Getting kids excited about chemistry
Pressing his hands against his ears the young boy kept his eyes wide open and glued to the flame at the end of the stick. Excitement mixed with terror was painted all over his faced as he held his breath and waited for the big 'bang". His body shook as the balloon popped leaving a giant fireball in its place. His hands dropped as he shouted "wow cool, fire! Just like a dragon."
The audience in the old chemistry lecture hall at University of British Columbia is not quite what you would expect it to be, as 30 kids between the ages of 3 and 5 have occupied the chairs in safe distance from the front. Before them stand two chemists (Susan Vickers and Angela Crane), showing them just how magical and exciting chemistry can be. After a brief discussion on whether it's true that everything is a chemical and if chocolate is a bad one or a good one, Susan and Angela went on to demonstrate the wonders of chemistry through a series of competitions. Angela would use traditional ways of drawing a star with a crayon, hammering a nail into a piece of wood, and popping a balloon, and Susan would try to perform the same tasks using chemistry.
Pre-drawing a star with invisible paint and then spraying the paper with a magic chemical made a star appear in front of the kids' eyes. A couple of them instantly thought of using the tricks for pirates and treasure maps.
The star was drawn using invisible paint, the nail was hammered using a super-frozen banana, and the balloon popped in a blaze of fire.
Susan Vickers runs the chemistry outreach program along with her partner in crime Angela Crane. The invite kids from pre-school through elementary school to come and see what chemistry is also all about.
If you have a nail but no hammer, super-freezing a banana in liquid nitrogen will quickly solve that problem.
The kids were impressed by the show to say the least. As were the accompanying teachers. Now, no scientists are made without them getting their hands wet, so the activities moved to a different room where the kids could do some chemistry of their own. The first task was making slime from glue and laundry detergent (a 4 percent Borax solution). As fun as this was, many were starting to get impatient about the ice-cream that they had been promised, and the show moved on. Instant ice-cream making in a huge cloud of smoke is pretty cool on its own but kids are not easily impressed, and many of them just wondered why it took so long (yes, taking it out of the freezer is even faster).
Angela had one more trick up her sleeve. Making a long blue balloon disappear into liquid nitrogen only to reappear as a perfect dog. That's the kind of chemistry-magic that will linger in the head of a 4-year old for a long time, and - if Susan has her way - will turn to curiosity and belief that chemistry and science is both fun, interesting and full of wonders.
This Christmas I went to Denmark to spend the Holidays with my family and friends. I caught up with a bunch of my old university friends, and now – in our mid-thirties – most seem to have found their career path. What struck me was that basically nobody was on the traditional tenure-track career path within academia that we were all trained for. That might seem like a triumph for the University of Copenhagen Biochemistry program that the students are able to embrace all sorts of careers, but reality is that most of us scrambled and improvised and taught ourselves whatever we needed, to get to where we are today.
Granted, we would be nowhere without the scientific training we received, but the skills it takes to make it outside academia are not taught in the science programs of most traditional universities.
Is lab work and lab-related activities the only thing graduate students in science need to learn?
We pretty much all did Masters and PhDs, and of all the people I studied with only one has made it into a tenure-track position. One started his own company (after extensive business and project management training in his own time), several became high-school teachers (after further training in pedagogy and biology or chemistry, since a PhD in biochemistry does not qualify one to teach biology and/or chemistry in a Danish high-school), one studied patent law on top of his PhD to become a patent advisor, and the list goes on and on. I am not saying that once a person has an education there is no need for further training ever, but I do think that after more than 8 years in university, it should be possible to get a job without having to immediately look for more education.
This picture is as true for Danish science academics as it is for Canadian. My involvement in the postdoctoral association at University of British Columbia
has given me the opportunity to connect with many different postdocs. A few are aiming at becoming tenure-tracked in academia and consequently put all their time and effort into bettering themselves at what they have been trained to do (lab work, research, publishing papers). Those few are however, far out-numbered by the many postdocs who are unsure of what to do next, feeling that they are just ‘parking lot’ed’ as postdocs until they can get together the experience (doing volunteer work and taking courses an workshops) to qualify for a non-academic job.
If the norm is no longer the tenure-track position, are we training our science PhD’s all wrong?
Should we be training students for the jobs that they will likely end up with, or should we train them for the traditional professor job that very few will get? The hardcore academics will argue that PhD degrees and postdoc positions were designed to train the traditional tenure-trackers, and that we should therefore continue to train them for what they were ‘meant’ to become. But, if reality no longer fits the program, is it not time to change our education to actually teach the students what they need to know for a successful career?
Richard Wiggers of the higher Education Quality Council of Ontario
recently encouraged (as printed in 24hrs Vancouver) that we “be more candid with the PhD students about their prospects”. Graduate students (in the life-sciences at least) are only trained according to the possibility of becoming tenure-track academics. Other options are not mentioned and not accounted for, and as a result, a ton of PhD graduates have no clue what to do when they graduate.
Training to become an academic professor can be compared to training for a spot in a symphony orchestra
Genegeek recently wrote a blog
comparing the training to become a scientist to that of becoming a professional classical musician. Very few musicians make it to the big symphony orchestra, but the training still focuses almost 100% on that possibility. I still think there’s a place for that specialized form of education training the very few to excel at something very specific. But it should be presented as exactly that: a specialized education for the few. Not as a general training program for all scientists.
As a side note I would argue that many traditional tenure-track scientists would benefit greatly from a bit of training in project management, technical writing and conflict resolution. I further argue that science in general – and the public understanding of science in particular – would benefit enormously from scientists having a bit more training in science communication (as I have exemplified in this article about knowledge translation as a powerful means to more funding).
As a very important start, I agree with Richard Wiggers that we need to be more candid with the students about their prospects. They need to know what reality looks like when they graduate, and they need to be given opportunities to prepare for that reality while in grad school. Some might decide that they don’t actually need a PhD degree to pursue a particular career or that they need to turn it in a different direction. Overall it will give the students a chance to educate themselves for the careers that they will likely end up with. As a result, they will be better at their jobs, they will start their careers sooner (as they don’t have to spend years after graduating figuring out what to do now and how to qualify for it) and they will likely be less frustrated in the process. As a side bonus, the young scientists, of which many have families with children, will have more time to spend on those families instead of hunting down workshops and courses and volunteer gigs while desperately networking themselves into the unknown space of non-academia.
In November I was lucky enough to get invited to a science communications weekend retreat in Whistler. It was organized by the Banff Science Communications Program
alumni, and thus held promise of great discussions and great people. I was not disappointed, although exhausted after 12 hours of non-stop discussions and workshops.Over the course of the 12 hours we brainstormed and workshopped themes like scientific tv-shows, pitching science stories to magazines,
how to make a good science video, the possibilities of being a freelance science writer in Vancouver, communicating science to scientists, and how to prioritize your time to reach your own career goals. All topics that are extremely relevant and interesting to any science communicator or scientist in general. However, what prompted me to write a blog post from that weekend, was the very last topic of the night.
After dinner and quite a few beers (including a highly recommended drinking game involving a toast every time the term science communication was used), David Ng
from University of British Columbia, urged us all to think about ways to engage an uninterested audience in science. At the end of the lengthy discussions, the overall points were to:
- Make the audience believe that science is cool
- Make the audience believe that science matters
- Teach science without the audience realizing it
- Get the audience to engage in science
Now, that all seems like great ideas, but how
is it actually done? Starting with #1, how does someone make an audience believe that science is really cool? Outside of academia (and maybe even limited to Faculty of Science), the general view of a scientist is usually either 1) an evil scientist working with some 007-worthy bad guys to eradicate the world in clever ways, or 2) a geeky absent-minded semi-crazy man seeing the world through equations and microscopes. Or, even worse, there is no general view of a scientist whatsoever! In a 2008 survey
(that I also wrote about here
) where Americans were asked to name a scientist role model, the top answers were teacher and astronaut (not single people and usually not scientists). The three actual people that did get mentioned were Albert Einstein, Al Gore and Bill Gates. Two of whom are not scientists and the third one is dead.
When asked about science role models, the three top names Americans could come up with were Albert Einstein (dead), Al Gore (not a scientist), and Bill Gates (not a scientist)
In fact, less than 4% of Americans could name a living scientist.
Thus not exactly a profession considered super cool and worthy of spending your time on.
Clearly, science is not considered cool, so how do we change that in the name of science communication? A recent attempt by the European Commission to make science appear cool and appealing to girls (Science, it's a girl thing
) failed miserably and was ridiculed and bashed from all sides (and rightfully so). Linking science to being girly girly was clearly not the answer. But then what is?
The - later withdrawn - EU campaign to make science cool amongst girls
The tv show The Big bang Theory
has certainly made scientists popular but not very cool. The scientists on the show live up to every crazy scientist stereotype out there (inability to speak to women, social awkwardness, compulsive behavior, hobbies revolving around video games and comic books, to name a few). It does however relatively successfully teach the viewers about science without the audience realizing it (David Ng's 3rd point on how to engage an uninterested audience in science). The main problem is that most of the science on the show - though accurate - is too fast and complicated for the general viewer to understand. So while the show is somewhat successful in fulfilling David Ng's point #3, it does so at the expense of making science cool (point #1).
The Big Bang Theory cast of four incredibly geeky scientists trying to live a "normal" life
Had I written this post a week ago, I would have been unable to come up with a name of a scientist who is cool in the eyes of the public (I can come up with many scientists that are cool according to me, but that's beside the point). However, last week I discovered that Henry Reich, who is the master behind the youtube videos MinutePhysics, actually has groupies.
Real groupies that want his autograph on their bras and follow him around.
He seems to have mastered the art of making science really cool! He is also making his audience believe that science matters by approaching it through everyday concepts (like walking in the rain), and teaching them while they think they are just watching a cartoon. Maybe linking science to art and video is one of the answers?
As amazing a feat as it is to make physics that understandable and popular, I am still not convinced that MInutePhysics should be the scaffold for all science communication to come though (partly because I can't draw).
So I looked further for ways of engaging the public in science according to David Ng's points, and came across the popular facebook page "I Fucking love Science"
. It posts funny quotes, images and jokes about science in case you hadn't come across it. It actually manages to portray science in a cool and funny tone, often teaching the audience a thing or two about science, and making them believe that it might actually matter. Someone took the time to make a cool image or joke about it, and it has millions of likes on facebook, so maybe it matters...?
The last step of science communication to the uninterested audience is to get people to engage in science. This is probably the trickiest of all, given our busy lives and constant bombardment of things we should be tending to. Nancy Baron has written a book called "The Escape from the Ivory Tower
" that addresses the issue of how to make your science matter. She states that the most effective science communication is the type that makes your audience want to take action for you. Maybe not because they understand every detail of your research, or because they think you are the coolest person on the planet. But because you make them care.
So; be cool, be interesting, be educational, but above all, be engaging!
Why the Impact Factor of scientific journals is deeply flawed.
The # 1 thing that scientists are judged by in academia is the impact factor of the journals they publish in. For those readers not in academia; the impact factor of a scientific journal, is a number that is based on the number of times that the articles in a certain journal are cited by other articles. Backtrack: Scientific knowledge is built little by little as the scientific community adds building blocks to the foundation laid out by previous scientists. We rely on a solid foundation and keep adding new blocks to the structure. In this way, we keep growing our knowledge as a community. We publish our work in scientific journals so that others can keep building on our work. So in every article there will be a list of references to the articles that make up the foundation of the work described in the new article. We cite each other’s articles to show that we understand and add on to previous work (and to a certain extend to please the egos out there, but I’ll let that pass for now). Usually, the more times an article is cited, the bigger an impact it has had on the scientific community and our common knowledge. Enter the impact factor.
On the surface this might seem like a good idea. A way of sorting through the thousands of scientific journals and making sure you only read – or publish in – the ones publish important stuff. However, the impact has some very significant statistical errors that in many ways make it more harmful than beneficial to the individual scientist and to the community. Every journal has an impact factor that is calculated by taking the number of times an article from that journal was cited in the literature in the previous two years, and dividing it by the number of articles published in that journal the previous two years.
- For example: A journal published 1000 papers in 2010 and 2011 combined. Those papers together were now cited 2000 times in total in 2012 and 2011.
The impact factor for that journal would be: 2000/1000=2.
In other words, the impact factor is an average.
It represents the average number of times an article in a given journal has been cited. This is where the trouble with the impact factor lies. An average is a very useful number, if the values that it is based on are scattered around it in a bell-shapes manner. However, the number of times articles from a given journal are cited by no means form a bell-shaped curve. They are scattered all over the place. Most articles will be cited 0, 1, or 2 times, and a few will be cited twenty times or a hundred times. And those few papers will pull up the average for all the others although they have nothing in common whatsoever (besides the journal they are published in). I do have some data to back up this claim, and as you can see in these figures below, there is no correlation between impact factor (x-axis) and number of citations (y-axis).
BMJ VOLUME 314 15 FEBRUARY 1997
So why are we all so obsessed with the impact factor? Well, as beautifully put by professor at UBC, Dr. Michael Blades
in a recent talk: "As long as there are people out there who judge our science by its wrapping rather than by its contents, we cannot afford to take any chances".
Journal editors are not stupid.
They know their journal is judged by its impact factor, so they will jump through all kinds of hoops to up their factor. Citing articles from your own journal is a common trick, and researchers know that. Many researchers will customize their reference list to the journal that they are trying to get published in. A slightly more advanced way of boosting your journal’s impact factor, is by publishing a review of the specific discipline of the journal at the end of the year, in which all the articles published in the journal are cited. In fact, every year in December the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy
publishes their “Recent advances in linear and nonlinear Raman spectroscopy“-review.
In 2011 this special edition cited 266 published in the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy in 2010 (plus 3 more from the 2008 and 2009). For a journal that size this significantly pumps up their impact factor, and they are in fact the #1 ranked journal in their research field (based on impact factor), which they proudly advertise on their website. Now, I am not trying to put down this particular journal, they are just playing the game. I am just questioning whether the game is helpful to the scientific community.
The impact factor has become the single defining number for a scientist’s career. When applying for a job as professor in any academic institution, the impact factor of the journals you have published in is the most important number in your application. Not the number of publications, how many patents you have generated, your engagement in the research community by science outreach, number of conference talks given, graduate students you have successfully supervised, research chairs you hold or even teaching ratings. None of these numbers are even close to being as important as the impact factor. And that is a problem!
Besides making no sense from a statistical standpoint, the impact factor has many other limitations. One of them being language barriers. An English language based journal is more likely to have a high impact factor, because more people can read it. However, some areas of research are very country-specific, and the actual impact of a paper in a non-English language is not reflected in the overall impact factor of the journal it is published in. As an example, I can mention a drug that is currently only approved for cancer treatment in China (I can’t mention the name however, for intellectual property rights reasons). Because it is only on label in China, most of the clinical trials are published in Chinese journals and are in Chinese. Since this particular drug is now being studied fairly extensively in North America, the Chinese clinical trials have had a high impact on the general research of this drug. However, their impact factor is very low, because they are published in Chinese journals which overall are not cited very often due to the language barrier.
Thus, the impact of the specific articles is really high, but the impact factor associated with them is really low.
Furthermore, the impact factor is based on total citations to a journal in a year, and does not distinguish between whether the cited articles are original research papers or reviews. The latter will usually get cited a lot more, and reviews are thus another way of boosting an impact factor, without it having any relevance to the other papers published in that journal. They just benefit from the increased impact factor, although the impact of the paper is neither increased nor decreased.
Recently, the Eigenfactor® Score was developed at University of Washington by Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom and is calculated by and freely accessible at eigenfactor.org
. The intend is to judge the total importance of a scientific journal by taking into account not only the number of citations but also the origin of the citations. The Eigenfactor score comes with its own set of limitations, e.g. it is greatly influenced by the size of a journal, but it is an attempt to overcome the many problems associated with the impact factor.
I could come up with a lot more examples of why the impact factor often gives a skewed view of the importance and impact of your work, but I will just end this rant with the words of Dr. Michael Blades
at a talk that he gave recently at UBC:
“If you use the impact factor to validate the importance of your work or to judge other researcher’s work, you are statistically illiterate”
Seeing the study on gender biases in science by Corinne A. Moss-Racusin
and her colleagues at Yale a couple of weeks back, and the internet commotion it brought with it, made me think a bit about my experiences as a woman in science over the past decade.
Briefly, the study
tested how science faculty (male and female) rated the application material from various students in terms of how hireable they were, their starting salary, competence, and the mentoring they would likely be given. The only variable in the study was that sometimes the applicants would be given a male name, sometimes a female name. And behold, the men were consistently rated as more hireable, needing a higher staring salary, being more competent and eligible for more career mentoring than the women.
It is a well-known secret that women scientists are paid less than their male peers; they publish less, are invited to speak at conferences less, and fail to reach the higher steps of the Academic ladder. We all know it (and by all, I mean all the female scientists), but nobody really talks about it. It is perceived as old-school feminism and whining, and will in all likelihood make life as a female scientist even harder. After all, it is a lot better now than it was 30 years ago, and some women do make it to the top, so quit complaining and get to work!
So, the women in science secretly organize themselves in networks like SCWIST
(Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology) and EPWS
(European Platform of Women Scientists) to encourage each other and provide a network where female scientists don’t have to compete with men. I am very grateful for the existence of these organizations and enjoy meeting strong female scientists struggling with similar issues to myself, but my male colleagues are completely oblivious to the fact that a) such organizations exist, and b) there is a need for them. Most men in science apparently think that gender bias was a thing of the 60’s and that we all enjoy glorious equality in this day and age. That is why I love this new study so much. It is published in a highly recognized scientific journal; PNAS
. It is coming from a highly recognized scientific institution; Yale
. It has a solid methodology with just one variable (gender), which is the hallmark of sound scientific studies, it has graphs and statistics and everything you need to convince a male scientist of its validity.
It is an objective proof of gender bias in science, but it is backed up by so many subjective stories of the women that are affected. I’d like to tell you one of my stories: In the very beginning of my career as a researcher I was told by a (male) mentor that he was a little unhappy with my performance, and that it was probably because I was an attractive female. In his experience attractive females tended to think that they had to work a little less hard than their less attractive counterparts (the attractiveness of men – or lack thereof - did not seem to be an issue that worried him too much). Shortly thereafter I proceeded to graduate with the work in question, getting the highest possible grades and honors for a project of its sort (awarded by an external panel). Needless to say I was stunned by his comments, but luckily confident enough not to take them to heart. That could have been a career ender at an early stage and would in that case have accounted for one of the many women in the statistics who get a science degree but never proceed to become a member of the science faculty.
This effect, women getting their scientific degrees to then leave research altogether, is called the leaky pipeline
, and it is meant to be rooted in various factors in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers. The so-called pipeline carries students from their undergraduate degrees, through graduate studies to postdoctoral contracts and research jobs within research faculties, and ends in life-long careers as professors in Academia. This pipeline leaks women like it’s going out of style. They bleed out all over the place, and several suggestions as to why have been offered in the past. In 2007 a naturejobs
article suggested family issues as one of the top reasons why women leak from the pipeline; an academic career usually really takes off exactly when most women need time off for maternity leave. This view is backed up and taken a step further in a 2009 article
based on a study from the Center for American Progress
investigating the leaks in the American pipeline. Not only are the female researchers expected to deal with distractions like childbirth and maternity leave just as they start their climb up the academic ladder, but the structure of Academia is such, that the minute you stop climbing, you are pushed to a side plateau, from which it is practically impossible to get back on the ladder. You are either stuck at the plateau or forced to jump off the ladder. Regardless, you will never move up again.
Courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net
These arguments are no doubt true and very valuable points, but as the new study from Yale shows, a strong and statistically relevant gender bias add to the problem. Not only do women have to juggle small children, busy careers and a relentless pressure to keep climbing, they have to do this having smaller chances of being hired, getting lower salaries and less mentoring than their male peers. It’s like biking uphill in the rain with a head wind pulling a trailer full of rocks. Luckily some women are up for the challenge and continue to succeed. Unfortunately, many bright women with brilliant ideas and great potential never make it to the end of the pipeline, but leak out somewhere along the way to find jobs where the uphill sections are mixed with straight and even downhill, and where there might even be time for the occasional bike ride with your family.
Science bloggers are in a prime position to rekindle the public appreciation and understanding of science
The concept of science communication has only really taken off in the last decade. Scientists take it upon them to communicate science to the world through channels other than the traditional peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals. As scientific research has been around for centuries, why do researchers all of a sudden find it imperative to write blogs, post youtube videos, and tweet about scientific findings? Obviously, this is partly due to the internet making information available at everyone’s fingertips, and social media platforms that can be accessed by the general public. However, it is also due to an increasing science void in the public space that many scientists find it pertinent to try to fill. A void that is continuously growing as CNN recently dumped their entire science reporting unit and newspapers alike constantly shrink their science coverage. I recently came across some interesting – although rather depressing - statistics in Lisa M. Dellwo’s blog
about the topic.
- Only 18 percent of Americans know a scientist
- Just 13 percent follow science and technology news
- 44 percent can’t name a scientific role model; those who can most frequently name Albert Einstein, Al Gore, and Bill Gates, two of whom are not scientists
- In every five hours of cable news, just one minute is devoted to science and technology
These statistics clearly show how little contact with science the average American has. Most people don’t know a scientist, they are not presented with science in the news, and many politicians depend on pseudoscience and emotional opinions as much as real science in their policy-making. In that context, it is not surprising that the public is confused when it comes to science, and turns to scientific role models who are actually not scientists. The general American is not exposed to any real scientists, so the closest thing to a role model is a famous person talking about a scientific topic (e.g. Al Gore). There is nothing wrong with role models talking about science (in fact it is a great way of raising a public debate). The problem lies in the conception of science per se as a debatable topic. One can debate how to interpret scientific results and all sorts of subjects concerning the research community, but the actual science is not formed by opinion, it is not a democratic process (as beautifully stated by Chris Mooney
). As long as this simple message is not understood by the public, pseudo-scientists and lobbyists with strong communicative skills have a hay day in the public debate. This is why evolution and climate change are still considered unproven theories by a large number of people, although all (all being >95%) scientists agree that they are both proven facts.
This misconception of science - and the continuous removal of science and technology from the public eye - is a very strong reason why so many scientists feel the need to blog and tweet about real research. But who is listening? It is an uphill battle to reach the ears and eyes of the general public. TV shows like “The Nature of Things with David Suzuki
” in Canada attempt (with great success) to make science relevant to the viewers, and while “The Nature of Things” is known to most Canadians, it still only reaches minimal ratings compared to reality shows like “Battle of the Blades”.
The next two obvious questions are contradictory, and we must answer the first one before considering the second.
1. Do we actually care if the general public understands science? Is it important for the average Jane and Joe to have a basic conception of what science is and how research is done?
The answer is YES! The general public needs to know about science. Because it helps us understand who we are and what we are doing on this planet, which is profoundly important on many levels of humanity. Because it tells us that we are abusing our planet beyond repair at the moment, and what the potential consequences of that might be. Because the general public in a democracy choose the leaders of the world, and those leaders need to act according to actual scientific knowledge and not according to lobbyists and pseudo-scientists. Because it gives us a basis of understanding and critical thinking from which most topics can be researched.
Once the importance of understanding science has been established, question # 2 can be addressed:
2. How can we possibly change the depressing statistics shown above and increase the science exposure to the general public?
Well, somehow the public has to be convinced that science is as fun and interesting as any reality show. Forcing the science and technology back in the news programs and newspapers might have some effect. However, as most TV stations are moving away from topics that take more than 10 seconds to explain, it seems like a battle that is already lost. Furthermore, as the next generation moves away from conventional TV and printed papers and towards online entertainment and news sources, the internet is probably a better bet for getting their attention. Science bloggers have a tremendous opportunity to catch this online generation. Because their blogs/videos/podcasts are online and available at any time, (almost) anywhere. Because they are knowledgeable, passionate and increasingly good at writing and communicating. Because blogging is a dialogue to a much higher extent than any other (mass) media. Skilled bloggers and tweeters presenting interesting ideas, results, debates and knowledge might be just the recipe to break down the ivory tower, and make science available in a format that is relevant to the next generation. It is not a one-way street of information as conventional news outlets usually are. Blogs leave room for comments, and most bloggers take the time to answer questions and address comments and new information or issues, and participate in serious debates.
A name that often comes up when talking science blogs is Dr. Redfield from University of British Columbia. She has blogged
for years about the research done in her lab – as it is happening in real time – to give the public a look into what research is. She was recently acknowledged as one of the most important personas in science, not so much for her research, but for her attempts to make it accessible and relevant to her community and the public. Others – like Ed Young
and Carl Zimmer
– has taken it upon them to inform the public about all sorts of scientific subjects in a clear, understandable and entertaining manner. They both have >20,000 followers on twitter and are increasing in popularity every day. Science bloggers have come to stay, and even if they are not filling the void left behind by closed science units at big television stations, they present a new and more accessible way of understanding science. At your own time, on your own terms, and as part of an evolving community of two-way communication.Anne Steino.
Knowledge translation can decrease the gap between research discoveries and better treatment.
According to the manager of Knowledge Translation at Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research
, Gayle Scarrow, the average time it takes for a new scientific discovery to make it into clinical practice is 17 years. Seventeen years! For a Canadian patient, this means that a new drug that could save lives and has already been discovered and proven to work, is still another 17 years from being offered to the public. Or that a new physiotherapy exercise proven to dramatically help reduce arthritis-risk in patients with knee injuries, will not be taught to those patients for another 17 years. This outrageous number caught my attention at a knowledge translation workshop in Vancouver last week. And while listening to the speakers talking about the relevance of good communication within the research community, I couldn’t stop thinking about this number: 17 years! Although clinical trials and proper approvals all take time (and money), 17 years seems way too long to wait for something already proven to be effective.
The lack of (or mis-) communication between scientist, healthcare professionals and politicians is largely responsible for this massive delay in getting things from the lab to the patients, and that is one of the reasons why knowledge translation is becoming such a buzz word.
So, what is knowledge translation? It has many definitions and explanations in the literature, but they all pretty much boil down to the same thing: Researchers need to communicate their research to the relevant audience in a relevant fashion
. If the audience is other researchers that would benefit from knowing this new piece of information, the traditional approach is to publish in peer-reviewed journals. The problem with that is that most fields of science require that you read 20-25 scientific papers per day to stay fully updated in your field. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen, so we need to come up with alternative ways of communicating our results to the relevant scientists. Another important audience in science is the healthcare professionals. Physicians tend to stick to the treatment they know and trust, and it takes a good deal of information to make them change their treatment regimen. If this information is not brought to them, they continue to practice what they have in the last 30 years. The physical therapist audience needs to be taught hands-on methods of how to implement new exercises or treatments, and the pharmaceutical industry need to know if a new drug or an unknown effect or side-effect to an old drug has been discovered. Finally, the politicians and the public need to understand and legislate around preventive measures regarding certain diseases, or of actions leading to climate change, to name a few examples.
The various types of audience need various types of communication, and that doesn’t mean “dumbing it down” as scientists frequently think it does. As so perfectly put by E. Paul Zehr
at the workshop in question: “Research communication is not about saying the same thing using different words – it is about using concepts that are familiar to your audience and presenting your message through those concepts
”. If you have made a discovery about how traveling in space can severely damage your sperm count if you don’t eat a high dose of liquid vitamin E every day (which I am not saying it can; it is just an imaginary example!), you need to get that information to NASA (and other similar organizations around the world), make sure someone produces liquid vitamin E in a formula that can be taken into space, and inform the astronauts that they might want to freeze some of their guys before boarding the space shuttle. If you write a peer-reviewed article in the journal of reproductive toxicology (which is closed access and thus wouldn’t be accessible to the hopeful astronauts and their families), it might take 17 years before the astronauts are told to take their vitamin E. On the other end of the scale is putting out a press release, with the risk of having a headline saying “astronauts must choose between children and the moon” and all astronauts under 40 pulling out of the programs around the world. So how do we communicate our message in an effective way that doesn’t warp the scientific content of it?
The speakers at this particular workshop kept repeating two things: “think out of the box”
and “find relevant collaborators”.
There are infinite ways of doing this and I encourage you to start looking for science communication in your daily life, but I will highlight an effort made by the Faculty of Medicine at University of British Columbia (not because I think this is a particularly fantastic way of promoting knowledge translation, but because I am part of the program and know the details of it). The medical students at UBC are taught their curriculum partially through something called Problem-Based Learning (PBL
). In short, PBL is based on case-studies through which the students are encouraged to dig up relevant information and figure out how to treat the patients in the cases. The chairs and tutors of PBL are a glorious mix of physicians and researchers from all sorts of life sciences. Every week they come together for a one hour discussion of the previous week. This is mainly aimed at making the material smoother and better for tutors and students, but a very neat side-effect is that of knowledge sharing. We could be evaluating a case about a child with leukemia living in rural BC, and there will be a cancer researcher, a pediatrician, a rural physician (on video-conference), and an expert in bleeding disorders in the room together. More times than none will discussions emerge about the validity of treating the patients in the case study in a certain way, and whether there is research supporting a different treatment. This is an incredible opportunity to get researchers together with physicians, and is just one of many ways of promoting the flow of knowledge between those who create the results and those who need to know about them.
Knowledge translation is not easy and demand effort, but you could argue that science without good communication is immaterial. Anne Steino.
The third ScienceOnlineVancouver
revolved around open access and was cleverly named naked science: excuse me your science is showing
. The four panelists (Heather Morrison, Heather Piwowar, Joy Kirchner, and Lesley Evans Ogden) started out each giving their spiel about why open access to scientific journals are important, and they all had very interesting and valuable insights and opinions on the matter. For readers unfamiliar with open access, it is a movement advocating free-of-charge unlimited access to peer-reviewed scientific journals online. The way it is right now, most scientific journals are owned by private publishing companies, and they require a payment if you want to read an article in one of their journals. This practice stems back from when the journals were printed on paper and each copy actually cost money to make, but nowadays, with everything being online, the argument is that extra copies come with no extra cost for the publisher. The open access movement has experienced a great push in later years. More and more open access publishers are popping up (PLoS
), and the institutional repositories
- where researchers archive their own research – gain popularity each year. As the panelists made clear, there are a lot of good reasons for wanting open access, and I will just list a couple of them here:
- If you participate in a study (e.g. about the connection between young girls' body image and their suicide rate), you do not have access to the published work. Neither do other young girls, their parents, teachers, librarians etc. Only scholars at universities with access or individuals who can pay the outrageous fees that are often charged, will have a chance to benefit from the research study. This is not beneficial to the public.
- Science journalists wanting to communicate science to the public have no access to the journals in which it is published. They are thus left with using the press release as their main source or attempting to get an interview with a busy scientist before their deadline. The latter is practically never possible, and a lot of science journalism is thus based on second hand sources and interpretations. This is not beneficial to the public.
- The high prices on journal access are forcing universities to carefully choose which journals they can afford to subscribe to, and which must be left out. That makes a great number of articles unavailable to the researchers, and thus disrupts the very basis of efficient science, building on all the work done in the past. This is not beneficial to the public.
- Scientists that are not able to use their own research when teaching their students, because they have signed away their copyrights when publishing in a scientific journal (not all journals require complete sign-off of copyrights, and contrary to common perception, it is actually possible to negotiate your publishing agreement when submitting a manuscript). This is not beneficial to the public.
These were some of the bigger problems associated with closed access that were outlined by the panel, and this is where I felt that a panelist advocating against open access (e.g. a publisher) to get some of the arguments from the other side of the table would have been appropriate. The ensuing group discussions partly made up for that, as the discussions on why complete open access is not a realistic possibility right now, included the following:
- Young researchers need publications in high impact journals to have a chance at a career in academia. Almost all high impact journals are still closed access, which forces young scientist away from the open access journals.
- Are we forgetting about the cost of running a big publishing company? Even though the journals are mostly online, and the peer-reviewers don’t get paid, there still has to be editors, administrators, web designers etc. Where will that money come from if all journals are free-of-charge?
There were vivid discussions about these topics and a couple of suggestions for solutions were put forward:
- Higher submission fees, especially for high impact journals (e.g. the new open access journal eLIFE expects to cover most of their costs through article processing fees paid by the authors).
- More advertisement.
- Save the cost of printing and switch to 100% online journals.
A brand new addition to the portfolio of open access journals is PeerJ
, who are trying to solve the challenges of covering their cost, by offering life-long subscriptions for $99 - $259. In addition to a “regular” open access journal, PeerJ
also features the innovative PeerJ PrePrint
publication. This new format permits scientists to publish unfinished work, and get peer comments and feedback before publishing the final paper. This is a bold attempt to solve some of the problems I addressed in my The wild west of science
blog, and (to my knowledge) the first one of its kind.
The open access movement has recently put forward a petition
asking the Obama administration to require publications resulting from research paid for by the US taxpayer to be freely available. If the petition reaches 25,000 signatures in 30 days it will land on Obama’s desk. It has already passed that mark, but if you want to support the open access movement, more signatures will only make the statement stronger. Research and science is moving towards more openness, and it is moving fast. The days where science was for scientists (and possibly a couple of dedicated science journalists) are over, and the general public and politicians are increasingly looking turning to the web for information by themselves.
If we don't make the first hand research available to the public, it will increasingly rely on second hand information and interpretations (press releases, blogs, twitter), and base decisions on that. In a time where the internet supplies us with endless amounts of information, it becomes harder and harder to determine the validity of any given piece of information. We have to figure out a way to keep the scientific journals alive and strong, while making sure that the true first hand objective science reaches the politicians, the public, and the research community. That is in the best interest of everybody, and that is what open access is about.Anne Steino.
Responsible Conduct of Research, just words to new students
I spent the last two days facilitating a course in Responsible Conduct of Research to graduate students at a major North American University. The course covered many aspects of potential ethical grey zones in biomedical research, and the guidelines
that all researchers need to interpret and abide by every day. My job as a facilitator was to guide small groups through discussions about certain situations in the grey zone, and how to deal with them. The students were all second year graduate students, and one would hope and imagine that they would still be idealistic budding scientists. Untainted by the political and strategical games that permeate the research community. To my surprise, the students were extremely cynical, very aware of "how to play the game" and get ahead. Over and over again they answered my questions with "I know this is probably the ethical thing to do, but in the real world, my supervisor would never allow this", or "doing the right thing wont get you on the good side of your supervisor or get your name on any publications". I was very surprised and saddened by this response, and spent the night thinking about why this might be. Slippery slope?
When I was a graduate student not that many years ago, I certainly had no idea of the strategic moves and sometimes dirty games that are played in the research community. I still believed that it was all about science, and that good science built on good ethics and responsible conduct of research would be enough to make a good name for oneself. It is, in many cases, and the majority of scientists out there are still honest and ethical, but unfortunately there is also a growing number of retracted papers
from journals (about half due to misconduct), increasing plagiarism
among students, significant numbers of scientists admitting to questionable research practices
, and just plain political games to get yourself ahead. But shouldn't we at least try to teach the next generation of scientists that this is not the right way to conduct research, and that the research community will not benefit from this in the long run? The course that I was facilitating is obviously an attempt to do just that. But if the students are taught the opposite by their supervisors and mentors every day, how much weight does a two-day course hold against that?
The bad apples
Are all supervisors really teaching their students how to play dirty? I hope not, and I believe not. But from listening to the students at this course, and from my experience talking to people with a relatively fresh PhD degree, there are definitely some bad apples amongst supervisors. They fall into several categories that all promote unethical conduct of research in some shape or form.
1) The pushy supervisor. Constantly pushing their students for good results, wanting to publish fast and publish often. I know many cases of students feeling forced to manipulate data or leave out control studies to satisfy a result-hungry professor. Now this might not be the intend of the professor, but if that is the perception of the students, they need to be taught otherwise. And the person responsible for teaching them is their professor.
2) The busy supervisor. Supervisors taking on students without having time to mentor them is also a common problem. I even know of cases where the supervisors are working in different countries, while their lab is being run by postdocs and senior graduate students. Students are left to fend for themselves, not learning how to make good decisions to reach solid scientific goals. The consequences of this range from misuse of resources, to students with stress and depression, to bad decisions leading to questionable or incorrect science.
3) The social supervisor. Now there is nothing wrong with having a close relationship with your professor, but there are too many cases of students feeling pushed to engage in a strategical game of "get in your professors good books". I recently heard a horror story of a female PhD student working in a lab full of males (including her professor). The professor liked to enjoy himself and sometimes took the lab for lunch at the local strip club. Here they would socialize, network and talk about their projects, upcoming conferences and anticipated publications. The girl felt extremely uncomfortable with this recurring lunch event, but felt that she would be left out and her project would suffer if she didn't attend. On a lighter scale, many labs do Friday beers, encouraging students to drink beer with their professor as a chance to socialize with him/her. I am big supporter of Friday beers in general, but it has to be reiterated that they are a strictly social event and that participating will not affect your project in any way. In many cases however, they are not merely social events. Beer session and strip club lunches are examples of events where you can get your supervisor to like you, and unfortunately that often influences the professor's willingness to teach you how to give a good conference talk or ask you to help write a grant application or let you assist in the peer reviewing of a manuscript for a journal. All very valuable skills that will help a young scientist in their further carrier, but they cannot be based on who socializes the most with their supervisor, which I hear is often the case.
A possible solution
If the students are indeed learning to conduct irresponsible research on whatever level, this needs to be addressed immediately, or it will negatively impact the whole research community and scientific progress. The professors and mentors are the immediate role models for graduate students, and it is an obvious part of the supervisor role. But one that, I fear, is often neglected. As the students are extremely dependent on a good reference letter from their professors, they are often too afraid to confront or report them upon feeling mistreated. I thought long and hard about this, and I came up with an idea that might push things in the right direction. If all students were obligated to evaluate their supervisor upon finishing their graduate studies, the bad apples amongst the supervisors would have to shape up. It wouldn't change things for the students already doing their Masters and PhDs, but it would force professors to take their mentoring roles a bit more seriously - long term. I am not suggesting a "rate my professors
" - like website, accessible to everyone online, but instead a very serious and thorough evaluation of your professor (including his/her mentoring efforts in terms of responsible conduct of research) kept confidential to protect the students as well as the professors. However, to make sure the students could be challenged on their potential accusations, the evaluations couldn't be completely anonymous, but the identity of the student should only be known by the university administration, and not the supervisors themselves or their colleagues. The professor need only be told about their evaluations if he/she has an alarming number of bad evaluations (or one exceptionally bad one), and should be given the opportunity to improve on the criticized areas of their mentoring. If they continue to receive unacceptable evaluations, the repercussions for the professors could be to have the opportunity for graduate students taken away from them. This would be very serious to many professors, and might provide enough incentive for some of the not-so-great supervisors to get their act together and own up to their responsibility of educating the next generation of great researchers.
I have a friend and colleague who decided to ride in the BC Ride to Conquer Cancer (AKA The Ride
) this year. For those of you who don't know the BC Ride to Conquer Cancer, it is a yearly event, where anyone can sign up for a two-day bike-race from Vancouver to Seattle, provided they can raise $2,500 for cancer research. The money goes to BC Cancer Foundation, which is the fundraising arm of BC Cancer Agency. The Ride
is a really strong brand in British Columbia, and no one ever questions the good in raising money for cancer research. As well as everyone else, I am (although sadly, as the research for this post progressed, the am
is slowly turning into a was
) a big fan of The Ride
, but this year something prompted me to look a little deeper. The main sponsor for The Ride this year turned out to be Enbridge, and the ride is concurrently called Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer. Enbridge is an oil company working to develop the Canadian Tar Sands and transport the crude oil through a 1,177 km long pipeline
from the Tar Sands in Alberta to the port in Kitimat, British Columbia (and a toxic kerosene-like product to dilute the crude oil in the opposite direction). This proposed pipeline would run through the pristine and untouched Rocky Mountains, through the Great Bear Rainforest, cross two major watersheds, numerous First Nations territories and exit at the Douglas Channel, into some of the roughest waters in the world. Here, super tankers as long as the Empire state building would navigate two 90 degree turns with the help of tug boats, around treacherous rocks and into waters with waves frequently reaching 20m. Since 1972, three independent studies issued by the government have concluded that the waters around the Douglas channel are too rough for tanker traffic, and that the risk of a spill is concurrently too high. Nonetheless, Enbridge - with the Canadian government backing them - is proposing a high traffic super tanker route carrying crude oil though these waters. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to acknowledge the environmental and ethical problems that arise from this proposal. With over 700 oil spills by Enbridge in the last decade, it is pretty clear that the general health and well being of British Columbians is not a very high priority to Enbridge. Before giving money to my cycling friend, I asked myself if I could live with raising money for cancer research, knowing that I was helping Enbridge whitewash a possibly detrimental blow to the Health of my fellow British Columbians up north. What moral standards do we need to hold our sponsors to, before uncritically putting their name on an event or a project? I wrote an email to The Ride asking them for an explanation of why they would smudge their good brand with a company like Enbridge. How can we raise money for cancer research at the expense of the health of thousands of people in northern British Columbia and Alberta? It doesn't make any sense!
They kindly responded that Enbridge through their financial support to The Ride
had shown great commitment to cancer research. Basically, money is king, and we don't care about what they do on the side. My next question was obvious: "would you have accepted a tobacco company, had they given you enough money?". I got no answer to that email, and thus started digging for answers myself.
It turns out that the BC cancer foundation have rules that prevent them from accepting money from a cancer-causing organization (like a tobacco company). According to their own rules, an organization producing cancer-causing agents cannot sponsor The Ride
! Hmmm.... Is Enbridge not causing cancer through the Tar Sands development in Alberta ? An environmental report
done by Environment Canada clearly states that they are! The waters around the Tar Sands are being polluted with hydrocarbons and heavy metals. These waters are supporting and feeding First Nations in Alberta, and studies are starting emerge from the region showing fish with tumors and deformities
and increased cancer rates in the First Nations in the area. It is thus fairly clear to me that Enbridge are producing cancer-causing agents and directly causing cancer. When confronted with this (by Damien Gillis), the BC Cancer Foundation claimed
that it had not been proven that the pollutants in the Athabasca River by the Tar Sands are carcinogenic (=cancer causing). But if you take a look at the WHO lists
of carcinogens, you find that the petroleum-based pollutants (mainly benzene) used for extracting and diluting the crude oil and found in the Athabasca waters most certainly are on those lists. So, it turns out, that Enbridge is actually an ineligible - as well as completely unethical - sponsor for this event.
I decided not to support my friend in her quest to raise money for The Ride
. So did quite a few of my colleagues and friends, and even more have started raising questions about The Ride
in general. A previously bullet-proof brand that nobody questioned is starting to crumble... at least among cancer researchers at University of British Columbia. And that should tell you something about an event raising money for cancer research in British Columbia. Anne Steino.