Monthly Archives: May 2006

The H-Prize: The ultimate in competitive science

The H-Prize takes its shape and name from the privately funded $10 million Ansari X Prize, which led, in 2004, to the first privately developed manned rocket to reach outer space twice.

Members of the House Science Committee said that their bill would draw on American’s competitive spirit. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican who leads the panel, said that “the potential payoff [of a hydrogen technology breakthrough] will be huge: cleaner air, less global warming, and most importantly, an economy that is not held hostage by foreign regimes or volatile oil markets.”

Both NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, have offered prizes for technology. Last year, a team from Stanford University won $2 million from DARPA for designing a robot that won a race across the Mojave Desert.

That competition saw some universities partnering with private companies, and researchers said that the H-Prize could prompt more of the same. […]

From this interesting article in Inside HigherEd.

Academic papers in Open Access journals receive better recognition

Here’s the abstract of the paper by Gunther Eysenbach.

Open access (OA) to the research literature has the potential to accelerate recognition and dissemination of research findings, but its actual effects are controversial. This was a longitudinal bibliometric analysis of a cohort of OA and non-OA articles published between June 8, 2004, and December 20, 2004, in the same journal (PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). Article characteristics were extracted, and citation data were compared between the two groups at three different points in time: at “quasi-baseline” (December 2004, 0–6 mo after publication), in April 2005 (4–10 mo after publication), and in October 2005 (10–16 mo after publication). Potentially confounding variables, including number of authors, authors’ lifetime publication count and impact, submission track, country of corresponding author, funding organization, and discipline, were adjusted for in logistic and linear multiple regression models. A total of 1,492 original research articles were analyzed: 212 (14.2% of all articles) were OA articles paid by the author, and 1,280 (85.8%) were non-OA articles. In April 2005 (mean 206 d after publication), 627 (49.0%) of the non-OA articles versus 78 (36.8%) of the OA articles were not cited (relative risk = 1.3 [95% Confidence Interval: 1.1–1.6]; p = 0.001). 6 mo later (mean 288 d after publication), non-OA articles were still more likely to be uncited (non-OA: 172 [13.6%], OA: 11 [5.2%]; relative risk = 2.6 [1.4–4.7]; p

On Roman myths and barbarians

It has been easy to underestimate Celtic technological achievements because so much has vanished or been misunderstood. Of course, it was thoughtless of the Celts not to leave us anything much in the way of written records — they should have known that the lack of books putting forward their own propaganda would weight the evidence firmly in favour of the Romans.

Western society’s enthusiasm since the renaissance for all things Roman has persuaded us to see much of the past through Roman eyes, even when contrary evidence stares us in the face. Once we turn the picture upside-down and look at history from a non-Roman point of view, things start to look very, very different.

From this vigorous debunking by Terry Jones (an ex-Python) of the Roman myth about the ‘barbarians’:

The Romans kept the Barbarians at bay for as long as they could, but finally they were engulfed and the savage hordes overran the empire, destroying the cultural achievements of centuries. The light of reason and civilisation was almost snuffed out by the Barbarians, who annihilated everything that the Romans had put in place, sacking Rome itself and consigning Europe to the Dark Ages. The Barbarians brought only chaos and ignorance, until the renaissance rekindled the fires of Roman learning and art.

It is a familiar story, and it’s codswallop.

Interestingly, there is quite a bit of stuff in the article about the ‘metal technology’ of the Celts and other northern European people. The article itself is an off-shoot of (and an advertisement for) Terry Jones book and BBC show titled “Barbarians”.

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Thanks to Kerim Friedman over at Savage Minds for the pointer.

Fryer and Levitt on “Racial differences in the mental ability of young children”

Roland G. Fryer and Steven D. Levitt (2006): Testing for racial differences in the mental ability of young children. Here is the abstract:

On tests of intelligence, Blacks systematically score worse than Whites, whereas Asians frequently outperform Whites. Some have argued that genetic differences across races account for the gap. Using a newly available nationally representative data set that includes a test of mental function for children aged eight to twelve months, we find only minor racial differences in test outcomes (0.06 standard deviation units in the raw data) between Blacks and Whites that disappear with the inclusion of a limited set of controls. The only statistically significant racial difference is that Asian children score slightly worse than those of other races. To the extent that there are any genetically-driven racial differences in intelligence, these gaps must either emerge after the age of one, or operate along dimensions not captured by this early test of mental cognition.

And, here are two interesting paragraphs from the discussion section:

The debate over racial differences in intelligence is among the most divisive in the social sciences. Utilizing a newly available, nationally representative data set with measures of mental function among children before their first birthday, we find little evidence of systematic racial differences. Some substantively small, but statistically significant differences are present in the raw data. Including controls for age, socio-economic status, home environment and prenatal environment largely erase these small differences. A simple calibration exercise suggests that many of the basic facts in the data can be generated from a model in which there are small mean differences in intelligence across races, but large environmental differences across races that become increasingly important as children age. […]

Although damaging to the hypothesis that genetic differences are at the root of racial gaps in intelligence, the results of our analysis do not preclude a possible role for a genetic contribution to racial differences in intelligence for a number of reasons. First, one could reasonably argue that the control variables we include in the regression analysis are themselves partly genetically determined. By controlling for factors such as socio-economic status and birth weight (which systematically differ across races), we may indirectly be parsing out important channels through which genetics are operating. The fact that the raw differences in test performance across races are so small, however, makes this argument largely moot.

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Hat tip: Brad DeLong.

Faked research on computer chip design

Here is the NYTimes story that broke the news. The quote below is from the follow-up story:

[A] top computer scientist, Chen Jin, … became a national hero in 2003 when he said he had created one of China’s first digital signal processing computer chips, sophisticated microchips that can process digitized data for mobile phones, cameras and other electronic devices. His milestone seemed to hold the promise of helping close the enormous gaps with the West in science and technology.

On Friday, however, the government said it was all a fraud.

The distinguished scientist, the government said, had faked research conducted at Jiaotong University and simply stolen his chip designs from a foreign company, then passed them off as his own.

Can economic models ‘prove’ anything?

This has something to do with the little ‘just-so’ theory I indulged myself in yesterday. Though my intention was totally non-serious (but not frivolous!), one still has to wonder if serious economic models can ever be said to ‘prove’ something — in fact, anything. This question was triggered recently by the NYTimes obiturary ofJohn Kenneth Galbraith. The key paragraph is the following:

Mr. Galbraith argued that technology mandated long-term contracts to diminish high-stakes uncertainty. He said companies used advertising to induce consumers to buy things they had never dreamed they needed. Other economists, like Gary S. Becker and George J. Stigler, both Nobel Prize winners, countered with proofs showing that advertising is essentially informative rather than manipulative.

Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber was the first one to raise this issue. Tyler Cowen also feels that what Becker and Stigler did “is not a proof”.

It’s financial impropriety now

The aftermath of Hwang Woo Suk scandal has taken yet another bizarre turn. He has now been accused of financial impropriety too!

Prosecutors on Friday indicted a disgraced cloning scientist on embezzlement and bioethics law violations linked to faked stem cell research, officials said.

Government auditors said in February that it was unclear how he had spent $2.6 million of the $33 million in government funds and $6.4 million in private donations he received.

Nature has also covered this story.

The Seoul Central District prosecutor’s office in South Korea charged him with embezzling KRW2.8 billion (US$3 million) and using the funds to purchase a car for himself and gifts for politicians. He is said to have committed fraud by knowingly using fabricated data to apply for research funds. […]

Five other researchers on Hwang’s team were also charged with various offences, including one who, the indictment said, had deceived Hwang by claiming cells he gave Hwang were clones.

Finally, this last paragraph in the Nature story is intriguing.

Meanwhile a Buddhist organization claimed this week to have raised KRW60 billion (US$64 million) to support Hwang’s research efforts.

Quotas are economically efficient!

Alternate title: “Fun and Frolic on the Beaches of the Just-So Land”

(from the Annals of Just-So Theories, May 2006)

Introduction: In this paper, we propose a simple (heck, it’s even simplistic!) model to show that quotas are economically efficient.

Model: Consider two students A-1 and A-20 who are about to enter college. Let their intellectual abilities be similar (that’s why we use the symbol A to designate them!). However, assume that A-1 comes from a disadvantaged group (compared to A-20), and possesses a smaller amout of ‘social capital’ (networks, support system, contacts, what have you) than A-20.

Consider now two colleges Q and Z. Let’s assume that Q has global brand equity, and Z is another one of those run-of-the-mill colleges. Let the cost per student borne by the society be $50,000 for College Q, and $10,000 for College Z.

Now, assume that education in College Q — somehow! — compensates students such as A-1 for any lack of social capital they start out with, while education in College Z does not possess this wonderful property.

Thus, both A-1 and A-20 will get the same benefit from College Q; let’s say it’s $70,000. On the other hand, A-1 (with lower social capital) benefits from College Z to the tune of $20,000, while A-20 gets $50,000 from his education in College Q the same college (Z).

Results: It’s easy now to prove that the combination of A-1 studying at College Q and A-20 studying at College Z produces a higher net benefit to the society (for the same cost: after all, the society spends the same amount of $60,000). This combination produces a net gain to society of $60,000, while the reverse combination (of A-1 at Z and A-20 at Q) produces only $30,000. QED!

Discussion: I am sure some readers are wondering why we have made these specific assumptions. Why, they are ‘just so’! For one thing, they are not unreasonable, and are certainly plausible; more importantly, their virtue lies in the fact that they are less implausible than some of the other models (one of them can be found right at the end of this post by Atanu Dey) in the intellectual market for ‘just-so’ ideas.

Conclusion: Quotas are economically efficient!

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Update: Added the link to Atanu Dey’s post, following this post over at my main blog.

Death of the industrial research lab

Basic research performed in industrial laboratories is declining — is the focus on profitability to the detriment of furthering scientific knowledge?

Do read this interesting article by A. Michael Noll (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California) in Nature Materials.

In metallurgy and materials science, many great researchers started their career at industrial labs. John W. Cahn (at General Electric) and Hubert Aaronson (at Ford) come to mind immediately. Of course, they both left for academia eventually.

Is the peer review system broken?

The New York Times ran an article yesterday with the following opening:

Recent disclosures of fraudulent or flawed studies in medical and scientific journals have called into question as never before the merits of their peer-review system.

The system is based on journals inviting independent experts to critique submitted manuscripts. The stated aim is to weed out sloppy and bad research, ensuring the integrity of what it has published.

Now, I can’t figure out how peer review can ever achieve the lofty goal of “ensuring the integrity of what [is] published.” I mean, as a reviewer, one can raise questions about research methodology, connections between the research results and conclusions, lack of attention paid to alternate hypotheses, etc. How can one catch someone who willfully fabricates research (a la Hwang Woo Suk)? The entire article seems to be barking up the wrong tree.

The article does contain some interesting stuff, particularly about some frauds that I didn’t know about. Here’s an example:

None of the recent flawed studies have been as humiliating as an article in 1972 in the journal Pediatrics that labeled sudden infant death syndrome a hereditary disorder, when, in the case examined, the real cause was murder.

Twenty-three years later, the mother was convicted of smothering her five children. Scientific naïveté surely contributed to the false conclusion, but a forensic pathologist was not one of the reviewers. The faulty research in part prompted the National Institutes of Health to spend millions of dollars on a wrong line of research.

There are interesting discussion threads over at Adventures in Ethics and Science and Uncertain Principles.

Is the peer review system broken?

The New York Times ran an article yesterday with the following opening:

Recent disclosures of fraudulent or flawed studies in medical and scientific journals have called into question as never before the merits of their peer-review system.

The system is based on journals inviting independent experts to critique submitted manuscripts. The stated aim is to weed out sloppy and bad research, ensuring the integrity of what it has published.

Now, I can’t figure out how peer review can ever achieve the lofty goal of “ensuring the integrity of what [is] published.” I mean, as a reviewer, one can raise questions about research methodology, connections between the research results and conclusions, lack of attention paid to alternate hypotheses, etc. How can one catch someone who willfully fabricates research (a la Hwang Woo Suk)? The entire article seems to be barking up the wrong tree.

The article does contain some interesting stuff, particularly about some frauds that I didn’t know about. Here’s an example:

None of the recent flawed studies have been as humiliating as an article in 1972 in the journal Pediatrics that labeled sudden infant death syndrome a hereditary disorder, when, in the case examined, the real cause was murder.

Twenty-three years later, the mother was convicted of smothering her five children. Scientific naïveté surely contributed to the false conclusion, but a forensic pathologist was not one of the reviewers. The faulty research in part prompted the National Institutes of Health to spend millions of dollars on a wrong line of research.

There are interesting discussion threads over at Adventures in Ethics and Science and Uncertain Principles.