Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Dismal Prospects for Scientific Employment

One of the most depressing articles I’ve ever read in my entire life describes the problem American students face when pondering a career in science. For years, the conventional wisdom was that our education system was failing to properly educate our children in STEM subjects (science, tech, engineering, and math). However, this article in Miller-McCune directly challenges this assumption.

The authors contend that the real problem facing American students is a lack of careers in science. The case they make is compelling: Although the number of graduates receiving Ph.D.’s has increased, the number of job opportunities has not kept pace. This trend is particularly noticeable in academia, where young Ph.D.’s spend years as post-docs, with only a small chance of ever landing a permanent position as a professor. Indeed, the average age of a scientist who earns his first independent NIH grant– a huge milestone in the medical science field– has risen from a researcher’s late 20s/early 30s to the ripe old age of 42.

One of the biggest causes indicated in this article is the flood of foreigners who are willing to take post-doc positions. It doesn’t take an economist to realize that a massive increase in labor supply will both eat up opportunities and drive down salaries. Post-doc positions, which were once viewed as prestigious, are now treated as temporary, cheap labor. With such a dismal prospect for career advancement and compensation, it’s no wonder that American students would rather get an MBA or MD… or to forgo higher education altogether.

Monday, March 29, 2010

National Biometric Identification Card

Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are working together to create a national identification card with biometric technology. The purpose of the card will be to curb illegal immigration. Because all citizens will be required to carry one, employers will have no excuse to hire illegal immigrants.

Predictably, privacy advocates are already up in arms over the proposal. According to the article (see link above), one of the major objections is that the government will be able to track citizens. However, this concern makes little sense in today’s digitized world. If you use a credit card, debit card, or cell phone, the government can already track you wherever you go.

The biometric data, undoubtedly, will also cause a stir. Early indications about the bill (which is still being developed in the Senate) seem to show that the biometric data will either be a fingerprint or a scan of the veins on the back of one’s hand. I assume that if DNA was the biometric of choice, this issue would go from controversial to downright explosive. Fortunately, that probably won’t be the case.

In an age of globalization and terrorism, it may be time for the United States to implement a national ID card. At the very least, it’s time to have this discussion. Hopefully it goes better than the health care discussion.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Rhode Island High School Fires All of its Teachers

In a bold move, Superintendent Frances Gallo fired every single teacher from Central Falls High School, one of the worst-performing schools in the state. Gallo had offered the teachers a plan to improve school performance, which included a 25-minute longer school day, increased tutoring, eating lunch with the students, and a summer training course. The school offered the teachers an additional $30 per hour for the additional work.

The teachers' union rejected the plan because they wanted $90 per hour. So Gallo fired all of them. (It should also be pointed out that R.I. teachers' average salary is already higher than the national average.) US Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded the superintendent.

So do I. This story represents yet more evidence that teachers' unions are destroying education in America. It's about time somebody stood up to them.

While not directly related to the theme of this blog (politicization of science), this story illustrates that science education in America is affected by teachers' unions. If students are failing, the teachers need to be held accountable.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

China is Likely to Overtake the US in Scientific Research

The writing is on the wall. China will overtake the US in scientific output in the near future. A couple reports make this conclusion almost inevitable.

First, a recent post on the blog of the internationally renowned journal Science indicates the rise of China in scientific productivity. For instance, China ranks second only to the US in number of journal publications. Also, China is increasing its investment in science education and research. Additionally, for many scientific indicators, "the slope of the line is accelerating rather than decelerating."

Secondly, American education is mediocre, at best. In a 2006 study of several different countries and economic areas conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), US students consistently ranked "below average" for proficiency in math and science. The US ranked 18th in science and 24th in math out of 30 (OECD) countries. In math, the US was not only outperformed by Japan and Germany, but it was also (embarrassingly) outperformed by former communist countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Czech Republic. When economic areas (such as Taipei or Hong Kong) were included, the US fared even worse. (The 56-page executive summary can be found here.)

Finally, it should be pointed out that countries that outperformed the US in education often spent less money on it. For instance, as a percentage of GDP, the US (5.7%) outspent Poland (5.6%), Hungary (5.5%), Germany (4.6%), and Japan (3.6%).

What does it all mean? It's pretty straightforward: With US students falling behind much of the westernized world in math and science proficiency, it is only a matter of time before China will overtake us as the global leader in science and technology. However, this could probably be prevented if we fix our decidedly mediocre K-12 education system. Reforming the quality of our education is the key to the solution. Throwing more money at the problem is certainly not.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is Scandal Inevitable when Scientists Become Activists?

By now, most of the world has heard of "Climategate"-- the e-mail scandal surrounding the Hadley Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the UK. (If you are unfamiliar with the story, you can catch up with this Wikipedia article.) In short, hackers broke into the university's e-mail system and posted on the internet private communications between climate researchers, and the e-mails are far from flattering. Besides gloating over the death of a climate change skeptic, the e-mails show concerted efforts by the researchers to manipulate temperature data, to block public access to their data, and (perhaps most disturbingly) to exclude skeptical or critical researchers from the peer review process. While it may be too early to describe this behavior as "scientific fraud," it is certainly appropriate to label it "unethical."

The New York Times's John Tierney wrote an excellent piece about this scandal and its implications for climate change advocates. Tierney points out that the climate researchers involved became "so focused on winning the public-relations war that they exaggerate[d] their certitude -- and ultimately undermine[d] their own cause."

What this situation also reveals is that scientists who become public policy advocates can lose the most important characteristic they have: objectivity. Scientists must accept data for what it is, not what they wish it to be. Scientists must deal with contradictory data, not ignore it. And most importantly, scientists must be transparent with their research and the conclusions they draw, not secretive. However, these ethical principles become far more difficult to uphold when scientists become activists.

To be sure, "Climategate" does not disprove global climate change, but it absolutely raises the suspicions of a general public who is often leery of science to begin with. Furthermore, scandals such as this damage not only the researchers involved but the entire scientific endeavor itself.

Scientists who become public policy advocates must walk a fine line. Unfortunately, the researchers at East Anglia crossed that line.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

They Blinded Us with Science

Originally posted (with even more links) at the Beacon Blog (Independent Institute) and NAS Blog.

Remember when President Obama said that he was going to “restore science to its rightful place”? Apparently, that statement needed to be translated from the vagaries of “hope and change” to modern English: Right-wing anti-science policies are out; left-wing anti-science policies are in.

To Mr. Obama’s credit, he has extended federal dollars to fund embryonic stem cell research far beyond what President Bush allowed. However, that executive order marks both the beginning and the end of his love affair with sound science.

For starters, President Obama appointed Cass Sunstein as the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Mr. Sunstein believes that all recreational hunting should be banned. He also believes that meat consumption should be phased out in the United States, and he holds the unique belief that animals should have the right to sue humans in court. Naturally, the animal would be represented by a human lawyer—a policy other than that would just be silly. But who exactly would represent the animals in court is unclear at this point. Dr. Dolittle might be available, though.

All satire aside, with someone this disconnected from reality working in the White House, one wonders what impact he could have on the ability of scientists to conduct biomedical animal research.

Also, remember Mr. Obama’s obsession with creating green technology jobs as a way of leading us out of the recession? According to a report described by George Will in his Washington Post column, Spain’s massive subsidization of renewable energy has cost that country 110,000 jobs. Far from helping Spain’s economic crisis, this foolish subsidization appears to have contributed to its mind-blowing 19.3% unemployment rate.

As if this weren’t bad enough, a fantastic op/ed by Bill Frezza brought up several more examples of “junk science” coming from the White House, a few of which I’ll summarize and expand upon.

Firstly, the administration has given in to unsubstantiated claims by the Left that certain vaccine components are unsafe, despite the fact that studies have proven the claims to be false. (For instance, medical experts like Jim Carrey insist vaccines cause autism.) Unbelievably, the Obama Administration has ignored the research findings of modern medicine and issued a decree that our nation’s swine flu vaccines should have lower amounts of thimerosal. (Thimerosal is the preservative erroneously believed to cause autism.) This last-minute decision has caused backups at the pharmaceutical companies making the vaccine, and it has contributed to the swine flu vaccine shortage. Additionally, the Obama Administration has neglected to remove a federal ban on the use of certain adjuvants (immune-stimulating chemicals) which can help stretch limited vaccine supplies. This, too, has contributed to the national flu vaccine shortage.

Mr. Frezza goes on to describe how the Obama Administration is asking for areas of Alaska to be deemed “critical habitat” for polar bears. This move could severely limit the ability to drill for oil and gas in the region, in a time when our nation is in desperate need of energy sources. It appears that, once again, Mr. Obama has caved to propaganda-spewing environmentalists who have ignored recent evidence indicating that polar bear populations are increasing. In fact, polar bear researcher Mitch Taylor claims that of the 19 populations of polar bears, only two have exhibited declining numbers. As a side issue, it’s also interesting to note that people like Captain Planet (Al Gore) who refer to polar bears as “endangered” don’t even have their facts straight: Polar bears are officially listed as “vulnerable”—an entirely different conservation status. This status is given to animals which may become endangered if conditions don’t change. Arguably, however, conditions are changing because their population has been increasing.

Finally, Mr. Frezza points out the economically ludicrous and scientifically unsound subsidization of biofuels. Liberals see the subsidization of biofuels as killing two birds with one stone: Fixing the planet and helping out America’s farmers. However, science has something entirely different to say about biofuels. The production of biofuels emits nitrous oxide, otherwise known as laughing gas. The planet, unfortunately, doesn’t find it very funny, since nitrous oxide is a much more potent contributor to the greenhouse effect than is carbon dioxide. As The Economist points out in this article, a policy meant to make things better is merely an expensive way of making things worse.

Honestly, this list could go on and on. What is so infuriating is the fact that Mr. Obama self-righteously proclaimed to be the protector of science, when the truth is that he simply replaced Mr. Bush’s special interests with his own. In what has to be the most stunning broken promise in Mr. Obama’s presidency, instead of “restoring science,” he has simply resorted to “politics as usual.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Inaugural Post

Hello, out there! My name is Alex Berezow, and I'm a Ph.D. candidate in microbiology at the University of Washington.

I'm starting this blog to write about what I like to call "blind science." What do I mean by that? I mean the countless politicians, special interest groups, and activists who twist scientific research and data to suit their own agendas.

And here's the dirty little secret: Both sides of the political spectrum do it. Conservatives and liberals. This blog will be here to call out anyone who engages in this politicially-motivated, deceptive behavior.

So, stay tuned!