I am exhausted and shaking and just want to lie down on my back, close my eyes and let soothing music roll over me like a warm soft wave. Completely ignoring my telepathic transfer of the word Shavasana (resting pose), my teacher tells us to stand on our heads. I fight the urge to just collapse and sneak a preview to Shavasana, and seek refuge in my teachers calming voice. He starts explaining how standing on my head stimulates my thyroid gland, which is crucial to strengthening my immune system. My fatigue quickly dissipates as my head takes on new and darker shade of red, matching the irritation rising inside me. A quick internal scan of my anatomy knowledge tells me that the thyroid gland controls our metabolism and is not really that involved in the immune system. What is he talking about? A few uncomfortable moments later, I realize that he probably meant to say thymus; a specialized organ of the immune system. Harmless mistake, you might argue, but if he doesn't know the difference between a thyroid gland and a thymus organ, what does that say about his claim regarding strengthening my immune system? On top of that, I am not really convinced that I want my immune system to be stronger than it already is, but that's a different blog post. I come out of my headstand and lie down on my back, ready for Shavasana. I close my eyes but can no longer find peace and the music is more irritating than soothing. What happened to the zen I was feeling a minute ago?
After my yoga class, I went home and checked the scientific literature for studies showing a connection between inverting your body and the thymus, but couldn't find a single one. Surprise! He made it up, or picked it up from someone else who made it up, or picked it up from someone else who made it up. You get my point.
As a scientist and a person who practices yoga on a regular basis, I often find these two passions of mine conflicting, and I have been close to giving up yoga on multiple occasions because of bogus claims made by my teachers, ripping my out of my zen and infuriating me. Why can't I just ignore these harmless claims? Why do I let it get to me? One could argue that there is no harm done, as there are very few risks associated with yoga. But I beg to differ. Whenever false scientific claims are made, they are picked up and repeated and they grow and they turn into myths that are really hard to get rid of and can be potentially harmful.
I'll give you an example. I was in a yoga workshop focusing on anatomy, hoping to understand where some of the many physiological claims I heard in class were coming from. Among a lot of other BS, our teacher claimed that our fascia (a thin sheath of fibrous tissue enclosing a muscle or other organ) slowly dries out like a dry sponge in a kitchen. Once dry, it is very hard to get it wet again, just like the dried-up kitchen sponge. Therefore, if we were experiencing difficulties in absorbing the water we drink, it might be because of our dry fascia (Because it's not normal to pee out excess water???). A girl in class held up her hand, looking very concerned. She drank over five liters of water (yes 5!) every day, but still felt thirsty, she explained. The teacher asked if she had trouble holding her pee for more than an hour, to which she answered yes (no wonder, if your drinking like fish all day!). She was told that she might have dry fascia and should practice more yoga and maybe take some herbal supplements. I exploded in a "you should go to the doctor and get checked for diabetes," but my comment was largely disregarded. I don't know what happened to the girl, but I do think that this is one of those times where false scientific claims that seem harmless at first, can turn into life-threatening situations.
I love yoga. It works wonders for me, mentally and physically. There is absolutely no need to lie when it comes to the benefits of yoga. Some are very obvious, like increased flexibility, peace of mind, reduced stress, and many have actually been proven in scientific trials. Going through the scientific literature on yoga is a big undertaking, and the studies wary greatly in design and credibility. I chose to focus on the meta-analyses, a statistical method that combines the results from many studies, usually making the conclusions stronger and more tenable. In the picture above are some of the proven benefits of yoga, tested in multiple studies and found to be true, or - in the case of relieving schizophrenia symptoms - not to be true.
I feel great after yoga, and I have no doubt it is good for me, but I wish my teachers would stop making false claims about the advantages of yoga. Or at the very least, mention that their claims are founded in personal belief and have not been solidified or proven in any way.
The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS
) recently released the results of their 2013 survey (the full report can be found here
and an executive summary here
). The survey received responses from 1,830 postdocs across Canada, which amounts to about 20% of all Canadian postdocs.
The premises for the survey were to
- Present demographic data about the Canadian postdoctoral population
- Identify the primary concerns for postdocs and compare their concerns to the ones identified in a similar survey from 2009
The demographic data shows that the average Canadian postdoc is 34 years old and equally male (53%) or female (47%). More than 2 out of 3 (69%) are in a serious relationship, and 35% have dependent children. Over 50% of Canadian postdocs are not originally from Canada (i.e. on work visas or landed immigrants).
From the CAPS 2013 survey report
The postdocs in the survey were mainly from the
Life Sciences (46%), Physical Sciences/Engineering (32%), Social Sciences/ Humanities (14%), and Interdisciplinary (8%). My time as a Canadian postdocs fits perfectly with these demographics (when I started I was 34 year old, common-law with a child, permanent resident arrived from Denmark and working in the life sciences), and I thus dare call myself an average Canadian postdoctoral fellow. As such, I was not surprised to identify with every single key point raised in the report, and I have discussed several of them in previous blogs like this one on low compensation and benefits, and this one on being called a trainee after 8 years of university.
Salary and benefits
While Canadian postdocs are generally satisfied with their research environments (which speaks highly of the present quality of Canadian research organizations), they are dissatisfied with their low salaries (which raises concerns for the future quality of Canadian research organizations). Around two-thirds of Canadian postdocs (63%) make less than $45,000 per year. Before taxes. The standard salary from the three major funding agencies in Canada (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) is only $40,000. A number that hasn't gone up by a single dollar in many years (see here
for NSERC awards since 2008), and most postdocs have thus received de facto pay-cuts over the last many years due to inflation. As one survey respondent writes:
Coming to Canada for a postdoctoral ‘training’ is a financial disaster in every way.
On top of this comes the lack of benefits. Most Canadian postdocs do not receive general benefits like parental leave or extended health care. Even the few organizations that do provide benefits (like University of British Columbia), still don't offer a pension plan to their postdocs. Since the survey also shows that half of all postdocs spend 3 or more years in a postdoc position, many thus spend a significant percentage of their career without benefits or pension.
I don't think that it is fair to expect someone to go through an extended period of education, and then 3-5+ years of temporary, low paid employment as a ‘trainee’ with no benefits, probably in several different locations before they can even start to apply for permanent employment. The uncertainty is incredibly difficult, especially at a time when people are trying to maintain long term relationships and start families.
The classification grey-zone
Part of the problem lies in the classification of postdocs as something of a grey zone between student and employee, cleverly called a trainee. A whooping majority of over 75% of postdocs would prefer to be classified as employees with the taxes, employment insurance, extended health, pension plans and lack of student-discounts and everything else that comes with being an adult (who went to school for more than 20 years to become über qualified). However, only about one-third of them are employees (a big chunk of those only became employees after a law-suit against UofT
in 2012). The rest are trainees, students, contractors and others. Most of the postdocs classified as students or trainees also felt rather insulted by this classification in light of their level of expertise and education. This might seem like an easy-to-fix problem, but as always, there is money at the root of it. Most large organizations in Canada have an obligation to provide benefits and pension plans to their employees, while they have no such obligations to their students and trainees. Classifying postdocs as something other than employees thus save the research organization a lot of money. Especially since the Tri-Council funding agencies (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) do not include such expenses in their awards, and the extra money therefore has to come out of the university/hospital/etc.'s pocket. Or out of the postdoc's salary, which is also sometimes the case.
Career prospects and qualifications
The vast majority of postdocs (81%) have a faculty position as their ultimate career goal, and state that their postdoc position is a stepping stone towards that goal. Unfortunately, reality shows that, if Canada resembles the US, less than a quarter of postdocs will actually achieve that goal, according to the US national science board
That obviously means that two-thirds of postdocs will end up working in non-faculty positions as something else, as I previously wrote about in my post "alternative careers are the new norm in science
". There is nothing wrong with that per se
, except that most postdocs dont really have the qualifications for a non-faculty position. They have qualifications for academic jobs coming out of their ying yang, but for the industry, government, management....not so much (apart from the translatable qualifications of researching, applying for money and such). PhD's and postdocs are trained to become faculty, and many find themselves lost and confused when that doesn't happen. The "academic tunnel vision" permeates the entire system and it leaves no room for preparation for a non-academic career. 87% state that they have no access to career counseling or are unsure if they have access (at UBC for instance, the postdocs are the only group who does not have access to such, as students have their own career counselor program to which postdocs do not have access, and staff and faculty have another career counseling program, again closed to psotdocs). You could make a good argument that postdocs need career counseling more than anyone (except maybe grad students).
I am constantly stressed that I won't be able to get a job as a university professor, but I really don't have a satisfactory ‘plan B’ if this doesn't work out.
When asked if they had received any exposure to non-academic career opportunities as postdocs, half reported no exposure at all, and less than one in ten (7.7%) reported that they had a lot of exposure. That leaves a lot of postdocs with no training or exposure to the non-academic career path in which they will eventually wind up.
From the CAPS 2013 survey report
CAPS finishes off its report with two major concerns that are in urgent need of attention. I will just copy-paste them into this blog, and hope that the stakeholders of Canadian research communities will read them and take action
"First, many postdocs are unhappy with their administrative or employment status and with the corresponding salary and benefits. Postdocs would like to be treated as employees, and to receive benefits and compensation commensurate with their work and experience.
Second, respondents are very concerned that, after investing years as postdocs, their career opportunities remain uncertain. Successful transitions from postdoctoral scholarship to independent careers are in Canada's interests as well as those of Canadian postdocs. Canadian postdoctoral appointments should be supported with appropriate and relevant career development opportunities."
So have the concerns changed since 2009 (see the 2009 report here
)? The percentage of postdocs with student or trainee status has gone down from 38% to 36%, which is hardly significant. In 2009, 79% reported a salary of $45,000 or less. That number was 63% for salaries less than $45,000 in 2013. That might represent an improvement.
However, in light of Tri-Council not changing their awards at all, it is probably more likely to reflects a change in the survey set-up from 2009 to 2013: the significant number of postdocs receiving exactly $45,000 would have been included in the 79% earning $45,000 or less in 2009, but not in the 63% earning less than $45,000 in 2013. I suspect this accounts for most of the difference, if not all. Adding inflation rates to the picture, postdocs overall might have even taken pay-cuts since 2009.The conclusions to the 2009 report are very similar to the ones from 2013, and there seems to be a lot of work ahead for the Canadian research communities, if they want to continue attracting the high-quality researchers they currently enjoy.
First episode: Family #1 consists of a mom a dad and their 16 year old daughter. The daughter suffers from a newly discovered chronic condition that doesn't affect her life expectancy but greatly decreases her quality of life. She is in constant pain and can only go to school or work for 3 hours a day, and she spends most of the day in bed. Her pain is treated with various pain killers and she takes sleep medication every night. There is a very expensive life-long treatment available for her, which would not cure her, but alleviate the pain and give her an opportunity to lead an almost normal life. Family #2 consists of three young children, a stay-at-home mom and a dad who manages a car-dealership. The dad was recently diagnosed with a condition for which the available treatment is not very effective. He will probably only live another 5-10 years, and in those years he will gradually become more and more sick and eventually bedridden. The viewers of the reality TV show are presented with both cases, the treatment recommendations from various doctors and friends and relatives of the families. The families are then given a 3-minute opportunity to plea with the viewers to chose their family for covered medical treatment over the other.
This scenario is thankfully still pure imagination. But after getting a small peak in behind the healthcare decision-making curtain last week, I can't help but wonder if there is more truth to this image, than I would like to think...
Last week I attended a workshop discussing personalized medicine and health economics in British Columbia (BC). The participants were a mix of researchers, policy makers and industry, and the four speakers each gave their perspective on how BC will tackle the ever increasing cost of healthcare and the need for new treatments, including personalized medicine.
While listening to the four speakers at the workshop and their very valid arguments for why we can't afford to treat everyone, a strange and very uncomfortable feeling snuck up on me. Images of reality TV shows, where the viewers get to chose between two patients, deciding who gets treatment and who doesn't, started flashing in front of my eyes (somewhat due to the catastrophic lack of coffee at the conference, making way for lots of half-awake/half-asleep pictures and ideas in the late afternoon). One of the speakers presented a beautiful graph showing the cost and "value" of a certain treatment combined with the available healthcare budget in BC. The graph displayed how any given treatment needs to live up to a certain threshold of Value/Cost ratio, to be considered for coverage in the BC healthcare plan. If it lives up to that Value/Cost ratio, it is moved to the side of the graph that is within the budget, but it will inevitably push out other treatments that we no longer have money for. Logical but unpleasant! In this day and age there are so many treatments available for so many conditions that we have the luxury - or curse, if you will - of choosing who gets to be treated and who doesn't.
The graph on the left shows how the Value/Cost ratio for treatment 1-7 is deemed high enough to qualify for healthcare coverage. While treatment 8-10 does not qualify. The red bar represents a new treatment considered for qualification. The graph on the right shows how the new treatment (red bar) had a Value/Cost ratio that just qualified for healthcare coverage. But in the process it pushed out treatment 7, which is now no loner covered. These graphs are my own remakes of the one shown at the workshop.
This discussion of Value/Cost ratios obviously led to the question of how "value" is determined. Is it how many years it adds to the average life expectancy, or is it determined by increasing quality of life, productivity (value for society) or something else? And that is obviously down to a judgement call from the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH
) and the decision makers in BC. The speaker was jokingly saying that "any treatment will usually add to either the quality of your life or the length of your life, or both. And if it does neither it is probably chemo."
He is probably right, but how do you decide on behalf of someone else if quality or length is more important?
Several of the speakers pointed out that Canadians define themselves by their healthcare system. They are very proud of the general idea that healthcare is for everyone and everyone is covered. But will that continue to be the case, as the cost of healthcare increases and the number of treatments keep going up? Is a reality show like the one I described in the beginning of this post as outrageous as it initially seemed?
After 10 years of public school, 3 years of high school, and 10 years of university, I did not think that the prospect of two more weeks of education would make me as excited and giddy as a little school girl. The cause of the excitement is the acceptance into the science communications program at The Banff Centre
this summer. Awesome science communicators in my circles talk of this program as something of a promised land, and never actually believed that I would go there myself. I mean, the chair of the program is Jay Ingram! And it's in Banff in The Rockie Mountains (which is pretty much the promised land for a Danish flat-lander turned Vancouverite like me).
Valley of the Ten Peaks and Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Canada. Picture taken by Gorgo.
So, I quietly applied back in early spring. More to say that I tried than because I thought I would be going there. Getting into the program seemed the smallest (yet massive) hurdle. Then there was raising enough money to be able to go (cause it aint cheap), finding someone to take care of my son for the 2 weeks, getting time off work etc. etc. It just seemed impossible. And yet here I am, syllabus in hand, glaring at the endless number of amazing communicators who will be throwing golden nuggets at me this summer. So I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the people who made this possible. The Banff Centre for accepting me and providing me with some financial aid, the Canadian Science Writers' Association for their scholarship award, my parents for flying out from Denmark to help with my son in Vancouver, my husband for agreeing that leaving him with our kid for the two absolute busiest weeks of his work-year was a good idea, and my work for giving me time off and financial support. I am very very grateful!
I bet a lot of you are thinking that I am going a bit overboard here and I probably am. But this is a big deal to me. This a chance to completely submerge myself in something that I love and to be guided in that submersion by some of the most awesome science communicators around. Chances like that don't come very often. Especially when you have small kids to mold your plans around.
I will do my best to keep this site updated on the program progress and use it as a lab for the creative and crazy ideas and projects that will hopefully start crystallizing as the program starts rolling.
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 and 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 post
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 exclusively 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'd 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.