Category Archives: Science Magazine

Spanish HIV Researcher Faces €210,000 Fine Over Unauthorized Clinical Trial

A Spanish HIV/AIDS researcher is facing a hefty fine for violating clinical trial regulations. A court of appeals has upheld most of a lower court’s verdict against Vicente Soriano, a physician at the Hospital Carlos III here and a well-known clinical researcher with hundreds of publications to his name.

Soriano is liable for €210,000 for conducting a clinical trial without approval from the Spanish Agency for Medicines and Health Products, failing to obtain insurance for the trial, and informing participants he had his hospital’s ethical approval when he did not, according to the ruling, which was published 14 January. But the court overturned a €6000 fine for obstructing the initial investigation, which took place in 2010.

Read the rest of this blog post at Science Insider [html] [pdf] or see a summary in the print edition of Science Magazine [html] [pdf]

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Internships Boost Postdocs’ Skills, Worldliness, and Marketability

20131021_LLaursenPostdocInternship_KellyAndringa_160x160When Kelly Andringa began to get calls from faculty anxious about their paperwork, she wondered whether she’d done her assignment right. As a 2-days-a-week intern on the conflict-of-interest review board at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), she had written a Web-based tutorial explaining to faculty how to properly fill out compliance forms. Her main job, however, was as a postdoc in environmental health at the same university; administration was new to her. But, as more calls came in, Andringa realized that the concerns of most of those faculty members were unwarranted: They had completed the forms correctly. “I was quite proud,” she recalls. “I felt good about communicating it well.”

Andringa is one of a small but growing cohort of scientists who take time off from postdocs to complete internships outside of academia. In its latest survey of postdocs, Vitae, an organization based in Cambridge that supports the career development of U.K. research staff, found that 9% of respondents have done placements or internships outside of academia, up from 5% just 2 years earlier. Andringa’s internship helped her get a job in her desired field: After finishing her postdoc in the winter of 2009, she first took a program management job at UAB before moving to her present grant administration job there.

Many postdocs use internships, as Andringa did, as bridges to jobs outside research, but some continue on as researchers and are better rounded for it, says David Taylor, who, after doing a postdoc at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), completed an internship in the hospital’s administration department. His internship, too, led to a job: Taylor now facilitates internships for CHOP’s current postdocs. Whether you leave research or stay in, internships can give postdocs a chance to look at their academic work with outsiders’ eyes and position themselves better to move forward in their careers.

Applying skills to new sectors

Physiologist Sara Borniquel of the Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm, Sweden, is not yet sure what she will do when her postdoc is over, but she is ready to leave academia. A couple of years ago, Borniquel attended a seminar on internships for postdocs offered by the KI careers office. The Spanish native recalls reasoning, “I don’t know where I’ll be in 5 years and this seems like a good opportunity to widen my knowledge and learn a bit more about Sweden.” Borniquel has since done two 3-month internships, one at Karolinska Institutet Innovations AB and the other at Stockholm-Uppsala Life Science. “I learned that I’m not just a scientist. I have another area of knowledge, other skills, which I can apply in other areas.” She now feels comfortable interviewing experts and preparing market-research reports.

Vitae development director Alison Mitchell, says that companies see internships as “an opportunity to have some innovation, new solutions, new resources, and increase their visibility and relationship with the university—and also recruit new talent.” Postdocs offer more experience and specialized skills than doctoral students and undergraduates do, and are closer to the job market, she says.

Internships are a good way to get your foot in the door. “We do give a preference for individuals who have been an intern at IBM,” says Jim Spohrer, who is the director of IBM’s global university programs in San Jose, California. This is because such applicants know the IBM culture and the company has a good idea of how they will perform. Altogether, IBM’s worldwide research labs host between 350 and 400 interns per year. It isn’t clear what proportion of interns become IBM employees, but three of the 10 advanced-degreed participants in IBM’s Zurich and Haifa-based Great Minds program are now IBM employees, says IBM communications manager Chris Sciacca.

According to Spohrer, postdocs are more likely than doctoral students to match the company’s ideal employee hiring profile: a so-called “T-shaped” professional, with both depth of training in one area and a breadth of experience, such as having worked in different countries or having both scientific and business skills. While an internship may or may not lead directly to a job, it can still make you more employable.

What will my principal investigator (PI) say?

Andringa, who knew from the start of her postdoc that she might not want to become an academic researcher, made sure to tell her supervisor of her intentions during her first interview so that there were no surprises later. That made things easier for her, but many postdocs may not start looking around at other opportunities until after they’ve taken up their posts. For them, an early step toward pursuing an internship should be a conversation with their PI.

It can be a tough sell. Postdoc advisers generally expect their postdocs to spend most of their time doing their research, leading to new insights and publications. Why should they allow key lab personnel to go off and do an internship?

One thing postdocs can do to convince their PIs is offer to keep the research going. During her 3-month internship, Andringa was away from the lab just 2 days each week. Borniquel did two 3-month internships, both full-time, but she had two advantages: She received funding for her internships from the KI careers office, which helped compensate her supervisor for her time away, and her supervisor was “pretty open.” Even so, she offered to work some weekends. At one time CHOP compensated PIs for postdocs’ time away, Taylor says, but due to budget cuts the program’s administrators now make all their internships part-time so that they’re less disruptive.

Another way to convince your PI, Mitchell suggests, is to offer to extend the postdoc to make up for the time you’ll be missing. “It’s got to be done in an appropriate way so they’re still making progress on their postdoctoral research,” Spohrer says.

But, while it’s important to reassure PIs they are not going to lose their workers (at least not completely), postdocs can also make a case that their exposure to new work environments is a benefit to PIs. An internship can, for example, bring new ways of thinking into the lab, Mitchell says. Taylor adds that, given the current job market, many academic supervisors understand the need to place their postdocs in nonresearch posts. “I think that reflects to an extent the way the biomedical community is going,” with researchers ending up in a wider variety of jobs, Taylor says.

Finally, both the postdoc and the PI must ensure that the resulting arrangement satisfies the requirements of the contract with the research’s funders.

So, how do I do it?

When Borniquel went searching for internships, a career office identified interested companies and agencies. Andringa’s university had a similar program. Postdocs who don’t have access to such programs can start by identifying people in their network who could help them find a placement. “Very often it’s [after] talking within academia that the opportunities arise,” Mitchell says.

Postdocs should choose their internship with care, aiming to maximize the career benefits of their time away from research. CHOP interns spend a month exploring possible projects and then 5 months carrying them out, Taylor says. Even if a researcher has identified a target company, they should research that company and find out what projects are afoot and whom within the company they might work with, and come to the interview with questions, Spohrer says.

Finding a placement is only the beginning. Spohrer advises that postdocs maintain an inquisitive attitude throughout their internships. The researchers who get the most out of their placements at IBM attend colloquia, shadow a range of colleagues, and seek out mentors, he says.

Structure can make the experience more valuable, says Mitchell; she recommends a discussion ahead of time about what the various parties are expecting from the internship and a final review at the end. Taylor’s internship was capped with a presentation, which he says is a good way to take stock of what you’ve learned.

An internship is an opportunity for postdocs to broaden their experience and outlook. “It made me more aware of what was out there,” Andringa says. As a result of the internship, her professional network, credentials, and job opportunities expanded. And when the time came to apply for a job, people in the administration office where she worked could vouch for her understanding of administrators’ roles at the university.

“Everybody going through the program has the opportunity to find a new niche,” Taylor says. “Even if they’ve stayed in research, they’ve found it very positive.”

First published by Science Careers [html] [pdf]

New Agreement Casts Spotlight on Efforts to Inventory Black Carbon

Researchers are about to take a big step toward better understanding a tiny air pollutant. A U.N. expert panel earlier this month agreed on a technical road map that will guide the first multinational effort to create a standardized emissions inventory of black carbon, a kind of microscopic soot particle. Scientists say that black carbon emissions play an important but poorly understood role in both global climate change and air pollution.

“The increased emphasis on complete reporting across the countries … is clearly an important step forward,” says atmospheric scientist Chris Dore, chair of the U.N. task force, which helps implement the 1979 Geneva Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution. Fifty-one nations, including the United States and members of the European Union, abide by the convention.

The move reflects growing concern about black carbon particles, which are produced by burning an array of fuels, including oil, wood, crop residues, and even garbage. Health researchers consider airborne soot particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers a major health threat, causing lung disease and premature death. And climate scientists say that black carbon is a key player in global warming because it can absorb solar radiation and accelerate ice melting.

Efforts to calculate black carbon’s full impact, however, suffer from incomplete emissions data. A January study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, for instance, concluded that existing climate models underestimate black carbon’s climate-changing contribution by up to a factor of three as a result of data gaps in key regions. Existing inventories, such as those created by measuring emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes, contain large uncertainties, says atmospheric physicist Philip Stier of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. In part, that’s because they are often designed to show only that a nation is complying with air pollution rules and don’t include soot sources such as forest and cooking fires, or particles that settle on roadways and are lofted into the air by passing cars. “Black carbon is a poorly defined substance,” Stier says. “It’s always measured in a slightly different way, [which] doesn’t always refer to the same material.”

The new road map—unveiled on 20 May after a meeting of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Task Force on Emission Inventories and Projections in Istanbul, Turkey—aims to put nations on the same page. The voluntary plan calls for nations to start measuring black carbon emissions from an array of sources, including transportation, the energy industry, and agriculture. Nations will add the data to annual emissions reports and dig into existing data to calculate past emissions going back to the year 2000. The plan also requests emissions projections out to 2050.

Dore expects a U.N. steering body to approve the plan later this year, and nations will begin reporting in 2015, although a few could start in 2014. Some nations may go beyond the guidelines to collect additional data, including measures of black carbon sources not covered by the road map. The voluntary guidelines could one day become mandatory, following a path taken by other pollutants covered by the convention.

The inclusion of black carbon emissions in the annual reports is “really important,” says aerosol scientist Catherine Liousse of the Midi-Pyrenees Observatory in Toulouse, France. It will encourage nations that now don’t measure such emissions to start and enable better comparisons of existing inventories by promoting standard methods.

Researchers, meanwhile, are working to develop better methods for getting a broader picture of black carbon in the atmosphere. One $3 million study sent a Gulfstream jet with air-sampling instruments on undulating flights—from 150 meters to 13,500 meters—in five study areas around the world over several years. Other researchers are mounting low-cost black carbon detectors on ultralight aircraft and drones. Their goal is to better understand the role black carbon is playing in different parts of the atmosphere: While climate researchers may care more about soot interactions with frozen water droplets, for instance, health researchers want to compare how different-sized particles affect the lungs.

First published by Science Magazine [html] [pdf]

Romania to Replace National Research Council After Mass Resignation

The Romanian Ministry of Education, Research, Youth and Sport has asked universities to nominate replacements for the 19 members of the National Research Council (CNCS), Romania’s main research funding agency. Council members resigned en masse on 12 April to protest retroactive cuts in research grants.

In e-mails recently sent to CNCS grantees, the Romanian government announced that it would make cuts in the 2013 installment of multiannual research grants issued in 2011. The decision appears to have been the final straw in already strained relations between the government and the council, chaired by neurobiologist Alexandru Babeş of the University of Bucharest.

One of the researchers affected by the cuts is Romanian paleoclimatologist Bogdan Onac of the University of South Florida in Tampa, who used his 2011 CNCS grant, worth $455,000, to rekindle research relationships with his home country. Onac bought an isotope analyzer, hired two graduate students in Romania, and paid half a professor’s salary there to help him analyze samples found in Romanian caves. On 8 April, however, Onac got an e-mail from the government financing agency, UEFISCDI, advising him that the grant’s 2013 installment would be about 45% less than agreed, “taking into account the available budget.” Other grantees lost up to 55% of their promised 2013 funds, Onac says.

The government e-mails said that the difference would arrive in 2014. But many Romanian scientists no longer trust such promises. A protest letter to the Romanian government signed by 568 Romanian researchers notes that similar delays beset the 2010 funding round and that promises of later making up the payments fell through. (Three hundred and fifty-eight researchers signed the English version of the letter.) The letter, dated 9 April, also asks why the government is issuing new calls for grants in 2013 if there is not enough funding to fulfill its previous obligations.

Onac says that the cuts may hurt his three collaborators in Romania. “They are completely dependent on my Romanian grants,” he says. “I will just keep going until I finish the grant money and then I will just stop working with them.”

The cuts are only one flash point between the current Romanian government and CNCS. The government has also struck a requirement, introduced by former research and education minister Daniel Funeriu, that international panels review grant applications and that applicants have papers published in an internationally ranked peer-reviewed journal. Onac calls the decision a step back that will hurt research quality. With international review, “only the best proposals were awarded, because evaluation went outside Romania,” he says.

In a press release carried by HotNews.ro, the research ministry defended the cuts by claiming that CNCS’s approval rates for the Ideas grants had been higher than it could sustain. The ministry attacked the council for asking it to prioritize the Ideas grants over the much smaller Human Resources grants, which tend to benefit younger researchers. The 2013 call will differ in that it will focus on “real socio-economic needs” and attract private-sector co-financing.

Onac is worried about how the government will fill the new council, because it asked universities, and not a broad array of scientists, for nominations: “Our experience is that the universities will always propose people who are high in their structures but not necessarily scientists with good publication records,” he says.

This news story first appeared on Science Insider [html] [pdf]