On Science and Values

 

By Rebecca Delker, PhD

 

In 1972 nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg defined ‘trans-science’ as distinct from science (references here, here). Trans-science – a phenomenon that arises most frequently at the interface of science and society – includes questions that, as the name suggests, transcend science. They are questions, he says, “which can be asked of science and yet which cannot be answered by science.” While most of what concerned Weinberg were questions of scientific fact that could not (yet) be answerable by available methodologies, he also understood the limits of science when addressing questions of “moral and aesthetic judgments.” It is this latter category – the differentiation of scientific fact and value – that deserves attention in the highly political climate in which we now live.

Consider this example. In 2015 – 2016, action to increase the use of risk assessment algorithms in criminal sentencing received a lot of heat (and rightly so) from critics (references here, here). In an attempt to eliminate human bias from criminal justice decisions, many states rely on science in the form of risk assessment algorithms to guide decisions. Put simply, these algorithms build statistical models from population-level data covering a number of factors (e.g. gender, age, employment, etc.) to provide a probability of repeat offense for the individual in question. Until recently, the use of these algorithms has been restricted, but now states are considering expanding their utility for sentencing. What this fundamentally means is that a criminal’s sentence depends not only on the past and present, but also on a statistically derived prediction of future. While the intent may have been to reduce human bias, many argue that risk assessment algorithms achieve the opposite; and because the assessment is founded in data, it actually serves to generate a scientific rationalization of discrimination. This is because, while the data underpinning the statistical models does not include race, it requires factors (e.g. education level, socioeconomic background, neighborhood) that are, themselves, revealing of centuries of institutionalized bias. To use Weinberg’s terminology, this would fall into the first category of trans-science: the capabilities of the model fall short of capturing the complexity of race relations in this country.

But this is not the whole story. Even if we could build a model without the above-mentioned failings, there are still more fundamental ethical questions that need addressing. Is it morally correct to sentence a person for crimes not yet committed? And, perhaps even more crucial, does committing a crime warrant one to lose their right to be viewed (and treated) as an individual – a value US society holds with high regard – and instead be reduced to a trend line derived from the actions of others? It is these questions that fall into the second category of trans-science: questions of morality that science has no place in answering. When we turn to science to resolve such questions, however, we blind ourselves from the underlying, more complex terrain of values that make up the debate at hand. By default, and perhaps inadvertently, we grant science the authority to declare our values for us.

Many would argue that this is not a problem. In fact, in a 2010 TED talk neuroscientist Sam Harris claimed that “the separation between science and human values is an illusion.” Values, he says, “are a certain kind of fact,” and thus fit into the same domain as, and are demonstrable by, science. Science and morality become one in the same because values are facts specifically “about the well-being of conscious creatures,” and our moral duty is to maximize this well being.

The flaw in the argument (which many others have pointed out as well) is that rather than allowing science to empirically determine a value and moral code – as he argued it could – he presupposed it. That the well being of conscious creatures should be valued, and that our moral code should maximize this, cannot actually be demonstrated by science. I will also add that science can provide no definition for ‘well-being,’ nor has it yet – if it ever can – been able to provide answers to the questions of what consciousness is, and what creatures have it. Unless human intuition steps in, this shortcoming of science can lead to dangerous and immoral acts.

What science can do, however, is help us stay true to our values. This, I imagine, is what Harris intended. Scientific studies play an indispensable role in informing us if and when we have fallen short of our values, and in generating the tools (technology/therapeutics) that help us achieve these goals. To say that science has no role in the process of ethical decision-making is as foolish as relying entirely on science: we need both facts and values.

While Harris’ claims of the equivalency of fact and value may be more extreme than most would overtly state, they are telling of a growing trend in our society to turn to science to serve as the final arbiter of even the most challenging ethical questions. This is because in addition to the tangible effects science has had on our lives, it has also shaped the way we think about truth: instead of belief, we require evidenced-based proof. While this is a noble objective in the realm of science, it is a pathology in the realm of trans-science. This pathology stems from an increasing presence in our society of Scientism – the idea that science serves as the sole provider of knowledge.

But we live in the post-fact era. There is a war against science. Fact denial runs rampant through politics and media. There is not enough respect for facts and data. I agree with each of these points; but it is Scientism, ironically, that spawned this culture. Hear me out.

The ‘anti-science’ arguments – from anti-evolution to anti-vaccine to anti-GMO to climate change denial – never actually deny the authority of science. Rather, they attack scientific conclusions by either creating a pseudoscience (think: creationism), pointing to flawed and/or biased scientific reporting (think: hacked Climate data emails), clinging to scientific reports that demonstrate their arguments (think: the now debunked link between vaccines and autism), and by honing in on concerns answerable by science as opposed to others (think: the safety of GMOs). These approaches are not justifiable; nor are they rigorously scientific. What they are, though, is a demonstration that even the people fighting against science recognize that the only way to do so is by appealing to its authority. As ironic as it may be, fundamental to the anti-science argument is the acceptance that the only way to ‘win’ a debate is to either provide scientific evidence or to poke holes in the scientific evidence at play. Their science may be bad, but they are working from a foundation of Scientism.

 

Scientific truth has a role in each of the above debates, and in some cases – vaccine safety, for example – it is the primary concern; but too often scientific fact is treated as the only argument worth consideration. An example from conservative writer Yuval Levin illustrates this point. While I do not agree with Levin’s values regarding abortion, the topic at hand, his points are worth considering. Levin recounts that during a hearing in the House of Representatives regarding the use of the abortion drug RU-486, a DC delegate argued that because the FDA decided the drug was safe for women, the debate should be over. As Levin summarized, “once science has spoken … there is no longer any room for ‘personal beliefs’ drawing on non-scientific sources like philosophy, history, religion, or morality to guide policy.”

When we break down the abortion debate – as well as most other political debates – we realize that it is composed of matters of both fact and value. The safety of the drug (or procedure) is of utmost importance and can, as discussed above, be determined by science; this is a fact. But, at the heart of the debate is a question of when human life begins – something that science can provide no clarity on. To use scientific fact as a façade for a value system that accepts abortion is as unfair as denying the scientific fact of human-caused climate change: both attempts focus on the science (by either using or attacking) in an effort to thwart a discussion that encompasses both the facts of the debate and the underlying terrain of values. We so crave absolute certainty that we reduce complex, nuanced issues to questions of scientific fact – a tendency that is ultimately damaging to both social progress and society’s respect for science.

By assuming that science is the sole provider of truth, our culture has so thoroughly blurred the line between science and trans-science that scientific fact and value are nearly interchangeable. Science is misused to assert a value system; and a value system is misused to selectively accept or deny scientific fact. To get ourselves out of this hole requires that we heed the advice of Weinberg: part of our duty as scientists is to “establish what the limits of scientific fact really are, where science ends and trans-science begins.” Greater respect for facts may paradoxically come from a greater respect for values – or at the very least, allowing space in the conversation for them.

 


question mark for american science

How Science Trumps Trump: The Future of US Science Funding

 

By Johannes Buheitel, PhD

I was never the best car passenger. It's not that I can't trust others but there is something quite unsettling about letting someone else do the steering, while not having any power over the situation yourself. On Tuesday, November 8th, I had exactly this feeling, but all I could do was to sit back and let it play out on my TV set. Of course, you all know by now, I'm talking about the past presidential election, in which the American people (this excludes me) were tasked with casting their ballots in support for either former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or real estate mogul and former reality TV personality Donald Trump. And for all that are bit behind on their Twitter feed (spoiler alert!): Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States of America following his inauguration on January 20th, 2017. Given the controversies around Trump and all the issues he stands for, there are many things that can, have been  and will be said about the implications for people living in the US but also elsewhere. But for us scientists, the most pressing question that is being asked left and right is an almost existential one: What happens to science and its funding in the US?

The short answer is: We don't know yet. Not only has there been no meaningful discussion about these issues in public (one of the few exceptions being that energy policy question  by undecided voter-turned-meme Ken Bone), but, even more worryingly, there is just not enough hard info on specific policies from the future Trump administration to go on. And that means, we're left to just make assumptions based on the handful of words Mr. Trump and his allies have shared during his campaign. And I'm afraid, those paint a dire picture of the future of American science.

Trump has not only repeatedly mentioned in the past that he did not believe in the scientific evidence around climate change (even going as far as calling it a Chinese hoax), but also reminded us of his position just recently, when he appointed  known climate change skeptic Myron Ebell to the transition team of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He has furthermore endorsed the widespread (and, of course misguided) belief that vaccines cause autism. His vice president, Mike Pence, publicly doubted  that smoking can cause cancer as late as in 2000, and called evolution “controversial”.

According to specialists like Michael Lubell from the American Physical Society, all of these statements are evidence that “Trump will be the first anti-science president we have ever had.” But what does this mean for us in the trenches? The first thing you should know is that science funding is more or less a function of the overall US discretionary budget, which is in the hand of  the United States Congress, says  Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This would be a relief, if Congress wasn’t, according to Rush Holt, president of the AAAS, on a “sequestration path that […] will reduce the fraction of the budget for discretionary funding.” In numbers, this means that when the current budget deal expires next year, spending caps might drop by another 2.3%. Holt goes on to say that a reversal of this trend has always been unlikely, even if the tables were turned, which doesn't make the pill go down any easier. Congress might raise the caps, as they have done before, but this is of course not a safe bet, and could translate to a tight year for US science funding.

So when the budget is more or less out of the hands of Donald Trump, what power does he actually possess over matters of research funding? Well, the most powerful political instrument that the president can implement is the executive order. But also this power is not unlimited and could for example not be used to unilaterally reverse the fundamentals of climate policy, said David Goldston from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) during a Webinar hosted by the AAAS shortly after the election. Particularly, backing out of the Paris agreement, as Trump has threatened to do, would take at least four years and requires support by Congress (which, admittedly, is in Republican hand). And while the president might be able to “scoop out” the Paris deal by many smaller changes to US climate policy, this is unlikely to happen, at least not to a substantial degree, believes Rush Holt. The administration will soon start to feel push-back by the public, which, so Holt during the AAAS Webinar, is indeed not oblivious about the various impacts of climate change, like frequent droughts or the decline of fisheries in the country. There was further consensus among the panelists that science education funding will probably not be deeply affected. First, because this matter usually has bipartisan support, but also because only about 10% of the states' education funding actually comes from the federal budget.

So, across the board, experts seem to be a reluctantly positive. Whether this is just a serious case of denial or panic control, we don’t know, but even Trump himself has been caught calling for  “investment in research and development across a broad landscape of academia,” and even seems to be a fan of space exploration. Our job as scientists is now, to keep our heads high, keep doing our research to the best of our abilities but also to keep reaching out to the public, invite people to be part of the conversation, and convincing them of the power of scientific evidence. Or to say it with Rush Holt’s words: “We must make clear that an official cannot wish away what is known about climate change, gun violence, opioid addiction, fisheries depletion, or any other public issue illuminated by research.”

 


Like a walk in the woods, entrepreneurship is about exploring first-hand all life has to offer

Life of a scientist as an entrepreneur

By Padideh Kamali-Zare, PhD

It has been almost a year since I started my journey as an entrepreneur, after being a scientist for almost a decade. Such a change in my career path felt a bit unusual in the beginning, but soon I found a lot of similarities between the two paths. I quickly noticed that I am actually still continuing the same path, only exploring different aspects of it. A path I initially feared to step in soon became a joyful journey I now cherish every day. Through interacting with a lot of scientists and entrepreneurs, I came to realize that the entrepreneurial spirit adds an enriching dimension to a scientist’s world.

As a scientist, one has a passion for uncovering the mysteries of nature and discovering the truth (mechanisms underlying events) through scientific methodology. This methodology famously relies on testing hypotheses, and developing new tools to do it accurately. Over the centuries, this methodology has become a steadfast tradition. As such, everyday work as a scientist becomes a routine job very quickly. This limits the freedom, flexibility and independent thinking of a scientist. However, I always thought of science not as a job, but as a lifestyle. Science, through critical thinking, changes how one views the world, questions everyday life events, and addresses them by gathering evidence and applying them towards gaining a higher wisdom. These skills are invaluable assets in the entrepreneurial world.

The entrepreneurial mind, very much like the scientific mind, functions by questioning, hypothesizing and testing. The coordinate system of the two is identical and the valuation of ideas is reflected through vigorous testing of the initial hypotheses. What is different is the human component, which is much more prominent in the entrepreneurial world. In the end, people are the users of our products. They should see the value of our work and be willing to use it in their everyday life. If you are a scientist with good interpersonal and communication skills who also likes to promote scientific innovation through people and for people, you are already an entrepreneur.

Exploring the world as a passionate, dedicated scientist is like driving around in nature while listening to music and having brainy conversations with friends riding in the car with you. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is like stopping by the roadside, getting out of the car, getting some fresh air, hearing the ocean waves, walking to the woods, and exploring, first-hand, all that life has to offer. Life as an entrepreneur is much more flexible and creative than that of a scientist in the modern world. The entrepreneurial journey modifies itself every step of the way and never becomes routine. As an entrepreneur, you learn things from everyone, not just people around you or in your particular field of research. As a scientist, you find yourself constantly zooming in on a highly specialized and narrowed down subject, while as an entrepreneur you zoom out and see things from above, you see the big picture, and you focus on the impact your work can have on the world. No matter how long or how short, entrepreneurship is a fulfilling, growing experience of a lifetime.


When Women Reach for the Stars

By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD

 

In the second grade, I wrote a report for class about Jane Goodall. Bright, bold, independent, and inquisitive, she became my instant personal hero. I looked up to her, wanted to be just like her. (Who doesn’t want to run away to the jungle and befriend wild animals? Some days this still sounds like a good idea.) And so, a scientist was born. But throughout the rest of my education, there was a distinct lack of female heroes and role models. Of course we touched upon the greats: Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Jane Austen, Maya Angelou. But where were the great female scientists? The history of the natural sciences, like the natural sciences themselves until recently, was heavily male dominated. Whom could budding young female scientists look to for inspiration?

 

Encouraging girls and young women to pursue their interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is currently a topic at the forefront of our collective societal mind. The invention of toys like GoldieBlox and Lego’s release of a line of female scientist characters exemplify responses to the demand to find ways to teach gender equality in education and careers at an early age. Aside from toys, how else can we encourage girls to delve into STEM fields? Can we find role models whose stories inspire their dreams?

 

In June, we can celebrate two very important women: Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to journey to space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Their inaugural trips took place almost exactly 20 years apart, Valentina’s in June of 1963, and Sally’s in June of 1983. Their enthusiasm, bravery, and willingness to take risks provide inspiration for women of all ages (and men too!).

 

Valentina Tereshkova was born in 1937 in Maslennikovo, Russia. Although she had to drop out of school at the age of 16 to begin working in a factory, she continued her education through correspondence courses. Around the age of 22, she became an enthusiastic skydiver and an accomplished parachutist. In the early 1960s, in the midst of the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soviet space program was looking to collect data on the effects of space flight on the female body. When Valentina volunteered to serve as the female astronaut, the Soviet space program took notice of her parachuting skills. She had no pilot experience, but as the flight was to be run by automatic navigation, such experience largely unnecessary. Of more importance was the ability to handle the ejection at 20,000 feet required upon re-entry into earth’s atmosphere, for which Valentina was well-prepared, thanks to her skydiving activities. Thus, Valentina was accepted into training in 1962.

 

On June 16, 1963, the Vostok 6 launched with Valentina aboard, making her the first woman to enter space. She completed 48 orbits of the earth in 71 hours, more time than all of the U.S. astronauts combined had spent in space at that point, and returned to earth on June 19, landing near Karaganda, Kazakhstan. In recognition of her bravery and accomplishment, she was awarded both the Order of Lenin and the Hero of the Soviet Union awards. While she would never return to space, Valentina went on to become a member of the USSR’s national parliament, and served as the Soviet representative to numerous international women’s organizations.

 

It would take the U.S. 20 years to catch up in regard to sending a woman into space, but when they were ready, Sally Ride was up for the job. Sally was born on May 26, 1951 in Los Angeles California. She studied both English and Physics at Stanford University, and went on to earn her Master’s and Ph.D. in physics. In 1978, Sally responded to an advertisement in the Stanford student newspaper, seeking applicants for the NASA astronaut program. Out of thousands of applicants, 35 were selected, with only 6 being women, but among them was Sally Ride. Prior to her space flight, she completed rigorous training, served as part of the ground crew for two space shuttle flights, and contributed to the development of a robotic arm used by the space shuttle.

 

On June 18, 1983 Sally became the first American woman in space as part of a 5 person crew aboard the Challenger. She would return as part of another Challenger mission the following year, for a total of 343 hours in space. Although she was scheduled to take a third trip, the flight was cancelled following the explosion of the Challenger on January 28, 1986. Sally was appointed as part of the commission to investigate the accident.

 

Following her time at NASA, Sally became the director of the California Space Institute and a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. She received numerous awards for her contributions in the field of space exploration, including the NASA Space Flight Medal and induction into both the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. In addition, Sally was passionate about encouraging girls and young women to pursue careers in science, math, and technology. She founded Sally Ride Science, a company that creates educational science programs and publications for elementary and middle school students, and wrote several books for children about space exploration and the solar system.

 

Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride challenged the status quo and bravely pursued their passion, unafraid to face skepticism and step into a male-dominated field. They both went on to use their experiences and the status they gained to help other women follow their own dreams. Both Valentina and Sally literally reached for the stars. Their stories serve as examples to show our daughters, nieces, sisters – all women – that they can do the same.


DIY Organs: Healing and Regeneration Through Printing

By Susan Sheng

3D printers are the latest trend in the recent “Do it yourself” movement that has seen the increase in popularity of spaces such as TechShop, FabLab, and MakerSpace. 3D printing is an additive process, where materials such as plastics are progressively layered to create different shapes, based on a digital model. Printers can be small enough to sit on a desk, or large enough to be able to build parts for turbines.

 

In science and medicine, 3D printing has had many applications. Recently at the University of Louisville, cardiothoracic surgeons used CT images to print a model of patient’s heart. The patient was born with 4 congenital heart defects and required a complex operation to repair the defects. The 3D printed model allowed the surgeons to study the heart defects that needed to be repaired and come up with a complete surgical plan before even picking up a scalpel.

 

Another recent application of 3D printing in medicine was the announcement of a collaboration between Ekso Bionics and 3D Systems. Ekso Bionics is a California-based company which builds exoskeletons both for military use and for medical purposes in the rehabilitation of patients who have lost the ability to walk. Up until now, their exoskeletons have essentially been a “one-size-fits all,” but on Feb 19, 2014, at a Singularity University conference in Budapest, Ekso Bionics unveiled their first customized exoskeleton suit. The advantage of such a suit is that it can be shaped to the contours of the user’s body, reducing the likelihood of bruising or abrasions from an ill-fitting suit. Given that the patient population using these suits includes paraplegics or stroke patients who may have lost sensation in their lower limbs, such bruising or abrasions may go unnoticed and result in infections.

 

In the spirit of the DIY movement, a recent story in CNET discussed one man’s year-long work in creating a prosthetic fingertip. The man, Christian Call, lost his right index finger tip through a work-related accident and was unable to afford a professional prosthetic. Given his background and interests in machining and mechanics, he decided to try making his own prosthetic. One and half years and several prototypes later, Call has created a prosthetic that behaves much like a real fingertip, complete with a magnetic tip to assist with picking up metal objects. He has been contacted by other people searching for fingertip prosthetics and has even started his own 3D-printing/design business.

 

As 3D printing technology becomes more advanced, the potential applications for 3D printing in science and in daily life are limited only by our imagination. 3D printing could be used to create customized lab equipment for specialized experiments, potentially at a fraction of the cost of purchasing from a commercial company. If bioprinting (printing with living cells) becomes more viable, miniature organs could be created for research and drug development purposes, or possibly combined with stem cell technology to grow whole organs in the lab for transplant purposes.


Lean Mean Science Machine

 

Gaia Vasiliver-Shamis

When I decided to pursue the idea I had for a better way to keep up with science, aka Scizzle (check it out, I’d love to get your feedback), I really didn’t know where to start. And so, like a good researcher….I went on Google. This is how I came by the lean startup approach – a methodology for increasing the success rate of developing innovative business and products. Steve Blank is the “godfather” of this approach and Eric Ries introduced this term in his blog and later in his book and started the lean startup movement.

As a trained scientist, I found the lean startup approach easy to relate to as it talks about making hypothesis and testing them. Hey, that’s what I was doing for the past decade. While it’s not as easy to adjust from making science-related hypotheses to making business- and product-related hypotheses, I wondered what we, as scientists, can learn and implement from this approach.

Why should basic researchers adopt concepts of the lean startup? Well, considering the shrinking funding budgets and the increase competition for grants – being a lean mean science machine can give you an advantage. Today, we all need to do more with less, which is one of the biggest challenges when you startup, so why won’t we learn some lessons from startups?

Here are my 4 tips on how one can adopt and implement the lean startup concepts:

Have a Vision

The lean startup methodology tells startups to think and act like scientists: begin with a clear hypothesis and test it, letting your vision guide all your experiments. True, we are taught that our experiments should always be hypothesis-driven, but in reality we all stray away from time to time from our original hypothesis just for the sake of experimenting and the chance of revealing something new and exciting. It may lead to a great new discovery (hey, how many breakthroughs were made thanks to researchers making a mistake, right?) but sometimes we just lose focus and do experiments that are all over the place that get us nowhere.  To stay on track think what would be the title of your paper if your hypothesis is valid and what do you need to show to prove it.  Which brings us to the next point.

 

Think Big – Start Small

When you’re ready to put your vision to the test – stick to the pilot experiment. In the startup world they call it the MVP. Nope, it’s doesn’t stand for your most valuable protein but for minimum viable product.  So if you’re a mean lean science machine – you don’t test for 56 cytokines, have 12-color FACS and 103 conditions in your pilot experiment. You stick to a small experiment that will provide you with a yes/ no answer on whether your educated guess is valid or not .  Which also means you don’t need to buy a whole sleuth of reagents before you know the project is worth pursuing.  Since you’re all in different fields of science, let me use an example from the book – know Zappos? Do you think they started with a huge website like they have now? Nope, Nick Swinmurn, the founder of Zappos had the vision for a superior online shopping experience for shoes, but he wanted to know if there is demand for it. So he began with a tiny simple experiment – he went to shoes stores, took pictures of their inventory, put it online and promised the storeowner that if there’s a purchase, he’ll come back and buy the shoes in full price. By doing this small experiment they got quantifiable answers and knew it was worth pursuing.

 

Know When to Pivot (or Persevere)

I’d say this has two aspects when it comes to researchers – a technical aspect and a personal aspect.

Let’s start with the technical: this is something we do all the time – we run experiments, troubleshoot when necessary, analyze our data and then either move forward to further validate our hypothesis or when we get unexpected results – we pivot to a new hypothesis and start the cycle again. But, being able to pivot in science, just as with startups, depends on  planning the right experiments, and “listening” to our data is the golden key. Which brings me to the personal, or should I say emotional aspect: entrepreneurs can be delusional (and if you ever watched Shark Tank you saw it) – they believe in their idea and vision so much, they just ignore the reality, whether it is no real demand or a non profitable business. Scientists can be that way too – after all, our project is sort of our baby. So don’t be the clueless entrepreneur eaten by the sharks - know when to let it go and move to a new project.  As they say in the book, pivots take courage, and if you have it – it will be better for your publications record, work satisfaction and future success.

 

Get Your Creativity Going

Just like any company, to be competitive in today’s market - you need to be creative and innovative. When I was doing customer discovery (fancy word for talking with your potential users) I often heard from researchers that keeping up with the literature is a struggle and there was always a guilt feeling associated with it. When I dug deeper I often heard that staying on top of your science makes you a better scientist. Admittedly, keeping up with new discoveries feeds our creativity and allow us to innovate in our own research, whether it’s a new technique, method used in a different system or a new enhancer that may be the master regulator in your favorite cell type.

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I’m not an expert in the lean startup by any means and I can’t guarantee that following it will get you  a Nature paper and a tenured position. However, with the current discussions about the value of basic research and whether or not science is pulling its own weight, I believe it can’t hurt if we can re-connect to the entrepreneur within us to  be more resourceful, efficient and ultimately successful.

As a side note, Steve Blank originally claimed that the life sciences were the only place lean startup wouldn’t work - only to eat his words a few years later after a successful “experiment” with the NSF.  Blank now runs the Lean LaunchPad for life science and health care course in UCSF, teaching researchers how to use the lean methodology in biotech and medical devices.  If you have an idea worth pursuing, I’d highly recommend reading Blank’s posts and taking the course.

This post was originally posted on the Biocareers.com Blog.


Decoding the Literature: Annotated Research Papers to Teach the Scientific Process

 

 

By Celine Cammarata

Most students graduating from high school or college have taken at least a few science courses, and consequently have some knowledge of elementary scientific facts about the world (in theory, at least).  But is this enough?  Or do students also require an understanding of how science works, how scientific knowledge is obtained?

This was the idea behind Science in the Classroom, or SitC, a website that provides annotated scientific papers.  Launched last fall by the journal Science, the goal of SitC is for all students to read at least one journal article before leaving school, in hopes that this exposure to research literature will help clarify the inner workings of science and how it gives rise to information.  As discussed in an editorial marking the inauguration of SitC, a lack of understanding of where scientific knowledge comes from can foster the spread of misinformation and a disinclination to base important designs on scientific evidence; some might even argue it could lead to distrust of science and scientists.  Hence: SitC.

The idea of SitC piqued my curiosity, so I recently spent a while exploring the site.  Although only seven papers are available so far, the resources attached to those paper are fairly substantial.  Each paper is kicked off by an introduction and a set of “thought questions,” guiding students to consider the research critically and in context and mimicking the types of questions scientists ask themselves about a paper.  This is further supported by detail-oriented questions interspersed throughout the text, fostering engagement as one reads.  Figures are accompanied by a summary of the questions being asked, the experimental set up, brief explanations of techniques and symbols, and more, to help students work through the sometimes confusing jumble of graphs and images.  Finally, students can choose to enable various tools, such as a glossary that highlights and defines potentially unfamiliar terminology, or a function that specifically highlights the author’s conclusions.  Each paper is available in full length, geared toward university students, or in an abbreviated form intended for high schoolers.

It would seem that such a resource has numerous other uses in addition to teaching high school and college students about the scientific process.  Annotated papers can serve as a vehicle  to greater scientific literacy not only students but for the public at large, increasing public access to science by granting more citizens to ability to read scientific papers and actually get something out of them.  Furthermore, SitC could act as training wheels for scientists-to-be as they learn the vital skill of analyzing literature.  Finally, studying papers that have been broken down in this way can provide valuable insight for investigators into how they might best explain their own work to a broader audience.

Although SitC has garnered relatively little attention so far, it will be interesting to see how teachers, students, scientists and others utilize this resource in the future.


Who Was Stung – Open Access or Peer-Review?

Neeley Remmers

You may have noticed this week that the Science world is abuzz with talk about Open Access Journals and the dangers of publishing in these journals versus traditional. The debate about whether or not to publish in Open Access journals is not new, but the debate has escalated due to the sting article published in Science written by John Bohannon. After reading the article, instead of questioning the credibility of Open Access Journals I was left questioning the failed peer review process that resulted in the acceptance of the fake articles. If you are unaware of the controversy behind the Open Access movement, here is a brief synopsis. As you may have noticed, online publishing is the hottest thing since sliced bread in the world of publication (just think of the huge sales brought in by the invention of tablets and e-readers). This has led to the creation of online scientific journals that earn a profit through authorship fees rather than relying on subscription fees like most magazines, and they publish their articles online so that the general public can read them for free. Those who favor traditional magazines (think Science, Nature, Cell) that require an active subscription or require you to purchase the article before you can read it, claim that the Open Access movement has led to the increased publication of poor-quality science. Some take it even further to say that by publishing in Open Access journals, you effectively drive your career into the dumpster as these journals are a “dumping-ground” for articles that are rejected at the “more prestigious” traditional journals.

Personally, I commend the Open Access movement for making research articles more readily available. I cannot count the number of times I would run into a road block with literature searches because my library did not have a subscription to a journal that published an article that had useful information for my projects. And let’s face it, unless you are a full-time professor with a couple R01 grants supporting your salary, it simply isn’t feasible for most to pay $30+ for an article that may or may not be entirely useful for your project.

Getting back to the sting, here is a brief summary of what went down for those who have not read the article yet. Bohannon composed an article containing data so inaccurate he claimed that anyone with a high school level knowledge of chemistry could recognize the lack of scientific soundness. He chose to submit this falsified paper to over 300 Open Access journals where just over 50% of the journals accepted the paper after asking for trivial revisions. In an article written by Curt Rice reflecting on this sting, you will find a more in-depth explanation of the sting itself and Open Access movement than what I provided here, a look into the peer review system, the corruption that comes with heightened pressure to publish, and flaws with the current publication process. Rice points out that what this sting really brings to light is the corruption that has ensued in the last few years in publishing by charging overpriced author fees, which can be seen in both Open Access and traditional journals, and the flaws in the current peer-review system that allows bad science to get published and how all journals are vulnerable to this. This in turn, is in-part facilitated by the increased pressure on scientists to publish and increased work-load of reviewers struggling to keep up (see Celine’s recent blog for more thoughts on the current state of scientific communication).

Personally, I agree with Rice in that this sting does not point a bad finger at Open Access (even though it was written in that context), but rather points out the flaws in the current scientific publication system and calls for changes to be made. Moral of the story, this sting really enforces the practice of critically reading articles to evaluate their scientific soundness on your own before accepting the results and conclusions