Monday, December 31, 2007

A call for a presidential debate on science and technology

"Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness," the group Science Debate 2008 is soliciting others to join in a "call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Medicine and Health, and Science and Technology Policy."

Among those supporting the effort are numerous Nobel and Crafoord Laureates, heads of scientific organizations and institutions, leading scientists, government officials, and business and publishing luminaries.

Sri Lanka scientist changes national policy to protect environment and reduce tsunami impact

Here is a story showing how the initiative of one person can result in life-saving policy changes. Dr. Harindra Joseph S. Fernando is the director of the Environmental Fluid Dynamics Program at Arizona State University and a U.S. citizen born in Sri Lanka. He and his team followed up on information gathered on a family holiday about the destruction of coral reefs off that nation's coast.

By demonstrating that human activity greatly increased the devastation of the 2004 tsunami, they sparked enforcement of laws against coral mining and other environmentally unsafe practices.

Their report was published in the 16 August 2005 issue of Eos, the newspaper of the
American Geophysical Union.

The curse of expertise

"As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off....

"[O]nce you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do.... When it’s time to accomplish a task...those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation...."

Monday, December 10, 2007

1919 paper leads to today’s news feature on Yahoo: "Flu mystery solved"

Scientists who want to get the results of their work before the public would do well to consider how “Flu mystery solved” became a news feature on today’s Yahoo.

While a newspaper ordinarily reports on current events, a clever writer can leap across a century. The news peg this story hangs on is simple: it's flu season. Key to the article's success are timing, good writing and good science.

The December 10 Yahoo banner linked a reader to Gina Kolata’s story of December 5 in The New York Times, “Study Shows Why Flu Likes Winter.” Kolata relied on a paper that appeared last October in PLoS Pathogens entitled, “Influenza Virus Transmission Is Dependent on Relative Humidity and Temperature.” In the newspaper business, two months is old news.

So how about 88 years? The lead author of the October 2007 study was Peter Palese, who chairs the microbiology department at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. According to Kolata, “the crucial hint that allowed him to do his study came from a paper published in the aftermath of the 1918 flu pandemic” by the American Medical Association in 1919.

That laboratory guinea pigs began to die soon after the long-ago outbreak of influenza in New Mexico inspired Palese and his team to initiate similar experiments in 2006. How they stated their results demonstrates not only a desire to advance science but to be credited with the discovery by their peers:

· “To our knowledge, we demonstrate for the first time that cold temperatures and low relative humidity are favorable to the spread of influenza virus.”

· “We provide direct, experimental evidence to support the role of weather conditions in the dynamics of influenza and thereby address a long-standing question fundamental to the understanding of influenza epidemiology and evolution.”

Kolata addressed the general public differently. She wrote that the virus “is more stable and stays in the air longer when air is cold and dry, the exact conditions for much of the flu season” of November through March.

By comparing Kolata’s and Palese’s articles, one can learn more about writing for different audiences and with different goals. As the authors undertook the process of informing their respective readers about aerosol-transmitted flu viruses, their first consideration may have been to use appropriate vocabulary and structure to communicate their key points.

Both pieces are comprehensible to an educated reader of the publications in which they appeared. The Times piece includes additional interviews and links; the PLoS Pathogens paper is replete with references and figures.

The Gopan and Swan article discussed in the post on this blog of December 5 sets forth guidelines for evaluating figures and other aspects of writing:

  • Is information placed where a reader would expect to find it?
  • Newspaper and scientific journal writing follow conventions in placement of elements. A news story is often built on an inverted pyramid with the most important information at the top, and a journal article is divided into sections with subheadings. Did each author confine topics appropriately or does the information jump around confusingly?
  • Did the author put old information in the topic position and new information in the stress position, and give the reader enough background to understand the new?
  • Did the author take advantage of the natural structure of thought to lead the reader to key points and control the reader’s perceptions?
  • Is the most important information in a sentence toward the end, thus giving it the most natural stress?
  • Is the vocabulary appropriate to the reader?
  • Does the writing proceed logically or does one sentence contradict another?
  • Does the verb closely follow the subject?
  • Does the topic sentence of each paragraph link the preceding and following information, providing perspective and context?
  • Are hypotheses presented clearly enough to allow the reader to analyze the author's conclusions?
  • Is the author convincing?

Answering such questions will help authors improve communication by enhancing style and filling in material needed to support conclusions.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

High school girls win two $100,000 grand prizes in math, science and technology competition

"Girls swept the top prizes in America’s premier high school science competition for the first time in its nine-year Isha Jain and the team of Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff were named $100,000 Grand Prize winners in the 2007-08 Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology," according to the Siemens Foundation.

"Isha Jain, a senior at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, won the $100,000 scholarship in the individual category for research on bone growth. Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff, seniors at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview, New York, won the $100,000 prize in the team category, which they will share equally, for research on tuberculosis."

"The national finals were judged by a panel of nationally renowned scientists and mathematicians headed by lead judge Dr. Joseph Taylor, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Physics, Emeritus, Princeton University."

For details on the winning projects and other Siemens winners, see

MSNBC Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman also reported on the competition. She noted that more than half of the 2007-2008 finalists were female students. To view the video, see:

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Gopen and Swan: A classic article on scientific writing

Numerous courses and books on scientific writing in English reference a classic, "The Science of Science Writing," by George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan, first published in American Scientist (Nov-Dec 1990), Volume 78, 550-558.

In fewer than ten pages, the authors deliver a bouquet of rhetorical principles and techniques that can ensure clarity while avoiding oversimplification. They provide concise examples of the effective use of topic position and stress, placement of old (linkage) information and new information, and how to help readers focus their efforts on understanding content rather than unraveling sentences.

Tossing out a ball of data and analysis is not the same thing as communication, which requires that readers grasp the author’s key points. To be successful, a scientist must follow the same advice given to a salesperson, a labor negotiator or a lecturer: Know your audience. To a writer, this includes understanding the way a reader interprets material.

Relying on research in the fields of linguistics, rhetoric and cognitive psychology, Gopen and Swan state "three rhetorical principles based on reader expectations: First, grammatical subjects should be followed as soon as possible by their verbs; second, every unit of discourse, no matter the size, should serve a single function or make a single point; and, third, information intended to be emphasized should appear at points of syntactic closure."

While no fixed algorithms apply to good scientific writing, the authors believe it is most important to: “Put in the topic position the old information that links backward; put in the stress position the new information you want the reader to emphasize."

By following the natural structure of how readers learn, an informed writer will also identify gaps in the science underpinning the work. As the writer gains more control over how the reader interprets the information, “the structure of the prose becomes the structure of the scientific argument. Improving either one will improve the other.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Windows to the Universe - Education & fun for all ages

This continually updated multimedia site invites adults and children to have fun learning about Earth and space science. Offered in Spanish and English, you will find teacher and parent resources, games, an "ask a scientist" feature, and much, much more.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Tips on testifying at Congressional hearings

The Office of Governmental Affairs at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) has developed an excellent reputation for providing well-prepared testimony before Congress.

Its website summarizes and presents practical information to help scientists get their message across at Some of the advice comes from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other resources such as William G. Wells, Jr.'s Working with Congress: A Practical Guide for Scientists and Engineers.

To read an excerpt from this book entitled "The 17 Rules for Working with Congress," visit

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Communicating science to the world - Nanobiotechnology winners

Throughout the sciences, organizations continually seek new ways to expand awareness of the results of scientific research. An effective means of doing so is to acknowledge the accomplishments of scientists who succeed.

Nano2Life recently awarded prizes to three winners of a competition inviting young scientists to submit articles "outlining their research focus in a manner appealing to the general public."

  • Christer Spegel of University Lund, Sweden, took first prize for his report on Parkinson's Disease.
  • Petra Schneider from the University of Kaiserslautern, Germany, was cited for her work in a new environment: cells on surfaces.
  • Santiago A. Rodriguez-Segui from the Barcelona Science Park in Spain clearly explained key terms regarding stem cells.

According to its website, "Nano2Life is the first European Network of Excellence in nanobiotech supported by the 6th Framework Programme of the EU."

The group includes 23 centers with more than 200 scientists who are developing a virtual European Nanobiotech Institute (EIN) that will focus on "the nanoscale interface between biological and nonbiological entities," e.g., in "integrated novel sensor technologies, health care, pharmaceuticals, environment, security and food safety."

For details and upcoming events, see:

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Implicit gender and ethnic biases harm science and technology

"Implicit bias, rather than explicit prejudice, is a major barrier to women's advancement in senior faculty positions at the nation's universities. American science and technology will not reach its full potential unless active efforts are made to address bias and other problems, witnesses concluded at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education."
"[National Science Foundation] Deputy Director Kathie Olsen described 'significant challenges' the NSF has found in faculty recruitment and retention, and the general climate in academic science and engineering fields. Among these challenges are the importance of well-established networks, implicit bias, the feeling of isolation, and unclear policies for hiring, tenure and promotion."
"Freeman Hrabowski, President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County...outlined steps his university has taken to support and advance women and underrepresented minority students.... Among them are human resource policies, campus-wide discussions, and targeted mentoring programs. He spoke of the need to provide a 'culture of inclusion' and a 'community of support'...."

The report includes references to a number of studies detailing the barriers to career advancement, as well as descriptions of effective solutions. Cited was a 2006 report by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine which found in part:
  • "[There is] no clear evidence that men are biologically advantaged in learning and performing mathematics and science."
  • "[T]he community needs to work together, across departments, through professional societies, and with funders and federal agencies to bring about gender equity.... Our nation's future depends on it."