Saturday, March 28, 2015

Is the Internet Hurting More than Helping?

from NPR's Here and Now
March 16, 2015
Participants at the tech conference TechCrunch Disrupt 2014 in San Francisco, California. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Keen is critical of how the Internet has created a Silicon Valley elite. (Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Participants at the tech conference TechCrunch Disrupt 2014 in San Francisco, California. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Keen is critical of how the Internet has created a Silicon Valley elite. (Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)
Andrew Keen works in Silicon Valley and founded a couple of start-ups, but he’s not sold on the Internet.
In his latest book “The Internet Is Not The Answer,” Keen makes the case that the Internet as it exists now hurts the middle class.
“The economics of the Internet lend themselves of a winner-take all economy,” Keen tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson, “The hollowing out of the middle class, the emergence of a tiny plutocratic elite of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and technologists.”

Interview Highlights: Andrew Keen On why the Internet isn’t the answer

“The Internet isn’t the answer because it compounds three of the fundamental problems of early 21st century life: inequality, unemployment, and the emergence of a surveillance culture, a surveillance economy.”
“I don’t buy this leveling of the playing field argument. You could go out and buy a lottery ticket and everyone has that opportunity. In that sense, there’s a level playing field, but the reality [is that] out of every million people who buy a lottery ticket, only one will be the winner, and that’s the same with a digital economy.
"It’s a winner take all economy in which a tiny group of companies are dominant. It’s doing away with much of the competition of the industrial age, hollowing out the middle. So, I don’t buy this idea that it’s flattening things out. If anything, this world is much rockier, much more mountainous that the old 20th century industrial world.”

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Paleogenomes – are they influencing us a bit too much?

Tom Gilbert writing for OpenQuaternary
October 6th, 2014

This post of Tom Gilbert's, writing for the blog OpenQuaternary, was written back in October.  I have to say that Tom's post concisely summarizes my growing ambivalence about the recent continuous stream of ancient DNA media articles, especially in the New York Times.  Here are two key paragraphs from his post:

"The first problem is cost. At the core of most leading ancient DNA studies these days is palaeogenomics – that is the recovery of not just snapshots of DNA, but the majority of the genome within any specimen. Genomes, from modern specimens, are not cheap, falling in the range of thousands of dollars. Genomes from ancient specimens are even more expensive since the DNA is highly degraded, mixed with microbial DNA, and so on. Study costs can easily get into the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars per genome."

"Secondly, there is simply a lack of material to work on. Either samples simply don’t exist (the Denisovan fingerbone was the only bone at that time discovered), or if they do, they don’t contain DNA due to age or poor preservation (e.g. the Flores hominids). Those samples that do exist are often (rightly or wrongly) buried under too much red tape to enable the destructive sampling required to exploit them. And thus, we come to my central point. Small sample sizes, when covered with wide press coverage looking for a sensationalist angle are dangerous. Yes, single samples can provide incredible, news-worthy insights. But a key question is, how much can we actually extrapolate from these findings? This is not just a problem in palaeogenomics – many other disciplines face the challenge of reconstructing scenarios based on limited data. But not all disciplines routinely get quite as much press, and as thus find their implications spreading rapidly into secondary educational resources such as blogs, text books and popular science articles, without the primary literature being consulted."

I would add that some of the recent ancient DNA findings are overstated and premature. "Conclusions" are based on data sets with very poor sampling coverage.  Furthermore, the medical relevance of these ancient genome studies is often exaggerated. Given that these studies are frequently financed in part with medical research dollars, I especially have to wonder about the process of this prematurely published, overstated and oversold research.  Shouldn't research financed with medical researth dollars be held to a high standard?  Shouldn't we try to do our best to provide information to the public that does not make predictions beyond the sampling coverage of limited ancient DNA datasets?   It seems to me to be obvious that this is not too much to ask of researchers.

So . . ."Paleogenomes – are they influencing us a bit too much?"

In my opinion, based on some of the ancient DNA publications of the last few months, yes, paleogenomic publications and media coverage are currently influencing us too much, and more than a bit.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Immigration Reforms Needed to Protect Skilled American Workers

Hal Salzman, Ph.D.
E.J. Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy
J.J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development
Rutgers University

Hearing on:  "Immigration Reforms Needed to Protect Skilled American Workers"

Submitted to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate
March 17, 2015
(Link (pdf))

Summary and Concluding Remarks

Our analysis of the data finds that high-skill guest worker programs supply the preponderance of all new hires for the IT industry. The inflow of guest workers is equal to half of all IT hires each year and fully two-thirds of annual hires of workers younger than 30.

As the wage analyses show, wages in IT jobs have been stagnant for over a decade while guestworkers have steadily increased, now comprising 40 percent or more of some computer occupations. The evidence strongly indicates that the current levels of guestworker supply are a key factor in the depressed wages of U.S. IT workers, by both providing a large supply of entry-level workers that can substitute for U.S. workers, and particularly older workers. Important to note is that the large supply of guestworkers is required by IT services firms for offshore development. That is, as stated in these companies’ SEC filings, without a large supply of guestworkers, they would be unable to move IT work offshore at competitive rates. At the very least, they would have to hire U.S. workers for the portion of their workforce on assignment in the U.S.

As increases in the supply of guestworkers are being debated and proposals developed to speed the path to green cards, U.S. colleges are already graduating more than twice as many science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates than the number of STEM openings generated by our economy each year. In short, the overwhelming evidence does not support a need for the escalating numbers of new guestworkers called for in the Senate’s S744 legislation or the I-Squared legislation. As Figure 15 shows, increases of the magnitude proposed would supply guestworkers for more than 100 percent of the industry’s hiring needs. Such increases can only exacerbate current trends of stagnant wages and poor career opportunities in IT and STEM fields. In particular, the likely impact of large-scale guest worker programs, which stand to hurt all STEM graduates, will have especially negative impacts on minorities who are underrepresented in high-tech, as well as other, recently arrived foreign-born workers who compete most with newcomers.

Labor Markets and the Economy

Markets are supposed to reflect demand through the price mechanism of markets. In the case of labor, the "price" is wages. How can it be, then, that if the IT industry is experiencing labor shortages, wage levels in this highly profitable industry are no higher than they were in the last millennium? How can an industry expect to attract the best workers without raising wages? Is there what economists call a "market failure" here? As the evidence presented suggests, STEM labor markets do work as expected. In the case of petroleum engineers, shortages led to wage increases which, in turn, led to near tripling of graduates. There is no plausible explanation for the observed IT labor market trends and outcomes other than, quite simply, large supplies of guestworkers that allow many firms to swap out higher-paid, high-skill domestic workers for lower-paid guestworkers, as found by many researcher including a Brookings Institution study that concluded "it is likely that the extra supply of foreign-born workers does bring downward pressure on the wages of incumbent workers, as research suggests" (Rothwell and Ruiz, 2013) .

All the evidence suggests the IT labor market is still bound by the usual dynamics of supply and demand. When we look at the trends of the past 20 years, we see that when wages increase, the number of computer science graduates increases. When wages fall, the number of graduates falls. When the supply of guestworkers increases, wages stay flat, and too many domestic students must find employment in other fields.

Some commentators argue that this last result is good for the economy: science and engineering skills are now being used in millions of non-STEM jobs. But an alternative view is that far too many domestic STEM graduates are in jobs that do not fully use their education, which represents a loss of our greatest source of innovators. Moreover, students observing these trends pursue careers outside of STEM fields, putting their talents to work in industries such as finance and law but not contributing to the innovation that drives the long-term and sustainable strength of the nation.

Yes, employers claim they have thousands of unfilled job openings, but the evidence is hardly compelling. Only about half to two-thirds of engineering graduates find engineering jobs and fewer than half of graduating Ph.D. scientists find career jobs. At the largest IT jobs website, over half of the advertisements are for contract, short-term and part-time jobs — assuming these jobs exist at all. But even if they are available, these are not the types of jobs that U.S. graduates will find attractive, nor are they the types of jobs that will allow these graduates to pay off student loans, much less enter the middle class. Those on the front lines of IT now tell students that given the industry’s stagnant wages and unstable career tracks, better students should seek jobs elsewhere. An extensive survey of a recent college cohort by the National Center for Educational Statistics corroborates their advice. Only two-thirds of computer science graduates went into IT jobs in 2009. Of those not landing an IT job, half said they found a better job elsewhere. Fully one third reported there were no IT jobs available.

This was also the finding in our analysis of changes in the composition of STEM graduates going into STEM jobs over the past three decades (Lowell, et al., 2009). We found that although the overall supply remained strong, fewer of the highest performing students were going into STEM jobs. Meanwhile studies by Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School and by Burt Barnow of George Washington University find a decrease in the intensity of firms’ recruitment efforts since the recession and an increase in pickiness about whom they are willing to hire. Again, the inference seems obvious: the supply of potential workers is already plentiful relative to employer demand. This should be the evidence that guides current legislation rather than anecdotal accounts and thin claims about the need for guestworkers and the U.S. falling behind in the global high-tech talent search.

H-1B guestworkers are concentrated in computer programmer and system analyst jobs; in fact, they fill 85 percent of them. But most of these are commodity-like production jobs in IT services, doing back office programming for companies. A disproportionate number of H-1Bs provide onshore customer management for offshore programming teams. Ironically, without the visas, much of the programming work couldn’t have been offshored in the first place.

There may be highly innovative guestworkers, but most are in jobs far away from the innovation frontier. The Economic Policy Institute’s Ron Hira found that few of the largest H-1B employers could be considered technology innovators, with most generating very low levels of patents. So an often-heard argument for a massive increase in guestworkers — that we’ll gain a few key innovators for America — is in reality a high stakes lottery with few winners but, like most lotteries, many losers. Large increases in the number of guestworkers will not ensure that we admit, among the tens of thousands of guestworkers, the few geniuses who could make a decisive contribution relative to American workers. If the intent of guestworker and immigration policy is to attract the high performing students and workers with potential to innovate and make substantial contributions to the economy, a much different set of polices is needed than those currently proposed.

In Summary

Currently, U.S. colleges graduate far more scientists and engineers than find employment in those fields every year — about 200,000 more — while the IT industry fills about two-thirds of its entry-level positions with guest workers. At the same time, IT wages have stagnated for over a decade. We cannot expect to build a strong STEM workforce and encourage domestic innovation by developing policies that undermine the quality of STEM jobs. Before asking government to intervene in labor markets by handing out more guestworker visas and green cards to STEM graduates, we should ask for audits of shortage claims and workforce impacts as a first step toward developing evidence-based policy on this issue, an issue critical to the nation’s future. Asking domestic graduates, both native-born and immigrant, to compete with guest workers on wages is not a winning strategy for strengthening U.S. science, technology and innovation.

Gen X will never live up to its scientific potential


I'm reposting this article from the DrugMonkey blog as it does appear to describe the funding and career situation of many mid-career scientists who graduated after the early 1990s.

Quoting from the DrugMonkey blog post:

Do you wonder why the current greybearded and silver haired people who remain powerful in science are so keen to cry over the poor, poor Millennial generation of scientists and wring their hands over the future of science, all the while doing nothing about the present of science?

Because the Boomers (and a few years' worth of pre-War folks) cannot acknowledge what they have done to the Gen X scientists. Some of the charges are as follows.

1) Extended graduate school training from 4 years to 6+. Sure they used all sorts of very truthy sounding excuses about mastering different domains, getting those three publications in CNS journals, the collaborative nature of vertically ascending science, etc. But they accomplished it...and their own successes prove it unneeded.

2) Extended postdoctoral "training". The moved us from where even two years as a postdoc prior to professorial appointment was slightly suspicious (in the early to mid 1970s) to a situation in which two sequential 3-5 year postdocs are viewed as the necessary minimum (just a few years ago, prior to the ESI foofraw). The oldest generation oversaw this.

3) Even during the NIH doubling, they grabbed all the grants and kept beating up the newly appointed GenX scientists with Stock Critiques, sent them around the airport traffic pattern in endless revisions and with "good scores" that were clearly unfundable. Anything to delay entry and preserve their expanding empires.

3) The R29 FIRST was dismantled** but was replaced by a NI check box. It supposedly took the oldster power brokers 10 years to realize was to the benefit of, you guessed it, themselves. I.e. those highly established scientists that simply didn't have NIH funding yet. It took me about 3 hours of my first study section meeting to see this.

4) ...aaaand what do you know? By the time the old guard power brokers "realized" this NI problem, they were able to fix it with a time-limited ESI designation tagged to the time of PhD award, instead of the time of Asst Prof appointment. This conveniently skipped right over the Gen X scientists.
So what did this accomplish? Well, on the trainee end of the screw-job this just meant more time in which a venerated or even hard charging mid career lab head could benefit from the intellectual contributions of the Gen X scientists. Pretty much like intellectual vampires. The crediting system whereby author lines expanded and the senior author got all the glory was refined and elaborated from the 1990s through the Naughties as the NIH budget doubled. The number of "postdocs" supported on research grants soared through the roof. And the new models, conceptual breakthroughs and new theoretical approaches continued to give subsequent grant largesse and subsequent paper / finding laurels to the lab head. While the Gen X scientists continued as postdocs, or were shelled out of the system or manged to get a job but couldn't get funded very easily.

I was there. I know who did the actual work in the labs in my fields of interest. I know the way a finding or paper or model resulted in the lab head having copious funding for a decade and a half, verging on two decades now. I know which of those scientists of my generation failed to make it big. There are a lot of them that will never achieve their promise. A lot who had to bail entirely on the career after what would have been a career-making paper as a trainee, if they were just a generation older. I can point to very few of the Gen X people in my fields of closest interest who have hit mid career with anything like the funding, verve and accomplishment of even some of the more, shall we say, pedestrian*** members of the generation just prior to mine****. Actually, come to think of it, I am hard pressed to point to a single one.

I am not suggesting the older folks who benefited had no right to do so. I am not saying they didn't deserve any credit, nor am I claiming they didn't contribute intellectually.

At all.

I am saying that they (as a generation) arranged things so that they got ALL OF the credit and benefit of the collaborative breakthroughs. And this is not right. They did not suffer a similar fate at the hands of their more-senior colleagues because times were very different. Expansive. Lab sizes were smaller and the trainees were more consistently encouraged to fly away and shine on their own. This is what happened through the 70s and 80s when they were transitioning. And yet they have the nerve to call us riff raff. To question our commitment to science in oh so many ways. To continue to credit themselves for breakthroughs and advances that rested on the intellectual labors of a younger generation that they now disparage.

Some of us are surviving. Yes. This is obvious. Some of us are thriving. Some of us squeaking by on fumes and prayers.

Some Most of us yo-yo between these extremes.

As the comment said, however, we will never reach our potential as scientists. Not in the way we witnessed the generation or two before us reach theirs. Not as a generation and not as the vast majority of individuals. Ever. It cannot be recovered.

Do you wonder why we are angry at each and every NIH initiative that comes down the pike that is explicitly designed to skip over our generation of scientists, yet again?

This is why.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Dear Trying To Get Paid . . .

Dear Trying To Get Paid:

Thank you for your communication.

From your description, your boss Odin sounds like he has narcissistic tendencies, and may have received his education in a milieu that tolerates cheating.

Given his narcissism, it will probably not be possible to keep Odin happy without placating his every grandiose desire.  I would suggest you seek alternative sources of funding as soon as possible.

You surely are right that should you continue to work for Odin, doing his bidding, your reputation will likely suffer over the long term.

Miss Marnie

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dear Miss Marnie . . .

Dear Miss Marnie:

I'm a research scientist working for a privately funded consortium focused on genetic ancestry testing and modeling.  I thought you might be able to offer some advice on how to deal with my boss, who is the director of this consortium.

The truth is that I suspect that my boss has been not so secretly trying to find his Lost Viking.  Lately, he's had me running many Admixture runs in order to show that the Vikings, and related Steppe people, rode (and rowed, I guess) into Europe in one massive sweeping orgy, over-running the existing population. I have to admit that I've been more than tempted by the idea myself. 

The problem is that after several months of running Admixture, the results are not quite cooperating with the Lost Viking mass invasion thing.  There are those annoying Beaker People, who increasingly don't look all that overrun by Vikings.

My boss, call him Odin, has been insisting that I ignore various populations in order to uphold the Viking thing.  So far, he's got me completely ignoring the Balkans and the entire Western Seaboard.  Sooner or later, our reviewers are going to catch on.  I'm beginning to be worried about my future credibility as a researcher.

It's getting more and more difficult to keep Odin happy.

I've been contemplating various exit strategies.  I thought maybe you could pass along a few ideas on how to deal with Odin while keeping my job.

Trying To Get Paid

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Dear Miss Marnie . . .

Dear Miss Marnie:

I'm an untenured professor at a large and prominent technical university in the United States.  I'm writing to you because I have become addicted to researching my Y-chromosome signature and blogging about it.  Some of my obsession about my Y-chromosome has spilled over into flagrant, anonymous, subliminal online sell jobs of my own work on ancient DNA.  I even started my own online genomics forum, and just can't resist the urge to shamelessly self promote both my publications and my Y-chromosome . . .  They're one and the same, in fact.  Please advise.

Anonymous Untenured Academic

Dear Anonymous Untenured Academic:

I do agree that perhaps you need some help.  Most people go through life never knowing, or needing to know, anything about their Y-chromosome signature. (I know it is hard to believe.)  Even if you knew every thing about your Y-chromosome and were, in fact directly descended from Genghis Khan, the fact is that life is short.  You don't want to waste it away, sitting in front of your computer getting fat, instead of, for instance, going out for a walk once in a while.  In the meantime, better to lay off the blogs, at least until you get tenure.

Miss Marnie

Friday, March 6, 2015

Comments tolerated on the Eurogenes blog: "get your country straight before you talk to the master race"

I know there are some people in population genetics that are soldiering on, trying to do an objective and thorough job.

That being said, I've noticed over a long time span, and especially in the last few months, that many people publishing in the area of population genetics are not doing an objective and thorough job.  Moreover, they are colluding under pseudonyms, pretending to be amateurs, to promote their work on blogs such as the Eurogenes blog and the Anthrogenica Forum.

Not all the professors who blog on the Eurogenes blog use pseudonyms, so it is more than evident that professors from Stanford Medical School, Harvard Medical School, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard know about the Eurogenes blog and the widespread use of anonymous blogging by their colleagues.

One of the reasons, among many, that this anonymous blogging is a problem is that if you disagree with the work of these highly unethical professors, they will attack your person. Recently, on the Eurogenes blog, when I disagreed with one of these professors, they called me a "bitch", a "Greek whore", told me to "go and make the dishes" and told me to "get your country straight before you talk to the master race."

I'm not Greek, by the way, but I am married to a Greek American Silicon Valley executive who happens to be an MIT PhD alum.

I have the full time stamped transcript of this tirade.  The comments were deleted, but the perpetrator of this comment is still blogging away with complete liberty on the Eurogenes blog, uncensored.

This kind of behavior is clearly part of a much larger pattern that is tolerated by this group of professors working in the area of population genetics. I'd like to say that they are part of a small group, but unfortunately, masquerading as an amateur to promote ones work on the Internet seems to be quite common in this field. There is considerable public interest in population genetics because people are curious about their origin. Taking advantage of this, some professors are clearly willing to stop at nothing to advance themselves.

Some of the professors participating in or tolerating this kind of behavior accept funds from the National Academy of Sciences.

As I am currently busy writing letters to the appropriate organizations about this highly unethical anonymous blogging,  I will not be blogging again for several months.