Archive for the '[Science in Society]' category

What the...?

Nov 15 2011 Published by under [Science in Society]

As recently as last week, things did not look good for congressional support for the sciences. In a Nov 9 policy statement, AAAS pointed to both a house and senate budget proposal that would have cut science funding, particularly NSF, by a considerable amount (PDF comparison of the bills HERE). The house was bleeding NSF for a 12% cut and the senate wanted 14.2%. In light of recent changes, it looked like we were going from worse to worser ("bad" having been so last year).

While I am not usually one that thinks DC listens to the people much, eying those budget numbers actually made me write my senators and reps. A budget flatline is bad enough, but those kinds of cuts make it clear that our leaders in Washington doesn't see science and technology as way into the future - a message I find ominous.

But suddenly things are different today. According to a press release from the NCS Alliance there was an 11th hour negotiated change.

Last night, Congressional leaders released their final plan for fiscal year (FY) 2012 spending for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a multitude of other federal agencies. The conference report, which represents the compromise between the House and Senate passed appropriations bills, would provide NSF with $7.0 billion, an increase of $173 million above FY 2011, but significantly below President Obama’s requested budget. Research and Related Activities would receive an increase of $155 million above last year. More details will be provided in an upcoming policy report.

Although the increase is not huge, it is an increase. Certainly this is good news for science and perhaps those out there who were spurred to write the congress peoples on behalf of the community, were heard. Whatever happened, I'll take it.

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Population, sperm donation and cheaters

The July 29 issue of Science had a special section (paywall) devoted to the changing global population dynamics that showed regional trends and predicted growth patterns over the next 10-15 years. It's a fairly fascinating (and semi-alarming) collection of articles and commentaries that is worth a read. As someone who has just added one more individual to the global population, I was particularly struck by a figure that reported the number of children that families in different areas of the world considered "ideal".

Obviously there are a lot of factors that play into this decision, but I was intrigued that even across Africa, the numbers ranged from 9.1 in Niger to 3 in Egypt. Whereas number from North America were not reported, both the US and Canada average 1.5-2.1 births per woman. It shouldn't be surprising then, that projections for population growth between 2010 and 2050 in North American (and both Europe and Latin America) are dwarfed by that of Africa (and Asia) by an order of magnitude. On average, North Americans just don't have a lot of kids.

But in nature, every system has cheaters - those who exploit the constraints that most in the population live by in order to carve out an advantage for themselves. This is why a pair of recent news stories about sperm donation caught my attention. Only a few years ago it was essentially impossible to trace the number of kids that a individual sperm donor produced. But on 2000 was founded, allowing people to self-identify as donors or children of donors. Although not a complete picture, what the site did show was the potentially enormous population-level effect of sperm donation. In one case, a currently anonymous donor has fathered at least 150 children who have signed onto the site and in another, a man who has allowed contact is now the father of at least 70 children from across the country by the age of 33. Two men, 220 children... and climbing.

Judging at least from the story on the man with 70 children, fathering that many kids was not something he anticipated. How could he? And while he has undoubtedly brought a lot of happiness to the women who could not otherwise conceive, I can't possibly imagine how that is going to complicate his life in the future. But at the same time, the evolutionary biologist in me has to marvel at the reproductive fitness of these guys. Not only are they acting under r selection, but they got paid $150 per donation*.

I am not versed in the pros and cons of sperm donation, nor is it something I would ever consider doing, but the potential for leaving one's genetic mark is slightly mind-blowing. Better become friends with your local post office Mr. Siesler, because that is a shit-load of birthday cards.

*Even a conservative estimate of 200 donations yields $30,000.

8 responses so far

Is there a dark side to the breast feeding movement?

Aug 23 2011 Published by under [Et Al], [Science in Society], Uncategorized

This will be my last baby-related post for a while, but I wanted to talk about breast feeding. Yes, I know, a dude talking about breast feeding is about as popular as a hunk of raw meat at a vegan tea party, but I'm actually more interested in the culture of breast feeding than the act itself.

With our first child we did the typical first-timer thing where we read all sorts of stuff ahead of time. We developed a birth plan that was focused on doing everything with drugs and we were ready... and then shit happened. There were complications, things came out of left field and we had to roll with it. In the end, things worked out well. We had a healthy mom and baby, a decent birth experience and not much to complain about given the circumstances.

But if there was one things that we were gonna do, it was breast feeding. I mean, if you don't breast feed, your child is basically going to grow up a moron with slurred speech who is sick all the time, right? I mean, these are facts*! Except maybe when you actually look at the science (see "Problematic Science" section). Nevertheless, there is no doubt that breast feeding is beneficial to both Mom and the baby, so away we went.

Except sometimes the body doesn't cooperate. Sure, it can take some time for a mother's milk to come in, but did you know that some women's milk never comes in? Or when it does, the level never comes close to reaching the child's needs? We didn't. But we found out the hard way. Five days of a screaming hungry child and little sleep. When the visiting nurse came to our house our baby was dehydrated, had lost almost 15% of her birth weight** (and she was already small) and had jaundice. We were told that if we went another day of weight loss that we would have to bring the baby back to the hospital. We decided we had to get this kid some food, no matter how we did it. Turned out that despite continued effort, my wife's milk never really came in and it would have been a huge mistake to stubbornly continue down the breastfeeding only path.

But why did it take us so long to reach this rather obvious conclusion? Because of the 1950s. Starting in the 50s there was a move away from breastfeeding in the US (A solid summary of historical trends can be found here) and in the 1970s there began a push back that has resulted in the resurgence in breastfeeding rates. But like any issue where strong opinions are involved, sometimes numbers get a little skewed, arguments become more extreme and "common knowledge" spreads unchecked. If you look around at many pro-breastfeeding websites and take them as The Truth, you would come away thinking that not breastfeeding your child ought to earn you jail time and if you give your child anything but a breast, it will forever spurn you and your nipples. And so new parents will put themselves and their babies through a lot to avoid being Those People.

And as one of Those People, let me tell you that the reaction from many people when you reveal that you are not breastfeeding is full of subtle assumption that you are a bad parent. There are two types of typical reactions:

1) You are selfish and don't care enough about your child to put the work*** into making breastfeeding happen.

2) You don't know what you are doing and let The Man force you into making a bad decision for your child****.

Combine these reactions from many people you talk to with the emotions of a new mother who already feels like she has failed and it is easy to get to a bad place very quickly. Nothing like having judgment heaped all over you as a new parent for something you can't control.

But the thing is, our first child is not a toothless sloth. I know, I'm as shocked as you are. And with the second we have managed to use formula to supplement through an extended period of slower milk production to get things going a little bit this time around, and neither the bottle nor formula turn out to be baby crack. In fact, we seamlessly go back and forth!

When we started talking round after our first child, we were surprised at how many women mentioned that they had milk supply issues with at least one of their children. For some, it works out after some struggle, for others it doesn't. But in the end, the point should be having a happy child and parents, not adhering to some doctrine. While breast milk has been clearly shown to provide benefits for your child that a formula diet cannot, it is not always an option for all mothers. However, the alternative is not sentencing our child to a lifetime of playing catch up, despite the ads.

*As an aside, people love to throw around random stats during the entire process of child rearing, most of which are total bullshit and completely self-serving to the internal narrative of the Stats Provider.

**In the US, 10% is the threshold where they bring the baby back in.

***And it is work in the beginning.

****It only took four comments on a post where I mentioned milk supply issues, in passing, to get one of these.

27 responses so far

Random final NSF panel thoughts

I know I have been harping on this topic too much recently and those of you who are either not in science or not NSF people are probably ready to write me off. There were a few topics from my trip to NSF, however, that I would like to address and haven't gotten to, then I'll shut up about this and move on.

- One of the major issues that NSF is trying to tackle right now is finding ways to lighten the reviewer load. They have a hard time getting enough ad hoc reviewers in some cases to make the review process go the way it was meant to. There are several ways to deal with this, including shortening the proposals (10-12 pages from the current 15) or doing pre-proposals. I don't think I would have any problem with a shorter proposal (NIH is down to 12 pages), but pre-proposals are a horrible idea, IMO. In any case, there was strong sentiment in our panel that A) ad hoc reviews are important, especially if no experts in a particular field are on the panel, and B) going to either an all panel (no ad hocs) or all mail in (no panel) system would not be nearly as effective.

I guess there is a lot of pushback from the community about 'reviewer burn out', but I have to kinda call bullshit on this one. Everytime a person sends in a manuscript or proposal, they expect roughly three reviews back. Shouldn't that mean you should expect to review roughly three proposals or papers for every one you submit? Seems only fair, no? How many people are reviewing significantly more (on average) than that?

- Another thing that came up, of course, was budgets and so frustration over the small percentage of proposals that would be funded. One panelist asked why NSF didn't cap the overhead rate so that the money saved could go into the science, rather than the black box of overhead. I know that NSF does not control O/H rates, but another interesting point was raised. If NSF caps overhead, how will that effect hiring at schools that depend on the current O/H rates? Say NSF caps O/H at 30%, wouldn't there be a strong preference for hiring scientists with NIH potential over anyone who would be funded by NSF?

I hadn't really thought about it that way before, so I found this point really interesting. Beyond just creating a 'gradient of significance' within departments and colleges that would pit the NSF-funded against the NIH-funded scientists, it could wipe out NSF from science from many R1 institutions in a generation or two. So yeah, bad idea.

- Be careful what you call 'transformative' these days. Why? Because NSF is starting to track proposals that have had this label applied to them in review to see what happens with them and whether they end up being a big deal. There has been some focus on the idea of seeking out these transformative proposals and now NSF wants to see whether it has been worth it. It will be interesting to hear what the results are.

17 responses so far

Magnifying Science

Yesterday one of the projects on the PLS Donors Choose project page, Magnifying Science, was fully funded, mostly by science blog readers, including Jenny from California, who got there through this site. I just wanted to post the letter that the teacher wrote in response to the purchase of microscopes for her 5th grade class. Thanks to Jenny and the other donors who made this happen and thanks to the donors who have given to this cause so far. There's still time to give and make another teacher and another classroom as happy as Mrs. S.

I am astounded by the generosity and support that has been showered upon my classroom. When I first drafted this project over the summer I figured it was a long shot, but decided to shoot for the stars! You all have made this dream a reality. I just got off the phone with a colleague of mine and we were literally shrieking with excitement!
These microscopes are going into the hands of some phenomenal 5th graders! I can't wait to tell them tomorrow that we are going to get our microscopes! This gift will affect my two classes this year, the other teachers on my team, as well as students for years to come. Thank you!

I've held off on our Life Science unit with the hopes that I could plan lessons with our new microscopes, and now I can!! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support. You have given me the tools to be a better teacher to these children. I promise that I will give them every opportunity I can. THANK YOU!!

With gratitude,
Mrs. S.

2 responses so far

I have been remiss

Alright ladies and gentlemen, I have been remiss in not pushing the Donors Choose drive a little harder over the last little bit, but this is kinda a big deal. Granted, I don't have a nipple-shirted avatar to persuade you, but I do think it is important that we get some more people interested in this drive.

Clearly, there are a few of you reading and I would guess that many of y'all have a few bucks you could live without so that school kids can be provided with what were likely staple items when you went to school. Sadly, some of the projects on the Donor's Choose site are things like a rug so that kids can sit for story time. Whether you think it is up to the private citizen to make up for the ridiculous shortcomings of the state or town is not the point. What is, is not letting children suffer for the funding decisions that are out of their control.

To sweeten the pot, several corporations have agreed to double contributions over the next few weeks, notably HP, who have committed to match every contribution from the Science Blogger Challenge, up to $50,000. So your $5 contributed today can me $10 for a classroom. It all adds up and pretty soon these classrooms will be able to buy supplies for biology labs, projects and yes, even a rug.

Even if everyone who read this post donated $1, it would make a major difference to schools across the US. Even if it seems ridiculous to you, pull the change out of your pocket today and give that. Like I said, it all adds up.

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Donors Choose time!

The official start date of our Science Blog Donor's Choose competition is Oct 10, but I'm gonna be out of town and a few others here have already turned their reads loose on their giving pages.

You can either click THIS LINK for the donor page I have set up or use the sidebar. The goal here is to pit blog collectives and independent blogs against one another in a steel cage death match (for the kids, of course) for your donations. So, donations made through the pages of various blogs will be our bragging rights as we gather money for classrooms across the country that need some extra help to teach STEM concepts to their kids.

I mostly chose projects that had a direct impact of teaching and learning science, but have a few others on there that I found interesting. I will also be adding new projects as the ones on the current page get closed out, so don't be afraid to check the page more than once!

2 responses so far

Women's health writeup

Sep 27 2010 Published by under [Science in Society]

Today we have a special series of posts on women's health and the absurdity of claims in mainstream media. There will be a special stream dedicated to this today on the front page and Sci at Neurotic Physiology has a round-up post where you can read about the origin of this series and also find the different blogs that are contributing today. Go check it out.

One response so far

Co-post: A conversation on the dangers of field science

I'll be honest, I've been thinking about this post for a while, but didn't really know how to approach it. Every time I tried to put thoughts down it seemed to me that it came off sounding like "Look how fucking tough I am! I face danger for science!" when in fact I am neither particularly tough, nor is what I do particularly dangerous. But CoR and I started talking about field science the other day and parts of that discussion seemed like a natural post. What makes it more compelling this time is getting the perspective of another person who does different work and deals with different dangers, so hopefully between the two of us we've put something coherent together. In any case, the slightly redacted conversation below. We would be interested to hear from others who spend time in the field.


When I was but a wee graduate student I did a *ton* of field work. Probably 4 years solid either collecting or doing field trails. (The gray beards are laughing at me right now. 4 years? Hah!). In any case, many -ologist types do field work and this work brings its own rewards. It generally is hella fun and part of the main attraction of being an -ologist.

The downside is that field work can be dangerous, regardless of where your study site may be. Field work can be even more tricky if you are of the female sort. I encountered enough weirdness during my time in the field that I am reluctant to offhandedly send my trainees out alone.

For example. (I'm cherry picking the most annoying examples -- there were others). Once, while collecting by the side of the road, I was asked to breakfast by a man that looked exactly like this (I am not kidding) and drove a car that looked like this (how can you NOT be a machodouche in a car like that?). He thought maybe I could take a break and we could have a chat at the local IHOP? Um, no thanks. I'll pass on the pancakes and certain death, thankyouverymuch.

Another time I was manhandled by Drunk Joe while ordering dinner at a bar after a long day collecting in a far-off place. All I wanted to do was drink a beer, grab a gigantic hamburger and hole up in my hotel...and random drunk Joe felt the need to massage my shoulders and fiddle with my bra straps. I shrugged him off until my food came...and then I walked in the dark, alone, to my hotel.

I was completely fine both times, and probably extremely lucky. On most occasions out in the field I was alone -- I drove all over a portion of the states by myself, jumped on people's land or hiked into public lands, collected my critters and went back home. And during most trips nothing happened. However, had something happened it would have been really difficult for my kin to have recovered the body since no one knew where I was at any given point. This was probably really stupid.

While I haven't had to face the prospect of getting invited to join the cast of Tarantino's "Death Proof", I've found myself in some interesting situations in the field. Admittedly, I traveled for collecting purposes far more as a grad student than since, but because of what we do and did, I have gone to some unusual places to get the beasts we need - locations where making a mistake can be magnified simply due to the circumstances. Hell, I have even had to carry a gun for science (NTBI represent)!

As one example, I was in the high Arctic one summer camping near a small inlet miles from the small town from which we had embarked. There were four scientists, two guides and a dog. The dog was identified as the "polar bear dog" and it was never clear whether that title was meant as "polar bear distraction snack", "early warning system" or some combination of the two, but the dog clearly wanted nothing to do with the whole affair and bolted as soon as we got to our camp site. Our guides seemed more concerned about losing their neighbor's dog than not having it for the bears, so that night we pitched our tents in the middle of an enormous barren and didn't worry about it. Afterall, the guides were going to stand guard.

The next morning we woke up and got talking with the guide who was awake. We noticed that the top part of our tent was missing, and although it was covered by the fly, we asked about it. "Last time, a bear collapsed the tent and broke it." was the response. Apparently no one was hurt because the bear got startled by the ease with which the tent deflated, but the previous occupants had been understandably startled by giant paws on them in the middle of the night. Hence, the "polar bear dog" (who, BTW, was still MIA).

Slightly unnerved by this news, we were even less enthused when the second guide woke up and had been sleeping in the boat. "Was something wrong with your tent?" we asked. "No, I was scared of bears." was the response. Thanks dude.

In any case, all went well on that trip. No bears were sighted and the dog was eventually found (not much to hide behind 500 miles north of the tree line), but field work that seemed routine at the time has certainly led to tragic endings.

In these situations, bringing trainees can be particularly stressful because rather than being responsible for only myself, I now have to worry about the actions and reactions of those I bring with me. I know that there have certainly been times in my past when I pushed the boundaries of safety for one more sample, for something that looked critical at the time, or even to ensure that everyone else in the group was safe. There is certainly the mentality of "I've come all the way here, spent all that money, and need to make it worth it". Clearly nothing in science is worth bodily injury, but in the right circumstances, apparently mundane decisions can lead to bigger than anticipated consequences. Getting this across to trainees is exceedingly important to me now, though I would not have thought about it that way a few years ago.


I'd like to come up with strategies so that my trainees are not confronted with the same scenarios that I walked myself into. The most simple solution of course is to insist that no one go alone to the field. This doubles the cost of field expeditions, and some field work (like you describe above) is going to be dangerous no matter what. This doesn't mean, I think, that we let our guard down for the expeditions that aren't obviously dangerous. Field work that seems rather safe and benign might not be. I considered carrying a gun at one point, but someone informed me that I would have to be willing to actually use it. Plus, I'm more of the sort that would take forever to root around to find said gun and would then just be the gun supplier for said shady person.

So what are the strategies, or rules that we can impart to people before sending them off on, arguably, the most fun aspect of the job?

The solo student in the field is less of an issue for my people because most of our field work is done in groups in distant places, so it is not the kind of thing where an individual would wander off by themselves. I also would be on the side of "having a gun is more likely to get you hurt than not", but that is a personal view and likely influenced by my gender in no small part. I think it is a fine line between impressing safety concerns on trainees without making them paranoid, since the intent would never be to send them to a place with foreseeable danger. It is also, however, important for the trainee to know that they can voice their discomfort with a situation without being labeled as unwilling to deal with adversity. This is especially true for what we do, because I would rather have someone bail early than panic in the middle of everything and put others at risk. I don't know what the answer is and it may be different from one student to the next. I do know that in several labs I am familiar with, field travel is disproportionately allocated to those who are seen to be dependable and can get shit done. How that relates to the ability of trainees to voice concern for their safety is not clear to me, but I can see where it might have bad consequences.


Right, and I think this is where I want to be particularly careful. I could easily see the scenario of the 'most dependable' or 'most able to get shit done' mutating into 'the easiest to send out' and that person being the dude, given my worries that field work entails another aspect of danger for women. I certainly don't want to perpetuate that kind of inequality. I think some simple things I can do is to insist everyone goes to the field with at least one other person, carries a cell phone and has a working GPS. I might insist on calls both in and out of the field, probably on a daily basis. It would also be good to have people inform park rangers where they are going to be, especially should they be doing off-trail collecting. Other than that? I'm out.

I think those are reasonable requirements and most people will probably augment with any additional precautions that they feel are necessary. Obviously the primary concern is making sure your people are safe, but it is an easy trap to equate safety with least likely (in the PI's view) to be the subject of an attack (in your case) and freak out in adverse conditions (in my case). Judging that a priori is bound to lead to problems.

Maybe we should blog this and let others weigh in?

26 responses so far

First defense and the talking jitters

Today was not only a big day because of the Scientopia launch, but also because I had my first student defend. This was a student who started with me a little less than two years ago and has done an excellent job getting things done at a time I needed it most. It's great that the student finished up and that a paper is almost ready to go, it is just odd losing one if the people who has been here since the beginning - but such is the nature of the beast.

One thing that the student asked me, which is a bit of a reoccurring theme, is how many talks did I have to give before I stopped getting nervous. I had to think about it, because whereas it has been a while since I got nervous before a talk, as a young and naive PLS I was a total fucking wreck before a talk. My knees used to shake during talks and even the anticipation made my digestion to bad, bad things.

So, I graphed it (this is science afterall):

Nervousness relative to talk experience.

I think for the first little while it doesn't seem like you are going to adjust. Every talk you are just as nervous as the one before and the only difference is you know how bad it is going to be. Somewhere after about 10 talks it starts to get better, but only marginally so (from eleventy to something in the normal range). Then there is a magical moment when you are no longer terrified the entire time you have to stand there and be the sole voice in the room. Once this happens there is a plateau where you still feel the nerves a bit before a talk and in the first minute or so, but you have the ability to crush those feelings once you start rolling. They persist, however, and can rear their ugly head if the environment changes substantially (really big talk, job talk). After that stage the bottom drops out and it pretty much becomes telling a story.

Maybe it takes a little longer for some and a little less for others, but the only way to deal with a fear of public speaking is to get up there and realize that there isn't that much to fear. Yes, we have all had that time we looked stupid standing in front of a crowd stammering out a circular answer to a question we barely understood, but to my knowledge, no deaths have been associated with such an experience. Often they become part of the War Story arsenal one can use to make others feel better (you think you looked like an ass? Let me tell you a little story...)

It's easy to look at people who seem to be natural speakers and think they left the womb that way, but I can assure you that at some point almost everyone has been terrified to stand up and present their work in front of crowd of like-minded individuals and everyone has a horror story. Rarely is new ground forged in this arena.

18 responses so far

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