Uncommon Ground

Science

Presenting science to the public in a post-truth era – implications for public policy

Last Friday I attended a very interesting symposium entitled Presenting science to the public in a post-truth era and jointly sponsored by the Science of Learning & Art of Communication1 and the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, more specifically its project on Humility & Conviction in Public Life.2 The speakers – Åsa Wikforss (Stockholm University), Tali Sharot (University College London), and Michael Lynch (UConn) – argued that the primary function3 of posts on social media is to express emotion, not to impart information, that not only are we more likely to accept new evidence that confirms what we already believe than new evidence that contradicts it, and that knowledge resistance often arises because we resist the consequences that would follow from believing the evidence presented to us.

I can’t claim expertise in the factors influencing whether people accept or reject the evidence for climate change, but Merchants of Doubt makes a compelling case that the resistance among some prominent doubters arises because they believe that accepting the evidence that climate change is happening and the humans are primarily responsible will require massive changes in our economic system and, quite possibly, severe limits on individual liberty. In other words, the case Oreskes and Conway make in Merchants of Doubt is consistent with a form of knowledge resistance in which the evidence for human-caused climate change is resisted because of the consequences accepting that evidence would have. It also illustrates a point I do my best to drive home when I teach my course in conservation biology.

As scientists, we discover empirical facts about the world, e.g., CO2 emissions have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2 far above pre-industrial levels and much of the associated increase in global average temperature is a result of those emissions. Too often, though, we proceed immediately from discovering those empirical facts to concluding that particular policy choices are necessary. We think, for example, that because CO2 emissions are causing changes in global climate we must therefore reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions. There is, however, a step in the logic that’s missing.

To conclude that we must reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions we must first decide that the climate changes associated with increasing CO2 emissions are bad things that we should avoid. It may seem obvious that they are. After all, how could flooding of major metropolitan areas and the elimination of low-lying Pacific Island nations be a good thing? They aren’t. But avoiding them isn’t free. It involves choices. We can spend some amount of money now to avoid those consequences, we can spend money later when the threats are more imminent, or we can let the people who live in those place move out of the way when the time comes. I’m sure you can think of some other choices, too. Even if those three are the only choices, the empirical data alone don’t tell us which one to pick. The choice depends on what kind of world we want to live in. It is a choice based on moral or ethical values. The empirical evidence must inform our choice among the alternatives, but it isn’t sufficient to determinethe choice.

Perhaps the biggest challenge we face in developing a response to climate change is that emotions are so deeply engaged on both sides of the debate that we cannot agree on the empirical facts. A debate that should be played out in the realm of “What kind of world do we want to live in? What values are most important?” Is instead played out in the realm of tribal loyalty.

The limits to knowledge Wikforss, Sharot, and Lynch identified represent real, important barriers to progress. But overcoming knowledge resistance, in particular, seems more likely if we remember that translating knowledge to action requires applying our values. When we are communicating science that means either stopping at the point where empirical evidence ends and application of values begins or making it clear that science ends with the empirical evidence and that our recommendation for action derives from our values.4

  1. A training grant funded through the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) Program
  2. Funded by the John Templeton Foundation (story in UConn Today).
  3. Note: Lynch used the phrase “primary function” in a technical, philosophical sense inspired by Ruth Milliken’s idea of a “proper function,” but the plain sense of the phrase conveys its basic meaning.
  4. In the real world it may sometimes, perhaps even often, be difficult to make a clean distinction between the realm of empirical research and the realm of ethical values. Distinguishing between them to the extent possible is still valuable, and it is even more valuable to be honest about the ways in which your personal values influence any actions you recommend.

Climate change and Pelargonium in South Africa

For more than a decade my colleagues Margaret Rubega and Bob Wyss have co-taught a course to graduate students in science and engineering and undergraduates in Journalism.1 The purpose of the course is to help science students improve their skills in working with journalists and to help journalist increase their skills in interviewing scientists and developing stories from those interviews. One of the projects in this fall’s edition of the course was for the journalism students to interview one of the science graduate students and produce a short video describing the student’s research. Daniela Doncel interviewed Tanisha Williams, a PhD student in EEB whom I co-advise with Carl Schlichting. In addition to interviewing Tanisha, Daniela also interviewed Cindi Jones and me. She assembled a video that explains Tanisha’s work very well. I think Daniela did a very nice job of weaving the disparate interviews into a compelling story, and I think the video looks very good (even though it has me in it). I hope that you agree.

(more…)

Universitas 21 3-minute thesis competition winners announced (@U21News)

Universitas 21 is a global network of research intensive universities, founded in Melbourne in 1997. It aims to enhance global citizenship and institutional innovation. Since 2012, Universitas 21 has sponsored a Virtual 3-minute thesis competition in which videos of local 3-MT competition winners are judged against one another for a network-wide prize. Last year, one of UConn’s own PhD students, Islam Mosa, won the People’s Choice award. This year First Prize and the People’s Choice award went to Samuel Ramsey of the University of Maryland. Here’s his presentation.

Here’s how a press release from U21 describes his award:

In his winning presentation, Samuel described his research which has focused on the parasitic mite, varroa destructor, which is one of the main reasons for the decline in the honey bee population. Samuel’s research has centred on finding out how this parasite is so destructive; focussing on what the parasite is eating and where on the honey bee they feed. His results have shown that the parasite only feeds on one specific part of the honey bee, the fat body tissue, an important tissue that controls nine major functions within the organism, including the storage of nutrients, the detoxification of pesticides and the production of the immune response. Now he knows what they are feeding on, he is investigating whether it is possible to introduce an agent into this fat body tissue that can disrupt the reproductive cycle of the parasite and eliminate this pest once and for all.

Samuel spoke of his experience of taking part in the 3MT® competition: “I would characterize this experience as challenging but in the best way possible. Ph.D. programs teach us complex technical terms and opaque jargon. Reliance on them can make our entire field inaccessible to the people most in need of our insight. Being forced to explain your work simply, forces you to approach it differently; to understand it better.

So many ground-breaking scientific discoveries never move beyond the pages of journals to public consciousness or public policy, partly because it’s difficult to explain things briefly without sacrificing accuracy. That’s why I’m so glad that I entered this contest. It forced me to refine this skill; one that I’m certain will serve me well throughout my career in science.

I’m so grateful to the University of Maryland for encouraging us to be a part of this competition! I think I’m a better communicator and a better researcher as a direct result. I want to thank everyone who participated in the contest by watching and sharing the videos. I also have to thank my advisor Dennis van Engelsdorp for all of his support, my mentors Kathy and Dr. Kevin Hackett, and my incredible parents who have constantly encouraged my interest in science and who are always so interested to hear what I’m up to in the lab. I had no idea at the time but dinner with them was the best possible practice for this competition.”

Dr Steve Fetter, Interim Dean of the Graduate School and Associate Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of Maryland, spoke of the university’s delight in Samuel’s achievement: “We are thrilled that Sammy Ramsey won both the U21 3MT® Judge’s Prize and the People’s Choice Prize in this year’s competition.  Sammy’s presentation is a wonderful example of how researchers can describe their work to a general audience in a clear, compelling, and engaging manner.”

The international judging panel noted that Samuel’s presentation was really engaging, that Samuel presented clearly and with confidence, and that he articulated his research very well. The general public clearly agreed with the judges and voted Samuel’s presentation top in the People’s Choice competition which took place online during mid-October. With around one third of the overall votes, Samuel clearly impressed the public with his research on the how the parasitic mite, varroa destructor, is affecting the honey bee population and how this could be stopped. Entrants from the University of Nottingham and University of British Columbia were second and third respectively, in the public vote.

Championing the Success of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, and Medicine


In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, the second Tuesday in October, Digital Science released a report entitled Championing the Success of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, and Medicine. I encourage you to read it, and not only because Lauren Kane (COO of BioOne1) is a co-author of one of the chapters. Here how the report is described on its Figshare page.

This report explores the role of women in STEM and the challenges they face, looking at areas of gender inequality, exploring potential causes of this inequality and offering solutions. Women’s reluctance to step into leading roles, their tendency to suffer from “imposter syndrome” and their career breaks as a result of motherhood, are just some of the contributory factors holding them back, as well as the outdated, sexist attitudes they sometimes have to face in the workplace.

(more…)

Announcing the BioOne Career Center

BioOne logos
BioOne is a collaboration between libraries and non-profit scholarly publishers in organismal and environmental life sciences. It was founded in 1999 to help publishers obtain the revenue they need to support their publishing program while ensuring affordable access to scholarly journals for libraries and their patrons. I am proud to have served as Chair of the BioOne Board of Directors since 2000.

BioOne’s primary service is to provide BioOne Complete, a database of 207 journals including many open access titles. As the title of this post suggests, BioOne is now offering a new service, the BioOne Career Center. Anyone looking for an opportunity can create a free account, set up a job aloer, and post their CV. Employers can post jobs on the site for free until the end of October (you’ll find the necessary code in the announcement), and posting for internships, volunteer opportunities, and conferences will always be free. We hope that the BioOne Career Center will become a valuable resource.

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.