Archive for the '[Information&Communication]' category

How would you change US funding?

I encourage you to go over and weigh in on the topic of changing funding at Joan Strassman's blog. She has been discussing the changes to NSF Bio in her last couple of posts, both WRT the preproposals and why they were needed. The discussion on the second post has since evolved into how we should change the funding structure to maximize the resource we have.

All of the traditional battle axes have been dragged out. The "we should be more like those cuddly Canadians!" and the lovable "Overhead is the problem!" arguments were quick to pop up, as always. For those of you who are bored, we've discussed those issues here and here, respectively.

I am often wary of these discussions because, as Drugmonkey often points out, commenters are always going to propose whatever option benefits them the most. That's not to say that I don't think these discussion are worthwhile, but eveyone's opinion needs to be taken with a giant rock of salt, my own included.

However, one option I don't support that does not benefit me is limiting the number of grants one PI can hold. There may be studies on the optimal number of grants per lab, I have no idea, but to arbitrarily place a limit of, say, two or four grants per PI seems to me a willing attempt to close one's eyes to the variable nature of the science enterprise. And as CPP has pointed out on occasion, limiting the number of grants past a certain threshold is punitive to such a minority of PIs as to not really make a difference in the grand scheme. If only 1% of PIs have more than 5 awards (I'm making these numbers up. UPDATE: My numbers weren't so far off!), then limiting awards to 5 is putting lipstick on a pig, but it won't do much for funding levels for the other 99%.

So, readers, feel free to leave your thoughts here or join the discussion on the Strassman blog.

14 responses so far

Sentences: Is less more?

Dec 06 2011 Published by under [Information&Communication]

Everyone learns to write in different ways. I don't mean how to physically form letters or even string a few words together, but to really write. It takes practice to get to the point where one can be an effective writer, and most good writers are constantly finding ways to improve.

One thing I've noticed is a recent trend towards a call for shorter sentences, highlighted by an article by the Editor of Bioessays. In this editorial, Dr. Moore contends that the internet age has placed a premium on small, digestible sentences in the neighborhood of 20 words. He contends that since information is easy to find, easily understandable information will be that which is consumed over more dense material. He is, afterall, an editor with a vested interest in having his journal's stuff referenced and the crux of it is really here:

The Internet places diverse genres of written works side-by-side. Ever more researchers use Google et al. to find relevant literature; and if a reader finds one particular paper too taxing to read, an alternative source of the information–in more digestible form–is increasingly frequently just a click away. Ever more, bloggers and other science writers write for audiences that include researchers. And a growing number of scientists–some of them almost professional bloggers themselves–write brief communications for their own community. I believe that scientific articles are, increasingly, in competition with such writings. Whether scientists or not, few of us will disagree that the short-winded sentences of science writers are usually more pleasing to read than the average peer-reviewed scientific article.... Crucial information should be written in short chunks. A few massive sentences can seriously diminish reader understanding, and hence gratification!

Whereas I agree that that clarity is key, I think I disagree that short sentences is the only way to achieve that goal. In fact, I think well-constructed longer sentences covey more information than those same thoughts chopped up. But do I practice that?

We all like data, so I took a few minutes and put a number of bloggers to the test, but for the hell of it, I included a bunch of papers and grants I have written over the last few years. I pulled out text in paragraph form from 10 posts* by 7 bloggers, including myself. I also pulled random pages from 10 of my IRL writing as comparison, and calculated the mean sentence length using Flesh. I averaged the value from the 10 selected pieces for each person and got the following:

CPP 30.4
IRL Me 24.6
Ed Yong 23.3
FSP 21.9
PLS 20.5
Dr. Becca 19.2
Carl Zimmer 17.8
DM 16.6

I'm not sure what to make of the pattern, even in this small sample size. Bloggers who do science writing for a living, Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, were towards each end of the spectrum. Those who don't, as far as I know, were all over the map and at both extremes.

One pattern that does emerge from my own writing is that I write shorter sentences on the blog (for a wider audience) than I do in my science writing. This comes as no surprise to me and I'm not sure I see any issue with that. An editor of a journal like Bioessays, that depends on broad readership, might be right in claiming that shorter sentences make for "better" papers for their purposes. However, I don't believe that holds true for all of science writing. Sometimes we are writing for a broad audience, and sometimes we are not.

I would be interested to hear if others find there is a difference in the mean sentence length between blog and IRL.

*I could only find 9 posts from CPP that fit the criteria in about 80 that I searched.

17 responses so far

NSF sets its sights on retaining women

A new NSF brochure (PDF here) was e-published today, explaining some novel initiatives aimed at retaining women in the STEM workforce, with a focus on women in academia. The brochure includes some recent stats in support of the effort, and NSF lays out its approach to mitigating some of the issues in the following way:

The goal of NSF’s Career-Life Balance Initiative is to help improve the proportion of women attaining full professorship positions at American colleges and universities by addressing the balance of scientists’ work with conflicting demands of life events (e.g., the birth or adoption of a child, raising children, or providing elderly dependent care). To that end, the agency will:

• Continue flexibility in timing the initiation of approved research grants.

• Continue no-cost extensions of awards.

• Continue grant supplements for research technicians or equivalent to sustain research when investigators need to provide family care.

• Encourage parental medical leave (paid, if possible), accommodations for dual-career couples, and part-time options.

• Support research and evaluation of advancement, attrition, and retention of women in STEM fields.

• Enhance the assessment and evaluation of NSF programs in terms of gender/diversity outcomes.

• Draw on relevant NSF Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering recommendations (2010) to address issues faced by women of color in STEM.

• Study and recognize best practices for career and life balance.

• Foster mutually beneficial international research and training collaborations that provide career-life balance opportunities.

• Ensure compliance with Title IX of The Civil Rights Act to prevent gender discrimination in education programs.

• Incorporate family-friendly practices and policies in NSF’s CAREER and all post doctoral programs.

• Further integrate and enhance work-life balance practices into additional program guidelines, including for Graduate Research Fellows and ADVANCE, and subsequently through the broader portfolio of NSF activities, consistent with federal guidelines.

• Collaborate with federal agencies and professional associations to exchange best practices, harmonize careerlife policies and practices, and overcome common barriers to career-life balance.

• Communicate broadly to the STEM community, in order to clarify and catalyze the adoption of a coherent and consistent set of career-life balance policies and practices.

• Lead by example to become a model agency for gender equity.

Are they on the right track?

17 responses so far

Et tu, Honey Badger? Et tu?

Sep 22 2011 Published by under [Et Al], [Information&Communication]

Folks, kids books are sacred territory. A place where we learn about the world around us and to fear the woods. The are not vehicles for propagating lies, but apparently not everyone got that message. As Ed Yong recently revealed, the beloved story of the honey guide and the honey badger is completely false.


Damnit, Jan Brett. Where is your fact checking?

What. The. Hell? Do a search for kid's books on the honey badger and many books show up, all based on this mythical relationship. I've read the book pictured above countless times to my daughter and now how can I pull it off the shelf again? What other kid's books are lying to us?

Wait... everybody still poops, right? Right?

6 responses so far

Why is NSF so far behind NIH in social media interactions?

As most of my readers will know, my research focus leads me to spend more of my time honing my NSF-based granting experience than NIH. Whereas I have submitted to NIH and gotten decent feedback, the pool of study sections that would even read an application from my lab is exceedingly small. However, the fact that it is possible for me to send applications to NIH means that I have devoted some time to figuring that process out.

Where I have been really impressed with NIH is the agency's willingness to engage scientists outside of the traditional channels and in a dynamic manner. My first exposure to this was the NIGMS blog, in which (now former) NIGMS director, Jeremy Berg, often posted behind-the-scenes type data on the granting process, which was often fodder for posts by DM. Whereas the NIGMS blog has had fewer posts of that nature since Berg left, Sally Rockey has taken up the reigns from the Office of Extramural Research blog. Hell, the OER is even on twitter!

So the NIH is willing to get it's message out to the blogosphere and twits, providing some truly interesting data in the process. What's more, based on anecdata from this blog, NIH is engaged in reading the blogosphere as well. The "NIH.gov" designation is a regular domain in my site stats, and I rarely post on topics as central to the NIH mission as others. Bottom line, NIH is willing to listen to the unwashed masses and other n'er do wells.

So what about NSF? Well, NSF has a twitter account, but a quick perusal suggests that it simply posts the same things that go out in the email updates that everyone can sign up for (which are rarely illuminating, except when they drop a random bomb). If you want to narrow the scope of NSF tweets you receive, each program area has an account (BIO is here), but it's a battle of meh.

Blogs? It's not clear that NSF knows what they are. They are certainly not employing blogs as an information dissemination tool (that I am aware of, but please correct me if I am wrong), nor does there appear to be much interaction with the blogosphere. We are allowed this table that breaks the funding numbers down, but beyond that the well is dry. In fact, even the numbers published in that table are difficult to interpret because if the mix of "funded" grant types that end up in the various categories. In the panels I am most familiar with, the numbers posted do not remotely match the review summaries I have or the numbers from the PO.

So why is it that NSF has almost no online interaction with its constituency, while NIH appears to be taking this head-on? Time to pull back the curtain, NSF.

6 responses so far

Billboard or petri dish?

Sep 09 2011 Published by under [Information&Communication]

Everyone likes a good pandemic movie, right? At least Hollywood likes to replay this plot over and over again. While I'm not much for the viral-wipe-out movies, I have to hand it to Warner Brothers for their marketing campaign for Contagion. This idea was a pretty good one.

6 responses so far

Teaching teachers teaching

This week should be chock full `o irony for me because I get to spend much of it teaching K-12 teachers how to teach K-12 students. Mind you, I have no formal teaching training, no experience with this grade range and almost certainly less hands-on teaching time than everyone I am charged with, um, teaching. But I have rhythm....

Luckily I am not being thrown to the wolves. I have a specific roll in terms of designing the science that will back the course material and will be providing a specific module and the background necessary to implement it in the classroom. Perhaps more critically, I have been working with a grade school teacher who will be joining me in the classroom to lead the implementation discussions. He will also be employing several common (so I am told) group teaching techniques to help keep the group focused and attentive.

My big secret is that I think I may learn more than many of those looking back at me. Part of my motivation for participating in this outreach program is to pick up bits and pieces of teaching philosophy and methodology that I can begin to bring back to my own classroom. I've tried the straight-up lecture approach and added in some student participation activities, but have been unimpressed with the results. At the same time, I haven't been committed enough to go out of my way to learn new teaching styles in the face of my other obligations at work. This program allows me to contribute to the schools in my local area, while hopefully learning a lot about different approaches for engaging students.

Plus, I'm really interested to see if teachers revert to the student-like behaviors they try and stomp out of their own classes the second they are on the other side of the desk.

6 responses so far

No, it is not like slavery

Jun 13 2011 Published by under [Et Al], [Information&Communication]

Dear clueless douchebags,

Can we make an agreement? Unless you are discussing other forms of human trafficking, let's not compare things to slavery and the horrors that slaves went through, m'kay? Whereas I wasn't there, I can be pretty certain that slave ships bore very little resemblance to air planes. Yeah, having the luxury of flying anywhere on Earth you would like is just like being captured, shackled, taken on a long boat trip and forced to work in a strange place for strange people*. Practically identical.

Another thing that slavery is not like, is being paid millions of dollars to play a game for a living. Again, this is not my area of expertise, but I don't recall any slave quarters being feature on Cribs. Can you walk away from playing football anytime you want to one of your 5 houses? Yes. Could slaves walk away from anything? No.

I realize that American slavery happened a while ago and it's easy to trivialize, but just try and think about the absurdity of your statements briefly before making such inane points.

<small* And for the record, starting a sentence with "I don’t want to trivialize the inhumane horrors that African slaves endured on slave ships destined for the Americas... BUT" does not make it okay for you trivialize the inhumane horrors that African slaves endured on slave ships

12 responses so far

Slide templates and bride's maids dresses

Why do administrators insist on slide templates when they tell ask you to give a talk to other administrators? And WHY do they find the most brutally awful template ever created that requires you to mess with every fucking one of your slides after you drag your normal slides in? Is this some admin version of a bad bride's maid dress that makes their talk better looking next to your Pollock-like background? Are they TRYING to make me kill as much time as possible in prep for a worthless meeting? WTF?

11 responses so far

On "duplication" of research effort

May 31 2011 Published by under [Information&Communication], [Politics]

Senator Coburn's recent report on NSF has caused quite a stir. Possibly because it's typical conservative Republican hand waving and spin, but hey, at least he's not blatantly lying on the floor of congress to advance his agenda, right? Right?

A few other bloggers have already jumped all over this, including Dr. O, Namnezia and Prodigal Academic, so I am not going to attack the "report" as a whole. Like any other argument with someone who relies on lies or "bent" truth to advance their position, it's not worth it.

There was one section of the report, however, that I found amusing in its complete and utter lack of awareness regarding the funding climate of today, and that was the "Duplication" section (p. 20 for those who want to follow along at home). The central thesis of this section is summarized in the first paragraph:

Duplication of efforts across the federal government can lead to inefficiencies and waste of taxpayer dollars. Congress has all too often given government agencies overlapping authorities and responsibilities, often creating new programs without consolidating or eliminating existing programs with the same purposes.

Sounds like it was lifted from the stock congressional report template like a piece of clipart, but whatever. So the report is anti-duplication. Shocking. But, what kind of duplication are we talking about here? This is where the art of spin comes in and the wording gets all squirrely.

Even a cursory review of NSF grants turns up potential examples of duplication. For example, NSF funds a significant amount of energy research on top of the $4.4 billion DOE supports. A search of NSF.gov of program areas beginning with the term “energy” yields approximately 1,000 grants totaling another $590 million. 104 NSF’s trademark Antarctica program has a priority of supporting “national energy security goals.”

I'm sure a "cursory review" was all that was done, and I love the wording with "potential examples". Never attack without a back door, classic. In any case, let's assume that a key word search means anything other than that the PI is aware of current funding trends and tried to align with them - what is "energy research", for instance? Is it one kind of science or are there multiple different fields that having something to offer? Oh, it's interdisciplinary? That seems like something the Feds have been pushing for a while. Should we take all work related to energy and give it to DOE and eliminate anything related to energy from NSF? But what about the dreaded "silos" that the government is always freaking out about? We could run this around in circles for months.

My favorite was this little gem:

With 99 programs at 11 agencies, overlap and duplication is a significant concern. Consider that across the federal government there are nine programs intending to improve STEM education for minority populations and 15 programs for graduate level STEM education.

Translation: Cause srsly folks, do we really need NINE programs across the country to improve STEM education for minority populations? Aren't all minority populations the same? Can't we just have program? What a fucking waste of money!

But the bigger point is that the perception of duplication of programs is a symptom of the budgetary decisions congress has been making. We can argue around and around about whether more money for science produces better quality science, but the fact of the matter is that funding rates are low right now. There is heavy demand, little supply and a lot of labs are having to explore new funding options to stay afloat. In the current climate, PIs are looking to pitch their research to agencies they might otherwise not consider. Is this redundancy? Should PIs only have ideas that fit the mandate of their core funding agency?

This came up in Prodigal Academic's blog and was used as a source in Coburn's report:

Some in the scientific community question the ethics behind submitting overlapping proposals to two different government agencies. In an online discussion, researchers discussed how they, or people they work with, had often submitted the same proposal to separate agencies. One commenter asserted managers at the Department of Energy suggest scientists should submit their proposals to multiple agencies. The blog’s author stated, “Some of the DoD basic science calls are pretty broad—I think it would be possible to use more or less the same proposal, reformatted, for various DoD calls that overlap with USDA, DOE, NSF, NIH, or NASA programs.”

NEWS FLASH: If your work could be funded by multiple agencies and you're not sending it to them, the biggest question is why not? Would it even be possible to write the programs of the various funding agencies to exclude any overlap? Maybe, but likely by isolating large communities that would then lack any home. To do so would be supremely stupid and short-sighted.

The fact that there is some overlap in key words and PIs can submit similar ideas to multiple agencies is a feature, not a bug. If Coburn is worried about individuals double-dipping for the same project, then why not show some actual examples of that (which I think would be very difficult to do and not get hammered for it)?

As usual, this "report" seems like just another conservative attempt at justifying some of their more morally reprehensible proposals by trying to pretend like they have federal savings at heart. Much like the report, the promotional campaign was chock full of misrepresentations and attempts to convince anyone unwilling to read anything for themselves that SCIENCE IS WASTIN UR MONIEZ!

I guess the lies sounds a whole lot better than the truth.

4 responses so far

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