Sunday, October 30, 2011

Moving Beyond Divides...

Motivated by the NYT OpEd piece Moving Beyond Civil Rights by Richard Thompson Ford, this post briefly revisits my Oct. 20, 2011 post named, Dog-eared Culture, Dogged Divide. Ford's article addresses the dilemma that while civil rights legislation and practices have led to a fairer and less divided society, many stark social inequities and injustices persist.

As example, many highly educated female scientists relate well to the persistence of the proverbial glass ceiling that seems to be better tempered as time progresses. Equally relevant is the fact African American scientists remain frustratingly (to themselves and to the NIH) unable to successfully navigate the R01 peer review process.

In Ford's view, addressing social injustice and inequality through additional civil rights legislation and more lawsuits is flawed and likely counter-productive. Any "attempt to achieve collective justice through individual entitlements" is quite simply no good.

An additional problem is the weighty burden of proof. For example, the ritual oblation of African American scientists at the alter of peer review mirrors the circumstances of the recently unsuccessful class-action lawsuit brought by women against their employer, Walmart. In the eyes of the court (and likely to be true of the peer review dons), "statistics can show a pattern of discrimination, but they are not enough to prove that any particular woman was discriminated against."

So...what to do?

Ford asserts:
An effective approach might use carrots and sticks: proof that a business used the best employment practices to reduce discrimination — reviewing decisions for potential bias, monitoring long-term trends and adopting more objective hiring and promotion criteria — might constitute a defense to certain kinds of civil liability, while businesses that failed to make reasonable efforts to prevent discrimination would face fines. Clear goals would replace the constant threat of litigation, and the law would seek to prevent discrimination instead of simply punishing it after the fact.
Peer review is supposed to be an opportunity for ideas to be thoroughly and objectively vetted. Assuming this is the case, it appears that, in the case of American Americans, whatever programs and initiatives designed to level the playing field prior to this stage have proved ineffective. If this is not the case, then we must consider if the peer review process itself is faulty and ripe for further examination.

Either way, perhaps now is a prime opportunity to reconsider the priorities of the peer review system and to fully acknowledge that bias is unavoidable even though the NIH strives for objectivity. It seems that simply seeking evidence of racial bias will prove unfruitful. However, the statistics do show that African American scientists are, for some yet to be understood reason, disproportionally impacted by bias. In this light, it seems possible that in this study, the NIH was looking in the wrong place for a solution to the dogged divide.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Dropout" as a state of mind...

Michael Ellsberg thinks that college dropouts will save America. Sure, it's true-- Zucker, Gates, Jobs etc. form the upper-stratum of the 21st-century technologically savvy social order, but this doesn't prove that the maximal mix of intelligence, creativity and (testosterone dependent?!?) confidence occurs between the ages of 18 and 21. Has no one with a BS, MS, or PhD ever had a profitable Eureka! moment?

The author seems to declare the American dream--as it was sold to us smart and aspiring GenXers--dead. A degree can no longer be equated with security, but does Ellsberg support a mass-exodus of today's college students? (Imagine OccupyHarvard, OccupyStanford, OccupyOleMiss!) Although I risk offending productive college dropouts as well as un(der)employed and un(der)paid degree holders, I still contend an education is the way to go. On balance, the world is better off with a more highly educated population and individuals are better off holding a degree.

Ellsberg speaks truth, however, when he says, "Assuming that college was responsible for ... success gives higher education more credit than it deserves." True that! And for PhDs, I'd say, the problem is twofold...

PIs breed their minions to be arrogant and self-laudatory just like they are (how many times were we told that we just need those "three little letters" and we've got it made!). But once bestowed with a doctorate we immediately turn the most venerable of institutions, inflated ego in hand, looking for full validation of our worth and intelligence in the guise of research dollars and a full professorship. A growing majority of us, of course, do not succeed (I dare not say "f*il").

Ellsberg claims f*ilure is a good thing, providing valuable life and business lessons. Looking on the bright side, I wonder what the world would look like if PhDs rebelled, embraced their f*ilure, and engaged their inner "dropout"! Could we, without tenure, save the world?!


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dog-eared Culture, Dogged Divide

It appears that further proof of the ineffectiveness of programmatic attempts to diversify the staid upper-echelons of the biomedical science research enterprise has been garnered. A recently released study demonstrates that African American researchers don't fare so well in the great race for R01 funding.  A write-up of the results (with supporting material),  a response from Francis Collins, and an accompanying news piece were published by Science on August 19th. Here is a brief description from the magazine:
Workforce diversity has been considered central to the U.S. NIH objective of improving the nation’s health through research. Ginther et al. (p. 1015; see the Policy Forum by Tabak and Collins) estimate the association between the self-identiļ¬ed race or ethnicity of an applicant for an NIH R01 research grant and the probability of receiving an award from 2000 to 2006. After controlling for demographics, educational background, training, prior research, and employer the authors found that black applicants were significantly less likely to receive research funding than white applicants.
I am an African American female biophysics PhD (never did a postdoc, never submitted an R01) and I haven't used a pipette or conducted a Fourier transform in over a decade. Still, I suppose I should take the time to articulate an opinion, right?

This study seems to confirm what people have instinctively knows for a long time. The level of analysis required was significant and it's a good think that scientists aren't afraid of numbers and statistics. However, I do fear that we are a bit timid in asking questions... Yes, the magnitude of the problem is now better defined, but the report doesn't point towards a good solution nor does it better illuminate the roots of the problem.

As a public agency, I do see the obligation to try and distribute funds and opportunity in a fair and equitable way. It is also the agency's responsibility to demonstrate the existence of a problem to the best of its ability. After all, such a premier science agency cannot be seen acting on a "hunch." However, by not asking a bold, meaningful and adequately targeted question I don't feel that the NIH will acquire the platform from which to act with purpose and to good effect.

The McKinsey Quarterly just came out with a piece titled "Competing through data: Three experts offer their game plans." This piece likens the collection of data with opportunity and claims that, "[m]ost great revolutions in science are preceded by revolutions in measurement." What more can the science community gain by better understanding the plight of the African-American PhD?  Can this lead to a revolution in science?

It's fact that race exists as does racism. But what are the limits to determining whether either is the root cause of the disparity? Similarly, I agree that the diversity is good (see In Professor’s Model, Diversity = Productivity, a NY Times interview with  Scott E. Page, an economist who believes in the power and practicality of  diversity of all sorts), but I wonder if it always relevant?

The continued disparity in the achievement of African American biomedical researchers should be of concern to everyone and finding resolution will require openness and a willingness to engage in difficult and uncomfortable discussions. Which questions will help ensure that the perspectives and talent held by African Americans are better realized? More generally, what can we therefore learn about how our human resources are encouraged and utilized? Can we measure opportunity lost and devise plans to maximize promise?  Can we achieve this through data collection?