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With great trepidation, I criticize Dan Sarewitz

October 1, 2012 3 comments

I feel like the kid on the right when I disagree with Dan Sarewitz on science policy

Dan Sarewitz worries about creeping bias in science (emphasis added):

Alarming cracks are starting to penetrate deep into the scientific edifice. They threaten the status of science and its value to society. And they cannot be blamed on the usual suspects — inadequate funding, misconduct, political interference, an illiterate public. Their cause is bias, and the threat they pose goes to the heart of research…Nothing will corrode public trust more than a creeping awareness that scientists are unable to live up to the standards that they have set for themselves. Useful steps to deal with this threat may range from reducing the hype from universities and journals about specific projects, to strengthening collaborations between those involved in fundamental research and those who will put the results to use in the real world. There are no easy solutions. The first step is to face up to the problem — before the cracks undermine the very foundations of science.

As you all know, Dan Sarewitz is one of my intellectual heroes. And so it doubly pains me to note that I critiqued this sort of writing in my last post. What does it mean to “undermine the very foundations of science”? Does it mean funding will be cut? PhD enrollment will decrease? The public will stop supporting science? And what would that mean? Would decreased public support itself translate to less funding? How?

I think Dan is trying to say something along the lines of: “Bias in science is a big deal, we should be doing more to address it, and there’s a chance it could hurt our credibility.” While the rest of his essay admirably explains the first two points, the conclusion is a bit strained. As I’ve noted before, a robust body of evidence suggests that there is no penalty for hype and exaggerations. Simply because something is a problem does not mean there are consequences for avoiding it.

Is a science PhD worth it, part II

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Let me expand on the closing sentence of my last post, which got some attention in the comments (emphasis added):

The upshot of this is that national data-sets can miss a lot of nuance in this issue. And regardless of the final outcome, we can do a lot to make a PhD “more worth it” for grad students. Even if we all get a job in the end, it doesn’t have to be so stressful.

From my casual observations (and a whimsical Google search), it appears that most college students roughly follow this path:

  1. End up in a major where employers value the skills you will gain: finance, marketing, engineering, journalism, education, etc.
  2. Because, the recession notwithstanding, many jobs require your newly acquired skill-set, apply for and start working in something you’re trained to do.

Keeping in mind that individual experiences vary, that generalizations have limited value, and that perhaps I’m biased because I studied space physics rather than bioengineering or chip design…it seems that many science PhD students who don’t end up in academia roughly do this:

  1. End up studying something obscure and irrelevant to almost everyone, and gain expertise that isn’t widely applicable.
  2. Because there aren’t many jobs that value your skill-set, and because grad school generally doesn’t afford you the chance to develop non-research skills, stumble around and stress mightily until you get a job.

Now if all you do is reference aggregate statistics, and ignore the stress and worry that accompany many PhD job searches, point number 2 is no cause for concern. But that’s the notion I was explicitly rejecting in my last post. The process matters, and matters a lot. That’s where the PhD experience can be improved. Back when all PhDs became academics, it have been fine to ignore this issue. But that’s not the world we now live in.

This is not a particularly profound or deep observation. The disconnect between PhD training and career trajectories is fairly well-studied. As far back as 1995, the National Academies noted the need to rethink PhD education, and there’s a veritable cottage industry around helping PhDs take command of their careers. This industry wouldn’t exist if there weren’t demand, and is proof enough that something can be done to make the PhD job search less stressful.

Categories: Academia

Is a science PhD worth it?

September 22, 2012 8 comments

Most students are between the”PhD sucks”                and ‘PhD rocks” camps

Daniel Lametti gives it a resounding yes:

The pharmaceutical industry, the Washington Post reported, has cut scores of chemists. Even so, the American Chemical Society told me the unemployment rate among its Ph.D. members is 3.4 percent this year, down from 3.9 percent last year. During these rough economic times, the unemployment rate of scientists in one of the hardest hit fields is less than half the national average. Why? Because scientists learn more in graduate school than how to peer into microscopes and pour chemicals ever so carefully from one Erlenmeyer flask to another. As one biologist told me, the statistics and computer programming she learned during her degree can be applied just about anywhere. More generally, scientists know how to solve complex problems, and finishing a doctoral dissertation shows that you can get things done…

You might argue that if I leave academia to, say, teach high school or become a journalist, I’ve wasted my laboratory training. This argument is ridiculous. Since the Ph.D.’s inception in 18thcentury Germany, the product of a doctoral education has been a dissertation—a body of research that, in a small way, moves a field forward. There’s nothing wrong with contributing to science and then moving on. The work won’t disappear. Dissertations are published, and doctorates last a lifetime.

I greatly appreciate Lametti’s sentiments, which offer a needed corrective to the all-too-often ‘grad school is a waste of time’ screeds (h/t Freddie). The low salary notwithstanding, there are many benefits to graduate school. And for the most part PhD’s don’t have to worry about unemployment. Though it might take a while, we do eventually get jobs.

But despite its many positives, Lametti’s essay doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know–education generally helps your employment prospects.

The problem isn’t Lametti’s answer so much as it is the question. There are only so many ways you can determine whether a PhD writ-large is “worth it.” By necessity you end up relying on aggregate data data that have limited value to questions that are deeply particular and personal. Survey results and national economic trends don’t tell you how I experienced my PhD, what I thought about it, and most crucially, what could have made it better. Given that tens of thousands of people will continue to enter PhD programs every year, and also given that neither Lanetti nor his dissenters will change that fact anytime soon, this last question is what we should be focusing on.

Instead, we end up with a cramped, depressingly binary debate:  The “grad school sucks because you spend six years making no money only to end up with a job unrelated to anything you learned” camp vs the “grad school is awesome because you are intellectually engaged for six years and the odds are you’ll end up with a decent job” camp.

Without a doubt, some grad students found their calling in the academy and loved every minute of it. And surely some hated the experience and only have regret. But if my friends and I are any indication,the majority are somewhere between these poles. Like all human beings, we have conflicting feelings about our experiences. Academic research is, after all, just a job for so many of us. And like jobs everywhere, it is constrained by certain immutable truths. Research, like most jobs, can be beautiful in the abstract but ugly up close. There is a daily grind that sometimes complicates and dampens our our enthusiasm without completely negating it. There is no contradiction between loving the idea of your job while hating your actual job.

So for those of us in the messy middle, the blistering confidence of both Daniel Lametti and Penelope Trunk doesn’t seem relevant. Consider the careers issue since it figures so prominently in these debates. Yes, statistics show that PhDs have the lowest unemployment rate among all demographics. But those stats don’t capture the insecurity, the pain, the self-doubt, the “how can it be so hard to get a job when I’m so smart and have a PhD” feeling that so many of us go through. I can’t count the number of people who wished they dropped out after their masters (or earlier) precisely because of feelings like these. And the people I’m thinking of are scientists and engineers. I suspect it might even be worse for those in the humanities.*

The upshot of this is that national data-sets can miss a lot of nuance in this issue. And regardless of the final outcome, we can do a lot to make a PhD “more worth it” for grad students. Even if we all get a job in the end, it doesn’t have to be so stressful.

*In light of the Jonah Lehrer dustup, I feel compelled to point out that I self-plagiarized this passage from a comment on Freddie’s blog.

Categories: Academia

Do we need more scientists?

June 18, 2012 1 comment

Though I’m not convinced, most of the folks at Slate.com disagree. Here’s Derek Lowe backing up his even-handed argument with data:

I very much doubt it. As evidence, let me turn first to my own field, drug research, because other high-tech fields share some of its problems. I’m a medicinal chemist—I spend my days in an actual white lab coat, thinking up potential new drug structures and new ways to find them, and then trying to make those ideas work for real out on the lab bench. I moved to my present job, though, because my last employer closed down the entire research site where I used to work. That’s been a depressingly common experience over the last few years. Since 2000, more than 300,000 people in the drug business have been laid off. Not all of them have been scientists, of course, but plenty of chemists and biologists have been hearing the swish of the ax as the industry looks to cut costs everywhere it can. These people, many of whom have been scrambling to find any work they can, are not a good audience for stories about America’s critical shortage of scientists.

Categories: Academia

A very obvious answer

May 14, 2012 Leave a comment

While asking presidential candidates to engage in a meaningful science policy debate, G. Pascal Zachary wonders:

Is there a way to discuss efficiency and outcomes in S&T without setting off a firestorm among researchers?

There’s a very easy answer to this question: Nope, not a chance!

I’ve been scolded in the past for noting that scientists are another special interest group who will always ask for more money. Though I admit I sometimes overdo this line of thinking, it is a useful framework that the S&T policy community need to embrace more strongly.

That said, Zachary’s essay is excellent and I largely (entirely?) agree with it.

Categories: Academia, Special Interest

Rise in scientific misconduct

April 17, 2012 1 comment

The Times attributes the sharp rise in journal-paper retractions to a hyper-competitive environment:

Dr. Fang became curious how far the rot extended. To find out, he teamed up with a fellow editor at the journal, Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. And before long they reached a troubling conclusion: not only that retractions were rising at an alarming rate, but that retractions were just a manifestation of a much more profound problem — “a symptom of a dysfunctional scientific climate,” as Dr. Fang put it.

Dr. Casadevall, now editor in chief of the journal mBio, said he feared that science had turned into a winner-take-all game with perverse incentives that lead scientists to cut corners and, in some cases, commit acts of misconduct.

Categories: Academia

Scientists and the economic crisis yet again

December 3, 2011 4 comments

David Bruggeman’s sharp comment is worth reprinting in full:

From where I sit, both Stilgoe and Macilwain are attempting to remind the community of two things.

First, the large opportunity they are missing to be opportunistic. If the changing political environment changes the emphasis in what funders are looking for, researchers (at least those who eventually get tenure) tend to exploit those trends. If you go back a decade, researchers adapted to the increased emphasis on security in part by trying to fit their work into the ‘new normal.’ That’s not happening now.

Science and technology advocates are appealing to the soft bigotry of low expectations: they always complain about funding, so that’s all science and technology policy is about. I work in science and technology policy, and funding is at most 5 percent of what I work on.

Secondly, science and technology advocates, frankly, are rubbish at doing anything to improve themselves or the research enterprise. There’s no questioning of the status quo, no conception of doing things differently than before. We could use a little creative destruction and the economic crises provide the possibility. Does the post World War II method of organizing, funding and performing federal research still make sense?

Of course, since the folks in the U.S. failed to properly manage a damn thing after the NIH doubling effort ended and the system couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to a decline in the rate of growth for funding, I expect most will ignore the new reality of flat or declining funding (not rate of growth, absolute dollars) and pine for the good old days of excess building capacity and way-too-long periods of time as postdocs.

But hey, if we’re just an interest group, no problem. We’ll just do like everyone else and continue to think our ‘successes’ of the last decade validate our tactics and strategy. My mind still boggles at the persistent lack of imagination amongst those that were supposedly encouraged to conduct original research as part of their ‘training’ in science and technology.

There’s a lot to unpack here: scientists’ response to a changing environment, the content of S&T policy, improving the research enterprise, and the early 2000’s doubling of NIH funding. I’ll attack these points in turn.

I first question whether funders will change their priorities, and if they do, in what direction. Republicans have historically supported basic research at the expense of applied, a tradition the leading Republican candidate maintains. Obama consistently advocates for doubling basic research, Bush II also called for more science funding, and Clinton started the NIH-funding binge to begin with. It’s not at all clear that a “new normal” is upon us anytime soon.

Along those lines, I’m not sure the DOD-analogy applies. I’d love to see a more fine-grained analysis, but I get the impression scientists reoriented their priorities after funding became available. There was no period of introspection that led to scientists’ wanting to protect the nation. Rather, they saw some money and went after it. That’s why I suggested new funding streams would change scientists’ behavior more than anything else.

And since funding is the life-blood of scientific research, we should expect when S&T advocates to focus efforts there. They advocate on behalf of the research community, not science writ-large. People like Bruggeman and (to toot my own horn) me fill other necessary roles. We recognize science is more than research and policy is more than funding. Researchers have other concerns.

As for creative destruction, I suspect it rarely occurs with the consent of those being destroyed. I welcome David’s input on this as his knowledge of economic history is much greater than mine. But as I understand Schumpeter, external pressure and competition induces creative destruction. If the economic crisis won’t produce such pressure (and again, Presidential statements don’t support that view), then that pressure has to come from somewhere else.

This is getting long already, so I’ll close with a couple points. First, I largely agree with Bruggeman’s goals. I would love scientists to reexamine their priorities and question the status quo. But it’s not easy for them to do so. The neuroscientists I know are well aware of the funding dynamic Bruggeman describes. But they also know getting tenure means publishing papers and receiving grants. Successful grants tend to focus on narrow research questions and call for grad students and post-docs, perpetuating the the PhD bubble. Even if they wanted to change, they couldn’t do so without sacrificing their careers.

And that’s why I harp on interests so much. I’m not sure the policy community appreciates that scientists are simply acting in their interests. Us in S&T policy have to deal with this reality and propose practical solutions.

Categories: Academia, Special Interest