer students. Semesters also allow students to graduate earlier and take advantage of internship or job opportunities.

I taught on the quarter system once and found the pace intense. The rhythm helped keep students engaged, but it meant that they could not catch up if they missed more than a few classes. It's also difficult to assign a long-term research project when there's just 10 weeks to complete it. On the other hand, a semester can drag on and allows for less variety of courses.

On a medical campus, the calendar is different altogether. Graduation occurs in May at BU, but that doesn't slow the activity in the hospital or the research labs.

Fathers Need Balance, Too

January 13th, 2012 by pcahn

A colleague recently asked me for speakers who could participate in a panel on work/life balance in academia. After suggesting three names, I realized that only women came to mind. Men have families and personal commitments, too, so why shouldn't they offer an opinion?

Researchers at UT Austin have published a small study that begins to answer that question. They interviewed 12 male faculty members at a research university. All the subjects had young children, and most expressed a preference for egalitarian parenting.

In a thematic analysis of the responses, the authors found that male faculty compartmentalize professional and personal lives and sacrifice their health to cope with the demands. Despite their professed views, many also allowed their wives to serve as primary caregivers to the children.

Finally, they concluded that men either do not know about university policies to benefit parents or are afraid to take advantage of them. While it is important to highlight opportunities for work relief and flexible schedules, it is just as crucial to educate leaders not to see these resources as intended only for women.

Unpublished Studies

January 11th, 2012 by pcahn

A study published in BMJ reports that fewer than half of clinical trials funded by NIH grants resulted in publications within 30 months of completion. Publication of NIH funded trials registered in ClinicalTrialsResearchers at Yale reviewed 635 clinical trials conducted between 2005 and 2008 and found that only 46% appeared in peer-reviewed, MEDLINE-indexed journals by 2011.

Even when the authors extended their search to 51 months after the completion of trials, one-third remained unpublished. They can only speculate on why investigators might not publish their findings. Certainly, some might appear in abstracts or posters that do not appear in electronic indexes.

There's some comfort in knowing that studies completed later in the sample period were more likely to appear in print. Because public funds supported the trials, it is important that their results, even if negative, be disseminated widely.

Paying for Prestige

January 9th, 2012 by pcahn

Two universities in Saudi Arabia have engineered a rise in their international rankings by offering lucrative short-term contracts to high-profile researchers. As reported in Science, sixty researchers listed in ISI's highly cited list have changed their affiliation to King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. In return, they receive adjunct professor appointments and about $72,000. In addition, they are expected to spend a week or two a year on campus and supervise a research group.

Gerry Gilmore, a British astronomer who added KAU to his affiliation on publications, brushed off criticism of the deal by noting that, “Universities buy people's reputations all the time. In principle, this is no different from Harvard hiring a prominent researcher.”

It's not clear how much of the research in KAU's name occurs on its campus or how much contact the star faculty have with colleagues and students. Of course, rankings and reputation rely on research productivity and impact, but by reducing faculty members to their citation counts, a university risks losing sight of its overall educational mission.

Reviewing the Reviewers

December 19th, 2011 by pcahn

The editors of the Annals of Emergency Medicine rate the quality of reviews submitted by peer reviewers. Over 14 years, they collected close to 15,000 reviews from about 1,500 reviewers. Although originally for internal use, the ratings offered an opportunity to study the change in reviewers' submissions over time.

0In a study published earlier this year, the editors found that nearly all reviewers received lower quality ratings over time.  Overall, the quality of reviews remained high because newly recruited reviewers turned in highly-scored reviews.

The authors speculate that their findings may provide evidence for cognitive decline as reviewers age. That seems overly speculative. More likely is that new reviewers take their responsibilities seriously while senior faculty have less to prove and more competing pressures on their time. Still, their experience makes them valuable voices in the peer review process.

Vita or Vitae?

December 13th, 2011 by pcahn

The CV is an essential ingredient in hiring and promoting faculty. Unlike a resume, the CV grows over time and, for senior professors, can run to dozens of pages.

Appropriately for an evolving autobiographical document, CV stands for "curriculum vitae," or "course of life" in Latin. Few people use the unabbreviated name, preferring to call it a CV or "vita." As I learned in this clear explanation of the etymology of the term, it is never grammatically correct to say "vita." In this case, "vitae" does not designate a plural but rather a modifier of "curriculum."

To make CV plural, the technical way is "curricula vitarum." Of course, no one says that. Furthermore, when you do say "vitae," you should pronounce it "VEE-tye," not "VEE-tay."

Some could argue that modern usage has moved beyond the original Latin. Still, nitpickers abound. It's best not to write "curriculum vitae" or any other title on your CV anyway. Do you write "Cover Letter" at the top of your cover letter? In conversation, it's fine just to say, "CV."