Scientists identifying as women are held back by men, but won’t gather in their own institute

“‘I Want What My Male Colleague Has, and That Will Cost a Few Million Dollars’; Women at the Salk Institute say they faced a culture of marginalization and hostility. The numbers from other elite scientific institutions suggest they’re not alone.” (New York Times) is about three elderly biologists who are suing their employer for gender discrimination after they were replaced with younger employees, purportedly due to their failure to raise sufficient grant money.

Life is great if you’re a scientist identifying as a man:

Some current and former Salk employees identified Wylie Vale, Ron Evans, Stephen Heinemann and Rusty Gage as the men who, along with Verma, seemed to enjoy extraordinary resources and status (though only Verma was mentioned in the lawsuits). These men, titans in their fields, spoke often at faculty retreats, and on milestone birthdays would reign over symposia in their honor.

If anyone typified the male “rock star” scientists said to have held sway over the Salk, it was Verma. As of 2015, he was the Institute’s highest-paid scientist

The Institute’s 2015 Form 990 shows that the purported superstar male scientist, Inder Verma, raked in total comp of about $437,000, i.e., about half of what a dermatologist running a cosmetic laser clinic in the neighborhood might earn. (The article also shows that Verma’s career was ended by accusations of sexual harassment, something that would have required a lot more work to achieve to inflict on a dermatologist running his or her own clinic.)

The article definitely shows the superiority of medicine as a career to science (see “Women in Science” for more on this topic), for humans of all gender IDs. By getting their jobs at Salk Institute, these women were among the most successful scientists of their generation. Yet their earnings were much lower than what a medical specialist could obtain, their years of earning were cut short involuntarily, and they had limited choices regarding where in the U.S. to live and work.

From my comment on the article:

There are great biology research institutions all around the world, at least some of which are run by people who currently identify as women. If there are great scientists who identify as women who are being held back at male-run places, why wouldn’t they simply move to the female-run places and accomplish their world-changing research there? The NYT informs us that women can be hired for 70 percent of the cost of equally qualified men. So the female-run and female-staffed science labs should have a huge edge over competitors. (One part of the article that rings true is that success in academic science is all about the Benjamins!)

[Response from a virtuous reader: “Sigh. I am weary. … Some humans who identify as men will never get it.” Yet if men are so generally clueless, how is it that at least a few have been credited with some scientific discoveries? Nearly all of those who “get it” are women, but a handful of outlier males “got it” and were sufficiently observant to function in science? Or behind every credited man there is the woman from whom he stole everything? (see Katherine Clerk Maxwell, for example, the likely true developer of Maxwell’s Equations, or Rosalind Franklin, to whom all credit for DNA structure should go)]

There should be no shortage of female-identifying labor. The article says “the biological sciences are one of the only scientific fields in which women earn more than half the doctoral degrees.” (but maybe a lot of them change their gender ID to male after graduation in order to soak up the privileges that are reserved to male scientists?)

Readers: In a world that funds science more lavishly than at any time in history and in which changing institutions is as easy as getting on an Airbus, why wouldn’t the brilliant female scientists gather in their own institute and crank out the Nobel prizes?

[Top-rated comment by NYT readers:

How many diseases have gone uncured, how many scientific discoveries not made, because men’s priority is their own power, and do anything and everything to hold on to that power and keep women down? They will never give us equality voluntarily.

Isn’t this a great argument for a women-only research?]

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No statute of limitations for accused academics

David Marchant, still a geologist, but no longer a Boston University employee, has learned what my friend who teaches at University of California explained: “I can be fired for any reason… except incompetence.” (Science Mag)

The alleged unkind words and actions toward three people occurred in the late 1990s (2017 Science Mag article), but no complaints were made until October 2016 (at least 17 years after the alleged facts).

Had these aggrieved individuals wanted to sue former Professor Marchant, they would generally have had to do so within three years (Massachusetts law) of the events.

(Separately, the accused geologist seems to be a bit of a skeptic regarding climate change catastrophe. He is co-author of a paper telling people not to worry about the East Antarctic Ice Sheet melting and leading to a 60 meter rise in sea level. The Ice Sheet has been around for 14 million years, the paper says, and thus has survived some very warm periods indeed.)

Even if we assume that we can establish 20-year-old facts to perfect accuracy, should there be a statute of limitations for this kind of situation? We could say that what Dr. Marchant (his Ph.D. hasn’t been rescinded yet!) allegedly did was like murder and it can’t be forgiven so we need to punish him even though he might have changed completely during the intervening years. Or we could say that people do evolve over a period of two decades so we want to consider only accusations regarding reasonably recent behavior.

What if, for example, Dr. Marchant had changed gender ID between 1999 and 2019? Would it still make sense to get rid of her on the theory that her presence made it difficult for women?

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Black hole photo: Back to the lone genius in science?

From one of our most intelligent citizens, a salute to the scientific genius working alone:

Brian Keating’s Losing the Nobel Prize, published just last year, said that the age of a Katherine Clerk Maxwell discovering Maxwell’s Equations mostly on her own was over. The book describes a paper regarding Higgs boson discovery with 6,225 co-authors.

Readers: What is the significance of this “photo” (it is all false or pseudo color since the emissions were not in the visible portion of the E-M spectrum)? What is the actual “advancement of science”? (Rare break from Trump hatred from the NY Times: article on how the experiment worked. The core article on the announcement doesn’t suggest that any in-question hypotheses were confirmed or rejected. I asked a physicist friend: “it’s not exactly the event horizon. It’s the photosphere seen on edge. With limb darkening, it appears as a torus. … eventually you might use images like this to see how general relativity plays out over time. In other words, make a movie called Event Horizon (after they see the actual horizon that is). … It confirmed part of a theoretical prediction. One that was made by a scientist other than Einstein.”)

(Separately, my Facebook friends who were energized by this example of female nerddom (a postdoc identifying as a “woman” writing software! And earning 1/8th the income of a same-age dermatologist (postdoc salary provides less after-tax spending power than obtainable by having sex with a primary care doctor in Massachusetts)) decided that they needed to add a photo of another successful female-identifying programmer. They had to reach back only half a century to find one:

In 1969 Margaret Hamilton wrote the onboard software code for Apollo 11 and coined the term “software engineering.” Now 50 years later, Dr. Katie Bouman’s algorithm enabled the connecting of telescopes around the world to take the first photo ever of a black hole. Here is a photo of Margaret Hamilton with the reams of code, and one of Dr. Bouman with the hard drives containing the 5 petabytes of data generated. Cheers to #WomeninSTEM – now imagine what we could do if they let women run the world! (Photo credit @floragraham). #blackhole #bigdata #IoT

The folks who were excited to see someone identify as female sitting at a desk typing code took their last science class in high school, would consider attending a computer science course to be a physical assault, and would flee if offered the opportunity to spend 45 minutes learning about how their smartphones work.

(There seems to be some question regarding whether Margaret Hamilton was the sole author of the big stack of assembly language code next to which she stands. In 2014, for example, the Boston Globe ran an obituary on Richard H. Battin:

Dr. Battin, who developed and led the design of the guidance, navigation, and control systems for the Apollo flights … As astronauts Neil Armstrong and Aldrin were approaching the Sea of Tranquility on that historic July 20, 1969, flight, Dr. Battin was at Mission Control in Houston with MIT Instrumentation Lab founder Charles Stark “Doc” Draper.

See also a 2016 discussion on Hacker News on the question of whether this Battin guy contributed anything significant.))

Is it safe to say that the 19th century lone genius of science is back?

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Minimal number of approved drugs; fewer approved each year

Some numbers that I heard at Harvard Medical School:

  • About 1500 compounds that are currently approved as patented or generic drugs.
  • About 500 in clinical trials.
  • About 10 approved every year and declining.

Declining? With half of the new glass towers in Boston and Cambridge packed with biologists and chemists? “It’s getting tougher to approve new drugs because they have to be safe, be effective, and be somehow better for an average population of patients than current drugs,” said my source. “Don’t get me started on the FDA. These criteria are probably too strict. A compound that has bad side effects for one person might affect another person very differently. So it would be good to have more options, especially for those with unusual genetics.”

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Party of Science scores lower than Party of Stupid

“What Americans Know About Science” (Pew Research) is subtitled “Science knowledge levels remain strongly tied to education; Republicans and Democrats are about equally knowledgeable,” but it turns out that “equal” translates to “Republicans know more”:

Republicans and independents who lean to the Republican Party average seven correct answers, while Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party average 6.6.

A difference of 0.4 doesn’t sound huge, right? But the difference between Americans with postgraduate degrees and bachelor’s degrees was only 0.6. Being a Republican was worth about the same as two years of graduate school.

Considering that Democrats have branded themselves the “Party of Science” while decrying the purported anti-science idiocy of Republicans, these data are interesting.

Even more interesting is why we continue to have faith in our unique capacity to solve the world’s science and engineering problems. When a politician proposes a reduction in the growth of government spending on grants to science labs (not an actual cut, of course, though a lower growth rate will be characterized by “scientists” as a “cut”), the reaction includes statements that this will mean the end of scientific progress. This necessarily assumes that scientific discoveries can be made only in the U.S.

Global warming? Only Americans can help! This has the same logical basis as Tom Cruise explaining that a car accident calls for a Scientologist. It won’t be Chinese and German engineers who come up with improved solar cells, wind turbines, batteries, and CO2 vacuums. (After all, the fundamentals were all developed in the U.S. It was American Edmond Becquerel, working in a Paris, Texas lab, who discovered the photovoltaic effect; American Albert Einstein later explained the photoelectric effect while working in Zurich, Kansas.)

Who are these Americans ready to help solve the world’s toughest problems? Fully 39 percent of us know that a “base” is the opposite of an “acid”. Plainly we are going to be experts on the carbon cycle and atmospheric CO2 washing out into carbonic acid. Americans can do even better when adjusting for the sun’s influence on climate, since 63 percent of us know that the tilt of the Earth is responsible for the seasons (survey methodology).

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Folks who vote for a larger Welfare State should also discourage the teaching of evolution?

I’ve been enjoying The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us, by Douglas Linder, a professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law.

One of the trials covered is the familiar Scopes Trial, in which ignorance is pitted against Science.

Professor Linder highlights that one of the reasons William Jennings Bryan was against the teaching of evolution in schools, however, is that he was an advocate for equality and was fighting against attempts to discourage unsuccessful Americans from breeding, e.g., in the Eugenics movement.

I wonder if Jennings Bryan would be perplexed by the situation today in which advocates for a larger Welfare State, which encourages maximum reproduction by the least successful Americans (by providing free housing, health care, food, and smartphones on condition that they have children), are simultaneously loud advocates in favor of teaching evolution in schools.

Readers: Why do people who advocate for maximizing the percentage of Americans who are descended from those who never worked also enjoy rooting out the handful of American Creationists and calling them stupid? Shouldn’t folks who advocate maximum fertility among those on Welfare want to downplay a biological theory that says children will closely resemble their parents?

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75 percent chance of career failure considered in a positive light

I was chatting with a successful physicist the other day. I said that reading Losing the Nobel Prize made me realize what a risky career choice science was. He scoffed at my timidity. “If you get into a top graduate school, you’re practically guaranteed a post-doc.” (i.e., a $52,116 per year job after 5 years; roughly at age 35 if the PhD program is started at 24 and it takes 6 years to earn the doctorate) What about after that? “You’d have a 1 in 4 chance of getting an assistant professorship.” Once on the tenure track, he considered actually earning tenure to be straightforward.

If we define “success” in science as a long-term job as a scientist, he was saying that the chance of failure was a minimum of 75 percent (maybe closer to 90 percent if we consider the probabilities of not getting into a great graduate school, not getting a post-doc, and not getting tenure once on the “tenure track”). In his opinion this was only a minor detraction from the appeal of a career in science.

Related:

  • How Many PhD Graduates Become Professors? (from 2016: “life science PhD graduates in the US have only a 16% chance of finding a tenure track position”; but how many people on “tenure track” actually do get that lifetime guaranteed job?)
  • “Women in Science” (“This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.”)
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Great book on the history of the horse

The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion by Wendy Williams is one of my favorite recent reads. The book is a fascinating mixture of geology, biology, and history. A great gift for anyone who rides, certainly.

Here are some excerpts to inspire you:

Horses are the stars of Ice Age art. Indeed, horses are the most frequently represented animal in the twenty-thousand-year period that preceded the advent of farming and what we call civilization.

contrary to popular belief, science has discovered that they are not “herd” animals. Instead of seeking safety in large numbers, horses live year-round in small groups called bands. Membership in these bands, which may consist of as few as three horses or as many as ten or so, is just as fluid as are the individual bonds, but there’s usually a central core of closely allied mares and their young offspring.

(Because of the stress of constant fighting with other males, stallions often live much shorter lives than mares.)

When I started researching free-roaming horses, I was astonished at their numbers—in the millions. I was also surprised by the variety of ecosystems where the horses not only live, but thrive. There may be more than a million free-ranging horses in the Australian outback alone

All over the American West, free-ranging horses roam in small bands. They even seem to do well in areas around Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. You would think that a species that can live in Death Valley would have trouble living in swamps and wetlands, but it turns out that they don’t. A little south of the Namibian desert, another population of horses lives in the Bot River delta of South Africa.

The book gives multiple examples of evolution in action:

consider the case of the sea-island horses who live on Canada’s Sable Island, a small harborless sandbar of an island located far out in the North Atlantic, about a ninety-minute plane flight east from Halifax, Nova Scotia. This tiny island, shaped like a crescent moon, is about thirty miles long and very narrow. Buffeted constantly by violent North Atlantic storms, this island seems an unlikely home for free-roaming horses, yet as many as 450 graze here, surviving by eating beach grass and sea peas. This sounds like a meager diet, but the horses, abandoned there by a Boston entrepreneur before the American Revolution, have endured for more than 250 years.

The only non-marine mammals on the island, the horses serve as a real-world laboratory of evolution. Over the centuries, they have become unique. Their pasterns are now so short that, from a distance, their lower legs look something like the legs of mountain goats. The pasterns of most horses are long and angled, allowing for plenty of spring in the horse’s step, which in turn allows for greater speed and stamina when a horse gallops at high speeds over an open plain. Long pasterns evolved as a survival strategy. But longer pasterns also carry an important disadvantage: the pastern’s fragile bones and vulnerable tendons can easily break or strain, laming the horse. Many a racehorse has ended his career because of this vulnerability. But on Sable Island, the horse does not have to run fast to escape predators. Instead, their enemy is deep sand and their worst “predators” are steep, treacherous sand dunes, some almost a thousand feet high, which the horses must climb in order to eat. These dunes provide some pretty dangerous footing for horses. On Sable Island a horse is much more likely to injure a leg while descending these steep dunes than by running along the island’s beaches. Still, a hungry horse must ascend and descend these obstacles. Consequently, evolution has made a clear choice, just as in the Camargue region. Sable Island horses have shorter, less vulnerable pasterns, giving them that goatlike look. Over 250 years, natural selection has opted for shorter pasterns, improving the horses’ ability to graze, thus improving the horses’ ability to live longer and produce more offspring. We often think of evolution as complicated, but in this case, the process is pretty easy to grasp.

The author covers some of the dynamism of the Earth’s climate:

Most likely, paleontologists suggest, the truth behind the extinction involves many factors. When the asteroid fell, the world was already changing. The great supercontinent of Pangaea had broken up and North and South America were slowly migrating west, creating an ever-widening Atlantic Ocean—an ocean that would become a major player in the appearance of humans and in the evolution of horses and in the flight paths of birds and in the pulsations of ice and rain and drought for the coming tens of millions of years. These long-term events, the results of our always-convulsive, seething-with-energy planet, were probably more influential in the appearance of horses and humans than the onetime crash of a mere mega-asteroid. … the Yale University paleontologist Chris Norris called the emphasis on disaster as a major evolutionary force “asteroid porn.”

His point is well-taken: the worldwide climate had been changing for 10 million years before the asteroid fell. The dinosaurs were no more enjoying a steady-state world before the asteroid impact than we are today.

It was hot. For a brief period, it was very hot, much hotter than when I visited. In fact, it was as though there was a sudden explosion of heat, as remarkable in its own way as the fall of the asteroid had been 10 million years earlier. Curiously, this explosion of heat also marks the appearance of Polecat Bench’s horses and primates. This was a time when temperatures in some places shot up by 6 or 8 degrees Celsius in a very short time period, lingered at those heights, then, almost as suddenly, dropped back down. The cause of this heat spike remains elusive, but it may have been due to large bursts of methane that bubbled up from the deep ocean. On temperature charts that track the rise and fall of heat throughout our planet’s history, the heat spike looks to me like the outline of the Eiffel Tower. The anomaly is officially called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, PETM for short, but I prefer to think of it as the Eiffel Tower of Heat, with its sharp lines of ascent and descent that mimic so closely the graceful lines of the Parisian landmark. It’s a weird event. And it’s doubly weird that both horses and primates may owe their existence, in part, to its existence: the spike marks the beginning of the Eocene, when not just horses and primates, but most modern mammal groups finally came into their own.

Just a few things that surprised me:

  • North America, devoid of horses when the Europeans showed up to trash the place, has a rich fossil record of horses. Horses were here at least as recently as 30,000 years ago.
  • Horse teeth keep pushing out for about 20 years.
  • “The ten thousand or so varieties of grasses that cover Earth today take up an estimated 30 percent of our planet’s land surface.” (and grass is a relatively new plant)

More: Read The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion.

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