Science Policy For All

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Science Policy Around the Web – January 20, 2015

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By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D

photo credit: pixbymaia via photopin cc

Women in STEM Research

Hidden hurdle for women in science

Whether success in a given field is believed to be due more to a raw, innate talent or to an industrious work ethic could be one explanation for the discrepancy in gender representation within certain academic disciplines. That is the conclusion of a recent paper in Science that looked at the number of PhD degrees granted in the United States in 2011 and compared that to the distribution of male and female PhD holders in academic positions.

Despite the fact that women receive half of all math and science doctorates awarded in the United States, their representation in these fields is notoriously low. While the study discounted a number of hypotheses for the skewed PhD ratio, such as total working hours or whether a field emphasized abstract versus empathic thinking, the greatest correlation came from a belief about men and women. “Pervasive cultural associations” link men, but not women, with traits such as brilliance or genius, says Sarah-Jane Leslie, a co-author of the paper. The authors found that disciplines (such as mathematics and science) which most highly associated raw talent with success were also the most likely to be underrepresented in female PhDs. This effect extended into the humanities as well, with female philosophers and musicians also being underrepresented compared to their number graduated.

The authors posit an academic “attitude change” to retain more women in these fields by placing less emphasis on aptitude and more on work ethic as indicators of potential success. How this knowledge could (or even should) translate into academic hiring policy or decisions remains to be seen.  (Boer Deng, Nature News)

Bioethics – Clinical Trial Policy

Informed consent: U.S. considers new rules for taking part in medical research

The U.S. government is currently in the process of updating federal guidelines for informed consent in clinical research, specifically related to disclosing risks to patients with respect to comparing current standards of care. The information to be disclosed will now include all possible risks and harms that the patient could face in the trial, even if those same risks would be present by getting the standard treatment outside of the trial. While the government aims to make possible risks more clear, researchers are worried that the new guidelines will create overly complicated consent forms describing every possible risk, discourage patients from enrolling in trials and prevent some trials from even being conducted.

Conducting a clinical trial to determine which treatment protocols are safe and effective against a given disease is a key cornerstone of medical research. Running a clinical trial requires recruiting volunteers of both sick and healthy people to act as human test subjects. To be ethically sound, all research involving human subjects requires that participants give “informed consent” – that is, that they understand and accept the facts, implications and consequences of participating including any benefits and risks to themselves.

The US government has long regulated the use of human subjects in research. The current update to informed consent stems from controversy over a 2009 study involving administering oxygen to extremely premature babies. While both treatment groups received oxygen post-birth within standard concentration ranges, there were potential patient outcomes involving blindness and/or death that were not adequately conveyed to the parents of the children involved.  (Shefali Luthra, Washington Post)

Federal Research Funding

A one-grant limit: NIH institute puts squeeze on flush investigators

Effective January 2016, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) will be imposing a one-grant limit on certain scientists who receive funding from them. This new rule, announced in a January 13th notice, is primarily directed at scientists who already receive substantial, long-term, and unrestricted funding from other sources in excess of $400,000 per year.

NIGMS, which funds basic science research, aims to better distribute its limited funding resources to more investigators. The new guidelines “will enable NIGMS to fund additional labs, increasing the likelihood of making significant scientific advances” and supporting more outstanding biomedical scientists, says NIGMS. A large group of scientists affected by this new rule include those that receive substantial funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), or others with endowed chairs at research universities, for example. As NIGMS Deputy Director Judith Greenberg told ScienceInsider, there are over 20 HHMI instigators who currently hold two or more NIGMS grants, potentially freeing up to $6 million in funding to be awarded to less well-funded but equally scientifically important research.

In an era of restricted funding for scientific research, taking from the rich to fund the poor could be one way to ensure that all deserving research gets a chance at being done.  (Jocelyn Kaiser, ScienceInsider)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 20, 2015 at 9:00 am

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