the postdoc problem: oversupply

The NeuroSkeptic links to a legislative proposal to require overtime for postdocs:

A change in US labour regulations will render many postdocs eligible for overtime pay — and create an incentive to raise their wages. The law may ultimately mean fewer postdocs. But some say that the policy could spark much-needed changes to a research system that relies heavily on postdocs yet offers them few opportunities for career advancement.

The new rule, finalized on 18 May by the US Department of Labor, will make overtime pay mandatory for many postdoctoral researchers who make less than US$47,476 per year. Overtime, which is paid at 1.5 times the normal hourly wage, kicks in once workers exceed 40 hours on the job in one week.

The problem, as the article itself points out, is that it’s relatively painless for a PI to raise their postdoc salary just enough to meet the minimum required to avoid triggering the overtime requirement. This would mean a raise, but only a few percent, and does nothing to address the broader structural problem facing lack of advancement opportunities for postdocs within the field.

Even if postdocs salaries were raised to 50k across the board – which would have a wonderful impact on distributing postdocs across the country and strengthening science at research institutions nationwide – it would do nothing to alleviate the oversupply of postdocs that is destroying career advancement. Congress can’t really achieve more than incrementalist change like this overtime proposal, but the NIH has far more leverage.

Let’s focus the discussion on fields of bioscience that primarily derive funding from the NIH. The NIH sets its own scale for postdoc pay (fiscal year 2015), for postdoc positions it funds as part of the NRSA fellowship (inherently limited by federal funding for the NIH). These NRSA payscales are then used as a benchmark for universities across the nation to set salary levels for their own postdocs. That level has risen dramatically in the past 15 years, but still falls well short of the NIH’s own pledge of $45k:

NRSA stipends for Year 0 postdocs over time (compiled by the National Postdoc Association)
NRSA stipends for Year 0 postdocs over time (compiled by the National Postdoc Association)

The NIH imposes salary caps on the amount any given indiovidual may be paid out of an awarded grant. There is no reason the NIH can’t set a minimum level, however – and doing so would not require legislation in Congress and the political process. It would simply be an overnight change.

Imagine for example if the NIH immediately mandated that all postdoc salaries funded by R1 grants had to be funded at 150% of the current NRSA level. Likewise, graduate student support could be immediately mandated as 100% tuition plus stipend. The actual amount of funding however would not change – just the allocation of how that (taxpayer) money is spent. (This would have to apply to all new grants effective the next fiscal year, and not affect currently-funded grants).

The immediate effect would be that fewer graduate students and postdocs could be supported. This would have many downstream ripple effects, but the biggest one would be an exodus of highly trained individuals from academia into other fields and industry, and entrepreneurship. This sounds like a bad thing for science, but the bottom line is that science has progressed on exploited labor for far too long. There are other areas of reform that need to follow, including paying institutional overhead out of grants and the adjunct faculty problem. But those are going to require a. substantial legislative solutions for which there isn’t the political will (because it will cost taxpayer money), and b. self-organization towards unions and collective bargaining, for which there isn’t professional will (because it will require the threat of strikes). Bluntly, science achieves what it does by treating its most valuable assets as commodities. It’s time to revalue, and that will require significant effort. The issue of underpaid postdocs and PhD students is one that is relatively easy to solve, and in doing so will provide much-needed impetus towards those other problems.

I think that solving those issues will in turn lead to solving the other great problem science faces, namely the output problem. But that’s a topic for another day.

(meta: I’ve retired my old science blog, Reference Scan, and have imported the content here. Feel free to browse the Reference Scan category for older posts!)

You are more likely to play in the NFL than become an astronaut

Consider playing in the NFL as the epitome of sports – and being an astronaut as the epitome of a STEM career. In both cases, postulate that college is where you can reasonably draw a line for determining basic qualification for application. In the case of the NFL, to reasonably apply to the NFL you must at minimum play NCAA football. In the case of an astronaut, you must at minimum have a Bachelor’s degree in a STEM-related field. Fair enough?

The NFL statistics are summarized in this graphic (via @GatorsScott) –

nfl-player

The relevant numbers are: 15588 NCAA seniors playing football, of which 256 are drafted to the NFL, or 256/15588 = 1.6%. (note, these numbers are from 2013, via a study commissioned by the NCAA.)

This year’s astronaut corps application had a total of 18,300 applications. The minimum education requirements to apply are “a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics. An advanced degree is desirable” (about a third of astronauts have an MS, and a third have PhDs). There will be 8-14 open slots, so lets assume the maximum for best possible probability: 14/18,300 = 0.07%.

Now, this doesn’t disprove the so-called STEM shortage – the evolution of the modern-day disposable academic suffices to do that on its own. It is however a cautionary tale about the rhetoric we use when we tell children to “reach for the stars”. Thats good for *children*, but as advice to college students, it’s terrible. A child should be encouraged to dream, and dream big. A college student is practically an adult and deserves to hear stark realities about the job market because that is precisely the moment in time where they can have to make decisions about the rest of their life – decisions that should be informed by those dreams, but not dictated by them.

There are a lot of astronauts and NFL players who decided from day one that was what they were going to do, and succeeded. And that is amazing. But there just isnt enough room for everyone who is equally capable and has the same amount of sheer determination and talent to do the same. We don’t need 18,300 astronauts, nor do we need 15,588 NFL players drafted every year.

Tech guide for the mobile notary

I am officially a Notary Public in the state of California – I just earned my commission this month. Like any other profession, being a notary requires having the right gear! Here’s a quick list of the essentials.

samonite brief

Briefcase – Samsonite 10558 Focus III 6-Inch Attache (Black)

I wanted a modern take on the traditional brief, so I went with this Samsonite model. There’s a strange pen-case holder on the inside which is not that useful unless you take out the insert, but other than that I have no complaints. The best feature is the writing surface flap, which seems to be totally unique among all briefcases I researched. The case is deep enough for all my notary gear and stacks of documents, plus extras.

blue pens

Pens – BIC Round Stic Xtra Life Ball Pen, Medium Point (1.0 mm), Blue, 60-Count

Blue ink is the industry standard for loan signings now, and you need to always have a pen ready for your client. You’re going to lose a lot of these. These BIC pens are reliable, blue, and cheap. Buy something more expensive for yourself, but these should be your default for clients. At about $.25 per pen, it doesn’t matter if they don’t give them back.

field notes ruled

Notebooks – Field Notes Kraft Ruled 3-Pack

A small notebook is indispensable when you are out doing mobile notary work – jot down phone numbers, addresses, special notes, or just a to-do memo. Field Notes is a great high quality brand, far more affordable than moleskines and less bulky.

sandisk usb

USB Drive – SanDisk Extreme PRO CZ88 128GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive Speeds Up To 260MB/s- SDCZ88-128G-G46

This is simply the fastest USB 3.0 drive out there. It comes with a lifetime warranty, is built like a tank, and the slide-out mechanism for the plug avoids the hassle of caps. It looks gorgeous, too. I always recommend buying the maximum possible capacity you can afford, for longevity.

brother mfc

Multifunction printer – Brother Printer MFC8710DW Wireless Monochrome Printer with Scanner, Copier and Fax

Brother MFC printers have the edge on HP in terms of price and performance (print speed). The advantage of an MFC is you get a scanner, copier and fax built-in, and the MFC8x series from Brother has a legal-sheet size scanning capacity so you are covered for any legal document you may need to scan or copy. This is the cheapest model that has wireless connection and duplex printing; the next more expensive model has duplex scanning, which in my opinion is not worth the extra $50 in cost. The 8710 is at the sweet spot of price and essential business features, especially for notaries who do loan signings.

brotehr extra tray

Legal paper tray – Brother LT5400 Optional 500-Sheet Paper Tray Printer Accessory

Any notary doing loan signings will be printing a lot of documents in mixed letter and legal size format. A second tray dedicated to legal size paper will save you a fortune in the long run so you arent printing letter-size documents on legal, or wasting time switching trays back and forth. This is a solid investment in efficiency and long-term cost savings.

garmin gps

GPS unit – Garmin Nuvi 2539LMT North America

Indispensable tool to make sure you get to where you are going for notary clients and loan signings. Garmin is the industry leader and has the simplest interface in my opinion, making it easy and intuitive to use. This is the cheapest model that includes lifetime traffic and map updates, no extra subscription fees required.

quickbooks

Accounting software – QuickBooks Pro 2016 Small Business Accounting Software with Free QuickBooks Online Essentials

If you don’t already have it, you need it. Every small business needs to have this. It far cheaper than an accountant, and consolidates every financial aspect of your business, from billing and invoices to expenses and sales.

Los Angeles Rams – logo suggestion

Welcome back to Los Angeles, Rams!

As a new LA resident myself since June, I am looking forward to rooting for you (after the Packers, and the Giants). I also have a suggestion for a new team logo which I think properly honors your LA history and has a very modern look. I’ve created a mockup in Powerpoint accordingly:

rams logo ikea

I also can’t wait to attend a game at the new Inglewood stadium – some assembly required, first, of course.

Who are the Knights of Ren?

(warning – spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

knights ren

A quick thought about Kylo Ren and the Knights of Ren, who we do see during Rey’s sabre-vision.

All we know of why Luke went AWOL was that one of his apprentices (Ren) “destroyed everything” that Luke had tried to build. It’s never stated explicitly that Ren went all Anakin on the younglings. In fact it seems given Ren’s angst about killing Han and the Light, that he’s never crossed the line so dramatically. This is underscored by Snoke who explicitly tells him, “you are the Master of the Knights of Ren, but even you have never faced such a challenge.” (paraphrasing)

What if instead of killing Luke’s jedi in training, Ren corrupted them? Using some of that charisma and leadership skill he inherited from mom and dad, it’s plausible that he took over the Knights of Ren and lured them to the dark side. Such a betrayal of Luke’s goals would be arguably worse than just killing them. In a real sense, that truly is “destroying everything Luke worked for”…

… from a certain point of view.

(Spoilers) Review: The Force Awakens

This was the Star Wars movie I was looking for. This is the first Star Wars film I have ever wanted to own. The original trilogy isn’t available, apart from downloading the “Despecialized Editions.” And why waste money on the prequels when the far superior Clone Wars are available on Netflix?

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, then read no further. I’m going to be discussing the movie in detail, including the Big Deal. I suggest you listen to the soundtrack instead!

Also, PSA: do *not* type any character name into Google. The automatic suggestions will ruin the movie for you.

From here on out, there be spoilers.

Spoilers

If you’ve read this far, I am assuming you have seen the movie. You’ve been warned.

WHAT. A. MOVIE.

Jaw-dropping moments of pure awe.
Jaw-dropping moments of pure awe.

What do I gush about first?? The opening crawl starting with the words, “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” Everything about BB-8. Rey’s theme. The looming, derelict star destroyer (Inflictor) on Jakku. The escape in the 2-seater TIE. “Obviously.” “Stop taking my hand!” “That ship’s garbage.” Han and Chewie’s entry (spoiled by the teaser trailer, alas). “Grandfather.” Anakin/Luke’s lightsaber reveal. “That’s one hell of a pilot!” “You’ve changed your hair.” C3PO’s entrance. “Don’t mention the Death Star!” “Ben!” And of course, Luke at the end.

AN EXPANDED UNIVERSE

Galactic history didn't end at Endor
Galactic history didn’t end at Endor

I loved the way Kylo Ren’s identity reveal was handled. No games at all – First, Snoke flat out warns Ren about his father, Han. So we are clued in without drama, and given an immediate window into what Ren’s internal struggle is. At that point the question still is, who is his mother? We want to assume it is Leia, but hey, it’s solo, who knows? And then Ren engages in monologue with Vader’s mask, and calls him “grandfather”, and it all just clicks into place. Rather than try and milk a parallel with Empire Strikes Back, Ren’s family ties serve to develop his character for the viewer. And in so doing, we are given a hint of Han and Leia’s pain as well, which is confirmed when they meet.

Han’s death was telegraphed the moment he stepped out onto the walkway. But it was perfectly done. Ben/Ren’s honest confession of his internal struggle – but with deliberate ambiguity that gave Han hope. After the killing blow (which perfectly evoked Qui-Gonn), the way Han stroked his son’s face before he fell off into the abyss.

Is Ren irredeemable? He has murdered his own father after all. But then again, his grandfather murdered his wife, and many others, The fact that his true name is Ben is also not insignificant – Ren’s struggle against the light, which he acknowledges in monologue to his grandfather’s mask, is a perfect mirror to the call of the Dark Side to Anakin. Kylo acknowledges his grandfather’s legacy, but Obi-wan Kenobi’s legacy is also omnipresent. It’s probably too early to predict whether it is Ren who takes down Snoke in Episode IX, but I think the probability of Ren’s redemption is better than even odds.

It’s worth noting that Luke was wearing the traditional brown and beige robes of the old Jedi. The only time we have ever seen him as an experienced Force user before was in ROTJ, and he was clearly straddling the line between Light and Dark that whole film (here’s a fan theory that tallies the evidence, though it takes it one step too far IMHO).  Luke has clearly matured in the Light after all these years, and I am sure the betrayal by Ren and the destruction of the New Jedi Order have “radicalized” Luke even further towards Qui-Gonn levels of piety for the Light Side.

What about the galactic geopolitics? The rationale for taking out Hosnian Prime was briefly alluded to in dialogue – I assume it will be clearer on second viewing. We know that the Republic exists and is covertly supporting the Resistance against the First Order. In the movie, Starkiller Base destroys the entire Hosnian System, where the Republic’s fleet is located, and possibly the (temporary?) location of the Senate. So there will be a drastic change in the balance of power going forward, with the Republic likely crippled. Overnight, the New Order has the upper hand. And whatever peace treaty the Republic and the New Order had signed before, it’s clearly time for Wars. among the Stars. Again.

PLOTKILLER BASE

Nothing compares
Nothing compares

Of course, I had my complaints. The Rathtars. Jabba wannabe gangsters harrassing Solo (and the painful repartee). Finn’s dialect. The total waste of Captain Phasma, who didn’t even get a Boba Fett moment of true menace. Maz seemed to be a victim of the cutting room, but hopefully she gets some time back in the Extended Edition. But all of these things are forgiveable, and fixable.

The real Jar Jar for me, however, was Starkiller base. Everything about it, in fact. Starkiller Base (henceforth abbreviated SKB) was clearly designed to be “Death Star v3.0” with Moore’s Law thrown in. Second Death Star was bigger than the first? OK then, this one is even bigger! (here’s a diagram to show you exactly how big…) Death Stars kill planets? OK then, this one kills solar systems! Where did this concept come from? How does the New Order have any resources left to do anything after the defeat at Jakku to build this crazy thing, when the old Empire couldn’t even finish a simple moon-sized superweapon in the time between ANH and ROTJ?

The nature of the weapon itself is also painfully convoluted and irrational. It fires a beam weapon, that can travel through hyperspace, but can also be seen in the skies of planetary systems it passes through? So is it fast or slow? How does a beam weapon split apart into different pieces and curve around? The optics of course were spectacular, both of the massive beam erupting from the ground, decimating the forests, and the intake of the star to recharge. But the concept was very typical of JJ Abrams, as if envisioned by a 9-year old saying “how cool would that be!” with no regard to any kind of physics, or awareness of distance between planets and star systems for that matter. Yes, I know, it’s Star Wars, not Star Trek, but this was way beyond the already generous “willing suspension of disbelief” budget and marched straight into the realm of magical fantasy.

There’s one possible saving grace, if we take the (admittedly very cool) act of Kylo Ren to freeze a blaster shot in midair early in the film, and speculate that in the Star Wars universe, “blasters” don’t actually fire pure energy but instead are firing a plasma beam of particles of some kind. This would explain a lot of things, like why you can see blaster shots move from gun to target rather than virtually instantly traveling to their target at the speed of light, and how lightsaber blades can “deflect” them like billiard balls. If we assume that all “energy” weapons in the Star Wars universe are consistent in this regard, then it makes SKB’s beam weapon slightly less ridiculous.

The plot to destroy SKB was also utterly contrived. Here, the deliberate attempt to evoke previous films fell flat, down to the war room shots and the absurdly short timer countdown. Did all that action really happen in 15 minutes? Including landing on what basically is a giant planet, finding Rey, sabotaging the other thing, and watching the Ren/Solo drama? Just running from the hangar to the super exhaust port should have taken an hour. The Death Star, though being the size of a small moon, was suspiciously compact inside, granted. But this is a planet. I can’t crash land in Chicago, find a friend in Cleveland, and then sabotage Niagara Falls in 15 minutes.

Honestly, if everything about SKB was just excised from the movie entirely, including the on-screen destruction of the Hosnian System, the movie would not have suffered an iota. Something like the Darksaber concept or the Eclipse would have sufficed to destroy the Republic without burdening the plot. Han’s death was relegated to subplot in shadow of the SKB, when by all rights it shoudl have been the other way around. Maybe someone will do a Phantom Edit of The Force Awakens someday…

GOING META

Subtle
Subtle

There were a lot of callbacks to the original trilogy that weren’t as clumsy as the SKB, though, and downright fun. Maz’s eyes-only cantina, the obligatory bad feeling about this, the trench run from ANH combined with the blow-it-up-from-the-inside maneuver from ROTJ, Luke’s old lightsaber training remote, the holochess table, the trash compactor line, and many others I am sure I’ll pickup on the second viewing (and 3rd… etc).

The plot structure was clearly deliberately intended to parallel previous films. In fact, someone on reddit even spelled out the parallels explicitly. There were also thematic parallels as well. As alluded before, Kylo Ren feels the lure of the Light the same way that Anakin felt the pull of the dark. Leia says she still feels the Light ion him, echoing Luke’s (vindicated) sentiment about Anakin. And Kylo Ren is much like his uncle in Empire Strikes Back, brash and untrained, needing to finish his training.

Overall, it all served to tie the movie on a deeper level to its predecessors, and reward the fans with more detail and worldbuilding. The movie didn’t shut down fandom the way the prequels did, it enriched it, and made the Star Wars universe feel alive again.

THE WAIT FOR XIII

aftermath vol 1
Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

The next one doesn’t hit theaters until May 26, 2017. Add it to your calendars, and in the meantime we have the Aftermath trilogy to tide us over by filling in essential backstory between episodes VI and VII.

Here are my predictions for Episode VIII: There will be a time jump of at least a couple years, skipping past Rey’s training with Luke. Rey goes for a double-bladed saber: green, or maybe Ahsoka-yellow (please?). Obi-wan Kenobi and/or Yoda force-ghosts. Captain Phasma will face off against Finn. Luke will reunite with Leia. We’ll learn more about the Knights of Ren. General Hux will have a lovely day. Snoke is actually Yoda-sized, and gets schizophrenic when talking to his reflection in a pool of water.

Our faith in the Force paid off. Star Wars is back.