Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Scenes from the jetway.

Boarding a plane last night, a little scene played out. Prior to boarding, the gate agent had announced that the plane would not have room for wheeled suitcases in the overhead bins, and that anyone who had a wheeled suitcase s/he had intended to carry on should get a tag to check it at the jetway. In the gate area, one of the ticketed passengers, who had a big wheeled suitcase, approached the gate agent to argue about this instruction. For five minutes. After which, she refused to take a tag for her behemoth of a "carry-on".

Boarding. The same ticketed passenger handed over her boarding pass but refused, again, to take a tag for her bag. She walked down the jetway, causing the agent taking boarding passes to chase her down the tube (and, of course, delaying the boarding of everyone else in the line until the agent returned).

On the jetway, the folks set to load tagged bags into cargo asked her, "Didn't you get a tag? Did they run out?" Snottily, she asked, "Why do I have to check mine? There were lots of people ahead of me who brought theirs. I'm bringing my bag with me!"

Of course, the moment she tried to board the (really quite small) plane with this honkin' big suitcase, the flight attendant said, "No, that won't fit in the overhead bin. It needs a tag." The ticketed passenger from hell launched into a tirade about how she had a tight connection to her next flight at the destination and she couldn't lose the time it would require to retrieve the bag from cargo and bring it back to the jetway (seemingly oblivious to the delay she was causing in the boarding of the plane). The flight attendant showed her the overhead bins (each about 1/3 the size of the honkin' big suitcase.) The flight attendant then affixed a tag, handing the H.B.S. and the one other wheeled suitcase that someone else had tried to bring onto the plane, to the folks wrangling luggage at the jetway.

It may not surprise you that this scene made me think about ethics in general, and about rules imposed upon scientific researchers.

I'm not the most Kantian kid on the block, but one of Kant's insights I think is dead-on is that it's assy to make yourself an exception to rules you expect others to observe. If no one takes the jetway tag for his or her wheeled suitcase, there won't be room for anyone's carry-on luggage. Maybe if everyone else gets his or her wheeled suitcase checked, I'll have room to carry mine on (though not in this case) -- but I can only count on this payoff if everyone else plays by a different rule (follow the gate agent's instructions) than I play by (do what you want).

It's worth noting that the problem passenger here justified her behavior by saying:
(1) lots of other people are doing the same thing (false! just one other passenger tried to bring a wheeled suitcase on the plane), and (2) my interests (e.g., in not missing my connection) are such that I should be exempt from the rule. In fact, I don't think these justifications are prima facie crappy ones. If lots of other passengers were ignoring the instructions, there might be good reason to ask whether poor enforcement of the rule had undermined it altogether. Perhaps it is unjust to enforce the rule with me but not with all those other people ahead of me. And, in the event that it were possible to fit some small number of wheeled suitcases in the overhead bins (not true on this plane, but hypothetically on another), there may be interests such that we could identify which passengers could stow their wheeled suitcases overhead.

Here, of course, we had a rule that existed for a very good reason: the wheeled suitcases just didn't fit in the tiny overhead bins. The passenger trying to get around this rule was just being a jerk.

To a certain extent, what's true for the airline passenger is true for the research scientist, too. It's assy to count on other scientists to follow rules but decide that you don't have to follow them yourself. It would be assy to expect others to share reagents, while never sharing your own. It would be assy to expect others to review your manuscripts fairly if you yourself were a reliable source of venom in your reviews of the manuscripts of others. It would be assy to demand that others get their protocols approved by the IRB while making unauthorized changes in your own IRB-approved plans.

And yet ... the nightmare passenger was at least being open in her questioning of the rule. She wasn't trying to be sneaky. Granted, there were more respectful ways she could have expressed her doubt about the rule, and she could have considered the (physically) plausibility of the explanation offered for the rule. But breaking the rule while pretending to follow it would have been worse. Much of the really catastrophic stuff in science, ethically speaking, seems to happen when people act as though they are following the rules while breaking them big time.

The Doctor is In

I haven't posted in a while because I've been wrestling with some nasty virus. Four days of fever and all the fun that goes with it! Personal favorite: delirium. (There is nothing like dreaming in HTML to rob "sleep" of all its restful properties.) Having finally gotten to the point where I'm feeling more healthy than unhealthy, my first inclination was to raise a cheer to modern medicine.

But ... why? I didn't schlepp to the doctor. I didn't take any medicines that would have killed the virus (and I know full well that antibiotics wouldn't do jack to a virus). Medical technology did allow me to check my temperature as frequently as I could manage (and, via ear rather than under my tongue, there was no increased urge to puke ... a definite plus). The few doses of ibuprofen I managed to take may have kept my fever from getting into the dangerously high range, but ibuprofen on an empty stomach ... urge to puke increasing.

In other words, modern medicine gave me a tool to monitor my fever, and another that let me reduce it, perhaps, if I could handle the puke-y feeling that came with it. Everything else was up to my immune system.

And given how happy I am that my immune system has gotten me through this little adventure, I'm now inclined to give the immune system (and other bits of "normal" functioning of the human body) at least a little more credit when I read about new and exciting medical treatments. This is not to say such treatments aren't doing something -- just that the immune system (and its ilk) may be responsible for a significant part of the outcome as well.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Dover ruling.

It's here. The AP story, via Yahoo News:
Dover Area School Board members violated the Constitution when they ordered that its biology curriculum must include the notion that life on Earth was produced by an unidentified intelligent cause, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III said. Several members repeatedly lied to cover their motives even while professing religious beliefs, he said.


"The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy," Jones wrote.

The board's attorneys had said members were seeking to improve science education by exposing students to alternatives to Charles Darwin's theory that evolution develops through natural selection. Intelligent-design proponents argue that the theory cannot fully explain the existence of complex life forms.

The plaintiffs challenging the policy argued that intelligent design amounts to a secular repackaging of creationism, which the courts have already ruled cannot be taught in public schools. The judge agreed.

"We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom," he wrote in his 139-page opinion.


Said the judge: "It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."

One take home lesson: honest disagreement is one thing, but dishonesty will come back to bite you in the butt.

And, in case you were curious, here, from AP via the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, is the text of the Dover intelligent design statement in question in this case:
"The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

"Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

"Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, 'Of Pandas and People,' is available in the library along with other resources for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.

"With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments."

(Bold emphasis added.)

So ... what exactly can we glean about the purpose of the public schools from this last paragraph? What if we substituted "linear equations" or "irregular verb conjugation" or "the branches of the federal government" for "the origins of life" here? Is there anyone who thinks that would be a good idea? (OK, I suppose it depends on how good your school system is -- still, there are some things you ought to be able to look to the schools to teach. Being, you know, schools.) And hey, I'm as disgruntled at the whole teaching-to-the-high-stakes-test movement as anyone (since I have to help survivors of that kind of secondary education understand how to learn stuff for real). But, it seems there are certain core competencies that are part of "learning biology", and that a responsible biology class will help its students attain those competencies. You can't call any old collection of ideas "biology" without doing violence to the meaning of the word.

For those who love to wallow in the legal language, here's the link to the page from which you can download the judge's opinion. (It takes a long time to download, but it's worth it.)

UPDATE: A good set of links to commentary on the ruling can be found at Science and Politics.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Getting linky with it.

Some good stuff to read, especially if you're resurfacing from unpleasant tasks like writing or grading papers:

Sharing reagents/no good deed goes unpunished. YoungFemaleScientist has a great post about possible downsides to sharing published reagents. In particular, if the person who requests your reagent can't get it to work — and doesn't keep you in the loop so you can share your expertise — s/he might decide your reagent is crap. They might even go to your competitor for a similar reagent. Go read the post to see how this feeds into the eternal struggle to publish and have your findings recognized and used by your scientific peers. One important take-home message is that effective scientific communication involves asking questions, and it extends well past publishing findings or using published findings.

Sometimes "magic hands" are just hands that are better than yours. The Pluripotentate has a very nice response to my post about "magic hands" in the Korean stem cell scandal. The whole too-good-to-be-true nature of certain experimentalists' achievements can make you suspect ... well, that they really are too good to be true and these experimentalists are maybe makin' stuff up. But the Pluripotentate reminds us that this is not the only explanation:
I'd add another possibility -- stubbornness on the part of people trying to learn the technique. Right now I'm the magic hands in the lab on a particular technique. I remember being suspicious of the woman who taught me, until I finally got it to work. I finally gave in and made fresh buffers and followed the protocol exactly. So painful. So tedious. So rewarding.

The people I'm teaching now, who've been struggling for months, may look on me with some suspicion. But they're the ones hanging on to their precious contaminated Tris, the poor dears. One day, at the end of their ropes, they'll pour their buffers down the sink in frustration. And the week after that, the heavens will rain blessings down on their sparkling new magic hands.

Experiments are hard. That's why scientists get the big bucks (and the chicks, and the public's adulation, and a pony!).

Methodology matters. Check out Shakespeare's Sister's discussion of methodological flaws in a Norwegian study that purports to show that women who have abortions suffer “mental distress” longer than do women who have miscarriages. The dissection of the problems is detailed — go read it. Shake's Sis tells us:
... the mental health of the participating women who sought an abortion was almost statistically significantly poorer than the participating women who had a miscarriage, and the complexity of the abortion issue may account for discrepancies. That’s the problem with poor controls; you can end up with a study that has a completely meaningless conclusion. And yet here it goes—out into the world, reported as fact. Women who get abortions are more highly traumatized than women who have miscarriages. Even though it may be the women who got abortions and participated in the study were more inclined toward mental distress irrespective of their abortions, or that societal views of abortion—and specifically, women who get abortions—may facilitate feelings of shame and guilt.

It's not clear that the Norwegian researchers were trying to skew the results. Even before you start collecting data, good experimental design is hard, too.

It's nice that the blogosphere keeps chugging with such nice posts while I've been off in my cave grading.

Authorship matters.

The whole lot of scientist involved with Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University and his stem cell research seem to be feeling the pull of the drain. Having admitted to fabricating some of the data in their Science paper, Hwang has agreed to withdraw it. Meanwhile, the "senior author" on the paper, Gerald Schatten, is being investigated by the University of Pittsburgh. As reported by the Washington Post:
At the very least, Schatten faces a formal reprimand once an internal school investigation is concluded.

"I will consider what disciplinary actions are appropriate in this case pending the findings," said Dr. Arthur Levine, dean of the medical school and Schatten's boss.

What's this, you say? Wasn't Schatten the whistleblower here? He was also the "senior author:
Scientists say that as "senior author" on the paper, it was his responsibility to catch the many errors Hwang has admitted.

However, Pittsburgh officials and the paper itself described Schatten's involvement in the cloning research as limited to consultation, helping the South Koreans prepare their manuscript and serving as their English-language translator.

Schatten did little, if any, actual research.

Levine said it's unclear why Schatten was given senior author status among the 24 South Korean scientists who also signed on to the paper.

"One should only be the senior author of a scientific paper when one has prepared and was responsible for all the data in that paper," Levine said. "It also implies the senior author is the chief of the lab where the experiment took place."

See? It wasn't just me saying that authorship brings certain responsibilities with it -- not just after the paper has been published, but before it's even sent off to the journal. While Schatten's level of (non-)involvement may not be unheard of for a senior author (ask around and you'll hear about lots of instances of people who are authors on a paper primarily because their high profile is hoped to increases the chances of publication), it seems to have blown up in his face rather spectacularly.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal takes up the matter of scientific authorship as it plays out in ghostwritten articles for medical journals. Check out the discussion at Lawyers, Guns and Money. It's important to note that we're not just talking about ghostwriters who are employed to pretty up the prose of scientific communications -- we're talking about ghostwriters who work for drug companies. Quoting from WSJ as quoted by LG&M:
When articles are ghostwritten by someone paid by a company, the big question is whether the article gets slanted. That's what one former free-lance medical writer alleges she was told to do by a company hired by Johnson & Johnson.

Susanna Dodgson, who holds a doctorate in physiology, says she was hired in 2002 by Excerpta Medica, the El-sevier medical-communications firm, to write an article about J&J's anemia drug Eprex. A J&J unit had sponsored a study measuring whether Eprex patients could do well taking the drug only once a week. The company was facing competition from a rival drug sold by Amgen Inc. that could be given once a week or less.

Dr. Dodgson says she was given an instruction sheet directing her to emphasize the "main message of the study" -- that 79.3% of people with anemia had done well on a once-a-week Eprex dose. In fact, only 63.2% of patients re-sponded well as defined by the original study protocol, according to a report she was provided. That report said the study's goal "could not be reached." Both the instruction sheet and the report were viewed by The Wall Street Journal. The higher figure Dr. Dodgson was asked to highlight used a broader definition of success and excluded patients who dropped out of the trial or didn't adhere to all its rules.

The instructions noted that some patients on large doses didn't seem to do well with the once-weekly administration but warned that this point "has not been discussed with marketing and is not definitive!"

Let's be clear: There are articles in respected medical journals whose content has been spun by authors who didn't do any of the research but did get paid by drug companies with a financial stake in the research outcome reported. And, the names of these authors don't appear on the papers whose substance they have materially altered. Which means, of course, that it's really hard to hold these authors responsible for the content, since they are invisible to the other scientists relying on these published articles as sources of reliable information.

You think I'm getting carried away about this kind of ghostwriting? Here's another quote from the WSJ article:
Now questions about the practice are mounting as medical journals face unprecedented scrutiny of their role as gatekeeper for scientific information. Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine admitted that a 2000 article it published highlighting the advantages of Merck & Co.'s Vioxx painkiller omitted information about heart attacks among patients taking the drug. The journal has said the deletions were made by someone working from a Merck computer. Merck says the heart attacks happened after the study's cutoff date and it did nothing wrong.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Vioxx, baby. We're talking human lives (or, if you prefer, thousands of lawsuits that threaten the health of a major pharmaceutical company). This is not nitpicking. Scientific knowledge is only as good as the scientists who stand behind it. Ducking behind it is usually a bad sign.

If my philosophy of science students read this blog ...

...they'd have some sense of my view of plagiarism and they'd maybe think twice. But if they don't read the assigned reading (or, you know, the syllabus), they probably aren't going to read this blog.

Especially lame venues for plagiarism I have discovered this term:

  • Online discussion threads. The idea is to use the discussions to grapple with difficult readings. As such, it is possible to get full marks for the discussion while essentially admitting that the reading made no sense to you at all -- provided you actually make an attempt to spell out what you're confused about, ask others in the discussion questions, etc. Why, oh why, would you cut and paste something smart-sounding about the general topic of the reading from some professor's web page and use that, without any attribution, as your "contribution" to the discussion?
  • Extra-credit assignments. Do they not realize what a big concession it is for me to offer extra credit in the first place? The course was designed with enough credit, as well as ways to cushion the effects of crises on one's grade. (For example, one can choose in which 10 of the 15 designated reading discussions to participate, the lowest of the short essays is dropped from the grade, etc.) Extra credit is mostly extra grading for me. So, given that I'm already grumpy, an obviously plagiarised response to the extra credit (of which I detected two today) makes my head burst into flames.
  • Keeping it in the family. Short essays are one of the venues in which you expect to find plagiarism, so mine are somewhat idiosyncratic. Most of the papers-for-sale don't really fit the questions the students need to answer in their short essays, so their best hope for dishonesty is to cheat off another student's essay, and so far, there haven't been a lot of students willing to accommodate the needs of the would-be plagiarist. But this term, a student emailed me late essays. Thing is, when I downloaded them and opened them up, they didn't have his name on them, but his girlfriend's. (She's in the class, too.) None of the other words in the essays had changed since she first handed them in, either.

I get that not all the people registered for my classes think they're all that important. But in that case, why not have a frickin' backbone and admit it? Don't try to put one over on me. Accept the grade you earn thinking your own thoughts and writing them in your own words. Be a grown-up!

That said, the grades are submitted!!

Please stand by. Our regular program will resume momentarily.

Update: Via Inside Higher Ed, this post about the paper mills. Given the typos in their ad, I'm not sure the papers would be worth the money. Also, despite claims that Turnitin.com is powerless to detect high-quality paper mill papers the way Google sniffs out papers pasted together from internet sources, it's worth noting that Turnitin also checks submitted papers against other student papers submitted to Turnitin. Just one other human being using the same paper (say, due to a clerical error at the paper mill) and your ass is grass.

Sloppy work on the part of the hired paper-writer, of course, can also put you on the hook for plagiarism.

What most dishonest students seem not to realize is that we're tipped off to plagiarism by writing styles that sound nothing like our students. Please don't underestimate our intelligence!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

All kinds of trouble: more on the Korean stem cell saga

Gerald Schatten and Seoul National University are in the news again today. (Here's what Joe Palca had to say about it on Morning Edition this morning.) The new development: apparently Schatten has asked Science to withdraw one of the papers Hwang and Schatten (and others) published describing how 11 different human stem cell lines had been created. The reason Schatten is asking that the paper be withdrawn, it is reported, is that he has learned from a credible source that some of the data and figures presented in that paper were fabricated.

Like nearly everything else in this case, there are complications. Schatten's credible source of information is another author of the paper ... which is fine, since another author would, presumably, be in a position to know something about the data actually collected, which photos correspond to which cell lines, etc. But, it's looking like this other author was working with Schatten in Pittsburgh when Schatten learned about the alleged fabrication. Which, possibly, means that the source of information here is golden-handed "P", late of Hwang's lab at Seoul National University. Remember that P not only has the vital "hand skills" to get the nuclear somatic transfer to work, but was also an egg donor for the research.

So, we have a junior researcher who may be the only one who can get a particular part of the experiment to succeed with any kind of regularity, who "donated" vital material that the boss needed for the research (under possibly coercive circumstances), who then came (with her magic hands) to work in the lab of a senior collaborator/competitor of her original boss, and is now handing the new boss information that could make possible a take-down of the old boss.

Do you think there might be any power dynamics at play in this situation?

Meanwhile, the obvious question comes up: If Schatten was a co-author of the paper, why on earth is he raising these concerns about it well after Science published it? How can you put your name on a manuscript if you're not confident that what's in it is accurate? Indeed, Joe Palca reported (in the Morning Edition story linked above) that Schatten "didn't do the research but came at the end and helped the Korean scientists write the paper and present the data." Is this enough involvement that Schatten knows enough to take responsibility for the claims made in the paper -- whether to bask in the glory of the scientific achievement it reports or to share in the blame for its mistakes?

Authorship is a slippery critter. Not only is there no clear standard for authorship that all scientists, or even all members of a particular scientific discipline, recognize, but the standards may vary lab to lab. (Exercise for the graduate student: Find out how your advisor determines who will be an author on a manuscript. Have a friend who works in a different lab get the same information from her advisor. Compare results.) The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors has taken a stab at establishing uniform authorship standards, at least for the journals that agree to use ICMJE standards. (Baby steps.) But these standards contain as clear a definition as you're likely to find of the author's involvement:

  • Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.
  • When a large, multi-center group has conducted the work, the group should identify the individuals who accept direct responsibility for the manuscript. These individuals should fully meet the criteria for authorship defined above and editors will ask these individuals to complete journal-specific author and conflict of interest disclosure forms. When submitting a group author manuscript, the corresponding author should clearly indicate the preferred citation and should clearly identify all individual authors as well as the group name. Journals will generally list other members of the group in the acknowledgements. The National Library of Medicine indexes the group name and the names of individuals the group has identified as being directly responsible for the manuscript.
  • Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, alone, does not justify authorship.
  • All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify should be listed.
  • Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Now, following the first bullet above, Schatten probably qualified as an author in this framework: he made substantial contributions to drafting and/or critically revising the article for intellectual content (item 2), his help with presenting the data likely counts as a substantial contribution to analysis and interpretation of the data (item 1), and presumably he gave his approval to the final version of the manuscript that Science published. Yet, it is only now that Schatten is discovering that what he signed off on may not have been what it appeared to be.

Possibly this means that scientists need to be a bit more thorough before they give final approval to scientific manuscripts. Ask to see the data and the sources for the figures. Ask to be walked through the data analysis. Check up on your collaborators. Why should this kind of involvement be viewed as intrusive if it's really a collaboration?

Collaborations are central to this whole mess. You have to establish a level of trust with your collaborator. Given that scientific results are supposed to be scrutinized skeptically by other scientists, it strikes me that collaborators ought to bring a level of constructive skepticism to their interactions with each other. Show me how you got the result. Explain to me why this outcome doesn't actually mean X, Y, or Z instead of what we think it means. If a group of scientists can't handle challenges like these from each other, they probably shouldn't be collaborators.

Weird-ass power dynamics make this sort of challenge much more loaded and threatening than it should be among a group of honest scientists. Weird-ass power dynamics are probably a bad thing for a scientific collaboration.

More later? I wouldn't be surprised.

Technorati tags: , ,

Monday, December 12, 2005

Passing thoughts from a brain addled by grading

I love teaching, but I hate grading. Worse than the grading itself is the pathetic state in which it leaves my brain -- completely unfit for wrestling new blogable 'gators. But since you, gentle reader, may well have strolled by to avoid your own stack of grading, here are a few thought-like items:

On the matter of women in science and engineering: Check out the new post at Thus Spake Zuska, which includes some intriguing links with resources for women in science and engineering. The post also includes a "recipe for a complete feminist analysis of science and engineering: attention to equity, access, and climate; attention to how scientists and engineers could or should tranform their fields of endeavor; and attention to the considerable joy that thinking and doing in a technical mode evokes." I feel like after I've recovered from grading I may have more to say about this issue, but at the moment nothing I can say about it will be as coherent as what I wrote about the issue back in April.

Science, philosophy, and worries about relativism: At Majikthise, Lindsay Beyerstein comments on how scientists might mistake legitimate philosophical projects around the truth properties of statements for sloppy relativism. Her comments were sparked by a post at 3QuarksDaily calling out Richard Dawkins for making such a move, using a relativist straw horse to defend dismissing philosophy altogether from discussions of science. I think you know how I feel about whether philosophy has any place in discussions of science. (Hint: read the profile!) But, under the assumption that scientists are generally susceptible to reason, these posts do a nice job explaining the anatomy of the straw horse -- perhaps getting rid of the misunderstanding here will mean that the philosopher is not presumed an idiot. (Let the data decide that!)

End of semester cage-match: teaching chemistry vs. teaching philosophy!

  • Teaching philosophy seldom involves bad smells or risks of explosion. However, neither does it involve cool plastic model kits.
  • Teaching chemistry (it seems) sometimes involves having undergraduate boys question the solution set you have prepared, because you're a chick.
  • Teaching philosophy often involves having undergraduates (boys and girls) question your grading of their papers, because "there are no right answers".
  • In chemistry, one may enjoy the camraderie of grading exams with 11 other people.
  • To get that camraderie, you're dealing with 300+ students in the class taking the exam. (Even at my university, most philosophy classes are 40 or fewer.)
  • Reading all those essays scrawled in blue-books can make you cry.
  • Looking for the sign errors and such in order to assign partial credit on chem exams can destroy your eyes.

It may be a wash ... ask again at the end of the week!

Request-a-post: While I'm climbing up Grading Mountain, I'm happy to entertain requests for blogging topics. So if there's an issue you'd like me to talk about, just let me know.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Zoinks! Another publication ... sort of.

Googling my name last night (shut up! you do it too!), I was shocked to discover that I have one more scientific publication than I thought I did. As second author, even! But this shock should be understandable given that I never saw the manuscript, not even in early drafts. Nor, for that matter, was I ever informed that it was published.

And yet, there's my name on it. If any problems with the content of the article came to light, I'd be on the hook for them.

What the heck is going on here?

I was, in fact, a student in the lab from which the manuscript was produced. I did, in fact, run a gazillion experiments and collect stacks of data on the experimental systems described in the article. So, my involvement in the research was actual rather than fabricated.

Most of the data was collected during my last summer in this laboratory, which was the summer right before I went off to graduate school. However, it may be worth noting that I worked in the lab as a "student intern" -- I wasn't (to the best of my recollection) funded at all by the PI's research grants, and instead had to scare up student research grants through my college so that I didn't have to sling hash during the hours I wasn't in the lab. This made me a bit of an outsider in the lab group -- I was there primarily to learn a variety of laboratory techniques that broadened my experience, giving me more research options in grad school. I think I left a forwarding address when I left the lab, but it's possible I didn't.

While I was in the lab group, my interactions with the PI were very limited. After my crash course in the experimental techniques I'd be using (from one of the senior lab techs, who was a very good teacher), the PI handed me a project to do, and I passed back the data as I collected it. That was pretty much it. I was never included in any discussion of why we were studying what we were studying, or of what the predicted outcomes might be for the particular experiments I was doing. I was a somewhat glorified piece of laboratory equipment. (Why glorified? I actually had to find some clever ways to deal with non-standard parts of the experiments. And, apparently, my data was very clean.)

In some ways, though it was pretty frustrating to feel like I was only a few steps up from a sonicator, the data may have benefitted from my being out of the conceptual loop. I was just reporting what I saw. I wouldn't have known how to fudge data if you had asked me to, simply because I had no bloody idea what "we" expected to see.

So, yes, I produced a bunch of data from experiments I did with my own two hands. And, some of my brain power was directed at tweaking the experimental design to make it work. And, it would seem, the fact that a discussion of this data resulted in a publication means that the data showed something of value.

But why am I an author (the second author, right after the PI) on this paper? If my contribution to the research was significant enough that I should be listed as an author, shouldn't I also have at least seen a manuscript (if not have participated in drafting it) before I was submitted to the journal? If I was listed as an author as a recognition of my hard work (and something that would potentially help my scientific career -- hey looky, a publication!), why wasn't I, say, told about it by the PI so I could realize the benefits of being published? (This was before Google, so there was no reasonable expectation that I'd quickly come across my achievement in the course of Googling myself.)

By the way, I don't really see how I can add this publication to my CV, given who I am and what I do now.

I take it that there are many more cases of "authorship" of this sort than most people outside the scientific bubble realize. I'm hopeful that there's less of it now than there was back then ... but I'm going to have to start asking around to see.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Stem cell drama continues (and "magic hands" are raised)

I'm now thinking that whoever takes up the whole World Stem Cell Hub/Hwang and Schatten story is going to get not just a nice book, but also a major motion picture, action figures, and a spin-off reality show out of the deal. Here's the latest, via biotheics.net:
Now that Schatten and Hwang have split, observers here [Korea] say the three researchers should return to Korea to prevent the technology leaking. Schatten severed ties with his Hwang last month, citing ethical breaches in the procurement of human eggs.

"He secured Korean researchers who have key technology in embryonic stem cells. He could have everything for free after weeding out Hwang," said Sun Kyung, head of the Korean Artificial Organ Center.

"Schatten should send back the researchers to Korea without condition," he said.

However, one of three researchers, identified by her initial P, has apparently gone to ground with even her family members having been unable to contact her for over a week.

The woman researcher has exceptional "hand skills" in transplanting the nucleus of somatic cells to human eggs and contributed with Schatten to successfully clone the embryos of a monkey in October 2004. Whenever Hwang talked about his groundbreaking researchers, he mentioned the crucial role of P in his work.

P, you'll recall, is also one of the junior researchers in Hwang's team who was also an egg donor for the project.

Set aside for the time being the ethical questions about letting technology developed in Korea "leak" to a research team in the United States. Instead, let's talk about P's "hand skills".

And here, I feel perfectly comfortable saying that the real-life happenings have taken a novelistic turn, because I use that novel in my Ethics in Science classes. The novel in question is Cantor's Dilemma by Carl Djerassi, and one of the central issues in it is the relationship between the scientists who come up with theories to be tested and the scientists who execute the experimental tests. It's no surprise to anyone who's worked in science that some people are better in the lab than others. (Exercise for the graduate student: See if your P.I. can set up and successfully run your experiment from start to finish.) In the interests of getting good results fast (which is to say, faster than competing labs), many research groups figure out who has the "magic hands" -- who can coax the materials on hand into performing reliably -- and those skilled experimentalists are put on the top-priority projects. Others in the lab are supposed to try to learn from their technique, or at least stay out of their way.

All well and good except for an important feature of scientific practice - experimental results are supposed to be reproducible. This is not just a matter of a scientist with "hand skills" being able to replicate an experiment reliably. It is also important that other scientists, even scientists in different labs, should be able to repeat the experiments and get the same results.

So here's where things get tricky: Your research group wants to get to a discovery first. You deploy your experimentalists with golden hands. The experimentalists achieve success! You report your success (including the experimental details of how you proved your theory or achieved your technological breakthrough). And, if your achievement is sufficiently important, other research groups will try to replicate your work.

What if they can't?

One possibility is that the experimental challenges are significant and the experimentalists in these other research groups just need to practice the techniques for a while before they will be able to reproduce the work.

Another is that your description of the experimental procedure has omitted some crucial bit of information about the experiment. It could be something your golden handed experimentalists don't even realize is an important variable. (It could, on the other hand, be a detail you've been vague about in your report so as to discourage too much competition in the neighborhood of your experimental system.)

Yet another possibility is that you didn't observe what you think you did. The inability of other labs to replicate your results is supposed to clue you in to this possibility. It ought to send your team back to the lab, running the experiments again with a skeptical eye.

Or maybe, your golden handed experimentalists got great results by cheating somehow (either rigging the experiment or just making up results).

The notion that if you report full experimental details, other trained scientists in your field ought to be able (eventually) to run the experiments and get the same results you're reporting is central to science. Why experiments matter is they adjudicate between theories on the basis of empirical data that is (at least in theory) accessible to everyone in the scientific community. It is not enough, even with an experiment in hand, to convince oneself that one's theory is right; you need to be able to persuade a skeptical jury of your peers.

But that jury of peers is also your competition. If they can't replicate what you've done, is it because there's something wrong with it ... or because they're messing with you? Hey, if the research you're reporting is important enough, eventually someone should be able to replicate it. Assuming, of course, you've really included all the relevant details of the experimental protocol, and that they have someone on the team with enough "hand skills" to carry out the experiment.

Here, I'm assuming a bit of research that one wants to report. Things could get a lot more complicated if we assume the science in question is proprietary.

Bringing this all back to the saga of Hwang, Schatten, and P, what should we make of the possible defection of P from Hwang's lab to Schatten's? (I don't want to give away too much of the plot if you haven't read it, but Cantor's Dilemma features a similar defection ...) If P is the only one in the Hwang lab who is skilled enough to make the nuclear somatic transfer happen, then the Hwang lab now has some real problems on the experimental front. Meanwhile, if P has really defected to the Schatten lab, then that lab now has a skilled set of hands it didn't have before.

But if P is the only one who can do the nuclear somatic transfer successfully with human cells, this is problematic. It's not enough that P can make it work over and over. Scientists want to figure out what they're doing precisely enough that other scientists are able to do it, too. So unless P can successfully teach other scientists to make it work, something is fishy here.

I don't know what to say about whether having donated eggs to the project should increase or decrease P's credibility here. It is probably worth noting, however, that egg donation is a fairly difficult process for the donor. And, you don't even get nudie magazine to look at.

It will be interesting to see how the battle between competing interests of individual scientists and the interests of the scientific community as a whole turn out in this case.

Technorati tags: , ,

Monday, December 05, 2005

Professional Duties, Personal Convictions.

The stereotype is that the scientist values knowledge above all else. Despite the impression people get that research scientists are emotionally detached when it comes to their lab animals -- viewing them as a means to obtain more information, and thus of merely instrumental value -- I don't know of a scientist who does or has worked with animals in research who hasn't had to do a gut-check.

Some scientists decide that the importance of the knowledge they produce in animal experiments really outweighs the harms to the animals. This is not a decision that it's morally acceptable to harm the animals at will, nor that the animals are "things" that can't suffer. Otherwise, committed scientists wouldn't go to such pains to figure out humane ways to euthanize experimental animals. (Check out, for example, PZ Myers's discussion of how to euthanize fish.) Some end up in situations where a choice is not forced, perhaps because they end up in fields where the research doesn't involve animals. (This was my situation. As an undergraduate, I worked in research labs that did animal research, but I did physical chemistry in graduate school. Not having to use animals to answer the questions we were trying to answer, there was no pressure to work out how we felt about animal research. I must confess, though, some people in my research group messed around with plants ...)

Still other scientists make a principled decision, based on their own convictions, not to participate in animal research (or on research with certain kinds of animals, like primates or vertebrates). Thinking For Food has a very nice post about making such a personal decision about one's scientific activities.
I fully appreciate the benefits of animal research, would not seek to ban it altogether, and understand that it is a necessary evil of modern society. On the other hand, many of the techniques are cruel and a fair percentage of research using animals isn't necessary. I personally have no desire to cause pain to animals (at least, not those with with backbones... I have fewer qualms when it comes to insects and other invertebrates, although there are certain animals within these groups I would be hesitant to experiment on) and having worked in animal research once, I'm well aware of the pain that can be inflicted even under the best animal welfare regulations.

The ethical stance that I've adopted has real world consequences for me as a biologist, and these are consequences I have accepted. Much of molecular biology, including the best paying jobs, involve research with mammals (mice in particular), and by refusing to work on mice, I have willingly and knowingly cut myself out from a large part of the job market.

Among the nice features of this musing is a recognition that research on animals is not a black-and-white issue. The choice is not between getting the information we want at the animal's expense and sparing the animals but not getting the information. Rather, there may be good ways to get some of the information animal research yields without using animals. Moral qualms can thus be a useful trigger to innovative thinking about how to answer various scientific questions. And certainly, you'd think that the information gained from studies without animals would be a useful complement to the results of animal studies.

The other thing I really like about this post is a recognition that choices have consequences (in this case, a narrowing of one's prospects of employement as a molecular biologist), but that accepting these consequences is a legitimate choice for a scientist to make. In other words, it is not the case that Science Central Command hands down the marching orders to all the scientists, who then execute them without question. Rather, the community of science consists of a bunch of agents who decide what kinds of personal sacrifices they're willing to make to have more job mobility, a higher scientific profile, or stacks of good data. The fact that different scientists weigh the factors in these choices differently makes the community as a whole stronger, rather than weaker.

The contrast, of course, would be to accept a job where you knew you had to work with mice and then refusing to do so on principle. This kind of move would get attention, but would also tend to communicate that you think the other people doing work with mice haven't given it any kind of thought. (It's perfectly possible that people who have given the issue a lot of thought, and who feel the pull of arguments against animal research, still decide that the animal research they're doing is justified; two people can deliberate on the same issue and come to different conclusions without one of them being a callous jerk.) To convince other scientists to pursue alternatives to research with mice, it would be more effective to actually do successful research without mice.

And this is where the discussion shifts from the scientist to the pharmacist:
I understand codes of ethics, and I understand how they can place limitations on what a person can do, but I also understand that if you have a limiting code of ethics, you should not pursue a career where you are going to come into ethical conflict with the requirements of your job. If you cannot bring yourself to dispense certain pharmaceuticals (and it need not just be contraception... anti-depressants and vaccines can be just as controversial among certain segments of the population), you shouldn't take a job as a pharmacist.

Doing research is rather more open-ended than filling a prescription, it is true. However, if your personal convictions are at odds with an essential requirement of your profession -- one where there really is no innovative way to get to the same goal by a different path that you can reconcile with your convictions -- it is time to look for a new profession.

(There are complicated issues here about the differences between the scientist and the health care provider, which I started thinking about back in April. Perhaps I'll untangle a bit more here soon.)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Quick take on the stem cell scandal at Seoul National University

I haven't blogged yet about the saga of Prof. Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University. Hwang was doing cutting-edge research with stem cells from cloned embryos and now ... well, suffice it to say allegations of ethical improprieties in the research seem to have put the kibosh on Hwang's activities. He has stepped down as the chair of the World Stem Cell Hub after admitting there were ethical problems with how the (human) eggs used in the cloning effort were obtained. The international collaboration of which Hwang's cloning team was an important part was of great interest to American scientists, especially given federal funding restrictions on stem cell research and laws in some states against such research.

The heart of the ethical lapse? That the egg donors were paid (not in itself necessarily unethical) but that Hwang at first denied that they had been, and that two of the donors were in fact junior members of the research team (and thus might not have been making free donations but coerced ones).

Part of how this all came to light is that one of Hwang's American collaborators, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, pulled out of the collaboration rather publicly because (he said) having become aware of the ethical lapses, he couldn't stay a part of the collaboration and needed to sever all ties to Hwang's group. The scientific goodness of Hwang's results (which were published a couple of years ago) hasn't been called into question. Still, given the contentious nature of any research that involves cloning human embryos (at least in countries like the U.S.), it's easy to see how scientists involved in this sort of research would want to make sure everything is up to the very highest ethical standards.

So many issues here ... luckily, many have already been taken up at the bioethics web log. For instance:

  • What precisely is the ethical problem with how the eggs were obtained from the research? Read a post explaining why what happened is a big deal, and another post arguing that maybe it wasn't so much of a lapse.
  • How do different regulations, political climates, and ethical concerns in different countries make this sort of scenario a likely outcome of international collaborations? I was shocked to see this report that very few biotech researchers in Korea are familiar with, of even aware of, the international standards for research with human subjects embodied in the Declaration of Helsinki. Of course, I haven't seen the poll of U.S. biotech researchers for comparison ... Also, see this post that suggests that international collaborations born of American restrictions on research will lead to research where there's no way to tell if the ethics are on the level -- the solution being, of course, for the U.S. to fund (and oversee the ethics of) such research at home so its scientists aren't going offshore.
  • The role of the whistleblower, Gerald Schatten. My initial reaction to this case was that it is a good thing, when discovering your collaborator has made some very bad ethical choices, to confront him about it and call him out on his sh*t rather than keeping it quiet. But, possibly, the situation is more complicated. There are some reports that there might have been a scuffle over patent rights that precipitated Schatten's withdrawal. And, now it seems, one of the junior researchers who was an egg donor may have gone missing while working with Schatten in Pittsburgh. The conspiracy theory suggestion is that Schatten would be less interested in the contents of her ovaries than in the contents of her mind (including all the vital technical know-how that people outside of Hwang's lab have been trying to work out).

In other words, someone is going to get a really interesting book out of all this. Me, I'll be grading papers and reading job files. So keep following the story, and its many facets, at the bioethics web log.

From the mouths of ... college seniors.

Last week, I was "in the field" working on my research. The professor whose laboratory I was observing mentioned to the students in the lab that I'm the one who teaches the ethics-for-science-majors class. One of the students, clearly a wiseass (and I can tell because I crack wise myself), asked, "Oh, do you teach how to fabricate data?"

"No," I replied. "In the class we talk about why fabricating data is a Very Bad Thing for scientists to do. Besides, you know that people get fired for doing that kind of thing."

"Sure," said the wiseass. "But what happens when your research just doesn't work? You need to produce results or you'll get fired. You keep your employer happy by generating results ... if things don't work out in the lab, what else are you supposed to do?" Smirking just a little, the wiseass rattled off a list of professions in which lying is de rigueur. Why not science, too?

Now, I recognize that these questions were tongue in cheek, asked by a student experiencing the colossal difficulty of getting original laboratory research to do anything one could descibe as "working". At the same time, students like the wiseass are keen observers of the world of science. Scientists in industry are part of an organization that needs to worry about the bottom line. No results may mean no marketable product, which eventually means the company goes under and the scientists are out of jobs. The folks at Merck know this is a real problem -- patent protection is about to end on one of their big money-makers, and the Vioxx results turned out not to be as promising as was initially thought (what with the life-threatening side effects). So, with fewer marketable inventions than was hoped, Merck looks like it will also be employing fewer scientists.

Obviously, you wouldn't want Merck scientists making stuff up (or even tweaking real results to make them look better) just to please the boss and have something to put on the market ... people could get hurt, and then come the lawsuits and the downsizing. But the close connection between success in the laboratory (and in the clinical trials) and keeping the company afloat has to do something to the psychology of the young researcher. It is a fact of the scientific life that most of the experiments people try do not work, and very few work on the first (or second, or third, ...) try. Kuhn may have been right that the good scientist, encountering difficulties in the lab, blames herself rather than her theory for the problem. (Also, there's a lot of blaming of equipment and reagents, often legitimate.) But when you're the new scientist in the lab, fresh out of school and with less experience than those around you, how can you help but worry that the boss will blame your lack of results on your scientific ineptitude? How long do you figure you have to turn it around before they thank you for your time and send you to human resources for your exit interview?

One of the characteristics of scientific research in the real world is you don't know how it will come out ahead of time. You may have some strong hunches, but hunches mean nothing without real results. And, if you're trying something that no one has ever done before, the very best plan is just a guess. It may fail spectacularly. There is no amount of hard work and technical skill that can guarantee your success. Maybe you'll find a way to solve the problem your research is aimed at solving, but maybe you won't.

Yet you're also trying to solve the problem of staying employed as a scientist in a world where solving problems (or not) can be the deciding factor in who stays employed. You can start to understand where the college senior contemplating a career in science gets stressed out.

Experiments that fail still tell us something, even if it's just information about approaches to solving the problem that don't work. If there were journals devoted to experimental approaches that did not work, I guarantee you they would be read regularly and thoroughly by working scientists. But short of recognizing the scholarly contributions of scientists who identify unsuccessful protocols, is there a way to let scientists just do good science without having to keep their eye on the bottom line?

Technorati tags: ,

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Blog against racism day

Today is blog against racism day. Which is why I finally got around to writing the last post -- the issues people bother with, like education, that have an impact on other people may prompt different levels of emotional investment when the people impacted are of a different race or class than the people bothering with the issue.

Anyway, follow the link and see who else is posting about the various facets of racism today.

What's the big deal about high school biology class?

It is no secret to my regular readers that I get a bit exercised about the science wars playing out in various school boards and court actions. This is no doubt unavoidable, given that I think about science for a living -- when you've got a horse in the race, you end up spending a lot of time at the track.

But lately, some thoughtful folks have been wondering whether people ought to be devoting quite so much energy (and emotional involvement) to the question of what a community decides to include in, or omit from, its high school biology curriculum. This dispatch from Dover, PA by Eyal Press (available online only to Nation subscribers, but maybe your library has it -- if not, email me) is an example of this kind of worry.

Press describes the Dover area as it unfolded for him in a drive-along with former Dover school board member Casey Brown:
We drove out past some cornfields, a sheep farm, a meadow and a couple of barns, along the back roads of York County, a region where between 1970 and 2000, 11 percent of the manufacturing jobs disappeared, and where in the more rural areas one in five children grows up in a low-income family (in the city of York the figure is one in three). Dover isn't dirt poor, but neither is it wealthy. It's the kind of place where people work hard and save what they can. Looking out at the soy, wheat and dairy farms while Brown explained that lots of older people in the area can't afford to keep up with their mortgages and end up walking away from their homes, I was struck by the thought that this was a part of the country where, a century ago, the populist movement might have made inroads by organizing small farmers against the monopolies and trusts. These days, of course, a different sort of populism prevails, infused by religion and defining itself against "outside" forces like the ACLU.

Press also went to see what the students in Dover thought of the controversy:
What do the intended beneficiaries of the Dover school board's actions make of the intelligent design debate? A few days before meeting Casey Brown, I drove out to Dover high school to find out. It was late in the afternoon and a couple of kids were milling about outside, waiting for rides. When I asked them what they thought of the controversy, they looked at me with blank stares that suggested I could not have posed a question of less relevance to their lives. "I think you should leave us alone," one of them said. "Everyone just sleeps through that class anyway," said another. I approached a third kid, who was standing alone. Nobody he knew ever talked about the issue, he told me; it was no big deal.

Press suggests that this is not just a matter of teen ennui. The schools in the area may not be up to the challenge of addressing the real needs of their students:
For the most part, though, kids in Dover seem perplexed that so much attention is being paid to what happens in a single class. It is a sentiment shared by Pat Jennings, an African-American woman who runs the Lighthouse Youth Center, an organization that offers after-school programs, recreational services and parenting and Bible study classes to kids throughout York County. The center, which is privately funded, is located in a brown-brick building in downtown York, next to a church. ... A deeply religious woman who describes her faith as "very important" to her, Jennings nonetheless confessed that she hasn't paid much attention to the evolution controversy, since she's too busy thinking about other problems the children she serves face--drugs, gangs, lack of access to opportunity, racism. "When we are in this building there are no Latinos, blacks, Caucasian children--just children," she explained after giving me a tour of the center. "But when I go out there"--she pointed to the street--"I'm reminded that I'm different."

"There's a lot of kids out there looking for something," Jennings continued. "They have questions that need answering. They're looking for someone to trust." I asked her if she thought schools were providing that thing. She shook her head. "I don't know if it's the schools or the parents or whatever, but something is wrong. The kids I see lack discipline. They lack reading skills." Listening to her, it was hard not to view the dust-up over intelligent design as a tragic illustration of how energy that could be poured into other problems is wasted on symbolic issues of comparatively minor significance.

Why those symbolic issues have assumed such importance in America has a lot to do with the fact that, in places like Dover, the only institutions around that seem willing to address the concerns of many people are fundamentalist churches.

I take it that Press is not primarily interested in taking scientists to task. Rather, his point seems to be that folks in Dover and places like it are much less concerned about "direction" of curriculum by fundamentalist churches because those churches are perceived as taking care of social needs that no one else -- including the government -- seems willing or able to address in these communities. It doesn't seem altogether irrational to bend a little to the folks keeping things together, especially if the bending involves changing the curriculum that the high school students are going to sleep through anyway, does it?

This is a variant of the ongoing debate I have at my university about what is supposed to be going on here:

Dr. F-R: A college education should help you understand different kinds of knowledge and reasoning. My class should help you understand what's distinctive about scientific knowledge.

Jaded Student: Dude, I really just want to sit in the chair and do the minimum I need to do to get the three units of upper division science general education credit. Don't bug me.

Dr. F-R: You're a college student! Learning this is good for you!

Jaded Student: I'm only in college so I can get a job that pays a decent wage. If I could do that any other way, I wouldn't be here.

Dr. F-R: How will you navigate the modern world without some understanding of science?

Jaded Student: Unless understanding science gets me a better salary it ain't gonna happen. Learning for its own sake is for suckers.

And here's where I want to say that Eyal Press is right that there are very bad things that are much larger than the details of the biology curriculum happening in communities like Dover, but that the fight over quality public education is central rather than merely symbolic. Education is not a dispensible luxury. Rather, it is an essential tool for people in making reasonable choices about their own lives. Education isn't just about teaching specific skills for the workforce; it also lays a foundation with which to learn new skills to keep up with a changing economy (or, dare I say it, with one's changing interests). Even more, education is supposed to open up a world quite apart from the world of work. The world may need ditch diggers (or repair technicians for the ditch-digging robots), but it would be a much better world if the ditch diggers (and repair technicians) not only earned a decent wage but also had enough left over to buy a few books and to think about things they wanted to think about. (Yes, I'm going on my "everyone deserves a life of the mind" rant. It happens.)

Making a better world may require choosing one's battles. Some would suggest that the battle over science education is a high-investment, low-payoff battle. But my own sense is that the minute we decide a certain population of students don't really need good science education, we've put up the white flag. Do we help students who are in difficult socio-economic circumstances by reducing their future prospects to succeed in further science classes or pursue a career in science? Do we help these students when we throw them out into the world as voters and consumers without a clear understanding of how scientific knowledge is produced and of how it is different from other kinds of knowledge? Might it not reinforce the feeling that the larger society really doesn't actually care much about you or your future if you find out that people with a voice didn't even whimper as you were subjected to an "education" these people wouldn't have allowed their own kids to suffer through?

One of the guiding ideals of science is that it is a project in which anyone can engage -- provided they have the necessary training. Scientists try to work out accounts of what's going on in the world that are tested against and built upon observation that human beings can make regardless of their home country, their socio-economic status, their race, their gender, their age. The scientific ideal of universality ought to make science a realm of work that is open to anyone willing to put in the work to become scientist. A career in science could be a real avenue for class mobility.

Unless, of course, we decide that public school students in less affluent communities (or more rural communities, or red states, or whatever) aren't really entitled to the best science education we can give them. If keeping them fed and out of gangs and passing the standardized tests in reading and writing is the extent of our obligation to these students, maybe a sound science education is a luxury. But if this is the case, we probably ought to cut out the whole "American dream" story and admit to ourselves that this place is not a meritocracy. Those who have the luxury of a quality education have an advantage over those who don't, and by golly they should own up to that. Especially when budgets are being hammered out, or when elections are coming up.

The kids in Dover, and Iowa, and Kansas, are part of your future and mine. Even if, as 15 year olds, they don't fully appreciate the stand being taken on their behalf, I'm not willing to back down from taking it, just the same way I'm not willing to let jaded students out of my classes without some learning taking place. Valuing other members of our society means valuing their future options to set their own course and to find meaning in their own lives. Good making good science education is not sufficient here, but my gut says it may be necessary.

Technorati tags: , ,