Friday links: conferences vs. high school, are research universities doomed, and more

Also this week: the best kind of research proposal, peak Plos One, econometricians vs. R^2, Jeremy vs. merpeople, and more.

From Jeremy:

A claim that US tenured and tenure-track research university profs teach far less than most people think, and that they won’t be able to get away with having adjuncts and TAs do so much teaching for much longer. Notes that “research universities” in the contemporary sense are a pretty recent and quite possibly temporary invention. Provocative speculation, though light on data for my taste. I don’t really buy the argument, but I’m not sure what to think, would welcome comments.

Speaking of research universities possibly being doomed: what’s really happening with tenure at the University of Wisconsin. Short FAQ from a Wisconsin prof.

Imagine that a variable Y truly is a function of predictor variables A, B, and C. Regressing Y on A alone ordinarily will give you a biased estimate of the Y-A relationship. You might think that, if you added in B as a second predictor, that you’d have less bias in the estimated effect of A. You’d be wrong. In fact, adding B into your model can increase both the bias and variance in the estimated effect of A, unless the addition of B is “balanced”. One more reason why adding terms to your statistical model might well constitute statistical machismo.

Wait, econometricians don’t care at all about R^2 in their regression models? All they care about is identification of putative causal effects? Always interesting–and in this case a bit puzzling–to see how the other half lives does regression.

Statistician Jeff Leek argues that checklists of good data analytical practice are unhelpful if the people following those checklists are poorly trained. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I agree 100% that you can’t routinize something that requires a lot of thoughtful decision-making, and that trying to do so might be dangerous because it encourages people who don’t know what they’re doing to think they do. On the other hand, I think giving trainees checklists can be a useful training technique. And it’s laughably unrealistic to argue that every paper should have a PhD-level statistician involved (and if that’s not what he’s arguing for than I’m not sure of his point, since most scientists do have some statistical training). Indeed, it’s so unrealistic that I don’t think it’s useful as an aspiration or even as a hypothetical “ideal”. And his analogy to heart surgery is pretty poor. Contrary to Leek’s implication, the vast majority of bad data analyses and bad data analysts cause waaaaay less harm than a bad heart surgery or a bad heart surgeon (because a paper can’t cause harm if no one reads it). Related: this old post on checklists as a tool for avoiding non-statistical mistakes in ecological and evolutionary research.

How to network at big conferences. From a sociologist, but much of it applies to big ecology conferences too. Sample line:

Attending an academic conference is like being a teenager again. This is why they can be so awful. You hang around trying to attach yourself to a group—preferably the cool kids, but in the end any group will do—and then these groups hang around waiting for something to happen.

Should you get a blood transfusion? Good fodder for a stats class.

Have we reached peak megajournal? Or at least peak Plos One?

I don’t know that Healy’s Law of Data (example here) is true in ecology. What do you think?

Self-promotion alert: I did a radio interview with my university’s student radio station on whether we could use artificial selection to evolve merpeople. The show is basically the radio version of xkcd’s “What if?”. They wisely only included a couple snippets from me and mostly went with less rambling input from my Calgary colleague Jana Vamosi and Thomas Cullen from Toronto. It’s only 12 minutes, you can listen here.

Of course somebody invented a knife that toasts bread as you slice it.🙂

And finally, I know I’m late with this but here it is anyway because it’s lovely: the best kind of scientific proposal.🙂

2 thoughts on “Friday links: conferences vs. high school, are research universities doomed, and more

  1. I have attended and worked at many US research universities. Yes indeed, it is true, most tenured faculty teach very little… & sometimes not at all. The reason for this is quite simple: prior to the Ronald Reagan presidential administration, upwards of 2/3 to 3/4 of university costs were covered via taxation (a combination of state & federal support). So for example, my first tuition bill for a semester at the University of Wisconsin (1981) was $364.00 USD (full time course load). In the wake of the Reagan Revolution, those tax dollars vanished. When I began working at the University of Colorado Health Science Center in 2004, state taxation covered a whooping 1.25% of the university budget. It has improved only marginally since.

    So how to schools like UC-Denver, with the one of the largest and most expensive biomedical research centers in the world handle this? They balance the budget on the backs of faculty grants. When that is your economic model, you do not want tenured faculty frittering away their time on teaching. You want them to do research, publish & get those lucrative, multi-million dollar program project grants. And if they don’t, post-tenure review (now the standard at UC)- will send them packing.

    Speaking of tenure & Wisconsin, I do not necessarily agree the erosion of tenure is a bad thing. In fact, even though I have tenure in my current position with a private non-profit research institute, it simply never mattered to me. Prior to this, I had plenty of non-tenure-track research faculty positions. I never once felt at risk of losing my position and even better, I was freed of the all the nasty politics that come along with it. Chancellor Blank did herself no favors in her very long blog response to Wisconsin faculty on June 9 ( Consider these Blank remarks:

    “UW-Madison has a long history of standing up for the academic freedom of inquiry that tenure is designed to protect. In the 1890s, the state superintendent of education in Wisconsin tried to fire Professor Richard Ely from his tenured position at the University of Wisconsin because of his out-spoken support for progressive views.” This is a classic example of fanning the flames. Very very few tenure faculty ever face proceedings such as these. Blank disappoints by highlighting very rare cases and making them seem commonplace.

    “Tenure provides the protection that allow faculty freedom of inquiry into all topics, assuring that faculty research and speech will not be threatened by shifting political beliefs or the individual opinions of those in positions of authority.” Again, this statement of Blank’s is a complete over-reaction. We do not have Gulags in Madison or anywhere else in Wisconsin or the US.

    “I recognize that abrupt changes to tenure and shared governance — principles that have served the UW System well for more than a century– have the potential to drive away the very people we most need to attract and retain.” Simply enough, horse hockey! “Shared governance” as Blank and so many assert to be some utopia of democracy, is an inane, autocratic system where the inmates run the asylum.

    “These changes are the latest in a series of accumulating events that have created an unhealthy and unwelcoming atmosphere around higher education in recent months. This university and the entire UW System has been subject to unprecedented scrutiny.” Hmmm, really? Someone like a governor proposes changes to your administrative framework, and all of a sudden the sky is falling? Cry me a river, Chancellor Blank.

    “I will re-state emphatically what I have said earlier: I will not accept a tenure policy that is inconsistent with our peers, or that violates accepted standards. I pledge to make no changes in existing practice at UW-Madison until such a policy is clearly established.” Hmmm, *you will not accept*. Sounds like a temper tantrum top me, Chancellor Blank. You can, and you will accept what the state’s legislature lays at your doorstep, like it or not. While complaining that the governor is a dictator in so many words, Blank does an about face and issues unsupported dictates of her own.

    There are a great many problems with the university tenure system… just ask any tenured professor. I also find it really very unhealthy for your peers (or potential peers) to be the ones making tenure decisions. How convenient that you get to decide who your co-workers shall be for decades on end. Nowhere else do we see this system of hiring and retention, and I believe the time is long past due to institute external boards of review for any and all faculty hires, tenure or not.

  2. I also like this line from Kieran Healy’s post about how nobody’s chances of getting a job have anything to do with the brief social interactions that happen at conferences. So quit worrying about it (or hoping for it):

    “There’s the interaction order and there’s the institutional order. Within the interaction order, more or less everyone’s awkward and busy and following scripts. (That’s why you can have one of your own; see above.) So don’t expect too much, don’t be a jerk to people, and don’t worry about assholes. Meanwhile, all of the real sources of career or job market worry exist within the institutional order. They will not be significantly adjusted one way or the other by brief, standardized interactions at the book exhibit or coffee line, assuming you don’t throw up on the President of the Association in the Hilton Lobby. ”

    This is part of what I was trying to get at in my post on honest signals in academia:

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