Saturday, October 25, 2014

Crowdsourcing science

When I first heard about this project, I thought it can't be real: it just sounded too good. But it seems to be happening in reality: people are crowd-funding small research projects for postdocs and graduate students:

I am not sure how scaleable this model is (it could benefit from some reddit-style crowd-filtering for example), but at least it looks nice, and seems to be working!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On doing science in small schools

I attended a whole bunch of workshops recently, all designed to orient new faculty in their new life in the college, and to explain the path to tenure. So because of that I was thinking about my scientific research a lot. And I guess by now I can come up with at least two maxims.

1. Ideal research projects to pursue would be those immediately below the perceived funding threshold.

Rationale: the more fundable the project is, the more interesting and publishable the data will be. Yet if I try to do something that people from major research universities can get money for, I'll be tramped down because my productivity is a tiny fraction of their productivity. Even if I fully and successfully integrate undergraduates in my research, my total productivity is expected to be at about 0.5-1 of a good postdoc in a good lab: between 1 and 0.5 papers a year. I can't afford to compete with universities. Yet to stay cool and publishable I shouldn't shortchange myself by doing something boring and irrelevant. The goal therefore is to stay just below the threshold for fundable projects.

2. In terms of grant applications, I should only consider grants that are either very large, or very small. 

Rationale: it is possible, at least in theory, to get several people in the department interested in pursuing some large grant (perhaps something that combines cool science with outreach and teaching methodology), and then to go for it together. This could work. Or, on the other hand, tiny grants that fund student research projects, or my summer research, would work as well. Anything in between though would require too much restructuring of my teaching load, of lab space, of job descriptions for people around me, and so on. Getting money for a postdoc for a year may sound like a nice thing, but it would necessitate enough additional workload to make the collateral damage not worth it. Maybe tenured people can afford it. But it looks like for an untenured faculty it should be either participation in really large strategic things, or getting really tiny bits and pieces, and probably nothing in between.

Or at least such is my impression so far =)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Time to restart the blogging

There are several reasons to blog. One is that I have recently started a new job as a college professor (yay!!!), which supposedly should provide me with a never-ending stream of new exciting things to say to the world. I am still to figure out how to blog about them though. All I can think about these days is teaching: methodology, practice, syllabi, activities, homeworks, etc. etc. But in my head all these questions are very much linked to those 2 particular courses I'm teaching now, and I can't blog about courses themselves, you see, as it would not be professional. So I now need to develop some "translation mechanisms", to generalize and anonymize whatever thoughts I have, to make them suitable for broadcasting. It will take some time probably, but I'd better start now.

Another reason to blog is that students started googling me up, and so I need to keep my sites updated. That's a downside of blogging under a real name: in a situation like that you can't just stop blogging, as people will continue googling you anyway. And then they would read your opinions from some 3 or 5 years ago: opinions you don't necessarily endorse anymore. So the only way to ensure that your internet presence doesn't embarrass you too much is to update it regularly.

Finally, I start to feel somewhat scientifically-lonely. For the first time in years I have people around with whom I can discuss botany, ornithology and physics, but I now have almost nobody to discuss ion channels and neural networks with. It's not quite likely that blogging would necessarily help with this issue directly, yet it wold be nice to feel a part of some virtual academic community that extends beyond the limits of the campus.

We'll see how it goes!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mass shootings: try not to read about them

You know this interesting term that people use sometimes to describe legal persecution of cannabis: victimless crimes, they call it? From this point of view, mass murders lie on the exactly opposite end of the spectrum: they are, in most cases, criminalless. Because usually the perpetrator dies in the process, either because they are shot by police, or because they commit suicide. But in any case, they usually die by choice, as their own death is a part of the plan.

And my feeling is that this strange feature of mass murders and shooting sprees contributes to the discomfort, almost panic that the public feels about them. Because now a judicial system that is based on concepts of punishment and isolation suddenly finds itself totally helpless in the face of these crimes, as they kind of have an embedded "capital punishment" as their constituent part. When there's nobody to blame, nobody to pay retribution to; nobody to put on trial, nobody to put in prison, what do you even do?

Suddenly the only thing you can possibly do is to try to prevent new, similar tragedies from happening. But working on prevention is uncomfortable. It requires too much effort, and also this effort is totally counter-intuitive (more about it later). We want a quick solution, we want to blame somebody: the schools, the parents, the doctors. Or guns laws, maybe. But the trick is: none of this blame works. None of it.

Availability of mental health care is very important, but no mental health system, even the most involuntary draconian one, will ever be able to prevent mass shootings from happening. A good affordable psychiatric care will surely improve things to some extent, especially for those mass murderers who are not psychopaths (the guy who shot people in the University of Texas in 1966, for example, had a tumor in his brain, and has even sought medical help voluntarily at some point, but never got enough of it). Good mental care will help, but there is no test, either psychological or neurological, that would tell you if somebody is a future murderer, or whether they are just strange. This just doesn't work! And therefore, while psychiatric care is important, it can never guarantee that "future shooters" will be identified preemptively. Don't blame it on the medical system.

A side note here: not only psychiatrists will never be able to tell you if your neighbor will ever turn into a murderer or not, but it's probably not even a good idea to link mental health to mass murders for purely political reasons. I mean, shooting sprees may seem like a good opportunity to improve psychiatric medical system, but actually it's not, and for two different reasons. One: as discussed, on its own medical system can't prevent new shootings from happening, which means that sooner or later you would be asked to answer for your promises, and you won't be able to give a good answer. Another, more important, is that linking asocial behaviors to mental health issues stigmatizes mental disorders in a really weird and dangerous way. You may remember how after the Sandy Hook tragedy the rumor have spread that the criminal might have been autistic. The results of this rumor were that some people with autistic kids found themselves in all sort of subtle trouble, just because in the public subconsciousness autism was suddenly linked to violence (a notion that, of course, has no psychiatric basis whatsoever). You don't want kids with autism being abandoned or stigmatized by the society, and you definitely don't want people with schizophrenia to be harmed just because they have a diagnosis, so we'd better not perpetuate the myth that the problem of mass shootings is solely a mental health problem.

Similarly, it doesn't help if we blame it on parents, or on schools. All these zero tolerance policies, armed security officers, and prison-like bullet-proof doors just make school kids miserable. They won't be able to prevent anything, because there will always be a workaround for a truly dedicated psychopath. They only complicate things for the majority of population, creating a sense of fear, and making everybody's lives harder and sadder. Now not only several people have died, but also millions live in constant fear and distress. It doesn't help anything at all.

Same is actually true for gun laws: while reducing guns availability could help, the only truly effective way to do it would be to ban automatic firearms altogether, and this is not going to happen. All other measures are likely to be either futile (as there will be workarounds), or outright dangerous. For example, it totally would not help if you disqualify people with a history of mental illness from ever owning guns, because in a society where guns are valued it will only cause people with mental problems to hide these problems from doctors. And it is not a good outcome! As soon as having hallucinations would mean a ban on hunting and range shooting, people would stop reporting hallucinations to mental health professionals. Which is really not a situation you want to have on your hands.

What could help? Well, one obvious thing would help immensely, and that is: we should stop reporting details of mass shootings, and we should stop popular investigations of the "hidden motives" of those criminals that committed these crimes. For years by now it is known that public attention, even if posthumous, is exactly what these people seek. They want their blog posts to be read and cited, their youtube channels to be linked to, and their names to be immortalized on Wikipedia. That's their goal! They want their pathetic worthless "manifestos" to make you shiver, and they know that they will never achieve it without cheating, so they go and kill somebody. As, unfortunately, this works. That's the kind of sick social reinforcement they are looking for. And because of that, every news article that mentions a name of a shooter, and then goes deep into their troubled childhood; every news report that shows their face on the screen, all become a part of a "success story" for those violent sociopathic people. Every web link to the online diary of a shooter makes this world a worse place, as it makes it more probable that murders like that would be repeated. Covering this tragedies with attention on the murderer, reposting and linking these news stories, makes us share in the crime: not the one that was just committed, but the one that is now to come.

When you Google for "Sandy Hook", and the first thing you see is the face of the murderer, do you know how it is called? Freaking shame. Irresponsibility. Free advertisement.

Let us start from ourselves. Let's forget the names of those guys. Stop watching the news, don't google the stories. There are some psychiatrists, criminologists, and other professionals out there, who need to know the details, but you and me, we don't need to know them! It's not gonna help us, or anybody, in any conceivable way. People are weak and weird, and we feel somehow more alive when we read about a mother who killed her baby, or a boy who shoot his teacher. But it's a bad thing to do. By seeking these kind of news we are creating the market, and thus are encouraging news outlets to cover these stories in all the useless senseless detail they can manage. Which perpetuates the cycle.

That's about all that I have to say on this subject.

Monday, April 14, 2014

About STEM Crysis

One of the bests ways for me to get really angry is to read something about how STEM education is bad, and how "STEM crisis is a myth". Something like this thread on Reddit:

The STEM Crisis Is a Myth

People write long passionate posts there, and all of them seem to agree that "STEM is bad", "Liberal arts education is bad", and "There's no STEM crisis". A lot of this rhetoric also eventually boils down to the protectionist sentiment about "closing the borders", because, allegedly, the whole "STEM crisis" theme is just a lobbying plot to bring more skilled immigrants from China and India to the US. And to lower the wages for honest hard-working Americans. Right!

I guess it is so annoying precisely because it happens on Reddit, where traditionally people like to think of themselves as quite liberal and progressive. And yet suddenly once this topic is touched, they are not liberal anymore.

Anyway, I think there are several important points that are totally missing (or downvoted) from this discourse:

  1. When discussing the utility (or uselessness) of STEM education, don't think about your chances of getting a job in biology after getting a masters degree in biology. Think of your chances to get a good job (any kind of job you would consider "good" or "decent") after getting a degree in biology, compared to your chances of getting a similar job without college education, or after some alternative type of education. Don't think narrow. Think as broad as possible; think of your total chances: compare overall unemployment rates and average salaries for BS in math or physics, as compared to those who didn't get this degree.
  2. Don't even start about academia and "oversupply of PhDs" when the initial topic was STEM education. Academia is only a small subset of total job marker for PhDs. And getting a PhD is only a minor track among all those you can pursue after getting a bachelor degree in STEM. These two topics are tangentially related, but only very tangentially.
  3. These days, it is normal to change your occupation in your adult years. It's not the medieval world in which being born in a family of potters meant that you were bound to stay a potter for the rest of your life. It is in fact quite probable that you may decide to start something entirely new in your middle years, and you have no means of predicting today what will interest you later, in some 10-20 years from now. Flexibility is both a blessing and a curse, but I still think it is much more of a blessing. It means that you can change your life later on, even though it also means that getting college education doesn't "guarantee" employment in exactly same field that you happened to study.
  4. Complaining about immigration to the US is just... a bad tone? I don't even know how to put it properly, but it just doesn't sound American at all, does it?. The very glory of this nation always relied on the supply of newcomers, on mixing of different cultures, and on using other people's willingness to work, and their education (one they received abroad) for free. To talk about H visas in a negative context is just unpatriotic! Xenophobic sentiments like this one are OK, I guess, for some nations: there are protectionists and racist countries out there, but it sounds very odd, and very off in this context.
  5. Living in a global world works in both directions as well. If people from Germany can come to the U.S. to work here, it also means that you can go to Germany from the U.S. to work there. Or South Korea. Think of it, it may be an interesting opportunity.
  6. Finally, to get more STEM jobs one needs more entrepreneurs who are both interested, and well versed in STEM. The only way to get them, is to educate people in STEM; almost to push them into STEM. STEM jobs won't appear by magic just because you happened to get a STEM degree. Yet with a STEM degree you have a chance to create some new jobs. And in the broader perspective, it may be the most important point here.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Adjusting the numbers: 5% of those accepted to a graduate school will get a tenure-track position eventually

Previously I claimed that about 20% of neuroscience postdocs eventually get tenure-track positions. (Link to the diagram). I also assumed that only 50% of graduate students make it to the end, and graduate with a PhD, which meant that for a fresh-new graduate student the probability of eventually, some day, getting a tenure-track position was about 10%.

Now it looks like I may have to correct these numbers down a bit. Still about 50% of PhD students graduate  with a PhD (link; the rest either drop out, or get a Masters), but the success in getting a tenure-track job was somewhat lower this year. In 2013-2014 season top universities got about 350+ applications; decent universities got about 300 applications. Total number of positions in neuroscience this season was probably about 40 (maybe 50), liberal arts colleges and small state schools included. It means that about 15% of those postdocs who looked for a position eventually got it. There were probably positions I didn't notice, but also some of those 300 candidates applying for positions were not postdocs, but more senior candidates, trying to move to a different place, or upgrade to a better institution.

Which leaves us with this estimation. 15% of postdocs who seek a tenure-track position now eventually get it. Because some postdocs probably get disillusioned earlier, and don't even bother applying, It should be a safe bet to assume that not more than 10% of mint-new postdocs would end up in a TT position.

Which means that not more than 5% of new graduate student will get a TT position.

Now, as it is a high time for graduate schools interviews, this is some number to discuss with prospective candidates. Are they OK with that? Do they realize what it means for them personally? Do they know their options?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Again on PhD numbers

Two interesting people have written two interesting posts about reducing admissions to grad schools. GMP has described graduate students who are smart, but not motivated, and so obviously have no future in science. Which poses a question: is it morally acceptable to keep them in grad school? And is it ultimately good for science? Maybe it is better to give them some kind of Advanced Masters, and let them transfer to industry (where they were apparently heading all along), instead of forcing them to go through this whole PhD experience. Why would you teach somebody to be an independent scientist if they don't plan to be an independent scientist? And why wouldn't you use the money that is currently spent on training for funding permanent scientists instead?

Another great post by Prof-Like-Substance is about how certain specialists, even within one sub-discipline, may have much better chances of employment outside of academia than other specialists. The question here is pretty similar: is it morally acceptable to let people invest their lives in potential dead-ends? Especially where there is, apparently, a viable alternative? Or should students be discouraged from entering certain fields, and be by force redirected onto more promising (or safe) tracks?

My general attitude towards this whole "surplus of PhDs" problem did not change: I don't quite agree that the situation is dire, and I definitely don't think that admissions to graduate schools should be halted. As I have stated before, while the existing "end-road bottleneck" of low job prospects for senior postdocs makes people anxious, unhappy and desperate, bottlenecks placed at the very beginning (hard admissions to grad schools) would discriminate against vulnerable categories of people; against all those who either start low, or think low of themselves, such as ethnic minorities, lower-income students, career-changers, women, foreigners etc., which is both unfair, and inefficient. People should be given chances to try things out. Late bottlenecks are not particularly bad, but rather all bottlenecks are bad in general. Ideally, scientific job market should allow promising scientists to gradually converge onto permanent positions. Lots of people should be allowed to try; lots of people should be allowed to fail, and while the judgment shouldn't be brought too early (lest it be arbitrary), it also should not be postponed for years (it is cruel).

Below I tried to illustrate some scenarios of this kind as "people sifts", or reversed pyramids. If everybody are admitted to the program and kept in it, but after 22 years of learning 95% of people get sacked (left shape), the remaining 5% will probably be very worthy of the jobs they got. But it would be an extremely inefficient, and, at the same time, a very cruel scheme, as everybody participating in this rat race will be extremely anxious and unhappy all the time. Moreover, many women, for example, would probably opt out of this race altogether, as they will reason at year 3: "Either I have a baby now, or never. But if I have a baby, I'll be at least a year behind all those males around me. I guess it's better to withdraw altogether, and find another job". Which would be double-bad, as it is, again, both unfair, and inefficient.

If, on the other hand, everybody are selected early on, and then the employment is practically guaranteed (right shape), all scientists (those who have made it) will probably be happy and friendly, but they will either all share rich parents and good undergraduate institutions, or will be chosen at random. Because when a person is 20 years old, and they studied engineering for 4 years, it is impossible to tell if they will become a good biologist or not. You will have to either use criteria that are predictive, but intrinsically unfair (such as their GPA and pedegree), or just throw a dice.

The only workable solution, in my mind's eye, is the shape in the middle, in which many are called, and at every step many are chosen, but lots of small decisions gradually make this groud converge onto a successful group of highly efficient scientists (unlike in the right scenario). Some people will, obviously, be disappointed, and some people will still feel betrayed at the very end, but most of them will escape rather early (unlike in the left scenario). I think a sift like that could work.

Now, if we draw modern-day neuroscience world in a similar way, how will it look like? According to my estimations, it will look roughly like that:

As you can see, in essence, it is pretty bad at both edges. It is not that easy to get into grad school, but at the same time the pyramid has a dead-end-style bottleneck at the very end. Postdocs slam at it daily, weeping in sadness and sorrow, and it is this sound that shapes the emotional background of the field. Which is not at all healthy.

What can be done? Let's smooth out the corners!

Accept more people into graduate programs, but, indeed, make Masters a requirement. Make PhD more competitive by design, not by personal failure of individuals, but at the same time, don't kill candidates early: let them try things out. Then shorten the postdoc, and compensate this loss in manpower by creating permanent (secure) research positions. Make the salary in these positions somewhat higher than that of a 3d year postdoc (because a person with 10 years of experience is usually more productive than a newcomer), but more importantly: make them secure in some way or another. Maybe let them be employed by universities, and then be distributed between groups in a grant-dependent manner. Maybe make them employed by NIH directly, and let PIs compete for specialists, and not for money. There should be ways. But overall, I think, these 2 changes: widening the base (aka "Masters", or "Research Assistant"), and the pinnacle (aka "permanent positions") would totally do the trick, and make people on average happier, while at the same time making the system more efficient.

Interestingly, recent changes in K99 rules not only don't push towards this scheme, but in a way push away from it, by creating an "alternative track" with early decisions and higher competition. Early-career decisions are inevitably biased by irrelevant factors, such as the parent's income (manifested by the choice of undergraduate institution), country of origin, or just pure luck (noise). Essentially, it is the "Right scenario" from my first figure, superimposed onto the "Left scenario". Not "combined", but exactly "superimposed", so that you have bad effects from both early and late bottlenecks, and good consequences from neither of them. Decisions are noisy, people are unhappy, efficiency is low, and fairness is really hard to achieve.

Fight for the changes! Join the Pyramid-Smoothing Party!