Sunday, April 13, 2014

When philosophy professors go to hell

SMBC gives them a preview of what they are in for. Scary!

Does Pedigree Matter?

It does, according to a recent study summarized by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed. One of the findings, for example, is this: "[Those who earned their PhD from a top university] were 22 percent more likely than others to be employed by a research university."

Frankly, I am surprised that the correlation is not stronger.

Susan Watts: Society needs more than wonder to respect science

A very good column in Nature:

There is a fundamental difference between science communication and science journalism. At the science communication end of the spectrum sit the stories that show people how exciting science can be, the discovery of a wonder material, perhaps, or a new subatomic particle. Explaining the significance of sightings of the Higgs boson or of gravitational waves from the early Universe takes real skill.

Science journalism's job is to tell the stories that explore the murky underbelly of science, like the selling of bogus stem-cell cures to vulnerable patients. It is science journalism that will expose the rushed policy-making, the undisclosed profiteering, the conflicts of interest and the vested interests, the bad experiments, or the out-and-out frauds.

For both, you need to be the kind of person who asks “why” a lot. You need to enjoy coaxing sometimes shy, or reluctant, or just plain difficult scientists to tell you about their work — and then to feel enthused enough to want to tell somebody else.

But a journalist also needs to be persistent, and brave enough to find out the things that people don't want the world to know, and who often work hard to stop the world knowing — and to tell those tales too.

Two women's views on the Modi Masc

First, Mitali Saran's take in The Business Standard on the mantastic masculinity projected by the BJP leader and his band of macho men: Mr. Modi's Men:

If you've been listening to the BJP's campaign ads - and it's hard to miss them - you know that they say two things: First, that the pride of the Hindu nation and culture is paramount, and second, that Mr Modi will restore and nurture that pride. Mr Modi will never let the nation's head be bowed; Mr Modi will never allow this soil to be desecrated; Mr Modi will protect women; Mr Modi will be the alpha male leader we all fantasise about.

This language - pride, honour and protection - expresses fragility and fear, and spreads fragility and fear. It is used by people with brittle egos, who prefer sabre-rattling to rational discussion [snip, snip] It's the language of the kind of masculinity that thrives on domination, not cooperation, on homogeneity rather than heterogeneity, and on majoritarianism rather than individual rights. It values hierarchy, not equality, and sentiment over rationality. It presumes obedience and acquiescence, not irreverence and challenge. It is, in fact, the masculinity of an 8-year-old boy.

Second, a very cheeky Mumbai Mirror column by Shobhaa De on Why most women would never marry Narendra Modi ...

... So, here's the first cut on this sizzling topic: Narendra Modi - Stud or Dud? Namo is definitely not the sort of guy you want to take home to mother. He'd probably scare the hell out of her. You wouldn't want to introduce him to friends either (this is key... girls- friends must approve of boyfriends/husbands). As for getting Dad to hang with this guy - oooops! No chance. After all, Dad is the real 'chowkidar' in a daughter's life. Why hire another? Next criterion: Would Namo make a compatible travel companion? Doubtful. He'd probably make a speech wherever he finds five people. And the only sight seeing he'd be interested in would be restricted to helicopter surveys of expressways. Could Namo be a good listener (this is perhaps the single most important quality women look for in men)? The answer is an emphatic 'no'. Modi loves the sound of his own voice. And he doesn't listen to anyone - man or woman.

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Thanks to Peter Griffin's G+ stream.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Sartorial Choices of American College Students

... As more and more students went to college, more and more went out into the world with new standards of dress. It is important to note that the number of college students grew tenfold in the first half of the 20th century.

Q: What types of obstacles or pushback did students experience from college leaders?

A: College leaders were far more interested in policing the activities of women and, in the 1940s, they developed elaborate dress codes as to when and where particular garments could be worn. Before that, dress codes were enforced by peer pressure or one-on-one interaction with the administrators. So, it was not until jeans, pants, and shorts on women that there was a need for written rules. More than downright outlawing garments, administrators controlled the parameters of when the clothes could be worn. The cafeteria was a highly contested space. For men, they were pushed to wear sport coats and ties, but many protested these rules or simply did not comply. There were very few repercussions for men; women were given demerits or grounded to campus for breaking dress codes. Of course, so much of this enforcement depended on the inclinations of school administrators.

That's from this interview, Deirdre Clemente, the author of Dress Casual: How College Students Redefined American Style.

ChemViews Interview of Prof. Dan Shechtman

I really do believe that anyone who gets the Nobel Prize deserves it. But that doesn’t mean that whoever deserves a Nobel gets one.

Those are the opening words from Prof. Dan Shechtman in this wonderful interview he gave during last year's Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

The interview covers a wide range of topics, including the pivotal role of electron microscopy in the discovery of quasicrystals, and his own tenacious belief in the essential correctness of his discovery even in the face of strong opposition from stalwarts like Linus Pauling.

Very, very good stuff!

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Mathai Joseph and Andrew Robinson on What Ails Indian Science

Their opinion piece in this week's Nature -- Free Indian Science -- lays out (some of) the problems that hold Indian science back. The entire article is worth reading, so go read it now. I'll use this post to highlight some of the interesting points made by the authors.

Let me come right off and say that this is a great line:

Indian science needs public funding, but not government control.

Many people -- including some clueless journalists -- fail to realize that in terms of funding, academic institutions in India are the bit players; the biggies are the government labs, and it is good to see that Joseph and Robinson hammer this point home:

Nearly 60% of India's science budget2 is now spent on the CSIR, scientific departments and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) — an enormous and impenetrable empire set up in 1958. None of these national institutions has stimulated scientific excellence [...]

Joseph and Robinson also nail a key problem in the grants made by funding agencies to faculty members in academic institutions:

... [Although] research in the leading institutions is well funded, [...] the funding is subject to unsuitable restrictions applicable to the entire government bureaucracy. These include limited foreign travel and no travel support for research students, ruling out regular participation in leading conferences and research gatherings.

Their analysis of the problems that plague Indian science leads to a four-part solution. The first part is about insulating the funding agencies from government control:

The first step towards reinvigorating Indian science must be to create an empowered funding agency, staffed by working scientists, some of whom could be non-resident Indians. A possible model is the European Research Council, which deals with a complex of national governments no less formidable than India's 29 state governments, yet manages to focus on supporting research excellence. The crucial requirement is obviously that an Indian scientific research council be permitted to set its own criteria for the evaluation of research proposals, independent of direct government control, and disburse government funds accordingly.

There's a lot more in there -- go read the whole thing.

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Thanks to Prof. S. Ranganathan for the e-mail pointer.

The Importance of Hiring Stars

Here's the abstract of an NBER working paper entitled Why Stars Matter by Ajay Agrawal, John McHale, Alexander Oettl:

The growing peer effects literature pays particular attention to the role of stars. We decompose the causal effect of hiring a star in terms of the productivity impact on: 1) co-located incumbents and 2) new recruits. Using longitudinal university department-level data we report that hiring a star does not increase overall incumbent productivity, although this aggregate effect hides offsetting effects on related (positive) versus unrelated (negative) colleagues. However, the primary impact comes from an increase in the average quality of subsequent recruits. This is most pronounced at mid-ranked institutions, suggesting implications for the socially optimal spatial organization of talent.

If it sounds forbiddingly academic, the Chronicle has a translation into plain English: How Hiring a Star Matters to a Department.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


  1. Infographic: Number of Researchers per million inhabitants by Country.

  2. Philip Guo: Silent Technical Privilege. "As a novice computer programmer, I always got the benefit of the doubt—because I looked the part."

    Instead of facing implicit bias or stereotype threat, I had the privilege of implicit endorsement. For instance, whenever I attended technical meetings, people would assume that I knew what I was doing (regardless of whether I did or not) and treat me accordingly. If I stared at someone in silence and nodded as they were talking, they would assume that I understood, not that I was clueless. Nobody ever talked down to me, and I always got the benefit of the doubt in technical settings.

    As a result, I was able to fake it till I made it, often landing jobs whose postings required skills I hadn't yet learned but knew that I could pick up on the spot. Most of my interviews for research assistantships and summer internships were quite casual—people just gave me the chance to try. And after enough rounds of practice, I actually did start knowing what I was doing. As I gained experience, I was able to land more meaningful programming jobs, which led to a virtuous cycle of further improvement.

  3. Retraction Watch: Oh, the irony: Paper on “Ethics and Integrity of the Publishing Process” retracted for duplication.

Costs of Higher Ed

In its conventional avatar, higher ed is quite expensive, not just in the rich countries, but in poorer ones as well. A recent post -- The Cost of Expanding Access in Poor Countries -- fleshes out some implications of this fact:

... You can see this most easily if you express countries’ expenditures per student on higher education as a fraction of GDP/capita. In advanced OECD countries, that number is usually in the region of 30%; in Africa, it is frequently over 100% (and even with that disparity, it’s not even close to buying a similar end-product). It’s quite simply enormously expensive for governments in this situation to expand higher education.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Maria Weinstock: 15 Works of Art Depicting Women in Science

Check out this photo essay on "Visualizing notable women in the STEM fields through the lens of fine art" at the Scientific American site.

Implicit Bias and Discrimination against Women

John Bohannon in Science Now: Both Genders Think Women Are Bad at Basic Math.

Study participants of both genders were divided into two groups: employers and job candidates. The job was simple: As accurately and quickly as possible, add up sets of two-digit numbers in a 4-minute math sprint. ... At the end of the experiment, the employers took the Implicit Association Test, which measures unconscious bias by forcing you to quickly group together various words.

The employers had limited information to make their hiring decisions. In some cases, they got nothing but a glance at the candidate—this revealed the candidate’s gender, of course. In other cases, the employers also had the candidate’s self-appraisal of how many problems he or she expected to be able to complete in the 4-minute period. And sometimes, after the employers made their hiring decision, they had a chance to change their minds after they were told by a researcher how the candidates had actually performed on a test run of the math sprint.

Men and women employers alike revealed their prejudice against women for a perceived lack of mathematical ability. When the only information that the employers had was a photograph of the candidate, men were twice as likely to be hired for the simple math job, no matter whether it was a man or woman doing the hiring [...]

Mary Ann Mason: How to Level the Playing Field for Women in Science

Mary Ann Mason (Berkeley School of Law, UC-Berkeley) in The Chronicle of Higher Education: How to Level the Playing Field for Women in Science. The article is largely about how to tackle the "baby penalty"; here are the key paragraphs:

Our most important finding is that family formation damages the academic careers of women but not of men. Having children is a career advantage for men; for women, it is a career killer. And women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high personal price. They are far less likely to be married with children. We see more women than we used to in visible positions, like presidents of Ivy League colleges, but we also see many more women than men who are married with children working in the adjunct-faculty ranks, the "second tier," and one of the fastest-growing sectors of academe.

Our study also identified interventions that could help change that disheartening pattern. Some of these policies are now in place at some universities and are being promoted by some federal agencies. We are at a critical point, where the story could change dramatically: The "baby penalty" could be wiped out, or at least greatly ameliorated, by these four reforms: better child care (in many forms), effective dual-career policies, childbirth accommodations, and compliance with Title IX’s prohibition on pregnancy discrimination.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Retractions due to Mistakes

This Nature Jobs story makes the non-controversial point that correcting the scientific record should be the primary concern of a scientist who has discovered an error in an already published paper. It presents a bunch of examples of scientists doing the right thing (by retracting their papers, for example) without suffering adverse consequences.

After 18 months of complex testing and re-testing, Pamela Ronald became certain that she needed to retract two high-profile papers on disease resistance in rice. The hardest part, says Ronald, a crop scientist at the University of California, Davis, was staying calm — she worried about the implications for current and past lab members and about others spending time replicating potentially faulty work.

The papers had claimed to identify a bacterial protein that could activate an immune response in rice plants with a specific receptor. But when new members of her team were unable to reproduce the results, alarm bells started ringing. Shaken, they decided that the first step was to genotype all the laboratory strains in their collection. Eventually they caught a labelling error: two of the 12 strains thought to lack the protein in question actually lacked a different protein. And the careful backtracking unearthed yet another error: the test, which they had used to verify that this protein could trigger resistance, turned out to be faulty. Despite her distress, throughout the ordeal Ronald was straightforward with journal editors and her colleagues about the likelihood of retractions. She knew that her scientific reputation depended on complete transparency about possible errors. “You just have to set aside emotions and let the scientific process pull you through,” she says.

Rich Science

William J. Broad has an example-rich article on the phenomenon direct science funding by ultra-rich people: Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science:

American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise.

In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky, freewheeling realm of basic research. Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research.

The result is a new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation.