Category Archives: science

The limits of writing for free

Earlier this year, and to the disgust of much of the science writing community, Jonah Lehrer gave a speech at the Knight Foundation in which he apologized for his misdeeds. He was paid 20K for the appearance. Lehrer, you might recall, is the bestselling science writer who recycled old articles for pay, plagiarized stuff, and fabricated Dylan quotes he used in one of his books.

That’s the first data point. The second one is more recent. Last month, Nate Thayer started a lively debate on the future of journalism by publishing an email exchange between himself and an Atlantic editor who asked for an article for free. See for instance this analysis by Felix Salmon and a must-read response from Alexis Madrigal. But the article I’d like to highlight is Ezra Klein’s “Revenge of the sources”:

The salaries of professional journalists are built upon our success in convincing experts of all kinds working for exposure rather than pay. Now those experts have found a way to work for exposure without going through professional journalists, creating a vast expansion in the quantity and quality of content editors can get for free. […]

Now, the people who were once sources can write their own blogs, or they send op-ed submissions or even feature articles to editors looking for vastly more content. Think about Brad DeLong’s blog, Marginal Revolution, or the Monkey Cage. This work often doesn’t pay — at least not at first — but it offers a much more reliable, predictable and controllable form of exposure. It’s a direct relationship with an audience rather than one mediated by a professional journalist.

Time for the third and last data point. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the “main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences”, declares in its funding guide (page 32) that:

Investigators are expected to participate in activities that seek to engage the public with engineering and science. Results from individual research projects may provide opportunities to engage the public through various forms of media communication.

In official terminology, this is Public Engagement, part of something called Pathways to Impact which is a mandatory component of a grant application. This guide advises the researchers – among other things – to plan a public engagement strategy, develop “an activity timeline or Gantt chart” (?), and “[t]hink about [their] public engagement role as one that is ongoing”. (On paper at least, this seems to go quite a bit beyond NSF’s “broad impact”. While “public engagement” is listed as only one way of fulfilling the “impact” requirements, in practice many researchers might not have other options available.)

In other words, academics are told to practice journalism for free – the same thing to which Nate Thayer and others reacted so strongly.

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What’s science got to do with this?

Someone please tell me that this didn’t happen:

Apparently, being a female scientist is awesome because… you get to look like a model! And do a Charlie’s Angels routine with co-workers! And dance in a chemistry lab in high heels! And do that little head shake from hair product commercials!

Christ. I don’t even know where to begin. I’m tempted to write a long post about the objectification of women in the media and popular culture, and especially the incessant focus on their bodies instead of their accomplishments. I would have liked to see some women actually engaged in doing science and rocking it, not just dancing around a lab and noticing how a test tube looks like a lipstick. I resent the idea that, in addition to working more than full time already, we also have to be eye candy for our male colleagues. If nothing else, the producers should have at least known that maintaining the perfect look is basically a full-time job for their models – not something that most busy professionals can pull off.

In my capacity as a scientist, however, I have to prepare for a conference that starts this weekend, and I also have a paper to referee that I’d like to finish reading before I leave. So, you only get a short quiz instead.

You’re welcome to take a really long time on this one.

Update: the video I embedded no longer works, but you can still see it here along with additional comments from female scientists, including one who is also a former professional model.

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What if mathematicians wrote travel articles?

Some time ago I suggested that scientists might not always make the best writers. I guess I wasn’t the only person ever to make this profound observation. Slate has since published this piece on how political scientists would cover the news; see also here. As hilarious as these are, I would say that there’s more to the picture. The story below is inspired by this one (hat tip to Terry Tao). Believe it or not, there are actual reasons why we have to write like this sometimes. I’m as guilty as anyone. In fact, I’m in the middle of revising one of my papers right now…

In this article we describe the plane flight that Roger and I took to San Francisco. The purpose of our trip was to meet Sergey, our collaborator on the paper “The structure of fuzzy foils” (J. Fuzzy Alg. Geom. 2003) who also co-organized with me an MSRI workshop in 2005. Our main result was to arrive at the San Francisco airport at the expected time and meet Sergey there. To accomplish this, we relied on a regularly scheduled flight on a commercial airline. For the history of aviation (including commercial aviation) and the general background, we refer the interested reader to Wikipedia (see also Britannica).

This article is organized as follows. We first explain a few preliminary steps, including the travel to the airport and the check-in procedure. The main part of the trip was the actual flight, which we discuss in a new paragraph. We conclude with a few remarks on arriving at the destination airport.

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An entirely positive approach. Or something.

The other prefatory comment that I would make is that I am going to, until most of the way through, attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach, and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality.

Larry Summers

Now, I know I had somethin’ to say
But the problem is, to say somethin’
Uh, you’ve got to say it.

Stan Ridgway

John Tierney follows up as promised on his exquisitely daring column from last week:

  1. Claims of discrimination against women in science cite the same single Swedish study from 1997 over and over again.
  2. Many other studies conducted all over the world did not show similar bias.*
  3. Legislation doesn’t work, and anyway, women are just not that much into science.

I don’t even like to engage in this type of discussions. To me, they always have the taste (so to speak) of having a restaurant owner tell me that there can’t possibly be a cockroach in my soup because the restaurant has passed very strict inspections, can’t I see the certificate posted on the wall? Also, statistics show that the frequency of cockroach infestation is decreasing throughout the city, and in any case the pests don’t come out during the day – and all the while, said cockroach is swimming merrily across my plate right in front of me.

Forget the Swedish study from the 1990s. Let’s look at the results of this year’s Canada Research Excellence Chairs competition. 19 world-class scientists were hired into lucrative positions at Canadian universities, with the kind of research support that most of us can only dream of – and all of them are men. Not only that, but there were no women among the 36 shortlisted candidates, either. That did attract attention. Of the several explanations offered, some just don’t hold any water, for example that the female candidates might have somehow been intimidated by the tough competition and short deadlines. (Remember, we’re talking about star scientists here, not shrinking pansies.) This, however, cuts to the heart of the matter:

The academic “old boys club,” also was a factor. With limited time to find and court top researchers, universities resorted to “informal processes” to find candidates, the study finds. “These informal outreach processes may have involved senior researchers identifying potential nominees from among their international peers,” it says.

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More on mathematics and madness

In popular movies, a scientist is usually brilliant but troubled. We know that he’s brilliant because we’re told so repeatedly, and we know that he’s troubled because that’s plain to see. He might spend a lot of screen time getting depressed over his lack of creative output and trying to remedy this situation by getting drunk or going out for long walks – anything that will keep him from attempting any actual work. Finally, thanks to divine inspiration, a life-changing event or some other such, he stumbles upon a Great Idea. Now that he’s made his breakthrough, the days and nights go by in a blur as the work flies off his hands, the manuscript pages practically writing themselves. Once it’s all done, the scientist has to snap out of the trance, at which point it’s not uncommon for him to collapse and have a nervous breakdown.

I don’t even want to name specific movies – that’s shooting fish in a barrel. The number increases further if you substitute a writer or artist for a scientist. If you’ve seen too many Hollywood films and don’t know better from your own experience, you could be excused for drawing the conclusion that it’s somehow the mental illness that’s responsible for our creativity. I mean, scientific discovery – not to mention art – boils down to blinding flashes of brilliance, and those come hard and fast when you’re seriously kooky, right?

And now there’s a medical study that I’m sure I’ll see quoted in support of this. According to a recent article in Science Daily, researchers at Karolinska Institutet have shown that highly creative people and people with schizophrenia have similar dopamine systems. That in turn has been linked to the capacity for what the article calls “divergent thought” (a scientist is quoted to refer to it as “thinking outside the box”, one of the most annoying phrases out there), which contributes both to creative problem solving in healthy people and abnormal thought processes in people with schizophrenia. The long suspected connection – make sure to also check the links under “related articles” – may thus have a basis in brain chemistry. Yay for the Mad Scientist!

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The less than friendly skies.

I’m not deluding myself that anyone in the Obama administration is actually reading this blog. Still, the more of us speak up the better, so here it goes.

You did say, Mr. President, that you would support science. “Restore it to its rightful place”, if I remember correctly. You have put a good deal of money behind that promise, and we’re very grateful for that.

You must know – if not as a President then as a former academic – how much we depend on international collaboration, including travel and movement of people across borders.

The new TSA regulations, if they stay in place, will make our travel to the U.S. just about impossible.

Right now, it’s mostly affecting the holiday travellers who have to get back home from their Christmas holidays. They have no choice but to shut up and put up with it. But come January, you might see a drop in the attendance of international participants at professional meetings. Some of the NSF panelists might not show up, or institute board members, or many others who volunteer their time and expertise without compensation and expect to be treated like the decent human beings that they are. And the research stars that your top universities would like to recruit might pass on that interview because they don’t want to have to fly in diapers.
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Reverse triage is a losing game

Maclean’s interviews the “big five” university presidents in Canada:

Over the course of a 90-minute video conference, the big five presidents said their institutions must be given the means and mandates to set themselves still further apart from the rest of Canada’s universities—to pursue world-class scientific research and train the most capable graduate students, while other schools concentrate on undergraduate education. The vision they described would be a challenge to the one-size-fits-all mentality that has governed Canada’s higher education system. […]

An hour into our conversation, the five presidents had called for more research money, the ability to concentrate more on graduate education, fewer undergrads, more international students, and the right to charge higher tuition in return for increased financial assistance to the least affluent students.

The self-selected Big Five are the University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, University of Toronto, McGill University, and Université de Montréal. And what about everyone else?


A system of winners and losers, in other words? Naylor is quick to argue the opposite. “Canada would probably be well-served to have a large number of small liberal arts universities, more than we have now. And to see those as somehow losers in a game of higher education strikes me as wrong.”

The presidents of smaller universities don’t see the logic of improving Canadian science by cutting off their faculty from research opportunities. There are indeed excellent researchers at smaller schools such as McMaster or Waterloo. They have never signed up to work at “small liberal arts universities”.

But what if such a solution were good for Canadian science overall, if not for the small universities in particular? I don’t believe that. You don’t have to take my word for it – see this Inside Higher Ed article on a recent study of the “much-ballyhooed decline in the international standing of American higher education”:


The paper, “Is the U.S. Losing Its Preeminence in Higher Education?” (which is available for purchase from NBER [the National Bureau od Economic Research]), acknowledges that the closing of the gap in research productivity between the U.S. and other countries that intensified in the 1980s has resulted to a significant degree from the expansion of research in Europe and especially East Asia. But it also identifies a slowdown in research output in the United States beginning in the 1990s — a slowdown that is largely attributable, writes the author James D. Adams, to public universities. […]

Compensation for researchers, for example, rose 1 percent faster a year at private universities than public ones throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the study finds, suggesting “reasons for top scientists to migrate from public to private universities.”

And while the rapid expansion of federal research funding benefited public institutions even more than private universities during this time, Adams finds, state obligations to cover Medicaid costs and equalize public school spending, among other demands, meant that “growth of mostly federal research dollars is canceled out by the slower growth of state dollars in public universities.”

Adams is then quoted as saying that if this trend is not reversed, “the decline in the U.S. share of world science will likely persist.”

It would appear that having a Princeton and a Harvard does not really compensate for the decline of the U.S. public university system. I suppose that it does not help that Harvard has its own share of problems – but that’s a different story. Because the point is, the public system is just as important for the overall U.S. excellence in research as its ivory towers. You can’t build a good ivory tower on a desert island: there needs to be a broad net cast out to catch the best brains and to send them both to the ivory towers and the best public universities. The Big Five presidents actually acknowledge as much later in their interview:


“Could it be that we simply aren’t producing enough radically disruptive innovators, breakthrough scholars, proportionate to our numbers?” Naylor asked. “It could be that we simply get to a certain point and don’t quite break through the ceiling.”

To produce or lure the world’s best scholars, UBC’s Toope said, universities need to graduate more students with higher degrees. “Both at the level of a master’s but even more importantly at the level of Ph.D.s, we are not producing at the level of our American colleagues, and actually many others in the OECD,” he said. “I suspect that’s an indicator of a relative lack of overall performance at the highest levels.”

But the problem starts even lower, Alberta’s Samarasekera said, with a limited supply of undergrads. “We do very well in terms of statistics on post-secondary education in the OECD,” she said, but those statistics can be misleading because they include Canada’s large population of community college students. “The actual number of university graduates per capita, we’re middle of the pack or lower. And that’s the group that eventually supplies the Ph.D.s and the innovators and the disruptive thinkers.”

Actually, that’s not quite how it works. Many of Canada’s best undergraduates get their Ph.D. degrees south of the border; conversely, Canadian graduate schools attract students from the U.S. and many other countries. Among those graduates who stay in the academia, it is common to hold at least one temporary position, often two or more, before settling down in a tenure-track job. Again, borders are often crossed in the process. It’s not necessarily the best Canadian undergraduates who end up in our graduate schools, nor are our faculty recruited directly from our graduate schools.

But on a higher level, the idea is sound: a thriving high-level research community does need a wide pipeline feeding into it. That pipeline should not come to an end with the binary sorting of entry-level faculty between ivory towers and community colleges. Here’s hoping that this is not what anyone had in mind.

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