Monthly Archives: December 2013

WHAT IS THE VERY BIGGEST PROBLEM FOR SCIENCE TODAY?

 Top Secret FINAL     What is the very biggest problem for science/scientists at universities ?                                                (http://dr-monsrs.net)


           Quite frankly, I believe that science and research now have several very difficult large problems.  The thousands of doctoral scientists around the world who are working in universities generally either are not very aware of these serious issues, or feel helpless to challenge the status quo.  Do I believe that the widespread estrangement of the public from science and research is the biggest problem?  No I don’t!  Is the fact that there never seems to be enough money to support research the biggest problem?  Not in my opinion!  Do I consider that the biggest problem is the disastrous consequences that good scientific research has had for Fukushima, recombinant agricultural crops, modern weapons systems, etc.?  No I don’t!  My personal opinion is that the number one biggest problem for science today is the commercialization of research within universities.  This change in the direction of scientific investigations produces bad consequences for the public, including you and me.  What has caused this large change to develop?  What are its effects for scientific research?

           

            The many research scientists and engineers working in industrial laboratories always have worked knowingly within the context of trying to increase the commercial profits of their employer.  Any given study in industrial labs can be stopped abruptly for business reasons, as well as because the research experiments are not progressing in a satisfactory manner.  This industrial system seems to have worked out quite well in most cases.  However, until recently, basic research by scientists working in academia has not been directly involved with business profits.  The new commercialization of scientific research in universities markedly changes this traditional situation.

            

           Basic scientists formerly obtained money from government research support programs in order to be able to pay the costs of conducting experimental studies within universities.  Via commercialization, things now have switched around so that university science faculty seek research grant awards to enable  their employer to gather increased income and profits; scientific research is only the means to this mercenary end.  In other words, the current aim is simply to get as much money as possible, thereby raising profits for the employing university.  Many science faculty become quite dismayed when they come to realize that the real goal is the money, not the research itself.

            

           Different universities and specialty schools now commonly are compared and ranked on the basis of their annual total research grant awards.  This vigorous lust for research grants has become the major reason why doctoral scientists are hired as faculty in academia.  The professional reputation of a faculty researcher conducting experimental studies in any branch of science now is mainly determined by the total amount of dollars in their research grant awards; such features as innovation, significance, difficulty, and quality in their research findings is of distant importance.  Similarly, the quality of their teaching activities now is strictly of secondary concern.  The entire nature of being a faculty scientist has changed.

            

           Scientific research in academia thus has been turned into just another business activity.  Faculty scientists now are fully part of this new commercialized system where universities openly grasp for increased profits.  Many universities try to explain their shift into seeking profits from research grant awards as a necessary response to declining alumni donations, shrinking endowments, decreasing enrollments, increasing regulations and administrative expenditures, and, the inflating costs for everything.  They can no longer utilize their traditional practice of simply charging students more and more for tuition each year, but it is easy to hide the new commercialization of  their science faculty.  The accompanying negative consequences of this situation are either denied or ignored by these same universities.

            

           Commercialization affects all aspects of being a faculty researcher.  Any academic research scientist working to find the cause or a cure for some disease now almost always is looking around simultaneously to identify which commercial companies will be interested in developing and marketing this wonderful new knowledge.  Those faculty researchers in materials science who are investigating a new type of coating that can reduce friction by several hundred-fold now almost always are simultaneously wondering if it would be better to first contact an established firm selling coatings, or to form a new start-up firm, before they publish anything.  Academic institutions generally have dedicated offices for aiding their faculty scientists to acquire patents and participate in commercial ventures jointly with industrial partners.  In all these cases, the possibilities for later profit have become the chief driver, if not the actual purpose, for the investigational efforts by faculty scientists. 

           

            Although the traditional aim of basic scientific research was to find new knowledge and discover what is true, the search for truth now seems idealistic and is disappearing from view.  For pure basic science, which seeks new knowledge for its own sake, there usually had been very little of looking to acquire profits from a research discovery; if the new basic knowledge later helps the public, then so much the better, but this was not the aim of the experimentation.  Increased commercialization now has spread everywhere throughout basic research.  In turn, this modern re-direction of research efforts strongly encourages applied research and equally strongly de-emphasizes basic research. 

            

           What are the main consequences of this ongoing commercialism in academic science?  The chief effect is that the ever-increasing importance of profits causes the down-sizing of basic research.  Indeed, to a growing extent, both research investigations in universities and the enthusiasm of the granting agencies now are directed towards applied research and engineering rather than to basic studies.  Why is it considered horrible if basic investigations are disfavored and diminishing?  The reason is that almost all of the wonderful new high technology devices and other features that characterize modern life have arisen by the work of applied scientists and engineers upon the preceding discoveries by basic researchers.  Basic science is the necessary precursor to later studies and developments by applied scientists and engineers.  If basic research decreases its production of new findings, there will inevitably follow a slowing of new and improved products and processes; that will have negative effects upon everyone.  

            

           Yet other bad effects of the commercialization of university science include: (1) creativity, formation of new concepts, and curiosity are decreased inside the research endeavor; (2) the conduct of experimental studies are made more mechanical, and more studies are channeled towards large groups where each individual scientist necessarily becomes a doctoral technician, rather than an independent thinker and creative doer; and, (3) as individual activities and creativity in basic science are increasingly smothered, so is the traditional main source being lessened for new thoughts, unconventional ideas, new concepts, and perception of unexpected interrelationships.  The new chief aim of acquiring financial profits (i.e., as research grants) further subverts the traditional conduct of scientific research in academia by exposing it to all the greed, cheating, and underhanded actions that are sadly characteristic of the dynamics of money in too many modern businesses.  All these effects from pervasive commercialization are having a very negative influence on the progress of science in the modern world.

           

            There are many other important aspects of this subject, and all of these are very infrequently discussed.  I will deal much further with commercialization and other modern problems for science and for research by university faculty within future postings. 

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INTRODUCTION TO MONEY IN MODERN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

Dollars for Research.signedIt’s all money !  Is the purpose of research really just to acquire money ??                                                        (http://dr-monsrs.net)

           

            Money for experimental research plays a very large role in modern science.  The key importance of money is due to: (1) research studies are very expensive, (2) without money, almost no experimental studies can be conducted, (3) not all good ideas are able to be funded by the granting agencies, and, (4) large portions of research grant awards are not being spent for actual research expenses. 

 

            Most research support in the USA comes either from federal grants to universities and small businesses, or from internal budgets for research and development in industrial companies.  The sum of all this dedicated support for experimental research studies is many billions of dollars each year; this huge figure clearly demonstrates the great importance of scientific research for the good of all people.   In Fiscal Year 2011, the grand total of all grants awarded for support of research by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) was $5,103,500,000 [1].  The total research and development outlays for all nondefense studies from any sources in this same period were over 65 billion dollars [2].  These billion dollar sums prove that modern research indeed is very expensive.  Special fundung programs, often requiring establishment of a multi-user facility, have been set-up for applications to purchase very large and particularly expensive special research instruments. 

 

            Research grant funds are spent by scientists for the purchase of supplies (e.g., chemicals, blank DVDs, specimen holders, test tubes), acquisition or usage of some special research equipment (e.g., regulated very high temperature ovens, chromatography columns and systems, personal computers), and, purchase of business travel (e.g., to collect specimens or data in the field, to attend annual science meetings).  They also are used to pay for telephone usage and copying costs, employment of laboratory personnel, support of graduate students working in the laboratory, provision of partial  salary for the grant-holder (i.e., Principal Investigator), adjunctive costs of performing experiments (e.g., utilization of an institutional or regional research facilities, the costs of monitoring radiation exposure, care and housing for research animals), etc.  Unless someone pays, all these activities would stop. 

 

            Although there are federal and institutional oversight controls to verify which expenses are bonafide and necessary, the inherent nature of the present research grant system means that  large amounts of money are not being spent for direct support of the actual research experiments (i.e.,  therefore, my view is that they are being wasted!).  Some of these wated funds are spent on redundant or unnecessary expenses.  Other wastage comes from the frequent absence of organized mechanisms for re-assignment and re-use of expensive research equipment that is no longer needed (i.e., why pass along a 5-10 year old working research instrument belonging to the late Professor Jones, when the new faculty member, Assistant Professor Smith, can buy the very latest model with his newly awarded research grant?).  It is well-known amongst grant-holders that all awarded funds must be spent; there is no official capability to bank any unspent research grant funds, nor is there any encouragement to ever try to save money and then return unspent portions of the awarded funds. 

 

            The very largest inappropriate expenditure of research grant funds in my view is for payments of indirect costs.  Direct costs for scientific research are those necessarily spent to conduct experiments (see the many examples given above).  Indirect costs are those needed for such purposes as cleaning, heating, cooling, painting, and maintenance of the lab room(s), safety inspections, administrative activities, disposal of garbage and chemical waste, provision and drainage of water, etc.).  All of these expenditures for indirect costs are very necessary for the research conducted by faculty scientists, and certainly must be paid; however, I do question exactly who should pay for them.  At universities, many faculty in mathematics and computer science, the non-science faculty, and scholars working in library science, music, and art all need the same type of services listed above; however, the indirect costs of these faculty mostly are paid by some institutional entity.  Only faculty scientists holding a research grant and using a laboratory are required to pay for their indirect costs; senior doctoral scientists working at teaching and writing books, but no longer doing any laboratory studies, are not asked to pay for their indirect costs.  This selective targeting seems very peculiar to me. 

 

            At some academic institutions research grant payments for indirect costs are even larger than those for the direct costs.  Hence, big portions of research grant awards are being diverted away from their nominal purpose.  I must conclude that the payment of indirect costs by grants awarded to support scientific research constitutes a large waste of research grant funds and is not necessary.  My conclusion is very unusual since both the granting agencies and the universities agree to this peculiar policy.  I suspect, but cannot prove, that many working scientists holding research grants agree with me; I do know from talking with numerous university faculty scientists that most believe that current indirect cost rates are unrealistic and must be way too high. 


            All of the research grant awards now being misdirected to pay for indirect costs would be much better spent if they were used to permit more awards for direct costs to be made that (1) provide full, rather than only partial, funding, (2) give funding to a larger number of worthy applicants than is presently possible, and (3) enable some funding programs to extend for at least 10 years, instead of the 1-5 year period of support that is typical at present.  I will discuss all these issues and ideas for their solutions much further in later posts.

 

[1]   American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2013.  Research funding at the National Science Foundation, FY 2011.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/DiscNSF.png .

[2]   American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2013.  Trends in nondefense R&D (research and devlopment) by function (FY 2011).  Available on the internet at:

http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/FunctionNON.jpg .

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WHAT IS MISSING IN TODAY’S EDUCATION OF STUDENT SCIENTISTS ?

            All universities have individual differences and special features in their graduate school programs for instructing student scientists working to earn a Ph.D.  Nevertheless, during this advanced education leading to a thesis defense, certain aspects of useful and needed instruction commonly are missing. My belief is that these absences often  result in practical difficulties for later research activities by scientists working in universities.

 

            The long extent of graduate student education in science (e.g., 4-8 years) is necessary to prepare them to become doctoral researchers and scholars.  Three very primary problems arise during any career as a research scientist working in a university: (1) managing  time, (2) dealing with the research grant system, and, (3) avoiding any corruption.  It seems very surprising that there is not any course work and little special attention currently being given to address these very important practical difficulties. 

 

An intense course in time management would be eminently useful for professional scientists in any branch of science.  Another course of instruction or a series of directed discussions about the organization of the current research grant system and how to deal with it would be immensely helpful to all new faculty scientists.   The number of courses available concerning integrity and ethics in scientific research now is rising; this instruction certainly is badly needed, but must be expanded even further; in addition, there needs to be better recognition that all professional scientists must accept that there can be absolutely no dishonesty at all within science.  General instruction about standards of ethics in science is very important and should commence at a very early age; ideally, this will start long before any actual choice of a career in science has been made. 

 

            Some of the classical subjects for instructing graduate students in science now continue to be  offered, but are taken only infrequently.  These include the history of science, inter-relationships and differences between the major branches of science, the key laboratory experiments which gave rise to famous findings and new concepts, and, general requirements for the design of good experiments and valid controls.  A solid course in the use of applied statistics for analyzing experimental data is frequently available, but many graduate students in science choose to not take such; this seems surprising, since most faculty scientists performing experimental research will readily admit that statistics is vitally useful for their data analysis. 

 

            In addition to coursework, several other valuable and useful subjects can be covered in semi-formal discussion sessions.  These include: how to select a postdoctoral position and mentor, what types of jobs are available for science doctorates, how to find a good job,  how to get promoted, how to self-evaluate your progress and reputation as a research scientist, special features of working on scientific research within industry, and, the role of engineering research and development in the modern science enterprise.  These sessions are likely to be much better if 3-5  faculty researchers working in different areas of science are present, such that several aspects of each topic within the different branches and disciplines of modern science will be brought forward. 

 

            Improving pre-doctoral education in all branches of science will produce a big payoff.  Better pre-doctoral science education will make for better scientific researchers! 

 

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HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT IS TRUE ?

How do many persons decide what is true?
           How do people decide what is really true ?      (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

       Most of us believe that something is true because we are taught such at home, in school, or by some expert authority.  For science, the truth is judged mostly by evaluating the experimental evidence; the more evidence supporting an accepted viewpoint or theory, the greater is the certainty that it really is true.  Thus, scientists work to test and establish what we can regard as being true.  A truth that is bonafide will be consistent with other observations and experimental data, and enables valid predictions to be made; an apparent truth that really is false does not have these two cardinal characteristics. 

 

            History is full of examples where some very widely accepted truth, idea, or dogma was later proven to be false, either in whole or in part.  Testing hypotheses and re-examining accepted conclusions or established theories is a large part of the ongoing job of scientists.  Research scientists openly question all truths, theories, and dogmas.  Thomas Edison, the very famous inventor (see my recent post on “Inventors and Scientists”), is quoted as having often said, “I accept almost nothing dealing with electricity without thoroughly testing it first” [1].  Nevertheless, research scientists, just like all other people, must accept many provisional truths in order to be able to move forward with daily life both at home and in the laboratory; this general acceptance that yesterday continues into today and then on into tomorrow is a very strong practical necessity. 

 

There are plenty of controversies in both classical and modern science.  In biomedicine, there are long-debated opposing theories about what actually is the essential nature of cancer (i.e., neoplasia).  In chemistry, there are still-ongoing disputes about the detailed structure of water.  In physics, there are large disagreements about the existence, genesis, and properties of certain fundamental subatomic particles and forces.  These major controversies are both very important and very difficult targets for modern researchers.  There also are numerous smaller disputes and arguments being generated all the time.  Having all these controversies and disagreements in science is very good because they force research scientists to continue to explore, to think analytically about alternative explanations, to doubt and wonder “what if ?”, and, to be able to ask unconventional questions. 

 

For ordinary people (i.e., non-scientists), daily life usually goes on without encountering many changes in the accepted truths.  Nevertheless, it must be understood that what is regarded as being true today can change tomorrow as a result of new research results.  Scientists and other scholars (e.g., archeologists, economists, historians, museum directors, paleontologists, statisticians, etc.) as professional questioners of the truth, will advise us about some perceived need to modify our current beliefs as a result of new research findings.  To be certain, any new proposals, unexpected research results, and unconventional interpretations always remain doubted and debated until more extensive evidence can be piled up.  Changes in what we have long regarded as being true should not be feared, since these will increase our grasp of reality; it is ignorance and dogmas that should be feared.  The discovery of new truths by scientific research can create new concepts, new assumptions, and new insights, thereby causing progress in the extent of our knowledge and understanding.   

 

[1]   Beals, G., 1999.  The biography of Thomas Edison.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.thomasedison.com/biography.html .  

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INVENTORS & SCIENTISTS

            Inventors work to design and make some new device or substance, or, to discover some new process.  Ideally, these self-directed creators secure a patent and are able to get commercial production and usage started.  Basic scientists work to discover new truth, test a hypothesis, or disprove an accepted false truth.  They do this by conducting experiments, so as to investigate various research questions and to test specific proposals (e.g., about cause and effect).  Commercial products can follow basic discoveries only through further studies and much work by others in applied research and engineering.  Applied scientists and engineers seek to change the properties or improve the performance of some known model device or existing commercial product. 

 

            Certain inventors also are scientists, and some scientists also are inventors.  Both make discoveries, tend to be very creative, and can have major effects on their fellow humans.  In general, almost all modern scientists have earned a doctoral degree, but many inventors are ordinary people who have not acquired an advanced academic diploma.  Scientists generally work in a laboratory or out in the field, while inventors often work in their basement, attic, or garage.  Scientists often seek in-depth knowledge and can have wide professional interests, while inventors usually are highly focused on knowledge only in the small area involving their invention(s).  Today, scientists most often are employees receiving a paycheck (i.e., from companies or universities); inventors often toil on their own time while being paid for some regular job; inventors usually receive no money until their invention advances to attract cosponsors or to initiate commercial development and production. 

 

            By tradition, both inventors and scientists often have vigorous curiosity and a driving determination.  Both inventors and scientists can be highly individualistic people with flamboyant personalities; inventors especially often encounter remarkable adventures with their work activities.  Inventors of exceptional caliber always are controversial and do not come forth very often.  Probably the most famous inventor in history of the USA is Thomas A. Edison (1847 – 1931) [1-3]; he is frequently recognized for re-inventing or vastly improving the incandescent light bulb; discovering the phonograph (sound recorder and player); inventing the kinetograph (cinematographic recorder), kinetoscope (cinema viewer and projector), and a simple cylindrical voice recorder (for dictation); constructing an urban electrical generation and distribution system; and, inventing an improved electrical storage battery.  Edison received his first patent in 1868, for an electronic vote counter intended to be used in a state legislature; by his death at age 84, he had acquired the phenomenal total of 1,093 patents [1-3].  In addition to being both an inventor and a scientific researcher, Edison also was a vigorous industrialist; he founded a small  manufacturing company that now has grown into the industrial giant, General Electric.  Edison  had factory facilities built adjacent to his extensive research center and large private home/estate in West Orange, New Jersey; the laboratory and house are part of the Thomas Edison National Historic Park, and both can be very enjoyably visited in person [4].  It is remarkable to note that Edison was been home- and self-schooled.  Thomas Edison is remembered today as simultaneously being a life-long inventor, a scientist, an engineer, and an industrialist. 

 

            Another immensely creative inventor and visionary scientist was Nikola Tesla (1856 -1943) [5,6].   Born in what is now Croatia and educated in Europe, the young Tesla moved to New York where he worked directly with Thomas Edison.  Tesla’s brilliance in designing and improving electrical circuits and devices was evident with his invention of a small motor that could successfully utilize alternating current (AC), which he also invented; Edison and others had developed and forcefully promoted the use of direct current (DC) for electrical power generation and distribution in the USA, but AC later proved to be much better for practical use.  Tesla probably was the true inventor of radio, and, might have been the discover of x-rays [5,6].  He also designed and built circuits and special apparatus for radio and television transmissions, recorded one of the first x-ray images of a human hand, designed and invented fluorescent light bulbs as a new type of electric lamp, and, experimented with the progenitors of radar, diathermy machines, and automobile ignition coils [5,6].  Tesla utilized ozone to make water potable.  In 1960, the standard scientific unit of magnetic flux was designated as “the Tesla” in his honor.  Despite the extravagent Hollywood version of Nikola Tesla as the primordial “mad scientist”, he now is widely recognized and acclaimed as a visionary throughout the world; he now is seen as having been an amazingly creative and constructive inventor, as well as a determined researcher and explorer in electrical engineering [5,6]. 

 

[1]   Beals, G., 1999.  The biography of Thomas Edison.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.thomasedison.com/biography.html . 

[2]   Bedi, J., The Lemelson Center, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 2013.  Edison’s story.  Available on the internet at:  http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/edison/000_story_02.asp . 

[3]   Bellis, M., 2013.  The inventions of Thomas Edison.  History of phonograph – lightbulb – motion pictures.  Available on the internet at:  http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/bledison.htm . 

[4]   National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2013.  Thomas Edision National Historical Park.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nps.gov/edis/index.htm .

[5]   Serbia SOS, 2013.  Available on the internet by first finding Famous Serbs on the display at the following blog, and then clicking on “Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) – Scientist and Inventor, the Genius who Lit the World”, at: http://serbiasos.blogspot.com/p/serbs.html .

[6]   Twenty-First Century Books, 2013.  Interesting facts about Nikola Tesla – Table of contents.        Available on the internet at:  http://www.tfcbooks.com/teslafaq/toc.htm . 

 

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