Archive for: June, 2008

Friday Sprog Blogging: competing expertise.

Jun 27 2008 Published by under Kids and science

Elder offspring: Why do mice have long, naked tails?
Dr. Free-Ride: Why do the tails of rats look so much like earthworms?
Elder offspring: That doesn't answer my question.
Dr. Free-Ride: Sorry, I thought we were just making a list of life's mysteries.
* * * * *

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The system as it currently exists.

Over at DrugMonkey, PhysioProf delivers a mission statement:

Our purpose here at DrugMonkey is to try to help people identify and cultivate the tools required to succeed within the system of academic science as it currently exists. We did not create this system, and we are not in a position to to "take it down". We do the best we can to help the people we train in our own labs to succeed within this system, and we try to share some of our insights here at the blog.
In a winner-take-all system like this, there will always be people who do not succeed through no fault of their own. People who are smart, talented, dedicated, hard-working, articulate, persuasive, and who do all the right things sometimes still fail. This is the nature of a winner-take-all system: there is an intrinsic randomness that influences to some extent who succeeds and who fails. It is the same in professional sports, law, medicine, performing arts, entertainment, comedy, business, entrepreneurialism, journalism, engineering, and most other professional career enterprises.
Many of us may not like this situation, but this is how things currently work. Academic science is not a ... Care Bears tea party, and wishing that it were is not going to make it so.

I think this is a fine statement of purpose for a blog. But I think the community of academic science could -- and should -- set its sights higher.

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Friday Sprog Blogging: silkworms.

Jun 20 2008 Published by under Kids and science

The Free-Ride offspring made it through another school year. This year, we are participating in the ritual sending-home-of-living-things from the science classroom. Instead of scoring guppies, however, we now have a little container of eggs ...
Dr. Free-Ride: I want to know about that little container you have in my fridge. What's the story?
Elder offspring: Well, there's silkworm eggs. They were laid by a silkworm.
Dr. Free-Ride: And?
Elder offspring: They'll hatch into silkworms next Spring.
Dr. Free-Ride: Next Spring they will? So they'll stay eggs between now and then?
Elder offspring: Yes. But we need to keep them in the fridge.
Dr. Free-Ride: And not accidentally eat them or something.
Elder offspring: No!!
Dr. Free-Ride: OK.

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Book review: And the Band Played On.

Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. St. Martin's Press, 1987.
There are a few books on my shelf that I can read any given number of times without being bored or impatient. One of these is And the Band Played On, a painstaking work of journalism that never feels laborious in the reading -- despite being in excess of 600 pages.
Randy Shilts, who was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle reporting on AIDS in the early 1980s, assembled an intricate chronological telling of the early unfolding of the AIDS epidemic, from the first glimmerings of awareness of a new disease among doctors, public health workers, and trackers of epidemics, to the reactions of people in communities hit by this new disease (especially the gay communities in New York City and San Francisco), to the responses of politicians and policy makers who, almost without exception, dropped the ball.

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Considering an ethicist's 'questionable behavior'.

The press covering the story of bioethicist Glenn McGee's departure from the post of director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College is hungry for an ironic twist. For example, Scientific American titles its article "An Unethical Ethicist?" What more fitting fall than some self-appointed morality cop going down on account of his own immoral dealings?
Believe me, I'm familiar with the suspicions people seem to harbor that ethicists are, in fact, twice as naughty as other folks. But from the evidence laboriously assembled in the SciAm article, I'm just not buying the picture of McGee laughing maniacally while twirling his mustache and plotting all manner of evil. (To be fair, despite the headline, I don't think the SciAm piece is arguing that McGee is a villain, either.) Rather, I'm inclined to think that he made a few bad calls, but that the most likely explanation for his departure is good old fashioned academic politics.

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Science, motherhood, and the Nobel Prize: have things gotten harder?

In a follow-up to her review of Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women scientists speak out by Emily Monosson, Alison George decided to investigate how many women who won Nobels also did the motherhood thing:

I started at the first Nobel prize awarded to a woman: Marie Curie, in 1903. To my surprise, she had 2 children (as well as 2 Nobel prizes). Her daughter, Irene, only managed one prize in 1935, but also produced two offspring. And so it went on. Gerty Cori (Nobel prize for in physiology or medicine 1947, 1 kid), Maria Geoppert-Mayer (Nobel prize for physics in 1963, 2 kids) Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (Nobel prize for chemistry in 1964, 3 kids), Rosalyn Yolow (Nobel prize for physiology or medicine in 1977, 2 kids - Yolow writes in her Nobel autobiography that they had sleep-in help until their youngest child was nine - thanks for the tip!)
After this, something strange seems to happen. Five women were awarded Nobel prizes in the 1980s, 1990s and in 2004, but there is no mention of children in their Nobel biographies. Did these women have kids and just not mention it? Or didn't they have any? Further research revealed that three certainly didn't have children, but I still don't know the answer for the other two (and, frankly, it's none of my business).

Of course, we're dealing with small numbers here, but this does look like a trend. I don't know what underlying forces might be responsible, but here are some hypotheses that might be worth investigating:

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Blogging and academic research.

Jun 16 2008 Published by under Academia, Ask a ScienceBlogger, Personal


As I emerge from my fever, I ponder the latest "Ask a ScienceBlogger" question:
There are many, many academic bloggers out there feverishly blogging about their areas of interest. Still, there are many, many more academics who don't. So, why do you blog and how does blogging help with your research?
I started this blog as a way to remind my students (and myself) how my subject, the ethical conduct of science, is relevant to lots of things happening in the world right now. Some of those things involve scientists caught misbehaving, or scientific communities trying to figure out what sorts of behavior are productive or destructive. Some of the connections are less obvious, spilling over to issues around education, politics, or the marketplace.

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Friday Sprog Blogging: extinction.

Jun 13 2008 Published by under Kids and science

Have I mentioned before that children are vectors of disease? The Free-Ride offspring are no exception in this regard. As a result, I've been laid low with fever and assorted flu-like symptoms.
Sadly, this did not result in an edifying and amusing conversation about the workings of the immune system. Maybe when I'm better.
However, I did manage to overhear (and transcribe) a conversation the sprogs were having without me.

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SVP Ethics Education Committee "best practices" for research, publication, and museum work.

As promised, in this post I'm examining the "best practices" document (PDF) issued by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Ethics Education Committee in the wake of the "Aetogate" allegations. Here, I'll discuss the specific recommendations made in that document. And in an upcoming post, I'll turn to some of the discussions paleontologists are now having (through the magic of the Internet) on the accepted practices in their field, in hopes of gaining some insight to the fit between actual practices and the "best practices" described by the SVP Ethics Education Committee.

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Work-life balance: not seeing integration as intrusion.

Jun 06 2008 Published by under Academia, Personal, Women and science

For the June edition of Scientiae, Zuska notes:

Taking up space in the world is a Bad Thing for women to do. We waste a lot of energy and time worrying about whether or not we are taking up too much space. ...
How do you want to take up space? How do you want to let yourself sprawl, in your professional or personal life?

In the wake of the letter informing me that I had been awarded tenure, I've been thinking about sprawl and containment a lot.

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