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Science Outlook – If Newt won the White House

What would science look like if Republicans won the White House in 2012? (Part 1 of 2)After hearing Former Speaker Gingrich’s promise that there will be colonies on the moon by 2020, and then the subsequent parodies by various comedians and Romney, I want to ask: what did you find yourself thinking?

Although I don’t believe that we should go back to the moon to settle colonies, Former Speaker Gingrich’s pandering to the space coast got me thinking about the foundation I had for the stress that with a republican in the White House we would lose all of the momentum in R&D we worked so hard to gain these last 3-4 years.  Where did I get this feeling? Because public debates rarely go into how candidates think about science and research and development.

Now a disclaimer: this post is all speculation based on limited research. I have merely looked into the past decisions, votes, and bills introduced by Gringrich (during the 104th Congress) and cherry picked the legislation that might hint at a passion and interest in science. This post is in no way guaranteeing that this will be the agenda that he will take.  I am only looking for patterns to help guide thinking about the candidates that are bombarding the news cycles.

And of course, the candidate will not be the only one who makes decisions on science, as if he does win the White House, it will also depend on who he will appoint to his cabinet positions and other key science positions. But again, this is just a small list to begin to think about the candidates from the viewpoint of what they can do for science, because R&D is not often talked about in national debates.

Gingrich perhaps was not just pandering to the space coast, but has always found an interest in space policy, since growing up during the space race. In an interview with The Space Review in 2006, he sees a lot of potential in large monetary prizes and tax incentives to encourage businesses and the private sector to be involved. Although many of these partnerships with the private sector are already happening and have been the efforts of the current (Obama) administration.

Energy and the Environment:
This is a bit difficult to tease out as there are instances where Newt has been a proponent of climate change going as far as doing a commercial with Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi in support of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and even authoring A Contract with the Earth, a book on green conservatism. However in recent months in during his campaign for the presidency he is on the same side of nearly every other republican candidate, expressing that the commercial was the “dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years”.

In addition, his quote about changing the EPA to the Environmental Solutions Agency (ESA) is a bit convoluted as he expresses the need for this agency to work with industry to build incentives rather than punishments. One specific example to keep an eye on is his proposal to incentivize “flex-fuel” vehicles.  However, these types of vehicles would need to broaden beyond just ethanol to not be seen as choosing ethanol as the “winner”.

Former Speaker Gingrich has a very strong commitment to education. He knows that prosperity and national security are tied into education. Although he does rely heavily on the charter school system, but as does Secretary Duncan (interview with Meet the Press).

As an additional disclaimer, this post in no way endorses Newt Gingrich. I just wanted to have a discussion about the speculations on the consequence of science if republicans were to win the White House. Did you catch any other articles I should take a look at? Tomorrow: Mitt Romney, what is the outlook for science if he wins the White House?

Not just superMAN, but superMEN and superWOMEN


A good education is luck?

I am slightly behind the times in that I finally had the chance to watch Waiting for Superman. But seeing that our education system has not drastically improved in the last year since this movie came out, I believe that I have seen it well within what would be considered “in time” to take action. If you have not seen this movie, you need to put this in your Netflix queue; but as a warning: it is an incredibly difficult movie to sit through. It is perhaps one of the most depressing documentaries I have seen. I do not recall what type of reviews this movie got when it came out, and if or if not what I have just mentioned was the consensus about the movie.  But the movie does dramatically illustrates the fact that the American school system is not adequately preparing a majority of the children that go through it for sustained employment in their future.

Specifically what I wanted to investigate more was the brief introduction of Michelle Rhee’s summer 2008 radical proposal of offering a choice to teachers to be able to earn up to twice as much if he/she gave up tenure. It was just a brief feature of the proposal, showcasing the potential for reform if it worked, and in the director’s opinion, the devastating event that the proposal was deemed so threaten that it was not even put to a vote.  This proposal was incredibly intriguing for me because earlier in the movie it mentioned some interesting statistics on the number of teachers who have lost their teaching credentials to doctors and lawyers who lose their licenses. The numbers were 1 in 57 doctors, 1 in 97 lawyers and 1 in 2500 teachers who have lost their credentials for malpractice. So with these numbers, why not have a proposal to take another look at teacher contracts?  But let me poke some holes in the proposal.

1. I do not know how the worst teachers (who probably know that they are the “lemons”, and probably would choose tenure) get eliminated by this system/proposal?

2. The extra funding is provided by private sources which is not sustainable.

3. There does not seem to be a solid assessment process for those who choose to give up tenure for their “merit-based” raises.

Perhaps a better proposal is to change how K-12 teachers get tenure. What if K-12 teachers went through the rigorous process of academics for tenure? Should K-12 work like the ivory tower? hm, imagine for a moment what that would look like. just briefly: pros – incredible innovation not just out of universities but also high schools? cons – Only a small percentage are deemed “qualified”. In 2006, only 15% of PhDs hold tenure track positions. But like Rhee’s proposal, it does not eliminate current poorly performing teachers. It is quite interesting and fascinating that even the potential to earn six figures as a teacher was no where close to being competitive to having tenure.  Ms. Slyvia, “Don’t as me to give up tenure, not even for a moment.”

* I do have to note that I believe that every single one of the kids that are featured in the movie have the chance to be successful. **spoiler: just because a few of them do not get into their charter school of choice, it is not the end for them as the movie might imply. But it is a movie and directors do have cinematic freedom to captivate an audience. But I also do not think that the drama dilutes the take home message: there needs to be a be a better way of educating children in the US so that we can be as competitive and innovative as we can be as a nation.

Josh Eidelson’s blog post (from back in Feb 2011) that also asks a lot of very good questions about the movie.

Why is it so hard to have a work/life balance in the sciences?!

or so it seems.

I was really excited earlier this week when the White House and NSF announced a Foundation-wide initiative termed the “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative”. Some parts of this initiatives include postponing grants for child birth/adoption or suspending grants to cover parental leave.  It is refreshing to finally see some action from the highest levels addressing the mountains of research that has indicated a gap in the pipeline (that although women are receiving almost 50% of the PhDs only about 30% are tenure-track faculty).

But an interesting question is: will this work? A recent study by the National Academies might shed light on what women who have reached those critical career transitions have done. One of the conclusions they drew in conducting two national surveys in 2004 and 2005, was that:

“both male and female faculty utilized stopping-the-tenure-clock policies – spending a longer time in the uncertainty of securing tenure – but women used these policies more”. But, most importantly: “…stopping the tenure clock did not affect the probability of promotion and tenure; it just delayed it about 1.5 years.”

This result was surprising to me. Women (and men) are already beginning to take advantage of opportunities to delay tenure. Therefore these new NSF policies may in fact continue to make it more acceptable for faculty to consider these opportunities. The National Academies also make an note that in their study women are just as successful if not more than their male counterparts in obtaining tenure. So the question becomes, how to increase the number of women faculty who get to that point?

There is a gap in the study if the key transition for women turns out to be between receiving her PhD and applying for that tenure-track position, and these new NSF policies perhaps do not address the considerations that happen at that point in a researcher’s career. Although an interesting observation noted in the NAS study is that although institution and departmental strategies for increasing the percentage of women in the applicant pool were not accurate at predicting the number of women applying,

“The percentage of women on the search committee and whether a woman chaired the search committee, however, did have a significant effect on recruiting women”

This finding somewhat supports a recent discussion in Nature Chemistry about the culture of science and not that the field of science is unwelcoming to female scientists but that it is rather inadvertently being hostile.  I highly recommend this article as it has an excellent comparison/illustration of gender biasing to chromatography. But it might just be because I’m an organic chemist. Basically the article presents the viewpoint that perhaps there might not be a key transition point (undergrad to grad, PhD to post-doc, postdoc to applying for tenue-track position) when women decide or not decide that academia is not for them but that it might be the small things that make her think that she does not fit. *Sidenote and speaking of inconvenient bathrooms for women (read the Nature article): a reminder that just this year the House put a female bathroom that was adjacent to the House floor. (men had one but women had use the one through Statuary Hall put built for them in 1962.)

Science Careers in Search of Women 2009

Great program at Argonne National Lab: Science Careers in Search of Women. Strong mentorship has also been attributed to having a significant positive influence on female faculty.

There is a lot of really excellent data on the existence of the gender gap in the science pipeline and it is exciting to see some policy action addressing the gap. However, as the end of the NAS report indicates there still needs to be significant research into what are the barriers at key transitions and what types of policies will be effective? I would also look to fields that have a more even distribution of men and women. What is different about the culture/policies in those fields that attracts both men and women equally?

More reading:

The Conversation: so seriously, why aren’t there more women in science?

The numbers at Wired – Convergence: number of women among National Academy members.

Climate Change Data is Everywhere!

Yay! This is very cool, and props to Mathworks. I am working through the introductory materials for MatLab as I am working on adding computational skills to my already mad synthetic organic skills.  And Mathworks has some really really great tutorials for those with zero programming knowledge. But what I was pleasantly surprised about was that the example data provided to familiarize yourself with how to plot data in the program (and various other analysis skills), they use the data from the Climatic Research Unit for the temperature anomalies from 1850 – 2006 for the student to, in a sense, “discover” if in fact temperatures are rising. That is very awesome way to both teach programming and for students to begin to better understand the analysis of climate change data.

Average annual temperature. Data from the G-Econ project Rendered using Matlab and PovRay.World temperatures

In my free time, I’m re-writing the lyrics to mmmbop to be N-BOC

This month has been pretty exciting in the realm of increasing communication of science to the general public. From the call for scientist to engage in the political rhetoric, by featuring Congressmen that have degrees in physics, chemistry and engineering in the NYtimes. To @sciencegeist and Decian Fahy’s great article in Nature Chemistry for scientist to, among other things, participate in the new communication landscape like Twitter and I’d also like to add, edit Wikipedia!I feel that underlying these efforts to increase the general public understanding of science is to improve and increase peoples uptake of science in what are termed “informal learning” environments.

“Most people, most of the time, learn most of what the know outside the classroom” – George Tressel.

Recently, the National Academies released their workshop summary from the Chemical Sciences Roundtable workshop held in May of last year to discuss the state in which chemistry was being presented on television and radio, the Internet, in museums, and various other informal learning environments. The summary can be found here: Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments.

While we know that informal learning happens through the avenues listed above, one of the main conclusions from the workshop summary is that there is a lack of longitudinal studies on the influence of this type of learning, for example, in encouraging students into STEM fields. I am curious to follow up on the report that comes out of Roundtables like these in the future that will address the recommendations for how to carryout such longitudinal studies.

I want to add that perhaps an example of a policy implication to getting more of this type of data is for more follow up to the broader impacts portion of NSF grants. To require collaborations with faculty to study informal learning environments to team up with faculty with NSF grants that require “broader impacts” to generate longitudinal data.

Another topic that was discussed at the Roundtable is that Chemistry is not really being covered on TV!? What a great avenue to embrace then! Although, I am curious, now that Breaking Bad is becoming so popular, what is its effect on chemistry? I can tell you a personal antidote, when a HS student found out I was a chemist, he immediately asked me if I’ve ever made crystal meth. Now, at the time and still now, I have only seen season 1 of the series and suffice to say, I didn’t know how to respond. Perhaps, in addition to the “well, of course, no”, that I responded with, I should have also said, “but the process of recrystallization is a technique that I nearly carryout daily” so to give this hs student a better idea about what it is that chemist do on a daily basis.

To insert a side-note here: this weekend at ACSDenver there will be a talk from the Science Advisor for Breaking Bad in the Presidental Symposia. If someone goes to that talk, please share your views in the comments section of this blog!

The Roundtable did not discuss the TV show Breaking Bad. But it did bring to my attention several projects on increasing the prevalence of chemistry on TV. There were suggestions to take advantage of Youtube as “In 2008, the New York Times reported that more and more office workers are using their lunch hours to watch short videos over the Internet, “video snacking”. And that “chemistry teachers are hungry for video sources, particularly those that show chemistry at work today”.

One video featured in the summary was a short video on Dan Nocera’s water-splitting catalyst. Showcasing that Internet videos are easy to disseminate and a great way to communicate chemistry’s role in the big captivating questions that are of interest to everyone.

A few others that I myself have found to be entertaining and do a great job of taking advantage of how short videos can engage the viewer in topics related to chemistry:

The EFRC at the University of Texas studying new energy materials, such as solar cells and lithium-ion batteries. Because these centers are funding by the Department of Energy, these short videos are actually a great way to expose the taxpayer to what type of research their tax dollars are going to.

The ACS has started to produce a few short videos about common experimental techniques that chemists often use, for example, the inside of an NMR. An NMR is very important for many chemist in that it is one of the ways that allows us to identify (or strongly support) that we have made the molecules we claim to have made. It is an extremely fascinating instrument, as prior to the NMR, molecules were identified using a thermometer.(1)

The summary also mentioned an exciting movie being developed and is set to be broadcast on PBS this year (for the International Year of Chemistry) called the Search for the Elements. I have not been able to find any more information about the movie other than what is mentioned in the report. But keep a look out for it and I will do the same in order to help promote it! The film sounds like a great project to promote the intrigue and mystery inherent in the discovery of the elements of the periodic table (as there have been a few books in the last couple of years on this, there is yet to be a movie).

Informal learning environments are more than television or short Internet videos. But I have mentioned these in this post as I feel that this is a medium that chemists are not quite taking full advantage of to bring chemistry to the general public. Especially with today’s technology, every nearly has all they need to make a good video on their personal computers! Although the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education(2) ranks Documentary/Film and Public TV and Radio as low in STEM Understanding, it does rank high in informal education. Increasing television along with other parts of the landscape of informal learning, can both increase STEM understanding of the general public and Informal Education.


Roberts, J.D. J. Org. Chem. 2009, 74, 4897-4917. DOI: 10.1021/jo900641t


Falk, J.H.; Randol, S.; Dierking, L.D. 2008 The Informal Science Education Landscape: A Preliminary Investigation. Washington, D.C.; Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.

Scientists and Twitter

After the Google Science Fair, Alice Bell wrote a great piecein the Guardian in which she proposed a charge to “adult” scientist: for us to be more like these inspiring students in how we communicate our passion for science to the general public. She explains that there seems to be a liminility in “grownup” science, that we no longer do not draw inspiration from issues we care about but rather do research on what will provide us with funding or get us published in a peer review journal.Oh! How so very true that scientists are not often required to present their work to the general public. I believe that the closest thing every graduate students gets is explaining their thesis work to their parents. But I am a strong believer in trying to make our work understood and for those who fund us, taxpayers, to understand the importance of our research.

More often then not, we are trained to write for our peers. Journal articles and grant proposals are reviewed by our peers. Now, I am not advocating here for a change in the peer review process, today infact, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, had a subcommittee review NSF’s Merit Review Process. Which should be an interesting read.

Sure, there are requirements (especially in NSF grants) for applicants to consider the broader impacts of their work; but is there any commitment or study to follow up on those impacts? I would like to see more than just published reports on the science that are a means of illustrating productivity but to perhaps also see progress on the broader impacts that are outlined.

Among all the disagreements and lack of compromise in sight at this time, I realize that from my colleagues there will be arguments against needing to provide evidence for broader impacts is that the general public will not understand. They will pick the most obscure projects (robots folding laundry), advocate to cut the funding because they do not really understanding why it is important (to teach uncoordinated tasks). But I think that we should do a better job of trying. In the era in which the sharing of information could not be any more instant or easier that perhaps scientists can do a better job at conversing through twitter* or to have a hand at editing Wikipedia entries.  Through these things we can only help the general public understand our science better. And therefore really let them experience our dreams and aspirations that inspire us to do the science that we do.

*David Waldock wrote an excellent post back in May? about how scientists can ask each other questions through twitter. I think that also perhaps this might be a way for the general public to get a glimpse at the process of research. That statements are not absolute. That when new data and instrumentations come along, it changes our perspective.

What did you learn in undergrad?

As we are in commencement season, a very interesting op-ed appeared in the NYTimes this weekend about students who seem to complete an undergraduate career having done the minimal. While I don’t doubt that colleges have been much more focused on appealing to students to gain admissions and that perhaps the courses are not as rigorous as they should be, it is interesting to think about (as the author suggests) measures of learning by pages read or improvement on the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

I mention this because in educational spheres I have heard the notion that perhaps learning has changed in the 21st century – not that universities have adapted a new educational style to unconsciously accommodate – and that merely the number of pages read does not correlate to the critical thinking skills gained.  Some of the most valuable insight I gained in my undergrad career were through the informal discussions we had in class. How does one measure the debates that were presented that taught me how to think about problems in unique ways?

Therefore, my suggestion would not be to only have the Department of Education offer data on undergraduate learning, but to also criticize the means by which that data is taken and to brainstorm creative ways to fix our undergraduate system so that students do get the most out of their colleges.

I know that when I graduated college and now as I am preparing to complete my PhD, students do want to feel that they will be prepared to enter the workforce and be successful with the degree. So while I agree with the op-ed that perhaps new fancy gyms and deluxe dorms attract students, and perhaps are meant to showcase the endowments gained by successful former alumni, universities should investigate means to better tout the achievements of their former alumni. (for me, I have plans to purchase a new NMR for my undergrad)