Archive for: February, 2009

What not to do to a public university in the face of a budget shortfall.

You knew the California budget shortfall was going to have an impact on higher education in the state. But maybe you didn't know that the pain will not be distributed evenly. Last weekend, John Engell, a colleague of mine from San Jose State University (and currently chair of the Department of English & Comparative Literature), examined the pain that may be visited on our university in an opinion piece he wrote for the San Jose Mercury News:

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Animal research, violent attacks, and the public's right to know.

An article in the Wall Street Journal notes the collision between researchers' interests in personal safety and the public's right to know how its money is being spent -- specifically, when that money funds research that involves animals:

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Friday Sprog Blogging: energy (part 2).

Feb 27 2009 Published by under Environment, Kids and science

This week, we finally get to the elder Free-Ride offspring's part of last-week's bath-night conversation about energy. Here's the audio of the discussion, complete with splashing bathwater and odd squawks from my computer.
For those who prefer words on the screen, the transcript is below.

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Looking for data to make environmentally friendly food choices

Feb 26 2009 Published by under Environment, Food, Science in everyday life

At the New York Times Room for Debate Blog, a bunch of commentators were asked to weigh in with easy-to-make changes Americans might adopt to reduce their environmental impact. One of those commentators, Juliet Schor, recommends eating less meat:

Rosamond Naylor, a researcher at Stanford, estimates that U.S. meat production is especially grain intensive, requiring 10 times the grain required to produce an equivalent amount of calories than grain, Livestock production, which now covers 30 percent of the world's non-ice surface area, is also highly damaging to soil and water resources.
Compared to producing vegetables or rice, beef uses 16 times as much energy and produces 25 times the CO2. A study on U.S. consumption from the University of Chicago estimates that if the average American were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent, that would be the equivalent of switching from driving a Camry to a Prius.
Americans currently rank second in world in meat consumption, weighing in at 271 pounds a year, up from 196 pounds 40 years ago. And that doesn't include dairy. We get an estimated 75 grams of protein a day from animals, and 110 grams total; the government recommends only 50 grams a day.

The idea of eating lower on the food chain to save the planet isn't a new one. However, this isn't a suggestion that helps the Free-Ride household reduce its environmental impact, since we are already meatless.
What's more, figuring out how to tweak our dietary choices to further reduce our impact is made difficult by the lack of transparency about the real environmental costs of our options. The labels in the supermarket don't list how much water, land, or petroleum-based fertilizer went into producing your pound of potatoes or peas. Nor do they reflect the amount of energy used to process your tofu, nor the natural resources to can you chickpeas, nor the fuel to ship your bananas.
All of which makes it very hard to know how to make better choices about the foods we eat.

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Tracking flu through online search queries.

ResearchBlogging.org
This morning, I was made aware (by my better half) of the existence of Google Flu Trends. This is a project by Google to use search terms to create a model of flu activity across the United States. Indeed, the results have been good enough that they were reported in a Letter in Nature [1] back in November 2008 (but with a correction published online 19 February 2009). From that letter:

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President Obama on education.

In last night's address to the joint session of Congress, President Obama said:

The third challenge we must address is the urgent need to expand the promise of education in America.
In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity - it is a pre-requisite.
Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.
This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow. That is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education - from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.
Already, we have made an historic investment in education through the economic recovery plan. We have dramatically expanded early childhood education and will continue to improve its quality, because we know that the most formative learning comes in those first years of life. We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students. And we have provided the resources necessary to prevent painful cuts and teacher layoffs that would set back our children's progress.
But we know that our schools don't just need more resources. They need more reform. That is why this budget creates new incentives for teacher performance; pathways for advancement, and rewards for success. We'll invest in innovative programs that are already helping schools meet high standards and close achievement gaps. And we will expand our commitment to charter schools.
It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country - and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education. And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask this Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country - Senator Edward Kennedy.
These education policies will open the doors of opportunity for our children. But it is up to us to ensure they walk through them. In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child. I speak to you not just as a President, but as a father when I say that responsibility for our children's education must begin at home.

I'm generally heartened by these remarks, but of course, I have some thoughts of my own to add.

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For better communication in lab groups, clearer expectations.

I've been watching an interesting discussion unfolding at DrugMonkey, prompted by a post at Science Bear's Cave, about whether not irritating your lab group's principal investigator ought to be your highest priority. As DrugMonkey notes, such a strategy can have bad consequences:

If there is a scientific trainee who fears to mention to the Boss that the printers aren't working, this trainee sure as hell isn't going to mention "Oh gee, I think that figure you are so amped about from that other postdoc is totally faked". And who knows how far this PI-pleasing attitude might carry one.
Is the desire to keep the boss PI happy greater than any affection for, say, genuine data?

The discussion in the comments covered some familiar ground about the general unpleasantness of the experience of science as gladiatorial combat, the relative powerlessness of the scientific trainee relative to the PI or even the most favored postdoc, the need to believe in your own results (even if, objectively, you should not) in a climate of shrinking funding, whether science is or is not a tea party peopled with Care Bears (and if so, what exactly that would entail) ...
For some reason, reading this exchange, I slipped into my committee-chair mindset. (Of course, this is very odd, seeing as how my current sabbatical has included a break from committee service. Could it be that I miss it?) I thought to myself, "The people here have rational reasons for the ways they're behaving, even if those behaviors lead to predictably bad results. Are there any easy-to-implement changes that would make it rational for them to behave in ways that probably bring about better results?"
Then, I slipped into pedagogy mode (since I'm also on a hiatus from teaching) and thought, "Students focus on learning the things you test them on, not the things you say are important for them to learn. And when you don't give them any sensible information about what you're evaluating, or about the basis for evaluation, they will become bundles of hate, fear, and frustration."
At this point, I had a flash of insight to a change that I think has potential. I can't guarantee that it would work, but I think it would be foolish not to try it.

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Language barriers and human subjects research.

Over at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, Dr. Isis looks at challenges of opening up participation in human subjects research to potential subjects who are not fluent English speakers:

When one enters the university hospital here at MRU, there are a number of skilled and qualified translators that are available to help patients that can't dialogue in English to communicate with health care staff. They are able to sufficiently translate documents to allow a patient to provide some reasonable level of consent (my M.D. blog buddies can debate the quality of said consent). There is no infrastructure like this in research at most major research universities. Consent forms are written in English. Even if I could provide verbal translation for this man, it would not be ethical for him to sign a document in a language he cannot read himself and understand. Thus, it all more or less becomes a moot point. Beyond that, while I am a fluent Spanish speaker, I am not a qualified medical interpreter. I have no idea how to say "indwelling arterial catheter." Babelfish says it's, "cat├ęter arterial dejado en un ├│rgano." I know that can't be right, but who am I to question Babelfish?. Even if I were completely confident saying, "We are studying the physiological effect of [Dr. Isis's favorite stimulus] on vascular function" in Spanish, it's not the best use of my time as a researcher (unless one of you folks want to write me in for 10% effort, and then I will make sure I learn to say it).
So, the question is, is there an ethical issue here at all ... ? The National Institutes of Health mandate the inclusion of minorities in human research studies. In our area, members of the major minority groups often do not speak fluent English. However, the translation of study documents and the hiring of an interpreter to help with the consent is expensive and I have never known an investigator to include a translator in a budget when they could have a technician. Furthermore, if you are willing to translate a consent form into one language, what about all of the other languages that might be spoken in the area around where the study is being conducted, no matter how rare? Indeed, most people I know make the decision that the ability to understand and communicate in English at a 6th grade level is a criteria for participation.
Yet, if the ability to speak English is a criteria for participation, then we by default fail to include particular groups in research cohorts. We're back to research cohorts being comprised of middle-aged white men.

(Bold emphasis added.)
It looks to me like there is an ethical issue here. Plus, I think I see a scientific issue. Together, the two kinds of issues make me think that tackling the issue of translation should be a priority for researchers (and for the agencies funding their work).

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Medical interpreters, societal commitments, and the challenges of footing the bill.

Feb 23 2009 Published by under Medicine, Politics, Social issues

Over at The White Coat Underground, PalMD looks at the ways in which delivering good health care to deaf patients depends on providing good interpreters -- and notices the difficulty of making this happen:

How do we approach this as a society?
Item 1: Deaf people have special needs with regards to interactions with the health care system.
Item 2: The government mandates that proper interpreters be provided for doctor visits.
Item 3: Neither patients nor doctors can afford to provide this service.
Now don't go telling me that "all you rich doctors can afford to get the interpreter"---we most emphatically cannot. That is a simple fact, and if you don't believe me, then you don't. Epur, si moeve.
There is not a great deal of support for an expensive government mandate that would pay for interpreters for the deaf. How do we provide this critical service?

I think the way Pal has framed this is exactly right -- this is a question that is an ethical challenge to us as a society. Given the limits on what any of us can accomplish as individuals, what are we committed to doing collectively? What ought we commit to do collectively? And what does this say about what goods we regard as necessities to a good life -- or about which members of society we believe are entitled to partake of this good life?

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Another science fair idea

We're back at the Monterey Bay Aquarium today. Shortly after our arrival, the kids are up to their elbow in touch-tank water. Then, the younger Free-Ride offspring gets critical.
"The decorator crabs here aren't very decorated."

DecoratorCrab.jpg

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