Elsewhere in Science, 20 September 2013

Tania Singer

Tania Singer

Every week, Science publishes a few articles that are likely to be of interest to career-minded readers. But because those articles aren't featured on Science Careers, our readers could easily overlook them.

To remedy that, every Friday we're pointing readers toward articles appearing in Science—the print magazine as well as the other Science-family publications (ScienceInsider, ScienceNow, Science Translational MedicineSci. TM—and Science Signaling)—that hold some relevance or nuggets of advice for readers interested in furthering their careers in science. (Please note that while articles appearing in ScienceInsider and ScienceNow can be read by anyone, articles appearing in Sci. TM and Science may require AAAS membership/Science subscription or a site license.)

  • In the News and Analysis section of Science, Jennifer Couzin-Frankel reports from the International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication in Chicago [[Chicago is a dateline city, no need to list the state]]on efforts to improve peer review and, hence, the quality of the scientific literature. Apparently, it's a difficult task. " 'Nothing much has changed in 25 years,' says Ana Marušić of the University of Split in Croatia, who studies research methodologies. 'It's always the same story.' Interventions to improve peer review fail again and again. Mentorship to train reviewers doesn't make a difference in their ability to spot problems in papers. And there is still scant evidence that peer review makes published papers any stronger." Peer review, it turns out, is difficult to study for the same reason it's difficult to do well: its "deeply subjective nature."
  • In the News Focus section, Kai Kupferschmidt writes about neuroscientist Tania Singer, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, who "has embarked on an ambitious study involving 160 participants to find out whether meditation can make people more compassionate." "Her program," Kupferschmidt writes, "combines rigorous neuroscience with a practice some scientists dismiss as subjective and spiritual: meditation." Her goal is to, in effect, find biomarkers for compassion in order "to make the world a better place."

    Meditation has gained some legitimacy in the scientific community over the  years, via scientific studies, meetings between Buddhists and scientists, and the appearance of the Dalai Lama at scientific meetings. Perhaps even more controversial than the scientific study of a practice many scientists consider "spiritual," though, is Singer's blending of the personal and the scientific.
  • There's been a lot of attention paid in recent years to the importance of undergraduate research in the retention of students in science and in training future generations of scientists. (It's also obligatory these days if you want to go to graduate school.) Gifted undergraduate students can make real, important contributions to science.

    Of course, sometimes that research strains the definition of the word "contribution". Two decades ago (as reported by John Bohannon in ScienceNow), Brian Crandall was still an undergraduate when he did the research for which he was awarded this year's Ig Nobel Prize in archaeology. Last week, on a Harvard University stage,  he dedicated his prize to "the people who ate whole parboiled shrews for his study of the effect of human digestion on tiny mammal skeletons," Bohannon reports.
  • In Australia, a few climate scientists are losing their appointed positions as a result of the recent change of government. Tony Abbott, the new prime minister who in 2009 called climate change "absolute crap," is abolishing the country's Climate Commission. His government has also begun drafting legislation that would abolish the country's Climate Change Authority, as Leigh Dayton reports on ScienceInsider.

    The Climate Commission was hardly a den of radicalism. Its six members included an economist and public policy expert, a former senior BP executive, an ecologist, a sustainable materials expert, and two climate change experts. The nine-member Climate Change Authority includes a neuroscientist—Ian Chubb, an ex-officio member and the commission's chief scientist—and a climate scientist, David Karoly. The other members are economists, business executives, and public-policy experts. Noting these developments, few would be surprised that Abbott's government won't include a science minister.
  • Eli Kintisch found, and passed along in a ScienceShot, "Bohemian Gravity," a video combining a capella and string theory. If you know a little physics, it's great fun.
  • Genetically modified "Golden Rice" makes two appearances in this week's issue: First, an editorial written by a group of prominent scientists including two former Science editors-in-chief condemns the destruction by activists in August of a Golden Rice field trial in the Philippines. The value of Golden Rice is in its engineered-in β-carotene, which can alleviate vitamin A deficiency and prevent blindness. The strain took a long time to develop; it's also taking a long time to get to people's rice bowls. "It took [researchers], in collaboration with IRRI, 25 years to develop and test varieties that express sufficient quantities of the precursor that a few ounces of cooked rice can provide enough β-carotene to eliminate the morbidity and mortality of vitamin A deficiency.‡ "

    The reference indicated by the double dagger is to a paper by G. Tang et al. in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In a ScienceInsider post, Martin Enserink reports that one Guangwen Tang of Tufts University in Boston has been barred from doing human research for 2 years, and will be required to undergo training in research on human subjects, for violating U.S. federal rules on the use of human subjects in research. The violations came during research on Golden Rice in China. After the study was published, in August 2012 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Greenpeace issued a statement "claiming that the children were used as 'guinea pigs,' and labeling the study a 'scandal of international proportions' " igniting "a media firestorm in China." Three Chinese collaborators at first denied involvement in the study, according to media reports, but were punished for their participation following an official investigation by Chinese authorities.

    So, scientists, mind your human subjects and other research ethics rules, especially when working in fields that get a lot of public scrutiny.
  • Science Careers' Michael Price took over ScienceLive this week, presenting a discussion on the use of journal impact factor in evaluating scientists and their science. At issue: whether it makes sense to evaluate scientists and their work on the basis of the prestige (and impact) of the journals they publish in. Guests included Sandra Schmid, chair of the cell biology department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and Heather Piwowar, a Vancouver-based postdoc at Duke University who is an expert in bibliometrics, and cofounder of ImpactStory.

    I could send you over to the News site to view this, but we've also archived the video discussion right here on Science Careers, so I'll send you there instead.

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