SciBlogs

Archive 2013

How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang John Pickering Dec 02

John Pickering:

Worth a read for those interested in how academia works.
In the NZ context, I wonder how people see this. Is there a small cartel controlling the lives of the rest who plug away looking for grants in the hope of making the breakthrough?
Note: The increase in percentage of PhDs between 2000 and 2011 in NZ in the graph in this article is distorted by the large influx of international students in the late 90s and early 00s. This was further exacerbated by the change in rules to allow international PhD students to pay domestic and not international fees.

Originally posted on Alexandre Afonso:

In 2000, economist Steven Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh published an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics about the internal wage structure of a Chicago drug gang. This piece would later serve as a basis for a chapter in Levitt’s (and Dubner’s) best seller Freakonomics. [1] The title of the chapter, “Why drug dealers still live with their moms”, was based on the finding that the income distribution within gangs was extremely skewed in favor  of those at the top, while the rank-and-file street sellers earned even less than employees in legitimate low-skilled activities, let’s say at McDonald’s. They calculated 3.30 dollars as the hourly rate, that is, well below a living wage (that’s why they still live with their moms). [2]

If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or being beaten up by your own hierarchy, you…

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A taste of success John Pickering Nov 18

Some recent successes of University of Otago Christchurch researchers:

Chlorine bleach key in disease?

Professor Tony Kettle from the Centre for Free Radical Research has won a prestigious Marsden Fund grant to better understand a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ chemical with a role in heart disease, cancer, cystic fibrosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Professor Kettle will investigate chlorine bleach’s role in strengthening collagen by linking to form a resilient mesh. Without this mesh people can develop cataracts and an autoimmune disease that destroys the kidneys and causes the lungs to hemorrhage. However bleach can also have negative effects.

“Chlorine bleach should be viewed as a natural chemical with a Jekyll and Hyde personality. It helps us to fight infections and form strong connective tissue but also endangers our health during uncontrolled inflammation.”

Professor Kettle and his team will work with researchers from Vienna and Budapest on the project.

Improving the treatment and experience for dialysis patients

Chronic kidney disease is common, affecting about 500,000 New Zealanders. It is important because it increases chances of heart disease and death and may lead to needing treatment with dialysis or a kidney transplant. Dialysis therapy is a heavy and costly burden for patients and their families and the health system. However, there is a lack of reliable evidence to improve patient outcomes.

Dr Suetonia Palmer has just been awarded a prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowship valued at $800,000 over five years for research project called: “Improving evidence for decision-makers in chronic kidney disease.”

Dr Palmer’s research aims to to provide rigorous overviews of existing research and participant-led enquiry to provide better and more useable information for clinicians, consumers and policy-makers in the field of chronic kidney disease.

Recovering from food addiction

Professor Doug Sellman and his team from the National Addiction Centre have just been granted funding to trial a new treatment for those with obesity called Kia Akina.

“There is a serious need to develop new non-surgical ways of treating obesity because obesity-related diseases are expensive for New Zealand, traditional non-surgical methods are not working, and surgery is very costly,” says Professor Sellman.

Kia Akina uses a ‘food addiction’ approach to obesity. Professor Sellman says the project will test the feasibility, short-term effectiveness and participant satisfaction ofKia Akina within a primary health care setting.

If shown to be effective, Kia Akina will be developed as a non-commercial, low cost network for obesity recovery throughout New Zealand.

Innovation in Indigenous Health

Christchurch’s Maori/Indigenous Health Institute (MIHI) recently won the Australasian award for ‘innovation in Indigenous health curriculum implementation’ at the Leaders in Indigenous Medical Education (LIME) conference.

The LIME conference brings together all 20 medical schools throughout Australia and New Zealand, and hosts attendees from the United States and Canada.

Staff and students of the University of Otago, Christchurch, in Darwin at the Leaders in Indigenous Medical Education (LIME) conference

Staff and students of the University of Otago, Christchurch, in Darwin at the Leaders in Indigenous Medical Education (LIME) conference

MIHI director Suzanne Pitama says she and her team were thrilled to receive the award. As there is much collaboration between indigenous teaching teams at University of Otago’s Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin campuses, the award recognises the innovation of all these teams.  It also recognised the systemic support within the University of Otago to prioritise indigenous health within the curriculum.

MIHI oversees the Maori health component of the medical curriculum at the University of Otago, Christchurch.

Award nominees are judged on how well their teaching programmes demonstrate their commitment and experience to understanding and furthering the health of Maori and Indigenous peoples.

The award has been presented for four years, says Pitama. MIHI also won it in the inaugural year.

A review panel of academic peers and members of indigenous medical doctors associations judge the award, Pitama says.

___________________________

This guest post was written by Kim Thomas,  Senior Communications Advisor, University of Otago, Christchurch, www.uoc.otago.ac.nz.

Tagged: bleach, chlorine, christchurch, Chronic Kidney Disease, Dialysis, Doug Sellman, Food addiction, free radical, heart disease, Maori/Indigenous Health Institute, Marsden, MIHI, Obesity, Rutherford fellowship, Suetonia Palmer, Tony Kettle, Transplant, university of otago

Medical professionals act up John Pickering Nov 13

Actors are helping Christchurch medical students practise the skills necessary to relate to patients.

Dr Lynette Murdoch organises the General Practice component for 4th year medical students at the University of Otago, Christchurch.  She says the General Practice Department has long employed professional actors to play the role of simulated patients.

“The consultations our students have with the simulated patients allow them to apply their knowledge to realistic situations, and to practise the skills necessary to relate well with patients.  The students receive feedback directly from the simulated patients.’’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASimulated patients are people who pretend to be a particular patient with a particular condition. They can be actors or volunteers who are trained in order for the students to meet predetermined learning objectives.

The University of Otago, Christchurch educates medical students between their fourth to sixth and final year.  Students move between different specialities such as general practice and paediatrics. They also spend time at the Simulation Centre, which provides a safe environment for them, and postgraduate nursing students, to practise clinical and professional skills. They make use of high-technology manikins and Simulation Centre director Dr MaryLeigh Moore is investigating the greater use of actors, as well as at some stage recruiting volunteers from the community.

Dr Moore recently returned from a learning trip to a well-established Australian programme using simulated patients and volunteers

She explains: “Volunteers  - community members who are healthy or who have chronic illness – can contribute valuable learning opportunities to students by simply being themselves, and increasing opportunities for students to interact with a range of people.’’

“’Simulated patients bring consistency to their presentations and responses as opposed to the ‘real’ and varied responses and perspectives of volunteers.’’

Dr Moore says the benefits to the students are very real and volunteers and simulated patients can also experience a significant sense of reward from contributing to the training of doctors.

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This guest post was written by Kim Thomas,  Senior Communications Advisor, University of Otago, Christchurch, www.uoc.otago.ac.nz.

Tagged: Acting, christchurch, medical school, medical student, University of Otago Christchurch, volunteer

Legionnaires’ disease more common than once thought John Pickering Nov 11

Infectious diseases expert Professor David Murdoch is passionate about his work in better understanding legionnaires’ disease and its causes.

“If I ever have the opportunity in my career to help eradicate a disease it would likely be legionnaires’ disease. It’s the most common cause of pneumonia for much of the year in Christchurch and it has a far greater impact on community health and the hospital than people realise.’’

Professor David Murdoch, University of Otago Christchurch

Professor David Murdoch, University of Otago Christchurch

Professor Murdoch has just published research showing the potentially fatal disease is four times more prevalent in Canterbury than previously thought. He believes the results will apply to other centres and has sought funding to do New Zealand-wide research.

Professor Murdoch says special tests are required to diagnose legionnaires’ disease because it looks the same as other forms of pneumonia on an x-ray and has similar symptoms.

It is important to know if a patient has legionnaires’ disease as specific antibiotics are required to treat it which differ from the standard treatment for pneumonia.

Professor Murdoch says he and colleagues from the Canterbury Health Laboratories introduced a new strategy in 2010 whereby all samples from Canterbury patients with pneumonia were tested for legionnaires’ disease.

“It’s a very simple approach but we don’t think anyone else has done this globally.’’

“We have more than quadrupled the detection of legionnaires’ disease with this new strategy and highlighted a big spring/summer peak in activity that is more predictable every year in Christchurch than influenza. This peak is associated with gardening activities but the actual cause is not known.’’

Professor Murdoch is now studying Cantabrians who test positive for Legionnaires’ disease in greater depth to try and understand what specific gardening activities or other activities are implicated.

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This guest post was written by Kim Thomas,  Senior Communications Advisor, University of Otago, Christchurch, www.uoc.otago.ac.nz.

Television New Zealand news article relating to this issue: http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/researchers-hope-uncover-cause-deadly-disease-5702569

 

 

Tagged: David Murdoch, gardening, Legionnaires disease, pneumonia, potting mix, university of otago, University of Otago Christchurch

More women injured in quakes John Pickering Nov 06

A Christchurch researcher is trying to understand why so many more women than men were injured in the Canterbury earthquakes.

Professor Mike Ardagh is Chair of the RHISE (Researching the Health Implications of Seismic Events) group.

Professor Ardagh leads a team investigating the health system response to the quakes. His team found the health system responded remarkably well to a massive event, including the activation of well-practiced plans and innovation to overcome issues such as loss of power. Looking at ACC statistics, they discovered that significantly more women than men were injured, across all degrees of injury.

“We have a few hypotheses about why this is but have not proven anything yet. We are working on this question in collaboration with Professor David Johnston of Massey University.’’

quakepicProfessor Johnston is studying how people behave during earthquakes and is probing whether certain behaviours, such as running or staying still, put some at greater risk.

Some of the other topics being explored by the RHISE group are:

  • Variations in stress according to peoples’ homes or workplaces, and their exposure to quake damage.
  • The impact on older peoples’ health.
  • The impact on front line workers’ occupational health.
  • The on-going psychological impact.

The gender and injury project will take at least a year.

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This guest post was written by Kim Thomas,  Senior Communications Advisor, University of Otago, Christchurch, www.uoc.otago.ac.nz.  Several more posts related to the work of the University of Otago Christchurch will follow.

Did you know?

• The University of Otago, Christchurch, has about 600 postgraduate students, mostly health professionals such as nurses.

• This year 45 science and medical students will get a taste of research with our Summer Studentship programme.

• Thousands of doctors have done their final clinical years training in Christchurch.

• We are home to many excellent research groups such as the Christchurch Heart Institute, the Christchurch Health and Development Study and the Centre for Free Radical Research.

Tagged: christchurch earthquake, Earthquake, Emergency Department, Emergency Room, University of Otago Christchurch, Women

A letter for all District Health Board Candidates John Pickering Sep 30

Dear District Health Board Candidates

Soon I and thousands like me will cast our votes to choose our District Health Boards.  Given the huge budgets of DHBs and the huge potential to influence health outcomes I want more information from you than a couple of paragraphs I received with the voting packs.  Below are two questions I think are important.  As this is an open letter on a blog site, I invite others to submit their questions too.  I also invite you, the candidates, to state your name, the DHB you are running for and your response to my or other posted questions (ie not just the blurb from your pamphlets).

My questions:

1. What single health intervention do you want to see implemented and what evidence do you have that it would be efficacious?

2. What plans have you for increasing patient participation in research?

Regards

Dr John Pickering

Tagged: budget, District Health Board, evidence based policy, health, Research, Vote

Teach creationism; undermine theology John Pickering Sep 24

My fellow science blogger Alison Campbell recently wrote a blog post entitled “teach creationism, undermine science”  in which she highlighted some of the concerns shared by many scientists.  As a Christian and as a scientist I believe the issue is far worse than the undermining of science.  Because so many teaching creationism are so well meaning it saddens me to say this, but the teaching of creationism is anathema to the Christian gospel.  Three reasons:

1. Creationism misrepresents the Bible.  When the Hebrews were standing on the banks of the Jordan wondering what would befall them should they cross, they were not asking “How did God create the world?” Rather, they were wondering if Yahweh who had led their parents generation out of Egypt, and seemed to be in charge in the desert, actually knew anything about farming across the Jordan.  It seemed to them that the local fertility gods must know something – after all it was a rich land.  The two stories of creation we now find in the book of Genesis speak to the fears of the Hebrews then, and in later generations to fears held when they were in exile.  The message is clear – Yahweh is in charge, and the so called gods (eg the sun and moon) are mere creations of his.  Those stories are definitely not scientific accounts – indeed science writing was not to be invented for thousands of more years. They answer “whose in charge” and “what’s my purpose” questions, not “How” questions.

2. Creationism rejects truth about the workings of creation which science has revealed. Science is a gracious gift which is to be cherished and put to good use.  It is under God’s sovereignty and requires the participation of his people. Indeed, creationism opts out of kingdom building, the task of the Church.  Our destination is not some super-spiritual, non-material eternal existence in heaven (indeed no where does the Bible explicitly say we will “go to heaven”), rather it is a new earth (material) where God dwells amongst us and God’s rule applies (heaven).  How this will come about, no-one can be certain, but our pursuit of knowledge through science and our applying that knowledge as good stewards of the Earth is part of the process of building the kingdom.

3. Creationism puts a stumbling block to faith. Sadly, propagating creationism results in an easy, and sometimes convenient, target for scientists who may otherwise be willing to listen to what Christianity has to say.  To use Paul’s terminology, it is a stumbling block. Many pupils taught creationism as a science will later learn the falsehood when they are exposed to all of science in its full glory. Sadly, many will react against Christianity and throw the baby out with the bathwater.  When this happens, those who taught those pupils creationism as if it were science will become accountable.

Tagged: Creationism, Education, Gospel, Kingdom of Heaven, religion, School, Science, Theology

What the HRC should have done John Pickering Sep 18

The system is broke.  It is no better than a lottery.  The Health Research Council tacitly acknowledged this last year when they introduced a lottery to their grant funding round.  The lottery was for three grants of $150,000 each.  These “Explorer Grants” are available again this year.  The process went thus: HRC announced the grant and requested proposals;  proposals were required to meet simple requirements of transformative, innovative, exploratory or unconventional, and have potential for major impact;  proposals were examined by committees of senior scientists;  all that met the criteria were put in a hat and three winners were drawn out.

116 grants were received, 3 were awarded (2.6%!!!). There were several committees of 4-5 senior scientists. Each committee assessed up to 30 grants.  I’m told it was a couple of days work for each scientist. I’m also told that, not surprisingly given we’ve a damned good science workforce, most proposals met the criteria. WHAT A COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME AND RESOURCES.

Here is what should have happened:  All proposals should have gone immediately into the hat.  Three should have been drawn out.  Each of these three should have been assessed by a couple of scientists to make sure they meet the criteria.  If not, another should be drawn and assessed.  This would take about a 10th of the time and would enable results to be announced months earlier.

Given that the HRC Project grants have only about a 7% success rate and that the experience of reviewers is that the vast majority of applications are worthy of funding  I think a similar process of randomly drawing and then reviewing would be much more efficient and no less fair.  Indeed, here is the basis of a randomised controlled trial which I may well put as a project proposal to the HRC.

Null Hypothesis:  Projects assessed after random selection perform no differently to those assessed using the current methodology.

Method:  Randomly divide all incoming project applications into two groups. Group 1: Current assessment methodology.  Group 2: Random assessment methodology.  Group 1: assess as per normal aiming to assign half the allocated budget.  Group 2: Randomly draw 7% of the Group 2 applicants;  assess;  draw more to cover any which fail to meet fundability (only) criteria;  fund all which meet this criteria in order they were drawn until half the allocated budget is used.

Outcome measures:  I need to do a power calculation and think about the most appropriate measure, but this could be either a blinded assessment of final reports or a metric like difference in numbers of publications.

Let’s hope that lessons are learnt when it comes to the processes used to allocate National Science Challenges funds.

Tagged: Explorer Grants, funding, grants, Health research council, HRC, Lottery, National Science Challenges, Project grants, Random, Randomised controlled trial

Should scientists respond to pseudo-science? John Pickering Sep 11

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.

Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4, 5 NIV)

The editors of this particular list of proverbs were not fools – they knew they appeared contradictory.  Their purpose is to get us chewing over how we decide when we should speak up and when we shouldn’t.  When I heard these proverbs on Sunday my mind wandered (sorry Rev) immediately to my fellow science bloggers and the choices we make to respond or not respond to pseudo-science.  When we respond we do so wth hope.  Hope that the second proverb applies and the fool will recognise their own folly rather than keep on believing in their own wisdom.  A question I have for my fellow bloggers, how often does this actually take place?  I suspect, rarely.  At what point are we casting “pearls before swine”?  How do we know?

Perhaps more importantly, other than wasting our own time, could we be doing more harm than good (the first proverb)? By putting our scientific standing behind our reponses could we be enhancing the reputation of the pseudo-scientist in their own eyes or, worse, the eyes of readers? I think scientists are still paying the price for the over-confidence in science as solution to the world’s problems.  This has lead to some skepticism and a willingness to look at solutions that are not “main-stream” (especially if government funded or big-pharma).  By responding to the obvious nonesense, do we merely spread it further?

Some pseudo-science is addressing issues which also have non-scientific ethical issues that need to be respected.  Furthermore, the pseudo-science proponent may hold similar hopes to their scientist critic – eg hope for improved health.  I’m thinking particularly of issues such as vaccination or additives to food or water in which we need to weigh up the rights individuals with our responsibilites to others. Here, a scientist may express their opinion and their methodology of arriving at that opinion, but they need to tread very carefully not to appeal to Science with a capital “S” as if that is the ultimate standard against which all ethical decisions should be measured.

Here endeth the sermon.  Let us chew.

Tagged: proverb, pseudoscience, Science

Don’t call this scientist soft! John Pickering Sep 04

I’m a soft money scientist, not because I’m cuddly (I am), or because I’m an easy mark for a fiver (I’m not), but because my job and my scientific output depend on my ability/luck at raising money.  As my 100th blog post I thought it time to describe this precarious state of affairs, especially as your taxes may be contributing to it.  Also, when the penny dropped with some friends of mine, so did their jaws.

Before I get into the description, let me say this: It is the best of jobs, it is the worst of jobs.  It is a privilege to spend most of my time solving the puzzle that are the diseases I study with the hope of making a difference to patients in the future.  It is appallingly frustrating that I cannot conduct long-term research or even rely on having an income next year because of the continued axe floating a few feet above my cranium.

In New Zealand, at least, scientists come in many flavours.  There is the industrial scientist earning a salary in a company somewhere who will sink or swim along with the fortunes of the company, there are the scientists in Callaghan Innovation, Ag Research, and other government entities that interface between academia, the commercial world, and the provision of scientific services.  I understand they have a variety of funding sources – in recent years the government side of it has moved from project grant based towards more bulk funding.  Given what is happening with Ag Research, I don’t know if that means more secured tenure for these scientists or not … I’ll let them describe their predicament.  Then, in academic institutions, there are the lecturer scientists who both teach and research.  Traditionally the spend their time 40% teaching, 40% researching, 20% in administration, but there are many variations on the theme. Normally, these people have a more-or-less permanent position (at least as long as students keep coming to do the courses they teach).  To get funding for their research (though not their salary unless they want to “buy out” some teaching time) they need to apply for grants.  In my institution, University of Otago Christchurch, most of the teachers are also active senior medical staff with joint appointments with the CDHB.

Then there are the soft-money scientists.  Most PhD students go on to do a 1 or 2 year post-doc (or two) which is funded by a grant that has been obtained by a senior researcher somewhere.  This is “soft-money” – meaning of limited duration and usually directed at a particularly project.  Most post-docs move into lecturing or leave academia.  A few may pick up additional fellowships or join a group which has the funds to employ them.  To continue in their chosen career they must contribute to the gathering of resources (money money money).  They have no training in this, but after the first few grant rejections begin to learn.  They realise they are competing against scientists who are lecturers or in other entities who already have their salaries covered.  However, the first thing they must put on their grant is their own salary + overheads (113% in my institution).  This, of course, limits what they may be able to say they will do in a grant application as they are not able to write into the grant all the expenses they’d like.  This puts them at a competitive disadvantage.  Another source of income for some groups may be commercial.  This may be the testing in their labs of some equipment  or a new product, or some forensic work etc. Not everyone has that option.

My own sojourn has been a little off the beaten path as six years ago at the age of 40 mumble I returned to the scientific fold after 15 years out of it.  My return was funded for two years initially by a Health Research Council Grant (HRC; your tax dollars) and by a private company who had obtained some government funding for development (Syft).  Since then I’ve had grants from the Australia New Zealand Society of Nephrologists (twice :)  ), Lottery Health, University of Otago Research Grant, and the Marsden Foundation.  My current funding till the end of the year is 41% from a Marsden Foundation grant and 59% from the profits of the last project (a commercial one) our lab-based group ran (alas … another long story, there is now no lab-based group).  Having multiple sources of income is not at all unusual for the more senior research scientists.  Indeed, the current funding levels of even the largest of the grants (HRC and Marsden) are not sufficient to fund a full time senior scientist along with all the associated costs of running a larger project (which these are intended for). The application success rates (7%) make it unlikely that anyone, other than in large established groups with broad funding basis whose success breeds grant success (rightly so!), will be able to sustain a long-term career based on grant funding alone.

One source of funding that I’ve not talked about is philanthropy.  This plays a vital, though small, role in New Zealand science.  Most are familiar with the likes of the Heart Foundation or the Cancer Society which take donations and use some of them for research projects.  An intriguing, though seldom visited, new source of funding is so called “crowd sourcing” where someone pitches a project online to raise money – Dr Siouxsie Wiles successfully raised US$4,480 last year doing just that. This, of course, will not sustain a scientist like myself.  What will?  What do you think is reasonable to spend on science and scientists?  How about the same as we spend per classroom?  According to a Principal acquaintance it costs about $17K per pupil p.a. to run a school.  The average class size is about 23 pupils making it a tad under $400K p.a per classroom.  I think what I do has similar value to educating a class full of kids, but right now I’d settle for half the amount.  Governments, of course, must make choices and impose certain limits on spending.  The current NZ government’s moves to increase spend in research are welcome, but this will at best make a small dent in the grant funding success rate.  Individuals with discretionary disposable income, though, may have other priorities.  I believe that for New Zealand to do more than tread water in the scientific world that it will require those individuals who recognise the value of science to be willing to donate substantial amounts towards science, particularly towards supporting scientists (scientists first, projects second). Indeed, for my own growth and survival as a scientist – for me to be able to put the vision I articulated last week into practice, I see that it will only be possible through the generosity of others.

Tagged: grants, Research, Science, soft money

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