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Assessing Assessors

Another facet of the “college isn’t really worth it” mindset has shown up in an op-ed by Molly Worthen in the New York Times. The op-ed itself complains that assessments of learning in colleges are, as implemented at present, a waste of time and effort. It is in the comments that you see a lot of people arguing quite strongly that some proof of learning is of value to those paying the bill. The irony is that these two sides are probably not disagreeing.

Years ago, the assessment was pretty obvious.  Got an “A” in a course–you demonstrated mastery of that subject.  Got an “F”? You didn’t. Note this didn’t necessarily measure learning in that class–if you waltzed in having already passed such a course elsewhere, you might have learned nothing, while the F student might have learned a lot relative to a poor base. While on occasion the instructor caught flack for doing a poor job, generally it was the student who discovered he or she was not up to the task. Read More…

Masquerade Funhouse?

A thread on an AGU mail group lately has gone back and forth on whether peer-review of proposals by U.S. federal agencies is fair. Some have asserted that retribution exists in the system, but many of those who have participated have argued it is about as fair as any other activity involving humans, downplaying the possibility of massive collusion to punish an individual. It would not surprise GG if on a few occasions some kind of retribution tipped the scales against a proposal, but it is far more likely in most cases that a combination of other factors doomed a proposal. What emerged in this thread was an interesting thought, namely the reemergence of the idea of a double blind (or at least single blind) review system.

One fundamental premise, as noted by one writer, is “past performance is no indication of future success.” Basically, somebody who has generated something good might well lay an egg, while somebody whose last project failed could be on to something good.  There are two issues here GG would like to contemplate: what does it mean to “succeed” and “fail,” and what components of an individual’s scientific reputation might be relevant.

First, failure is always possible.  In trying to gain knowledge previously inaccessible to humanity, a scientist is venturing into the unknown. Things not going as planned is not particularly unusual. But what does it mean to fail? Read More…

Another Reason to Hate the Tabloid Journals…

GG has complained about the letter journals like Science and Nature, sometimes for things they do (like take real articles and smash them down into an extended abstract disguised as an article with a real article lurking in the supplementary information) and sometimes for how they are used (impact factors for salary bonuses or promotion). There is yet another wrinkle out there that had escaped his notice, namely a chilling of communication at meetings.

A piece in The Open Notebook (seen via Retraction Watch) discusses how scientists clam up at meetings and even threaten to blacklist reporters who, um, report on materials presented at meetings journalists are encouraged to attend. Why? Because they fear that the prestige tabloids will reject their work as already published if this work shows up in a newspaper somewhere. And given the rather arcane rules Science and Nature  put out (you can only clarify what you said in public, you can’t seek out news coverage, etc.) it is easy to feel like you had better discourage coverage if you have designs on those journals.

This is awful on so many levels.   Read More…


The latest white paper on the future of tectonics is out. The product of a workshop and months of work, this is a document meant to help NSF figure out what to fund. A lot of proposals in the next few years will cite one or more of the “Grand Challenges” put forward in this document.

Will this lead to more impactful science?

Frankly, GG isn’t sure one way or another. Presumably all the folks who participated tried to get their research interests represented in this document. So the challenges advertised represent some umbrella of ongoing research programs. This sounds more like a current summary than a truly forward looking document.

However what the document might do is point out to researchers places that are stumping current research efforts, perhaps encouraging those not yet participating in those efforts to develop a different angle on these problems.

Presumably NSF likes these documents to help them winnow out proposals that aren’t addressing major problems. But that risks choking off more iconoclastic work that might truly open up new avenues of research or solve issues not currently under study but important.

You’d really want to see if such visioning documents from, say, 20 years ago captured what we now see as the big advances. Did Earthscope really envision ambient noise tomography? No, though it did enable its widespread application and rescued Earthscope from a promise it would have failed to deliver.

Did visioning in 1960 emphasize marine magnetics or testing mobilist concepts? You have to worry that groupthink might discourage innovation.

War on Education?

We’ve already seen disturbing signs that science is being sidelined in parts of the current administration, but the latest tax bills in Congress seem to carry this to a broader extreme.  Now GG does recognize that any tax bill that actually shuts down deductions will get attacked by those who stand to pay more, but this feels a bit more specific in the overall intent.  If so, it is quite worrying, for the U.S. used to believe that it was in the national interest to have an educated populace.

As can be seen in an AAU statement on the House and on the Senate bills, and a statement from the CU Chancellor, several different provisions of this legislation hurt higher education.  Some of these are a big deal (making support of graduate students taxable, or taxing endowments of private universities) and some are rather petty (ending a tax break for purchasing season tickets).  But it is somewhat striking that an opinion columnist’s view of the tax plans as a whole has a large portion devoted to the impacts on higher education. Yes, the big ticket items are in ending deductions for state and local taxes and in cutting the mortgage interest deduction, but it seems a lot of attention has been paid to crimping Americans’ ability to get a college education or a higher degree. Even here, though some provisions can hurt higher ed, such as removing the deduction for state taxes, which contribute to supporting state colleges.

So, is this a war on education? It certainly feels like it.

Update 11/16.  Some more discussion of the potential damage of these tax plans: A New York Times On Campus piece written by a graduate student, a Washington Post perspective on this, a story about how a threatened tuition benefit for a janitor let his five children go to college.  A more local angle is in an opinion piece in the Boulder Daily Camera. 

The Private Public University

Earlier GG pointed out how universities’ reputations abruptly declined in view of members of the GOP, but in fact universities are looked at pretty poorly across the board more and more.  A Politico article digs down into this for the University of Michigan, a public peer to us at the University of Colorado.  Their thesis is that as college has gotten more expensive, lower income families have convinced themselves that (1) they can’t afford it (overlooking programs to help in such circumstances) and (2) they don’t need college to get ahead. This then feeds into a feeling that spending their tax money on public colleges is a waste. We here might give a sigh of relief that Politico didn’t pick us for their study because, well, we look pretty bad too.

Sometime in the past, the populace felt that public universities were a public good: the more educated the population, the better all would fare. But increasingly university education is viewed as either a necessary means to a higher salary (and so a private good) or a rite of passage for scions of wealthier families. These perceptions can also color how students look at their education, feeling that rather than access to an opportunity, they are paying for a product (a degree).  All of this is poison to the body public; if there is no value to having an educated public, then the public will cease to seek education.

One of the great ideas in American history was free public education. Abandoning the idea that education is a good thing may well be akin to walking away from a functioning democracy. So hopefully the universities will find a way to regain the trust of those they are to serve.

Where is Real Science Published?

There is a tremendous tension now in science that might not be terribly obvious to those outside the field.  “Publish or perish” is reaching into corners that never should have seen such pressure even as it seems more daunting in places where it was always important, and the response of the community has bifurcated into two misguided directions.

On the one hand, there are the predatory journals that publish anything that accompanies a check. While many seem to operate on deception, using names that closely parallel established peer-review journals, others are pretty clearly their own thing. The amazing insight, as presented in a New York Times piece, is that many scientists who publish in these journals are well aware that they are, in essence, true vanity publishers. Worse, such publications are apparently aiding many in advancing their careers. The existence of many of these journals is not even regarded as a negative by some who advocate for review-free publication of anything anybody wants to call science; the absence of peer-review is a feature, not a bug.

On the other hand there is the quantification of prestige that many want to apply to scientific publications.  The worst application is, without doubt, the financial reward for merely publishing in a journal with a high impact factor. Read More…