Elsewhere in Science, 20 June 2014

PI Predictor

Each week, Science publishes a number of articles that are likely to be of interest to career-minded readers. Because those articles are published on the other Science sites, Science Careers readers could easily overlook them.

To remedy that, every Friday we're pointing our readers toward articles appearing in Science (the print magazine), online news, Science Translational Medicine (Sci. TM), and Science Signaling—that hold some relevance to careers in science and other technical fields. (Note that articles appearing in Sci. TM, Science Signaling, and Science may require AAAS—the publisher of Science Careers—membership, a Science subscription, or a site license.)

► In our weekly Elsewhere column, we’ve been tracking (via Science) developments in the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology STAP-cell case, because scientific misconduct is an important career issue. It has seemed likely for a while that the result, which appeared to demonstrate acquired pluripotency via a simple process, isn’t real.

A new ScienceInsider posted Monday, by Dennis Normile, reported that one of the article’s co-authors has now lost faith in the work, following a genetic analysis that apparently showed that, deliberately or not, cellular material had been switched. Teruhiko Wakayama, “a mouse cloning pioneer at University of Yamanashi,” had a third party conduct a genetic analysis of what were supposed to be STAP cells that he’d received from Haruko Obokata, the primary author of the Nature papers that reported the result. The tests showed that some of the cells were from a mouse strain that Wakayama had not provided. “This doesn't definitively show that STAP cells don't exist, but there is no evidence supporting their existence,” Wakayama said at a press conference.

Interestingly, senior authors on the papers seem to have made little effort to confirm Obokata's results. “Wakayama acknowledged sharing responsibility for the problems with the Nature papers,” Normile wrote. “But he noted that Obokata has an impressive educational background, had trained at Harvard, and was known as a superior researcher. She worked in his lab briefly and had consistently presented data at weekly meetings indicating her research was going well—so Wakayama says he didn't think he needed to ask to see her notebooks or raw data. But as a co-author, he says, ‘I should have confirmed [research data] at least to some extent.’ ”

► One common piece of career advice—I have often offered it myself—is to do what you’re good at. According to an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the females of the species Anelosimus studiosus, an arachnid, do exactly that. Aggressive spiders are most likely to be hunters, defenders, and web engineers, the researchers reported, whereas docile spiders are more likely to care for young.

Is it good advice? Apparently it is for the spiders, and for their offspring. “Compared with docile spiders, aggressive spiders are more than twice as effective at capturing prey; they construct webs that last 64% longer; and they are more than eight times as likely to successfully repel intruders by chasing them off and then buffering the colony with thick, mazelike matrices of silk. Likewise, when the colony hatched dozens of offspring, the little ones survived twice as long under the docile spiders’ care; the aggressive spiders had the unfortunate tendency to mistake their progeny for food,” Leah Shaffer wrote in a ScienceShot.

► Can you have too much talent on a team? In soccer at least—and also in basketball—apparently you can. A ScienceShot by Nathan Collins, published Tuesday, reported the result of an upcoming article in the journal Psychological Science: A soccer team benefits from elite players until they make up about 75% of the team, at which point the team’s performance (as measured by rankings “from the 2010 and 2014 World Cup qualification periods”) starts to decline with increasing talent. In basketball, the team is optimized when three-fifths of the players are elite. There is no such effect in baseball, however: In that sport, the more great players you have, the better.

What’s the difference? In soccer and basketball, players have overlapping roles. When a team has too many elite players, players “can end up fighting over the ball.” I’m sure there’s a career lesson in there somewhere.

► Mergers and acquisitions aimed at increasing efficiency have become ubiquitous in pharma and biotech—but proposed mergers by major nonprofit research institutions are rare. On Tuesday at ScienceInsider, Kelly Servick reported that the University of Southern California in Los Angeles is in merger talks with the Scripps Research Institute. Anonymous sources say that the talks are motivated by funding woes at Scripps, resulting from increased competition for funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Here’s hoping that this merger, if it occurs, doesn’t lead to the same outcome that for-profit mergers often do: staff firings aimed at eliminating the redundancies created by the merger.

A spending bill approved by the U.S. Senate appropriations committee would give the Department of Energy’s science program a modest boost of about $20 million, a fraction of a percent of a $5 billion budget and $25 million below President Barack Obama’s budget request.

► It’s a well-known story: As funding rates fall, researchers submit more grant proposals to improve their chances of getting funded—which causes funding rates to fall further. Reviewers, meanwhile, are buried under a sea of proposals. In this week’s Science, Jeffrey Mervis wrote, “Later this summer, NSF's [the National Science Foundation's] astronomy division intends to announce a new policy that will ‘strongly encourage’ scientists to submit just a single proposal for each annual funding cycle.” At first, the policy will be voluntary—but, says James Ulvestad, director of NSF's astronomy division, if it doesn't achieve the desired effect, “we may have to make it mandatory in 2016 for the sake of reviewers' sanity.”

► Also in this week’s magazine—inside the back cover—is “What it Takes,” the latest in the Science Careers-produced series Working Life. This week, one of us (Jim) describes a new Science Careers widget that can predict the odds of becoming a principal investigator on the basis of common publication metrics. Unfortunately, in revealing these connections, the widget makes plain “that the most important factors for career success are only weakly connected to doing good science.”

► On Thursday at ScienceInsider, David Malakoff reported on the Twitter frenzy that erupted after a black bear (Ursus americanus) climbed up one of the pine trees on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. Within hours the bear had his own Twitter handle: @NIH_Bear. “Who among you has not, when funding decisions weren't going your way, climbed a tree on the @NIH campus and eaten a librarian?” @NIH Bear asked via Twitter.

► Also on Thursday at ScienceInsider, Mervis reported on efforts by Senate appropriators to get “the National Science Foundation (NSF) to do more for faculty and students at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).” In language included with a 2015 spending bill, legislators ask that HBCUs receive at least three NSF Innovation Corps awards; they also call for NSF to “carve out $7.5 million from existing minority activities for a program aimed at attracting students into the life sciences,” and create an HBCU advisory panel. 

“ ‘We’re not pointing a finger at NSF,’ explains an aide to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is chaired by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD). ‘But we’ve heard from a lot of people representing the HBCU community that they could use a little help. It’s more a question of spotlighting an area that needs attention.’ ”

Top Image: CREDIT: Robert Neubecker

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