Friday, December 24, 2010

Working with some nitrogen compounds

I always laugh whenever I see a new paper (JACS or Angewandte Chemie notwithstanding) describing the synthesis of and/or new/novel nitrogen compounds that are either some kind of superfuel (read: large ∆G) or so rare that precious little previous literature can be found on them.

There are reasons why you hardly read about them or why they are not in widespread use in industry already.

The reason that one gets our attention is that compounds with lots of nitrogens in them – more specifically, compounds with a high percentage of nitrogen by weight – are a spirited bunch. They hear the distant call of the wild, and they know that with just one leap of the fence they can fly free as molecules of nitrogen gas. And that’s never an orderly process.

...And thermodynamically, there aren't many gently sloping paths down to nitrogen gas, unfortunately. Both enthalpy and entropy tilt things pretty sharply.
- Derek Howe

I like Ancient Hacker's summary on slashdot:

Rocket fuel was a big research area in the 1950's. Dozens of very good chemists spent a whole load (hundreds of millions of 1950-size dollars) trying to make better rocket fuels.

( One of them wrote a informative and funny book about that time and place ).

The short summary is: Yes, you can make higher oomph rocket fuels and oxidizers with more oxygen in them.

But a lot of the formulas are impractical as:

(0) They were already discovered years ago, and discarded, but chemists don't like to write up their failures, and researchers don't like to read old moldy research summaries anyway.

(1) They're waaay too expensive to make, even for military uses.

(2) They are highly toxic, even more toxic than the widely-used hydrazines, which can kill you in several interesting ways.

(3) They're so unstable, you have to keep them under impossible conditions, like no sound, no vibrations, no light, and under a part per million of crud in the perfectly-smooth and unscratched nickel-plated tanks.

(4) They can't be stored for more than a day or so before the fuel or oxidizer starts decomposing itself or the tank walls.

(5) Too many of the researchers were vaporized while handling the stuff. Literally. Truly. Completely. That tends to make it hard to find substitute researchers to continue working with the same stuff.

(6) For military applications, you need a fuel that can be handled by raw recruits, stored for many months, be pumped quickly into not always totally clean rocket tanks, kept in those loaded rockets for days to months, and tolerate wide temperature swings. These requirements alone disqualify a large percentage of really zippy fuels and oxidizers.

The odds are pretty high against this "new" compound being all that new, or it passing the basic requirements for fuel or oxidizer.

One of my side projects in Grad School was funded by NASA and we were handling hydrazine to test their viability for use in micro-reactors. That was one nasty little guy to deal with on a daily basis, and we all had to wear dosimeter badges on our lab coats in addition to two layers of gloves, sleeve protectors and rubber boots. And yes, the whole setup was inside a fume hood with the sash lowered all the time.

Be grateful this isn't your PhD project.

Oh, and Merry Christmas to those of you celebrating the Yuletide holiday. Stay warm and safe!

Edit (25 Dec): A nice youtube video of shock sensitive nitroglycerin:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Paper by SMA researchers gets retracted due to self-plagiarism

First time I have seen this happen to the SMA folks.

Of course it will not be reported on the SMA homepage, or will it?

The above article, published in Applied Physics Letters, has originally reported the growth of ZnO nanorods on GaN using hydrothermal synthesis without any catalyst. Some initial results, including scanning electron microscopy, x-ray diffraction, photoluminescence, and transmission electron microscopy were also discussed in the article. After a few months, we wrote another paper, i.e., Ref. 1. In this paper, we explored in more detail the properties of ZnO nanorods. However, there are some overlapping parts which included the introduction and Figs. (4 out of 12 figures). This unintentional negligence in repetitive data extraction and omission of cross reference to the published experimental results, leading to the unexpected ambiguities and inconveniences to the readers, have constituted the authors full obligation to apologize and to spontaneously retract the above article to uphold the publication protocol.

It took them five years to retract their 2005 publication.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Arsenic-based life forms: Fact or fiction?

The biggest science news of the past week probably has to be NASA's press release claiming to have isolated a bacterium that substitutes arsenic for phosphorus on its macromolecules and metabolites. (Wolfe-Simon et al. 2010, A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus.)

As things stand, many scientists are openly skeptical of the claims made in the paper.

That is understandable, given the potential impact on biology. If the results are shown to be right, this might open a whole new field of research on arsenic-based life forms (and possibly the Nobel Prize in the near future). E.g. The discoverers of graphene were awarded the 2010 Physics Nobel a mere six years after their publication in Science.

And the authors' response to the online critics?

"If we are wrong, then other scientists should be motivated to reproduce our findings. If we are right (and I am strongly convinced that we are) our competitors will agree and help to advance our understanding of this phenomenon. I am eager for them to do so." - Ronald Oremland, US Geological Survey.

Heh, the scientific method is at work here.

This whole episode reminded me of a question back in the days of my JC S-paper chemistry class where we were asked to suggest alternative elements that could potentially replace those currently in use by nature. Can we substitute carbon with silicon? Phosphorous with arsenic? Would there be any problems with these changes under earth's atmosphere and conditions?

Maybe I should revisit my old A level notes (if I still have them somewhere) to look for old theories to test. Maybe I can get something useful (like a Science publication) out of them. Like the SN2 reaction mechanism. Who could have thought there would be an unexpected 'roundabout' mechanism in addition to the traditional 'inverted umbrella' pathway?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Want money? Wow your sponsors

The main purpose of your application is to convince the Committee on Research Grants that supporting your proposal would be a good use of (their) funds. Your proposal will be read by panel members who are experienced professionals, but who are not necessarily experts in your particular field. Because they are evaluating proposals competing for limited funds, they must be critical and skeptical; only the best proposals will be funded.

Your number one job is to capture their interest. If you describe an important problem and then explain how you intend to solve it, you convert the reviewer from a skeptic into an advocate for funding your work. If, after reading your proposal, a panelist still asks "So what? Why is this important?", or, "What's the problem being addressed?", or "Can these objectives be achieved using these techniques?", then you have NOT been successful in your proposal. One good way to pre-judge how well you have gotten your points across is to re-read your application (before submitting it), putting yourself in the position of a reviewer. Or better yet, ask another person to read it from that perspective. When you look at your proposal from the point of view of the reader, you will see why it is so important to describe the problem you are addressing or the hypothesis that you plan to test. Without this firmly established, it is pointless to tell the panel all the things you will do in the field or lab. Don't stop there, however!

The logical next question is "Is that problem or hypothesis significant enough to be worth working on?" One way to assess this is to ask yourself, "Assuming I am successful in doing everything that I say I will, how many (of the relevant) scientists would want to hear the results?" If you conclude, "not many" then you need to rethink why you chose the project and explain its importance more convincingly. Don't feel that you singlehandedly need to solve the most pressing problem in Science - the scope of any project must be limited to what can be realistically accomplished - but do worry about how your results will contribute to the solution of a fundamental problem in your field, or why your field area is ideal for addressing a significant regional or topical problem. If your project is part of a large project, in the US or overseas, make sure that your part is clearly defined. Once you have established the significance of your project, outline what you will actually do - ie your research strategy. Make sure that you explain to the reviewers how these steps will lead you to answers to the questions you have set out to solve. This is the time to be specific: don't leave it to the panel to decide whether your research plan will answer the questions, tell them how it will! As for the budget, you should show the committee that you have carefully investigated possible expenses and have planned a realistic budget.

-Adapted from a Grant proposal writing guide created for the Committee on Research Grants at the Geological Society of America

Actually the above guidelines apply to most real life situations when we are begging others for favors or jobs.

1. State a problem.
2. Explain how or why it is important to solve this problem.
3. Show how you can solve the problem (and the benefit to your sponsor) if you get the favor or money to do so.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Waiting season

I hate the competition. It's crazy and it's driving me nuts. Got this in my mailbox today (from one of my target schools, a Public Ivy):

Dear takchek,

Our faculty search committee is continuing to review applications, and I am pleased to let you know that you are one of our ‘semi-finalists’ for whom we have written references for letters of recommendation (about 30% of the total pool). It will likely be January or later when we invite the shortlisted ‘finalists’ for on-campus interviews. I hope to have the opportunity to meet you soon, and I wish you all the best in your continued professional development.

Best regards,

Chair, Faculty Search Committee

The worst part is how hopeless I am in the selection process. The whole recruitment exercise is a black box, and all I can do is to wait and hope for the best. Argh!

Edit (29 Oct): This article is so timely.

Maybe you're finishing your Ph.D. or wrapping up a postdoctoral appointment. The days are grueling. Writing up results, planning for a dissertation defense, or trying to get work published is not only intellectually exhausting but can also take a physical and emotional toll. Yet in the middle of one of the most challenging periods of your life, you have to go on the job market.

That means putting a smile on your face, tidying yourself up, and talking about your research as though it's the best, most exciting project in the world. It means pretending that you're not absolutely terrified. It's no wonder that going on the job market can feel like an ordeal; it's the equivalent of putting on a suit or a cocktail dress for the last mile of a marathon.

...But as one job candidate put it, the "storyline" you have to convey is, "I am an appealing candidate."

Hire me!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hits and Misses

The past 6 months has been a crazy one for me in my work. Supported by an army of serfs bright, motivated undergraduates, I collected enough *interesting* data to submit manuscripts to several different high-impact-factor peer reviewed journals. This is my most productive year so far. We got the first one accepted quickly after making the minor revisions requested by the anonymous reviewers. The second submission was to one of the Glamour Mags, and our manuscript was rejected.

Dear takchek:

Thank you for submitting your manuscript to Glamor Magazine. Because your manuscript was not given a high enough priority rating during the initial screening process, we were not able to send it out for in-depth review. Although your analysis is interesting and novel and your application represents a tour de force in (your sub-field), we feel that the scope and focus of your paper make it more appropriate for a more specialized journal. We are therefore notifying you so that you can seek publication elsewhere.

We now receive many more interesting papers than we can publish. We therefore send for in-depth review only those papers most likely to be ultimately published in Glamor Magazine. Papers are selected on the basis of discipline, novelty, and general significance, in addition to the usual criteria for publication in specialized journals. Therefore, our decision is not a reflection of the quality of your research but rather of our stringent space limitations.

We wish you every success when you submit the paper elsewhere.


Associate Editor, Glamor Magazine

This rejection, more so than most rejections in my life so far (love, job, scholarship, certain university admission applications etc)is particularly hurtful not only because it is one of the holy trinity of Glamour Mags in the vanity field of science but also because of the huge amounts of time, money, manpower, intellectual and physical efforts spent in generating, collecting and presenting the data and one which my advisor had high hopes on getting accepted.

You might then ask: Does it really matter where this manuscript is published? Why do I care so much?

This is the first reason. And the second: I have submitted my applications for tenure-track positions at two of the Ivy League schools.

There is always hope.

From Chemjobber.

Friday, July 09, 2010

The video that all prospective PhDs should watch


Mixing humor and heartbreak, Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist delves into the lab of charismatic professor Dr. Lawrence Shapiro, and follows three irrepressible graduate students on their determined pursuit of a PhD and scientific success. As if the pressure of scientific discovery isn’t enough, the students are also competing in a worldwide race to be the first to publish their findings. Their challenge: to decipher the structure and mechanism of AMPK, a tiny protein that controls the burning and storage of fat. Their road to success: years of trial and error, unflinching dedication, rock-climbing, rumors of pickle juice, and the music of The Flaming Lips.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Whistleblowers suffer from collateral damage too

Science reported the case of Elizabeth Goodwin, a former UW-Madison associate professor of genetics who pleaded guilty to a charge of scientific misconduct for falsifying data in a grant application to the NIH.

What is interesting (and sad!) though is not so much about sentence meted out to Goodwin (most likely just a fine and a ban from receipt of federal grants for 3 years), but the fate of her ex-students (ie. the whistle blowers):

The university praised the students for having done the right thing. A university investigation subsequently concluded that Goodwin had falsified data on grant applications and cast doubt on three papers, all of which were later cleared of any problems. Goodwin resigned. But the outcome for several students, who were told they had to essentially start over, was unenviable. One, Chantal Ly, had gone through 7 years of graduate school and was told that much of her work was not useable and that she had to start a new project for her Ph.D. (The reason wasn't necessarily because of falsified data but rather, Ly and the others thought, because Goodwin stuck by results that were questionable.) Along with two of the others, she quit graduate school. Allen moved to a school in Colorado. Just two students chose to stay at UW.

One of those who left reflected about the case in the Science story published in 2006. "Are we just stupid [to turn Goodwin in]?'" Sarah LaMartina said. "Sure, it's the right thing to do, but right for who? ... Who is going to benefit from this? Nobody."

The system as is right now is heavily tilted to the PI's favor. Principal investigators have too much power over the fate of their graduate students' and postdocs' scientific careers.

The PI has the power to direct the efforts of his/her students and postdocs, choose their projects, set their hours, tell them who to work with, decide whether their data is worth keeping or suitably labeled as junk, decide whether, when, and by whom their results are presented, and so forth. The PI controls all the resources the graduate students need -- funding, training, even access to other faculty in the department.

Even if he/she is to fall in disgrace, the students and postdocs won't be able to get away unscathed, as this episode demonstrates. A professor in my PhD institution once gave us (then 1st year grad students fresh out of college) this piece of advice:

"Your relationship with your PhD and postdoc advisor is most important, even more so than your spouse, especially if you stay within the scientific community. You can divorce the latter, but your link to your advisor(s) is permanent. So make sure you choose the right one."

Sunday, June 27, 2010

NIH Grant Proposal Writing and Review

The key to bread and butter for academics running research labs...Begging for money isn't that simple as you think it is just by holding out your hand, certainly not when there are so many other beggars scattered all around lusting after the same pot.

For those of you further down the pecking ladder (and thus less painful to get out while you are still able to do so), it is best in your interest (and sanity) to ask to start getting involved in the begging process as early as you possibly can.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The truth about doing research in Grad School and beyond

Credit: Boingboing and Chemistry Blog.

The term "lab rats" doesn't come out of nowhere. Again, it is very important to choose the right adviser.

The cartoon below would be a good response to the last part of Carreira's letter:

Afterall, Guido seems to be doing well at Novartis after leaving Caltech.

Edit (30 June): A Boston Globe reporter spoke with Erick (Now at ETH-Zurich). He now claims that is a joke.

Reached by email at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where he runs a lab, Carreira said that the letter has been circulating for a dozen years, and he expressed frustration that it has surfaced again in such a public way. It has caused him to receive "many e-mails that have been threatening and downright inhumane," he wrote. In response to questions about the letter's authenticity, and a request for a more general comment, he forwarded an email that he had sent to an earlier correspondent. It said, in part:

"I wonder whether you would think it fair to be judged on the basis of a letter 14 years old, especially when the comments and rash judgments are made without knowledge of the context or the circumstances surrounding the individuals involved. Indeed how does anyone out who is so quick to pass judgement and who is coming to conclusions know that it is not part of a 14-year old joke (or satire as you state) that backfired? ...

I am quite sure everyone has at some time or another an e-mail, photo, letter, note, or comment that when taken out of context can be used to create whatever monster one wishes to envisage. After all no one is perfect. Is it really fair to be haunted by these endlessly? I do not know how old you are, but can you really say you have done nothing you would rather forget about and not be reminded of 14 years later? I like to think people grow and change."

In this note and in a shorter one to me, Carreira said that he had been advised by a lawyer not to comment on the validity or the context of the letter. (I asked him a follow-up question about the oblique suggestions that the letter was some kind of joke, but he has not yet replied.)

I certainly don't think any person on the receiving end of such a letter will think it is satire, or funny at all.


Another one (Bob Tjian was then a professor in biochemistry at Berkeley when this memo was circulating amongst the grad students in the department in the mid-90s):

To: All Lab Members
Fm: Robert Tjian
Re: Dismal Attendance at Group Meetings and Slack Work Ethics

From now on, I or someone designated by me will take attendance at group meetings starting at 9:10 am. If you are not there, I will not sign your salary sheets. Also, if you haven't noticed the number of people working on weekends and nights in the lab is the worst I've seen in my 17 years. The frequency of vacation, time taken off and other non-lab activities is bordering on the ridiculous. In case you forgot, the standard amount of time you are supposed to take is 2 weeks a year total, including Christmas. If there isn't a substantial improvement in the next few months, I'll have to think of some draconian measures to "motivate" you. I also want to say that the average lab citizenship and community spirit of keeping the lab in functioning order is at an all-time low. Few people seem to care about fixing broken equipment and making sure things in the lab run smoothly. If the lab were extremely productive and everyone was totally focused on their work, I might understand the slovenliness but productivity is abysmal and if we continue along this path we will surely reach mediocrity in no time.
Finally, those of you who are "lame ducks" because you have a job and are thinking of your own nibs, so long as you are here you are still full-fledged members of this lab, which means participating in all aspects of the lab (i.e. group meetings, Asilomar, postdoc seminars, etc.)
I realize that this memo won't solve all the problems. so I am going to schedule a meeting with each one of you starting this Saturday and Sunday and continuing on weekends until I've had a chance to speak with everyone and to give you a formal evaluation. Sign up for an appointment time on the sheet outside my door.
This is the first time I've had to actually write a memo of this type and I hope
it's the last time.

Robert Tjian

Two more letters from Paul Gassman and Albert Meyers, with excellent information about standard expectations of grad students and postdocs.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The problem with unisex bathrooms on campus...

I am surprised no one has yet posted anything about the toilet seat up/down argument or how some guys would spray their liquid waste onto the seat in its down position.

The whole thing is becoming very Ally McBeal-ish.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Nuclear energy for Singapore?

It seems like Singapore is going ahead with plans for a possible nuclear power plant. EMA is now planning to start a feasibility study on the use of nuclear energy as a possible long term energy solution.

Energy Planning & Development Division

Senior Analyst / Analyst and Senior Engineer / Engineer
(Policy & Planning Department)
Project Management - Nuclear Energy Feasibility Study

You will be responsible for planning and managing the conduct of a technical and economic feasibility study on nuclear energy, with a view to enhancing our understanding of it as a possible long-term energy option. This involves liaising with relevant stakeholders within the energy sector, and working with independent consultants and international organizations to perform environmental, safety, security, financing, legal, regulatory and other relevant analyses in support of the study. You will be responsible for interfacing and coordinating with a range of government agencies in Singapore for the feasibility study, and drawing up appropriate policy implications for Singapore. Your work will also involve the building of contacts and relationships with the relevant energy companies and regulatory bodies in the nuclear sector, in order to accelerate our understanding of the industry.

Candidates for the Senior Analyst / Analyst Position should possess a good honours degree in Economics, Business or Engineering while candidates for the Senior Engineer / Engineer, should possess a good graduate/post-graduate degree in Nuclear Engineering, Nuclear/Atomic Science or Nuclear/Atomic Physics. Those with experience in the field of energy/energy-related industries, technologies, R&D, operations, market research and project management would have an advantage. You should be a team player with strong analytical, writing, communications and coordination skills.

Closing Date: 16 Apr 2010

There aren't that many Singaporeans with expertise in nuclear engineering (Will EMA hire foreigners then?); even the US is facing an acute shortage of nuclear scientists and engineers.

I hope they will be open in their consultations with the public on the issue especially with regards to safety and security. It sounds like a terrible idea on so many levels, offhand I can already list three - the island is located along an important international shipping lane (one of the busiest ports in the world); it is densely packed (3rd highest in the world); and a target for terrorists. Not to mention the possible objections from neighboring countries. NIMBY!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Myth of Meritocracy

School administrators, writes Senior, understand best of all that intelligence tests for young kids are "practically worthless as predictors of future intelligence....Rather than promoting a meritocracy, in other words, these tests instead retard one. They reflect the world as it's already stratified--and then perpetuate that same stratification."


Intelligence is a process, not a fixed, gene-determined, thing. This process begins very early on, before we can even really see it, and we therefore often confuse these early, invisible stages with some sort of innate giftedness. Then we test kids and report the results as innate differences--this one is gifted, this one is not. This one has extra promise; that one does not. We send the "gifted" ones to good schools with small class sizes, better-trained teachers, better infrastructure, better relationships with parents, and higher expectations. We send the apparently-unpromising kids to under-funded, teach-to-test schools with minimal expectations.

And then we tell ourselves that we live in an educational meritocracy.

- David Shenk

and more: The Junior Meritocracy (By Jennifer Senior)

Food for thought: How about Singapore's case of testing ten-and-twelve year olds and putting a select few into the Gifted program?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Most Touching Ad of the 2010 Winter Olympics

To Their Moms, They'll Always Be Kids.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How Nature selects manuscripts for publication

Nature actually devoted an editorial (doi:10.1038/463850a) explaining its publication process.

Exploding the myths surrounding how and why we select our research papers.

Really? I thought the explanation's pretty weak on the statistics given that it is a scientific journal. Drug Monkey and writedit have more on commentary about this particular editorial.

...we make the final call on the basis of criteria such as the paper's depth of mechanistic insight, or its value as a data resource or in enabling applications of an innovative technique.

There you have it. The core principle of its modus operandi. Good science, bad science, and whether it will lead to publication or not all rests on the decision of the editor. The gatekeeper.


On a side note, do you know that Watson and Crick's landmark 1953 paper on the structure of DNA in the journal was not sent out for peer review at all?

The reasons, as stated by Nature's Emeritus Editor John Maddox were:

First, the Crick and Watson paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident. No referee working in the field (Linus Pauling?) could have kept his mouth shut once he saw the structure. Second, it would have been entirely consistent with my predecessor L. J. F. Brimble's way of working that Bragg's commendation should have counted as a referee's approval.

And Maddox's correspondence was titled: How genius can smooth the road to publication

The whole business of scientific publishing is murky and sometimes who you know counts more than what you know in order to get your foot into the 'club'. Even Maddox alluded to the existence of such an 'exclusive' club:

Brimble, who used to "take luncheon" at the Athenaeum in London most days, preferred to carry a bundle of manuscripts with him in the pocket of his greatcoat and pass them round among his chums "taking coffee" in the drawing-room after lunch. I set up a more systematic way of doing the job when I became editor in April 1966.

Monday, February 22, 2010

12 girls band

I spent my formative teen years in a relatively well-known cheena school in the eastern part of Singapore. It was a place where I spent 4 long years (even longer than the time I took to get my Bachelors degree) and have a love-hate relationship with.

One thing that has stuck in my mind all these years since leaving the school is relating all Chinese orchestral pieces to DHS. Afterall, those years were the first time I was exposed to the CO, and DHSCO was perhaps the most high profile ECA then at the school winning a large number of external awards and performing widely and regularly. It was the epitome of the school's "chinese" character, and in many ways its face to the public.

But I digress. I just want to say I like the music by 12 girls band. It brings back a flood of memories of sitting under the 木麻黄, watching/partaking in volleyball, basketball games while the background was filled with the sounds of my schoolmates plucking the various stringed instruments, blowing the flutes or hitting the drums. It wasn't the kind of pleasant harmony one would hear in a concert, but rather a discordant noisy mixture. And I actually grew to like that.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Academia (Tenure) as a Profzi Scheme

The headline hogging news to affect academia (at least in the US) this past weekend is the Amy Bishop Anderson tenure-denial mass murder case. Much had been discussed about about her sanity and intentions, and I won't dwell into them.

But it has brought to the forefront the issue of tenure for professors (the ultimate prize for all academia-focused postdocs and grad students). Even getting a tenure-track assistant professor position these days is highly competitive. Anecdotal stories by faculty search committees across a wide spectrum of disciplines tell of 500 - 700+ applicants per advertised vacancy.

A friend of mine, in his 4th or 5th year as a postdoc, was recently told that there is nothing else that he can do to improve his chances for a faculty job but to publish in Science or Nature. This was not for a job at Harvard or Standford[sic] or anywhere close. It came from people well towards the end of their career, who are sitting on the hiring committees and who have never ever published in Science or Nature.

Unrealistic expectations and pressure...

- Foreign and Female in Science

I chanced upon the webpage of someone who turned down a Singapore NRF to be an assistant professor in South Carolina (as of Feb 2010). He had a Science paper as a 1st author coming out of his postdoc in a respected lab and many others in well regarded high impact journals. Yet for all his efforts he only accepted a position at the University of South Carolina. No offense to South Carolina, but if someone who is highly productive with a Science paper can only get an offer from South Carolina then what about the rest of us with no Science or Nature publications?

On a side note, it is telling that Singapore's supposedly 'prestigious' research fellowship ranks below that of a tenure track assistant professorship at a second-tier American university. Why else would he choose not go to Singapore with a guaranteed seed funding of up to US$1.5 million in the first three years? I certainly do not think SC would be able to match Singapore's cash offer. Most US research faculty start-up packages in the sciences/engineering are usually in the region of about US$300K - 600K for up to five years.


Edit (24 Feb): Scientific American published a highly critical assessment of the state of the US academic job market.

Many Applicants, Few Academic Posts

The competition for science faculty jobs is so intense that every advertised opening routinely attracts hundreds of qualified applicants. Most PhDs hired into faculty-level jobs get so-called “soft-money” posts, dependent on the renewal of year-to-year funding rather than the traditional tenure-track positions that offer long-term security.

...But scientists are not generally recruited from the average students, Salzman notes, but from those with the top scores, of whom America has large numbers. Compared with the products of Asian secondary schools, American students “are free thinkers,” says Vivek Wadhwa of Duke and Harvard Universities. “They didn’t spend the last 12 years of their lives memorizing books…. They’ve spent the last 12 years dealing with real problems and solving them. [In America], you can walk up to your teacher and tell her that she’s wrong or he’s wrong.” In Asia, he continues, “you wouldn’t dare do that.”

...The American approach of temporarily funded labs staffed largely with student and postdoc labor offers several important advantages. It enlists the finest talent at the nation’s great universities in projects that meet national priorities set by the funding agencies or by Congress. It permits flexibility in selecting studies and researchers and the opportunity for rapid changes in direction because the grants are for specific purposes and last only a limited number of years. It elicits the best ideas and best work from highly motivated scientists because it chooses the grantees through a competitive system of merit rankings done by peer committees composed of academic experts in each field who serve as part-time judges. It frees the government from owning the labs and managing their staffs. And it allows federal dollars to do double duty—produce research results and provide education and support for the graduate students and postdoctoral associates who work on the projects in labs run by professors who pay them out of the grants.

This system produces superb science, but it has several serious drawbacks from the standpoint of recruiting and retaining scientists. First, it makes the funding of any particular lab inherently unstable and dependent on winning repeated grants and renewals, which places individual careers at the mercy of annual competitions. In times of very tight federal budgets, such as the present, this means that many labs, and even many well-established scientific careers, do not survive. Second, it produces not only educational opportunities and research results, but also a constant stream of newly fledged young researchers who need opportunities to start their own careers. “The way that U.S. staffs its labs puts so much pressure on the system to absorb the continual new cohort. And we haven’t had much luck in absorbing it,” says Georgia State’s Stephan.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Biopolis: The Science Factory

A*STAR's management of scientific research in Biopolis.

...To fuel this research, a Singapore government entity known as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) offers everything a scientist’s heart could desire: 2 million square feet of space outfitted with flow cytometers, nuclear magnetic resonance instruments and X-ray crystallography equipment; a vast supply center; and the ability to draw from the nearly $10 billion set aside for scientific research and development between 2006 and 2010.

But there’s a catch, and some researchers say it’s major. In exchange for plum working conditions, scientists must satisfy a list of key performance indicators. Everyone agrees to write a specified number of papers and file a minimum number of patent applications by a stated deadline (requirements vary from person to person). Contracts last just three to five years, and if scientists don’t deliver, they’re asked to leave. Setting such conditions enables Singapore’s business-minded officials to get rid of what they see as dead weight and to churn out science on a strict, predetermined schedule.


Although traditional tenure-track jobs are on the decline in the United States, many senior researchers and team leaders at universities, the NIH and other scientific facilities still hold permanent positions. At Biopolis, by contrast, everyone is on a short contractual leash of three to five years.

...Even directors such as Jackie Ying, who was raised in Singapore and taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before returning to head the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at Biopolis, are subject to the rapidly ticking contract renewal clock. Ying says the system “leaves little room for deadwood.”


“In a university environment, research can be curiosity-driven,” says A*STAR chairman Lim Chuan Poh. “Here, it must align with A*STAR’s mission: the impact on the economy.”

The above article became the subject of part of a conversation I had with an American colleague in my lab when he was bemoaning the state of the poor job market:

Me: You should apply to Singapore. They are always hiring.

Friend: That's because they are always firing.

Me: It's not that much different from working in a profit-driven company, where employment is at will, and you still need perform well during the quarterly/annual staff performance appraisal.

Friend: Maybe I should look into joining the (US) Federal Government.

Me: LOL.

Hat tip: twasher