Wednesday, March 26, 2014


  1. Infographic: Number of Researchers per million inhabitants by Country.

  2. Philip Guo: Silent Technical Privilege. "As a novice computer programmer, I always got the benefit of the doubt—because I looked the part."

    Instead of facing implicit bias or stereotype threat, I had the privilege of implicit endorsement. For instance, whenever I attended technical meetings, people would assume that I knew what I was doing (regardless of whether I did or not) and treat me accordingly. If I stared at someone in silence and nodded as they were talking, they would assume that I understood, not that I was clueless. Nobody ever talked down to me, and I always got the benefit of the doubt in technical settings.

    As a result, I was able to fake it till I made it, often landing jobs whose postings required skills I hadn't yet learned but knew that I could pick up on the spot. Most of my interviews for research assistantships and summer internships were quite casual—people just gave me the chance to try. And after enough rounds of practice, I actually did start knowing what I was doing. As I gained experience, I was able to land more meaningful programming jobs, which led to a virtuous cycle of further improvement.

  3. Retraction Watch: Oh, the irony: Paper on “Ethics and Integrity of the Publishing Process” retracted for duplication.

Costs of Higher Ed

In its conventional avatar, higher ed is quite expensive, not just in the rich countries, but in poorer ones as well. A recent post -- The Cost of Expanding Access in Poor Countries -- fleshes out some implications of this fact:

... You can see this most easily if you express countries’ expenditures per student on higher education as a fraction of GDP/capita. In advanced OECD countries, that number is usually in the region of 30%; in Africa, it is frequently over 100% (and even with that disparity, it’s not even close to buying a similar end-product). It’s quite simply enormously expensive for governments in this situation to expand higher education.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Maria Weinstock: 15 Works of Art Depicting Women in Science

Check out this photo essay on "Visualizing notable women in the STEM fields through the lens of fine art" at the Scientific American site.

Implicit Bias and Discrimination against Women

John Bohannon in Science Now: Both Genders Think Women Are Bad at Basic Math.

Study participants of both genders were divided into two groups: employers and job candidates. The job was simple: As accurately and quickly as possible, add up sets of two-digit numbers in a 4-minute math sprint. ... At the end of the experiment, the employers took the Implicit Association Test, which measures unconscious bias by forcing you to quickly group together various words.

The employers had limited information to make their hiring decisions. In some cases, they got nothing but a glance at the candidate—this revealed the candidate’s gender, of course. In other cases, the employers also had the candidate’s self-appraisal of how many problems he or she expected to be able to complete in the 4-minute period. And sometimes, after the employers made their hiring decision, they had a chance to change their minds after they were told by a researcher how the candidates had actually performed on a test run of the math sprint.

Men and women employers alike revealed their prejudice against women for a perceived lack of mathematical ability. When the only information that the employers had was a photograph of the candidate, men were twice as likely to be hired for the simple math job, no matter whether it was a man or woman doing the hiring [...]

Mary Ann Mason: How to Level the Playing Field for Women in Science

Mary Ann Mason (Berkeley School of Law, UC-Berkeley) in The Chronicle of Higher Education: How to Level the Playing Field for Women in Science. The article is largely about how to tackle the "baby penalty"; here are the key paragraphs:

Our most important finding is that family formation damages the academic careers of women but not of men. Having children is a career advantage for men; for women, it is a career killer. And women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high personal price. They are far less likely to be married with children. We see more women than we used to in visible positions, like presidents of Ivy League colleges, but we also see many more women than men who are married with children working in the adjunct-faculty ranks, the "second tier," and one of the fastest-growing sectors of academe.

Our study also identified interventions that could help change that disheartening pattern. Some of these policies are now in place at some universities and are being promoted by some federal agencies. We are at a critical point, where the story could change dramatically: The "baby penalty" could be wiped out, or at least greatly ameliorated, by these four reforms: better child care (in many forms), effective dual-career policies, childbirth accommodations, and compliance with Title IX’s prohibition on pregnancy discrimination.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Retractions due to Mistakes

This Nature Jobs story makes the non-controversial point that correcting the scientific record should be the primary concern of a scientist who has discovered an error in an already published paper. It presents a bunch of examples of scientists doing the right thing (by retracting their papers, for example) without suffering adverse consequences.

After 18 months of complex testing and re-testing, Pamela Ronald became certain that she needed to retract two high-profile papers on disease resistance in rice. The hardest part, says Ronald, a crop scientist at the University of California, Davis, was staying calm — she worried about the implications for current and past lab members and about others spending time replicating potentially faulty work.

The papers had claimed to identify a bacterial protein that could activate an immune response in rice plants with a specific receptor. But when new members of her team were unable to reproduce the results, alarm bells started ringing. Shaken, they decided that the first step was to genotype all the laboratory strains in their collection. Eventually they caught a labelling error: two of the 12 strains thought to lack the protein in question actually lacked a different protein. And the careful backtracking unearthed yet another error: the test, which they had used to verify that this protein could trigger resistance, turned out to be faulty. Despite her distress, throughout the ordeal Ronald was straightforward with journal editors and her colleagues about the likelihood of retractions. She knew that her scientific reputation depended on complete transparency about possible errors. “You just have to set aside emotions and let the scientific process pull you through,” she says.

Rich Science

William J. Broad has an example-rich article on the phenomenon direct science funding by ultra-rich people: Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science:

American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise.

In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky, freewheeling realm of basic research. Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research.

The result is a new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Hari Pulakkat on Building World Class Universities in India

In a nice overview that touches on many key points (including the need for "substantial funding" and "complete autonomy"), we find some interesting snippets about IIT-Gandhinagar:

IIT Gandhinagar isnow over five years' old. Although public-funded, its director, Sudhir Jain, has had a near free run, enjoying substantial autonomy in building a new institution. Jain began with an explicit goal: to be among the top 20 in the world within 50 years. In the last five years, he has been laying what he considers are the foundations for a world-class institution: absolute integrity, outstanding faculty, talented students and a multicultural campus.

Regardless of discipline, IIT Gandhinagar has been hiring the best possible faculty, creating in the process some departments unusual for IITs. Cognitive science is one of its strongest departments and it is also building substantial social sciences and humanities departments. Jain has been hiring foreign faculty, too, to the extent possible within rules and budgets; it has 24 professors who are not Indian, who spend various amounts of time within campus. "We are trying to develop a culture that ..

Annals of Gaming: Does Size Matter?

Bloomberg's Oliver Staley has an excellent story focusing on a particular method to get ahead in global university league tables: merging universities, with examples from France and Finland. This discussion has some relevance to India since there have been suggestions that all the IITs put together might get the 'IIT System' to break into the top 100 in the rank lists.

Nations Chasing Harvard Merge Colleges to Ascend Rankings:

Twenty colleges and research institutes are combining to create Universite Paris-Saclay, soon to be one of France’s largest universities, at a cost of about 6.5 billion euros ($9 billion). It’s France’s bid to crack the top of rankings that increasingly dominate international higher education.

“Our ambition is to be among the top 10” in the rankings compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said Dominique Vernay, chairman of the foundation creating Paris-Saclay. “The first goal is to be the top university in continental Europe.”

Countries from Finland to Portugal are shaping their higher education policies based on outside rankings, eager for the validation and attention the annual lists bestow, even while they are criticized as flawed or misleading. Because bigger is perceived as better in these lists, governments are merging campuses in hopes of attracting research money and higher caliber faculty and students.

The high-stakes pursuit of bragging rights is distorting universities’ missions, favoring research over teaching and science over the humanities, said Ellen Hazelkorn, director of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

Construction cranes stand on Electricite de France SA's (EDF) new research and... Read More “It’s all about national prestige,” said Hazelkorn, who has written widely about rankings. “Rankings are less about students and more about geopolitics.”

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mental Health Break

With Text-Mex bluetooth enabled burrito, "communication and mastication don't need to be mutually exclusive!"


Hat tip:

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Atlantic Interviews Radia Perlman

Another wonderful profile. Once again, the excerpt is about her childhood:

Tell me about growing up. Were you always interested in science and technology?

Both my parents were engineers working for the U.S. government. My father worked on radar; my mother was a computer programmer. Her title was “mathematician.”

As for me, growing up near Asbury Park, NJ, I always liked logic puzzles and I found math and science classes in school effortless and fascinating. However, I did not fit the stereotype of the “engineer.” I never took things apart or built a computer out of spare parts.

I was also interested in artsy things. I loved classical music and played piano and French horn. I also loved writing, composing music, and art. When there were group projects at school, other students probably had mixed feelings about being in my group. On the plus side, we’d almost certainly get an A. On the minus side, I’d wind up making the project into much more work than the teacher was really requiring. So, for instance, one time our group was supposed to do a book report on something and I turned it into a musical puppet show, composing the music, and having the group make the puppets and scenery and perform it for the class.

But speaking of grades, for some reason I really cared about getting all As. This definitely wasn’t because of pressure from my parents. I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self not to worry so much. Or if I’d gotten a B at some point I wouldn’t have worried so much about my “perfect record”. But because of this obsession with A’s, most of my studying consisted of doing what I hated and was really bad at…memorizing meaningless (to me) dates and names for history class. I’d extract all the “facts” from the reading that might be on the test, memorize them, with my mother quizzing me on them to make sure I knew them all. Then I’d do well on the test, and 10 minutes after the test my brain wisely “cleaned house” and all memory of any of it was gone. Then something might come up on the news and my mother would say “Oh, you were just studying that,” and I’d look at her blankly, because it was completely cleared from my memory.

Although I love writing, my obsession with grades made me more drawn into science and math, because I could control what grade I got just by knowing the right answer. English made me nervous because of the subjective grading.

The Telegraph Profiles Leonard Susskind

Lots of good stuff in there -- and I'm excerpting the part about his childhood in a working class family and neighbourhood:

Now 73, Susskind was born into a Jewish family in the Bronx, New York. “I grew up in what can only be described as an extreme working-class family. My father was a plumber with a fifth grade education. All his friends were plumbers and steam fitters and steeple jacks. If you were as poor as him and had to leave school, you had two choices: you could either become a working man or you could become a gangster.”

Susskind describes himself as a “poor student in everything. I look back now and I think part of it was I had a chip on the shoulder to do with the working-class background. I resented school, I resented the teachers, I was just a rotten kid. At one point in the sixth grade [when he was 11 or 12] I got put back into the fifth grade. Time after time I was disciplined and my parents were always having to come to the school.”

An only child, Susskind shared a tiny one-bedroom apartment with his parents. “Because it wasn’t really big enough for three people, my parents didn’t want me in the house all the time so I spent a lot of time on the street. There must have been about 500 kids on my block and it was a community of ethnic rivalries – Irish, Italians, Jews. It wasn’t a happy childhood, I felt like an outsider.”

Mathematical Baking

Vi Hart goes to a baking party, and we get a a mathematically delicious video filled with rhombic dodecahedrons, aperiodic tilings and bucky-cookies! Watch:

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

It's raining central institutions in Seemandhra

Okay, may be it's only raining promises right now -- but the list of central institutions being promised for Seemandhra is pretty staggering!

... it is proposed to set up one Indian Institute of Technology, International Institute of Information Technology, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, National Institute of Technology and National Institute of Disaster Management.

It is also proposed to set up four universities – a Central university, a petroleum university, an agricultural university and a tribal university. [...]

With most of the super-speciality hospitals located in Hyderabad, the government has also proposed to set up an AIIMS-type super-speciality hospital-cum-teaching facility.

In the recent Union Cabinet meeting it was also decided to set up a National Institute of Design in Seemandhra.

Annals of Happiness Studies

Angus Deaton and Arthur Stone in Vox: What Good Are Children?.

Study after study has shown that those who live with children are less satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Is there something wrong with these empirical analyses? Or is it that happiness measures are unreliable? This column argues that the results are correct but that comparisons of the wellbeing of parents and non-parents are of no help at all for people trying to decide whether to have children.

That intriguing conclusion, according to the authors, is primarily because "non-parents are not failed parents, nor are parents failed non-parents." The happiness (or lack thereof) one group cannot be compared directly with that of the other.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Big Day at IISc

With the Open Day yesterday, our Institute opened its doors to science enthusiasts in and around Bangalore. Thousands of people (mostly kids who arrived in their school buses and vans) walked through our departments where our students put together exhibits, videos, demonstrations and live (and hands-on) experiments. This awesome annual event is organized around the birthdays of J.N. Tata (the 3rd of March) and C.V. Raman (the 28th of February) the birthday of J.N. Tata (the 3rd of March) and the anniversary of C.V. Raman's discovery of the Raman effect (the 28th of February) [sorry about that error -- I should have checked; thanks to ahannaasmi's for the comment-alert].

To get a flavour of what the day was like, here's a report in ToI: IISc unveils the magic of science. And another in the Deccan Herald: Rural folks flock IISc on 'Open Day'.

Prof. Sydney Brenner's critique of the practice and organization of science today

He says some sharp things in a recent King's Review interview published under the headline How Academia and Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation: A Conversation with Sydney Brenner [Hat tip to Kumar A by e-mail]. His observations cover quite a few things, but two things jumped at me. Here is the first:


See also:

Michael White in Pacific Standard: Scientific Publishing is Killing Science.

Peter Higgs interview in The Guardian: I wouldn't be productive enough for today's academic system. "Physicist doubts work like Higgs boson identification achievable now as academics are expected to 'keep churning out papers'."

* * *

Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. That is, you go on and do something really different. Then I think you will be able to foster it.

But today there is no way to do this without money. That’s the difficulty. In order to do science you have to have it supported. The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow.

There’s no exploration any more except in a very few places. You know like someone going off to study Neanderthal bones. Can you see this happening anywhere else? No, you see, because he would need to do something that’s important to advance the aims of the people who fund science.

I think I’ve often divided people into two classes: Catholics and Methodists. Catholics are people who sit on committees and devise huge schemes in order to try to change things, but nothing’s happened. Nothing happens because the committee is a regression to the mean, and the mean is mediocre. Now what you’ve got to do is good works in your own parish. That’s a Methodist.

... and here's the second:

... I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I’ve heard from many committees, that we won’t consider people’s publications in low impact factor journals.

Now I mean, people are trying to do something, but I think it’s not publish or perish, it’s publish in the okay places [or perish]. And this has assembled a most ridiculous group of people. I wrote a column for many years in the nineties, in a journal called Current Biology. In one article, “Hard Cases”, I campaigned against this [culture] because I think it is not only bad, it’s corrupt. In other words it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all. And that’s all been done in the aid of commerce, because they are now giant organisations making money out of it.