Tag Archives: Nature

In scientific race US sees China coming up from rear

Sometime it seems as if scientific research is like a race with everyone competing for first place. As in most sports, there are multiple competitions for various sub-groups but only one important race. The US has held the lead position for decades although always with some anxiety. These days the anxiety is focused on China. A June 15, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily suggests that US dominance is threatened in at least one area of research—the biomedical sector,

American scientific teams still publish significantly more biomedical research discoveries than teams from any other country, a new study shows, and the U.S. still leads the world in research and development expenditures.

But American dominance is slowly shrinking, the analysis finds, as China’s skyrocketing investing on science over the last two decades begins to pay off. Chinese biomedical research teams now rank fourth in the world for total number of new discoveries published in six top-tier journals, and the country spent three-quarters what the U.S. spent on research and development during 2015.

Meanwhile, the analysis shows, scientists from the U.S. and other countries increasingly make discoveries and advancements as part of teams that involve researchers from around the world.

A June 15, 2017 Michigan Medicine University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, details the research team’s insights,

The last 15 years have ushered in an era of “team science” as research funding in the U.S., Great Britain and other European countries, as well as Canada and Australia, stagnated. The number of authors has also grown over time. For example, in 2000 only two percent of the research papers the new study looked include 21 or more authors — a number that increased to 12.5 percent in 2015.

The new findings, published in JCI Insight by a team of University of Michigan researchers, come at a critical time for the debate over the future of U.S. federal research funding. The study is based on a careful analysis of original research papers published in six top-tier and four mid-tier journals from 2000 to 2015, in addition to data on R&D investment from those same years.

The study builds on other work that has also warned of America’s slipping status in the world of science and medical research, and the resulting impact on the next generation of aspiring scientists.

“It’s time for U.S. policy-makers to reflect and decide whether the year-to-year uncertainty in National Institutes of Health budget and the proposed cuts are in our societal and national best interest,” says Bishr Omary, M.D., Ph.D., senior author of the new data-supported opinion piece and chief scientific officer of Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. “If we continue on the path we’re on, it will be harder to maintain our lead and, even more importantly, we could be disenchanting the next generation of bright and passionate biomedical scientists who see a limited future in pursuing a scientist or physician-investigator career.”

The analysis charts South Korea’s entry into the top 10 countries for publications, as well as China’s leap from outside the top 10 in 2000 to fourth place in 2015. They also track the major increases in support for research in South Korea and Singapore since the start of the 21st Century.

Meticulous tracking

First author of the study, U-M informationist Marisa Conte, and Omary co-led a team that looked carefully at the currency of modern science: peer-reviewed basic science and clinical research papers describing new findings, published in journals with long histories of accepting among the world’s most significant discoveries.

They reviewed every issue of six top-tier international journals (JAMA, Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Cell, Nature and Science), and four mid-ranking journals (British Medical Journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, Journal of Cell Science, FASEB Journal), chosen to represent the clinical and basic science aspects of research.

The analysis included only papers that reported new results from basic research experiments, translational studies, clinical trials, metanalyses, and studies of disease outcomes. Author affiliations for corresponding authors and all other authors were recorded by country.

The rise in global cooperation is striking. In 2000, 25 percent of papers in the six top-tier journals were by teams that included researchers from at least two countries. In 2015, that figure was closer to 50 percent. The increasing need for multidisciplinary approaches to make major advances, coupled with the advances of Internet-based collaboration tools, likely have something to do with this, Omary says.

The authors, who also include Santiago Schnell, Ph.D. and Jing Liu, Ph.D., note that part of their group’s interest in doing the study sprang from their hypothesis that a flat NIH budget is likely to have negative consequences but they wanted to gather data to test their hypothesis.

They also observed what appears to be an increasing number of Chinese-born scientists who had trained in the U.S. going back to China after their training, where once most of them would have sought to stay in the U.S. In addition, Singapore has been able to recruit several top notch U.S. and other international scientists due to their marked increase in R&D investments.

The same trends appear to be happening in Great Britain, Australia, Canada, France, Germany and other countries the authors studied – where research investing has stayed consistent when measured as a percentage of the U.S. total over the last 15 years.

The authors note that their study is based on data up to 2015, and that in the current 2017 federal fiscal year, funding for NIH has increased thanks to bipartisan Congressional appropriations. The NIH contributes to most of the federal support for medical and basic biomedical research in the U.S. But discussion of cuts to research funding that hinders many federal agencies is in the air during the current debates for the 2018 budget. Meanwhile, the Chinese R&D spending is projected to surpass the U.S. total by 2022.

“Our analysis, albeit limited to a small number of representative journals, supports the importance of financial investment in research,” Omary says. “I would still strongly encourage any child interested in science to pursue their dream and passion, but I hope that our current and future investment in NIH and other federal research support agencies will rise above any branch of government to help our next generation reach their potential and dreams.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Globalization and changing trends of biomedical research output by Marisa L. Conte, Jing Liu, Santiago Schnell, and M. Bishr Omary. JCI Insight. 2017;2(12):e95206 doi:10.1172/jci.insight.95206 Volume 2, Issue 12 (June 15, 2017)

Copyright © 2017, American Society for Clinical Investigation

This paper is open access.

The notion of a race and looking back to see who, if anyone, is gaining on you reminded me of a local piece of sports lore, the Roger Banister-John Landy ‘Miracle Mile’. In the run up to the 1954 Commonwealth Games held in Vancouver, Canada, two runners were known to have broken the 4-minute mile limit (previously thought to have been impossible) and this meeting was considered an historic meeting. Here’s more from the miraclemile1954.com website,

On August 7, 1954 during the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C., England’s Roger Bannister and Australian John Landy met for the first time in the one mile run at the newly constructed Empire Stadium.

Both men had broken the four minute barrier previously that year. Bannister was the first to break the mark with a time of 3:59.4 on May 6th in Oxford, England. Subsequently, on June 21st in Turku, Finland, John Landy became the new record holder with an official time of 3:58.

The world watched eagerly as both men approached the starting blocks. As 35,000 enthusiastic fans looked on, no one knew what would take place on that historic day.

Promoted as “The Mile of the Century”, it would later be known as the “Miracle Mile”.

With only 90 yards to go in one of the world’s most memorable races, John Landy glanced over his left shoulder to check his opponent’s position. At that instant Bannister streaked by him to victory in a Commonwealth record time of 3:58.8. Landy’s second place finish in 3:59.6 marked the first time the four minute mile had been broken by two men in the same race.

The website hosts an image of the moment memorialized in bronze when Landy looks to his left as Banister passes him on his right,

By Statue: Jack HarmanPhoto: Paul Joseph from vancouver, bc, canada – roger bannister running the four minute mileUploaded by Skeezix1000, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9801121

Getting back to science, I wonder if some day we’ll stop thinking of it as a race where, inevitably, there’s one winner and everyone else loses and find a new metaphor.

Fractal imagery (from nature or from art or from mathematics) soothes

Jackson Pollock’s work is often cited when fractal art is discussed. I think it’s largely because he likely produced the art without knowing about the concept.

No. 5, 1948 (Jackson Pollock, downloaded from Wikipedia essay about No. 5, 1948)

Richard Taylor, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon, provides more information about how fractals affect us and how this is relevant to his work with retinal implants in a March 30, 2017 essay for The Conversation (h/t Mar. 31, 2017 news item on phys.org), Note: Links have been removed),

Humans are visual creatures. Objects we call “beautiful” or “aesthetic” are a crucial part of our humanity. Even the oldest known examples of rock and cave art served aesthetic rather than utilitarian roles. Although aesthetics is often regarded as an ill-defined vague quality, research groups like mine are using sophisticated techniques to quantify it – and its impact on the observer.

We’re finding that aesthetic images can induce staggering changes to the body, including radical reductions in the observer’s stress levels. Job stress alone is estimated to cost American businesses many billions of dollars annually, so studying aesthetics holds a huge potential benefit to society.

Researchers are untangling just what makes particular works of art or natural scenes visually appealing and stress-relieving – and one crucial factor is the presence of the repetitive patterns called fractals.

When it comes to aesthetics, who better to study than famous artists? They are, after all, the visual experts. My research group took this approach with Jackson Pollock, who rose to the peak of modern art in the late 1940s by pouring paint directly from a can onto horizontal canvases laid across his studio floor. Although battles raged among Pollock scholars regarding the meaning of his splattered patterns, many agreed they had an organic, natural feel to them.

My scientific curiosity was stirred when I learned that many of nature’s objects are fractal, featuring patterns that repeat at increasingly fine magnifications. For example, think of a tree. First you see the big branches growing out of the trunk. Then you see smaller versions growing out of each big branch. As you keep zooming in, finer and finer branches appear, all the way down to the smallest twigs. Other examples of nature’s fractals include clouds, rivers, coastlines and mountains.

In 1999, my group used computer pattern analysis techniques to show that Pollock’s paintings are as fractal as patterns found in natural scenery. Since then, more than 10 different groups have performed various forms of fractal analysis on his paintings. Pollock’s ability to express nature’s fractal aesthetics helps explain the enduring popularity of his work.

The impact of nature’s aesthetics is surprisingly powerful. In the 1980s, architects found that patients recovered more quickly from surgery when given hospital rooms with windows looking out on nature. Other studies since then have demonstrated that just looking at pictures of natural scenes can change the way a person’s autonomic nervous system responds to stress.

Are fractals the secret to some soothing natural scenes? Ronan, CC BY-NC-ND

For me, this raises the same question I’d asked of Pollock: Are fractals responsible? Collaborating with psychologists and neuroscientists, we measured people’s responses to fractals found in nature (using photos of natural scenes), art (Pollock’s paintings) and mathematics (computer generated images) and discovered a universal effect we labeled “fractal fluency.”

Through exposure to nature’s fractal scenery, people’s visual systems have adapted to efficiently process fractals with ease. We found that this adaptation occurs at many stages of the visual system, from the way our eyes move to which regions of the brain get activated. This fluency puts us in a comfort zone and so we enjoy looking at fractals. Crucially, we used EEG to record the brain’s electrical activity and skin conductance techniques to show that this aesthetic experience is accompanied by stress reduction of 60 percent – a surprisingly large effect for a nonmedicinal treatment. This physiological change even accelerates post-surgical recovery rates.

Pollock’s motivation for continually increasing the complexity of his fractal patterns became apparent recently when I studied the fractal properties of Rorschach inkblots. These abstract blots are famous because people see imaginary forms (figures and animals) in them. I explained this process in terms of the fractal fluency effect, which enhances people’s pattern recognition processes. The low complexity fractal inkblots made this process trigger-happy, fooling observers into seeing images that aren’t there.

Pollock disliked the idea that viewers of his paintings were distracted by such imaginary figures, which he called “extra cargo.” He intuitively increased the complexity of his works to prevent this phenomenon.

Pollock’s abstract expressionist colleague, Willem De Kooning, also painted fractals. When he was diagnosed with dementia, some art scholars called for his retirement amid concerns that that it would reduce the nurture component of his work. Yet, although they predicted a deterioration in his paintings, his later works conveyed a peacefulness missing from his earlier pieces. Recently, the fractal complexity of his paintings was shown to drop steadily as he slipped into dementia. The study focused on seven artists with different neurological conditions and highlighted the potential of using art works as a new tool for studying these diseases. To me, the most inspiring message is that, when fighting these diseases, artists can still create beautiful artworks.

Recognizing how looking at fractals reduces stress means it’s possible to create retinal implants that mimic the mechanism. Nautilus image via www.shutterstock.com.

My main research focuses on developing retinal implants to restore vision to victims of retinal diseases. At first glance, this goal seems a long way from Pollock’s art. Yet, it was his work that gave me the first clue to fractal fluency and the role nature’s fractals can play in keeping people’s stress levels in check. To make sure my bio-inspired implants induce the same stress reduction when looking at nature’s fractals as normal eyes do, they closely mimic the retina’s design.

When I started my Pollock research, I never imagined it would inform artificial eye designs. This, though, is the power of interdisciplinary endeavors – thinking “out of the box” leads to unexpected but potentially revolutionary ideas.

Fabulous essay, eh?

I have previously featured Jackson Pollock in a June 30, 2011 posting titled: Jackson Pollock’s physics and and briefly mentioned him in a May 11, 2010 visual arts commentary titled: Rennie Collection’s latest: Richard Jackson, Georges Seurat & Jackson Pollock, guns, the act of painting, and women (scroll down about 45% of the way).

Science (magazine) investigates Sci-Hub (a pirate site for scientific papers)

Sci-Hub, a pirate website for scientific papers, and its progenitor, Alexandra Elbakyan, have generated a couple of articles and an editorial in Science magazine’s latest issue (April 28, 2016?). An April 29, 2016 article by Bob Yirka for phys.org describes one of the articles (Note: Links have been removed),

A correspondent for the Science family of journals has published an investigative piece in Science on Sci-Hub, a website that illegally publishes scholarly literature, i.e. research papers. In his article, John Bohannon describes how he made contact with Alexandra Elbakyan, the founder of what is now the world’s largest site for pirated scholarly articles, data she gave him, and commentary on what was revealed. Bohannon has also published another piece focused exclusively on Elbakyan, describing her as a frustrated science student. Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief of the Science Family also weighs in on her “love-hate” relationship with Sci-Hub, and explains in detail why she believes the site is likely to cause problems for scholarly publishing heading into the future.

An April 28, 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) news release provides some detail about the number of downloads from the Sci-Hub site,

In this investigative news piece from Science, contributing correspondent John Bohannon dives into data from Sci-Hub, the world’s largest pirate website for scholarly literature. For the first time, basic questions about Sci-Hub’s millions of users can be answered: Where are they and what are they reading? Bohannon’s statistical analysis is based on server log data supplied by Alexandra Elbakyan herself, the neuroscientist who created Sci-Hub in 2011. After establishing contact with her through an encrypted chat system, Bohannon and Elbakyan worked together to create a data set for public release: 28 million Sci-Hub download requests going back to 1 September 2015, including the digital object identifier (DOI) for every paper and the clustered locations of users based on their Internet Protocol address. In his story, Bohannon reveals that Sci-Hub usage is highest in China with 4.4 million download requests over the 6-month period, followed by India and Iran. But Sci-Hub users are not limited to the developing world, he reports; the U.S. is the fifth largest downloader and some of the most intense Sci-Hub activity seems to be happening on US and European university campuses, supporting the claim that many users could be accessing the papers through their libraries, but turn to Sci-Hub for convenience.

Bohanon’s piece appears to be open access. Here’s a link and a citation,

Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone by John Bohannon. Science (2016). DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf5664 Published April 28, 2016.

Comments

The analysis of the data is fascinating but I’m not sure why this is being billed as an ‘investigative’ piece. Generally speaking I would expect an investigative piece to unearth new information which has likely been hidden. At the very least, I would expect some juicy inside information (i.e., gossip).

Bohannon certainly had no difficulty getting information (from the April 28, 2016 Science article),

For someone denounced as a criminal by powerful corporations and scholarly societies, Elbakyan was surprisingly forthcoming and transparent. After establishing contact through an encrypted chat system, she worked with me over the course of several weeks to create a data set for public release: every download event over the 6-month period starting 1 September 2015, including the digital object identifier (DOI) for every paper. To protect the privacy of Sci-Hub users, we agreed that she would first aggregate users’ geographic locations to the nearest city using data from Google Maps; no identifying internet protocol (IP) addresses were given to me. (The data set and details on how it was analyzed are freely accessible)

Why would it be surprising that someone who has made a point of freeing scientific research and making it accessible also makes the data from her Sci-Hub site freely available? The action certainly seems consistent with her raison d’être.

Bohannon steers away from making any serious criticisms of the current publishing régimes although he does mention a few bones of contention while laying them to rest, more or less. This is no great surprise since he’s writing for one of the ‘big three’, a journal that could be described as having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. (For those who are unaware, there are three journal considered the most prestigious or high impact for scientific studies: Nature, Cell, and Science.)

Characterizing Elbakyan as a ‘frustrated’ student in an April 28, 2016 profile by John Bohannon (The frustrated science student behind Sci-Hub) seems a bit dismissive. Sci-Hub may have been borne of frustration but it is an extraordinary accomplishment.

The piece has resulted in at least one very irate librarian, John Dupuis, from an April 29, 2016 posting on his Confessions of a Science Librarian blog,

Overall, the articles are pretty good descriptions of the Sci-Hub phenomenon and relatively even-handed [emphasis mine], especially coming from one of the big society publishers like AAAS.

There was one bit in the main article, Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone, that really stuck in my craw. Basically, Sci-Hub — and all that article piracy — is librarians’ fault.

And for all the researchers at Western universities who use Sci-Hub instead, the anonymous publisher lays the blame on librarians for not making their online systems easier to use and educating their researchers. “I don’t think the issue is access—it’s the perception that access is difficult,” he says.

Fortunately it was countered, in the true “give both sides of the story” style of mainstream journalism, by another quote, this time from a librarian.

“I don’t agree,” says Ivy Anderson, the director of collections for the California Digital Library in Oakland, which provides journal access to the 240,000 researchers of the University of California system. The authentication systems that university researchers must use to read subscription journals from off campus, and even sometimes on campus with personal computers, “are there to enforce publisher restrictions,” she says.

But of course, I couldn’t let it go. Anderson’s response is perfectly fine but somehow there just wasn’t enough rage and exasperation in it. So I stewed about it over night and tweeted up a tweetstorm of rage this morning, with the idea that if the rant was well-received I would capture the text as part of a blog post.

As you may have guessed by my previous comments, I didn’t find the article quite as even-handed as Dupuis did. As for the offence to librarians, I did notice but it seems in line with the rest of the piece which dismisses, downplays, and offloads a few serious criticisms while ignoring how significant issues (problematic peer review process,  charging exorbitant rates for access to publicly funded research, failure to adequately tag published papers that are under review after serious concerns are raised, failure to respond in a timely fashion when serious concerns are raised about a published paper, positive publication bias, …) have spawned the open access movement and also Sci-Hub. When you consider that governments rely on bibliometric data such as number of papers published and number of papers published in high impact journals (such as one of the ‘big three’), it’s clear there’s a great deal at stake.

Other Sci-Hub pieces here

My last piece about Sci-Hub was a February 25, 2016 posting titled,’ Using copyright to shut down easy access to scientific research‘ featuring some of the discussion around Elsevier and its legal suite against Sci-Hub.

Nature magazine wants to know: Can science be trusted?

I received an invitation from Nature Publishing Group to participate in an online survey, Can science be trusted? (aka, the Reproducibility Study). This seems to be a response to issues raised over the last few years in Nature, Science and other journals about the ability to reproduce scientific research and get the same results as the original study. Writing for Forbes magazine, Henry I. Miller (a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; he was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology) co-wrote with  S. Stanley Young (Assistant Director for Bioinformatics at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences (NISS) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina and an adjunct professor of statistics at North Carolina State University, the University of Waterloo and the University of British Columbia) a Jan. 8, 2014 article , The Trouble With ‘Scientific’ Research Today: A Lot That’s Published Is Junk, where he reviews some recent articles about ‘science’ and the lack of reproducibility. The Economist also covered the reproducibility issue in an Oct. 19, 2013 article, Trouble at the lab.

Getting back to Nature’s survey, which is for scientists only, from the Oct. 13, 2015 email notice,

Dear nature.com user,

The news team at Nature is conducting a survey to gauge scientists’ attitudes towards the ‘reproducibility crisis’ – the idea that many scientific results cannot be reproduced. We would like to find out your views on it, and how it might be tackled.

To take part in the survey please click here.

The survey will take less than 15 minutes to complete. To show our appreciation in your participation, once you complete the survey you will have the chance to enter a prize draw to win a $500 American Express Gift Card, or an equivalent charitable donation of your choice.

As members of the Market Research Society (MRS) we ensure the highest standards of professional research and privacy in using the information that our audience provides (Visit the MRS Code of Conduct page for more information).

Please contact us at audienceresearch@nature.com if you have any further questions about the survey itself or the on-going research programme.

A link to the survey can also be found on Nature’s Challenges in Reproducible Research webpage where you’ll also find links to an editorial and various features on the topic.

Standing up for science: 2015 call for John Maddox Prize nominations

I received a notice from the UK’s ‘sense about science’ organization rregarding nominations for its 2015 John Maddox Prize (or the ‘standing up for science’ prize). Before proceeding to the announcement, the John Maddox Prize webpage provides some information about John Maddox and the prize or there’s this video originally prepared for the 2014 call for nominations,

From the April 9, 2015 sense about science announcement,

Do you know someone who has promoted sound science and evidence?

Nominate them for the 2015 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science.

The John Maddox Prize rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so. Nominations of active researchers who have yet to receive recognition for their public-interest work are particularly welcomed.

The winner of the John Maddox Prize will receive £2000, and an announcement of the winner will be published in Nature. The award is presented at a reception in November.

Full details and online nomination form here.

The deadline is 11:59 pm BST on Aug.20,  2015. Here are more details from the 2015 John Maddox Prize webpage,

The prize is open to nominations for any kind of public activity, including all forms of writing, speaking and public engagement, in any of the following areas:

Addressing misleading information about scientific or medical issues.
Bringing sound evidence to bear in a public or policy debate.
Helping people to make sense of a complex scientific issue.

The winner of the John Maddox Prize will receive £2000, and an announcement of the winner will be published in Nature. The award is presented at a reception in November.

Evaluation
The judging panel in 2015 consists of Tracey Brown (director, Sense About Science), Phil Campbell (editor-in-chief, Nature), Lord Rees of Ludlow FRS and Professor Colin Blakemore FRS. Judges sit in a personal capacity. Candidates will be judged on the strength of their nomination based on the below criteria:

How clearly the individual communicated good science, despite adversity.
The nature of adversity faced by the individual.
How well they placed the evidence in the wider debate and engaged others.
Their level of influence on the public debate.

The winner is chosen by the judging panel, not by Sense About Science. A shortlist will be announced at the judges’ discretion.

Nomination
Researchers in any area of science or engineering, or those who work to address misleading information and bring evidence to the public, are eligible to be nominated. Nominations are to take the form of a letter of recommendation and include biographical information on the candidate and a description of the candidate’s work in standing up for science. Permission must be sought from the nominee. The individual nominated, the referee, and the nominator may be contacted for more information including references.

Staff, trustees and directors of the supporting organisations and previous or current members of the judging panel and their direct relations are not eligible for nomination for the Prize, though they may nominate. It is open to anyone else, including people who have published with or worked with either organisation as contributors, advisers or in other collaborations.

Good luck! As far as I can tell, there are no residency requirements so this competition is open internationally.

More about MUSE, a Canadian company and its brain sensing headband; women and startups; Canadianess

I first wrote about Ariel Garten and her Toronto-based (Canada) company, InteraXon, in a Dec. 5, 2012 posting where I featured a product, MUSE (Muse), then described as a brainwave controller. A March 5, 2015 article by Lydia Dishman for Fast Company provides an update on the product now described as a brainwave-sensing headband and on the company (Note: Links have been removed),

The technology that had captured the imagination of millions was then incorporated to develop a headband called Muse. It sells at retail stores like BestBuy for about $300 and works in conjunction with an app called Calm as a tool to increase focus and reduce stress.

If you always wanted to learn to meditate without those pesky distracting thoughts commandeering your mind, Muse can help by taking you through a brief exercise that translates brainwaves into the sound of wind. Losing focus or getting antsy brings on the gales. Achieving calm rewards you with a flock of birds across your screen.

The company has grown to 50 employees and has raised close to $10 million from investors including Ashton Kutcher. Garten [Ariel Garten, founder and Chief Executive Founder] says they’re about to close on a Series B round, “which will be significant.”

She says that listening plays an important role at InteraXon. Reflecting back on what you think you heard is an exercise she encourages, especially in meetings. When the development team is building a tool, for example, they use their Muses to meditate and focus, which then allows for listening more attentively and nonjudgmentally.

Women and startups

Dishman references gender and high tech financing in her article about Garten,

Garten doesn’t dwell on her status as a woman in a mostly male-dominated sector. That goes for securing funding for the startup too, despite the notorious bias venture-capital investors have against women startup founders.

“I am sure I lost deals because I am a woman, but also because the idea didn’t resonate,” she says, adding, “I’m sure I gained some because I am a woman, so it is unfair to put a blanket statement on it.”

Yet Garten is the only female member of her C-suite, something she says “is just the way it happened.” Casting the net recently to fill the role of chief operating officer [COO], Garten says there weren’t any women in the running, in part because the position required hardware experience as well as knowledge of working with the Chinese.

She did just hire a woman to be senior vice president of sales and marketing, and says, “When we are hiring younger staff, we are gender agnostic.”

I can understand wanting to introduce nuance into the ‘gender bias and tech startup discussion’ by noting that some rejections could have been due to issues with the idea or implementation. But the comment about being the only female in late stage funding as “just the way it happened” suggests she is extraordinarily naïve or willfully blind. Given her followup statement about her hiring practices, I’m inclined to go with willfully blind. It’s hard to believe she couldn’t find any woman with hardware experience and China experience. It seems more likely she needed a male COO to counterbalance a company with a female CEO. As for being gender agnostic where younger staff are concerned, that’s nice but it’s not reassuring as women have been able to get more junior positions. It’s the senior positions such as COO which remain out of reach and, troublingly, Garten seems to have blown off the question with a weak explanation and a glib assurance of equality at the lower levels of the company.

For more about gender, high tech companies, and hiring/promoting practices, you can read a March 5, 2015 article titled, Ellen Pao Trial Reveals the Subtle Sexism of Silicon Valley, by Amanda Marcotte for Slate.

Getting back to MUSE, you can find out more here. You can find out more about InterAxon here. Unusually, there doesn’t seem to be any information about the management team on the website.

Canadianness

I thought it was interesting that InterAxon’s status as a Canada-based company was mentioned nowhere in Dishman’s article. This is in stark contrast to Nancy Owano’s  Dec. 5, 2012 article for phys.org,

A Canadian company is talking about having a window, aka computer screen, into your mind. … InteraXon, a Canadian company, is focused on making a business out of mind-control technology via a headband device, and they are planning to launch this as a $199 brainwave computer controller called Muse. … [emphases mine]

This is not the only recent instance I’ve noticed. My Sept. 1, 2014 posting mentions what was then an upcoming Margaret Atwood event at Arizona State University,

… (from the center’s home page [Note: The center is ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination]),

Internationally renowned novelist and environmental activist Margaret Atwood will visit Arizona State University this November [2014] to discuss the relationship between art and science, and the importance of creative writing and imagination for addressing social and environmental challenges.

Atwood’s visit will mark the launch of the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative … Atwood, author of the MaddAddam trilogy of novels that have become central to the emerging literary genre of climate fiction, or “CliFi,” will offer the inaugural lecture for the initiative on Nov. 5.

“We are proud to welcome Margaret Atwood, one of the world’s most celebrated living writers, to ASU and engage her in these discussions around climate, science and creative writing,” …  “A poet, novelist, literary critic and essayist, Ms. Atwood epitomizes the creative and professional excellence our students aspire to achieve.”

There’s not a single mention that she is Canadian there or in a recent posting by Martin Robbins about a word purge from the Oxford Junior Dictionary published by the Guardian science blog network (March 3, 2015 posting). In fact, Atwood was initially described by Robbins as one of Britain’s literary giants. I assume there were howls of anguish once Canadians woke up to read the article since the phrase was later amended to “a number of the Anglosphere’s literary giants.”

The omission of InterAxon’s Canadianness in Dishman’s article for an American online magazine and Atwood’s Canadianness on the Arizona State University website and Martin Robbins’ initial appropriation and later change to the vague-sounding “Anglospere” in his post for the British newspaper, The Guardian, means the bulk of their readers will likely assume InterAxon is American and that Margaret Atwood, depending on where you read about her, is either an American or a Brit.

It’s flattering that others want to grab a little bit of Canada for themselves.

Coda: The Oxford Junior Dictionary and its excision of ‘nature’ words

 

Robbins’ March 3, 2015 posting focused on a heated literary discussion about the excision of these words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary (Note:  A link has been removed),

“The deletions,” according to Robert Macfarlane in another article on Friday, “included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.”

I’m surprised the ‘junior’ dictionary didn’t have “attachment,” “celebrity,” and “committee” prior to the 2007 purge. By the way, it seems no one noticed the purge till recently. Robbins has an interesting take on the issue, one with which I do not entirely agree. I understand needing to purge words but what happens a child reading a classic such as “The Wind in the Willows’ attempts to look up the word ‘willows’?  (Thanks to Susan Baxter who in a private communication pointed out the problems inherent with reading new and/or classic books and not being able to find basic vocabulary.)

Nominations for the 2014 John Maddox Prize (standing up for science) open ’til Aug. 20, 2014

The UK’s ‘sense about science’ organization is requesting nominations for its John Maddox Prize (or the ‘standing up for science’ prize). Its John Maddox Prize webpage provides some information about John Maddox and the prize (Note: A link has been removed),

The John Maddox Prize for standing up for science rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so. Nominations of active researchers who have yet to receive recognition for their public-interest work are particularly welcomed.

Sir John Maddox, whose name this prize commemorates, was a passionate and tireless champion and defender of science, engaging with difficult debates and inspiring others to do the same. As a writer and editor, he changed attitudes and perceptions, and strove for better understanding and appreciation of science throughout his long working life.

The judges recognise that ‘standing up for science’ is likely to be controversial in the eyes of some. The prize will be awarded for specific achievements, and the decision will be final and not open to appeal. The winner is chosen by the judging panel. …

The prize is a joint initiative of Nature, where Sir John was editor for 22 years; the Kohn Foundation, whose founder Sir Ralph Kohn was a personal friend of Sir John’s, particularly through their Fellowship of the Royal Society; and Sense About Science, where Sir John served as a trustee until his death in 2009.

As for details about the nomination process, here’s more from the 2014 John Maddox Prize webpage,

The deadline for nominations is 11:59pm on 20th August 2014 BST.

The prize is open to nominations for any kind of public activity, including all forms of writing, speaking and public engagement, in any of the following areas:

Addressing misleading information about scientific or medical issues in any forum.
Bringing sound evidence to bear in a public or policy debate.
Helping people to make sense of a complex scientific issue.

The prize: £2000. The award is presented in October and an announcement of the winner will be published in Nature.

You may want to check out the 2014 nomination webpage further but the enthusiastic and/or impatient can find the nomination form here.

Apply for six month internship at Nature (journal) sponsored by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

The deadline is Feb. 26, 2014, Canadians and people resident in Canada are eligible, and this does involve some travel. Here are the details (from a Feb. 12, 2014 posting on the Nature blogs),

Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is offering a six-month, full-time science journalism award worth up to CAD$60,000 to an English-speaking Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada. The successful applicant will receive training and work as an intern in the London news room of the leading international science journal Nature before spending up to four months reporting science stories from developing countries. He or she will be at an early stage of his or her career, but with at least three years’ experience as a journalist.

Candidates must have a keen interest in science and technology, particularly relating to development, as well as outstanding reporting and writing skills, and strong ideas for news and features suitable for publication in Nature. The internship is expected to begin in April or May 2014.

To apply, please e-mail the following to david.reay@nature.com:

  • A covering letter explaining your suitability for the award
  • A resume
  • Three recent story clips, ideally a mix of news and feature pieces
  • Three brief pitches for stories you think would appeal to Nature’s audience.

Deadline: Wednesday 26 February 2014

About the IDRC

The IDRC is a Canadian Crown corporation that works closely with researchers from the developing world in their search to build healthier, more equitable and more prosperous societies (see www.idrc.ca).

About Nature

Nature is a weekly international journal publishing the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology, and is the world’s most highly cited interdisciplinary science journal. It also has an international news team covering the latest science, policy and funding news in both online and print formats (see www.nature.com/nature).

About the award

Nature will manage the selection process and the IDRC will award up to CAD$60,000 to the successful applicant. This will cover travel costs, living expenses, research expenses, visa or other related costs, in London and in other countries visited during the six-month period. The award will also cover the cost of participating in a conference relevant to the award winner’s professional development as a journalist. For more information click here.

Good luck!

China and nanosafety

I don’t often get information about China and its research into nanosafety issues so hats off to Jane Qiu at Nature Magazine for her Sept. 18, 2012 article (open access)  on the topic,

Here is a recipe for anxiety: take China’s poorly enforced chemical-safety regulations, add its tainted record on product safety and stir in the uncertain risks of a booming nanotechnology industry.

As an antidote to this uneasy mixture, the country should carry out more-extensive safety studies and improve regulatory oversight of synthetic nanomaterials, leading Chinese researchers said at the 6th International Conference on Nanotoxicology in Beijing this month. “This is the only way to maintain the competitiveness of China’s nanotechnology sector,” says Zhao Yuliang, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Center for Nano­science and Technology (NCNST) in Beijing. “We certainly don’t want safety issues to become a trade barrier for nano-based products.”

China has, as is widely known, invested heavily in nanotechnology research and is, increasingly, considered a major contender in this area. In common with many countries, China considers its research to be an investment in future economic prosperity. Also in common with many countries research into safety and environmental issues is not a particularly high priority,

China’s investment in nanotechnology has grown rapidly during the past decade, and its tally of patent applications in the field has surpassed those of Europe and the United States (see ‘Patent boom’). But only 3% of the investment is used for safety studies, says Zhao, compared with about 6% of federal nanotechnology funding in the United States. [emphasis mine] “The situation must be changed soon,” he says.

Although 6% by comparison with 3% must seem munificent, I don’t consider it to be a particularly substantive investment.

Qiu’s article does make mention of the 2009 industrial ‘accident’ where seven (eight according to my source in the European Respiratory Journal) workers were stricken with lung damage (two died) after working with materials containing nanoparticles. My July 26, 2011 posting noted this about the ‘accident’,

From the European Respiratory Journal article (ERJ September 1, 2009 vol. 34 no. 3 559-567, free access), Exposure to nanoparticles is related to pleural effusion, pulmonary fibrosis and granuloma,

A survey of the patients’ workplace was conducted. It measures ∼70 m2, has one door, no windows and one machine which is used to air spray materials, heat and dry boards. This machine has three atomising spray nozzles and one gas exhauster (a ventilation unit), which broke 5 months before the occurrence of the disease. The paste material used is an ivory white soft coating mixture of polyacrylic ester.

Eight workers (seven female and one male) were divided into two equal groups each working 8–12 h shifts. Using a spoon, the workers took the above coating material (room temperature) to the open-bottom pan of the machine, which automatically air-sprayed the coating material at the pressure of 100–120 Kpa onto polystyrene (PS) boards (organic glass), which can then be used in the printing and decorating industry. The PS board was heated and dried at 75–100°C, and the smoke produced in the process was cleared by the gas exhauster. In total, 6 kg of coating material was typically used each day. The PS board sizes varied from 0.5–1 m2 and ∼5,000 m2 were handled each workday. The workers had several tasks in the process including loading the soft coating material in the machine, as well as clipping, heating and handling the PS board. Each worker participated in all parts of this process.

Accumulated dust particles were found at the intake of the gas exhauster. During the 5 months preceding illness the door of the workspace was kept closed due to cold outdoor temperatures. The workers were all peasants near the factory, and had no knowledge of industrial hygiene and possible toxicity from the materials they worked with. The only personal protective equipment used on an occasional basis was cotton gauze masks. …

This provides some evidence for Qiu’s lede about “China’s poorly enforced chemical-safety regulations.”  Further in the article is acknowledgement of the occupational safety issue along with other safety issues,

Researchers at the meeting said that better safety testing was needed for products containing nanoparticles that can be absorbed by the body, such as food and cosmetics in which nanoparticles provide specific colours or textures. But occupational exposure among workers handling the materials may present the greatest risks: China’s workplace safety rules are not always implemented, and they set no specific limits for handling nanoparticles.

First, they need to characterize the hazards,

“The main challenge is to tease out what characteristics make some nanoparticles hazardous,” says Zhao. To address that question, Chinese researchers will next year join forces with colleagues in Europe, the United States and Brazil in a €13-million (US$17-million) project called Nanosolutions, to develop a nano-safety classification system based on material characteristics, toxicity studies and bioinformatics data. [emphasis mine] Initially focusing on 30 or so materials, such as carbon nanotubes, and nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and silver, the team will use high-throughput screening to identify the most toxic, and then investigate their biological effects in animal studies.

I’m glad to have learned more about China’s nanosafety efforts and look forward to hearing more about the Nanosolutions project as it progresses. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find any more information about this multi-country initiative, otherwise, I’d offer a link.

How much more nanomaterial safety discussion do we need?

The report (Impact of Engineered Nanomaterials on Health: Considerations for Benefit-Risk Assessment) from Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) was issued in Sept. 2011 and the authors are still trying to get people to read it. The Aug. 16, 2012 online issue of Nature features correspondence from the authors citing the report,

Our analysis indicates that formulation of a coherent public policy will depend on scientists closing knowledge gaps in safety research, on gathering more data to connect science and regulation, and on training graduate students in nanotechnology research. Policies will need to be flexible to accommodate fresh discoveries in this rapidly advancing technology.

Getting notice for your work can be hugely difficult in an information-rich environment, so it’s not unusual to see efforts continuing over a year or more after publication.  Meanwhile a question persists, how many reports of this type do we need?