Tag Archives: Research

QUESTIONS ABOUT SCIENCE FROM YOU TO Dr.M, AND FROM Dr.M TO YOU! 

Asking questions, answering questions, and questioning answers are vital for education! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Asking questions, answering questions, and questioning answers are vital for science education!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Following my recent posts with Q&A for assistant professors in science” , I now present some interesting  questions and answers between you and me!

Dr.M, please tell me why should I care anything about science and research?  It just doesn’t matter to me! 

Dr.M:  It will matter a whole bunch when you run into health problems, when new wars break out using weather as a destructive weapon, when TVs listen to your every spoken word at home, and, when it finally is admitted that you really are poisoning yourself and your children by what you eat and drink!  Due to the very deficient public education about science, you and most other adults have no idea what scientists do or how many of your everyday activities involve the products of science and engineering.  It will be fun for you to explore science; for starters, look on the internet for “NASA pictures from outer space” and, “3-D printing”!

Dr.M. asks you:  What is the thrill of research discovery for a scientist? 

Typical soccer mom:  It is just the same as finding a $50 bill when you are walking from your car into a supermarket!  I guess that research is fun and discovery is pure luck; it looks just like the lottery to me!  Discovery by scientists means they then are famous, can write a textbook, and get rich!

I love to watch science on TV for many hours almost every day because it all is so amusing!  Dr.M, can you please recommend which are the best science shows? 

Dr.M:  Most adults see science and research only as being some fantastic amusement.  Unfortunately, none of these science-as-entertainment shows deal with real scientists or real research. They are only for mindless amusement, and have much too much emphasis on who is the star researcher of the day, what horrible disease might be cured, and how science could solve some new global calamity.  Since I see all of this idiotic garbage as being a total waste of time, I will not recommend any to you!

Dr.M asks an Assistant Professor:  If your university employer turns down your application for tenure, what are you going to do? 

Assistant Professor:  Nobody taught me anything about how to get tenure in grad school.  I thought it was almost automatic so long as you were funded by research grants.  I know I will never win a Nobel Prize, but I still believe I am a successful research scientist!  If I didn’t enjoy lab research so much I would simply quit this nonsense and find a new job in the stock market or selling computers!

My husband and I want our young children to learn about science.  What is the best way to help them do that?  Do you think we should buy them a chemistry set, Dr.M? 

Dr.M: All young children have a strong curiosity, and they often focus that on what they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.  For these youngsters, encourage them to explore and examine nature, and to learn about the world in your backyard or town (e.g., insects, birds, flowers, seeds, leaves, ponds and rivers, stars, beaches and soil, pollution, lightening, snow, garbage dumps, our moon, stars, etc., etc.).  Much can be done with little expense!  As they grow up they can use a magnifying glass, camera, and personal computer, all of which involve science and engineering.   A chemistry set is good for somewhat older children who show a special interest and liking for chemistry; however, for young kids having no affinity for chemistry it will probably only be a potentially dangerous toy (e.g., What does that taste like?).  Let your kids decide for themselves what they are interested in!

I looked on the internet for info about nanomaterials after reading one of your posts, Dr.M, but I just do not understand most of what I read.  What should I do?

Dr.M:  This situation is due to unfortunate general deficiencies in  science education.  Recognize that you have selected a large topic!  I suggest that you will find it easier if you study only a single more specific subject within the world of nanomaterials (e.g., carbon nanotubes, buckyballs, nanomedicine drug carriers, nanomachines, etc.).  Even without much background, you should be able to understand some descriptive articles about that subject in any Wikisite on the internet; be sure to also take a look at internet diagrams and videos for whatever subject you choose.

Dr.M. asks you:  Do you believe scientists should receive a much smaller paycheck than do star baseball players? 

Teenager:  What are the salary numbers?  Don’t star scientists get several million each year?  Postdocs must be equivalent to minor league players in baseball; what do they get?  Baseball players deserve millions because they bring in many more millions for their team owner.  Good research scientists should be paid at least as much as are professional baseball players!

I haven’t looked at any science since I was in high school.  Now I just retired.  Tell me, Dr.M, why should I spend any time with science now? 

Dr.M:  Science is not something you have to do, but it sure makes life more interesting!  Have you ever heard of 3-D printers?  Do you realize what they can create?  Don’t you wonder how they work?  Aren’t you curious about why your knees now are causing you pain, or why some new medicine might magically be able to give you full mobility again?  Do you realize that your children might not retire until age 80, and could live to be over 100 years old?  All of that is science in action!  Pick any topic that has some personal interest for you, and see what videos are available about that subject on the internet; I can almost guarantee that you will find something fascinating!

Dr.M. asks you:  Do you admire any scientist? 

College undergrad:  No, because I don’t know any scientists, and have no idea what they have done with their research.  I don’t know any Nobel Prizers or local scientists.  They all mean nothing to me!

I tried to read about research on new batteries, but I just cannot understand all the special terms and concepts.  Are there any translations available just for ordinary folks, Dr.M? 

Dr.M:  You are totally correct that all the special terminology creates a barrier preventing many people from reading about science.  The closest to actual translations are simplified articles found in some science magazines and news websites.  Take a look at such internet sites as: “ScienceNews for Students” (https://student.societyforscience.org/sciencenews-students ), and “Popular Science Magazine” ( http://www.popsci.com/tags/science ).   Good luck!

Dr.M. asks you:  What is the purpose of scientific research? 

Hollywood celeb:  I really have absolutely no idea, but I do love to watch science on TV!  It’s just so funny!  Research scientists must be mad!  I always laugh my head off and cannot believe these guys and gals are for real!

I appreciate science and would like to help scientific research, but I am not wealthy.  Tell me, Dr.M, how can I help out? 

Dr.M:  Even small financial contributions to promote scientific research always are welcome at science research organizations, universities, high schools, science societies, research workshops, museums, and other special science organizations.  Some people like to donate via contributions to crowd-funding organizations (i.e., search with any internet browser for “crowdfunding for science”).  Money-free ways to support science and research are to attend public presentations and discussions by professional scientists, or, sign up for a free subscription to specialized science journals, magazines, and websites (e.g., Microscopy Today ( http://www.microscopy-today.com ), “Microscopedia” ( http://www.microscopedia.com ), SciTechDaily ( http://scitechdaily.com/ ), and, “Chemical and Engineering News” (  http://cen.acs.org/magazine/93/09334.html ).  You also can volunteer to personally participate in research projects at a nearby field site or laboratory.  Last, but definitely not least, encourage your own children and young relatives to  have some interest in science!

Dr.M. asks you:  Why can’t scientists agree about whether global warming is real? 

Aunt Maggie:  I guess they just love to argue!  Why don’t they do more research and less yapping?  Last winter was really cold, so I don’t believe whatever they say!  Maybe they are arguing about nothing?  It doesn’t matter much to me, anyhow!

Dr.M. asks you:  Why do some scientists cheat? 

Uncle Joe:  Probably they are after more money!  There are only small penalties if they do get caught, so why shouldn’t they take a chance on getting rich faster?  Everybody else today cheats at their work,  so why shouldn’t scientists?

Dr.M, Why won’t you allow any comments and e-mails on your website?

Dr.M:  I refuse to waste my valuable time dealing with lonely souls, morons having an empty life, or hungry entrepreneurs, as announced on November 14, 2014 (see: “Special Notice to All from Dr.M!” ).  Although It was necessary to do that, if 99.9% of 100,000 comments to you were ads for other websites or duplicate messages disguised as comments, then I believe you also would ban them.  It still amazes me that on any one day I used to receive multiple word-for-word identical messages from several different continents!  The blogosphere certainly is polluted by spamming on botnets!

 

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WHAT HAPPENS WHEN SCIENTISTS DISAGREE? PART III: IS GLYPHOSATE POISONING US ALL?

 

Controversies Involving Science Affect Everyone!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Controversies Involving Science Affect Everyone!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

The small organic chemical, glyphosate, kills many broadleaf plants and is the chief ingredient of the very popular herbicide, Roundup®, produced by the Monsanto Corporation.  Glyphosate is used in agriculture to kill weeds and also for pre-harvesting applications to wheat.  Its usage on farms rose dramatically when Monsanto also developed Roundup® Ready crop seeds (see:  http://www.monsanto.com/products/pages/monsanto-agricultural-seeds.aspx ); these mutants of corn, soybeans, and other crops have resistance to higher levels of glyphosate that kill their nonresistant counterparts  Today, (1) Roundup® and strains of crops more tolerant to glyphosate are in very widespread use on farms all over the world, (2) normal pollination by airborne dispersal easily results in crossbreeding of resistant and non-resistant strains, (3) widespread usage of Roundup® in modern agriculture means that resistant strains automatically spread and take over any neighboring fields originally planted with only non-resistant strains, and, (4) the amount of glyphosate-containing agricultural products consumed by humans is substantial and is increasing.

The first article in this series provided a general background for controversies involving scientists (see: Part I ).  The second article discussed the ongoing controversy about global warming and climate change (see: Part II ).  This essay examines the ongoing controversy about whether glyphosate is benign or harmful to humans.  

How does glyphosate get inside humans?  

Glyphosate enters human bodies via several different routes: (1) ingestion of agricultural crop products containing glyphosate due to treatment with Roundup®, (2) drinking of water having small or large glyphosate contents, (3) breathing of atmospheric glyphosate microparticulates due to its widespread dispersal during agricultural applications, (4) ingestion of farm aninals which ate corn or other plant material treated with Roundup®, and, (5) ingestion of bovine milk, chicken eggs, and other animal products. 

Basically, everyone living on this planet now has glyphosate within their body.  Monsanto originally performed short-term research studies showing that glyphosate has very low toxic effects upon humans.  However, long-term research data for chronic exposures are missing.  Very high levels of glyphosate inside human food sources mostly are being ignored by regulatory agencies, many farmers, and most scientists.  The primary question for health researchers and clinical doctors is, “Does glyphosate have any toxic and pathological effects in humans?”.  This is a very straightforward research question and should be readily answered by scientific investigations. 

What does scientific research on glyphosate find about its safety? 

An extensive examination of published biochemical investigations recently showed that glyphosate could have quite a few undesired consequences upon humans and mammals, aquatic organisms, and bacteria [1].  The changes in metabolism caused by glyphosate affect cytochrome P450, enzymes, sulfate balance, amino-acid dynamics, and the human gut microbiome; these changes are alleged to be involved in such pathological states as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, breast cancer, developmental anomalies, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, and vitamin-D deficiency [1].  People already have been exposed to Roundup®  for many years, but its causation of disease states remains uncertain; plausable associations alone are not sufficient to establish causality.  Worrisome new research findings showing involvement of glyphosate in human pathology are disputed by Monsanto and some other scientists. 

A good published, but retracted, experimental study by Séralini et al [2] investigated chronic toxicity in rats exposed to glyphosate in various forms and dosages.  This professional research report aroused an amazing degree of controversy [3,4], resulting in empty disputes, personal attacks, and improper activities by the publishing journal [4].  Regretably, that dispute includes documented examples where scientists associated with Monsanto have restricted publication of research manuscripts showing that glyphosate can be quite harmful to the health of humans and animals; this has caused accusations that some science journals are not honest, use double standards for review of manuscripts, and have become subordinate to commerce [4].  

The United States Food and Drug Administration.

If Roundup® might be dangerous, why is it not being researched and regulated more?  The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with monitoring and regulating public safety of all the many chemicals, foods, and materials used in our country ( http://www.fda.gov/Food/ ).  Toxicologists working at the FDA investigated glyphosate toxicity and established that anything below a certain level is not harmful to humans.  Toxicologists in other countries conducted similar evaluations to establish a safe level, but some of their approved values are smaller than that validated by the FDA.  Certain countries even ban use of glyphosate and genetically-modified crops resistant to glyphosate.  Nevertheless, millions of pounds of glyphosate now are used annually on farms around the globe [1]. 

Almost all Americans are totally reliant on the FDA to keep them safe from poisons and dangerous foods.  What does the FDA say about the glyphosate controversy?  The answer is “not much”, since their scientists apparently are not conducting all the needed measurements.  Why have these not been conducted?   Or, why were the needed assays indeed conducted, but the results are not released?  Is Monsanto influencing risk assessment by the FDA?  

Could human diseases be caused by glyphosate? 

Several different disease states now are postulated to be caused directly or indirectly by glyphosate [e.g., 1].  Where the incidence of these pathological states has risen in time, data for the amount and distribution of glyphosate in people runs a closely parallel course.  The health implications of the glyphosate controversy are very extensive; it has even been proposed that the problem associated with gluten in bread actually is a problem with its glyphosate content [1].  Clearly, much more research is badly needed; despite the increasing association of glyphosate with pathology, definitive causality of human diseases by this chemical has not yet been proven.  

Many glyphosate-containing weed-killers now are being marketed to farmers.  These contain different additives (e.g., adjuvants, detergents, surfactants) that enhance the toxic effects of glyphosate upon plants.   This enhancement is due to augmented absorption by agricultural plants, thereby giving humans eating them an increased dosage [5].  The amount of glyphosate in foods also is increased by the fact that many farmers now are adding additional Roundup® to their crops to deal with the new presence of glyphosate-resistant weeds.  Global governmental regulations of approved glyphosate levels have conveniently been raised by large amounts to handle this new situation [1].  Thus, despite the increasing evidence suggesting that glyphosate could have some bad effects upon human health, people eat more and more Roundup® each and every year [5]. 

Concluding discussion. 

The controversy about the alleged human toxicity of glyphosate and Roundup® already is more than a decade old.  Despite the suggested pathology, the amount of glyphosate eaten by humnans and accumulating inside them constantly increases [5].  It is alarming that the potential public health disaster of chronic glyphosate toxicity is not being researched much more vigorously by scientists. 

This ongoing controversy not only has scientists arguing with other scientists, but also has scientists disputing with a very large well-established commercial company.  The scientific issues regarding glyphosate toxicity are rather straightforward, but the needed research studies are not being conducted; it is suspected that these investigations are being hindered by Monsanto’s total focus on business profits.   

While this controversy drags on, what should people do?  Foods now are grown by some farmers without using exposure to Roundup® and are becoming more readily available in grocery stores.  As one researcher involved with the glyphosate controversy has advised, “Go organic!” [6]. 

 

[1]  Samsel, A., and Seneff, S., 2013.  Review.  Glyphosate’s suppression of cytochrome P450 enzymes and amino acid biosynthesis by the gut microbiome: Pathways to modern diseases.  Entropy  15:1416-1463. 

[2]  Séralini, G. E., Clair, E., Mesnage, R., Gress, S., Defarge, N., Melatesta, M., Hennequin, D., and de Vendômois, J. S., 2012.  Retracted.  Long term toxicity if a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize.  Food and Chemical Toxicology  50:4221-4231.

[3]  Séralini, G. E., Mesnage, R., Defarge, N., Gress, S., Hennequin, D., Clair, E., Malatesta, M., and de Vendômois, J. S., 2013.  Answers to critics: why there is a long term toxicity due to NK603 Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize and to a Roundup herbicide.  Food and Chemical Toxicology  53:476-483.

[4]  Robinson, C., and Latham, J., 2013.  The Goodman affair: Monsanto targets the heart of science.  Independent Science News, May 20, 2013.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.independentsciencenews.org/science-medical/the-goodman-affair-monsanto-targets-the-heart-of-science/ ).

[5]  Bohn, T., and Cuhra, M. 2014.  How “extreme levels” of Roundup in food became the industry norm.  Independent Science News, March 24, 2014.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.independentsciencenews.org/news/how-extreme-levels-of-roundup-in-food-became-the-industry-norm/ .

[6]  Seneff, S., 2014.  Slide #48 from presentation on glyphosate hosted by the MIT and Wellesley Alumni Associations, April 28, 2014.  Available on the internet at:  http://people.csail.mit.edu/seneff/California_glyphosate.pdf .

 

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NEW MULTIMILLION MEGAPRIZES FOR SCIENCE, PART II

 

Please Tell Me, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Very Best Scientist of Them All ??   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Please Tell Me, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Very Best Scientist of Them All ?? (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Part I of this 2-part series presented the origins, characteristics, and benefits of the several new megaprizes for outstanding scientific research (see “New Multimillion Megaprizes for Science, Part I” at:  http://dr-monsrs.net/2014/11/20/new-megaprizes-for-science-part-i/ ).  Part II now examines and discusses several unintended effects that these programs are likely to produce, all of which will hurt science, research, and scientists.

What will be the Effects of the New Giant Cash Prizes on Science and Scientists? 

Nobody anticipated that new rewards for outstanding scientific research would arise with cash rewards of several million dollars to each honoree, but this now is history!  In addition to the several good features of the new award programs by the Breakthrough Prize and the Tang Prize for Biopharmaceutical Science, several major unintended consequences of instituting these multimillion megaprizes will arise. 

The first negative effect is to set off an ongoing competition to establish additional new awards having even larger cash prizes.  This is caused by a mentality that mistakenly regards the very largest pot of gold as being the most significant way to honor the very best scientists. 

A second negative effect will be to induce some university scientists to shift their ongoing career from trying to make important discoveries through experimental research into working to get rich by winning one or more science megaprizes.  The traditional idealism in scientists then goes out the window!  These effects  move along nicely to solidify the increasing commercialization and rising significance of money in modern university science (see “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” ).  I already have presented my view that such a financial situation has very destructive consequences for science and research (see essays on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” and “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” ). 

A third negative effect involves public perceptions of science.  Since some of the new megaprizes are presented at an ostentatious extravaganza, the whole spectrum of public opinions is encouraged to shift from having interest and curiosity for research and  technology, to viewing science as an entertainment and research as an amusement.  That will merge with the very common mistaken belief that science has no real importance for daily life (see essay “On the Public Disregard for Science and Research” ).  Scientists then will become part of the entertainment industry, and will be competing for public attention and acclaim with professional athletes, movie stars, opera singers, rock musicians,  political celebrities, new billionaires, etc.  The directors of the new megaprizes evidently do not see the inherent contradiction between trying to increase public appreciation for scientific research, and putting the award ceremonies on global display as some new sort of Hollywood amusement.  Substituting movie stars for royalty just does not do the job!  

These misguided features will change the very nature of a research career, solidify the conversion of university science into a business activity, and encourage the public to view science as some kind of nonsense.  These unintended effects will be strongly negative and destructive for science and research, as I have already explained (see my essay on “Could Science and Research Now be Dying?” ).

 Some Predicted Bizarre Developments have Become Past History! 

When I first composed this essay, I wrote that this whole new scenario could later become equivalent to the Academy Award ceremonies in the movie industry.  I now read that the 2014/2015 Breakthrough megaprizes just had an Oscar-style private gala for the presentation of its awards by popular celebrities [e.g., 1-3]; my first prediction has happened already!  It seems likely that some new science megaprize soon might replace the traditional medal given to the winners of a Nobel [4] or Kavli [5] Prize with a special very expensive artwork; that could be a bronze bust or an engraved portrait, to be permanently displayed in some science museum.  Further escalation could include an additional part in the award ceremonies featuring a bejewelled crown bestowed onto the head of each winner while they are seated on a throne with lots of flashing lights.  Any of this is ridiculous and inappropriate, sends the wrong message, and demeans science, research, and scientists!  

My Suggestions for a New Direction in Science Megaprizes 

The money problem that most university scientists worry about is not the size of their bank account.  Rather, it is the size and continuation of their research grant support.  The new megaprizes do not directly address this very prominent feature of modern science (see “What is the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?” and “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” ).  It is possible, and even likely, that winners of these megaprizes will spend some portion of their large financial reward to support their own research efforts; that might be used to either supplement their current research grant funds, or to start a new research project that they always wanted to work on, but could not get funded.  My suggestion here is that additional new megaprize programs should directly reward both the personal activities and the science ambitions of the most outstanding research scientists; the new Tang Ptize in Biopharmaceutical Science does exactly that [6]. 

Why not go even farther?  If some new science prize would offer 3-5 million dollars to be spent exclusively for unrestricted research expenses over an 8-10 year period, then that would be truly meaningful!  Not only would any university scientist be extremely overjoyed and utterly excited to receive that amazing reward, but it also would strongly encourage the progress of science. 

Concluding Remarks for Parts I and II

Some features of the multimillion megaprizes for excellence in science certainly are good, but it remains to be seen if these new programs can consistently result in honoring research achievements to the same high level as do the Nobel and Kavli Prizes [4,5].  Their other features seem to me to be very likely to cause further decay and degeneration in science and research. 

New entries in the unannounced contest to be the very biggest prize for science all base their claim on the amount of cash offered as a financial reward.  This loud emphasis on dollars is inconsistent with what scientific research is all about.  Any new programs with the bigger or biggest pile of money cheapen science, change the nature of university research in undesirable ways, and, present a false view of science to the public (i.e., it is some kind of Hollywood entertainment).  The wonderful article by Merali [1] presents the candid opinions of several other scientists having similar misgivings to my own about unintended negative effects of the new multimillion megaprizes on science (see: http://nature.com/news/science-prizes-Are-new-nobels-1.13168 ). 

References Cited

[1]  Merali, Z., 2013.  Science prizes: The new Nobels.  Nature  498:152-154.  Available on the internet at: http://nature.com/news/science-prizes-Are-new-nobels-1.13168

[2]  Sample, I., The Guardian, 2012.  Biggest science prize takes web tycoon from social networks to string theory.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/jul/31/prize-science-yuri-milner-awards .

[3]  BBC News, Science and Environment, 2014.  ‘Biggest prize in science’ awarded.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29987154 .

[4]  Nobel Prizes, 2014.  Nobel Prize facts.  Available on the internet at:  http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/facts/ .

[5]  The Kavli Prize, 2014.  About the Kavli Prize.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/about/ .

]6]  Tang Prize Foundation, 2014.  Introduction, award categories, and 2014 Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.tang-prize.org/ENG/Publish.aspx .

 

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NEW MULTIMILLION MEGAPRIZES FOR SCIENCE, PART I

 

Please Tell Me, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Very Best Scientist of Them All ??   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Please Tell Me, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Very Best Scientist of Them All ?? (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

There are a very large number of awards and honors given to research scientists every year!  Most are much smaller than the 2 highest awards for excellence in science, the Nobel Prize [1] and the Kavli Prize [2].  Many of the other honorific prizes are local or narrowly dedicated to a certain subject, activity, location, or aspect of science.  A few of these others have achieved a wonderful record of significance such that they commonly are labelled as being precursors for receiving a Nobel Prize; the Lasker Awards for clinical and basic research in medicine are a very good example of this [3].  Receipt of any award for excellence is a gratifying honor for all the hard work and many challenges to being an outstanding research scientist.

Recently, several large new prizes for outstanding scientists have been initiated, featuring gigantic cash awards.  These major new honors generally are attempts to modernize awards for science, to elevate the public’s low esteem for science, and to bypass some of the restrictions for the Nobel and Kavli Prizes.  Part I of this 2-part series reviews the origin and features of these new megaprizes.  Part II then will evaluate their effects upon science and scientists. 

New Award Programs for Outstanding Scientific Research

A very well-written article about the new science megaprizes was written by Zeeya Merali and published last year in Nature [4].  I highly recommend that you read this dramatically informative  report (see: http://nature.com/news/science-prizes-Are-new-nobels-1.13168 ).  Some of the new programs with large awards include the: 

(1)    Breakthrough Fundamental Physics Prize (2012), awarded annually to several honorees, with a prize of 3 million dollars to each person [5-8];

(2)    Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2013), issued annually to several awardees, with a prize of 3 million dollars to each one [5-8];

(3)    Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics (2013), awarded annually to several selections with a prize of 3 million dollars to each person [6-8];

(4)    Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science (2013), awarded every 2 years to several honorees, with a prize of up to 1.6 million dollars to each [9]; and,

(5)    Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (2013), aimed to be a Nobel Prize for engineering research and development, with a prize of 1.5 million dollars [5].

All these ‘new Nobels’ now have been actually awarded to very meritorious researchers [6-9] .  Yet other megaprizes undoubtedly will be added to this enlarging line-up.  In the following lists, numbers do not correspond to the same number in the list above.

What are the purposes of these additional awards?  The new Breakthrough Prizes  were established with funds generously donated by Yuri Milner and several other very successful leaders in  Silicon Valley and the internet world [5].  A variety of reasons have been given for the purposes of these new megaprize programs:

(1)   elevate  and encourage more public interest and appreciation for modern science;

(2)   encourage students to pursue a career in science or engineering;

(3)   attract more research funding for certain less prominent disciplines in science;

(4)   stimulate more development of science and research in certain regions of the world;

(5)   bring Nobel-level attention to other dimensions of research (e.g., engineering);

(6)   bring Nobel-level attention to new and novel areas in modern science;

(7)   give acclaim to outstanding younger researchers before they get old or die;

(8)   increase unrestricted research funds for support of outstanding scientists; and,

(9)   remedy problems and flaws in the Nobel Prize award programs.

What prompted individuals to fund the establishment of these mega-awards?  The story about how and why Yuri Milner, who resides in California and Moscow, established the Breakthrough Prizes is indeed fascinating [5].  Milner said that he “wanted to send a message that fundamental science is important”.  Several other prominent leaders in internet companies joined Milner to expand the Breakthrough Prize programs.  A host of possible motivations immediately are suggested for the extreme generosity of these cosponsors, including:

(1)     promotion of ego (e.g., ambition to become a mover and shaker in science);

(2)     self-interest (e.g., buying fame, power, and recognition);

(3)     politics and business interests;

(4)     acquiring publicity for a favorite cause; and,

(5)    inducing changes in the present direction of science and society.

Why are the new science awards so very large?  The cash rewards for the new science megaprizes all are greater than the one million dollar size of the rewards given by the Nobel or Kavli Prizes.  At the very least, this feature draws much more attention and publicity to the new award programs and new awardees.  Some donors to the Breakthrough Prizes have said that they want outstanding scientists to be recognized as corresponding to the ‘superheroes’ in comic books.  In most cases, the several million dollars in prize money awarded to each individual is unrestricted, and theoretically could be used for buying a new house, starting a small business, taking several round-the-world cruises, making large gifts, supplementing available research grants, investing to earn income, etc., etc.  Almost all modern scientists are not used to having such large amounts of personal money available, and are reported by Merali to be hesitant to decide what they will do with their new pile of big prize money [4] . 

How do the New Megaprizes Differ from The Nobel and Kavli Prizes? 

Several of the new award programs have been claimed in news accounts as being a greater honor than the Nobel or Kavli  Prizes, largely because they feature a bigger cash reward.  However, just because their prize money indeed is larger, it does not follow that the new awards are more prestigious honors.  It must be recognized that the size of awards for the Nobel and Kavli Prizes already are very large.  To receive even more money moves scientists into today’s realm of star athletes, heads of governments, and entertainment figures.  If that acts to normalize who and what modern society values, then the result could be good.  However, it seems more likely that giant awards will also have some very undesirable consequences; these negative effects will be examined later in Part II.   

The several good features of the new megaprize awards modify usual practices for the Nobel Prize by having: open nominations (also used by the Kavli Prize); selection by other scientists or by previous winners; much less secrecy in judging;  an increased number of awardees (e.g., an entire team, rather than just the one director); emphasis on unconventional subjects or special concerns ; and, inclusion of science areas not honored (yet) by the traditional Prizes (e.g., mathematics).  

The new Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science is given to outstanding scientists  in this one sub-branch of biological science  [9].  The other large prizes awarded by the Tang Foundation are for projects within Sustainable Development, but outside of science [9].  Headquartered in Taiwan, this megaprize program is notable because part of its large cash reward is given to the individual person being honored, and part is given specifically to support their further experimental research efforts. 

Conclusions for Part I

The new multimillion megaprizes for outstanding scientific research serve several useful purposes for science and society: the number of scientists being honored each year is increased, realms of science that are not used by traditional major award programs will be inaugurated and encouraged, and, the financial rewards for the honorees will be substantially elevated.  Subsidiary benefits include providing greater publicity and education  of the public for science and research, bringing recognition to entire teams of scientists working together, and, encouraging more good students to enter a career in science. 

Although the intents of these new award programs are very commendable, some of these also seem likely to result unexpectedly in negative outcomes.   The following Part II will discuss the unintended problematic features introduced by the new megaprizes. 

References Cited

[1]  Nobel Prizes, 2014.  Nobel Prize facts.  Available on the internet at:  http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/facts/ .

[2]  The Kavli Prize, 2014.  About the Kavli Prize.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/about .

[3]  Lasker Foundation, 2014.  The Lasker Awards overview.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.laskerfoundation.org/awards/ .

[4]  Merali, Z., 2013.  Science prizes: The new Nobels.  Nature  498:152-154.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nature.com/news/science-prizes-Are-new-nobels-1.13168 .

[5]  Sample, I., for The Guardian, 2012.  Biggest science prize takes web tycoon from social networks to string theory.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/jul/31/prize-science-yuri-milner-awards.

[6]  Breakthrough Prize, 2014.  Recipients of the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes in Fundamental Physics and Life Sciences announced.  Available on the internet at:  https://breakthroughprize.org/?controller=Page&action=news&news_id=21 .  

[7]  Flam, F.D., for Forbes, 2014.  Winners announced for the world’s richest science award: The $3 million Breakthrough Prize.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/fayeflam/2014/11/09/winners-announced-for-the-worlds-richest-science-award-the-3-million-breakthrough-prize/ .

[8]  BBC News, Science and Environment, 2014,  Breakthrough science prize: Big names add glitz to ceremony.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29987154

[9]  Tang Prize Foundation, 2014.  Introduction, award categories, and 2014 Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.tang-prize.org/ENG/Publish.aspx .

 

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DOES THE USA REALLY NEED SO MANY NEW SCIENCE PH.D.’s?

 

Are There Too Many New Ph.D.'s in Science Being Produced?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Are There Too Many New Ph.D.’s in Science Being Produced?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

In 2011-12, there were about 67,200 new doctoral degree’s awarded by universities in the USA [1].  Many of these are for studies in science, medicine, and engineering.  In addition, there are numerous new foreign Ph.D.’s in science who come here to work on research.  After finally getting an academic job, all new faculty scientists immediately seek to attract as many graduate students as possible to work in their new laboratory.  This ongoing scenario thus is a Malthusian progression in the number of new doctoral scientists.

This dynamic immediately runs headlong into the several difficult practical problems involving imbalances of supply and demand.  At the top of the list, there is not enough money available to support all the new research projects proposed by the ever-growing number of new research scientists in academia.  This same shortage of funding actually impacts on all faculty scientists, whether new or senior.  The end result is that this money problem gets worse every year (see earlier article on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research”).  Another large practical problem, the limited number of open science faculty positions in universities, also is made worse by the enlarging number of new doctoral scientists.

I have never heard of any official or unofficial discussions about the wisdom of constantly generating more and more new doctoral scientists than can be supported adequately by the pool of available tax-based research grant funds.  In this essay, I will (1) describe the causes and consequences of increasing the number of new science Ph.D.’s, (2) explain how this is bad for science, and (3) then will lay out my view of what could be done to stop this ongoing problem, and discuss why nothing can be changed now.

Causes of this Malthusian problem 

One must look closely at the never discussed reasons why this peculiar ongoing generation of more and more new science Ph.D.’s remains in operation, in order to recognize the actual causes of this problematic situation.  The ultimate causes are the practices of universities.  The graduate schools at universities had been under financial stress for several decades, and so sought to maximize their inflow from tuition payments by enlarging their enrollments.  Since tuition can only be increased so much, the tactic utilized is to raise the number of enrollees paying tuition.  This fits in nicely with nature of modern universities as businesses where money is everything (see earlier essay on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?”).

Consequences of this Malthusian problem 

The direct consequences of the yearly production of more and more new science Ph.D.’s now are apparent, and indicate that these are having bad effects on science.  The expanding enrollment in university graduate schools means that their standards for admission will continue to get lowered; to increase enrollments they must accept and later graduate more students regardless of their deficient qualifications.  I myself have observed 2 graduate students utterly undeserving of a Ph.D. be awarded that hallmark of advanced education; one of them even had a crying spell in the midst of the oral presentation for her thesis defense.  Modern university graduate schools feel they must do everything and anything to further increase their enrollment and awarding of degrees in order to help deal with the current financial realities.  Pressures to further “modernize” standards for the doctoral degree will increase as the graduate student population continues to be enlarged.  In addition, more teaching responsibilities will be shifted onto graduate students.  The science faculty usually are reluctant to work in the very large introductory courses, and are happy to be able to reduce their teaching load.  The consequences of this problem for university education are obvious.

As the number of unfunded or partially funded academic scientists grows larger every year, federal research granting agencies will need to obtain increased appropriations from the Congress.  Generally, this means increased taxation.  These agencies additionally will need to increase the size of their support programs for graduate education in science, thereby making the problem with finding support for research activities even worse.  Both these needs add to the current negative impact of this Malthusian problem on science.

Are graduate students or scientists to blame for this ongoing problem? 

We must note that the graduate students working to earn a Ph.D. in science are innocently entering a career path that is their choice.  They mostly are unaware of being used as cash cows in a business, and so are blameless for the resultant problems.  Faculty scientists become trapped within the university system for getting promoted and tenured.  Foreign students and scientists will continue to move here despite whatever difficulties they encounter since the situations hindering and restricting the conduct of scientific research in their own countries are much greater than exist here.  They cannot be blamed for making this choice.  The important contributions of foreign professional researchers to the science enterprise in the USA are very widely recognized to be substantial.  Blame for the Malthusian problem lies mainly with the universities.

What will result for science if the number of new science Ph.D.’s is decreased? 

Directly, a reduced number of new Ph.D.’s in science will significantly decrease the number of applicants for new research grants.  That result is equivalent to providing more tax-based dollars to support research investigations, and will be obtained miraculously without any increase in tax rates.

The ultimate results for science of stopping the problematic Malthusian progression will be dramatic, and will include several very good secondary effects.  (1) The quality of the new incoming graduate students will be raised, since there will result a more rigorous selection of the capabilities and aptitude of applicants for admission into graduate training programs.  (2) In turn, the better graduate students should lead to a general increase in the quality of scientists and of science.  (3) The enlarged pool of funds available for research support will enable more good proposals and more scientists to be fully funded than is the case at present.  These several positive effects will combine to produce an important derivative benefit: a general increase in the quality of scientific research.

How could this Malthusian cycle be stopped?

In theory, a single step could solve this problem!    A reduction in enrollments of new graduate student candidates into Ph.D. programs will stop this Malthusian progression, since that will decrease the output of new science Ph.D.’s!

As one example of how this theoretical solution can be accomplished at graduate schools, each science training program currently accepting 20 new students every year will have a 10% reduction, so that only 18 new students will be accepted for the next (second) year.  In the following (third) year, another 10% decrease will occur, so only 16 new students will be enrolled.  These annual decreases will continue for at least 5 years, until the number of new students enrolling reaches a level of 50-60% of the original figure; this cutback will produce a corresponding decrease in the number of new doctoral degrees awarded.  Use of incremental progressive decreases, rather than trying to do everything all at once, will prevent large disruptive effects and will allow sufficient time for each graduate school to make the needed adjustments to the new system. The graduate students already enrolled will simply continue their course of advanced education just as at present.

This change in size of enrollments in each program must be made for the total number of graduate students, since otherwise the present widespread practice will continue with accepting foreign applicants to officially or unofficially fill the absent places scheduled for occupancy by USA students.  Thus, the 10% annual decreases in enrollment must apply to the total number of all students enrolled, and not just to those from the USA.

Can this proposed cure for the Malthusian cycle actually be installed? 

The answer to this question seems to me to be “Never!”.  Universities as businesses always are happy to obtain more profits, and so will never agree to decrease their number of new Ph.D.’s being  graduated.  In principle, the federal granting agencies could mandate such decreases based upon their provision of research grants and education grants to many universities.  From what I have seen, these agencies like their growing budgets and increasing influence, and so are very unlikely to ever change their present operations.  Thus, I am forced to view the problem of too many new science Ph.D.’s as being unsolvable.

Concluding remarks

The answer to the question proposed in the title clearly is “No!”.  Dr. M considers it to be both sheer insanity and very wasteful to ordain more new doctoral research scientists than can be supported adequately during their subsequent careers in academia.  The number of new Ph.D.’s in science .should be balanced with the amount of financial support for research.  It now seems to be badly imbalanced.  The current production of too many new Ph.D.’s is bad for graduate students, bad for science, and bad for research.  It is time to put an end to this idiocy!  Unfortunately, there appears to be no way at present to prevent this problem from continuing and becoming even worse.

Dr.M welcomes questions about this essay and other opinions about this controversial question, via the Comments!

[1]  Council on Graduate Schools, 2013.  U. S. graduate schools report slight growth in new students for Fall 2012.  Available on the internet at:
http://www.cgsnet.org/us-graduate-schools-report-slight-growth-new-students-fall-2012 .

 

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COULD SCIENCE AND RESEARCH NOW BE DYING?

They Just Don't Realize What Will Happen if Science Dies!!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)

They Just Don’t Realize What Happens if Science Dies!!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Several knowledgeable science writers have published provocative and shocking speculations that science and research are dead [e.g., 1-3].  I myself do not believe that science now is dead, because new knowledge and important new technology continue to be produced by the ever-increasing large number of graduate students, postdocs, academic and industrial researchers, and engineers.  A very good example of recent major progress is found in “3-D printing and nanoprinting” [e.g., 4,5]; this remarkable advance developed from a combination of pure basic research, applied research, and engineering developments, and exemplifies to me that science and research indeed still are alive today.

Other science writers have concluded that science is undergoing decay and degeneration despite its celebrated progress [e.g., 6,7].  I agree with these perceptions.  The nature and goals of modern scientific research at universities have changed so much that I am sadly convinced that modern science is withering from its former vigorous state.  Since there presently is almost no push against the causes of this very undesirable situation, and since there are no easy means to accomplish all the reforms and rescue efforts needed to reverse the current very negative trends, I do indeed believe that modern science actually could be dying.  Although science still is quite alive, to me it obviously is not well.

Many who disagree with my harsh conclusion will point to the enormous number of scientists now doing research studies, the massive number of tax dollars being spent on academic research, the even larger amount of dollars spent by industries for their commercial research and developmental efforts, the huge number of research scientists reporting on their latest experimental findings at the annual meetings of science societies, and, the modern advent of new research centers, new subdivisions of science, and new directions of research.  Instead of responding to each of these true statements, I will counter that most of them are not reasons why science is successful, but rather are actual symptoms resulting from the decay and degeneration of modern science.

All of the following are strictly personal opinions, and represent my reasons for believing that science now is dying.  The fundamental goal of scientific research at universities has changed into acquiring more research grant money, instead of finding more new knowledge.  Today, science seems to be progressing more and more slowly, with research advances coming in smaller and smaller steps.  The research questions being addressed almost all are smaller than those asked by scientists just a few decades ago; very many scientists in academia now seek to work only on niche studies.  The significance of the reports found in the numerous new and old research journals is decreasing with each year; superficial rather limited reports now are becoming commonplace.  Few scientists are enthusiastic about undertaking the experimental study of any really large and important research questions, since those would require at least several decades of work to find a complete answer; such efforts  are made impossible by the fact that research grants mostly are available only for 1-5 years of effort.  Many modern PhD scientists working in universities today are functioning only as highly educated research technicians working within large groups (see my recent article in the Essays category on “Individual Work versus Group Efforts in Scientific Research“); group-think is prevalent and research in academia now is only a business activity (see my earlier article in the Essays category on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?”).  The extensive commercialization of university science sidetracks basic research, stifles individual creativity, and encourages ethical misconduct.  Individual scientists still are the fountain for new ideas and research creativity, but in modern academia they are increasingly restrained by the misguided policies of the research grant agencies and the university employers; both of these have only a very restrained enthusiasm for basic research studies.

A different large and important question always is lurking in the background whenever the status of science progress is being evaluated: could it be that much of the totality of possible knowledge already has been established by all the previous research discoveries?  In other words, is modern scientific research only working to fill in gaps within the massive amount of knowledge already acquired?  I feel that this proposal is quite debatable, since there still are many large and important research questions that remain unanswered.  However, if one switches to asking about understanding, rather than about knowledge, then I believe that very much understanding remains remains to be uncovered in all branches of science.  Although many more new facts and figures will lead to some increase in understanding, I do not actually see that outcome resulting from the many superficial research studies today; many new experimental results are publicized and certified as being “very promising”, but these often simply increase the complexity of the question and  rarely result in significant advances for real understanding.

All of these negative situations adversely impact upon the research enterprise and make it less productive, less significant, less satisfying, and more costly.  Unless changes and reforms are made, the decay in scientific research will progress further.  I feel that therapeutic interventions must be made in order to save science and research from actually dying.  The time to start these needed changes is right now, before everything gets even worse.  My hope is that more and more research scientists, science historians, science philosophers, science teachers, and science administrators will come to see the truth in my viewpoint that the research enterprise currently has decayed and is approaching a morbid condition.

Can science and research be saved from death?  What changes must be made?  Which change needs to be made first?  Is more money to support science needed to rescue science, or will more supportive funds only make this pathological situation even worse?  Who can make the needed changes and reforms?  Who will take the lead in these efforts? How can more scientists and more ordinary people be persuaded that scientific research is dying and needs to be rescued?  I will try to deal further with some of these very difficult and complex questions in later essays at this website.

 

[1]  Horgan, J., 1997.  The End of Science.  Facing the Limits of Knowledge in Light of the Scientific Age.  Broadway Books, The Crown Publishing Group, New York, 322 pages.

[2]  Staff of The Gleaner, 2011.  Is science dying?  The Gleaner, Commentary, February 28, 2011.  Available on the internet at:  http://gleaner.rutgers.edu/2011/02/28/is-science-dying/ .

[3]  LeFanu, J., 2010.  Science’s dead end.  Prospect Magazine, July 21, 2010.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/sciences-dead-end/ .

[4]  Aigner, F., & Technische Universität Wien, 2012.  3D printer with nano-precision.  Available on the internet at: http://www.tuwien.ac.at/en/news/news_detail/article/7444/ .

[5]  3dprinterworld, 2014.  News.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.3dprinterworld.com/news  .

[6]  Hubbert, M.K., 1963.  Are we retrogressing in science?  Despite superficial evidence to the contrary, science in the United States is in a state of confusion.  Science, 139:884-890.  Abstract available on the internet at:  http://www.sciencemag.org/content/139/3558/884.abstract . [7]  Phys-Org, March 27, 2012.  Has modern science become dysfunctional?  Available on the internet at:  http://phys.org/news/2012-03-modern-science-dysfunctional.html .

 

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ALL ABOUT TODAY’S HYPER-COMPETITION FOR RESEARCH GRANTS

 

Hyper-Competition for Research Grants Stimulates the Decay of Science!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Hyper-Competition for Research Grants Causes Science to Decay!(http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Today, the effort to acquire more research grant funding is first and foremost for university science faculty.  This daily struggle goes way beyond the normal useful level of competition, and thus must be termed a hyper-competition.  Hyper-competition is vicious because: (1) every research scientist competes against every other scientist for grant funding, (2) an increasing number of academic scientists now are trying to acquire a second or third research grant, (3) absolutely everything in an academic science career now depends upon success in getting a research grant and having that renewed, (4) the multiple penalties for not getting a grant renewal (i.e., loss of laboratory, loss of lab staff, additional teaching assignments, decreased salary, reduced reputation, inability to gain tenured status) often are enough to either kill or greatly change a science faculty career in universities, and, (5) this activity today takes up more time for each faculty scientist than is used to actually work on experiments in their laboratory.

            This system of hyper-competition for research grant awards commonly causes destructive effects.  I previously have touched on some aspects of hyper-competition within previous articles.  In this essay, I try to bring together all parts of this infernal problem so that everyone will be able to clearly perceive its causation and its bad consequences for science, research, and scientists.

How did the hyper-competition for research grants get started? 

            Hyper-competition first grew and increased as a successful response to the declining inflow of money into universities during recent decades (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Three Money Cycles Support Scientific Research”).  The governmental agencies offering grants to support scientific research projects always have tried to encourage participation by more scientists in their support programs, and so were happy to see the resultant increase in the number of applications develop.  Hyper-competition continues to grow today from the misguided policies of both universities and the several different federal granting agencies.

Who likes this hyper-competition for research grants?

            Universities certainly love hyper-competition because this provides them with more profits.  They encourage and try to facilitate its operation in order to obtain even greater profits from their business.  Additionally, universities now measure their own level of academic success by counting the size of external research funding received via their employed science faculty.

            Federal research grant agencies like this hyper-competition because it increases their regulatory power, facilitates their ability to influence or determine the direction of research, and enhances their importance in science.

            Faculty scientists are drawn into this hyper-competition as soon as they find an academic job and receive an initial research grant award.  They then are trapped within this system, because their whole subsequent career depends on continued success with getting research grant(s) renewed.  Although funded scientists certainly like having research grant(s) and working on experimental research, I know that many university scientists privately are very critical of this problematic situation.

What is causing increases in the level of hyper-competition?

             The hyper-competition for research grants, and the resulting great pressure on university scientists, are increased by all of the following activities and conditions.

                        (1)  The number of applications rises due to several different situations: more new Ph.D.s are graduated every year; many foreign doctoral scientists immigrate to the USA each year to pursue their research career here; universities encourage their successful science faculty to acquire multiple grant awards; the faculty are eager to get several research grant awards in order to obtain security in case one of their grants will not be renewed; and, the research grant system is set up to make research support awards for relatively short periods of time, thereby increasing the number of applications submitted for renewed support in each 10 year period.

                    (2)  Hard-money faculty salaries increasingly depend upon the amount of money brought in by research grant awards, and the best way to increase that number is to acquire additional grants.

                        (3)  The number of regular science faculty with soft-money salaries is rising.  Since only very few awards will support 100% of the soft-money salary level, this situation necessitates acquiring several different research grants.

                        (4)  Professional status as a member of the science faculty and as a university researcher now depends mainly on how many dollars are acquired from research grant awards.  The more, the merrier!

                        (5)  Academic status and reputation of departments and universities now depends mainly on how many dollars are acquired from research grant awards.   The more, the merrier!

                        (6)  In periods with decreased economic activity, appropriations of tax money sent to federal granting agencies tend to either decrease or stop increasing.  This means that more applicants must compete for fewer available dollars.  In turn, this results in a greater number of worthy awardees receiving only partial funding for their research project; the main way out of this frustrating situation is to apply for and win additional research grants.

What effects are produced by the hyper-competition for research grant awards? 

             It might be thought that greater competition amongst scientists would have the good effect of increasing the quality and significance of new experimental findings, since the scientists succeeding with this system should be better at research.  That proposition is theoretically possible, but is countered by all the bad effects produced by this system (see below).  I believe the funding success of some scientists only shows that they are better at business, rather than being better at science.  I know of no good effects coming from the hyper-competition for research grant awards.

            Several different bad effects of hyper-competition on science and research now can be identified as coming from the intense and extensive struggle to win research grant awards.

(1)  Science becomes distorted and even perverted.  Science and research at academic institutions now are business activities.  The chief purpose of hiring university scientists now is to make more financial profits for their employer (see my early article in the Scientists category on “What’s the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?”); finding new knowledge and uncovering the truth via research are only the means towards that end.

(2)  The integrity of science is subverted by the hyper-competition for research grants.  The consequences of losing research funding are so great that it is very understandable that more and more scientists now eagerly trying to obtain a research grant award become willing to peek sideways, instead of looking straight ahead (see my earlier article in the Big Problems category on “Why would any Scientist ever Cheat?”).  There are an increasing number of recent cases known where corruption and cheating arose specifically as a response to the enormous pressures generated on faculty by the hyper-competition for research grant awards (see my article in the Big Problems category on “Important Article by Daniel Cressey in 2013 Nature: “ ‘Rehab’ helps Errant Researchers Return to the Lab”).

(3)  Seeking research grant awards now takes up much too much time for research scientists employed at universities.  This occupies even more faculty time than is used to conduct research experiments in their lab (see my article in the Scientists category on “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists so very Hectic?”)!

(4)  Because the present research grant system is defective, the identity of successful scientists has changed and degenerated such that several very unpleasant questions now must be asked (e.g., Is the individual champion scientist with the most dollars from research grant awards primarily a businessperson or a research scientist?  Should graduate students in science now also be required to take courses in business administration?  What happens if someone is a very good researcher, but has no skills or interests in finances and business?  Could some scientist be a superstar with getting research grant awards, but almost be a loser with doing experimental research?).

(5)  If ethical misbehavior becomes more common because it is stimulated by hyper-competition , then could “minor cheating in science” become “the new normal”?  Integrity is essential for research scientists, but the number of miscreants seems to be increasing.

(6)  Inevitably, younger science faculty working in this environment with hyper-competition start asking themselves, “Is this really what I wanted to do when I worked to become a professional scientist?” The increasing demoralization of university science faculty is growing to become quite extensive.

            Grantspersonship refers to a strong drive in scientists to obtain more research grant awards by using whatever it takes to become successful in accomplishing this goal (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Why is ‘Grantspersonship’ a False Idol for Research Scientists, and Why is it Bad for Science?”).  Grantspersonship and hyper-competition both are large drivers of finances at universities.   The Research Grant Cycle is based on the simple fact that more grant awards mean greater profits to universities (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Three Money Cycles Support Scientific Research”).  The hyper-competition in The Research Grant Cycle is very pernicious, since the primary goal of research scientists becomes to get the money, with doing good research being strictly of secondary importance.  Grantspersonship sidetracks good science and good scientists.

What do the effects of hyper-competition lead to? 

            All the effects of the current hyper-competition for research grant awards are bad and primarily mean that: (1)  science at universities is just another business; (2)  the goal of scientific research has changed from finding new knowledge and valid truths, into acquiring more money; (3)  the best scientist and the best university now are identified as that one which has the largest pile of money; (4)  corruption and dishonesty in science are being actively caused and encouraged by the misguided policies of universities and the research grant agencies; and, (5)  researchers now are being forced to waste very much time with non-research activities.  Hyper-competition thus results in more business and less science, more corruption and less integrity, more wastage of time and money, and, more diversion of science from its true purpose.  It is obvious to me that all of these consequences of hyper-competition are very bad for science, bad for research in academia, and, bad for scientists.

Can anything be done to change the present hyper-competition for research grants? 

            The answer to this obvious question unfortunately seems to be a loud, “No”!  The status quo always is hard to change, even when it very obviously is quite defective or counterproductive.  Both universities and granting agencies love this hyper-competition for research grant awards, and this destructive system now is very firmly entrenched in modern universities and modern experimental science.

            Big changes are needed in the policies of educational institutions and of federal agencies offering research grants.  Until masses of faculty scientists and interested non-scientists are willing to stand up and demand these changes, there will only be more hyper-competition, more corruption, more wasted time and money, and, more wasted lives.  In other words, science and research will continue to decay.

Concluding remarks

            Hyper-competition for research grant awards in universities now dominates the academic life of all science faculty members doing research.  Although it pleases universities and the research grant agencies, this hyper-competition subverts integrity and honesty, changes the goal of scientific research, wastes very much time for faculty scientists, and sidetracks science from its traditional role and importance.

            I know that many dedicated scientists on academia accept this perverse condition because they are successful in getting funded and want to stay funded.  Winners in the hyper-competition for research grant awards would not dare to ever give a negative opinion about this system, for fear of losing their blessed status.  They justify their position by stating that they would never cheat, they are too good at their research to ever be turned down for a grant renewal, and their university employer definitely wants them to continue their good research work.  It is sad that many will find out only when it is too late that they are very mistaken and very expendable.

 

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IS MODERN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH WORTH ITS VERY LARGE COST?

 Are We Spending Too Much Money for Scientific Research?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Are We Spending Too Much Money for Scientific Research?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Recently, I explained why scientific research costs so very much (see article in the Money&Grants category on “Why is Science so Very Expensive?”)  With that understanding we now can wonder whether spending this very large total amount of money to support research studies is worthwhile (i.e., do the results justify the costs)?  This is a very natural question for all taxpayers who are forced to support research studies; but, this question is not so easy to answer because there are no objective measures upon which to base the evaluations.  The public views scientific research almost totally only on the basis of practical considerations (e.g., will this study cure a disease, will that research produce a much cheaper product, will these investigations help agricultural productivity, etc.).  To be fair both to taxpayers and the scientists conducting grant-supported research, we will first look at how to evaluate individual research projects, and then step back to consider the value received from all the total research activity. 

Are Individual Research Projects Worth their Costs? 

            Basic research seeks new knowledge for its own sake.  Most people judge the importance of basic research studies as being a total waste of money (e.g., “What difference does it make to me or to society if we know more facts about the nest-building behavior of another tropical fruit-eating bird?”).  This type of judgment by non-scientists is based on ignorance; moreover, they do not recognize that many esoteric findings from basic research much later turn out to have a very wide importance and significant practical uses.These thoughts lead me to believe that it is best to look at the critical opinions of experts rather than to use our everyday opinions based on emotions and ignorance.   Only experts have the full background and technical experience needed to form valid judgments about the worthiness of research projects in basic science.  My conclusion here is that the costs and benefits of basic science research can only be validly evaluated by experts. 

            For applied research, experimental and engineering studies are used to design a new offering or improve an existing commercial product.  Applied research and development efforts all are funded by a commercial business only up to the point that the total expenses must be less than the expected profits coming from future sales of the new or improved product.  Judgments by non-scientists about the worthiness of applied research are based only on personal preferences, and therefore commonly differ from one person to another. Again, opinions from experts are better.

How are Official Judgments Made about Worthiness in Proposed Research Studies? 

            Given that it is difficult for non-scientists to objectively evaluate the worthiness of most basic research studies in modern science, we must look briefly at how the official decisions about funding are made by granting agencies.  They are supposed to carefully consider whether the money requested is appropriate to accomplish the stated aims in each project, and how the results will have value for science and society. Both quality and quantity are evaluated for the different aspects of all reviews (e.g., design of experiments, significance of answering the research questions, amount of time and money required, availability of needed laboratory facilities, training of the principal investigator, etc.).  With applications for renewal of research support, reviewers then must look both forward (i.e., what will be done?) and backward (i.e., what has been accomplished during the previous period of support?).  The expert reviewers also make both official and unofficial examinations about whether the selected research subject needs further study, and if significance of the expected results will justify the budget being requested.   

            The evaluation mechanism used by granting agencies avoids the ignorance problem by using experts to make these evaluations.  Critical judgments of grant applications by expert reviewers (i.e., other scientists) constitute peer review.  Expert reviewers often have approved research studies that non-scientists in the public regard as being a waste of money; as explained earlier, this lack of agreement largely is due to the very large difference in knowledge and technical experience.  The validity of decisions by the official referees is enlarged by the fact that research grant applications are evaluated and judged by several experts, thereby usually avoiding any one opinion from becoming a mistake.  Projects judged to have little conceivable significance for science, poor design, inadequate controls, mundane ideas, technical problems, etc., all usually are eliminated from funding by reviewers for the research grant agencies.  The official evaluation of research grant proposals is a filtering mechanism, and this includes evaluation of the costs and benefits. 

            In principle, all the expert evaluations of applications by scientists for research grants should lead to funding of only those research projects having importance for science and society.  Although this usually does happen, due to the very large number of research grant applications and the even larger number of reviewers, some small number of mistakes is made both for what is funded and what is not funded. 

The Cost/Benefits Question for the Total Scientific Research

            How can we best make a valid judgment about whether spending very large amounts of money on all scientific research is worthwhile?  Looking at the evaluations for many thousands of individual research projects and then averaging does not give a very satisfying answer.  Accordingly, we must ask here whether a different approach needs to be taken to obtain a more meaningful conclusion?  By looking at the totality of all funded research projects, then there is a much more solid basis upon which to make an evaluation of costs versus benefits.  I will explain this below, using the well-known examples of transistors and carbon nanotubes. 

            The invention and development of the transistor was initially only a physical curiosity (see the fascinating personal recollections by one of the leading research participants [1]).  Its discovery exemplifies basic research in action, because its ultimate usefulness was not foreseen.  Non-scientists all would have concluded that spending money for its discovery was pointless.  After much further research and many engineering developments, electronics and computers using transistors now are found everywhere in the modern world.  Once its practical importance was documented, the initial negative judgments rapidly changed to become strongly positive. 

            Carbon nanotubes were observed by Iijima in 1990-1991 while conducting basic research studies on a different type of carbon specimen with his electron microscope [2,3].  This unexpected observation of carbon nanotubes was a chance event, and is a wonderful example of serendipity in basic research.  Iijima was not trying to study carbon nanotubes, because nobody was aware that they existed!  Today, after further research investigations both in academia and industry, carbon nanotubes are found in several different important commercial products, and hundreds of scientists and engineers now are working on new uses for these very small materials within innovative products designed for medicine, energy storage, and high technology. 

            Early judgments about the worthiness of studying transistors and carbon nanotubes were negative and wrong.  The money produced from all the present widespread usage of transistors is absolutely gigantic, and probably is, or soon will be, matched by the value of new products and many developing uses for carbon nanotubes.  Thereby, the cost/benefits ratio for both are small, and all the money spent for their research studies must be judged to be very, very worthwhile.  Moreover, the dollars coming from these 2 research discoveries alone have more than paid for all the numerous other scientific investigations that have had a much less notable outcome.  Therefore, I believe that public funding of all worthy research studies is very worthwhile.  My positive conclusion about the huge pile of money spent on research is that this is good, because by enabling all the very numerous ordinary research investigations that result in less spectacular or even mundane results, the chances that some really great unanticipated breakthroughs will be produced are notably increased. 

            Money most certainly is not the only measure for significance of scientific research!  Investigations producing a breakthrough in research or a dramatic change in knowledge can have enormous importance for the progress of science.  One good example of this is the recent arrival of the new concept of nanoscience; this new branch of physical science deals with materials just slightly bigger than individual atoms and molecules.  Nanoscience now has extended into specialized areas of research, such as nanochemistry, nano-engineering, nanomedicine, nanotechnology, and, others [e.g., 4].  Nanoscience really represents a new way of thinking for scientists in these areas.  

Concluding Statements

            History is the ultimate judge for the worthiness of funding research studies!  From the considerations described above, I draw 3 conclusions.
1.  Basic research findings can take many years to develop into spectacular commercial products that are widely utilized.  The ultimate success and worthiness of specific grant-supported basic research is almost impossible to predict.
2.  For research projects in basic science, worthiness must be judged one at a time, and independently from practical usage.  Significance of results from this or that research project only can be judged validly by other expert scientists.
3.  The value of spending so much money to support scientific research is best measured by considering the totality of research results acquired by all funded studies.  When viewed in this light, the funding of numerous projects that turn out to be only ordinary is seen to be good because this increases the chances that some unanticipated spectacular findings are acquired and thereby greatly benefit both science and society. 


[1]  Mullis, K.B., 2012.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:
http://karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf .  

[2]  Iijima, S., & The Vega Science Trust, 1997.  Nanotubes: The materials of the 21st century.  Available on the internet at:  http://vega.org.uk/video/programme/71 .

[3]  Iijima, S., 2011.  The discovery of carbon nanotubes.  Available on the internet at:  http://nanocarb.meijo-u.ac.jp/jst/english/Iijima/sumioE.html .

[4]  XII International Conference on Nanostructured Materials, Moscow, Russia, 2014.  NANO 2014.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nano2014.org/ . 

 

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HOW DO RESEARCH SCIENTISTS BECOME VERY FAMOUS?

 

How to Win a Supreme Prize in Science!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
What does it take to Win a Big Prize in Science?     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

            Not all good research scientists advance to become famous, and almost all famous researchers do not achieve the highest honor of winning a Nobel Prize [1] or a Kavli Prize [2].  These facts make it seem rather mysterious how a scientist does achieve enough renown to be awarded one of those supreme honors.  What is it that makes a research scientist become famous? 

            Working scientists traditionally become acclaimed by their peers (i.e., other scientists in their field of study) primarily on the basis of one or more distinctive characteristics: (1) their experimental  findings achieve a breakthrough in research progress, thereby causing a dramatic shift of direction for many subsequent studies, (2) they resolve a long-standing research controversy, (3) they develop a new theory or concept that comes to have an expanding influence on the work of other researchers, or, (4) they invent and develop a new piece of research instrumentation or a new process for analysis of specimens.  These individuals, unlike the great bulk of ordinary research scientists, seem to have much good luck and are not so perturbed by the usual practical research problems with time and money; in one word, very famous scientists usually appear to be “blessed”.  These generalizations seem true for all the different branches of science, and are valid for scientists in numerous different countries. 

The Biggest Prizes in Science

            Only a very small handful of scientists are awarded the highest honors in science, a Nobel Prize [1] or a Kavli Prize [2].  There are many other famous scientists besides those few winners!  Some scientists are so ambitious that they undertake some of their experimental studies specifically to acquire a big prize; however, winning one of these awards is well-known to partly depend on circumstances beyond their control, such as being in the right place at the right time, succeeding with their research project to produce a widely hoped for result (e.g., creating a cure for some disease), or, working in a large field of study where many other researchers are active.  In addition, it is widely suspected that earning one of these top science prizes also depends upon certain unofficial qualifications, such as who you know, who dislikes you, and what area of science you are working with.  There can be no doubt that the awardees are fully deserving and are great scientists. 

            Readers can gain a much larger understanding about what it takes to win one of these elite honors by viewing some of the many fascinating video interviews with winners on the internet websites for the Nobel Prize (http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/ ).  These excellent videos examine the life and work of very famous scientists, both in modern times and from the last century.  Other videos present explanations of why their research work was judged to be so very important; corresponding written material is available for the Kavli Prize (http://www.kavliprize.no/seksjon/vis.html?tid=61429 ).  I have personally seen many of these and very highly recommend them to all non-scientists, as well as to younger scientists. 

The Path to Fame and Fortune in Science

            The path to fame and fortune in scientific research often is a progression of steps leading from local to national and then to international renown.  These steps reflect the formation of an enlarging network of other research scientists who are aware of the ambitious scientist, and have respect and admiration for what he or she is doing in the laboratory; eventually, the network expands so that even teachers, students, and various officials all become quite aware of this scientist.  Another mark of progressing towards fame and fortune involves receipt of more and more invitations to speak, to write, and to participate in science events at diverse locations around the world.  This advancement can be recognized by appointments to serve on committees of national organizations and editorial boards for science journals; in addition, progress also is shown by invitations to author review articles, and by receipt of public recognition within descriptive news reports in important general science journals such as Science and Nature.   Professional reputation usually moves in parallel to achievement of these hallmarks. 

            Common signs of success and fame in research scientists are achievement of some breakthrough experiment or invention, enlargement of lab personnel and research budget due to success with the research grant system, and widely acknowledged mastery in one’s field of science.  These hallmarks increase the reputation of research scientists.  For many good scientists, a very wonderful major honor is simply getting their research grants renewed, so they then are no longer required to work only on projects lasting for 3-5 years.  Nobel Laureates often, but not always, have success in dealing with the research grant system.  In addition to all the glory of winning one of the largest science prizes, there also can be some undesired consequences, such as too much attention, too many new demands for time, and, difficulty in maintaining the awardee’s extremely elevated status. 

            With regard to fortune, certain universities are notorious for paying their junior faculty only a very meager salary, but that changes dramatically when they advance in rank.  Professional scientists in academia and industry become financially comfortable, but do not usually consider themselves to really be rich.  Some university scientists do become very wealthy by starting one or more new small businesses centered on their expertise, creativity, and inventions; industrial scientists can receive bonuses for key contributions in enabling some new or improved product to be produced and marketed.  By the time of retirement, scientists usually have good savings and are entitled to full retirement benefits. 

Comments for Non-Scientists about Reputations and Awards

            Non-scientist readers should try to understand that a renowned and very appreciated faculty scientist at a college or small university might be very highly honored locally, and deservedly so, but could have little national renown and no international reputation.  Some other famous scientist working at a prestigious very large university might be more appreciated nationally and internationally, than locally.  My message here is that the amount of “success and renown” is relative; researchers do not have to become a Nobel Laureate or a Kavli Prize awardee in order to be recognized as being a famous and excellent scientist.   

            Some readers will wonder about whether a young scientist could direct all their professional efforts towards winning a big science prize, and succeed in this ambition?  That is possible in theory, but is very, very unlikely in practice.  Even if a researcher earned a doctorate at Harvard, was a Postdoc at Berkeley and Basel, achieved tenure at Columbia University (New York), and was good with both politics and people, there is no guarantee that this scientist will receive one of these very large honors.  There simply are too many unknowns and too many personalities involved to make receipt of a Nobel Prize or Kavli Prize anything other than very uncertain and doubtful.  In fact, some really outstanding research scientists do not receive the supreme award that they so clearly deserve [3].  I believe that it is good for scientists to be ambitious and to strive to win a big prize, but the simple fact is that very few excellent and famous researchers achieve this highest honor.  

 Concluding Remarks

            Many research scientists in academia and industry work very hard to achieve excellence and to be appreciated by their peers, students, and employer, and by the public.  There is no single path to becoming labeled as a famous scientist, and the route always contains many hurdles and frustrations.  When all is said and done, it always is internally satisfying if a mature scientist regards themself as being successful, even if they also have some human defects or run into insurmountable problems.  Self-satisfaction and peer recognition indeed are very big rewards for doing an excellent job in science and research. 

 

[1]  The Nobel Prize, 2014.  876 Nobel Laureates since 1901.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/index.html  .

[2]  The Kavli Prize, 2014.  The Kavli Prize – Science prizes for the future.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.kavliprize.no/artikkel/vis.html?tid=27868 .

[3]  E. Westly, 2008.   No Nobel for you: Top 10 Nobel snubs.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow.cfm?id=10-nobel-snubs .

 

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ALL ABOUT POSTDOCS, PART II: WHAT SHOULD YOU WORK ON AND LEARN AS A POSTDOC?

Bright  and  Eager  Young  Postdoc  in  2014!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Bright  and  Eager  Young  Postdoc  in  2014!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            This second part of a pair of articles about Postdocs is intended specifically for graduate students and current Postdocs.  It presents useful advice and information about how to be a successful Postdoc and how to maximize your rewards for doing lots of good research work.  This part differs enormously from the introductory first part, which is intended to be informative and interesting to general readers (see “All About Postdocs, Part I: What are Postdocs, and What do they Do?” in the Basic Introductions category). 

 Quite a few practicing scientists working in universities or industries will readily admit that their earlier time as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow was amazingly important for their career, and actually was very much fun (see my recent article in the Scientists category on “What is the Fun of Being a Scientist?”)!  Any Postdoc must work very hard, but this effort will be recognized later as having been a sublime chance to do really good research, because there were not yet any of the usual job worries about grants, teaching responsibilities, or bureaucratic intrusions. 

 How Do You Decide What to Work on as a Postdoc? 

 A very big question for graduate students finishing their thesis project involves asking themselves who they should work with as a Postdoc, in order to become an expert researcher in some field of special interest?  In turn, new Postdocs ask themselves a corresponding question, about exactly what they should work on?  Both questions are important, and really are the same in the practical sense.  Ideally, graduate students should find their new home as a Postdoc according to what kind of scientist they want to become; similarly, Postdocs should work on some research project which has their personal interest and will prepare them to become a professional expert researcher in that area of science.  The reason these 2 questions are equivalent is that all research activity in modern universities is determined by research grant awards (see my earlier article in the Money & Grants category on “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities”).  Hence, postdoctoral research opportunities directly depend on the research plans approved and funded by those grant(s) held by the Postdoctoral Mentor; this successful scientist often is famous, and will be your teacher, supervisor, supporter, and guide during your period of postdoctoral work.  The Mentor’s obligations to their research grant(s) automatically either define or circumscribe what any new Postdoc in their lab can work on. 

             The Mentor might even explicitly assign a research topic to their new Postdoc, along with indications about which methodologies will be used.  The extreme example of this scenario is where some extremely famous and very long-funded senior scientist greets their new Postdoc and then goes over to a giant map displayed upon a wall; together, they look at the large branching tree-like diagram where an entire lifetime of connected research studies is depicted, along with the names of previous graduate students and Postdocs who have worked on each of the many small branches.  The supervisor then informs the Postdoc which of the next steps is their assignment.  At the other extreme, a Mentor might give the new Postdoc vastly more freedom, and state that anything is okay so long as their new lab investigations are within the scope of the Mentor’s research grant; of course, the Postdoc’s designs for new experiments should be submitted for review and criticism by this Mentor before anything begins at the laboratory bench.  Most new Postdocs will find their situation to be somewhere between these 2 extremes.  It is best not to get emotional about any restrictions or mandates, since a large part of the goal for all Postdocs is to learn many new and different research approaches; even any directed work will fulfill this goal nicely.  

 Graduate students should recognize that advertisements (e.g., in each issue of the journals,  Science and Nature) inviting applications for open postdoctoral positions almost always state a particular research subject or domain, meaning that there will not be any completely open choice for what will be investigated.  As an example of this situation, assume that you are a new Postdoc coming to work with a Professor in a Department of Materials Science.  This Mentor is a well-known expert on dynamical aspects of self-ordering chemical polymers, and has a research grant involving experimental studies of one class of organic polymers.  It would be extremely unlikely that this Postdoctoral Mentor would or even could let you concentrate of working with either inorganic polymers or organic crystallography.  However, this same Mentor might acquiesce to your having a small (5-10% effort) exploratory project in those areas, provided that such will be done in addition to your large (90-95% effort) main project dealing with self-ordering organic chemical polymers; the rationale for accepting this new aspect would be that the additional exploration could serve to expand the capabilities of the lab’s research operations and the scope of a future grant application.  Despite any anxiety about priorities, Postdocs should never hesitate to discuss their ideas for new experiments with their Mentor; this will produce useful criticism from the Mentor’s longer experience.  Postdoctoral Mentors are your research partners, and almost always are eager to discuss new ideas and science questions from their postdoctoral associates. 

             In general, it is a good idea for Postdocs to work on several projects and to also participate in some joint effort(s) with other researchers in the same lab.  This will make the Postdoctoral Fellow more valuable, and provide them with more publications.  Regardless of what you work on, it is important to start realizing that the clock is always ticking, and you are expected to produce good publications and abstracts from the beginning of your postdoctoral period.  Presenting an abstract about your thesis research at a science meeting will be okay only if you also give a second abstract about recent results from your postdoctoral project. 

 What is Expected of All Postdocs?  What should Postdocs Actually Learn?    

             Young scientists can think of the postdoctoral experience as a chance to show what they can do in the research laboratory, and, as an opportunity to learn how to do much, much more.  All Postdoctoral Fellows need to produce good research results of publishable quality from their hands-on experimental investigations.  Postdocs must dive right in and produce good results within their first year of work.  This means that there are very different time limits than were present during the period of graduate studies leading to a doctoral degree (i.e., many graduate schools set a time limit of 7-10 years for a thesis to be completed and defended successfully).  The message here is that since Postdocs have to produce publishable results, there is no time to waste any time! 

            Postdocs can not push things into the future (e.g., “I want to learn this new method, but I do not have enough free time to do that now”).  Instead, they simply must accomplish that and do it right away.  It is a very poor idea to take up postdoctoral time to finish publishing their Ph.D. thesis research; some Mentors even will refuse to accept any recent graduate for work as a Postdoc in their lab unless that person already has finished publishing their thesis results.  Thus, the work and time schedules of Postdocs typically are very much more intense than was the case for their thesis research in graduate school. 

 In addition to enlarging their expertise with new kinds of lab experiments, Postdocs should also seek to learn many other important new skills.  In science, these will include large expansions of knowledge, research capabilities, problem solving, critical judgment about experiments and data interpretations, and the organization of scientific investigations.  Postdocs also will learn much outside the laboratory, including how to construct applications for research grants, criticize the published output of both other scientists and themselves, deal with business and regulations, handle the resolution of problems and disputes, and, manage time and money.  Some of this will be accomplished simply by doing and observing, but other aspects necessitate requesting time with the Mentor for personal instruction.  Various philosophical and practical issues for being a successful modern scientist commonly are encountered by Postdocs; these include how to avoid wasting time or money, be able to say either “No!” or “No thank you”, correctly evaluate priorities and decide what is possible now and what should be put off until later, evaluate and judge the output and capabilities of other lab workers, learn the importance of always adhering to professional ethical standards (see my earlier article in the Big Problems category on “Why is it so Very Difficult to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?”), plan ahead for hours, days, weeks, months, and years, etc., etc.

How are Postdocs Evaluated? 

Evaluation of the quality, progress, and success of Postdoctoral Fellows traditionally is done by scoring the number and importance of their research publications, and, by inspecting where they are able to later find employment.  Being a good Postdoc will be a big help for you in both aspects, and later will aid you in meriting research grant awards.  The Postdoctoral Mentor also benefits notably from your level of success with researching and publishing. 

Graduate students are not always clear about the differences between their graduate thesis research and their postdoctoral work.  There are major differences in the number of experimental studies conducted, the number of other lab personnel working with you, the types of research instruments and experimental approaches utilized, and, the speed with which progress must advance.  Here, I will limit myself to explaining the key paradigm of “promise versus performance”, when used as a yardstick.   A typical doctoral graduate in science has acquired basic knowledge, some advanced skills, a thesis, and some small number of research publications.  Most of this initial performance (i.e., What has this student already done?) barely registers in the domain of promise (i.e., What can this young scientist do in the future?).  During the subsequent postdoctoral period, the young professional develops more and more performance through their new research findings, new publications, new advanced skills, new levels of expertise, and a growing reputation as a researcher; as a consequence of that, their promise also increases dramatically during the postdoctoral period.  When Postdocs later will be considered for their first real job position, they often are viewed as having advanced to reach a level of around 25% performance and 75% promise.  In universities, after new faculty appointees have acquired research grants, achieved more good publications, shown that they are successful in teaching courses, and given evidence of their good independent judgment, their reputation and status will advance so they are valued about equally for both performance and promise (i.e., continued success in the future).  The chief message here is that the postdoctoral period should produce large increases in both performance and promise. 

Working with Your Postdoctoral Mentor

             For all Postdocs, the Postdoctoral Mentor is your teacher, supervisor, and coworker.  The main job of a Postdoctoral Mentor is to guide you to become a successful professional scientist.  Ideally, this Mentor will be a scientist who has your admiration, conducts studies that fascinate you, always impresses you by their expertise, is someone with whom you can communicate well, and serves as a model for exactly what kind of professional scientist you would like to become.  The Mentor even can become your friend!  Picking a good Postdoctoral Mentor thus has several big consequences for your career in science.  The choice of a Mentor often is finalized in coordination with your selection of where you will work as a Postdoc and afterwards (i.e., industry or university, research institute or hospital, domestic or international location, big or small institution, large or small lab, etc.). 

Both your thesis advisor and your Postdoctoral Mentor play important roles for your future life as a scientist, and both deserve your respect and gratitude for their efforts on your behalf.  Both can serve as your main role model for being a professional scientist.  But, they also have some significant differences.  The thesis advisor typically regards you as a student colleague, while the postdoctoral mentor looks at you as a collaborator and coworker for their research project(s).  Hence, the latter often interacts with you in a more flexible way than is the case with the former.  You will not often openly disagree with your thesis advisor, but it usually is much easier to disagree and challenge your Postdoctoral Mentor.  This becomes particularly important when you are discussing exactly what experiments to work on and how to conduct them; there can be much more give and take with your Mentor as your co-worker in research.

Concluding Remarks for GraduateStudents and Present Postdocs

Developing your professional reputation as a researcher in science often depends mainly upon what you have done as a Postdoc.   Regardless of what area you work in, your job as a Postdoctoral Fellow is to become an expert scientist, to produce excellent research results, and, to publish important research reports.  For many successful professional scientists, the postdoctoral experience is seen many years later as one of the most creative and productive portions of their entire career. 

Make the best of your research work and time as a Postdoc!  Dr.M wishes you much good luck with everything!

 

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ALL ABOUT POSTDOCS, PART I: WHAT ARE POSTDOCS, AND WHAT DO THEY DO?

 Bright and Eager Postdoc in 2014!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Bright  and  Eager  Young  Postdoc  in  2014!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

What in the world is a “Postdoc” in the arena of science?  Why do most new science Ph.D.’s spend at least one additional year as a Postdoctoral Fellow?  What do Postdocs work on?  What do Postdocs get for their efforts? How are Postdocs important for scientific research?  Most people in the general public have no idea about answers to these questions!  This article is the first of a pair about Postdocs.  All in Part I is intended for general readers who are not scientists, but who have curiosity about scientific research and wonder how it is accomplished; it will  inform you about the why’s and wherefore’s of being a Postdoc.  The subsequent Part II will not have interest for general readers, and is specifically aimed at advising graduate students and current Postdocs. 

What are Postdocs?  Why are 2-8 Years in Graduate School Not Sufficient to Make a Scientist? 

             Postdocs officially are Postdoctoral Research Fellows. They aim to become much more experienced, independent, knowledgeable, skillful, and versatile than are the raw products of any graduate school program.  As nascent research scientists, Postdocs work (e.g., 1-4 years) to greatly expand their understanding and insight in experimental science, broaden their research skills, increase their research publications, advance their reputation as a productive researcher, and, mature into independent professional scientific investigators. 

             Why would any new doctorate in science need to get this advanced training and additional experience in scientific research?  The basic answer is that a new science Ph.D. mostly has knowledge only in one subject area, and practical experience with only a small number of research approaches.  The training acquired during coursework and the laboratory experiments that served as the basis for a Ph.D. simply are just a foundation that is not sufficient to make the young researcher qualified for university employment as a faculty scientist.  New graduates need to go far beyond what their graduate school training and experience provided.  They need to greatly widen their experience, deepen their expertise, and more firmly establish their professional identity, before they are qualified to find employment as a professional scientist.  To do that, Postdocs work with new kinds of research instrumentation, new research systems, and new research questions.  They also learn much about being a professional scientist and dealing with all the non-science problems that will arise during their later career.  Postdocs thus work to become fully-fledged independent professional scientists.  Postdocs do not receive any certificate or diploma for successfully completing their efforts; instead, they obtain confidence that their new high-quality research publications and advanced know-how will be a big help in finally finding a good job as a scientist and researcher. 

             Readers who are not scientists might better understand the purpose of the postdoctoral period if they will view it as being analogous to the advanced training of a professional chef.  Being able to make a mousse dessert or cook a stuffed goose is not enough to be a master chef.  To achieve that rank, they must work in a number of different apprenticeship positions before finally having enough of both specialized culinary knowledge and on-the-job experience to become a head chef, and later a restaurant owner.  For hiring new university faculty in science, the postdoctoral experience is essential.  For hiring at industrial research and development centers, there is a less rigorous demand for postdoctoral training, particularly because these employers generally have an extended and highly specialized training program for all their newly hired scientists; that program can be considered as being equivalent to a mini-postdoctoral experience.    

 What Do Postdocs Actually Do? 

             Being a Postdoc almost always is a particularly exciting time.  It involves intense learning, development of skillful expertise in hands-on experimental investigations, maturing of critical judgment and ability to organize efficient research efforts, and, establishing one’s identity and reputation as a professional research scientist.  Each year, hard-working Postdocs analyze their new data and then publish their research results, give presentations at a national or international science meeting, and ponder exactly what sort of job they will seek later.  Postdocs must dive right in and try to produce good publications with important new research results within their first year of work.  Thus, the work and time schedules of Postdocs are much more intense than was the case during their years of graduate school studies. 

             In addition to their laboratory experiments, Postdocs seek to learn many new skills outside the laboratory.  These include observations and instructions about how to handle rules and regulations, deal with problems of time and money, criticize both their own work and that of other scientists, compose manuscripts, present research reports orally, apply for research grants, and, work in coordination with a team of laboratory co-workers.  In their research investigations, some Postdocs even are given the opportunity to direct the operations of a research technician or graduate student.  All of these instructive situations vastly increase the competence of the Postdoc to deal successfully with future activities and responsibilities arising later in the course of their career. 

             Many research scientists hold more than one postdoctoral position, either by choice or of necessity, before they find a good job in academia, industry, or elsewhere.  Postdoctoral salaries now are at good levels so that this is a realistic proposition; quite a few Postdocs already are married.  In modern times where good jobs are not so plentiful, some scientists even work in postdoctoral positions for over 10 years.  I myself held 2 postdoctoral positions, one in France and the second in the USA; both were unique, exciting, utterly wonderful, and very valuable experiences for me!  

What are Postdoctoral Mentors, and Why are They Important? 

             Not all university scientists have Postdocs in their labs, largely due to their relative lack of success with the research grant system.  The supervisor of Postdocs, denoted as the Postdoctoral Mentor, is a successful research scientist who can offer time, financial support, good research facilities, experienced critical judgment, and professional guidance to their Postdoctoral Fellows.  For the Mentor, Postdocs are a big prize and contribute greatly to the success of the Mentor’s research projects.  The several Postdocs in my own research laboratory all were invaluable for research progress and much fun to work with. 

             The Mentor has a very important role because it is during the postdoctoral period that most scientists solidify their professional identity as a researcher specialized in some particular branch of science (e.g., microbial cell biology, or virology; materials science, or alloy metallurgy; lithium inorganic chemistry, or geological chemistry; astrophysics, or theoretical physics; etc.), and establish their basic reputation as a researcher.  The Postdoctoral Mentor guides the maturation of the new scientist and often serves as a role model for what a Postdoc aims to become.  Both the Postdoctoral Mentor and the thesis advisor certainly deserve some credit for what their younger associates later accomplish in the world of research. 

 How are Postdocs very Valuable for Science? 

             Postdocs have several characteristics as researchers that are different from both graduate students and employed scientists.  Postdocs typically are: (1) semi-independent workers, and so do not need constant supervision; (2) particularly suited for carrying out difficult experiments since they are ambitious, eager, energetic,  and highly motivated; (3) still young and more readily able to adapt unconventional approaches and make improvements to experimental research practices; and, (4) dedicated to completing research projects with efficiency (i.e., on time), so that they can publish their new results and thereby increase their reputation.  These characteristics mean that Postdocs play an important role in grant-supported research, and comprise the next generation of scientific researchers. 

 Concluding Remarks

             In Part I, I have presented the role of Postdocs within modern scientific research, and explained the importance of Postdoctoral Mentors as shapers of future research scientists and leaders.  Those who have never previously heard of Postdoctoral Research Fellows now should be able to understand and appreciate their important role in the research enterprise.  Questions about this topic and article are welcome via the Comments section.  

 

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WHAT ARE THE LARGEST LIMITATIONS TO FREEDOM OF RESEARCH?

 Some Research Topics Still Cannot be Investigated!  (http:dr-monsrs.net)

Some Research Topics Still Cannot be Investigated!  (http://dr-monsrs.net) 
                   

           Research freedom is the totally open choice of scientists and scholars for what to investigate, exactly how it is studied, and what to conclude from the experimental data gathered.  Freedom of scientific research is inherently fragile.  Traditional restrictions in classical science involved the adequacy of financial support, presence of religious or political dogmas, availability of technical means to gather certain experimental data (i.e., capabilities of research instruments), duration of time needed for the investigation, availability of certain samples, and, public health and safety concerns.  Thus, the limitations to research freedom generally involve money, time, technology, official regulations, and various authorities.  All these classical restrictions still are active today! 

 

            Many current restrictions to research freedom for scientists at modern universities have a practical nature.  These can make it very difficult or even impossible to conduct some research studies by scientists working at an academic institution.  Common examples of these limitations include:

(1)     ability to acquire funding from research grants, such that support is available in a sufficient amount to fully conduct all the proposed work;

(2)     only insufficient time is available to conduct the needed experiments, because their duration takes much longer than the usual period of any research grant (i.e., the project needs more than 5 years of support to be completed);

(3)     the required research experiments are deemed too dangerous to be conducted at a given institution or facility;

(4)     where the needed experimental data can be obtained only at one or two very special research facilities in the entire world, scheduling priorities might be such that it is necessary to  wait for several years before data collection can begin;

(5)     although a research grant would provide the large funds needed to purchase some very special and very expensive large research instrument, there is no suitable building available on the present campus for its installation; and,

(6)     the proposed experiment necessitates violating some official prohibitions or laws established by the national government agencies (e.g., DNA cloning, stem cell studies, chemical synthesis of certain toxic materials, etc.). 

            In fact, there often are some paths for determined researchers to bypass these restrictions. Working on a research project in a small group of other funded scientists can provide more funds than are available from any one research grant.  Some scientists still are able to successfully pursue construction of a book with long-term research studies by obtaining a number of consecutive research grants, such that each of these enables production of one or 2 chapters at a time until the full set is completed; this tactic is common for very successful scientific researchers, but necessitates strict discipline, a well-defined focus, and much good luck with the current research grant system.  If some special research instrument is needed but has not yet been developed, then one could invent (i.e., design, construct, and test) and use the very first one.  Other researchers work with a collaborator in some other country having different regulations, thereby enabling very special facilities to be used or forbidden dangerous experiments to be conducted.  Where the roadblock is located at the local institution, frustrated scientists must also think about the possible necessity of moving to a new employer where there is more flexibility.  All of these difficult problems and possible work-arounds mandate that research scientists have a strong personal commitment to their research project, along with much patience and a steadfast determination to succeed. 

 

            Another general category of limitation to research freedom is based on human psychology.  This concerns restrictions in the mind of most research scientists.  All research scientists, whether young or old and famous or relatively unknown, are hesitant to openly disagree with eminent other scientists who have stated some view or published some conclusions that differ from their own convictions.  It is striking to realize that many young students or non-scientist adults viewing this same situation often will have little hesitation to disagree with the eminent expert.  All of us are taught to conform, be respectful, and be obedient to authority, but research scientists must break through this psychological barrier and learn to think more independently in order to be creative and able to find hidden truths. 

 

            Another very serious limitation to research freedom fortunately does not occur in all nations within the modern world.  This is a governmental restriction about what research questions can be asked or what conclusions can be derived from new experimental results.  Either situation obviously goes totally against the very foundation of scientific research, since in the search for truth absolutely anything and everything is open to question regardless of its widespread or longstanding acceptance.  The classical modern example is Lysenkoism in Stalin’s USSR (Soviet Union), where the conclusions of one research scientist were incorporated into state policies such that they could not be disputed or even questioned by other scientists [1].  Research freedom completely ceased to exist in this subject area (i.e., inheritance of acquired characteristics).  Fortunately, these politicized governmental mandates were later removed so that research freedom in modern Russian science again has bloomed.  

 

            The most recent example of a sad loss of research freedom is Germar Rudolf [2].  As an enthusiastic graduate student in chemistry at a German university research center, he decided to conduct research investigations seeking chemical evidence for use of gassing in certain “death camps” run by German military operations during WW2.  His extensive and careful chemical assays unexpectedly produced only negative results for the use of cyanide gas, but control situations at on-site locations were positive with the same chemical tests.  From the experimental data, Rudolf then drew the straightforward conclusion that cyanide gassings were not conducted where everyone else was certain they were done.  His German professor refused to publish Rudolf’s thesis results and tried to terminate his degree candidacy.  Rudolf’s conclusions from his chemical research studies directly contradicted and violated German national laws forbidding such statements and beliefs, even if presented as a summary of scientific research findings; he was later indicted for violation of these anti-science laws, lost his court case, and wound up in prison for several years.  Today, the same dogmatic laws and restrictions now exist in several other nations, as well as continuing in Germany.  Undoubtedly, other young researchers also are encountering this difficult situation where their freedom as a research scientist is very limited by a national policy on some mandated dogma. 

 

            Where scientists are not 100% free, there can be no research freedom!  The search for the truth is never finished, and demands freedom for scientists and other scholars to ask any questions and draw any conclusions so long as the experimental evidence supports those views.  Research is at its best when it is unrestrained by either political convictions or arbitrary dogmas.  Even established conclusions and universally accepted concepts are open to questioning and further testing.  The nature of science is such that research conclusions are not determined by political mandate, religious dogma, or arbitrary individual beliefs, but rather are built and progressively modified from the total range of experimental results gathered by many different scientists. 

 

[1]  The Skeptic’s Dictionary, 2013.  Lysenkoism.  Available on the internet at:
http://www.skepdic.com/lysenko.html .

[2]  Rudolf, G., 2012.  Resistance is Obligatory.  Castle Hill Publishers, Uckfield, United Kingdom, 367 pages. 


               

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WHICH GRADUATE SCHOOL SHOULD YOU ATTEND TO BECOME A SCIENTIST?

 

What Should I Investigate in Graduate School for my Ph.D.?  (http://dr-monsrs.net)
What Should I Research in Graduate School for my Ph.D.?           (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

            Your decision of which graduate school to attend in preparation for a career in scientific research will be of vital importance for the rest of your life.  Typically, you will work there for 3-8 years to construct a thesis, defend it successfully, and thereby earn a Ph.D.  Your thesis advisor will guide your endeavors, and functions as an academic parent; you will learn many practical skills, as well as what to do and what not to do in the mentor’s lab.  Your graduate school, doctoral thesis, and research activities will establish your professional identity as a particular kind of scientist (e.g., atomic physicist, cell biologist, solar astronomer, solid state chemist, theoretical physicist, virologist, etc.).

 

            Selection of which graduate school will be best for you is made difficult because so many variables are involved.  There are 4 main features that must be evaluated by you in order to  make this choice wisely: (1) presence of outstanding well-funded faculty scientists with busy laboratories; (2) size, scope, and organization of the graduate training program, particularly for the area of your prospective interest; (3) experimental facilities and research instrumentation available, including special equipment required for scientific investigations in your major field of interest; and, (4) reputation and track record of the department, school, and past graduates now working in scientific research. 

 

            The task of picking a good graduate school is a generic problem in matching varied students with the different training programs and atmosphere at each educational institution.  Just as any young prospective scientist has individual characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, it must be recognized that each graduate school also has a distinctive character with advantages and disadvantages.  You should learn to list all these latter factors on a sheet of paper as objectively as you can; if your list is complete, then there should be no surprises later.  I have previously discussed some situations that are frequently negative in graduate school programs leading to a Ph.D. in science (see earlier post on “Graduate School Education of Scientists: What is Wrong Today?” in the Education category), and hopefully this might be useful for your evaluations. 

 

            The more information you can gather the easier will be your final decision.  Where is this info found and how is it retrieved?  Not everything that is very important for your choice is either publicized or obvious, so you will have to force some items to come out into the light.  Talking with currently enrolled students at the graduate school can provide much valuable information about the working atmosphere there.  Talking with other students who are in any graduate training program also often is informative.  Faculty members at your undergraduate college should provide some useful impressions and opinions.  Similarly, discussions with science faculty at  the prospective graduate school always are quite instructive; before meeting them, be certain to look up their research publications in science journals during the past few years .  The more facts and opinions you obtain, the better! 

 

             Your final selection must be confirmed by a personal visit to the campus.  That can be arranged with any graduate school, and is absolutely essential!  Your day-long stay should include time for attending a class or two, visiting a teaching laboratory, meeting a few current graduate students and postdocs, observing the available housing and nearby neighborhood, having lunch in the school cafeteria or departmental lunchroom, talking to some faculty scientists who have graduate students working in their lab, visiting the library and computer facilities, etc.  Do not hesitate to ask current students to see their mentor’s laboratory, to explain exactly what they are working on, to show you where they reside, and, to tell you what they perceive as the best and most difficult features of being a graduate student at that location.  Some appropriate graduate program official should be asked about the placements of their recent doctoral graduates with both postdoctoral positions and first jobs; you want to be at a school where all your hard work and special training pays off by starting you on a good career course, whether in academia, industry, or elsewhere. 

 

            Practical considerations often guide or restrict your choice, and these sometimes outweigh all other considerations.  Practical factors include the availability of financial support programs, previous personal contacts with members of the faculty, proximity of the school to some desired employment site or living quarters, distance from your parents’ residence, past association of a family member with a particular school or department, professional reputation of research by certain professors at the school being evaluated, announcement of a new program in exactly the research specialty that has your personal interest, etc. 

 

            Graduate school is a good place to learn and explore, but it is not the best time to begin to wonder about what you will do later as an independent adult.  Choosing between different graduate schools is best done after you have firmly decided that:  (1) you definitely want to be a research scientist, and (2) certain parts of science or certain research questions hold a large personal fascination for you.  Although I do know that many applicants to graduate schools nowadays have little feeling for what they will work on for their thesis project and future research investigations, I must state that it is definitely my opinion that being less certain about either of the 2 decisions listed above makes your choice of a graduate school much chancier.

 

            No graduate school is perfect, but some certainly are better than others for you.  Make certain you decide upon the training program and opportunities that are best suited for you.  This need not be the school with the most prominent reputation, the most Nobel Prize winners on its faculty, or the largest financial resources.  Some graduate students need more guidance and individual support than others, so be sure to select a school with those opportunities.  Your final selection should be a decision that is very personal, well thought out, and, elicits enthusiasm and excitement in you; as always, it also must be compatible with the different practical realities.

 

            Good luck with making a satisfying choice!  If you later find that you have made a big and bad  mistake, you usually can switch your thesis advisor, move to a different department at the same university, or transfer to a different graduate school.  Should you wish to ask non-specific questions to Dr.M about this topic, please leave these as a comment to this posting; Dr.M reads every single approved comment submitted to this website, and will briefly answer your questions.

 

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CURIOSITY, CREATIVITY, INVENTIVENESS, AND INDIVIDUALISM IN SCIENCE

 

Edwin H. Land inspects an oversized Polaroid BLACK AND WHITE image of himself taken with one of his Polaroid cameras; recorded by an unknown photographer in the late 1940's.
Edwin H. Land inspects an oversized Polaroid black and white image of himself taken with one of his Polaroid cameras; recorded by an unknown photographer in the late 1940’s.

 

            Curiosity is the desire in some individuals to wonder about the whys and wherefores of something (e.g., how does a clock work, what causes headaches, why do humans get old and die, when will cars drive themselves, is a mouse just a little rat, where was copper mined for making the first ancient copper pots, etc.?).  Creativity is an inborn ability to think and act in new directions, and to make unrestrained or unconventional associations.  Inventiveness is an inborn ability to devise and develop new or better objects, and new ways of doing something;  inventions are new devices or processes, made and developed by an inventor (see my earlier post on “Inventors & Scientists” in the Basic Introductions category).  Individualism is found in people who readily assert their own personal characteristics of thought, interests, and demeanor, and, who are not afraid to have some of their own viewpoints be quite different from those of the general public.   Any one person, whether a scientist or a non-scientists, can potentionally excel with any of these characteristics.  Some of these features, but rarely all 4 of them, frequently are found in research scientists; when several are well-developed in one individual researcher, the results often are quite spectacular.  

 

Most scientists started out as youngsters with the natural curiosity and creativity found in almost all children.  Sometime later, during the course of their education and advanced training, they become molded into adult scientists who are more ready to think along certain channels, accept participation in group projects, and perform research with standardized experimental approaches; this process often results in very restrained individualism, diminished curiosity, near absence of  research creativity, and, redirection of activities into only tried and true pathways.  Although everyone has a distinct personality with individual likes and dislikes, most research scientists now are inhibited from thinking creatively, trying to prove that some established belief is wrong, questioning interpretations or conclusions coming from very famous other scientists, and expressing their individual  curiosity.  In the modern world, most of us, whether we are scientists or non-scientists, are expected to conform, not be very curious, and not ask too many questions (i.e., “do not rock the boat!”).  It really takes guts for any artist, musician, poet, or scientist to be a creative individual in today’s world. 

 

            In modern science, the current research grant system unforunately opposes creativity in scientists.  This is largely because a big push is given to being able to actually produce the anticipated results with the proposed experiments; grant applications proposing to conduct experiments and attack research questions with well-established experimental designs generally are favored by the grant system over those more exploratory studies seeking to use new approaches, ask unconventional questions, or, use innovative designs and new tools for analysis.  For truly creative scientists, results of their experiments often either cannot be anticipated at all or are likely to be very different from traditional expectations; this condition generally is not viewed with favor by the modern research grant system. Inventions are widely sought in modern science and research because they can produce financial gain and help provide touchable evidence that new practical devices are generated by publically-supported research grants; in other words, the granting agencies like to show the tax-paying public that research grant funds are indeed helping make daily life better or easier.  Although today’s scientists are very appreciative that the research grant system does provide considerable support for experimental science, they also are at least vaguely aware that it also tends to suppress expression of the several attributes found prominently in dedicated and innovative research scientists. 

 

            Exceptions to the above generalizations about repression of curiosity, creativity, inventiveness, and individualism in modern science are among the most fascinating of all people.   One particularly well-known example is Edwin H. Land (1909-1991), who had vigorous expression of all 4 of these characteristics.  He is most widely known as the inventor, developer, and manufacturer of the Polaroid Camera and Polaroid films [1-4].  These comprised the amazing invention of “instant photography”,  and occurred decades before the now-commonplace digital imaging cameras were born.  Land dropped out of Harvard College in order to conduct research studies, but later went on to obtain his bachelor’s degree; he succeeded in educating himself largely through self-study, similarly to what Thomas Edison did.  It now is obvious to all that Land didn’t need academic degrees in order to achieve renown, because he was supremely individualistic and a remarkably self-driven worker.  His open curiosity, creative ideas, energetic drive, and engineering insights led this researcher and inventor to develop new means to polarize photonic light, and also a new theory of color vision.  His special cameras and unique films both had multiple models and diverse varieties [3].  The Polaroid Corporation had multiple buidings and laboratories with over 10,000 employees; the research and development labs housed several talented co-researchers and engineers toiling to make very new technological advances in photography [4].  Land was a very self-motivated creator throughout his entire life.  He felt that everyone should havre direct experience in conducting experimental research as a very valuable part of getting a college education, so he established new programs for laboratory research by undergraduate students at several universities.  By the time he died, Land the physical scientist, inventor, and manufacturer had obtained over 500 patents [1,2]; this giant number stands as an objective testimonial to the inventiveness of this very creative human [3,4]. 

 

            Creativity is not essential for science, but is very useful and helpful in speeding up research progress by enabling breakthroughs and large jumps over the usual step-by-step progress in laboratory activities.  Quite often scientists have become famous largely because they invented some key device or process that enabled them to examine and study something that was unseen or unrecognized by other eager researchers.  Today, it is often believed that younger individuals are the major source for new concepts and new ideas in science.  All of these basic recognitions force the conclusion that both the agencies awarding research grants, and the academic institutions employing faculty researchers, should do more to encourage creativity, individualism, and inventiveness in scientists, instead of repressing these capabilities.  Any funding program that intentionally or unintentionally suppresses creativity and curiosity by demanding that a proposed project be almost guaranteed success, proceed only with some currently hot methodology, or follow strictly along well-known pathways of logic and analysis, is thereby retarding the progress of scientific research.  Society, schools and universities, and, granting agencies, all need to recognize the fact that the unknowns in research make good experimental studies always risky, not easily guaranteed, and very challenging; but, at the same time these conditions also make science investigations quite wonderful.  Encouraging curiosity, creativity, inventiveness, and individualism in scientists will promote better results in scientific research, and that will benefit everyone. 

    

[1]  McElheny, V. K. The National Academy Press, 2013.  Biographical Memoirs: Edwin Herbert Land, May 7, 1909 – March 1, 1991.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nap.edu/html/biomems/eland.html

[2]   Linderman, M., 2010.  The story of Polaroid inventor Edwin Land, one of Steve Jobs’ biggest heroes.  Available on the internet at:  http://signalvnoise.com/posts/2666-the-story-of-polaroid-inventor-edwin-land-one-of-steve-jobs-biggest-heroes .

[3]  BBC News Magazine, 2013.  The Polaroid genius who re-imagined the way we take photos.  Video is available online at:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21115581 .  

[4]  Polaroid Corporation, 1970.  Edwin H. Land in “The Long Walk” (directed by Bill Warriner).  Video is available online at:  http://film.linke.rs/domaci-filmovi/edwin-h-land-in-the-long-walk-1970-directed-by-bill-warriner-for-polaroid-corporation/ .

 

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WHY IS IT SO VERY HARD TO ELIMINATE FRAUD AND CORRUPTION IN SCIENTISTS?

 

Ordinary Career Goals Easily Have Room for Cheating!   (dr-monsrs.net)
Ordinary Science Faculty Goals Easily Can Encourage Corruption!                               (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

             Today in 2014, nobody knows exactly how much dishonesty is occurring in science (see my recent post on “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science” in the Basic Introductions category).  Clear examples of cheating by research scientists continue to be discovered every year [e.g., 1,2].  This ethical problem always is potentially present, can be very destructive, and has several known causes (see my recent post of “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?” in the Big Problems category).  The problem of cheating and corruption in science is particularly hard to solve because the great majority of lapses in professional ethics remain unrecognizable and undetected. 

 

            Unethical behavior in modern scientific research at universities is encouraged by 4 changes from previous conditions that impact all faculty scientists. 

                        1.  Within universities, science has changed its goals from the discovery of new and true knowledge into the acquisition of commercial developments, obtaining more and more external research grant money, and achieving as many published research reports as possible.  In such an atmosphere, cheating and deceit are simply the result of the large pressures generated by these new goals (see my posts on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” in the Basic Introductions category, and “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?” in the Big Problems category). 

                        2.  Today’s doctoral researcher employed in academia is so overwhelmed by the numerous demands for their time and effort that it is natural to search for easy ways to save precious time and speed up research progress (see my recent post on “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists so Very Hectic?” in the Scientists category). 

                        3.  Science and research always function immersed within the surrounding environment.  In the modern USA, research scientists are working today within a society where deception, fraud, insincerity, and even outright lying are too often considered useful and clever in advertising, all levels of education, business and commerce, court and legal activities, entertainment, federal and state governments, law enforcement, manufacturing, and, sports.  Thus, it would be nothing short of a miracle if some few scientists do not also follow these widespread unethical practices. 

                        4.  Money now is over-emphasized in scientific research (see my earlier post on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” in the Big Problems category).  The hyper-competition for research grants pervades all aspects of being a busy faculty scientist  (see my recent posts on “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” in the Essays category, and “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?” in the Scientists category).  The large pressures created by this condition easily can overwhelm any superficial adherence to honesty by some faculty researchers who are not sufficiently tied to the need of science professionals for total integrity. 

 

            Why is dishonesty so very bad for science that it must be eliminated?  Corruption in science breaks down trust by the public, by fellow researchers and other scholars, and by commercial interests.  Any breakdown of trust can be very destructive and usually spreads.  The whole enterprise of experimental science is based upon the trust that research results published by scientists are real, and that reported experiments will work as described when they later are repeated by other investigators.  Any falsification of research data and conclusions in journals or books can have devastating later consequences (e.g., doctoral research scientists working at some large pharmaceutical firm do not object when they recognize that their results with testing of a new drug have been manipulated by company executive administrators to remove the experimental evidence for some side effects).  Scientific and legal controversies originating or supported by fraudulent results and biased conclusions not only are a huge waste of time, but also waste large amounts of money. 

           

            Why can’t some “minor dishonesty” in research be tolerated?  This would have unfortunate practical consequences.  For all future research work, the “slightly dishonest researcher” must be expected to be willing to cheat again; this expectation follows from basic human nature.  Any and all research results from that person cannot ever again be taken at face value, but have to be independently verified by further experiments and tests.  Once trust by fellow research scientists is broken, it cannot be readily reassembled, barring development of some effective efforts with rehabilitation (see my recent post on “Important Article by Daniel Cressey in 2013 Nature” in the Big Problems category). 

           

            Are current efforts to try to control dishonesty in scientific research having good effects?  The penalties for dishonesty in research and the resultant breakdown in trust usually are not very severe.  In the past, most instances with detection of cheating and dishonesty have not produced very strong effects upon the perpetrator.  The recent federal laws designed to protect whistleblowers from retribution are well-intentioned, but do not attain their supposed aims.  Continuing to ignore this problem certainly will not make it go away.  History already proves that wishful thinking will not change the ongoing presence of corruption in science.  Although all research scientists will profess to have very strong standards of honesty, most will not ever take action if some corruption is observed or alleged.  The appointment of officials in charge of research integrity in universities is increasing and might help improve this problem in the future, but without strengthening all the other measures needed, this is likely to have only a nominal effect. Thus, I must conclude that current efforts to deal with dishonesty in science are not effective!

 

            Fraud and corruption in scientific research are especially hard to eliminate because: (1) their ultimate basis is normal human nature (i.e., working to increase fame and fortune), (2) they often are extremely hard to detect and very difficult to prove (i.e., allegations of dishonesty are meaningless without explicit authenticated documentation), (3) they are strongly stimulated by the enormous job pressures coming from granting agencies and universities (i.e., the time problem, and the money problem), and, (4) the penalties for being caught at corruption in science presently are too limited and not harsh enough.  Clearly, one cannot change the first condition (human nature), but the other 3 conditions can and must be changed in order to achieve much more extensive progress in dealing with this difficult ongoing problem.  Although it previously has been very difficult to eliminate dishonesty in science, I believe that this major problem for modern scientific research can be greatly improved by addressing these 3 areas.

 

            If cheating and fraud in science are so very hard to detect and prove, what can de done to stop dishonesty and corruption by scientists from becoming more frequent?  The biggest chance for success in eliminating the issue of dishonesty for modern science is to institute 3 large changes: (1) much more intense education about the need for research scientists to always be 100% honest, (2) much more effective and vigorous efforts to detect dishonesty in scientific research, and (3) much harsher penalties must be handed out for admitted or proven  unethical behavior by research scientists.  Making these 3 changes will help tip the balance when some weaker individual scientists are faced with any temptation to take the easy way out rather than maintain their professional integrity.  

 

          [1]  Mail Online, 2014.  Rogue scientist faked AIDS research funded with $19M in taxpayer funded money by spiking rabbit blood.  Daily Mail (U.K.), 26 December 2013.  Available online at:
http://dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2529541/Rogue-scientist-FAKED-federally-funded-AIDS-
research-spiking-rabbit-blood.html .

         [2]  Callaway, E., 2011.  Report finds massive fraud at Dutch universities.  Nature, 479:15.  Also available on the internet at::  http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111101/full/479015a.html .

 

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WHY WOULD ANY SCIENTIST EVER CHEAT?

 

 Cheating in Science  (dr-monsrs.net)

Why do Children Cheat?    Who do Some Scientists Cheat?         (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

           I myself do sincerely believe that most scientists are totally honest, just as they should be.  Why would any scientist ever elect to ignore professional ethics and cheat or be dishonest?  I think it likely that most unethical scientists do not really decide to be dishonest, but rather feel pushed into it.  There are many different factors and circumstances that cause and push some weaker individual scientists to cross the boundary between honesty and dishonesty.  These include: personal attributes and character defects, being surrounded by others who engage in dishonesty, employment in an institution that has only a superficial commitment to scientific research, working under an atmosphere where money rules all, not being internally strong enough to deal with all the external pressures involved with the research grant system, etc.  Such problematic situations can readily generate a very large pressure where some few individuals try to deal with their difficulties by taking the easy way out.  Fortunately, most research scientists are able to remain strictly honest in these same situations, and are determined to avoid corruption at all times. Nevertheless, history shows that some scientists do cheat (see my recent post on “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science” within the Basic Introductions category). 

 

            For scientists, vexing difficulties with time management and handling research grants are major generators raising the pressure to cheat.  I have already described the overly busy life of scientists working as university faculty (see my recent post on “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists So Very Hectic?” in the Scientists category).  There are only about 18 hours per day for research scientists working in universities to handle laboratory work, teaching activities, supervision of graduate students and lab employees, writing and reading, preparation of abstracts for annual science meetings, family life, outside interests, etc., etc. (see my earlier post on “What Do University Scientists Really Do in their Daily Work?” in the Basic Introductions category).  This condition with its many deadlines frequently creates job difficulties in time management (= “the time problem”) that can become very problematic.


            Failure of an academic scientist to get a research grant renewed means loss of laboratory space assignment, loss of graduate students, additional teaching duties, and decay of professional reputation.  Yes, this does actually happen!  Anything at all that will aid in getting a new grant, assist in having a research grant renewed,  or produce more research publications might for certain individuals seem like a gift from heaven, but the use of dishonesty really is the opposite.  Some universities push their faculty scientists to  obtain several research grants, thereby greatly increasing the pressure of job difficulties with the research grant system (= “the money problem”).  For universities, additional grant awards mean more business profits, greater productivity from more publications means more status, and, improvements in their research reputation and renown mean more students and more opportunities.  The granting agencies themselves further increase these pressures by some of their present policies, particularly those that provide funding for only 1-5 years of laboratory work, thereby necessitating more frequent applications by research scientists. The total struggle to get and maintain research grant funding often is so intense and takes up so much time and effort by so many faculty scientists, that I term it a hyper-competition.  Modern scientists in academia are subject to pressure from both the time and money problems, but only some less dedicated individuals succumb and engage in unethical behavior as they try to deal with these job situations.  


            Unlike the widespread dishonesty and corruption currently seen in business and politics, very fewscientists engage in corrupt practices as a means to add dollars to their bank account.  Nevertheless, personal greed still is involved with any intent to obtain more grant money and more professional advantages through dishonest means.  Greed is involved with those who dishonestly obtain the award of a research grant, because that means that there then is less money available to fund other scientists who are deserving and honest.  Personal greed, along with excesses of such perfectly normal and good human characteristics as ambition, desire for improved status, eagerness in seeking increased prestige, and, striving to improve one’s lot in life, all can play important roles in determining whether any individual scientist will cross the line separating honesty from dishonesty. 

         

            All scientists performing laboratory studies within universities have to acquire a research grant award in order to pay for their research expenses.  This recently has created a new dimension for dihonesty in science: cheating on applications for research grants.  University scientists frequently ask one or more experienced faculty colleagues who are very successful with acquiring research grant awards to criticize their prospective applications.  Others go beyond this very useful practice and seek assistance by submitting the draft text with their ideas and plans for new experiments to professional editors or commercial advisors, in order to improve their presentation; so long as those experts only rework and polish what is furnished by theapplying scientist, that is honest (i.e., this seems analogous to a professional baker who makes a very large multilayered cake and then hires some specialist to put frosting and elaborate decorations onto it).  A typical example is when foreign-born scientists either ask a university colleague or pay an editor to find and correct errors in their English language expression within grant applications they have composed.  All of the above practices are widespread and seem to be perfectly honest.  On the other hand, using external experts to design and organize new experiments, create the research proposal and schedule, compose the bulk of the application, etc., then crosses the line between rught vs. wrong and must be considered to be dishonest, unprofessional, and condemnable.  Readers should note that after any applicant signs their own name onto an application that actually was authored by someone else, it is nearly impossible to detect this fraud just by inspecting the submitted documents.  Cheating and dishonesty on grant applications are directly encouraged by the enormous pressures to get more grant awards put onto the very busy faculty scientists working in universities (see my earlier post on “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” in the Money & Grants  category).

           

            To answer the question posed in the title, some few scientists do cheat because they believe that tactic will help to get them a personal reward or provide relief from difficult job pressures.  The specific causes for corruption in science involve certain situations: (1) defects in the personal character and professional dedication of  individual scientists, (2) the particular job environment, and (3) the current federal research grant system.  The large job pressures of being a modern faculty scientist trying to deal with the money problem and the time problem directly push some weaker researchers to become corrupt in their efforts to achieve job success. 

 

 

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WHY IS THE DAILY LIFE OF MODERN UNIVERSITY SCIENTISTS SO VERY HECTIC?

 

Daily Life for University Scientists is Very Hectic
Daily Life for University Scientists is Very Hectic (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

             Almost all scientists working on research as faculty members in academia will admit that their professional life is completely full of activities and that they often are quite frustrated trying to get everything done in time for the very numerous deadlines.  Many also will agree that the crowded schedule of all their daily work creates a hectic life that is amazingly different from what had been anticipated back when they were graduate students or postdocs; this even includes those scientists who are very successful with both obtaining research grants and producing many publications. 

 

Why do so many university scientists feel this way?  There are 5  chief causes of this self-judgment: (1) the main job of scientists working as faculty in universities now is to acquire more profits for their employer, rather than to discover more new knowledge via experimental studies (see my earlier post on “What is the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists?” in the Scientists category); (2) their chief laboratory activity often is acting as a research manager sitting at a desk, rather than actually performing any experiments at the lab bench; (3) their busy life is a never-ending sequence of job deadlines (see my recent post on “The Life of Modern Scientists is an Endless Series of Deadlines” in the Scientists category) involving grant applications, grant renewals, grant reports and forms, course lectures, course laboratories, course review sessions, course examinations, course staff meetings, conferences with students, academic meetings, annual meeting of science societies, submissions of new manuscripts, submission of revised manuscripts, completing invited reviews of manuscripts submitted by other scientists, evaluations of graduate students, evaluations of laboratory staff, professional correspondence, making travel arrangements, etc.,  etc.); (4) their intended schedule of work often can require more than 24 hours each day (see my earlier post on “What do University Scientists Actually do in their Daily Work?” in the Scientists category); and, (5) it becomes harder each year in a science career to either do research on the subjects and questions of their own choice, venture into some new interdisciplinary research effort, or be able to relax despite the enormous pressures generated by the research grant system (i.e., applications for research grant renewal never are guaranteed to be successful, and laboratory assignments will change or disappear if a proposal for renewal is denied funding).  These many job worries are both understandable and unavoidable; however, they create dismay and result in increasing dissatisfaction for many faculty who originally were very enthusiastic at becoming a university scientist. 

 

Why do so many academic scientists feel trapped inside what must be called a rat race?  Typically, these unexpected conditions arise slowly as their career progresses; the end point often is not recognized until the perverse situation already is well-established.  Once one perceives how deep this hectic quagmire can become, the only obvious solutions are either to put up with everything in return for the several good features of modern academic life, or to seek to move into a better job situation with a new employer or even a new career.  Most university scientists facing this dilemma are at least some 40 years of age; for many, their future retirement already can be foreseen.  Thus, moving to a new job site is not so easily accomplished, and is known to often result in the loss of 6-12 months of research productivity.  Many faculty scientists feel overwhelmed in this situation, and are hesitant to try to do anything about it.  A good number of faculty scientists who reach this midcareer realization start spending much more of their daily job time with teaching, writing books, and administrative work; they also work more frequently at home, rather than working in their research lab or office on campus. 

 

For all the employing universities, there are few rewards that they could receive by trying to resolve the problems of their faculty scientists listed above.   For these academic institutions, the recognized hectic life of their faculty research scientists translates into more profits and greater employee productivity.  Thus, most modern universities are fully pleased and very satisfied with exactly the same job problems and situations that perturb their science faculty!  This means that the university system with faculty scientists is very likely to continue just as it is today for a long time.

 

In principle, improved  education could help professional scientists to handle these job problems more successfully.  In graduate school education, new more realistic courses could be offered concerning what to do when faced with the many large practical problems of prioritizing and handling deadlines, allocating time commitments, dealing with the perverse practices of the federal research grant system, etc. (see my recent post on “Education of University Scientists: What is Wrong Today?” in the Education category).  At present, these matters usually are not covered either by any courses, or by formal instructions; instead, counsel is sought on an individual basis by informal discussions in the hallway with more experienced members of the science faculty.

 

Another part of the reason why there are so few current efforts to make the needed changes in modern universities is that some particularly successful faculty scientists do rise to the top despite these difficult job problems, and their employer then uses them as models of what all the other university scientists should be doing.  This common practice has the obvious major flaw that the number of such eminently successful faculty scientists in any university undoubtedly is enormously less than the number of those other faculty who are frustrated and dissatisfied with their hectic professional life.  In addition, I suspect that even extra-successful faculty scientists also are dismayed at just how hectic their daily life is. 

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GRADUATE SCHOOL EDUCATION OF SCIENTISTS: WHAT IS WRONG TODAY?

             Before professional scientists find a job, they typically spend 3-8 years in graduate school earning their doctoral degree, followed by at least 2 more years with advanced practical training in conducting research experiments as a postdoctoral fellow.  This long training of research scientists then continues with self-education for the rest of their professional career, regardless of whether they are employed in universities, industry, hospitals, or elsewhere.  It is amazing to realize that there now are several major gaps and inadequacies in the current scheme for the advanced education of modern scientists, particularly those working as university faculty.  

           

            Graduate schools are not sites for vocational education, but rather they deal with background knowledge, techniques, history, interactions, and theory.  Nevertheless, if any employment involves complex activities A, B, and C, then is it not reasonable that education and preparatory training should give practical instruction in all of these activities?  If the employment activities shift or are enlarged to involve A, B, C, and also D, then does it not follow that instruction about D should be added to the teaching and training?  Why is the education of scientists an exception to these expectations?  University scientists now are not receiving education about several key aspects of their profession.  Being educated just about science and how to do research is not enough!

 

            Doctoral scientists starting work at industrial research and development centers do receive instructions about the business of their employer, how to handle financial matters involved with their work (e.g., planning, purchasing, repairs), the format for research proposals to be submitted to company administrators, procedures for regulatory compliance, deadlines, etc. Their educational situation seems quite different from that of their counterparts working as faculty at universities.  

    

            Although scientific research in academic institutions now is just a business (see my earlier post on “What Is the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?” in the Scientists category), there are not any courses on business subjects given to young scientists during their training at graduate schools; after finding a job, they mostly receive only minimal instructions about business matters from their new employer.  Another of the very biggest practical problems facing today’s academic scientists is the management of time; although there are good academic courses on the principles and practice of time management, these are not being offered to graduate students specializing in science.  Even the general principles for the good design of research experiments, including constructing the research questions and designing adequate controls, mostly are taught only by example rather than as a systematic coverage of theory and practice.  Almost all research scientists of necessity use statistics for evaluation of their experimental results; a course on statistics usually is only an elective offering, and many graduate students in science mistakenly choose to not take this.

           

            Another large practical problem for scientists working at universities concerns how to deal with the research grant system.  This large topic about business usually is not covered by any organized coursework, but rather is dealt with on the spot after a job finally is landed.  Much unnecessary loss of time by the young faculty member often results from use of this trial and error approach; it would be much better if the nature of “specific aims” and other special and very important cryptic terms used in research grant applications were taught in a course of instruction, rather than learning about these from the criticisms of reviewers evaluating their very first grant application.  It also still is unusual for graduate students in science to receive didactic instruction on the professional ethics of scientific research, the relationships between the different branches of science, and the important place of engineering in the modern science enterprise. 

 

            Many of these deficiencies could be corrected easily once theimportance of the missing topics are recognized and accepted. The several gaps in graduate education of scientists occur very generally.  Whether these gaps are filled by formal coursework or by tutorial instruction is not important.  Some of the needed additional instruction will necessitate employing non-scientist teachers for instruction.  Other status quo difficulties concern the fact that these missing subjects all are “non-traditional”, whereas universities training graduate students in science are almost always strictly very traditional in their educational approaches.  Thus, current education for scientists in training simply plods along and graduate students are not being taught about the major job problems they will encounter later when working in their new job. 

 

            Some of the needed new instruction will demand use of a new format in order to do justice to their subjects.  Such new courses should be offered by 2-3 different teachers, so that the full range of topics and subtopics can be given in an effective manner. It is obvious to me that a new course about money matters in a modern university faculty job would be better if given by a group including an experienced faculty scientist who has had good success in dealing with the research grant system, and a faculty teacher from a business school; this course also would benefit from participation by a professional ethicist.  Getting all 3 types of educators to work coordinately in one course would be truly wonderful, but that would be quite an unconventional undertaking.  Some of the missing educational offerings might become easier if they are given as intensive short courses (i.e., 3-5 weeks), rather than as the usual textbook-based courses lasting several months.  This change in format also will provide a better opportunity for having valuable discussion sessions about practical questions with several experienced faculty research scientists (i.e., from different departments, working in different disciplines, coming from different graduate schools, and having different degrees of status).

 

I believe that these additional efforts to improve graduate school education will help all young scientists to deal more successfully and less painfully with their new job responsibilities and the problems in trying to be a good professional scientist.  It then will no longer be necessary to waste so much time figuring out the nature of these job problems, and trying to learn from the traditional trial and error approach. 


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INTRODUCTION TO CHEATING AND CORRUPTION IN SCIENCE

 

Dishonesty in Science (http://dr-monsrs)
Dishonesty and Corruption in Science (http://dr-monsrs)

  

             How much cheating and corruption is there in science?  The best answer is that nobody knows!  Even today in 2014, there continue to be much-publicized instances where some professional research scientist is revealed to have published research results in peer-reviewed journal articles where the reported experimental data were either fabricated (faked) or were grossly changed (i.e., to construct a surprising pseudo-result) [e.g., 1,2].  While money is almost always involved in some way, for corruption in science money only rarely goes directly into the pocket of the dishonest scientists, unlike the usual situation for widespread corruption within politics and the business world.  Instead, it often goes into their professional purse and is used for such personally rewarding expenses as the purchase of additional research equipment not paid for by their grants, salaries for additional research coworkers, extra business travel, a new computer with special software, etc.). 

 

  Dishonesty in science includes several different types of unethical activity.  At a simple level, this corruption can involve such disgraceful events as (1) adding some imagined numbers to a chart of experimental results, so as to get better statistics, (2) changing or removing some numbers in a chart of collected results, so as to shift the conclusions being supported by these data, (3) misrepresenting the design of experiments, so as to support certain conclusions or deny others, or (4) not giving appropriate credit to internal or external collaborators and coauthors.  Thus, these simpler types of dishonesty involve research fraud by data fabrication and manipulation, drawing false conclusions, theft of intellectual property, etc.  At a more complex level, dishonesty in science can involve such activities as (1) stealing experimental research data from other labs, (2) stealing ideas or even research projects from other scientists, (3) fabrication of entire experimental datasets, or (4) constructing an application for a research grant using imaginary results or falsified statements.  These larger types of dishonesty thus involve theft of data, lying about the experimental results gathered, stealing of ideas, misrepresentation with the intent to deceive, etc.  Some or even many readers will wonder how in the world could any of these examples actually happen?  I assure them that I have heard rumors, seen and listened to stories, and, read reports about all of these!  Moreover, I have conversed with two separate doctoral workers who unsuccessfully pursued lawsuits for their claims of data theft.

   

  I personally believe that almost all faculty scientists are completely honest.  Any unethical behavior by professional scientists betrays the enormous trust given to them by the general public [3], and the necessary trust given by their fellow researchers.  Any dishonesty thus destroys both the integrity of science and the practical ability of other researchers to proceed forward from what they believe is the truth when designing new research experiments.  When dishonesty occurs in successfully acquiring a research grant, that event directly decreases the chance that some other scientist who is totally honest is able to acquire funding for their worthy project; this type of robbery is not often recognized as being a very important part of modern corruption in science.  A shocking and disgraceful example of successful cheating in order to get a large research grant award was uncovered very recently [1]. 

 

In addition to outright dishonesty and deception by scientists, where research integrity is discarded, there also is a gray area where some very limited portion of collected data (e.g., a very few outliers in a data plot) is eliminated from the total pool of experimental results displayed.  The opposite condition for this same kind of situation also occurs, where one or two pieces of individual data that are much better, clearer, or prettier than the average case, are selected to be shown in publications and in oral presentations.  These practices are not at all unusual and are known generically as “fudging the data”; both can simply serve to make the quality of the collected data look better and be seen more easily.  They commonly are not considered to be dishonest. 

 

 What happens when outright dishonesty by a faculty scientist is either proven or admitted?  In many cases, there has been almost no penalty given beyond having a published article withdrawn or being discharged from a laboratory group.  Part of this apparent lack of serious concern is due to the fact that in cases where some very celebrated scientist has been accused of being involved in corruption, long battles and countercharges in the courts have ensued [e.g., 4,5].  If famous research leaders are directing some very large laboratory in which the cheating allegedly occured, it usually is totally difficult to prove either that they were involved in the dishonest act(s) carried out by some individual lab worker, or that the leader even knew about the wrongful event(s) [4,5]; separation of the supervisor from actual technical workers is very widespread within giant laboratory groups (research factories), where the chief scientist really is only an administrative manager and does not even know the names of all the people who work there. 

 

Most corruption in science almost certainly remains undetected.  Unless there is some witness who is upset enough and courageous enough to report the dishonesty, and unless hard and fast documentation can be acquired, the loss of research integrity will never become known or proven. A good example of this is given by the very recent case cited earlier [1], where the dishonesty was discovered only when some other research laboratories found that they could not duplicate some of the experimental results published by the unethical scientist.  Despite new rules intended to protect whistleblowers and the recently increasing appointment of officials in charge of research integrity at academic institutions, it continues to remain very difficult to investigate and prosecute alleged dishonesty in science.  There is a natural reluctance for anyone working in academia, whether faculty or students or lab technicians, to make accusations that necessarily will involve official investigations, prolonged legal activities, and possible retribution.   

                      

Clearly, the present measures being taken to prevent, detect, and punish dishonesty in scientific research are inadequate.  There is too much lip service in dealing with cheating and corruption in science, and it seems likely that this problem will increase.  I suspect that the amount of dishonesty in applications for research grants particularly is increasing now, and soon will become the most frequent form of corruption in science.  The chief driver for my prediction is that it is very, very hard to detect, and nearly impossible to prove, any dishonesty in grant applications; moreover, there presently is only scanty attention and little concern being given to this problem by the different granting agencies.

           

Although all academic sicentists are quite aware of the problem of dishonesty and corruption in science, there generally are few casual or formal discussions about this issue.  Exactly why do some few scientists become dishonest?  What motivates cheating and dishonesty in science?  How can dishonesty and corruption in scientific research be decreased and eliminated?  What new penalties should be instituted for cheating in research?  Can an unethical researcher be made honest by some curative process?  I will discuss these complex questions and related issues within future postings. 

 

[1]  Mail Online, 2014.  Rogue scientist faked AIDS research funded with $19M in taxpayer funded money by spiking rabbit blood.  Daily Mail (U.K.), 26 December 2013.  Available online at:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2529541/Rogue-scientist-FAKED-federally-funded-AIDS-research-spiking-rabbit-blood.html

[2]  Callaway, E., 2011.  Report finds massive fraud at Dutch universities.  Nature, 479:15.  Also available on the internet at::  http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111101/full/479015a.html .

[3]  Pew Research, 2009.  Public praises science; Scientists fault public, media; Scientific achievements less prominent than a decade ago.  Available online at:                                       http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/public-praises-science-scientists-fault-public-media/ .

[4]  Wright, P., 2003.  Robert Alan Good.  The Lancet362:1161.  Also available on the internet at:                                                                                                          http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2803%2914489-3/fulltext .

[5]  Bombardieri, M., & Cook, G., 2005.  More doubts raised on fired MIT professor.  In: The Boston Globe, October 29, 2005.  Available online at:  https://secure.pqarchiver.com/boston/doc/404985132.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Oct+29%2C+2005&author=Marcella+Bombardieri+and+Gareth+Cook%2C+Globe+Staff&pub=Boston+Globe&edition=&startpage=&desc=MORE+DOUBTS+RAISED+ON+FIRED+MIT+PROFESSOR .

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THE LIFE OF MODERN SCIENTISTS IS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF DEADLINES!

A Life of Endless Deadlines
Research  Scientists  Live  A  Life  of  Endless  Deadlines                                (dr-monsrs.net)

         

            Faculty research scientists working at modern universities always are very busy (see my post on “What do Scientists Actually do in their Daily Work” in the Scientists category).  Almost none can avoid having their professional life being characterized by far too many deadlines.  Some job deadlines are yearly or monthly events, while others occur weekly and even daily.  For many university scientists, there are major deadlines for submitting applications for competitive grant renewals or new research grants, annual forms and reports to the granting agency, signed forms going to the employing institution, and, yet other business and financial submissions related to research grant awards.  These deadlines for research grant activities in turn create secondary deadlines for sending in new or revised manuscripts to professional journals, submitting abstracts for science meetings, and getting certain lab results finalized.  Yet other deadlines occur intermittently throughout the academic year, involving lectures and examinations in university courses, safety inspections, chemical inventory updates, radiation usage reports and inspections, graduate student meetings and examinations, writing invited chapters for new science books, participating in journal clubs, obtaining travel approvals and arrangements, preparing and giving invited seminars at other institutions, attending meetings of science societies, reviewing assigned manuscripts, etc.  Most of these many deadlines cannot be avoided or postponed. 

 

             For industrial research scientists working at research and development centers in commercial companies, there also are very many job deadlines.  Progress in their projects must be kept on a mandated schedule, formal internal reports must be prepared and approved by the target dates, supplies must be acquired in certain business periods, presentations for internal and external meetings must be finalized and approved, proposals for patent applications and future investigations must be generated and finalized, training of new staff employees must be finished during the allowed period, and, all assigned tasks must be brought forward to meet targeted goals set by the commercial employer.  Most of these deadlines cannot be postponed or ignored.  The fact that industrial scientists often work on more than one project intensifies the number of their deadlines.  

 

            Of course, every salaried worker in almost any type of non-science job also has deadlines.  This is normal and serves to encourage progress in the job.  But, here I am describing something much larger and more extensive.  When the schedule of one’s entire job life becomes only an endless series of deadlines, the main question each and every day then is, “What is my next deadline?”.  This is typical for the life of university scientists actively doing grant-supported research.  It is truly like running on a treadmill and being unable to jump off.  If a deadline ever is not met, there always are unfortunate consequences.  The traditional solution to this problem is to hire more helpers (e.g., lab coworkers, secretaries, a lab manager/administrator, graduate students); this does not always work as anticipated, since these new personnel also add to the existing pile of deadlines.  Common casual attempts to deal with the problem of too numerous deadlines also do not usually work very well (e.g., thinking about new experiments while one is driving to work or taking a train, preparing the agenda for a committee meeting while eating lunch, analyzing experimental data just before going to bed, etc.). 

 

            In addition to requiring great discipline, much stamina, and intense dedication, the endless deadlines for scientists often produce some very negative effects.  Ultimately, the frazzled working scientist begins to feel that he or she is doing something in a very mechanical manner.  Most importantly, the endless deadlines readily conflict with the very important need of all scientists to spend some time simply thinking about their present and future research activities (e.g., how can I make this experiment give clearer results, do I have enough of a certain very expensive chemical to last for the rest of this year or should I purchase more now, should I pay an external service lab to run this assay or is it better to do it in-house, what should I do about my graduate student being a very slow worker?).  The numerous deadlines too easily also can result in there being little or no time to spend elsewhere for family life and normal outside activities. 

 

            At its worst, the dedicated university or industrial scientist trying to deal with all their job deadlines never has sufficient free time to be able to think and generate new ideas, carefully design new experiments and good controls, dream up new research projects, or take a day off to organize and assemble a new presentation showing results of the latest experiments.  The problem of time management created by all these many job deadlines is a major practical difficulty for university scientists doing research, and can also be a major job concern for industrial research scientists.  I myself  encountered this very large difficulty with handling deadlines, and in response I always used to work on weekends and most holidays!  The time crunch induced by the endless deadlines inevitably has negative effects upon the professional work of scientists for advancing the research enterprise. 

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MOST OF TODAY’S PUBLIC EDUCATION ABOUT SCIENCE IS WORTHLESS!

 

What  is  Research?
What  is  Scientific Research?     (dr-monsrs.net)

 

            The general public today perceives science as being something much beyond their ability to understand.  Many people actually are afraid of science!  Since science and research seem to have no direct impact upon their daily lives, the simplest solution is for people to completely ignore them.  In today’s world, these conditions have resulted in the enormous estrangement of most ordinary people from scientific research.  

 

On television and the internet, science programs almost always portray science as an amusement.  These programs often feature titillation and try to illustrate science in action (i.e., research) by showing unknown instruments having lots of colored blinking lights and noises, somewhat bizarre men and women wearing white lab coats, laboratory shelves with myriad vials and bottles, and, computer screens filled with a galaxy of numbers.  This caricature of scientific research supports the common fear of science, and directly leads to seeing it as being something quite amusing. 

 

The present “science-of-the-day” format found in many media programs about science almost always features claims that the most recent research finding promises some wildly fabulous advance.  Probably most viewers do not even hear the obligatory follow-up statement that the promised glorious results will be many years in the future.  Any attempt to explain what is being shown is always very abbreviated and superficial; the result is that the audience is amused and always dutifully repeats, “Isn’t that wonderful!”, but really learns and comprehends nothing new.  This entire approach for public education demeans the audience, is grossly unrealistic about what science does and how research advances, and so seems worthless.  These programs and their warped approach will not be helpful to anyone in the public. 

 

 Science would be much better presented via examples of real scientists showing and talking about their research work, particularly when these studies involve some of the current problems we all face.  Actual scientists, not actors and actresses, should be presented and interviewed.  This use of real living scientists will reveal them as neighbors and fellow people, not as mad monsters from some other world.  The message of these presentations should present simple and clear step-by-step explanations showing how the selected question or problem is approached, how the experiments are conducted, what was found, and what conclusions are drawn from the data.  All such presentations must explain what this means for the public, and be produced to be readily understandable by ordinary adults. 

 

Practical matters are more easily understood than theoretical concepts.  Showing some real examples of practical problems where basic research, applied research, and engineering are being conducted will help counter the mistaken general viewpoint that scientific research has no impact on daily life; attentive viewers will come to see that nothing could be farther from the truth.  Probably the most difficult part of my proposal for better adult education will be to get people in the public to watch the 10-30 minute expositions; all too many modern adults have a very limited attention span, thus inclining them to watch sport events rather than any presentation about science and research. 

 

Most ordinary people have never ever talked with a real live scientist, and very few have ever visited a research laboratory.  Ideally, this should occur during education in primary and secondary schools.  By introducing new and more effective formats that are not presently being utilized for media presentations, science will become much more personal and much more human for everyone.  When the public becomes more familiar with scientists as real people, and comes to see how research can benefit everyone, they then will become more understanding and supportive of the long efforts needed to solve the difficult practical problems affecting everyone (e.g., behavior, energy, environment, genetics, health, nutrition, politics, society, water, etc.).  Improved understanding that real science (eu-science) is about finding new knowledge and helping everyone will remove the current emphasis on amusement and pseudo-science. 

 

When the public better understands that science is people, and that scientific research is important for everyone, they will become more enthusiastic about eu-science, and will come to recognize the falsity of being entertained by pseudo-science.  Kickstarter [1] and other mechanisms for crowdfunding [2-4], where hundreds to thousands of ordinary people each make a small financial contribution to a selected project, recently has become popular; in some cases with support for science research projects, the contributors can  become personal participants in the actual experimental studies.  This aspect of crowdfunding dramatically reveals that the hidden large potential interest of the public in scientific research is waiting to be unlocked. 

 

 [1]  Kickstarter, 2013.  What is Kickstarter?  Available on the internet at:  http://www.kickstarter.com/start . 

[2]  Stewart, M., 2013.  With funding becoming scarce, scientists are looking to the public for help.  ASBMB Today, 12:21-23.  Available on the internet at:                                          
http://www.asbmb.org/uploadedFiles/ASBMBToday/Content/Archive/ASBMBToday-2013-11.pdf .

[3]  Rice, H., 2013.  Crowdfunding, Overview.  The New York Academy of Sciences, Academy eBriefings, October 9, 2013.  Available on the internet at:                        http://www.nyas.org/publications/EBriefings/Detail.aspx?cid=82c4e4b4-f200-49b3-b333-c41e1e2f46aa .

[4]  Schmitt, D., 2013,  Crowdfunding science: could it work?  Higher Education Network, The Guardian, Nov. 11, 2013.  Available on the internet at:                                                        http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/nov/11/science-research-funding-crowdfunding-excellence .

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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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WHAT’S THE NEW MAIN JOB OF FACULTY SCIENTISTS TODAY?

What Is The Real Main Job Of  University Scientists ?
     What Is the new main job of university scientists ?     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Scientific research in modern times certainly is a quite expensive activity.  Scientists researching in  universities must obtain external funding from research grants in order to be able to conduct their experimental investigations in laboratories, in the field, or in hospital clinics.  Doctoral scientists with research laboratories in academia traditionally are thought to spend most of their time with performing experiments and teaching in the classroom.  Today, all of that is ancient history!!  The chief job of academic scientists now is to make money (via research grants) for their university or hospital employer.  The very best scientist now is being defined as that faculty member obtaining the largest total pile of money from research grant awards.  All other faculty activities now are strictly of secondary importance.  

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            Those of us who have seen and smelled this modern change recognize that the search for more new and true knowledge cannot possibly be equated to obtaining lots of money from research grant awards.  Success at gaining more and more new knowledge, proving a controversial hypothesis, or disproving some theory that was formerly regarded as being true, cannot be directly equated to dollars, yen, euro’s, etc.  Similarly, the quality level of research endeavors cannot be measured in units of currency; counting the number of dollars simply is not the same as measuring research quality and significance.

 

          Some readers will not understand exactly what I am describing here.  Of course, everyone understands that they must get external money in order to be able to conduct experimental research in science.  This is reality, and it must be accepted.  But, if one scientist obtains twice the funds acquired by a second scientist, does that by itself mean that the first is twice as good a researcher as the second?  Not necessarily!   Is the scientist with the most money the same as that scientist doing research of the highest quality?  I think not!  And in addition, we all have seen many examples of younger scientists with limited awarded funds perform some really terrific research studies, whereas some senior scientists with a big pot of gold just keep cranking out publications without much significance.   One can also refer to the well-known and very illustrious research scientist, Prof. Linus Pauling, who was a double Nobel prizewinner in science,  Pauling was notorious for being unable to force his creative mind into the rigid format for grant applications demanded by the National Institutes of Health; despite many efforts, that condition precluding him from getting much-needed research funds from that federal agaency; nevertheless, it is widely agreed that Pauling was a brilliant scientific researcher.  .

           

          This modern goal for faculty scientists differs greatly from former times when basic research aimed to find new knowledge for its own sake, develop new concepts, prove a disputed theorem, or establish a new direction in research.  This modern situation is accompanied by the current general spread of  commercialization into science.  Basic research now is largely being de-emphasized in favor of applied research and engineering developments.  The financial targeting of research has always been accepted as being part of industrial research and engineering work, but this was not accepted for basic scientific research in academia.  It now is an important theoretical question of whether grant money is being acquired for its own sake, or for the conduct of research.

 

            When all of this is put together, current university research must be seen to have become just another business activity.  The aim is simply to increase profits of the employer, just as is the case in all small and large businesses.  This change in direction is accompanied by many of the same problems prominently facing all competitive businesses, including (1) cheating, corruption, and dishonesty, (2) waste, (3) counterproductive competitive conflicts between different product developments,  and, (4) personal greed and professional gluttony.  In addition, too many scholarly research publications now are becomming analogous to commercial advertisements.  These negative features are accompanied by the unavoidable cut-throat competition between all scientific researchers in university labs (i.e., since their research grants all come from the same pools of money), and also between all employing institutions (i.e., since each of these seeks to attract research grant awards only to themselves, as contrasted to being used for geographically diverse investigations of a given research problem). 

 

            These modern developments clearly have resulted in large changes in today’s academic science and research.  The entire direction of experimental investigations in universities has shifted away from its classical goals.  Some small portion of science could masquerade as a commercial business without becomming problematic, but the other larger parts (i.e., basic research, theoretical research) lose their identity as science and are incompatible with such a change.  Some even now believe that science has decayed and degenerated so much that it could be dying; this controversial conclusion will be dealt with much further in later dispatches.  

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WHAT DO UNIVERSITY SCIENTISTS REALLY DO IN THEIR DAILY WORK ?

FINAL.Cartoon What is Research#2

HAT DO UNIVERSITY SCIENTISTS ACTUALLY DO IN THEIR DAILY WORK 

          Almost nobody in the general public has ever met and talked with a real living scientist.  Hence, beyond the generalizations that scientists “do research” and “teach about science”,  most people have no idea at all about what scientists work on during their daily job activities.  To fill this gap, the typical daily work of scientists employed as faculty in universities is described here.

 

          To understand science and research, one must also know about scientists.  For the first half of their faculty career, university scientists conduct experimental studies on one or several research projects which are supported by the award of external research grants.  This involves their own hands-on work in a research laboratory, supervision of laboratory staff (undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research technicians, visiting research workers, etc.), analysis of experimental data, and the publication of research reports presenting the results and conclusions from their investigations.  Appropriate time also must be given to ordering, checking on functionality of research equipment, design and planning of future experiments, problem solving with laboratory co-workers, dealing with questions arising as the experimental results are being collected, writing (research reports, new grant applications, other documents, and, books), etc.  Many faculty scientists additionally teach in one or two courses for undergraduate or graduate students.  As faculty, they also pursue various other academic activities, such as giving and attending research seminars, working with graduate training programs, attending various meetings of institutional committees and departments, attendance in graduation and other institutional ceremonies, participation and attendance at one or more annual science meetings, etc.   And finally, most of these scientists have a spouse and children, and so also need to spend some time working with their family, as well as with personal activities. 

 

          At sometime during the second half of their career, many university research scientists commonly decrease the time spent with their laboratory work, and begin to do more teaching, more writing of books, and/or more administrative work (e.g., as a divisional chief or focus director, vice-chair or chair of a department, committee head, liaison official, university representative to some venture, assistant dean, etc.).  Some also begin working off-campus much more than was previously done, by accepting responsibility for serving on various official external bodies (e.g., review boards, councils, and professional science societies, regional research facilities, publishing houses, accreditation boards, etc.).  In principle, their activities in teaching, administration, and public service all utilize the advanced experience of these senior individuals to directly and indirectly benefit other people. 

 

          The daily toil of scientists working in a university varies depending upon the different individuals, institutions, and local conditions.  Nevertheless, on a typical workday for a youngish faculty scientist, many or all of the following activities take place:

1.   thinking, questioning, and planning;

2.   reviewing the schedule for activities on that day and planned for that week;

3.   confer with laboratory staff about their new results, new problems, and current plans for progress;

4.   review research data: analysis, plotting and processing for presentation, statistics, etc.;

5.   hands-on research experiments at the laboratory bench;

6.   lectures, examinations, meetings, etc., for courses taught;

7.   administrative tasks, including filling in required forms and reports, interactions with the

safety office and the financial office, attendance at committee meetings, etc.;

8.   research grants: preparation of annual reports and forms, advance preparations for next

renewal application, review of progress and pilot studies, etc.;

9.   work on journal or review publications, abstracts for meetings, internal documents, etc.;

10.  library work, reading activities, studying a few selected recent publications in detail, gathering

            references and citations for manuscripts; and, 

11. miscellaneous: commuting, lunch, telephoning, e-mail, other individual activities, etc. 

 

          It should be very obvious that this daily work schedule requires a whole big bunch of time!  For the many other doctoral scientists doing research and development in commercial settings, their daily schedule is made slightly more reasonable because they usually share some work duties with co-workers, and are effectively assisted by a dedicated administrative, secretarial, and technical staff.  Those researchers working as faculty scientists in universities and hospitals often find that they have severe problems with time management, and necessarily must decrease the amount of time allotted to normal extraneous activities.

          The very busy daily schedule of university faculty scientists is compensated by their receiving a decent salary, working inside a scholarly home with other doctoral faculty and professional researchers, having access to good students, and utilizing the resources provided by an on-campus well-equipped science library.  In addition, they hopefully will achieve the thrill of being the first to acquire some much-desired research discovery, and, all are able to have the fun of doing research within “my own laboratory”. 

 

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FUNDAMENTALS FOR BEGINNERS: WHAT IS SCIENCE? WHAT IS RESEARCH? WHAT ARE SCIENTISTS?

 
What is Science?                           What in the world is Science?     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

          Science is an organized search for the truth.  We can know that something is true by virtue of the evidence acquired by examiners of some object, process, or concept.   Science is divided classically into 3 component parts: biomedicine, chemistry, and physics; each of these large divisions is further broken down into many discrete subdivisions (i.e., bacterial genetics, human carcinogenesis and oncology, invertebrate zoology, mammalian physiology, plant pathology, plant proteomics, virology, etc., in biomedicine; analytical chemistry, nanochemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, polymer science, radiochemistry, solid state chemistry, etc., in chemistry; astronomy, atomic physics, geophysics, magnetism, materials science, mathematical physics, optics, rheology, etc., in physics). Some other large parts  of science are situated in all 3 divisions of science, and have to do with methodology and technical practices (e.g., crystallography, mathematics, microscopy, spectroscopy, statistics, etc.).

 

            Research is the scientific examination of some subject, and usually is produced by conducting experiments in a laboratory or in the field.  Scientists are specially trained people who perform  research studies as part of their search for the truth.  Everything and anything can be examined and analyzed, even if it has been very widely accepted as being true; the more that experimental results point to the same conclusion, the more we can be satisfied that some statement or concept really is true.  Research and science classically are divided into 2 fundamental types: basic science/research seeks new knowledge for its own sake, with no reference to any practical usage; applied science/research seeks new knowledge that enables known facts, materials, processes, or devices to be modified such that they acquire new or improved capabilities.  The scientists performing these 2 activities often are correspondingly labeled as being either basic scientists or applied scientists. 

 

            The experimental investigation of any research subject involves asking research questions (e.g., what are its size and structure, composition, component parts, genesis, functions and operation, relation to others of its type, interactions with the surrounding environment, assignment into somelarger category, etc., etc.).  The laboratory investigation or field study of one or more subjects or questions via many experiments constitutes a research project.  The experiments produce different types of research data (e.g., counts, images, measurements, observations, spectra, etc.).  The desired end results of experimental studies are research discoveries; these typically are a new concept, mechanism, cause or effect, analytic characterization, or interrelationship; the results from experimental research lead to publications, patents, new understanding, and new concepts, as well as to additional new research questions.  Scientific research thus is a means to the end of  discovering new truths. 

 

            Several related terms also need to be distinguished here.  An inventor is the discoverer of a new device, mechanism, principle, or process; some scientists also are inventors, but many inventors are non-scientists (i.e., often they are ordinary people without advanced education and special training in research).  Technology is a detailed development of some invented mechanism or process; typically, it begins from scientific discovery and then proceeds to modify the initial subject or object to become faster, cheaper, more specific, less dangerous, easier to make, etc. (e.g., a newly synthesized chemical coating applied to an existing fluorescent bulb makes the emitted light brighter and the lifetime of the bulb longer).  Engineers have advanced professional education and training, and work to modify (i.e., improve) some known device or process so that it has improved or new properties; engineers typically produce patents and commercial products, as well as professional publications.  The most common sequence of technological work leading to some new and wonderful commercial product starts with pure basic research, then shifts into applied research, and ends with engineering developments. 

 

            Ideally, science, research, scientists, engineers, and inventors all work to produce results that help people, society, and the entire world. 

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WHAT IS WRONG WITH SCIENCE EDUCATION FOR CHILDREN?

FINAL.Cartoon What is Science #2                              What is science to children? (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

          Education of children about science in grade/primary schools is supposed to provide some fundamental body of knowledge about major concepts in science, including specific real examples for each branch and sub-branch.  This key background is needed to enable their later learning about more complex and detailed treatments in subsequent science courses in high/middle school.  At present, most science education for young students still involves memorization, watching demonstrations and  cartoon presentations, working with models, playing “science games”, “doing research” with some search engine on the internet, and, going on a field trip to some place like a natural history museum or some science exhibits featuring more models and games for entertainment.  All of this scenario deals with what I call “empty science”, and is inherently boring and misleading to young students.  The fundamental fact that science is real people is ignored.  Somehow, science teachers should remember how these same courses and activities came across to them when they were only youngsters many years ago.

 

          Quite frankly, I do not blame very young students going through the usual introductory courses for feeling that science must be an amusement and is some kind of game played by peculiar adults in laboratories.  If the nature of research is included, it is seen by the children as being some sort of game played for money, and it is clearly very inferior to playing sports or musical instruments.  These early strong conclusions later are cemented into adult minds, where science and research today very commonly are viewed as an entertainment, as something that normal average adults just cannot possibly understand, and, as a nonsense that has no importance for daily life.  These very wrong views have led to the large estrangement of the modern public from science, and their lack of personal interest in science progress; most people just do not feel that science has any role in their personal life.

 

          Dr. M is convinced that science education for children should involve very much less memorization and very much more hands-on work with actual materials, using examples that are more strongly  related to everyday life.  As a minimum, science courses must show basic interrelationships between the different sciences, introduce simple quantitation and statistics, and, feature hands-on collection and examination of measurements (data) for some real variables in everyday life (e.g., age, gender, body weight, body height, etc.).  In addition, they should present some interesting biographical stories about how real scientists actually made their research discoveries and why they now are considered to be very famous; this will enable the understanding of how scientific research today consists of real people working on important unsolved problems and developing amazing new technologies.  Outside the classroom, visits to such local features as nearby landscapes, zoos, farms, water treatment plants, mines, weather stations, etc., rather than only to dry museums, will show students hidden features of nature, geology, ecology, chemistry, and even astronomy.  Class visits to an industrial research center will provide valuable personal examples of scientists working right now in the real world.

 

          As part of these revised educational goals and activities, it first will be necessary to re-educate the educators.  Adult teachers must learn or re-learn about (1) the essential nature of science and research, (2) organization of science, and interrelations between its many subdivisions,  (3) the value of a question and answer format even for grade school classes, and, (4) how principles, examples, and derived reasoning can replace the standard need for learning only by memorization (i.e., unlike knowledge, memorization only rarely leads to increased understanding).  In my view, the effects of these new learning modalities will be well worth all the new efforts involved.  From the corresponding changes for science courses within high/secondary school and college, ordinary adults then will stop being afraid of science, will become more interested in research activities, and, even will be able to perceive that scientific research is a vital and interesting part of daily life. 

 

          Different aspects of the important topic of science education will be discussed further on this website in the coming weeks.

 

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