How can scientists engage with policy makers? (Updated!)

Last week, I visited Washington DC for training as part of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement. I spent the week with the other 14 incoming Leshner Leadership Fellows, learning about writing and pitching opinion pieces, storytelling, evaluating outreach, and much more. But perhaps the thing that was the most eye-opening for me was our trip to Capitol Hill, where we met with two staffers from the House Energy & Commerce Committee as well as several staffers from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP). Prior to going, we got a tutorial from some AAAS folks on policy engagement fundamentals. In this post, I’ll go over the policy engagement fundamentals that I learned at AAAS, supplementing with things I learned in this free online course related to public engagement, which included several expert opinions on engaging with policy makers. In a follow up post, I’ll talk about what I learned from my visit to The Hill.

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Guest post: Got a professional editor?

Today we have a guest post from Richard Primack of Boston University. Last week, I did a poll asking whether readers had used a professional editor for a grant proposal or manuscript, based on a Nature News piece that quoted Richard as saying, “I hire professional editors to help me polish my articles, grant proposals and reports.” he says. “I can do this myself, but it’s more efficient for me to pay someone to help.” I was surprised by that, since it never occurred to me to use a professional editor. The poll suggests I was not alone. 62% of respondents said they’d never used a professional editor for a manuscript because it had never occurred to them; 67% said it never occurred to them for a grant proposal and 68% for their dissertation. In this guest post, Richard talks more about the process.

Richard’s post appears below the break:

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NSF Bio Directorate announces cancellation of #DDIG program

NSF’s Directorate of Biological Sciences just announced that they are getting rid of the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) program. Current DDIGs are not affected, but they will not be accepting future DDIG proposals. This is really sad to me, as this was such a great way for students to get experience with writing NSF grant proposals and it was an important source of funding for many graduate students. It also surprises me, since I’d always heard the return on investment (ROI) was amazing for this program. It’s certainly labor intensive on NSF’s part (even though the grants are small, it still required lining up panelists and holding a panel*), but I’d also heard that the bang-for-the-buck was really high for these proposals. They typically funded one small(ish) project that was pretty likely to succeed (or else it wouldn’t have been competitive), usually covering things like supplies and sequencing or other analyses, but not the grad student’s stipend.

I realize that the current state of funding makes it so that NSF has to make difficult decisions (and I have been doing my part to try to advocate for increased funding for NSF). But it’s still really disappointing to see that this program is going to go away. I was going to include this as a Friday link, but split it out into it’s own post to highlight it more and to give a place for people to brainstorm about whether it might be possible to save the program (and to discuss whether doing so is desirable). There’s also a lively discussion going on on twitter, some of it using the #DDIG hashtag.

*I served on the DDIG panel twice and it was my favorite panel to be on — there were always so many great ideas.

Update: Here’s a new Medium post (my first!) I wrote related to NSF’s proposed budget.

Update 2: NSF’s DEBrief blog just posted about the cancellation of the DDIG program.

Update 3: Updated to make it clear that this is referring to the Biological Science Directorate’s DDIG program.

How changing our healthcare system impacts science: my experience as a postdoc looking for insurance

In 2005, I heard that I had received a National Science Foundation (NSF) postdoc to go work at the University of Wisconsin. I was thrilled about the opportunity, and really looked forward to starting. But, as I worked on the logistics of moving, I discovered a major hurdle: because the National Science Foundation would pay my stipend directly to me, the University of Wisconsin didn’t consider me an employee, even though NSF was also sending them an institutional allowance in exchange for hosting me. The biggest impact of this was that I was not eligible for health insurance through the University of Wisconsin. Instead, I had to try to purchase health insurance as an individual. At first, I was denied coverage.

Based on conversations I’ve had over the years and replies to some tweets I wrote, there are a lot of people who have found themselves in similar situations. In this post, I’ll talk about my experience more and talk about some of the ways this might impact science.

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Please help me identify ecologists hired as tenure-track assistant profs in the 2016-17 faculty job season (UPDATED)

Last fall, I compiled data on the gender balance of over 170 newly-hired assistant professors of ecology and allied fields at N. American colleges and universities. The results were good news: 53% of N. American assistant professors of ecology hired in 2015-16 (or in a few cases in 2014) were women.

This year I’m doing it again. To make it easier, I’m asking for your help. This Google Docs spreadsheet lists all tenure-track positions in ecology and allied fields (plus a bunch of other positions) advertised in the 2016-17 job season. If you know who was hired to fill one or more of the listed N. American assistant professor positions in ecology or an allied field, please email me with this information (jefox@ucalgary.ca).

Before you email me, please read the following:

I only want information that’s been made publicly available, for instance via an official announcement on a departmental website, or by someone tweeting something like “I’ve accepted a TT job at Some College, I start Aug. 1!” If you want to pass on the information that you yourself have been hired into a faculty position, that’s fine too. All you’re doing is saving me from googling publicly-available information myself to figure out who was hired for which positions. Please do not contact me to pass on confidential information, in particular confidential information about hiring that has not yet been totally finalized.

Please do not contact me with nth-hand “information” you heard through the grapevine. Not even if you’re confident it’s reliable.

I’m only interested in N. American tenure-track asst. professors who are “ecologists”, broadly defined. That basically means:

  • anybody hired into a position with “ecology” or an ecological term in the job title (including positions like “evolutionary ecology”, “paleoecology”, “biodiversity”, etc.)
  • anybody hired into a position in a closely-allied fields like conservation biology, wildlife, fisheries, rangelands, etc.
  • people who are ecologists, but who were hired into broadly-defined positions such as “biologist”, “plant biologist”, “vertebrate biologist”, etc. A substantial proportion of academic ecologists hold those sorts of broadly-defined positions, so it would be weird not to include them.

If in doubt, contact me with the information and let me decide whether to count the hire in question as an “ecology” hire.

I’m interested in positions at all institutions of higher education, not just research universities. Even if the position is a pure teaching position with no research duties.

UPDATE: I emphasize that I’m only looking for hires at the assistant professor level. Hires at higher ranks are senior people moving from one faculty position to another, which isn’t relevant for my purposes.

Thanks in advance for any help you can provide.

March For Science open thread

Brian, Meg, and I will all have March For Science posts later this week. In the meantime, here’s an open thread. What do you think of the March? Did you attend one, or speak at one? Have you seen any pieces on the March that you think are particularly worth reading? What do you think happens next, or should happen next? Looking forward to hearing from you.

Changes in number of authors and position of corresponding author in Ecology papers

Based on my interest in authorship practices in ecology, I decided to look at papers published in Ecology in each of the past seven decades to see how corresponding authorship changed over that time.* I looked at the first (or second**) issue of Ecology in 1956 and every ten years thereafter.

tl:dr version of the results: Not surprisingly, the number of authors increased over time. For corresponding authorship, I found that, in 1996 and earlier, the corresponding author was almost never indicated. Looking every 5 years from 2001-2016, the first author*** was usually the corresponding author, though expanding the analysis to include AmNat and Evolution**** suggests that some of the changes might be due to some of the more mundane aspects of publication.

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One way to make academia less anxiety-inducing: Be specific in your emails!

A few years ago, I asked a senior colleague for feedback on something I’d written. He agreed, and a couple of days later, sent an email saying “Is there a good time to discuss this?” I immediately thought it must mean he’d really hated what I’d written. I replied, suggesting a few times in the next couple of days. In his reply, he choose the latest of those times, saying he needed more time to mull it over. That confirmed my worst fears – it was so bad he needed extra time to figure out how to tell me how bad it was! After spending some time getting no other work done because I was so distracted, I decided to write to say that, based on his emails, I was worried that there was a major problem with what I’d written. He replied immediately saying not to worry, that it read very well, and that he just had a few ideas that he thought would be easier to discuss in person.

I was thinking of this situation again recently when I was emailing a student in my lab. She’d emailed about a proposal she’s working on, laying out two different options for a fellowship proposal she’s working on. My thinking, when reading the ideas, was that both of them could work, but that there might also be other options, and that it would probably be best to discuss all the options in person. Looking at my schedule and comparing with hers, I could see that we wouldn’t be able to meet until the end of the week. So, I initially wrote a reply that said, “Can we meet Friday at 11 to chat about this?” In the brief pause before hitting send, I realized that, if I were in her shoes, I would spend the rest of the week trying to interpret what that email had meant, most likely assuming it meant something bad. I then realized that could be easily addressed by instead saying something like, “Both of these ideas look good to me, but there might be other options worth considering, too. Are you free to meet Friday at 11 to discuss the options more?”

After writing about being a scientist who deals with anxiety, one question I’ve been asked repeatedly is what faculty can do to make their labs friendlier to students with mental health issues. I’m generally unsure of how to respond to this – so much depends on each particular situation. But avoiding unnecessary vagueness in emails is one pretty straightforward, simple thing that people can do to make academia friendlier to everyone, but perhaps especially to those with underlying anxiety issues.

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Work at the times that work for you

A couple of nights ago, I checked the weather forecast for the next day, in part to see how cold it would be for my morning run. I was surprised to see that the forecast was for 3-6 inches of snow overnight. (I hadn’t realized a storm was coming!) I had no interest in trying to slog through a run in 3-6 inches of wet, unshoveled snow in the dark, so decided I would work when I first got up in the morning (in that wonderfully quiet time when I’m the only one in the house who is awake) and go to the gym at the end of my work day. And that’s what I did. I got up, made myself some tea, sat down to check twitter, and then started working, which included replying to some emails that had been hanging around in my inbox.

That was when I remembered a conversation I’d recently had about whether it’s okay to send work emails outside of “typical” work hours. This is a topic that comes up on twitter sometimes, too, as well as on facebook. The concern is that, if you’re sending emails early in the day or in the evening or on weekends: 1) you have an unhealthy work/life balance and/or 2) you are sending a message to others that they should be working at those times, too. I fully, completely support having interests outside of work, and think that working long hours is unhealthy and unproductive. But I don’t think the way to achieve healthy work habits is to be proscriptive about when people work, or to shame others for working outside the hours that we deem acceptable.

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Mentoring plans: a really useful tool for PIs and their lab members

Over the years, I’ve heard people talk about mentoring plans and individual development plans (IDPs), and always thought they sounded like they could be worth trying some time. But I never made it a high priority, and so never actually got to doing them with my lab. I got as far as starting to do an IDP for myself to test it out, but never got further than that. Then, last year, I had to do a mentoring plan with one of my students, as a requirement of her graduate program. As soon as I did that one with her, I realized I needed to be doing these with everyone in my lab, including grad students, postdocs, technicians, and undergrads. Here, I’ll describe what we include in our mentoring plans, talk about some of the ways they’ve been helpful, and will ask for ideas on some things I’d like to add or change.

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