Archive | December 2018

Slow Learning

A couple of news/opinion items the past week kind of coalesce around a peculiar notion: higher educational institutions are slow learners. This may not be obvious when you learn that the two items are an op-ed about how college isn’t for everyone, and the second about the use of student evaluations of teaching potentially being discriminatory.

Let’s take the last one first. The Boulder Faculty Assembly has now twice prompted the administration to revise how student evaluations are used in determining the teaching ability of professors. These assessments are made by students in the penultimate week of the term; in most cases only a fraction of the class actually completes the evaluation. At greatest issue are two questions on the questionnaire: rating the course, and rating the instructor–the two which are most commonly considered both by students considering which course to take and by promotion and tenure committees considering whether to promote a faculty member. For students, this is one of the few summary pieces of information available to them; for faculty committees though, this is a temptingly quantitative piece of information.

It has been patently obvious for decades (yes, literally decades) that these questionnaire results have little correlation with how much students learned. Read More…

Postdoc Workshop

In the movie Elf, the initial voiceover from “Papa Elf” (Bob Newhart) says that there are three main jobs for elves: baking cookies in an old hollow tree, making boots at night, and Santa’s workshop. When Will Ferrell’s human-adult-but-raised-an-elf character Buddy hits New York, his lack of useful skills outside the elf world becomes pretty apparent.

A report in Nature says that postdocs are kind of like elves, but without quite so many career options. The studies underlying this reporting basically find that employers are not so interested in the skills postdocs pick up, with the deadly quote from an employer being that postdocs “have all the academic science skills you don’t need, and none of the organizational skills that you do”. A solution mentioned is mentoring postdocs as entrepreneurs.

If not that, what are these postdocs doing?

By this GG means that postdocs should be writing grant applications supporting the science they wish to pursue (whether they get to be PI is a different matter). Plenty of businesses revolve around responding to proposal requests; this isn’t helpful?

Some postdocs are brought in to work on big projects, which is often to oversee work being done by grad students and undergraduates. Does this administrative responsibility have no use in the private sector?

Other postdocs work independently, which means to be successful they must be self-starters and persevere through challenges. Many times too they have to write up reports on what they have done and what progress they are making. This too has no use in the outside world?

GG is stuck; one of two things is happening: either “real world” recruiters are oblivious to the skills being picked up  by postdocs (and postdocs are at a loss to express those skills), or postdoc advisors are treating their postdocs like graduate students, not sharing any of the responsibilities and freedom that such positions should include. Either way, tremendous intellectual capital is being squandered.

Any Adults in the Room?

Many of those who find President Trump’s instincts on foreign policy misguided frequently state that they are relieved that there are “adults in the room” that prevent rash military action by the President. At times, Congress has even stepped in to override the President’s dismissal of intelligence findings from the CIA or FBI. Those relieved “there are adults in the room” point to episodes described in various books on the administration where the President demanded action and others either dissuaded him or simply ignored his wishes; the most dramatic (and hotly debated) version of this was in an anonymous New York Times op-ed earlier this year. Whether such actions are honorable or not continues to be debated, but that is not our topic today.

GG would like to know where the adults in the room are when it comes to science.  Frankly, the answer would seem to be, nowhere. This was underscored this past week by what followed President Trump’s dismissal of a major climate report that the administration tried to bury by releasing it weeks ahead of time on Black Friday.  Basically, nobody stood up and said, you misunderstand what this in.  No, instead we had the EPA misrepresent instructions given to the group assembling the report, we had claims that this was a way for climate scientists to get rich, we had claims that lots of scientists disagree with the report.  All of which is wrong.

What is closer to reality is the necessity of the Climate Scientists Legal Defense Fund, or the  Silencing Science tracker, which is a sobering list of efforts made to ignore, obfuscate, blockade, defund, demean, ridicule or prevent scientific research.  The intense harassment Michael Mann faced, the time lost by two Arizona climate researchers ordered to hand over nearly all their emails–this is the reality of many climate scientists.  There is no big money in doing this work. Most are utterly anonymous and so don’t even get some perk from being quoted in the newspaper. A life of fame and fortune it is not.

While there might be adults in the room to mitigate President Trump’s evident distrust of experts in foreign policy, they are notably absent when it comes to using information from the experts on scientific matters.  And in the long run, that might prove to be more harmful to both the nation and the world than any reckless military adventures.