November 2014 edition
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Why Experts Reject Creativity

The physicist Max Planck put it best: "Science advances one funeral at a time.”

One place to watch the funeral march of science is America's peer-review process for academic research, which allocates $40 billion each year to new ideas in medicine, engineering, and technology. Every year, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation review nearly 100,000 applications for funding. The vast majority—up to 90 percent in some years—are rejected. For many breakthrough ideas, this selection process is the difference between life and death, financial backing and financial bankruptcy.

What sort of proposals do NIH evaluators approve? It’s a critical question for scientists. And the answer is nobody knows. Submissions receive such widely varying treatment that the relationship between evaluators' decisions is “perilously close to rates found for Rorschach inkblot tests,” according to a 2012 review.

A new ingenious paper raises a dangerous question: Are expert evaluators subtly biased against new ideas?


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News desk

Ebola restrictions continue to defy CDC advice

As more doctors and nurses return from Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa, public anxiety has soared about the potential for contagion — even though only one person in the United States has died from the virus, and several have recovered or returned from West Africa and never shown symptoms. In response, governors of both parties are struggling to define public health policies on the virus, leaving a confusing patchwork of… Read more

Should the Government Fund Only Science in the “National Interest”?

National Geographic The glass-and-concrete headquarters of the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, normally hosts scientists who decide the fate of fellow researchers’ grant proposals. But in a nondescript spare office on the 12th floor, new players have set up shop: congressional aides reviewing the merits of scientific studies conducted with government funding. The two aides are evaluating the scientific merit of research proposals submitted to the the $7-billion-per-year agency,… Read more

NSF launches new online STEM education, workforce tracker

It just became a lot easier for educators, students, parents, policymakers and business leaders to learn more about national trends in education and jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The National Science Board (NSB) today released an interactive, online resource featuring new and updated data and graphics about STEM education and workforce in the U.S. and providing facts on topics such as student proficiency, college degrees in STEM… Read more

Pope gives Church a little nudge toward science

Delivering an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope Francis continued his habit of making provocative, seemingly progressive statements. The pontiff appeared to endorse the theory of the Big Bang and told the gathering at the Vatican that there was no contradiction between believing in God as well as the prevailing scientific theories regarding the expansion of our universe. “When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the… Read more

Open Science Initiative looks to improve open access

The open access movement is at a crossroads. Once embraced as the future of open and accessible academic publishing, it has become increasingly apparently that as it is currently structured, open access has problems that need to be addressed. What are these issues and what are the possible solutions? If we were to backtrack all the way to square one (not that we should, but as a exercise in reviewing… Read more

Some scientists share better than others

Some scientists share better than others. While astronomers and geneticists embrace the concept, the culture of ecology still has a ways to go. Research by Michigan State University, published in the current issue of Bioscience, explores the paradox that although ecologists share findings via scientific journals, they do not share the data on which the studies are built, said Patricia Soranno, MSU fisheries and wildlife professor and co-author of the… Read more

EPA releases new climate change indicators report

The Earth’s climate is changing. Temperatures are rising, snow and rainfall patterns are shifting, and more extreme climate events—like heavy rainstorms and record high temperatures—are already taking place. Scientists are highly confident that many of these observed changes can be linked to the climbing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which are caused by human activities. EPA is working with many other organizations to collect… Read more

Why Experts Reject Creativity

Boudreau, et al In 2007, Steve Ballmer, then-CEO of Microsoft, emphatically predicted that Apple’s new phone would fail. “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share,” he said. “No chance.” The volume of Ballmer’s voice makes him a popular target in technology, but he wasn’t an outlier, just the loudest guy in crowd of skeptical experts. RIM CEO Jim Balsillie said the iPhone would… Read more

Seeking Stars, Finding Creationism

Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press Galileo knew he would have the Church to contend with after he aimed his telescope at the skies over Padua and found mountains on the moon and more moons orbiting Jupiter — and saw that the Milky Way was made from “congeries of innumerable stars.” The old order was overturned, and dogma began to give way to science. But there is still far to go.… Read more

The University Experiment

What is a university? To Shelby Foote, the US novelist and Civil War historian, it was merely “a group of buildings gathered around a library”. To generations of students, it provided the best times of their lives. To many Nature readers, it is an employer. For Nature itself, many are customers. A university, to linguists, is a derivation of a Latin description of a community of teachers and scholars. For… Read more

Unitended consequences: Open data leading to biased reanalyses

Last week, Stephen Colbert interviewed Leon Wieseltier, editor of the New Republic. Ever the provocateur, Colbert immediately challenged Wieseltier to state his critique of modern culture in 10 words or less. This is what Wieseltier came up with on the spot: Too much digital, not enough critical thinking, more physical reality. Ten words exactly. Colbert was duly impressed. I encountered this critique a day after reading a number of articles… Read more

Less prestigious journals publishing greater share of high-impact papers

The world of academic publishing is an oligarchy. Not only are the vast majority of highly cited papers authored by an elite 1% of scientists, but a small group of elite journals also get the lion’s share of citations and media attention. But this rarified world is becoming more egalitarian, according to a study released 9 October by the team that develops Google Scholar, the free literature search engine now… Read more

New book and TV series, ‘How We Got to Now’

We all know how important the printing press has been to human history. Invented in the 1400s, it allowed the mass production of books, newspapers and magazines. That fueled rapid increases in literacy and spawned new industries such as publishing. It also laid the foundation for colossal changes in how citizens expected to be governed, leading to more open and democratic societies. But did you know that the printing press… Read more

NIH budget cuts and the looming Ebola epidemic

As the federal government frantically works to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and as it responds to a second diagnosis of the disease at home, one of the country’s top health officials says a vaccine likely would have already been discovered were it not for budget cuts. Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, said that a decade of stagnant spending has “slowed down”… Read more

Finding Stuff: Discovery and Data Quality

About a month ago, you may have seen an article published by Nature entitled “How To Tame the Flood of Literature“. The article focused on new tools for aiding researchers in keeping current with the literature in their fields. These are personalized recommendation engines, which may be based on a researcher’s publication history (Google Scholar), on users with similar interests (PubChase), or trained by an individual’s approval or rejection of… Read more

Venture Capitalists Return to Backing Science Start-Ups

Mike Massee/XCOR Aerospace Vestaron makes an eco-friendly pesticide derived from spider venom. Bagaveev uses 3-D printers to make rocket engines for nanosatellites. Transatomic Power is developing a next-generation reactor that runs on nuclear waste. They all have one thing in common: money from Silicon Valley venture capitalists. After years of shying away from science, engineering and clean-technology start-ups, investors are beginning to take an interest in them again, raising hopes… Read more

New research reveals infectious disease model for homicide

New research in Chicago finds that homicide victims are concentrated among a tiny network. Tracing that network might lead to public health measures to protect would-be victims. STEVE INSKEEP, HOST: Visit any city and people are going to tell you that some parts of town are at higher risk for crime. That’s a bad neighborhood, they might say; there’s more gun violence there, more assaults, more homicides. And if you… Read more

Is science the new faith?

This is the 12th and last in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment is Daniel Garber, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, specializing in philosophy and science in the period of Galileo and Newton. In a week or two, I’ll conclude with a wrap-up column on the series. Gary Gutting: In the 17th century most philosophers were… Read more

Glut of postdoc researchers stirs quiet crisis in science

The life of the humble biomedical postdoctoral researcher was never easy: toiling in obscurity in a low-paying scientific apprenticeship that can stretch more than a decade. The long hours were worth it for the expected reward — the chance to launch an independent laboratory and do science that could expand human understanding of biology and disease. But in recent years, the postdoc position has become less a stepping stone and… Read more

Battle between NSF and House science committee escalates

Four times this past summer, in a spare room on the top floor of the headquarters of the National Science Foundation (NSF) outside of Washington, D.C., two congressional staffers spent hours poring over material relating to 20 research projects that NSF has funded over the past decade. Each folder contained confidential information that included the initial application, reviewer comments on its merit, correspondence between program officers and principal investigators, and… Read more

The Metadata Bubble

In an ideal world, scholars deposit their papers in an Open Access repository, because they know it will advance their research, support their students, and promote a knowledge-based society. A few disciplinary repositories, like ArXiv, have shown that it is possible to close the virtuous cycle where scholars reinforce each other’s Open Access habits. In these communities, no authority is needed to compel participation. Institutional repositories have yet to build… Read more

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