Sen. Coburn Exposes Waste at the NSF

May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) released May 26 a report documenting more than $3 billion he sees as wasteful spending and mismanagement at the key science agency and calls for cuts and streamlining. More than $1.2 billion of that money has been lost due to waste, fraud, duplication and mismanagement and an additional $1.7 billion in unspent funds.

The report, “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope”, offers a list of research projects that exemplify the waste and duplication that Coburn outlines in his report, such as:

• $80,000 study on why the same teams always dominate March Madness;

• $315,000 study suggesting playing FarmVille on Facebook helps adults develop and maintain relationships;

• $1 million for an analysis of how quickly parents respond to trendy baby names;

• $50,000 to produce and publicize amateur songs about science, including a rap called “Money 4 Drugz,” and a misleading song titled “Biogas is a Gas, Gas, Gas”; and

• $581,000 on whether online dating site users are racist.

“Who would disagree the dollars spent on these efforts could not have been better targeted identifying more efficient, renewable fuels, developing the next generation of computers, creating new antibiotics for resistant bacteria, or simply reducing the nation’s debt?” Coburn asked in the report. The  report also provides a few recommendations on how the agency could improves the handling of its funds, including:

• Establish Clear Guidelines for What Constitutes “Transformative” and “Potentially Transformative” Science. The agency has begun this process, but much more needs to be done to evaluate the merit of each project funded by the agency.

• Set Clear Metrics to Measure Success and Standards to Ensure Accountability. The agency clearly needs to improve its grant administration and evaluation mechanisms. Addressing these areas will help set better priorities while also rooting out fraudulent and inappropriate expenditures.

• Eliminate NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economics (SBE) Directorate ($255 million in FY 2010). The social sciences should not be the focus of our premier basic scientific research agency.

• Consolidate the Directorate for Education & Human Resources ($872 million in FY 2010). In addition to excessive duplication within the agency and across the federal government, spending on education and human resources comes at the expense of actual scientific pursuits. Consolidation can lead to increased investment in transformative scientific studies.

• Use It or Lose It: NSF Should Better Manage Resources It Can No Longer Spend or Does Not Need and Immediately Return $1.7 Billion of Unspent, Expired Funds It Currently Holds. Better grant management and closeout procedures could increase available funds for research and provide savings for the federal government.

In a brief statement, NSF officials defended the agency’s work.

“The National Science Foundation is renowned for its gold-standard approach to peer review of each of the more than 40,000 proposals it receives each year,” officials said. “While no agency is without flaws, NSF has been diligent about addressing concerns from members of Congress about workforce and grant management issues, and NSF’s excellent record of tracking down waste and prosecuting wrongdoing is apparent from Sen. Coburn’s report. We believe that no other funding agency in the world comes close to NSF for giving taxpayers the best return on their investment.”

Although it’s important to investigate the possible waste of precious government dollars, there are a few things wrong with Coburn’s report. First, this report premises that the NSF is the only one responsible for government waste and overlap, when that is not the case. The Grace Commission presented its findings on government waste and overlap to Congress in January 1984. The commission claimed that if its recommendations were followed, $424 billion could be saved in three years, rising to $1.9 trillion per year by the year 2000. It estimated that the national debt, without these reforms, would rise to $13 trillion by the year 2000, while with the reforms they projected it would rise to only $2.5 trillion.Congress ignored the commission’s report. The debt reached $5.8 trillion in the year 2000. The national debt reached 13 trillion after the subprime mortgage-collateralized debt obligation crisis in 2008. Not implying that Coburn’s report ought to be ignored, but rather that investigating government spending needs to happen government wide, and not just focus on a few specific entities.

Second, the research Coburn deems wasteful is only considered such because Coburn says so. Although Coburn is an M.D., it seems that the results and implications of those research projects were not taken into consideration when he conducted his investigation and put together the report. A research project should only be deemed wasteful if the project doesn’t produce significant results or lead to any significant conclusions. Plus, research involving social media and websites is completely necessary in this day and age. As the Internet becomes an increasing part of our lives, research needs to be done to understand that impact

The real question is how we can help in determining the potential value of the research. A tighter integration of the research with the people who are “end-users” is needed to spend money efficiently on projects that positively impact lives and add to the progress of science. The only way to understand which projects should be funded further is to crowd-source the products of the research e.g. the publications that come out of them.
Do you think the NSF could be doing better to manage its funds? Or is Coburn just picking a fight with the NSF in order to cut research spending in anyway possible? What would be your solution to increase the effectiveness of research dollars?

Setbacks in Stem Cell Research Policy

May 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Even though the ban has been lifted on embryonic stem cell research, progress in this field continues to remain at a standstill.

Legislation is currently underway in Michigan that would require public universities doing the research to report some information to the state. The data would have to include how many human embryos are used for research,  the number of human embryos and human embryo stem cell lines received by the university in the current fiscal year, the number of stem cell lines created, the number of embryos held in storage, and the number of research projects underway.

State Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck, who supports the reporting requirements, said he wants to bring transparency to stem cell research through provisions in the higher education budget.

“It is important to know where the human embryonic stem cells are coming from and where they’re being generated,” he told the Holland Sentinel. “We want to make sure the embryos are legal — that they didn’t come to us through the black market.”

Governor Rick Snyder’s legal counsel sent a letter this week to Republican legislative leaders saying that in his opinion the provision would be unconstitutional and unenforceable, indicating the provision would conflict with a voter-approved constitutional amendment to expressly permit stem cell research. Reporting or limiting the research would not be allowed under this amendment.

There has also been an update regarding Sherley et al. v. Sebelius et al., the lawsuit challenging federal taxpayer funding of human embryonic stem cell research. A Motion was filed on May 18, 2011, to allow both sides to file supplemental briefs with the U.S. District Court. This motion to provide additional information to the Court was agreed upon by both sides. These briefs and supplemental information is about two additional arguments that were made by the plaintiffs challenging hESC funding. First, they contended that hESC research was also prohibited under the  separate prohibition in Dickey-Wicker against federal funding of research in which human embryos are “knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero[.]” The plaintiffs argued that funding for hESC research endangered embryos by creating a demand for additional stem-cell lines and therefore increasing the chances that a particular embryo might be used as a source of stem cells. Second, they contended that when the National Institutes of Health had adopted the new funding rules for hESC research, it had violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs rulemaking by federal agencies.

A similar previous motion filed on May 9 was opposed by the Department of Justice. The motions follow the April 29 decision by the Appeals Court to vacate the preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in August 2010. While the Appeals Court ruling maintained the status quo regarding the flow of federal taxpayer funds for embryonic stem cell research, there are still a number of issues to be resolved, awaiting the decision of Judge Lamberth.

60% of jobs are filled through referrals

May 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Are you making those connections?

Studies have shown that anywhere between 48 percent and 60 percent of job hunters obtain their jobs through referrals. Employers fast-track job candidates who are recommended by current employees; statistically speaking, employee-referred hires prove to be better hires, have longer job tenures and therefore represent a far sounder investment on the part of employers, according to Thomas Boyle, SilkRoad director of product strategy.

The employee referral and a direct connection are among the strongest screening tools available, said Lisa Rowan, program director of HR, Learning and Talent Strategies for Framingham, Mass.-based analyst firm IDC. “If I’m an employee, I’m not going to recommend poor candidates, generally,” she said. Research also shows that ‘referral’ hires not only stay longer in their jobs but perform better over the long term.

Now where does come in? Well, as a scientific community with over 16 Million fully profiled  scientists, we offer plenty of  opportunities to get referral from leader in the field. Instead of cold candidates, you can get the best students, post-docs or junior faculty recommended by the key faculty that supervised them for their formative years in science. This is especially handy if you are doing work across inter-disciplinary fields, and need someone with specific expertise. Take the time to find someone who comes highly recommended.

Tips and Tricks in Preparing a Research Proposal

May 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Writing a research proposal is never easy, even if you’ve done it a few times before. The presentation is your chance for funding, career advancement, and overall judgment of your capabilities as a scientist. Therefore, it never hurts to have a few tips and tricks in putting together a research proposal before the big day. Below are four pieces of advice to consider. Perhaps you’ve head of them before, but it’s better to know these things before getting to the review committee, instead of afterward.

  1. Read some of the literature related to your research topic – Anywhere between two and five papers will suffice, but grasping what’s currently happening in the field is important for two reasons. First, you need to find out if your research has already been done, or if there’s another angle you can take with your research. Second, it can help you gauge if other scholars will care about the results of your research. If the research has already been done, or if others don’t cited similar research in their publications, then maybe the topic isn’t worth pursuing.
  2. Appearances do matter – Although the content is the most important aspect of the proposal, make sure that it’s easy on the eyes as well. That means making sure the layout of any tables or graphs is nice and neat, and that the proposal as a whole is easy to follow.
  3. Be specific as possible – It’s not expected that you know all the answers. That’s why it’s research. But, you at least need to have a very clear of idea of how you will conduct your research. What is your hypothesis? What sort of time frame are you estimating? How will you find the answers to your research questions? Don’t think that you can get away without any answers to these questions. If you don’t bring them up in your proposal, the review committee sure will.
  4. Proposals are convincing documents, so convince! – Make sure to write your research proposal for the review committee, not yourself. A good research proposal explains why this research is important, why the questions need to be answered, how this research fits into the rest of the field. Compare and contrast your proposed research with other current research, so as to demonstrate that your research is different, but keep in mind that the proposal should include more than a summary of past and present research.

If you need additional resources, there are worksheets on every stage of proposal writing as well as a directory of guidelines from various universities and experts. For models or sample structures of proposals, check out Matthew McGranaghan’s guidelines.

Big Data fellowship seeks one more

May 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

EMC sponsors Code for America for one more fellow

Calling all data scientists! Code for America is recruiting one data scientist for its fellowship program. This additional spot is sponsored by EMC Corporation, who announced its new partnership with Code for America earlier this week. The Data Scientist Fellow will work alongside talented web developers, designers, and entrepreneurs and, through the use of Big Data technology, serve as a civic leader to drive transformational change in government and city services.

Founded in 2009, Code for America’s fellowship is an 11-month program that empowers talented web developers, designers, and entrepreneurs to leverage the power of the internet to make governments more open and more efficient. The fellowship seeks to shape these high-potential technologists into civic leaders able to realize transformational change in government with technology. Participants in Code for America’s effort help city governments better leverage the power of the web. Code for America fellows are challenged to not only build innovative apps for each city, but also to become the leaders of the ongoing movement to make government more efficient and transparent.

“The potential of using massive data sets to answer questions that were thought unanswerable and solve problems that were deemed unsolvable could be transformative to our government, to city services and to us all,” Jennifer Pahlka, the Executive Director of Code for America. “By sponsoring a fellow to focus on leveraging the power of data science, EMC has enabled Code for America to tap the potential of Big Data to build solutions that better our communities.”

An ideal candidate for this fellow is someone who is a passionate thinker and a conscientious doer.  The candidate will be well connected within the big data community, demonstrating the ability to be a leader in guiding the future of data science. This individual will work side-by-side with experts to derive evocative information from the data deluge and serve as a champion for dynamic collaboration and information sharing. Deadline for application is July 31, 2011. For application form or more information please visit

Online research just got easier

May 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Scrible facilitates annotation of web pages for research, archiving and collaboration

Earlier this week, Scrible launched its beta with the help of a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Scrible is simply a toolbar that a scientist or researcher (or anyone for that matter) can add to their browser. With this toolbar, folks can mark up web pages and share that research with others. Everyone does research online, but still uses those ancient methods to collaborate that research: printing out tons of pages, cutting and pasting information, formatting layouts etc. All that is gone with Scrible.

“This emphasis on annotating the Web at large is reminiscent of Web 1.0 startup Third Voice, which created public or community forums around web pages. Even Hotmail Founder Sabeer Bhatia tried this with BlogEverywhere,” said Scrible CEO Victor Karkar in VentureBeat. “Nothing wrong with that, but creating public discourse on the wide Web is a very different model involving different use cases, usage patterns and interactions, both with the content and among users.”

Scrible makes it easier to keep research coordinated among many. Folks can annotate web pages in multiple colors and save web research online without printing anything out. Not only can users than access this research from anywhere, but your research is easily searchable through keywords and neatly organized through tags. By far, our favorite feature is the array of  colors and highlighters, which allows you to categorize the information and add sticky notes for future reference. All this can than be exported into a word document, intact in the way you organized it without any needs for additional formatting.

The best part about Scrible? It’s currently free! A paid version is in progress, and Scrible is welcoming suggestions for features.

Along with scribble there are other tools like marginize and goozzy that also allow people to leave and share comments directly on the webpages that they visit. These can be used to spread the word about important new discoveries and make research, and researchers a little bit more social. The problem, of course is in choosing the platform which is right for you. Its off to the races with Web2.0 in science. What do you think we need to take science into the next century and how can the web help?

Federal funding open for stem cell research

May 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

Ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research overturned

The U.S Federal Court of Appeals has overturned the August 2010 ban on federal funding of stem cell research, a move openly welcomed by the Obama Administration.

The administration attempted to lift the ban in 2009, where lawsuit Sherley v. Sebelius argued that the attempt violated the 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment, which prohibits the use of stem cells from destroyed embryos. The ban was upheld until the Sherley v. Sebelius lawsuit could be resolved.

The Appeals Court decision put the Dickey-Wicker question to rest, ruling that the amendment was “ambiguous” and that the National Institutes of Health “seems reasonably to have concluded that although Dickey-Wicker bars funding for the destructive act of deriving an embryonic stem cell from an embryo, it does not prohibit funding a research project in which an ESC will be used,” according to the 2-1 decision.

“This is a victory not only for the scientists, but for the patients who are waiting for treatments and cures for terrible diseases,” said Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF. “This ruling allows critical research to move forward, enabling scientists to compare human embryonic stem cells to other forms of stem cells, such as the cell lines which are derived from skin cells, and to pursue potentially life-saving therapies based on that research.”

Professor Hank Greely of Stanford Law School in Palo Alto, California, thinks scientists can breathe easy. “No matter how you look at it this was a very good day for the human embryonic stem cell research community. The best chance plaintiffs had was with this [appeals court] panel, and everything from here out is low probability for them,” says Greely. Tony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges isn’t so sanguine. “This will be a protracted fight,” he predicts. “It’s going to be a long time before this is over.”

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