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Weekly science policy roundup

September 23, 2010

Here it is, your weekly science policy roundup, in no particular order:

  • Canada has two universities in the THE list of the world’s top 50 schools for Engineering, released today: UofT comes in at a very respectable 13th and UBC at 38th. Conspicuously absent from the list are McGill and University of Waterloo, which were ranked 29th and 39th best engineering schools in the world respectively, by the rival QS rankings (UofT (14th) and UBC (30th) also made the QS top 50). The US has 21 of the top 50 spots, including all top five schools. California Institute of Technology finished first, slightly edging out MIT and Stanford.
  • A helpful note from a reader (thanks Nilima) reminded me that there is yet another set of world university rankings (is it time yet to publish a ranking of the rankings?). The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) is published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. This list, initially compiled to find the global standing of Chinese universities, is now also part of the global rank-fest. Eight Canadian universities make top 200. Again, McMaster elbows its way into the G5, ranking ahead of both UofA and UdeM as the 88th ranked school in the world. By subject, ARWU places only UofT in the top 50 of Science or Engineering, with McGill and UBC both faring better in Life Sciences and Medicine.
  • An interesting note about the ARWU rankings: while American universities dominate all categories, there are at least a fair number of representatives in the top 50 from around the world. When ranked by social sciences, however, US universities take 43 of the top 50 spots, with only the UK (4), Canada (2), and Israel (in 46th spot) also represented. I think this is highly significant for a number of reasons. First, does this reflect the fact that other countries are competing internationally by strictly focusing on science and technology to the exclusion of the social sciences? Is this a losing strategy? Is American economic prominence and achievement not due, in no small measure, to the strength of its social science universities like Harvard, UChicago, and Stanford (the top three)? Further, is it possible strong social sciences programs at these universities strengthen the other subject areas – ie. is there a synergistic effect at universities where excellence is pursued in multiple disciplines? The very top schools in science and engineering still placed in the top ten in social sciences. The top-ranking national technical institutes still don’t manage to outrank the best comprehensive universities. Finally and generally, why are there so few international schools in the top tier of social sciences? (ps. UBC (30th) and McMaster (40th) were the two Canadian schools.)
  • More than a third of Canadian university grads between 25 and 29 years old are underemployed, according to data from The Economist, more than any country but Spain, and roughly ten percent more than the OECD average.
  • The UK is wringing its hands about imminent science cuts and the inevitable and dreaded ‘brain drain’ (note to the innovation types: can we innovate a new phrase to replace ‘brain drain’? “sci-guy bye-bye”? “the tech wreck”? anything?). Get ready for more and more of these stories from all over. With governments around the world suddenly realizing they have massive, persistent deficits, research funding is going to come under attack everywhere.
  • A really interesting look behind the scenes at how individual research funding decisions are made. The story is a common one – there are too many excellent research projects to fund. Good science and a strong track record are required to get you in the door, but aren’t sufficient to guarantee funding – far from it. As the chairman of the American Cancer Society says about deciding between equally worthy grants: “it’s subtle things”. Those things – including good ideas poorly explained, improperly prepared applications (often hair-splitting details), omission of essential data, and poor writing – are often an afterthought to researchers focused on exciting experimental details. These things are also all easily corrected by a dedicated grant writer or editor, often for a surprisingly low fee (ed. note: the author admits possible conflict of interest in this last statement).
  • On a personal note – this blog was featured, along with the excellent blog The Black Hole and the always informative Science Canada in this month’s University Affairs magazine, in a story about science policy blogging in Canada. It’s a little weird being the subject of a piece instead of the author…
  • Finally, for readers in Montreal: The undergraduate and graduate student societies at McGill have organized a “Science and Policy Exchange” on October 7, 1-7 pm. Speakers will include Richard Bruno (CEO of Beyond If, and highly involved in venture funding and tech transfer in Quebec), Marc Garneau (MP former president of Cdn Space Agency), Elizabeth May (leader of the Green Party), and Philippe Couillard (former QC health minister). I’m really encouraged by the initiative of the student societies, and hope others across the country will follow their lead. You can get more information and register here.
5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2010 08:25

    If science funding is being cut everywhere, where are the sci-guys going bye-bye to?

    Which makes me think that this focus on “brain drain” is missing the point. It isn’t about keeping particular scientists, but about the importance of scientific research. Something has to change in the coverage of these cuts.

  2. Jim permalink
    September 23, 2010 11:43

    The primary impact of budgetary cuts to science is not borne by the investigators but by their trainees. The first positions to dry up are new faculty positions, followed by shrinkage of salary and stipend awards. This squeezes the fresh blood from the system while preserving the entrenched professors. Not really surprising given that the trainees are hardly in a position of influence, but very short-sighted given that the most innovative thinkers are often those with the freshest minds that have yet to be adapted to the business of science. The impact will not be a net brain-drain to a country, but a brain migration where these talented individuals leave science to take up other professions. This recession in scientific talent will be felt for many years.

    By the way Rob, while I respect that some people may need the talents of a professional writer for their grant applications, it is a sorry state of affairs that it is the presentation and details that are decisive in selection of research applications. It’s a safe bet that Jim Watson, Fred Sanger and Edwin Krebs did not depend upon professional editors for their proposals. For those having to write in a non-native tongue, the requirement for editing is essentially a tax. Moreover, it is the non-scientific portions of applications that most often require the input of professional writers to explain the” benefits of the research to Canada”, or the “plans for dissemination of information, etc. These are important characteristics and information sources, but should not have much influence in the overall merit of the application. The best science is not formulaic.

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      September 23, 2010 12:07

      Very good points re. budget cuts, Jim.

      And your points are well taken re. grant preparation and the use of professional writers. It’s true that former giants of science didn’t likely need their services, and I suspect it remains true for those at the very top of the heap today. And I’m not advocating that the quality of the submitted application should supplant the science behind it as a determining factor, of course. It is, however, a reflection of reality – there is not enough money to fund all the exceptional research proposals, and it is exceedingly difficult for evaluation committees to decide which exceptional applications to fund. At that point, small things make a difference, because that’s all that’s left.

      And I disagree that it is simply the sections of the applications most-hated by researchers that benefit from the attention of an outsider – the dreaded “Benefits to Canada” “KT”, etc. It’s often the meat of the application that benefits most: the research plan, etc. These parts are often poorly organized, missing key information, lack logical flow, etc. I’m shocked that departments don’t institute pre-submission peer-review to identify these logical gaps or missing background information. When a committee has to choose between two equally interesting and innovative research proposals, the overall quality of logic, thought, and presentation will – of course – make a difference. It is the same basic process, in my opinion, as an editor or reviewer of a journal reading a manuscript before publication and asking for clarification or more information before making a fully informed decision about whether to publish. In that case, I think we generally agree that the final product benefits from the process. I think the same is true for grant applications.

      • Jim permalink
        September 23, 2010 14:41

        The problem is that most “professional editors” are not as scientifically qualified to spot the flaws in logic as the review panels of experts in a relatively narrow field with assignment of applications based on specific expertise. Editors can likely identify flaws in experimental design but I know I have a hard time detecting omissions or oversights when I read other peoples grants that are on the edge of or outside of my own field. I often give feedback to my colleagues but this tends to be suggestive with ideas for alternative approaches or highlighting areas I think can be explained better (because they totally lost me). Expert review is given by the actual review committees but this is rarely iterative. A revised grant submission that addresses all of the reviewers comments is, unlike a publication, not re-reviewed by the previous reviewers in most cases. The new reviewers see the grant afresh and often pick out new weaknesses. The NIH system is different and allows (or allowed) iterative improvement resulting in better successive scores. The two strikes and you’re out change will obviously undermine this approach. Some investigators submit a grant application 6 or more times to a committee, essentially chasing the reviewers.

        There is a role for editorial input but I’d far rather see better preparedness of investigators for grant-writing through education, than reliance on people to clean up their writing. Quite why institutions do not invest more in this is unclear as it would provide a competitive advantage. As success rates continue to decrease (aside one competition, the CIHR rate has declined every competition since 2000), perhaps more attention will be paid to this.

        Lastly, the Nature article is exactly right when it says that peer review works well down to around 20% success rates. Below this, stochastic and non-scientific effects come into play causing significant grief, unpredictability and interruption of research efforts. Since there will not be more money, perhaps we need to limit the number of applications in some way…..

  3. September 23, 2010 13:33

    Jim’s comment about science students moving to other vocations is valid. My son who graduated with a Ph.D from an American university, (and won a prize for the best Ph.D. research in biology that year) is now a number cruncher in a bank.

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