University tenure decisions still gloss over scientists’ public outreach
Analysis of internal documents shows that promotions and tenure largely depend on metrics such as the number of publications and citations.
Universities often tout their commitment to public outreach. But a new study of the internal guidelines for faculty tenure and promotion suggests that institutions don’t always put much value on public engagement.
“There’s a huge disconnect,” says lead author Juan Pablo Alperin, who studies scholarly communications at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. “Universities talk in a grandiose way about fulfilling the public mission. But when we look at the documents, they aren’t necessarily walking the walk.”
Alperin and his colleagues examined 864 documents used for review, promotion and tenure decisions (also called RPT documents) at 129 universities in the United States and Canada. The documents covered a wide array of disciplines, including life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics and social sciences. The team published their results1 on 1 October as a preprint in the Humanities Commons repository.
The researchers looked for keywords including ‘community’, ‘public’ and ‘impact’, and the context in which they appeared in the documents. The team found relatively few direct references to public outreach, a broad term that includes activities such as community-involved research projects or communications aimed at general audiences.
But they did find a large emphasis on publications and citations, the usual metrics of achievement. Grants, journal articles, books and other conventional scientific outputs were mentioned at least once in 90% to 95% of RPT documents from the universities (see ‘Measuring up’).
In terms of context, the word ‘community’ showed up in every document from universities with the most research activity. But it appeared most often within 15 words of the terms ‘university’, ‘service’, ‘faculty’ and ‘professional’, in that order, suggesting that the focus was largely on the academic community.
The word ‘impact’ also appeared in 94% of RPT documents from top research universities. And it was most associated with the words ‘research’, ‘candidate’, ‘work’ and ‘faculty’, in that order.
‘Public’ was number 88 on the list of terms likely to be within 15 words of ‘impact’. Taken together, the word groupings suggest a preoccupation with research-related impacts rather than the public-engagement ones, the authors conclude.
Alperin says word frequencies provide an empirical measure of the priorities of university departments and hiring committees.
He acknowledges, however, that words do not always equate with action. The analysis found plenty of hedge phrases such as ‘typically include’, suggesting that hiring committees had much leeway in their decisions, Alperin says. “These guidelines are written in a way that is purposefully vague.”
The use of ‘community’ in the documents underscores a long-standing issue at universities, says Emily Janke, an education and community engagement researcher at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Research projects that are conducted with input and guidance from members of the public are often seen as service not science, which automatically demeans the work. “RPT guidelines mainly value scholarship that can be counted and assessed within established academic conventions,” she says.
Most universities haven’t even started the conversation about weighing the importance of community involvement, says David Moher, a clinical epidemiologist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in Canada, who has studied the process of assessing scientists for promotion2.
“Universities need to engage in more discussions with their local communities to ascertain what’s important to them,” he says. “These discussions are more likely to happen if university leadership promotes such dialogue as important and relevant to the institution’s growth and development.”
Alperin notes that any change in the system generally requires a change of incentives. Words only go so far, he says, and altering the wording of the guidelines won’t necessarily give different outcomes.
Universities of all types rely largely on public funds to support research, Alperin says, so the motivation to improve public outreach should already be apparent.
First published on Nature Careers on 4 Oct 2018
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How to deliver sound science in resource-poor regions
A well-equipped laboratory stocked with reagents and supplied with uninterrupted electricity and unlimited water might seem like a basic requirement for conducting research. But scientists who work in regions that have limited resources or that are riven by conflict cannot take such amenities for granted. They must perpetually seek scarce grants, publish their own journals, form their own scientific societies and — crucially — draw on their deep reserves of resilience. Nature asked five such researchers how they run productive labs in the face of electricity shortages, border-checkpoint closures, poor Internet connections and other challenges. Marlo Mendoza: Engage with stakeholders Forestry researcher, University of the Philippines, Los Baños For the past 13 years, I have been profiling the contamination of the Marilao, Meycauayan and Obando River System (MMORS), which was on the ‘Dirty 30’ list of the most polluted places in the world in 2007, according to the non-profit organization Pure Earth. There are many polluting industries upstream, including the largest lead smelter in the Philippines, gold smelters, jewellery workshops and tanneries. Downstream are fish farms. We found elevated levels of heavy metals in the water, in the sediments and in fish, especially shellfish, which are sold in the local markets (M. E. T. Mendoza et al. J. Nat. Stud. 11, 1–18; 2012). At least 100,000 people in the municipalities of Marilao, Meycauayan and Obando, and in the metropolitan Manila area, are eating contaminated fish. There are no toxicologists in the area who can accurately diagnose illnesses connected with heavy-metal ingestion. So when we looked at medical records, there were no entries for heavy-metal poisoning. If we cannot prove that these metals are causing harm to people, it’s very difficult to convince policymakers and local executives to take action. We have no local laboratories that can analyse heavy metals found in fish, or in water or blood samples. Local officials, the governor and some of the mayors were really antagonistic because the fishing industry is a major source of income for these municipalities. I have been very careful, even from the outset, to always update the mayors on our projects, and I am accompanied by local and regional government representatives whenever I do my monitoring activities. I do nothing without their consent and am very transparent in my work. One of my strategies was to build a network of stakeholders — including national agencies such as the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources — that share my concerns. I also built a good rapport with people who live in the region. There are several associations for fishers and leather-makers in these areas, and we work with them and include them in consultations and meetings about water-quality management. Our project helped to have the area declared as a legally designated water-quality management area. That’s why we’re able to continue our work. We used funding from Pure Earth to do regular longitudinal sampling in sections of the river system, including of sediment, water, fish and other aquatic life. There’s a problem collecting data and samples, because it is costly and the national and local governments have limited funds. There is also no single repository of data with which monitoring can be more effectively planned and analysed. Our monitoring results were included in a Pure Earth database that was shared with other stakeholders, including regional environmental-management offices and local government units. In turn, this encouraged those agencies to conduct studies to complement our work and to share their data. So I was able to get money from the Asian Development Bank, Green Cross Switzerland and the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation, as well as a small amount from the Coca-Cola Company, to conduct environmental monitoring — including assessment of heavy metals in selected aquatic organisms. Emmanuel I. Unuabonah: Use available resources Materials chemist, Redeemer’s University, Osun State, Nigeria Potable water is a challenge for us here in Africa and across the world: around 1.8 billion people worldwide get their drinking water from a source that is polluted with faeces. As part of our work, we are developing hybrid clay composites to adsorb enteric bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella species and Vibrio cholerae, from water. We also use composites made from readily available materials such as kaolinite clay, papaya seeds and plantain peels to extract heavy metals from water. We are not funded by the government. On average, for close to 100 days a year, we have no electricity. We have an alternative utility on campus, so when the power goes off at the national grid during work hours, the generator comes on. If we get lucky with timings, we are guaranteed 36 hours of uninterrupted power to run experiments. But when the generator isn’t running and the grid power has gone off, we just have to wait. Sometimes I use my salary to fund my research and to keep our students. Then I have to struggle to write international grants. I’m so grateful to The World Academy of Sciences in Trieste, Italy; the last grant it gave in 2014 (for US$63,230) took care of stipends, school fees and research expenses for the students, and we used part of it to buy equipment. A colleague at the University of Edinburgh, UK, sent us a $600 bacteria-testing kit last year, but we can’t use it now because a related microscope part was damaged by a power surge. We have a lot of wonderful ideas, wonderful theses just hanging about the shelves, but nobody’s utilizing them. Some young scientists developed cheap electrical power systems from electronic waste materials, but they don’t have the money to develop them further. Nigeria has a thriving oil industry, but the government’s Petroleum Trust Development Fund uses oil-industry proceeds mostly to fund scholarships for Nigerian students abroad, and spends very little on scientific research. Kalulu Muzele Taba: Aim for the possible Organic chemist, University of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo Our research seeks to solve problems that have societal impacts, such as malaria, which is endemic in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). People in the poorest areas of Kinshasa are growing about 55 different plants, including citronella and papaya, to try to treat the symptoms of the disease. We thought, why not investigate these plants? We tested eight of the most-used plants and showed that extracts and metabolites had considerable antimalarial activities. We have a small booklet in French and in the local language, Lingala, that we send to people to explain how to use these plants more effectively. We are also studying plant extracts that can be used to treat antibiotic-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis (K. B. M. Jose et al. Med. Clin. Rev. 4, 5; 2018), using a grant from The World Academy of Sciences. We don’t get money from the state. In our lab, we don’t have equipment. We don’t have money to buy solvents. Water is available between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., so we have a container that collects water at night, and during the day we have a pump. For electricity it’s much harder. In the middle of the day, it can come and go many times, and you hope it won’t go while you’re working. We used to have a small generator as a backup for computers, but it’s broken. We don’t fold our hands and cry and say that things will get better. We do whatever we can. Most of the time we buy our own reagents and solvents with our salaries. We try to motivate our master’s and PhD students by finding a way to collaborate with the outside, writing to foreign labs to see whether our students can get overseas fellowships. One student, Joséphine Ntumba, went abroad three times, to the Catholic University of Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. She has completed her PhD and teaches at the University of Kinshasa. I did my PhD at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and then went to the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany. It was hard to come back. It was not only material, but mental too. I knew that some things would be impossible, but I feel that I have to contribute and inspire young people in science. For the past five or six years, I have been the editor-in-chief of the journal Congo Sciences, which I co-founded. We started it because we wanted to bring visibility to research done in the country. The journal was financed for some time by the Academy of Research and Higher Education (ARES) in Brussels. The academy has stopped funding it now, but we are still publishing the journal. For the past ten years, I’ve been trying to create an academy of sciences for the DRC, similar to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. We have to try to get scientists together and to speak as one voice, and then perhaps the state can start understanding that financing research at the university is important. These are some of the things that make me feel happy that I came back home. Maybe I lost a lot as a scientist, but as a Congolese, I hope I can do something for my place, and for the world. To scientists working in comparable circumstances, I would say that although it’s hard, it’s not impossible. Know that you should find maybe not the best solution, but the least-worst one. GGateway students on the training scheme in information technology funded by the Basque government.Credit: Mohammed Safia Rasha Abu-Safieh: Choose the positive Computer engineer and co-founder of GGateway, Gaza Strip I co-founded GGateway, a social-enterprise company in the Gaza Strip that provides outsourcing services for information and communications technology (ICT) around the world. We offer training and employment to recent university graduates in Gaza with ICT degrees. Our main goal with GGateway is to help people to have a source of income. With the shortage of clean water, the polluted sea and the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt since 2007, living conditions here are dire. We came up with the idea of GGateway in 2012. In November 2013 we launched a pilot, and in February 2015 we got the green light from the Korea International Cooperation Agency for a $1.3-million grant to fund our plan. That was one of the biggest, happiest things that ever happened to us. We were running a pilot project for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), but in July and August 2014 we had the 50 days of conflict with Israel. That was difficult: the bombing went on all day, there was no electricity and we had limited access to water and food. There was no safe zone, no safe area. So we had to stop our first project. Two days after a ceasefire ended the conflict, we wrote up another eight new concepts for different projects, and the UNRWA agreed to operate three. We could either be positive or cry all day. We chose the positive side and to move on. The cables that we use for all our technical networks are on the list of items that Israel does not allow to enter Gaza. With the support of the UNRWA, it took us nearly four months to bring them in from Israel. Without the UNRWA, it would have taken us a year or more. We also use a generator because most days we get electricity for two to four hours. The overall unemployment rate among graduates in Gaza with ICT degrees is 70%. Among female ICT graduates, it’s 92%. We applied for grants that focus on vulnerable women, and got one from the Basque government in Spain to train 60 female graduates for jobs. We also got a grant from the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative to empower and train 300 ICT graduates to become professional freelancers, and won a $3-million grant in June from the World Bank to train students and software engineers. We have contracts with UN Women and UN Habitat. We are able to travel outside Gaza only two to three times a year, maximum, and sometimes not at all; we need to apply for an exit permit from Israel with support of the UNRWA. Sometimes we are accepted, sometimes rejected; no reason is given. We often lose opportunities if we are registered for a conference, for example, or for training. When we see what we are doing — that it’s changing people’s lives, despite all of the difficulties around us — it makes us feel good. Elizabeth Tilley: Focus on small but crucial changes Sanitation economics researcher, University of Malawi, The Polytechnic, Blantyre I came to Malawi in 2015 after 9 years as a project officer and PhD student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Dübendorf. I had worked on sanitation projects in Nepal, South Africa, Tanzania and Nicaragua. Most of my work in Malawi now is teaching and supervising master’s and PhD students on such projects as making fuel briquettes out of dried faecal sludge. We work on ‘shit-flow diagrams’ — trying to map and understand where excreta is being generated and how much of it is being treated. We have a very bad Internet connection, and it’s a barrier to downloading files or making Skype calls. We don’t have subscriptions to journals. We have 30 computers for 4,000 students. Paper and photocopying are very expensive. We go days without water to even flush the toilets. At the university, we don’t have toilet paper, so I bring my own each day and I keep a secret bottle of soap. The research agenda in Malawi is driven by big donors from the global north, including national governments such as Norway and Japan, and private donors and non-governmental organizations. Very little funding goes to African researchers for work on topics that they’ve identified themselves. The fact that northern countries offer funding opportunities to those in the global south is an excellent form of development. But some proposals call for the participation of a southern partner with no requirements for the division of funding. This means that the southern partner is sometimes given a limited budget for limited work that has limited impact. I would encourage northern researchers to think about doing sabbaticals in African universities. It gives the southern researcher a chance to focus on publications or research, to be exposed to new ideas and methods, and to connect with a broader network, and the northern researcher can learn how things operate in the south and appreciate what works well at home. When you start to think about how crushing the whole system is, you can go crazy. I had a student who just wrote to tell me that he got into a master’s programme in the United States, and to thank me for the reference letter. He’s so excited, and that’s the kind of thing I can hold on to for a couple of months. First submitted on Nature Careers on 24 July 2018 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05768-9
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Working Scientist podcast: How to beat research funding's boom and bust cycle
Julie Gould and Michael Teitelbaum discuss the highs and lows of funding cycles and how to survive them as an early career researcher. Your browser does not support the audio element. In the penultimate episode of this six-part series on grants and funding, Julie Gould asks how early career researchers can develop their careers in the face of funding's "boom and bust" cycle and the short-termism it engenders. Governments are swayed by political uncertainty and technological developments, argues Michael Teitelbaum, author of Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent. In the US, for example, space research funding dramatically increased after Soviet Russia launched the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957, ending after the 1969 moon landing. Similar booms followed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, says Teitelbaum, a Wertheim Fellow in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and senior advisor to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York. But he argues that they are unsustainable and can have a negative impact on the careers of junior scientists and their research. Will Brexit trigger a funding downturn, and if so, for how long? Watch this space, says Teitelbaum. Sponsored content: European Research Council (ERC) Retired Portuguese Navy Captain Joaquim Alves, a principal investigator at the Centre for the History of Science and Technology, University of Lisbon, leads the European Research Council project MEDEA-CHART, dedicated to the study of medieval and early modern nautical charts. He describes his career and the support he has received from the ERC. TRANSCRIPT Julie Gould and Michael Teitelbaum discuss the highs and lows of funding cycles and how to survive them as an early career researcher. Julie Gould Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to the fifth and penultimate episode of our series on funding. In the previous episode, we looked at a recent major upheaval in the UK science funding environment, with the creation of UK Research and Innovation. This time, we’re looking at some of the processes that determine how funding decisions are and have been made in the past, and what impact that these decisions can have on careers in scientific research. But before we go on, don’t forget that at the end of this Working Scientist podcast, we’ve got a ten-minute sponsored slot from the European Research Council. Right, so funding – how do governments decide where to put their money? Professor Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, has studied how funding has been allocated in the US since the world wars, and he’s found that funding comes in cycles, and he calls them "alarm/boom/bust" cycles, and I asked Michael to give us a quick, simple introduction into what these cycles are. Michael Teitelbaum Government funding for basic research often runs in cycles. Politicians and governments decide that there needs to be more funding for basic research and they often will raise the funding quite rapidly to show a significant effect, but then are unable to sustain that rate of increase. Sometimes the funding even declines subsequently. So, you get a cycle of boom followed by bust, over a period of perhaps a decade. My conclusion is that this is quite unhealthy for basic research, which is a quintessentially long-term kind of activity involving long study periods to become fully professional, followed by long careers in basic research. If the funding increases sharply and then doesn’t continue to increase or declines, that is very destabilising for both basic research itself and for career prospects in basic research. Julie Gould And why do you think the governments react in such a way by actually putting quite considerable sums of money towards whatever basic research they’re aiming to fund? Michael Teitelbaum It’s not universal, but it’s common that governments are convinced by industry or by academic institutions that they have been funding basic research insufficiently, and they tend to over-respond to that kind of representation by increasing funding at levels that cannot be sustained over the longer term. Julie Gould Why would you say that these cycles are destructive towards the careers of researchers? Michael Teitelbaum Well, the problem is that basic research and careers in basic research are fundamentally long-term propositions, and this kind of funding which is for a period of years and then disappears is destabilising to a system that requires many years of graduate and advanced study and research to become a professional in basic research. And research projects that take many years to develop, you can’t really achieve a great deal in basic research in only a few years, and if you study for 8-10 years or more to become a research scientist, you might find yourself, with these short cycles of funding, you might find yourself finishing your studies just in time to face a very poor career situation in those fields. Julie Gould In his book called Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Michael explored some of these "alarm/boom/bust" cycles in the US from the past century. Now one of the examples he uses in the book is the shock of the successful 1957 Soviet Union launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1. Michael Teitelbaum This led to what I would consider to be a near political panic among leaders of the US government, especially people such as Lyndon Johnson who was then majority leader in the US Senate, and led to an enormous increase in funding for space and rocketry and controls for catching up with the Soviet Union in space. That cycle ended with the success of John F Kennedy’s promise to successfully land humans on the Moon and return them to Earth safely by the end of the 1960s. When that spectacular achievement was achieved, the political system tended to lose interest in the massive funding for the space programme and there was a bust. The third cycle in the 1980s was stimulated by then President Reagan’s so-called Strategic Defense Initiative - critics called it the Star Wars Initiative - which led to massive funding, but only short-term for that initiative. And then the final two cycles that I identify in the book were different in the sense that they weren’t military, they weren’t strategic in that sense. The first was the internet, the boom resulting from the internet becoming a commercial activity rather than a research or academic activity and the expansion therefore of the internet and other kinds of booms in the 1990s. Again, that was in the private sector not in the government sector. And finally, overlapping that was a decision by the US Congress and the presidential leadership of both parties to double funding over a five-year period for the National Institutes of Health. A massive increase for five years, averaging about 14% per year that then was followed by flat funding for subsequent years. Julie Gould So, what cycle are we in at the moment? Michael Teitelbaum One of the characteristics of a cycle like this is you don’t know it’s a cycle until it finishes, so we can’t be sure at this point that we’re in an ‘alarm/boost/bust’ cycle. We could just be in an alarm and boom cycle without a bust to follow – we will have to come back and talk in five years to see if there is a bust that ensues at the end. But the current boom situation is in information technology, in social media, in fields that are largely created by industry and particularly by firms in Silicon Valley and in the Seattle area, led by Intel and Microsoft in particular. In terms of their lobbying, they argue they cannot find the skilled personnel they need to remain competitive internationally, that there’s a shortage of skilled personnel in these fields. It’s not a new claim. It’s been a claim that was common in all of these other booms and busts over the previous half-century. But their goal is not to encourage a funding boom from the federal government for their fields because they are in the commercial sector and they’re profit-seeking firms. What they’re looking for – and they’ve been successful in their lobbying efforts – is large-scale access to temporary workers coming from low-wage countries, largely via visas with hot names like H1B and L1 and so on. They’ve been quite successful with getting these short-term, temporary workers – large numbers of them in the hundreds of thousands – claiming that otherwise they would not be able to continue to be competitive internationally. And then there’s also parallel lobbying from higher education groups. Their goals are indeed to increase research grant funding because it’s a very substantial source of revenue for them, but also to continue to have easy access to large numbers of international graduate students who pay full tuition. Julie Gould How can early career researchers keep track of these cycles and see and feel what’s happening and learn to navigate them? Michael Teitelbaum I think the key words would be pay attention and be flexible. If you’re an early career researcher or aspiring to be a researcher in one of these fields, you need to keep track of what we are discussing here in terms of increased funding from government sources or decreased funding, increased numbers of temporary visas or decreased numbers of temporary visas. All of these things will have some impact over time on your personal experience. So, you need to pay attention, for example, to the trajectories of key science funding agencies. I would say a way to do that is to pay attention to reports from credible publications that do report in an objective way on what is happening in the politics, if you will, of funding and of temporary visas. You would have to pay attention to the budget requests of key agencies and assess whether those requests are likely, if they are responded to positively, are they likely to be sustainable over the longer term, or are they likely to be short-term pulses of funding, which would be destabilising. And then those who are already doing research and are funded by government agencies need to be cautious in responding to requests for proposals that seem to be short-term pulses of funding or boom-type funding. They need to build a portfolio, I would say, of different funding sources, rather than depend on a particular source that seems to be flush with money at the moment but may not be in the future. In other words, the same kind of advice that any investment advisor would give to a client – that they should diversify their commitments and thereby reduce their exposure to risk in the future. Julie Gould Speaking of the future, the impact that political systems have on scientific funding and thinking back on the previous episode with James Wilsdon on the UK scientific funding environment, I asked Michael what he thought might happen - or not - with Brexit - or not. Michael Teitelbaum If that were to happen – I know there’s a great deal of concern in the UK among academic institutions in terms of whether they would be able to apply what has become quite a large amount of basic research funding from the European Union – I think that’s all up in the air now so I don’t think we can make any forecasts or projections about what will happen, but it’s an issue that I think should be watched. If I were a young scientist engaged in pursuing a career in basic research in the UK, I would be paying a lot of attention to this. Julie Gould Okay, well let’s chat again in five years’ time. Michael Teitelbaum Laughs. I don’t think we need five years for that one, that’s probably two years, but it’s not now – we can’t do it now. Julie Gould So, what does this all mean? Well, the long and short of it is we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but what I think we can say is that the funding environment at the moment is a difficult one to navigate, so the more skills and tools amassed for writing grant proposals will be vital for survival in the scientific workforce. In the final episode of this series, we’ll hear more about some alternative ways of distributing scientific funding that may alleviate some of the pressures that researchers face in the current, very competitive climate. Now, that’s all for this section of our Working Scientist podcast. We now have a slot sponsored by and featuring the work of the European Research Council. Joaquim Alves Gaspar tells of his work in cartography and with the European Research Council project MEDEA-CHART. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould. Joaquim Alves Gaspar My name is Joaquim Alves Gaspar. I was born in Lisbon, Portugal 69 years ago. I joined the Portuguese Navy when I was 19, and I served for about 40 years. In 2006, that is 12 years ago, I started a PhD programme on the geometric analysis and numerical modelling of old nautical charts, which I completed in 2010. In my thesis, I have proposed and tested a series of cartometric methods, that means geometrical methods of analysis and numerical modelling, aimed at a better understanding of how old charts were constructed and used at sea. As soon as I got the degree, I was invited to become a member of a research centre in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Lisbon, where I am now and where I have been working for eight years, first as a postdoctoral researcher and now, after winning the grant, as a principal investigator. Most of what I know about the technical and the scientific methods related to the history of nautical cartography, I learned it from the Navy. I am not only referring to the theoretical background which people can study from the books, but also to the actual experience of contacting a ship at sea, and using nautical charts for the planning and the execution of navigation. It was this knowledge and this experience that gave me the capacity to fully understand old charts, not only as historical artefacts, but images of the world, which is a traditional approach, but also and mostly as instruments to navigate. This is something that a traditional historian of cartography is not prepared to do. By looking into those charts with the eyes of a cartographer and of a navigator and with the assistance of the analytical and modelling tools that I have developed, I could establish a meaningful connection between the methods of chart construction in all kinds, of course, as described in the historical sources and the practice of navigation. This development has opened new and promising lands of research. That is what my ERC project is about. I applied to and I won a starting grant in the section S6 – that is the history of the human past. It was at that time the first ever Portuguese proposal to be accepted in that particular section. It was the first ever grant that was considered to a project on the history of cartography and also, as far as I know, no one is using these kinds of techniques to study old maps. The total amount of the grant is about €1.2 million, to be applied during five years. The funding will be mostly used to pay the six grantees now working with us to cover travel expenses and to buy some equipment. We have a team of eight members: the PI (myself), a retired Navy officer, a senior researcher who is a physicist who converted to the history of science and he is now the head of the department of history and philosophy science, a postdoctoral researcher who is also a physicist by education, three PhD students, a junior computer expert who is developing our information systems and a project manager and she is a neuroscientist by education. Of these, only one of the PhD students is an historian by education. This tells us something about what I have called the multidisciplinary nature of my project. The general objective of the project, as stated in my proposal, is to solve a series of questions which have, should I say, eluded historians of cartography for a very long time, pertaining to the birth, the technical evolution and the use of nautical charts during the Middle Ages and also the early modern period. For example, we want to clarify when, how, why and where the first nautical charts were constructed. This is a very popular subject among the international community of historians of cartography. Not only we have been very successful in bringing many of them to the discussion, but also significant progress has been made in the last year. For example, it is now consensual among us that the oldest nautical charts were constructed using navigational information collected by the pilot at sea. Certain distortions affecting the old charts were caused by the use of magnetic compasses to navigate, which as you know, don’t point exactly to the geographical north. The difference is the so-called declination, magnetic declination. The novelty in my project is that we intend to provide good answers to those questions by using what we call a multidisciplinary approach including a novelty of techniques of geometrical analysis, numerical modelling, carbon-14 dating and multispectral analysis of the old parchments, which will complement, of course, the traditional methods of historical research. So far, one and a half years after the project started, the results are promising. Aim the highest possible and don’t just give it a try – do it using everything you’ve got. Don’t be humble. ERC grants are intended to be given to the very best researchers proposing the best projects. If you are confident that you have an excellent idea, one that will make the panel members raise out of their chairs, and that you are the right person to make it work, then don’t be shy. Go for it. However, having made the decision of proceeding to the next stage, you will now need a great deal of humbleness to be able to create the best possible proposal. The reason is that you will have to engage into an extremely competitive process with highly competent and motivated people. In other words, you will have to work hard and be professional. It took me a full year to write the proposal, despite my experience and background. Let me elaborate a bit on this. You know you have a wonderful idea, otherwise you wouldn’t have engaged in the process. The job now will be to organise each idea into a meaningful and visible project, and of course, to convince the evaluation panel that you are the best possible person to make it work. Don’t leave anything to fortune or chance, so that you won’t blame yourself for not taking into account all the variables. That’s all I have to advise. One of the unwritten goals of the project is to pass the message. I won’t live forever and I want my methods and my techniques to be passed and to be used again by other people, and Portugal is the best place because I also want to give a push to the research on the subject of Portugal. Originally posted on Nature Careers - 01 February 2019 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00403-7
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Working Scientist podcast: The grant funding lottery and how to fix it
Julie Gould discusses some radical alternatives to the current grant funding system to help address bias and better support early career researchers Your browser does not support the audio element. In the final episode of our six-part series on funding, Feric Fang, a professor in the departments of laboratory medicine and microbiology at the University of Washington, Seattle, describes how a two-tier "modified lottery" could be a fairer process, with grants randomly prioritised to applications that had some merit but did not attract funding first time round. New Zealand's Health Research Council already operates a similar system, says Vernon Choy, the council's director of research investments and contracts. Its Explorer Grants panel does not discuss rankings but instead judges if an application's proposals are viable and if they meet an agreed definition of "transformative." These applications then go into a pool and a random number generator is applied to allocate funding based on the budget available. Because applications are anonymised, Choy says there is no bias against a particular institution or research team, allowing young and inexperienced researchers to compete more fairly against senior colleagues. Johan Bollen, a professor at Indiana University's school of informatics, computing and engineering, describes how a Self Organising Funding Allocation system (SOFA) would work, removing the burden of writing grant applications. "What if we just give everybody a pot of money at the beginning of the year and then redistribute a certain percentage to others?" he asks. Paid content: European Research Council "We are open to the world" says European Research Council president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon. Its grantees straddle 80 nationalities and the organisation has signed collaboration agreements with 11 countries, including China, India, Brazil, Australia and Japan. Helen Tremlett, who leads the pharmacoepidemiology in multiple sclerosis research group at the University of British Columbia, Canada, spent time in the lab of an ERC grantee at the Max Planck Institute in Munich, Germany. This experience, along with the publication of a 2011 paper in Nature looking at how the gut microbiome may be influential in triggering the animal model of MS, had career-changing consequences, leading her down a new research path. TRANSCRIPT Julie Gould discusses some radical alternatives to the current grant funding system to help address bias and better support early career researchers Julie Gould: Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This is the final episode of our series on funding, but just a quick note, don’t forget that there’s also a final ten-minute sponsored slot at the end of this Working Scientist podcast from the European Research Council. Now, throughout this series, we’ve heard a lot about funding – what’s the best way to prepare for writing a grant, how to write that grant, how to make sure it gets read, how to prepare for an interview should you have one, and then we looked a little bit broader at the funding environment. Now, one of the things that I found really interesting, if we look back at the very first episode, is something that Elizabeth Pier said about what her research suggested.... Elizabeth Pier: Given that top 50% of proposals, after you’ve already excluded the ones that really have no chance of being funded initially, there really is a lot of randomness, but even more so, there’s already randomness, such that the applications that have been weeded out, so to speak, and don’t get the opportunity to be discussed in the meeting, might actually have a lot of merits. Had it been assigned to a different panel with different reviewers, it very well could have gone on to be discussed. Julie Gould: So, what you’re saying really is that luck plays a very large role in whether or not your research gets funded. Elizabeth Pier: Yes, that is what our results suggest. Julie Gould: And then add to that what Michael Teitelbaum mentioned in our fifth episode, that the NIH has experienced a period of flat funding for the last couple of decades, which has added stress to the system. Michael Teitelbaum: In the 1990s, was a decision by the US Congress and the presidential leadership of both parties to double funding over a five-year period for the National Institutes of Health, a massive increase for five years, averaging about 14% per year, that then was followed by flat funding for subsequent years. Julie Gould: As Michael mentioned, it’s difficult to tell whether or not you’re going to be in a boom/bust cycle when you’re actually in it, but this prolonged period of flat funding might not be part of a cycle at all. It might be a new norm. Ferric Fang: And I think for a long time, people thought this is going to be cyclical, and things are good and then they’re bad and then they’re good again, and we just have to wait. But I think it’s gradually dawned on people that it’s not cyclical in any kind of an orderly way, and that it may be the new normal for scientific funding, where there’s a shortage of funding for the size of the workforce and there’s a problem with job opportunities for new trainees, and this is something that I think is belatedly being addressed. Julie Gould: So, that was Ferric Fang and he’s a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and he, like many others, is concerned that the current funding system in the United States isn’t working. So, in a time when there’s inadequate funding for the size of the scientific workforce and the researchers are spending increasing amounts of time applying for this funding, what is the best way of allocating not-enough money to more researchers than the system can support? So, Ferric and a colleague of his, Arturo Casadevall, suggest that a modified lottery system, like the one Libby Pier suggested in the first episode of this series, could be the answer. Ferric Fang: And we came up with the idea of a two-tiered lottery system where initially there could be a review to divide grants into these two hypothetical stacks of high-quality grants and then the others, and the other grants could be sent back to be revised and hopefully improved and many of them could come back and eventually enter the lottery. And then you would have the other grants which are all judged to be of high enough quality to be supported, and then you would see how much funding was available, and you would randomly then prioritise the grants and you would fund accordingly. And you could introduce lots of nuances into the system, in terms of the number of grants that any given investigator could have in the lottery. Julie Gould: Now, as well as the benefits of reducing the amount of money and time spent on peer review, Ferric and Arturo argue that it could have wider implications for the entire funding environment. Ferric Fang: And a school that had a large number of researchers could be reasonably certain, based on laws of probability, that they would get a fairly predictable amount of funding based on the meritorious work that their researcher were doing, even though there would be little fluctuations. I think because of the large numbers it would even out. Another thing you could do is go to policymakers and say this is the amount of meritorious proposals that our scientific enterprise is producing and yet we’re only funding a small percentage of them, and this could be the basis for making more rational assessments of how much research funding should really be allocated in a budget. Julie Gould: I asked Ferric what he thought people might think of this modified lottery-style funding. Ferric Fang: I think a lot of people’s initial reaction to it would be that it would be leaving the future of the scientific enterprise to chance. But it’s no more irrational than trying to hedge your bets when you’re trying to invest economic resources for your future and trying to figure out how to make a diversified portfolio. We really want to make sure that our blind spots, in terms of our biases, aren’t preventing us from funding ideas that could really be transformative for society in the future. Julie Gould: Now actually, this modified lottery system does already exist. So, to fund any innovative and transformative research, the Health Research Council in New Zealand set up their explorer grant, which operates as a modified lottery system. Vernon Choy, who’s a director of Research Investments and Contracts at the Health Research Council, told me a little bit about their system and how it’s working for them. Vernon Choy: So, the way that it works is we do use a panel, but the panel does not discuss the ranking of the applications that come through to us. What they do is they provide us with an opinion on whether the application is transformative and we do have a particular definition of transformative. So, they must decide whether the application is transformative and they must also decide whether the application or the research proposed is viable. So, having reached the point where the panel agree that an application is fundable and meets the requirements of the explorer grant guidelines, then those applications go into a pool or thunderball and then we use a random number generator to allocate the funds to those applications using the random numbers that are then ranked, and then we fund according to that random rank to fit within the budget available for that particular round. Julie Gould: And how has this particular mode of allocating funding been received by the scientists and the health researchers in New Zealand? Vernon Choy: Well it’s surprising. At the time, we felt that this was going to be highly controversial, and in some respects, it was and still is, and obviously there has been a continued interest internationally in the explorer grant, but from our point of view, our researchers have accepted both the way that we allocate the funds and also the way that we determine eligibility or fundability. We did a survey back in 2017 of people that had applied for the fund to gauge their thoughts on both the format, the allocation method, the processes overall, and basically, we had quite good from everybody. One of the things – and I haven’t talked about this – but one of the things that we do is the applications are anonymised so that in determining whether an application is eligible, there’s no bias against any particular institution or against any particular team of researchers. When the process was first announced and we had a huge number of applications, and one of the reasons we were told was well this was a fund that allowed young, inexperienced researchers to compete against senior researchers and because there was no bias towards the experienced researchers. The other thing that we’ve investigated is the gender balance in the applications because of the anonymisation, and I would like to say that there was no gender bias in these applications, but from our initial look at numbers, there is still a slight bias towards men – not a huge one, only 3-4% – but it’s still slightly different between men and women. So, that’s difficult to say why that might be. Potentially it could be the style of text and the way that people write, but apart from that we’re quite happy with the explorer grant so far, and I’m expecting that the funds that we have available to allocate this way will increase. Julie Gould: So, time will only tell whether or not this is really a great system, and maybe expanding it further will give people a better idea of how it will work across a larger research system. But there are others who are taking different approaches, and one of these was by Johan Bollen who’s a professor at Indiana University. He and his colleague Marten Scheffer, out of sheer frustration with the time-consuming and expensive funding system that’s currently in place, thought well what if we just give everybody a pot of money at the beginning of the year, and then implement a rule where everybody has to redistribute a certain percentage of their money to another scientist. So, they’ve called it ‘self-organised funding allocation’ or SOFA for short. And here’s Johan describing how it works. Johan Bollen: Essentially, you’re a young researcher, you’ve just been hired as an assistant professor and at the end of the year you receive a fixed and unconditional amount of base funding in your research funding account at the university, and you know that the re-donation fraction is 50%, which means that you can keep 50% of that and then the other 50% you’d have to donate to other researchers of your choosing. You log into a website that could be run by the National Science Foundation and you enter the names. There could even be a pull-down list. There could even be, I wouldn’t call it a recommendations system, but an order completion system where you enter the names of the scientists that you would like to donate a fraction of that 50% to, and when the system has determined that you have completed the list of names and the relative fractions and it adds up the 50% of the money you have received, you hit submit and you’re done. The next year you receive the same base amount and perhaps funding from other scientists that saw you speak at a conference or that read your paper and really liked the work that you do and would like to support it. You add it all up, again you take 50% for your own research needs and the other 50% again, you log into the website and you enter the names of the individuals and how much money, or percentage of the money that you’re supposed to donate, that you wish to donate to them and then hit submit, and you’re done for another round. Julie Gould: But how would you then decide who to give your money to? I mean so you want to get rid of the time-consuming grant proposal writing – yes, I know it can be a painful process – but then how does a person decide who to give their money to if they don’t have all these grant proposals to read. Johan Bollen: This question is asked lots – how do you know who to give your money to – and the thing is that as scientists you’re supposed to know who does the most exciting work in your area. I mean that’s how we write our papers. If you look at the bibliographies in our papers, our references etc., they’re essentially a testament to the obligation that we have to stay abreast of the developments in our area. You’re not very good as a scientist if you don’t know about the work that’s happening in your research area. And so that same assumption is true if people would have to make decisions about who to pass their money on to, and so you can actually show mathematically that under the right conditions, this process of the money being passed from one person to the next could lead to convergence of funding across the entire community that reflects all of the knowledge in the system, not just of one particular individual, but of all individuals that participate in the system. Julie Gould: What would stop people from just funding their colleagues, their collaborators or even their friends? Johan Bollen: First of all, I don’t know whether that’s such a bad thing to begin with. People do collaborate and they don’t just collaborate within institutions, they collaborate externally, but if you’re really concerned about it, you could very easily enforce the exact same kind of conflict of interests rules that we have right now with respect to the submitting and review of proposals. For example, you could introduce a rule that you couldn’t donate to people within your same institution and, for example, that you couldn’t donate to the same people more than two years in a row. You could even mandate that a given fraction of your money goes to underrepresented groups. So, there’s a lot of social distortions that you could fix very easily by limiting on the basis of very reasonable arguments who to donate the money to. Julie Gould: And what about the early career researchers, those researchers that are just starting off in their career in science. How do they promote themselves in order to get some of the funding from other people? Johan Bollen: Well, first of all, everybody receives the same amount of funding regardless of your merit or how well-known you are, everybody receives the same base amount, so all of those young researchers have the base amount to begin with. Then of course there’s a challenge in getting your name out and convincing the community at large that you’re doing good work. That involves going to conferences, giving presentations, getting in touch with your colleagues. These are the kind of things that young researchers do anyway, but now of course it would be crucial to getting their name out. So, I think it would benefit the overwhelming majority of early career researchers. Julie Gould: Nobody really knows how this scientific funding system is going to organise itself over the coming years, but I would be really keen to hear your thoughts. What do you think of this concept of a self-organised funding system or even the modified lottery system which is already in place in New Zealand? Or have you got any experiments or paradigm-shifting ideas of how the funding system could be changed? If you have, get in touch – we would really like to hear from you. Something else we’d like to hear from you about is what series would you like to have on the Working Scientist podcast? So, we’ve now finished our series on funding, but what else do you want to know about? Each series will have five or six different episodes with a variety of experts on that particular topic, but we’d like to get your input into how to shape our future series. So, if you have any thoughts or burning desires about what you’d like to know more about then get in touch with the Nature Careers team. I want to give one final thank you to everybody who has contributed, so that would be Johan Bollen, Vernon Choy and Ferric Fang from this episode, as well as Michael Teitelbaum, James Wilsdon, Peter Gorsuch, Anne-Marie Coriat, Jernej Zupanc and Elizabeth Pier. Thank you again for contributing your thoughts and ideas to this series. And that is the end of this series on the Working Scientist podcast, but before you go, just a reminder that there is another last sponsored slot by and featuring the work of the European Research Council, and in this slot we hear from the President of the ERC, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, and then also from Professor Helen Tremlett from the University of British Columbia in Canada. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould. Jean-Pierre Bourguigno: My name is Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, and my function is to be the President of the European Research Council. I’ve been in this position for five years now and I still have one year to go in my mandate. The search for my successor has started. So, in the sense that when you have reached such a level of success, the first priority is of course making sure that you still are in a good position to continue with this success, and the main priority of 2019 will be to revisit basically every way we do the evaluation because we know we have some challenges. For example, for some of the panels we have reached a size which means that we have to think of organising slightly differently because to do a good job as evaluators, you cannot have too many applications because then you cannot dedicate enough attention to them. So, we are really going to go through a very, very thorough check of all our evaluation systems, of course, taking advantage of all the knowledge accumulated with the scientific people who are members of our panels for evaluation, but also really trying to get advantage over not being too frozen, too rigid or too persistent on the way we structure these… I’ve said we cover old domains of science, but science is changing all the time, so you want to be sure that you adapt to the new emerging fields quickly enough that you bring on board all the right competent people. So, this is really for the immediate future because that’s a priority for 2019, and we want also to announce the new way we want to do the evaluation early enough so that the scientific community will be ready for when it will be put in place in 2021, and the scientific community has absorbed these changes, understood them, and can really adopt them and in particular that we will be able to continue to convince the very best scientists in the world to participate in the evaluation. Well, first of all, I mean ‘open to the world’ is one of our mottos. It means, of course, already that we have on board scientists from I think about 80 nationalities, so it means it’s not just Europeans who are a part of it. But of course, another part is for the ERC to interact with agencies in other countries in the world. We have already 11 countries with which we have signed agreements. For the moment, these agreements are of the type that researchers from these countries funded by these agencies can visit and spend time in some of the ERC teams. Helen Tremlett: So, my name is Helen Tremlett. I’m a professor in the faculty of medicine and neurology at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and I’m Canada Research Chair in Neuroepidemiology and Multiple Sclerosis, and I’m a British citizen and a Canadian citizen. I’ve been here since 2001. I was part of a programme between the Canadian government and the ERC, which enabled Canada Research Chair holders to spend time in the lab of someone who holds ERC funding. So, it was a great opportunity to bring together individuals who have complimentary skills and can learn from each other and develop collaboration over the long term. And it was a wonderful opportunity. I was based at the Max Planck Institute on the edge of Munich and they were focused on the gut microbiome in multiple sclerosis. It was so exciting. So, 2011, I can even remember that day. Nature published a paper and they were looking at the animal model of multiple sclerosis and how the gut microbiome may be influential in terms of triggering the animal model of multiple sclerosis. I had no idea that people were even thinking about this, and this led me down a whole new research path and now I’m actually coordinating principal investigator on a study where we’re collecting stool samples from children with multiple sclerosis and controls across Canada and across the US, and so it was thrilling for me to spend time in the lab whose work had really pushed me onto this path, so it was a lot of fun. So, there’s no additional funds attached to it, but it just meant that it was a formal opportunity and your salary was continued as such without a break. You didn’t have to take it as a sabbatical leave or anything like that. And I was just there for two months, but it was a really great two months. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon: During my time we have signed agreements with China, with India, with Brazil, with Australia, with Japan, so of course, these are countries which worldwide play a very critical role. I should also mention South Africa with which we have also developed a very interesting collaboration. Still, we want for the future to actually have more tools. For example, for the moment, the tools we have are only the ones I describe – namely visits by scientists from these places to visit ERC teams. We hope that in the next framework programmes, some more agility will be given to the scientific council, and having the possibility to also accompany researchers from our teams who want to visit abroad. One of the very simple principles of international collaboration is typically reciprocity – that is what you make possible in one direction should be possible in the other direction. For the moment, as you heard, the only possibility is people from these countries to come and visit Europe. We would like also to help and accompany researchers from Europe who have got the ERC contracts to also be helped when they want to visit researchers from other countries outside Europe. Something we reintroduced very recently are the so-called Synergy calls, so it’s a different call from the other ones. They are really for individual principal investigators, as we name them. In the case of Synergy, it’s really to encourage more ambitious, more global projects with two, three or four PIs (principal investigators). Of course, the idea is not to create a consortium. It’s really the idea that people come up with a truly challenging scientific problem they want to address, and we call it Synergy because we want them to really convince us that they are really the right group of people to tackle this. So in particular, we see this as a very specific place where interdisciplinary work can be developed. So, in a sense we wanted to create such a space where really people who need resources and skills and knowledge, expertise from different fields, can come together to tackle a very well-identified problem and to do that together. And so, this has been we have run only one such call so far for the year 2018. We just published the results. So, 27 projects have been supported. I didn’t mention globally the number of projects we have supported – we are typically at 9,000 projects overall supported – but the Synergy project is for very interesting new challenges. So, this is another dimension that ERC and the scientific council wants to tackle – that is to acknowledge the great importance for the future development of research of interdisciplinary work, that people need to learn how to work together but the way we do it is again under the very strict bottom-up philosophy. We just want people to come up to us, come forward with ambitious projects and very challenging problems they want to tackle and to try and convince the evaluators that they are the right people to do that and that they have assembled really the people who can do that in the best possible way. So, this dimension of Synergy is also that we want to be sure that Europe is the leader to tackle some of the most challenging scientific problems. Originally posted on Nature Careers - 08 February 2019 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00525-y