Thursday, February 2, 2017

Too busy to keep up with the news?

A blogger has kindly stepped in and offered quick capsule summaries of the latest events for those of us on the go who need to get a quick idea of what is going on in DC. It's called 1461 Days of Trump.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Scientific Research Hurt by Trump Ban

NYT has a feature on the repercussions of Trump's executive order banning Muslims from several countries with regard to scientific research at various universities and medical schools. As I mentioned earlier, as things stand, students, faculty, and postdocs from the seven countries (so far) affected by the ban face difficulties that they neither expected nor deserve. Individuals who had traveled out of the US face the prospect of not being able to return to resume their work or their studies. The ban puts into question whether those who immigrated from one of the seven affected countries should proceed with planned attendance to academic conferences outside the US. Of course it goes without saying that scientists residing in these countries who had planned on attending scientific conferences in the near future face the prospect of being blocked from attending. Graduate students who had been awaiting student visas to enter the US in order to complete their degrees are now facing the prospect of looking elsewhere to receive the training they need. Established labs representing a variety of scientific disciplines face disruption in the completion of projects as lab members languish elsewhere, unable to come back to resume their share of the lab work.

The effects - both short term and long - are nothing short of awful for those who already have established careers. But I am especially worried about those whose careers are just now getting off the ground. A missed conference presentation may be a nasty inconvenience to someone who is mid-career, for example, and is not something to be tolerated. For grad students or postdocs, these conferences are important opportunities to gain recognition for their work and to network with fellow scholars as they map out their next career moves. Hence prevention from travel for academic purposes has the effect of potentially ending careers before they have a chance to really begin - a prospect even more intolerable. In the long run, I suspect we'll see a brain drain in the US, as international students and scholars grow to perceive the US as an unreliable nation in which to do the work for which they were trained or to merely get needed training in the first place. We take for granted much of what the sciences have done for us, and squandering our leadership role in the sciences will place all of us behind sooner or later. The damage done by Trump, barely into his second week in office, will take a very long time to undo. The sciences themselves will go on. Of that I have no doubt. As a nation that will soon be knocked out of a leading role in the development of the sciences, we will also find that we are no longer enjoying what develops out of these labs in day to day life. Ignorance in this case is not bliss.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Action alert for academicians

Over the weekend Trump signed an executive order banning Muslims from seven nations. There have understandably been protests, as well as pushback from Congress members, those in the tech community, civil liberties organizations, and those of us who work at colleges and universities. Of the latter, colleges and universities are noteworthy for educating international students at the undergraduate level, as well as at the graduate level. In addition, those with the funding and facilities to do so hire PostDocs from all over the planet, and practically any higher ed institute will hire international faculty. These are all individuals who are on student visas, or in the case of PostDocs and faculty members work visas, who are here in order to obtain the education and credentials needed to meet their career goals, serve their communities, and in my field add to our collective scientific database with their research contributions. The ban put forth by Trump, which has been already successfully challenged by courts in the US, would severely harm not only those affected, but would harm our educational institutions as well. If you are working at a college or university, there is at least one modest action you can take, and that is to sign the Academics Against Immigration Executive Order petition. The response has been apparently overwhelming enough that the organizers of the petition are still sifting through all the emails. So be patient if you do sign. It may take a bit for your name to show up - but it will soon. Our international students and colleagues need our support and assurance that we truly have their backs, and will not accept actions by the White House that are inhumane and against laws passed by Congress. Our international students and colleagues should not be put in the position of being unable to see family in their home countries for fear of being prevented from returning to their classes and jobs, nor should they be put in a position where they think twice about accepting opportunities to study or work in our colleges and universities simply because of the prejudices of the man who temporarily occupies the White House.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Inevitably, actions lead to reactions

Among Trump's first executive actions were those designed to silence scientists employed by various Federal agencies. If you know anything about scientists is that regardless of our own ideological beliefs, we are devoted first and foremost to seeking out and reporting our data, and then we independently verify each others' findings. We want to report our findings to the public. I would offer that any of us who depend on any Federal funding - even indirectly - to conduct our research are obligated to the public to conduct sound research and report it directly to the public in layperson's terms. Social media are one very convenient means and necessary means to do so. If anything, I want us to become even more open.

As I mentioned, we may vary in terms of ideology, but we do share a common value to communicate the truth, even if it is inconvenient to whoever might occupy the White House, or Congress, or those who run and lobby for any of a number of special interest groups of various ideological stripes. We report findings even if they end up inconvenient to our own beliefs and pet theories. In other words, what I am trying to do is to communicate here is a core value held by those scientists in the traditional STEM disciplines as well as in the behavioral and social sciences. Any official or lobbyist who wishes to silence us for speaking the truth should expect us to push back.

Under the circumstances, I am not surprised to see news of a possible march by scientists in DC in the near future (as of yet I am unaware of a date). You can follow the Scientists' March on Washington twitter feed here, and their website is here. There is also a twitter feed for Rogue NASA and AltUSNatParkService. I imagine we will see more of this activity, as well as efforts to preserve data from being scrubbed by the current White House occupant. The thing about us scientists as that we really are among the last people to become activists. That is not our calling. We don't want to go to protests. We'd rather spend our time on our various research programs and educating the public, which is truly our calling. Regrettably, the current circumstances are going to require more and more in our various disciplines to do a rethink on our usual stance to politics.

I am an optimist in at least one sense. No matter what Trump and his advisors might intend to impose upon us, and no matter how much there is an ideological undercurrent in the US that is hostile to science and scientists, the enterprise of science globally is going to continue. There is a certain momentum to scientific discoveries and applications based upon those discoveries that is largely unstoppable, as E. O. Wilson has noted. The question becomes, does the US continue to have a leadership role in the further development of the sciences, or will the US be largely left out of the equation? If the latter, the US public will truly suffer. Scientists will speak out to prevent this latter scenario and hope that enough of the public will understand the importance of our work in the public interest.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Quotable: Carl Sagan


Inequality in Science

I would suggest reading the entire post as it deals primarily with gender inequality in online media with regard to science discourse. I will highlight small portions that I think might be of particular interest as they tackle not only gender inequality in the sciences but a number of other areas where inequity exists:

Early on in our panel discussion last Friday, Brian Nosek made the excellent point that “science proceeds through conversation.” He went on to elaborate that scientific conversation needs criticism and skepticism in order to flourish—and I completely agree. But I also think it’s worth juxtaposing this idea that science proceeds through conversation against the data presented at the beginning of the session, which suggested some big inequalities in WHO is participating in scientific discourse online. Across various social media platforms (PsychMAP, PMDG, and Twitter), the data from the SPSP survey suggest that men participate more than women. Moreover, if you look at who is posting in the Facebook forums, it turns out most of the content is being driven by about nine people. Think about that for a moment. NINE people—out of thousands of scholars involved in these forums—are driving what we talk about in these conversations.

The idea that conversation is central to the entire scientific enterprise highlights why we should care deeply about WHO is participating in these conversations. If there are inequalities in who is talking, that means there are inequalities in who is participating in science itself. To the extent that the forums we build for scientific discourse enable and promote equality in conversation, they are enabling and promoting equality in who can be part of science. And the reverse is true as well: If we create forums that exclude rather than include, then we are creating a science that excludes as well.

[snip]

Meanwhile, participating in a conversation about science obviously means not only that you are talking, but that someone is listening to you. To the extent that audience attention is finite (we only have so many hours a day to devote to listening, after all), then the more one person speaks, the less attention is left over to spend on other speakers. That means that the people who talk the most end up setting the threshold for getting heard—if you don’t comment as loudly or as frequently as the loudest and most frequent contributors, you risk being drowned out in the din. In such an environment, who is talking—that is, who gets to participate in science itself—becomes less of an open, level playing field and more of a competition where people with more time and more willingness to engage in this particular style of discourse get to drive disproportionately the content of scientific conversation.

Here again, we might think about various demographic inequalities. Take just the question of time: Women in academia tend to spend substantially more time on service commitments than do men. Scholars at teaching institutions spend more time in scheduled teaching activities than do their peers with more flexible schedules at research institutions. Primary caregivers have greater demands on their time than people with stay-at-home partners or people with the means to pay for full time childcare. If we create venues for scientific discourse where your ability to participate effectively depends on how much time you have to make your voice heard over the din, then we are effectively saying: We prioritize the voices of men more than women, of scholars at research rather than teaching institutions, and of people with more versus less childcare support.
Note that her concerns go well beyond social media, but are intended to address practically any forum for scientists. Also note that there is inequality that goes beyond gender. Her point that there are other structural disadvantages faced by many of our scientific peers is a crucial one. Those of us who are primarily at teaching institutions have considerably less flexible time to engage in scholarly activity. To the extent that we engage less in scholarly activity, we get less of a voice in the direction that our particular branch of the sciences is taking. We also tend to have less available funds to participate in academic conferences, which further silences us. If we're paid less than our peers at research institutions, we are also going to be unable to self-fund travel to conferences. Those of us who service economically disadvantaged student populations tend to be historically underfunded, further compounding the problem. Hence not only are we less able to speak, but we are less able to provide forums for some very ambitious and talented students to make their voices heard. And yes we also prioritize the voices of men more than women. That point needs to be made again and again unless or until the problem is rectified.

Trump as Authoritarian Leader

I was reading through an article summarizing how experts on authoritarianism from various disciplines are assessing Donald Trump's first few days in office since being sworn in. Needless to say, the consensus is that they are concerned. The general consensus is that Trump is leading in the style of a populist authoritarian. There is particular concern about his spokespeople using terms like "alternative facts" (a phrase that is merely another way of saying falsehoods) when caught stating things that tangible evidence contradicts, as well as Trump's orders to various government services to refrain from communicating with the public - most notoriously after the National Park Service showed equivalent aerial photos of Obama's 2009 swearing in ceremony and Trump's this year which Trump apparently perceived of as embarrassing. At this point, scholars are refraining from using terms like fascist or totalitarian, as is proper. We are not yet at a point, as these scholars note, where Trump has called for outlawing specific news agencies, for example. Nor are we quite yet at a point where we know how much deference the GOP, which controls both chambers in Congress (the Senate with a slim majority) will give Trump over time. So vigilance, rather than panic, appears to be the appropriate action.

Last year, I highlighted research regarding the authoritarian tendencies among Trump's supporters and likely voters. In the GOP primary season, it was clear that those who voted for Trump were more authoritarian than those who voted for other GOP candidates. It is also clear that Trump's pro-torture rhetoric resonated with authoritarian voters, which seems to jibe with research I have conducted in the past with regard to authoritarianism and attitudes toward torture, and attitudes toward violence more broadly. The extent to which racial/ethnic resentment stood out is also noteworthy as those most likely to be targeted for torture (if reinstated as a practice - which for the moments Trump and relevant cabinet appointees are providing mixed signals) are ones who will be of Middle Eastern origin, and there is evidence that I and a student collected showing that attitudes toward torture are more favorable when the victims are Middle Eastern (that research is currently still in press). My own take for the time being is that a significant proportion of the plurality who voted for Trump in the general election last November are getting the leadership they want, given their own authoritarian inclinations. Once decisions are made in the White House and Congress that affect their own well-being, their own views toward Trump may well shift, but as of now at this early point in time that is merely conjecture. What is not conjecture is that the US has not been ruled by a genuinely authoritarian leader before, and as social scientists we are truly in uncharted territory in that regard. There are certainly other authoritarian populist leaders elsewhere who might provide a template for study, but the US experience may vary rather considerably. Time will tell.