31 October 2011

A ‘Now What?’ Moment for Climate Change Skeptics

Skeptics and denialists of climate change lost a powerful voice recently. What’s more? It was one of their very few scientific voices.

Richard Muller, a physicist at the Universityof California at Berkeley, has long raised questions about the data used by climate researchers and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to chart the planet’s temperature record over the last 200 years or so: the chief evidence of recent and rapid warming. Among the questions were whether the data and the stations that collected it were of sufficient quality to allow for a valid estimate of warming; whether the data had been selectively chosen, or cherry-picked, to show a warming trend that would otherwise not be reflected; and whether urban heat-islands were skewing global average temperatures.

In an October 21 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Muller laid out a case for climate skepticism based on these questions. “Without good answers to all these complaints,” he wrote, “global-warming skepticism seems sensible.”

08 October 2011

New "family friendly" policies from NSF (Part 2)

Earlier this week I wrote about policy changes announced by NSF that are designed to provide researchers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with greater flexibility to attend to family concerns while continuing their research efforts. Among the changes, which extend certain current policies regarding the grant award and review process, are provisions to allow for grant deferrals or no-cost extensions for up to a year when researchers need to take time off to raise a newborn child, for example. The measures are aimed particularly at retaining female researchers in academia by easing career-versus-family decisions.

For an informed opinion on the challenges for women in academia and NSF’s announcement, I talked to Professor Jean Bahr, a hydrogeologist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Following her Ph.D. and a brief stint with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., Bahr has been on the faculty in the Department of Geoscience at UW – Madison since 1987. Among many other achievements during that time, she has served as president of the Geological Society of America and as chair of her department.

04 October 2011

NSF’s new “family-friendly” policies attempt to boost representation of females in tenured STEM academic positions

The challenges of beginning an academic research career in science or engineering are many. Beyond the intelligence, skill and ingenuity it takes to carry out meaningful research, scientists and engineers seeking tenured faculty positions are responsible for bringing in and managing much of their own funding through grants, publishing (and, increasingly, publicizing) their work, advising students and post-docs, and maintaining often-demanding teaching loads.

(Image credit: Argonne National Lab,
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)
The prospect of such a full schedule leaves precious little time for life’s other activities and sometimes leads researchers to view decisions of further pursuing a career versus, oh say, starting or caring for a family, as either-or propositions. Career-versus-family decisions are among the factors that have historically acted against increases in the number of women, in particular, who achieve tenured academic positions. Though the number is improving, it still lags proportionally compared to the number of women who pursue undergraduate or graduate study in science and engineering, and the number who attain advanced degrees.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics as stated (pdf) by the National Science Foundation (NSF), women held 28 percent of full-time tenured or tenure-track positions in science and engineering in 2006 compared to just 10 percent in 1979. Among doctorate degrees awarded in science or engineering in 2009, though, 41 percent were earned by women. And in recent years women have accounted for more than 50 percent of doctorates awarded in all fields.

With new measures announced last week at the White House, NSF is trying to raise awareness of and make a dent in this under-representation. Saying that it is women who “more often than not are the ones who suspend or surrender prominent professional careers to take on the responsibilities associated with starting a family and caring for dependent family members,” NSF director Dr. Subra Suresh introduced an agency initiative aimed at alleviating the stress involved in choosing between family and career. Such efforts, he said, are “essential to our future innovation, economic prosperity and global leadership.”