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AWIS in Action! Advocacy and Public Policy Newsletter October 2012
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AWIS In Action!

 Advocacy & Public Policy Newsletter   ~   October 2012
In This Issue
 
Guinea Pigs and the Art of Communicating Science
 
Germans and Belgians have experimental rabbits. Indians have sacrificial lambs. Americans have the guinea pig. For each of these countries, those remain the idiom of choice for experimental subjects despite the fact that mice make up 80% of the research animals used these days. Daniel Engber became concerned by the disconnect between the public’s perception of what lab research looks like, as well as the issues that arise from basing much of our understanding of disease and therapies on inbred strains of rodents that spend their entire sedentary lives in small boxes. He set out to write about the problems that stem from depending so heavily on mice. For his efforts, which were published in Slate as "The Mouse Trap”, the National Academy of Sciences granted him the 2012 Communication Award for material published online.
 
There is an art to science writing. To bridge the gulf between deep, scholastic comprehension resulting from years, even decades, of study, and the typical reader’s level of scientific education while still keeping the material interesting and accurate takes skill and practice. Examples like Engber’s at the intersection between science and writing were celebrated by attendants of the National Academies 10th Annual Communication Awards Ceremony. The panel of judges each plowed through a dozen and a half books, nearly as many documentaries, and countless articles. Whether addressing the appropriate choice of model systems, infant mortality, Watson the computer, or the way our brain makes decisions, the winners did it with aplomb (We attendees got copies of each, making it the best swag bag for a book worm!) and offered humorous and insightful acceptance speeches. Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow and winner of the best book, addressed the challenges of trying to write a book for the intelligent public while trying not to lose the respect of one’s colleagues. Paula Apsell, Michael Bicks, and Julia Cort won the award for best film/radio/TV segment for their NOVA production "Smartest Machine on Earth,” thanking, "PBS, CPB, and viewers like you.” They offered remarks on the transition from simple programming stating, "when we started it was a machine that was making embarrassing mistakes,” to the creation of the next chapter in artificial life.
 
The impact of a well written story is exemplified by "Empty Cradles”, a six part series by Crocker Stephenson and Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel focused on infant mortality in Milwaukee and winner of the award for best print journalism. The writers wanted to answer why infant mortality rates were five times higher in one part of the city than another. Through their articles they traced the myriad factors which contribute to this disparity. As a direct consequence of these newspaper articles, BMO Harris Bank pledged to donate $750,000 over the next three years to the United Way of Greater Milwaukee. The United Way is using the money to address some of the identified issues that lead to this incongruence and help babies born in Milwaukee survive their first year of life. It is sobering to consider that newspapers are losing money and having to cut their investigative reports because they can often be more effective at affecting changes than government policy.   
 
Of Squirrels and Senatorial Candidates
 
Life is a series of choices. You can choose to do nothing and watch as events unfold around you. Or you can stand up for what you believe in. In this time of financial crisis, as American markets are increasing reeling and swaying based on whether or not a Congressional resolution will be achievable, Hannah Carey, Ph.D., chose to get off the ropes and get into the ring. She graciously agreed to share her adventures with AWIS in Action! readers. 
 
Dr. Carey is a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies changes in liver and gastrointestinal systems of hibernating, thirteen-lined ground squirrels. She understands the value of communicating your work to the taxpayers who fund it and has on many previous instances spoken to civic groups, school kids, and senior groups. However, she had not previously engaged with politicians. Given the current fears about the potential fallout from going over the fiscal cliff, she decided to reach out to the candidates in Wisconsin for the open Senate seat and local Congressional districts. Conveying the importance of scientific research funding is imperative, not only for universities and their employees, but for jobs and the economy at large. Science is one of the places where taxpayers actually see a return on their investments, both in terms of therapies and technologies that improve their quality of life, but also in companies that start up out of these technologies and create jobs and pay taxes. Last year alone there were 671 startups out of universities, according to the Association of University Technology Managers, and 73% of those companies were started near the university, creating jobs and economic stimulus locally.
 
Like most people would be, she was initially unsure of what exactly to say but she developed a series of talking points. The most important one is that she is a constituent first, she votes people into or out of office, and a scientist second. Although initially it was somewhat intimidating, Dr. Carey wound up really enjoying the meetings and actually having fun. In one meeting, a candidate’s staff member mentioned a research project title from an abstract involving an atypical research animal that sounded frivolous. Dr. Carey was able to explain that that particular animal is a frequent vector for disease which can spread to humans, and thus studying that animal and the organisms that call that animal "home” is actually important to understanding and preventing epidemics. The key, she says, is to be earnest without being aggressive or condescending. She also invited the candidate to come tour her lab and see the facilities on campus.
 
In another instance, she and a colleague went to a "Pints and Politics” town hall meeting in southern Wisconsin, near the district from which Congressman Paul Ryan (whose draconian budget proposal would slash spending on scientific research by close to 20%) hails, hoping to meet a candidate from that district. Although the candidate failed to attend, Dr. Carey wound up meeting a group of other people interested in politics but not well acquainted with academic research. They were initially wary when she mentioned she works with squirrels (please recall those images of Congressman Ryan in hunting gear), but when she explained that she receives funding from the Department of Defense, their interest increased. Squirrels and other hibernating animals undergo a change in their physiology, producing an altered state, and the military is interested if there could be a benefit to soldiers in battle conditions.
 
Scientists and engineers are in a unique position when it comes to politics. Research is a non-partisan issue; both parties support it, both parties benefit from it. Additionally, unlike many other professions, scientists and engineers do what they love. Therefore, it should be easier for you than the average worker in almost any other field, dear reader, to get out there and talk about what you love. So make the choice. We recommend you choose to not be at the whim of politicians. Instead, help them understand why the research you do is at least as important as what the defense industry does and why everyone needs to chip in to help balance our federal budget.  In two weeks, AWIS will be launching a new proprietary tutorial to help you engage with your newly elected candidates through meetings, phone calls, letters, or local op-eds. 
 
Polling Asses and Pachyderms
 
Despite all the press about how important women are to this election, our anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. In late summer, we sent a series of seven questions to each presidential candidate’s campaign in collaboration with the Society for Women Engineers (SWE). Although members of the AWIS and SWE staff repeatedly contacted and followed up with members of each campaign, we have received responses only from the Obama team, which are available in their entirety hereIf the Romney campaign responds, we will post the responses on our web site upon receiving them.
 
Update: The Romney campaign has declined to respond to our survey and we are disappointed.     
 
M3 The Maddening Monthly Mention
 
* Chicago Lab Rat *
 
Last week a professor from the University of Chicago, Dario Maestripieri, Ph.D., posted a comment on his Facebook page upon his return from the Society of Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans. "My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone..”
 
I realize most scientists attend conferences not to share their research, not to learn about new developments in their field, not to network with other colleagues and uncover potential employment opportunities; people go to scientific conferences to hook up with supermodels. Sounds legit. Talk nerdy to me, baby. We scientists look pretty fabulous by the fourth or fifth day of the conference, getting up way too early to go try to carry on intelligent conversations over our first cup of coffee before the day’s talks begin and staying out too late talking shop with other people who get fired up about the same things we do. So call me surprised that he didn’t see anything that he qualifies as supermodel material.
 
You can claim that his post is on his personal webpage, but it must have offended at least one of his "friends” that chose to share it. But the real problem gets at the core of our mission: changing the chilly climate of academics for women. It’s not always the blatant sexism, it’s the small little ways that people say your worth is less in science because you’re a woman, because your real function in academics is to be something pleasant and appealing for the men to look at. Does the fact that ALL of the members of his lab, his EMPLOYEES, are "friends” of his on Facebook trouble you at all? Does the fact that half of them are women make you wonder about the wisdom of sharing his dismay? Many of his other "friends” are University of Chicago affiliates and presumably colleagues. How would people respond if he’d complained about the number of women of color, or Jewish women there? Why is it more acceptable to complain about gender than race or religion?
 
Earlier this fall a study came out in PNAS looking at gender bias favoring male science students. Primary investigators were given applications which were identical except for the name of the applicant which was randomly assigned either a male or female name. The PI’s were asked to evaluate the candidate’s employability, competence, worthiness for mentoring, and what financial compensation would be offered. As first author Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, Ph.D., explained, "When presented with identical applicants who differed only by their gender, science faculty members evaluated the male student as superior, were more likely to hire him, paid him more money, and offered him more career mentoring.” And with the compensation different being nearly $4,000 less for a woman, here’s your wage gap, deniers.
 
Perhaps this is actually an experiment by Maestripieri. He studies evolutionary behavior and, were I to take some statements from his blog out of context and put them in this newsletter, you would find some real gems to get fired up about. I am not calling him a total misogynist; he obviously works with, hires, and publishes with women. He wrote a book recently and maybe the sales haven’t been as solid as he hoped and figured this would be a way to drum up interest. But, regardless of if he’s just an inconsiderate jerk or crazy like a fox, what I am saying is that these little biases, these little dings that make women feel like they aren’t viewed as having as much to offer besides their bodies, are constant and often ignored consciously, but one can’t help but internalize them. When people ask why women leave the STEM pipeline and why it’s so hard to find one solid fix, this story provides the perfect example. It is outrageous to think anyone would want to stay in a line of work where they don’t feel appreciated by more than 50% of their peers. 
 
 
In This Issue
 

 

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