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