research funding

Have conferences become a giant racket?

What has happened to a bunch of nerds getting together in a big room, eating some sandwiches and talking about ideas?

Why are people so willing to pay big money to meet other people in their respective fields at conferences, when they just could have done what I have referred to in the paragraph above?

We now have a conference ‘industry’.  Take Ted talks for example.  Come to our conference!  Our speakers have all the big ideas!  These people will save the world!  The conference industry is booming!

Seems to me there is a lot of talk-ie and not enough do-ie.

Take this conference for example, which is only 5 years young:

International Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference

Fancy website!  There is money for that and the nice conference, yet, there is little to no money for research in this field.

If you happen to be one of the lucky folks to have a steady job in industry, government or academia, someone may foot the bill for you to go – $470 for members and $550 for non-members, but only if you register early.  Of course that doesn’t include travel and hotel costs.

But wait!  If you can’t get your costs covered, for the low low cost of $150, you can still pay the organizers AND work for nothing at the conference.  This is referred to as ‘volunteering’ on the conference website.  So there is always that.

Sorry to pick on you, International Fire Behavior and Fuel Conference, but you are following the modern conference ‘industry’ trend.  You folks could instead spend your time figuring out how the dollars would be better spent actually funding climate research, or figuring out a way to actually use the internet to communicate at your conference (the internet — what’s that?) so as to minimize the carbon footprint of the large number of people travelling to your conference.

I’ll leave it to my readers to answer the rhetorical question that serves as the title of this article.


The $550 conference meal — if you register early (Sandwich by whologwhy)

Academic Mobbing and Scientific Misconduct

Kenneth Westhues, Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo, has a few websites including Workplace Mobbing in Academe as well as which discuss various cases of workplace mobbing, as you may have guessed from the website titles.

After viewing these sites, I came across the Scientific Misconduct Blog, authored by ethical scientist Aubrey Blumsohn, who openly expressed his distaste when Procter & Gamble, a research “partner” at Sheffield University, decided it would be responsible for analyzing Blumsohn’s scientific data and for ghostwriting his publications.   Blumsohn experienced mobbing from the university administration after bringing forward his concerns with these practices and as a result he chose to speak to the media about his experiences.   Blumsohn eventually left his position with Sheffield, although he reached a legal settlement with the university.  This happened a number of years ago, but I thought it was an interesting case.

Since most scientific research has been and continues to be funded by private sources of dollars — I can only imagine how easily these types of scenarios could arise.  These ethically challenging situations likely occur more frequently than we think.


Still Unemployed But Not Hopeless

As discussed previously, my most recent attempt at finding employment within the industry in which I was previously working did not pan out.  It is as if the universe is telling me to just stay away from that career path and move on to something else (if I was to believe in fate as the only factor at work of course).  Today it is difficult to change careers without returning to school in some capacity.  Unfortunately, pursuing higher education demands forking out money for standardized testing, and one cannot really avoid this, particularly if one would like to have the option to attend school in the U.S. or Canada.

My partner’s recent experiences at a large, well-funded U.S. university has been an eye-opener in terms of the current state of the academic system.  The employment prospects and practices at colleges and universities for today’s up and coming academics appear to be dismal at best.  There is not a lack of funding for research in the United States, but there is a lack of publicly sourced funding, in comparison to what was available in the past.  Despite these facts, the number of PhDs granted by institutions is on the rise, and it seems that the culture of academia appears to favor a more corporate mentality than ever before, where instead of profit in dollars, growth in terms of number of PhDs granted is academia’s currency.  It would not be in the interest of a college or university to dissuade potential graduate students away from graduate school, now would it?  Besides, there are so many foreign students willing to come to the U.S. for a PhD or postdoc, so why turn away cheap research labor?

Knowing this, I wrote the GRE* anyway because I want to have different career options, one of which would involve research, despite the crappy state of academic jobs these days.  Knowing what I know, I would prepare myself to be able to do research outside the world of academia if I ever did decide to take on doctoral work.

Since we know life is uncertain, and given my continued state of unemployment, I am considering law school also as part of my future career leveraging strategy**. I also know that there has been a decline in those sitting for the LSAT in the last few years, especially in the U.S.  I’ve read that the lower numbers have been attributed to outrageous law school tuition rates, fewer jobs available, etc.  Recently, though, the number of people writing the LSAT has picked up again.  With an improved economy I am sure more work will be available in the future.

All career options have their pros and cons.  Being a Gen Xer coming out of the Great Recession, I have to keep an open mind about the future.  I have to consider what I am passionate about, while at the same time I have to think about what’s practical for me, too.   If I spent my time focusing on the cons of every career option, then I’d probably become a complete nihilist***, but like Rustin Cohle in “True Detective” – I am programmed to survive….

* supposedly ETS, the group that administers the GRE, is a nonprofit organization, but given the rise in graduate students and costs to take the exam, I am sure it cannot be an organization which is hurting for money, nor is it likely that other standardized test administration organizations are either, or the test prep companies for that matter….

** these are not my only motives for considering a career in law.  If they were I would not survive law school, I’m sure.

*** not that there is anything wrong with being a nihilist, but I heard it’s difficult to make a living as one these days…