Posts Tagged ‘science’

Scientific Reputation

Friday, July 8th, 2011

Amidst more instances of retracted scientific papers, it’s helpful to reinforce positive academic behaviors. The editors of PLoS Computational Biology have come up with their top ten list for maintaining a strong reputation. It includes:

  1. Think before you act
  2. Do not ignore criticism
  3. Do not ignore people
  4. Diligently check everything you publish
  5. Always declare conflicts of interest
  6. Do your share for the community
  7. Do not commit to tasks you cannot complete
  8. Do not write poor reviews of grants or papers
  9. Do not write references for people who do not deserve it
  10. Do not plagiarize or doctor your data

Some of these maxims are common sense. They all stress the importance of intentionality. It’s easy to see how falsifying data may ruin your reputation, but in a subtler way so can falsifying praise in a letter of recommendation. Every interaction with colleagues leaves an impression. Make sure it’s the one you want to convey.

Women in the National Academy

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Election to the National Academy of Sciences is one of the highest honors for a scientist. In the latest induction, only 9 of 72 new members were women. As women make up more of the Ph.D. recipients in the sciences, their representation in prestigious awards should also go up.

The Association for Women in Science has depicted a different trend. As this graph shows, the NAS is not keeping pace with the proportion of women scientists.


It's hopeful that women in engineering and applied sciences have reached parity, but gaps still exist in other fields. Part of the cause may be that only Academy members can nominate new members, thereby perpetuating a male dominance. Making the club more open might increase the diversity of its membership.

No Glass Ceiling?

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Traditionally, one of the explanations for the relatively low percentage of women in the faculty ranks of math and science departments has been the ongoing presence of discrimination. At every level of training and career, scientists must earn acceptance from peers, whether in admission to graduate programs, job interviews, or grant reviews. Bias, even if unconscious, can creep in to disadvantage female applicants, the theory goes.

A new study by two scholars in Cornell's Department of Human Development argues that discrimination does not play a factor in the underrepresentation of women in scientific fields. In the awarding of fellowships, the review of manuscripts, and the interviewing for jobs, the authors found no evidence for bias against female candidates of comparable preparation to their male counterparts.

The real source of inequality is that women overwhelmingly occupy part-time or teaching-intensive positions, limiting their access to the resources needed to produce sophisticated research. Whether by choice or by societal expectations, women often prioritize what the authors call "fertility/lifestyle" concerns in establishing their careers. These decisions make it less likely for women scientists to develop a track record of success. The good news is that women scientists of similar training and accomplishment can count on fair treatment in the academic workplace.

From Translation to Convergence

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

In biomedical research, the latest emphasis has been on translational science. That is, connecting bench work to clinical applications. At a recent MIT and AAAS conference, scientists hailed the next revolution in research: Convergence Science.

Their report points to the increasing integration of physical and engineering sciences into biomedical fields. Harnessing these different disciplines allows for innovative discoveries like a lab that engineered E. Coli bacteria to detect tumors and deliver drugs.

The authors of the paper caution that convergent science will require institutional restructuring. Traditional departmental divisions won't make sense as more work is done in teams. Traditional methods of recognizing individual achievement for promotion will also have to be reworked. Importantly, funding agencies like the NIH will have to retool their policies.

The proposal reminds me of E. O. Wilson's argument in Consilience. He advocated a return to the unification of scientific fields. As logical as convergence sounds, it comes across as a bit naive when so many other reforms have failed to shift the entrenched divisions of disciplines and academic achievement.

Lightbulb Moments

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

We tend to think of scientists hatching a paradigm-shifting idea while hunched over a lab bench. Even the language we use to describe these insights convey lonely genius: an epiphany, a lightbulb, a eureka moment. A new book by technology writer Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From dispels that image.

Taking examples from commerce, science, and the arts, Johnson shows how ideas with lasting impact emerge from social networks. He cites the work of psychologist Kevin Dunbar. In his research, molecular biologists achieved their greatest discoveries not through experiments, but at lab meetings. In sharing mistakes and posing theories with colleagues, they stimulated new discoveries.

It's become fashionable to decry meetings, but great ideas emerge from the human interaction that goes on in groups.