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:
Archive for: February, 2009
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:
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.
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.
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  back in November 2008 (but with a correction published online 19 February 2009). From that letter:
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.
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, "catéter arterial dejado en un órgano." 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).
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."