Uncommon Ground

Science

Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century

The National Academy of Sciences has a committee that is leading a study of graduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The goals of the study include:

  • Identifying policies, programs and practices that could better meet the diverse education and career needs of graduate students,
  • Identifying strategies to improve the alignment of graduate education courses, curricula, labs and fellowship/traineeship experiences for students with the needs of prospective employers
  • Identifying policies and effective practices that provide students and faculty with information about career paths for graduates holding master’s and Ph.D. degrees and provide ongoing and high quality counseling and mentoring for graduate students.
  • Creating a set of national goals for graduate STEM education that can be used by research universities.

The committee released a discussion document describing a set of competencies that might form core educational elements for both master’s and PhD programs in STEM fields. It seeks community input on the discussion document. The deadline for comment is 22 September 2017 and may be submitted either by a web form at http://nas.gradedinput.sgizmo.com/s3/ or via e-mail to STEMGradEd@nas.edu. If you are interested in STEM graduate education, I encourage you to read the document and submit comments.

Disclaimer: I was part of the Council of Graduate Schools Committee that developed the Alignment Framework for the Master’s Degree that the document uses to describe core educational elements for STEM master’s degrees.

The solar eclipse at UConn

Solar eclipse

Solar eclipse prediction for Storrs from Wolfram

This afternoon at 2:45pm EDT the solar eclipse will reach its maximum in Storrs, about 70%. The figure above is a screenshot from my iPhone of the Wolfram Precision Eclipse Computation for Storrs. Follow that link to get the results for your location. The Physics Department at UConn will be hosting an eclipse viewing party on Horsebarn Hill. There will be solar telescopes and a short public lecture in addition to other activities. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend. I will be welcoming the new class of graduate fellows from 2:00-3:00pm and welcoming all new and continuing fellows and their faculty advisors at an ice cream social from 3:00-4:00pm. We will be meeting in the Alumni House, so we should see the darkening outside, and I may suggest that we take a short break a little before 2:45pm to go outside.

It’s almost certainly too late to get eclipse glasses, so if you don’t have them already you’ll have to find welder’s goggles or a solar telescope. If you can’t find any of those, you can still build yourself an eclipse viewer with a cardboard box and a few simple tools. Whatever you do, don’t look at the eclipse without protection for your eyes. A man in Portland, Oregon looked at an eclipse for no more than 20 seconds when he was in high school in 1963. It burned a holed in the retina of his right eye. Don’t let that happen to you.

Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants – RIP

The National Science Foundation released this Dear Colleague letter yesterday:

June 6, 2017

Dear Colleague:

With this Dear Colleague Letter, the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) is notifying members of the research communities . served by the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) and the Division of Environmental Biology (DEB) to changes to the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) Program.

Following a process of internal review and discussion regarding available resources, both the DEB and IOS Divisions will no longer accept DDIG proposals. This difficult decision was necessitated because of increasing workload and changes in Division priorities. This change is consistent with decisions made by other programs in BIO, which have not participated in the DDIG competition for more than a decade. This decision does not affect DDIGs that are already awarded.

We recognize that the independent research that was encouraged by the DDIGs has been an important aspect of training the next generation of scientists; we hope that this culture will continue. BIO continues to support graduate student participation in PI-led research across the entire spectrum of topics supported by its programs. Proposals for conferences are encouraged to include support for graduate and postdoctoral trainee travel and attendance. Further, NSF continues to support graduate research through the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and the NSF Research Traineeship Program (NRT).

Please see the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) (NSF 17-095) related to this DCL for more information.

If you have any questions pertaining to graduate student support under existing awards or future grant proposals, please contact the cognizant program director in the relevant Division.

James L. Olds
Assistant Director
Directorate for Biological Sciences

I hesitate to second-guess my colleagues at NSF. I know many of the program officers in the Biological Sciences Directorate and especially those in the Division of Environmental Biology. I know that they reached this decision because they believe that NSF can more effectively support research in life sciences by redirecting resources currently used to support Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants to other purposes, and I am confident their evaluation included an assessment of the impact on training of the next generation of life scientists. I also agree with many comments I’ve seen that DDIGs provide a great return on investment, at least in terms of the quality and quantity of research (and training) done with DDIG support. But I also know from conversations with current and former NSF officials that the there are large costs in time and money associated with reviewing DDIGs. I don’t have access to the data I would need to make a fair evaluation of the costs and benefits of the program, so I have no choice but to trust the judgment of my NSF colleagues.

Still, it saddens me to see this program go away. It has been an important part of PhD training in environmental biology for decades.

Follow up on dodging a bullet

Last week I mentioned that I had considered participating in Benefunder and that an article in Science made me glad I’d decided not to participate.

I was tempted because it sounded like a very promising idea. In the end, though, I just couldn’t see investing $500 in the project. It seemed too unlikely that a donor would be interested in supporting the esoteric research that I do.

Christian Braemer, CEO/co-founder of Benefunder, left a comment on that post. If you’re interested in Benefunder, I encourage to visit the original post and read the whole comment. Here’s the key part of what he has to say about the article in Science:

The worst part is the title, which implies we’ve folded and that couldn’t be further from the truth as you’ll see in a string of press releases that are about to come out regarding new partners, board members, and investors (although this story certainly isn’t going to help with the latter).

Not to be overly dramatic, but this story is a major threat to finding new ways to fund research in this country. Consider this, with our new approach, if we get just 4% of current DAF distributions, that equates to over $1B in new funding for research. Crowdfunding (which we are not) doesn’t have the right alignment of interests, expectations, or volume to be able to pull this off – at least not for the foreseeable future.

By the way, Christian posted his comment on 8 November, the day after my original post went live. His comment only went live this morning, because it’s the first time in a week I’ve had a chance to check in.

 

Oxford Handbook on the Science of Science Communication

I just ran across an old (13 October 2015) press release from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania announcing that Oxford University Press will publish the Oxford Handbook on the Science of Science Communication in 2017.1 The very brief press release on the Annenberg Center’s website makes it sound very interesting. I look forward to learning more about it as its release date approaches. In the meantime, here’s a very brief description lifted from the press release.

The handbook, developed for scientists, academics and students of science communication, will grapple with the failure of widely accessible scientific evidence to effectively inform public controversies on issues including climate change, the human papilloma virus vaccine, and the safety of bio-engineered foods on the market in the United States.


1OUP doesn’t seem to have an announcement of it on its website yet.

It appears that I dodged a bullet

A couple of years ago, I received an unsolicited invitation to participate in Benefunder, a sort of Kickstarter for scientists. I talked with the people running it a couple of times. They proposed a very intriguing idea: All I needed to do was come up with a snappy description of my research, some compelling images, and $500. They would promote my research as part of a portfolio that wealthy investors would contribute to both because they were interested in the research and because the contributions were structured in a way that provided substantial tax benefits, a donor-advised fund. I was tempted because it sounded like a very promising idea. In the end, though, I just couldn’t see investing $500 in the project. It seemed too unlikely that a donor would be interested in supporting the esoteric research that I do.

It appears that my skepticism was well founded.

[E]ven as Benefunder bulged with projects, donors remained scarce. “We were never able to get off the ground,” [Christian] Braemer [one of the Benefunder founders] says. Donor funds “were not willing to take the reputational risk [on] an unknown entity,” he says. And the firm received just a few “small transactions … a bit out of the blue.”

To stay afloat, Benefunder ramped up sales of the profiles and videos. In 2014 and 2015, it earned more than $660,000 this way but attracted just $62,000 in gifts, tax forms show. In late 2015, as the firm ran out of cash, it abruptly stopped recruiting researchers, left some videos unfinished, and laid off all but three of the 12 employees who worked for it and an allied firm. (Ambitious web fundraising startup fails to meet big goals, by Mark Harris, Science 354: 534; 2016  doi: 10.1126/science.354.6312.534 )

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway on the nature of science and science policy

I read Merchants of Doubt several years ago. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to buy a copy now (or check it out from your local library) and read it immediately. I was thumbing through some notes recently and ran across this passage that sums up the nature of science and its relationship to policy very nicely.

All scientific work is incomplete – whether it be observational or experimental. All scientific work is liable to be upset or modified by advancing knowledge. That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have, to postpone action that it appears to demand at a given time. “Who knows,” asks Robert Browning, “but the world may end tonight?” True, but on available evidence most of us make ready to commute on 8:30 the next day.

This is only one of many gems in Merchants of Doubt. Read it and share it with your friends and family.

Communication requires listening and respect

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

As scientists, we tend to think that if we simply lay out the facts, the solutions to the world’s problems will be obvious. Show people the evidence that humans are contributing to global climate change and they will immediately realize that governments and individuals need to work together to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Show them the evidence that vaccines prevent disease with minimal risk and parents will immediately realize that they should make sure their children are immunized against rubella and whooping cough. But of course that doesn’t happen. Why? Because facts aren’t enough. Last month, Richard Grant wrote an article for The Guardian explaining why. He makes two very important points.

  • People don’t like being told what to do.
  • It’s more about who we are and our relationships than about what is right or true.

And he concludes with a very important observation:

Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.

That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.

It’s tribalism.

We need to listen more than we talk. We need to understand what people are concerned about and address those concerns. Aristotle understood this a couple of millenia ago (Rhetoric). Blaise Pascal made the same point nearly 400 years ago.

People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others. (link)

So let’s listen to people. Let’s try to understand their concerns. And then, let’s figure out what we can do to address their concerns.

Facts aren’t enough

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (attributed: Wikiquotes)

Those of us who are scientists have a tendency to think that if we simply lay out the facts – human activities are causing global climate change, for example – that everyone will listen to us and act accordingly. Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstein remind us in a recent New York Times op-ed that the world doesn’t work that way.

[F]or weak believers in man-made climate change, comforting news will have a big impact, and alarming news won’t. Strong believers will show the opposite pattern. And because Americans are frequently exposed to competing claims about the latest scientific evidence, these opposing tendencies will predictably create political polarization — and it will grow over time.

So if scientists (and other experts for that matter) want the public to make informed decisions about complex issues, it’s not enough for us to put out the facts and expect them to speak for themselves. We need to recognize that there is a science of science communication and work with experts in that field to help us find ways to help us communicate more effectively.

One of the first things we have to remember is that communication is not talking.

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-12-18-55-pm

Further reading:

Fischoff, B., and D.A. Scheufele. 2013. The science of science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  110:14031-14032. doi:

Sunstein, C.R., S. Bobadilla-Suarez, S.C. Lazzaro, T. Sharot.  2016.  How people update beliefs about climate change: good news and bad news.  (September 2, 2016). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2821919 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2821919