What were they THINKING?

June 22, 2012 § 4 Comments

Here’s a video the European Commission, um, commissioned to encourage girls to become scientists:

Science, apparently, is about makeup.  Wearing it.

I thought it was a joke at first, but no: here is the official EU website.  Science.  It’s a girl thing.

What comes next after “Epic Fail”?  If you would like to express your feelings about the campaign, please e-mail the bozos in charge of it: rtd-wiri@ec.europa.eu

Updates

They pulled the video at about 4.30 today.  GOOOD call.  Apparently this is not the only video the EU has had to pull lately.

You can still see it (if you really want to) here.

A few reactions:

Kind of like putting a croissant next to a circuit board in an attempt to get more French people into electrical engineering” — Jezebel

Seems like the beginning of a porn movie” — Wall Street Journal

Kitschy” — Washington Post

Mildly appalling” — The Next Web

Insert facepalm here” — Scientific American

How the EU spends taxpayer money” — Forbes

Is it sexist?” — HuffPo (yes, they are seriously asking the question).

Soulcrushingly misdirected” — SciencePunk

A for effort, D for execution” — Business Insider

Probably sounded like a good idea late at night in a Brussels basement” — New Scientist

Pink, sparkly, makeup-related science” — New Statesman

No scientific content whatsoever” — The Telegraph

Who put this lipstick in my science?” — Wired

Not a good thing” — MSNBC

Apparently serious” — Hollywood Gossip

Patronizing drivel” – In The Dark

Words cannot describe my anger” — PygmyLoris

Ahhh… ffftttt.. wha?” Token Skeptic

and of course, lots and lots of tweets.

Summing up the problem, from James Monk:

Why boycott Elsevier?

February 23, 2012 § 16 Comments

Lots of people have suggested that I write something about the recent effort to boycott Elsevier.  I don’t usually like to write about the politics of science, mostly because I usually don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said.  For this particular bit of science politics, though, the problem may be that I have too much to say.  I’ve been in and out of science publishing for much of my working life.  I worked for a company that was acquired by Elsevier, and left the company (and publishing) as an indirect consequence of the acquisition. Two of the journals I put blood, sweat and (occasionally) tears into getting started are now published by Elsevier.  I have friends who still work for Elsevier.  I have friends who left Elsevier-acquired journals for Open Access journals.  Nothing I might say can be considered unbiased.  At the same time, perhaps I know a bit more about the topic than some of the other people writing about it.  Or at least I know different things.  So be warned: this may be a long one.

For those who haven’t heard about the Boycott Elsevier movement, it started when the Fields medalist Timothy Gowers announced a policy of non-violent non-cooperation with Elsevier.  Triggered, I think, by Elsevier’s support of the Research Works Act, which as I have mentioned before aims to prevent the US government from encouraging or requiring open access to government-funded research, he decided to publicly announce that he would not publish in Elsevier journals, nor would he serve on editorial boards or as a reviewer for them.  In singling out Elsevier for this treatment, he pointed out that Elsevier is especially rapacious in the matter of charging for their journals, and uses a sharp business practice called “bundling” (forcing libraries to buy bundles of journals in order to get the most popular journals) to maximize the subscription fees they receive.  Because Elsevier, through luck or good judgment or shrewd acquisition, has quite a number of popular journals in its stable it can bully libraries in this way quite effectively.  It is a very profitable company; in 2010 it had revenues of $3.2 billion, of which 36% was profit.  That puts Elsevier way ahead of the average publishing company, which (in 2008) made an average return of 7.9%.

Gowers points out that it’s not useful to characterize Elsevier’s actions as immoral: they are a large company, they have shareholders, and in a capitalist world there is nothing unusually evil about doing your legal best to maximize your profits and protect your interests, including lobbying Congress to pass laws that work in your favor.  But he is personally offended by Elsevier’s abuse of power, however legal and corporately appropriate it may be, and so he is, in essence, withdrawing his labor.  At the time of writing, over 6700 people have promised to do the same. 1275 of these signatories identify themselves as mathematicians, and 994 as biologists.

Of course it’s absolutely reasonable and right to withdraw your support from any enterprise that morally offends you.  I take my virtual hat off to Dr. Gowers and his fellow travellers.  Considered as an effort to damage Elsevier and thus change the world of scientific publishing, though, this movement brings to mind a couple of questions.  The first is, when is it OK for a publisher to make money on publishing scientific journals, and when profit is OK how much profit is reasonable?  The second is, does this effort have a chance of working?  Neither of these questions has a simple answer, to my mind.  It may be best to take the second first.  So, how many scientists need to work to rule for Elsevier to be hurt?

Elsevier publishes journals in all areas of science, and the answer is probably different for each individual field.  In biology, one question is how much community shunning it would take to hurt Elsevier’s top journal, CellCell is generally felt to be one of the top three journals in biology (known variously as “the glamor mags”, SNC (for Science, Nature, Cell) or “the rejectionist journals”).  I’ve never worked for Cell, though some of my friends have, but I did work for Nature once upon a long-ago time.  At the time, Nature was receiving about 120 biology manuscripts a week.  My guess is that probably ~30-40 of these papers could have been published in Nature without raising any eyebrows, but because of a strict page budget set by the publisher we were only able to accept about 12 of them, or about 1 in 3. Cell‘s numbers probably aren’t too different, suggesting that even if ~1/2 the scientific community decided not to publish in Elsevier journals, Cell would still be happily able to fill its pages.  There would eventually be an effect on quality, but it would take more effort than you think to get to a point where it’s noticeable.

Another question is how much it would take to damage one of Elsevier’s less dominant publications, of which there are hundreds.  In mathematics, the community decided that the journal Topology was ridiculously overpriced, and the editorial board for the journal resigned en masse — an apparently fatal blow.  Could an effort like this be effective for biology journals?

Perhaps.  We need to remember that mathematical journals in general are far less powerful than biological journals. The mathematics community is much smaller, and it’s easier to know for sure who contributed what and how important the contribution was.  A preprint on arXiv is just as visible as a paper in a journal (if not more so).  The mathematics community decided it could do without Topology, and was able to take coherent action to get rid of it and move on.  It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there were Elsevier biology journals that the biology community could do without, but it seems to me that the current boycott effort is too diffuse to be likely to be successful.

If one wishes to send a message to Elsevier that many of their journals are overpriced, perhaps the most successful strategy would be to attempt to copy what happened to Topology for a selected few journals (~10) for which there seems to be little justification.  For example, one might choose journals that compete with a perfectly good society journal or open access publication, or both, and that are noticeably overpriced given the quality of the journal.  The goal would be to persuade the entire editorial board to resign and spread the word throughout the biological community that nobody should sign up to replace them, and nobody should submit or review papers.  If enough of the community agrees that these specific journals are unnecessary and overpriced, there might then be a real chance of killing them.  (If not, a new editorial board will sign right up, and many people won’t even notice the change.  In a community as large as the biological community, with commensurately diverse opinions, this seems to me to be a real danger.)

I think a strategy like this might have some chance of success, and of delivering a message that will be heard.  My guess is that the current boycott — even though it’s generating lots of buzz, and articles in the NYT, and opinion pieces in the Boston Globe comparing it, bizarrely, to the Arab Spring — has little chance of making any difference to Elsevier in biology, though the situation could be very different in mathematics.  A targeted approach doesn’t sound as grand as boycotting the whole of Elsevier, and has the further disadvantage that it requires consultation and agreement about which journals are most egregious before anything can be done. But if it works, then one could go on to the next 10 most unnecessary and overpriced journals, until the only journals that are published are those whose prices don’t generate too much outrage.

Which leads me back to the first question: when is it OK for publishers to make a profit on a journal, and how much profit is it OK for them to make?  What (if anything) does the community want from publishers, and how much are we willing to pay for it?

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Repost: What are graduate school interviews like?

January 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Lots of people found this post from Jue Wang useful last year, so here it is again.  Comments welcome!

Jue Wang writes:

To help 2011 graduate school interviewees, I collected some advice from current Systems Biology graduate students.  Here are their thoughts:

“Relax, have fun, don’t try too hard to impress people, and don’t get drunk at Marc’s house!” [Marc is our Chair of Department]

“Feel free to interrupt a professor’s monologue with questions. Dress warmly. Don’t be scared if your first interviewer makes you perform calculations on the fly :p”

“Have a good ‘elevator pitch’ for any research you’ve done, so you can explain it clearly and quickly when asked. You won’t be asked to recall your entire thesis, coursework, etc.”

“Don’t get thrown off if it seems like the interviewer is quizzing you. They just want to see you talk through some science with them, and don’t expect you to know all the answers. Just be honest about what you don’t know, and they’ll probably help you along.”

Update: another tidbit someone sent me today: “You should interpret the interview invitation as ‘We love you on paper, we’d like to know whether we like you in person. Hey, we hope you like us, too!'”

To give the recruits a little context to these remarks, I’ll just add a basic description of the interview weekend as my murky, pre-grad-school memory has it: a sweet hotel room, a few hours of what seemed like shooting the breeze with faculty members, meeting lots of people who inexplicably seem really excited to talk to you, and free food and drink everywhere. Did I mention the free food and drink everywhere??

I realize some might feel a little nervous about the process, especially if you take the “interview” part to mean something akin to the med school or Wall-Street job interview process. In reality it’s much more laid back. I was fortunate/foolish enough not to have given this much thought, but my first interview was with a faculty who was much taller than I realized, and somehow I found this very intimidating. It didn’t help my nerves that someone told me he was in the middle of writing a grant proposal and hadn’t slept for 3 days, and he was slightly late so I had a good 10 minutes to just sit there and hope that if I said something stupid he’d be too tired to notice. As it turns out, neither my nervousness nor any evidence of his sleep deprivation lasted more than 2 minutes into the conversation, and we had a fascinating, sprawling discussion of his research and the things we were both interested in (with a slight bias toward the former). This is basically how most interviews go.

Some of my classmates had interviews in which they were asked specific scientific questions. This can be nerve-wracking, as at least a few of the G1’s can attest, but like my classmates mention above, it’s best to just take it in stride and talk through your answers. I’ve been told to avoid trying to seem like I know something I don’t, which is confusing advice because I can’t imagine many recruits who’d be consciously trying to mislead people in their interviews. My guess is that it can seem this way if you are not engaged in a conversation and just nod like a zombie, or if you gratuitously mention ideas and jargon out of fear. Another reason to sleep well the night before and have some kind of ‘elevator pitch’ for your past and future interests, so that you can speak plainly and concisely—and therefore seem genuinely interested—about science.

One other thing I remember is being impressed and therefore slightly intimidated by the other recruits. Maybe it’s a function of how diverse — and accomplished — Harvard SysBio’s recruitment base is, but it seemed like everyone was a star at something. Also, some recruits probably went to school in the area or even worked in the department during undergrad, so they sound like they’re already in grad school. These things are a net win though, because you end up having lots of great conversations (and some insider knowledge on the best places to get pizza and whatnot).

Finally I’ll reiterate the most important advice, at least for Boston, which is to dress warmly — the East coast is very cold in late January, and the weather is more unforgiving than any of your interviewers will be. Fortunately there will be plenty of chances to warm up with beer, food, and new friends during the whole experience, so enjoy it!

Communication as a network problem

November 11, 2011 § 7 Comments

I recently gave a short talk to a group of post-docs who had organized their own mini-symposium and workshop as a way of bringing the Harvard post-doc community in systems biology together.  Those of you who haven’t worked in the Boston area may be surprised that we need special events to bring together a community that is separated by only  ~4 miles, but in fact the trip from Harvard’s main campus in Cambridge to Harvard Medical School in Boston is a frustrating and lengthy one.  Much of the apparent distance is added by the need to cross the Charles River on one of its few narrow, highly trafficked bridges.  I have often wished for a personal helicopter as I sit in the traffic jam at the BU Bridge.  Hence the title of the occasion: “Across the River”.

Since this was an event focused on communicating and bridge-building (or at least, bridge-crossing) I talked about communication.  Here’s my thesis: communication plays a much larger role in the progress of science than most people (and most scientists) are conscious of.  So, one way to become a better scientist is to think more about how you communicate and try to do it better.

This is the point at which it becomes difficult to be talking to an audience you can’t see: some of you will be saying “sure, of course”, while others will be looking puzzled — science is about doing experiments, not about communication!  If I could see you, I could adapt to your reactions.  Since I can’t, I’ll say this to the “sure, of course” group: I think many of us have been persuaded to think about scientists as natural non-communicators, who live in an ivory tower and think deep thoughts and publish inscrutable, dense, leather-bound tomes that are then read by a tiny group of other eggheads.  Actually the most prevalent image in the popular consciousness may be that of the gentleman scientist from the 18th or 19th century, dressed in tweed knickerbockers and stout shoes, scouring the rocks of a cliff face for fossils in proud isolation while smoking a pipe.

A gentleman scientist relaxing at home. As you can see, a pipe is essential.

If scientists ever lived like this, we don’t now.  Even the lonely fossil collector went home to write long letters to like-minded pipe-smokers across the world about the fascinating fossils he — or she, but that’s another, possibly pipe-free, story — had found.  But this is not the way the world thinks about scientists, and so it is often not the way we think about ourselves.  On top of that, we confuse communicating with the public — which, as a group, we are indeed very bad at — with communicating with ourselves, which we do constantly. The need for communication creeps up on you throughout your career: perhaps you don’t need to be talking and reading constantly as a graduate student, but by the time you make it to your first real job the need to be a good communicator pervades your daily life.

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Guest post: How to give a science talk

August 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Andrew Murray recently wrote this absolutely brilliant piece on how to give a science talk for the benefit of local graduate students, and has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here.

Summary

1. You can never give too much introduction.

2. The introduction must include a defining question.

3. It’s very hard to show too little data.

4. Writing a talk out is the only way to be sure you’ve faced and solved all its difficult moments.

5. Tell them what you’ll tell them, tell it to them, and then told them what you told them

6. Never, ever exceed the time you’ve been allotted.

7. You must rigorously distinguish conclusion from inference from speculation.

8. Most people speculate too little rather than too much.

9. No representation without explanation.

10. Crappy, pilfered-from-the-web, diagrams produce crappy talks.

11. Be modest and generous.

12. Anticipate, encourage, understand, and answer questions.

13. There is one supreme edict. You get back what you put in: crap in, crap out.

Overview
Your success as a scientist will depend on how well you can present your work and the work of others. With practice, thought, and coaching, everyone can learn to communicate effectively. Above all, remember that your listeners have many things on their minds, including the fate of the paper they sent in a month ago, getting to daycare to pick up their kids, and whether the Sox will beat the Yankees. You need to keep their attention so that your talk triumphs over these other vital topics and you need to make sure that you can get their attention and comprehension back if they fall off the wagon for a couple of minutes. Failing at either means that much of your audience will lose the thread of your talk and drift off into their own affairs.

Like a good meal, there are four parts to a good talk. The appetizer is the introduction, which explains the problem that you want to study, why it matters, how it is related to the big questions that scientists want to answer, and the progress you have made in answering it. The main course explains how you constructed your experiments, computations, or simulations, what results you produced, and what you have concluded from them. Dessert is what you infer from your data and conclusions, and coffee is your speculations on how your work reveals the structure of your section of the scientific universe and where you think you and others should go next.

In his introduction to the reworking of Strunk’s Elements of Style, E. B. White said  “Will [Strunk] felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get this man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.” But even without a rope, a reader can go back and reread opaque sentences. A listener cannot rewind you. Lose them for more than a minute and the quicksand will pull their attention irretrievably away from you and the science you are explaining.

The tips below should help you avoid the most common disasters. If you prefer watching to reading, Uri Alon can be seen talkin’ bout talkin’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OFAhBw0OXs and parts 2 thru 6!)

Introduce, introduce, introduce
Remember that talk by the guy who thought that any sane scientist knew about the exciting challenge of distinguishing between nucleophilic attack and nuclear explosion in the mechanism of bubblyomuctase, the enzyme that dominates his every hour? Sadly, he forgot to introduce the enzyme, the competing mechanisms, and any reason why you should care, leading to one of the nicest fifty minute naps that you’ve had in years.

Don’t be like this! Remember how little you once knew or cared about your current project and help your audience up the gangway of the SS My Supremely Interesting Research. Tell them the overall question that motivates you, the history of the problem, and how your approach is designed to produce new and fascinating insights. Don’t be afraid to spend twenty minutes of a fifty minute talk on the introduction, as long as you are giving information that your listeners will need to understand and appreciate your science.

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Communicating science versus communicating doubts

August 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

An interesting post by Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles discusses the (lack of) promotion of science by scientists and the (unhappy) consequences for public understanding of science.  It seems unarguable to me, judging by the results, that we don’t do enough to explain science to the public.  Furthermore, what communication is done is often not done particularly well.   Orzel’s piece largely focuses on the aspects of the scientific system that discourage scientists from spending their time on public outreach as opposed to “real science”.  I think he’s right, but I also think there’s a deeper problem.  Science is complicated, and as scientists we mostly spend our time dealing with issues that are subtle and hard to understand, and where it’s difficult/impossible to have complete confidence that you’ve arrived at the correct solution.  On top of which, you’re taught as a scientist that the worst sin you can commit is to gloss over potential alternative interpretations of your data.  As a result, scientists trying to communicate what they do and what they know to non-scientists struggle to find the right tone: is it OK to state, as a simple declarative sentence, that HIV causes AIDS?  Or do you have to preface your statement with “according to all the evidence, there’s little doubt that…”?  Or do you have to plunge into explaining Koch’s postulates and why they apply in the case of HIV?  It depends on your audience and what they’ve already heard about the topic.  If you read the audience incorrectly and talk at length about the arguments that have been made that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS (and why they’re wrong), you could mistakenly leave the impression that the arguments on both sides are of equal weight.  If you misread your audience in the other direction and don’t address a problem that is really worrying them, you could lose their confidence.

Fortunately topics that carry huge weights of controversial baggage in the public domain, such as HIV or climate change or evolution, are in the minority.  But the question of what you should try to communicate is always a difficult one.  In a one-on-one situation, you can adjust your explanation to the interests and background of the person you’re talking to.  In nearly all other situations, you have to make a guess about what your audience can absorb.  You can’t successfully get across everything you know.  You have a choice of communicating something — much less than you would like to, perhaps — or communicating nothing.  Scientists get very little help in making the judgement of what to leave out. In particular, we get little advice on how to deal with doubts.  Maybe you’re 80% convinced that x is the case, but y is also a possibility, and there are other potential explanations that seem to you to be more remote but might not be.  At what point are you justified in deciding not to discuss y?  How do you deal with the fact that as a scientist you suffer from the professional requirement never to be 100% sure about anything, without giving the impression that you’re not sure about anything?

[When I was in my early 20’s I used to write occasional articles for UK newspapers, and I vividly remember struggling with exactly this problem.  I think the worst part was imagining that scientists I knew would read the article and believe that I was ignorant about possibility y if I left it out.  Even then I knew it was silly to think that way, but the feeling was hard to shake off. I’m sure that many scientists are subconsciously writing for their peers even when they’re ostensibly trying to reach a much wider audience.]

I recently heard an interview on the radio in which a climatologist was being pressed by the interviewer to admit that he couldn’t be certain that climate change was due to human activity. He retorted that as a scientist he had to admit that you can never completely exclude other possible explanations for the data, but that if the question was whether he would bet his house on it, the answer was yes.  I think this is an interesting way to distinguish between doubt and disbelief: you need to doubt your conclusions, as a scientist, so that your mind remains open to the possibility that an explanation you haven’t thought of (or think is unlikely) is actually correct.  But that doesn’t mean you have to disbelieve your conclusions.  There’s an interesting parallel with the standards used in the legal profession: the law has used the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” for centuries, distinguishing between absolute certainty on the one hand, and the level of proof that would convince an ordinary person about something important on the other; for example, the level of proof that would lead you to bet your house that it’s real.  In law, you need to reach the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” for most criminal cases, but you can decide civil cases (in which the consequences of a guilty verdict are usually less severe) based on a “preponderance of the evidence”.  We can’t use these standards while we’re doing science, but perhaps something similar is appropriate in communicating science.  If you’re talking about a finding that has significant implications for public policy you certainly need to be careful to explain just where the finding came from and what the alternative interpretations might be, but I think you’re also entitled to say that you, personally, are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt (if you are).  If you’re talking about something with less weighty implications, my feeling is that your main job is to convey the excitement and challenge of science in whatever form your audience can absorb, no matter how much you have to leave out in order to get the main points across clearly.  The tradeoff between clarity and accuracy can be painful, especially when the details of a topic are dear to your heart, but it must be faced, or you may get nowhere.

Guest Post: What are graduate school interviews like?

January 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jue Wang writes:

To help 2011 graduate school interviewees, I collected some advice from current Systems Biology graduate students.  Here are their thoughts:

“Relax, have fun, don’t try too hard to impress people, and don’t get drunk at Marc’s house!” [Marc is our Chair of Department]

“Feel free to interrupt a professor’s monologue with questions. Dress warmly. Don’t be scared if your first interviewer makes you perform calculations on the fly :p”

“Have a good ‘elevator pitch’ for any research you’ve done, so you can explain it clearly and quickly when asked. You won’t be asked to recall your entire thesis, coursework, etc.”

“Don’t get thrown off if it seems like the interviewer is quizzing you. They just want to see you talk through some science with them, and don’t expect you to know all the answers. Just be honest about what you don’t know, and they’ll probably help you along.”

Update: another tidbit someone sent me today: “You should interpret the interview invitation as ‘We love you on paper, we’d like to know whether we like you in person. Hey, we hope you like us, too!'”

To give the recruits a little context to these remarks, I’ll just add a basic description of the interview weekend as my murky, pre-grad-school memory has it: a sweet hotel room, a few hours of what seemed like shooting the breeze with faculty members, meeting lots of people who inexplicably seem really excited to talk to you, and free food and drink everywhere. Did I mention the free food and drink everywhere??

I realize some might feel a little nervous about the process, especially if you take the “interview” part to mean something akin to the med school or Wall-Street job interview process. In reality it’s much more laid back. I was fortunate/foolish enough not to have given this much thought, but my first interview was with a faculty who was much taller than I realized, and somehow I found this very intimidating. It didn’t help my nerves that someone told me he was in the middle of writing a grant proposal and hadn’t slept for 3 days, and he was slightly late so I had a good 10 minutes to just sit there and hope that if I said something stupid he’d be too tired to notice. As it turns out, neither my nervousness nor any evidence of his sleep deprivation lasted more than 2 minutes into the conversation, and we had a fascinating, sprawling discussion of his research and the things we were both interested in (with a slight bias toward the former). This is basically how most interviews go.

Some of my classmates had interviews in which they were asked specific scientific questions. This can be nerve-wracking, as at least a few of the G1’s can attest, but like my classmates mention above, it’s best to just take it in stride and talk through your answers. I’ve been told to avoid trying to seem like I know something I don’t, which is confusing advice because I can’t imagine many recruits who’d be consciously trying to mislead people in their interviews. My guess is that it can seem this way if you are not engaged in a conversation and just nod like a zombie, or if you gratuitously mention ideas and jargon out of fear. Another reason to sleep well the night before and have some kind of ‘elevator pitch’ for your past and future interests, so that you can speak plainly and concisely–and therefore seem genuinely interested–about science.

One other thing I remember is being impressed and therefore slightly intimidated by the other recruits. Maybe it’s a function of how diverse — and accomplished — Harvard SysBio’s recruitment base is, but it seemed like everyone was a star at something. Also, some recruits probably went to school in the area or even worked in the department during undergrad, so they sound like they’re already in grad school. These things are a net win though, because you end up having lots of great conversations (and some insider knowledge on the best places to get pizza and whatnot).

Finally I’ll reiterate the most important advice, at least for Boston, which is to dress warmly — the East coast is very cold in late January, and the weather is more unforgiving than any of your interviewers will be. Fortunately there will be plenty of chances to warm up with beer, food, and new friends during the whole experience, so enjoy it!

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