Saturday, January 7, 2017

I think Apple is killing the keyboard by slow boiling

I’m pretty sure Apple is planning to kill the mechanical keyboard in the near future. What’s interesting is how they’re going about it.

Apple has killed/"moved forward" a lot of tech by unilateral fiat, including the floppy drive, DVD drive, and of course various ports and cables. (Can we just stop for a minute and consider the collective internet brainpower wasted arguing about the merits of these moves? (Yes, I can appreciate the irony.).)

The strategy with the keyboard, however, is something different. For the past several design iterations, the keyboard travel has been getting thinner and thinner, to the point where the travel on the latest keyboards is pretty tiny. It’s pretty easy to see that the direction Apple is headed is towards a future in which the keyboard has no mechanical keys, but is rather some sort of iPad like thing, perhaps with haptic feedback, but with no keys in the traditional sense of the term. (The force touch trackpad and the new touch bar are perhaps harbingers of this move.)

What’s interesting is how Apple is making this transition. With the other transitions, Apple just pulls the plug on a tech (Firewire, I barely knew thee), leading to squealing by a small but not insignificant number of very visible angry users, modestly annoyed shrugs from everyone else, and a Swiss-Army-knife-like conglomeration of old projector adapters wherever I go give presentations. With this keyboard transition, though, the transition has been far more gradual—and the pundit class has consequently been far more muted. Instead of the usual “Apple treats their users with utter contempt!” “Apple is doomed by their arrogance!” and so forth, the response is more like “huh, weird, but you’ll get used to it.” Perhaps this reflects more the fact that there’s no way to “transition” to a new port interface (there is no port equivalent to “reduced key travel”, although perhaps microUSB qualifies), but still.

Why might Apple be doing this? There are three possibilities I can think of. First, one formal possibility is that there could be some convenience/cost benefit to Apple to doing this, like reduced component cost or whatever. This strikes me as unlikely for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it is almost certainly a pain in the butt to keep designing new keyboards. Another possibility is that the there is some tradeoff, most obviously with thickness: clearly, having a shorter travel will let you make a thinner computer. While this is a likely scenario, and perhaps the most likely, there are some reasons to question this explanation. For instance, why do the keyboards on the desktop Macs (remember those?) also have shorter key travel now? One could say that it’s to maintain parity with laptops, but then again, anyone suffering through desktop Macs these knows that parity isn’t exactly the name of Apple’s game these days—frankly, the keyboard is just about the only thing that got updated on the iMacs in the last several years. Which leads to the third possibility, which is that having a non-mechanical keyboard (essentially a big iPad) down there would enable new interfaces and so forth. Hmm. Well, either way, I think we’ll find out soon.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Why care about the Dow? Why not?

Just listened to this Planet Money podcast all about hating on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Gist of it: the Dow Jones calculates its index in a weird (and most certainly nonsensical) way, and is an anachronism that must die. They also say that no market "professional" (quote added by me) ever talks about the dow, but measures like the S&P 500 and the Wilshire 5000 are far more sensible.

This strikes me as a criticism that distracts from the real issue, which is whether one should be using any stock market indicator as an indicator of anything. Sure, the Dow is "wrong" and the S&P 500 is more "right" in that they weight by market cap. Whatever. Take a look at this:

Pretty sure that this fact goes back longer as well, but Wolfram Alpha only goes back 5 years and I've already wasted too much time on this. Clearly, also, short term fluctuations are VERY strongly correlated—here's the correlation with the S&P 500 in terms of fluctuations:

So I think the onus is on the critics to show that whatever differences there are between the S&P and the Dow are meaningful as predicting something about the economy. Good luck with that.

Of course, as an academic, far be it from me to decry the importance of doing something the right way, even if it has no practical benefit :). That said, in the podcast, they make fun of how the Dow talks about its long historical dataset as an asset, one that outweighs its somewhat silly mode of computation. This strikes me as a bit unfair. Given the very strong correlation between the Dow and S&P 500, this long track record is a HUGE asset, allowing one to make historical inferences way back in time (again, to the extent that any of this stuff has meaning anyway).

I think there are some lessons here for science. I think that it is of course important to calculate the right metric, e.g. TPM vs. FPKM. But let's not lose sight of the fact that ultimately, we want these metrics to reflect meaning. If the correspondence between a new "right" metric and an older, flawed one is very strong, then there's no a priori reason to disqualify results calculated with older metrics, especially if those differences don't change any *scientific* conclusions. Perhaps that's obvious, but I feel like I see this sort of thing a lot.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Last post ever on postdoc pay

Original post, first follow up, this post

Short intro: wrote a post about how I didn't like how some folks were (seemingly) bragging about how high they pay their postdocs on the internet, got a lot of responses, wrote a post with some ideas about how postdocs and PIs could approach the subject of pay. That was meant to deal with short term practical consequences. Here, I wanted to highlight some of the responses I got about aspects of postdoc pay that have to do with policy, likely with no surprises to anyone who's thought about this for more than a few minutes. Again, no answers here, just mostly reporting what I heard. So sorry, first part of the post is probably kind of boring. At the end, I'll talk about some things I learned about discussing this sort of thing on the internet.

First off, though, again, for the record, I support paying postdocs well and support the increased minimum. I think a minimum starting salary of $48K (however inadvertently that number was reached) seems to be a reasonable minimum to enforce across the US. Based on what, I dunno, honestly. I just think we need a flat national minimum: it would be hard/weird for NIH to do it by cost of living across the US, but at the same time, relying on institutions to set their own wage scales is ripe for abuse. More on that later.

Anyway, it is clear that one of the top concerns about postdoc pay was child care. No surprise there, postdoc time often coincides with baby time, and having kids is expensive, period. One can get into debates about whether one's personal life choices should figure into how much pay someone "deserves", but considering that the future of the human race requires kids, I personally think it's a thing we absolutely must be considering. There are no easy answers here, though. Igor Ulitsky summed it up nicely:

I think Igor is absolutely right, an institutional child care subsidy is really the only way to do it. The problem otherwise is that the costs are so high for childcare that just paying everyone enough for childcare regardless of family status would quickly bankrupt most PIs' grants. But just paying more based on "need" has a lot of flaws. I think it was telling that at least some trainees said that they wouldn't begrudge their coworker with a kid if the PI paid them more. Well, what if your coworker had parents who lived with them? Or parents who could live with them? Or a spouse who earned a lot of money? Or was home from work often because of the kid? And how much extra should they be paid? Enough for "cadillac" child care? Bare minimum child care? I just don't think it's reasonable or wise for PIs to be making these decisions. If, on the other hand, the institution stepped in to make this a priority (as both my postdocs have argued), then this would solve a lot of problems. They could either provide a voucher applicable to local daycares or provide daycare itself at a heavily subsidized rate (I think Penn does provide a subsidy, but it's not much). This is, of course, a huge expense for institutions to take on, and I'm sure they won't do it willingly, but perhaps it's time to have that discussion. Anecdotally, I think there really has been a change—before, many academics would wait until getting a faculty position (maybe even tenure) before having kids, whereas now, many academics come into the faculty position with kids. I think this is good and important especially for women, and I think it's pushing this particular issue for postdocs into the foreground.

The other big issue folks brought up was diversity. Low wages mean that those without means face a pretty steep price for staying in science, potentially forcing them out, as this commenter points out from personal experience. I think this is a real problem, and again, no real answer here. I'm not convinced, however, that the postdoc level is where that gap typically emerges—I'm guessing that it's mostly at the decision to go to graduate school in the first place. (The many confounders likely make such analyses difficult to interpret, though I don't know much about it.) Which is in some ways perhaps a bit surprising, since unlikely medical/law/business school, you actually get paid to do a PhD (although I believe most analyses still suggest that you could earn more overall by just getting a job straight away, maybe depending on the field). Also, higher pay would mean fewer postdoc positions, making the top ones more competitive, thus potentially further hurting the chances for those facing bias, although my guess is that this latter concern would not outweigh the former on diversity.

Along these lines is the notion of opportunity cost, with at least a few people (typically computational) noting that the postdocs they want to hire can earn so much on the open market that if they didn't pay them a lot, it would be hard to get them. At the same time, interestingly, a couple trainees invoked the ideals of the free market, saying that people should be paid whatever they can earn. Hmm. Well, I think this gets into the question of what the cost of doing science is. All stages of scientist (from trainees to PIs) probably on average earn less than we could in private industry, with that differential varying by field and circumstance—that is the price for doing what we love. The obvious question is whether this sets up a system primed for abuse. There are some who are willing to work like a dog for next to nothing for the chance to keep doing science. For this reason, there has to be a reasonable minimum to ensure at least some degree of diversity in the talent pool. Beyond that, I personally have no problem with people paying above the minimum if they so choose (and institutional policies that prevent that strike me as pretty unfair and something to fight against). If this helps keep talented people in science, great!

The notion of a free-market approach to pay is an interesting one, one that led me to the following question about the cost of doing science. Let's say that I had a ton of money. Is there some amount of money I could pay to get a postdoc that I otherwise would lose to some big name PI? Like, let's say I paid my postdoc $1M per year. Well, I'd probably be getting a lot of top quality postdoc applications (although still probably not even close to all). But what about $100K? How much would that factor into someone's decision to do a postdoc with me? I venture to say that the answer is not much. How little would someone be willing to accept for the opportunity to work with a big name who could greatly aid their quest for a faculty job? All I can say is I'm glad there's a minimum. :)

I also learned a bit about online discussions on this topic. As I said in my first post, I was super reluctant to discuss this topic at all online, given the opportunity for misunderstanding and so forth. And sure enough, I got some of what I thought were unfairly accusatory responses. Which, of course, is something that I was guilty of myself (and I apologize to MacArthur for that). Hmm. I still stand by, sort of, my point that the original tweet from MacArthur came across in a way that was perceived by many as boastful, even if that was not his intent, and that that may not be the most productive way to start a discussion. That said, I also have to acknowledge that waiting for the "perfect" way to discuss the issue means waiting forever, and in the meantime, just saying something, anything, publicly can have an effect. Clearly the collective tweets, posts and responses on the topic (most are imperfect, though I particularly like this one from Titus Brown) are having the desired effect of engendering a discussion, which is good. And, as a practical matter, I'm hopeful that airing some of the institutional differences in postdoc pay may help both trainees and mentors (see some examples in my second post). It is clear that there's a lot of mystery shrouding the topic, both for trainees and PIs alike, and a little sunlight is a good thing.

All that said, I still think that in addition to online rants of various kinds, with an issue this complex, it's pretty important for us all to talk with each other face to face as well. After all, we're all on the same team here. Academia is a small world, and while it's important to disagree, personal attacks generally serve nobody… and might as well be transparent about who you're disagreeing with so they can disagree back:

(In my defense, the only reason I "subtweeted" is that I really didn't want to call MacArthur out personally because his was just the latest tweet out of many of this kind I had seen. And I suppose it worked in that many people I know who read the post indeed had no idea who I was referring to. But giving him the chance to respond is probably on balance the right thing to do.)

Anyway, while I have not met MacArthur in person, I'm guessing we'll probably cross paths at some point, at which point my main concern is that we'll discover we agree on many things and so I won't have anything else to write about… :)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Some less reluctant(ish) follow up thoughts on postdoc pay

(Original post, this post, second follow up)

Well, looks like that last post incited some discussion! tl;dr from that post: I wrote that I found tweeting about how high you pay your postdocs above what most other labs pay to be off-putting. There are many factors that go into pay, and I personally don't think talking about how much you yourself pay is a productive way to discuss the important issue of postdoc pay in general. Even if the intent is not to boast, it certainly comes across as boastful to a number of people, which turns them off from the conversation. To be clear, I also said that I support paying postdocs well and support the increased minimum. It's the perceived boast, not the intent, that I have issue with.

So I learned a LOT from the feedback! Lots of comments, fair number of tweets (and these things called "subtweets"; yay internet!) and several personal e-mails and messages—more on all that in a later post; suffice it to say there's a "diversity of opinion". Anyway, okay, I said that I didn't like this particular way of bringing about discussion about postdoc pay. But at the same time, I do think it's a good thing to discuss, and discuss openly. Alright, so it's easy for me to criticize others about their tweets or whatever, but what, then, do I think is a good way to discuss things? Something I've been thinking about, and so I want to write a couple posts with some ideas and thoughts.

Overall, I think there are two somewhat separate issues at play. One is the immediate, practical issue of how to increase awareness of the problems people have and bring about some better outcomes in the near-term. The other is long-term policy goals and values that I will bring up in a later post (with relatively few ideas on what specifically to do, sorry).

So, to the first point, one of the things I learned is how surprisingly mysterious the subject of postdoc pay is, both to prospective postdocs and to PIs alike. Morals and high-minded policy discussions aside, seems like many just don't know some basic practical matters that can have a real impact. Anyway, here's a few relatively off the cuff suggestions of things to think about based on what I've heard, and feel free to add to the list.

First, for potential postdocs, the main thing to do is to remember that while science should in my opinion be the primary factor in choosing a postdoc, pay is another important factor and one you should definitely not shy away from, awkward though it may seem. I think advocacy begins here, on a practical level, by advocating for yourself. Keeping in mind that I haven't hired that many postdocs and I'm not sure how some of these ideas might hold up in practice, here is some information and some ideas for trainees on how to approach pay:
  • Ask about pay relatively early on, perhaps once there's real interest on both sides, during or maybe better after a visit (dunno on that). It may be uncomfortable, but at least make sure that it's clear that it's on your radar as a thing to discuss. Doesn't mean that you have to come to a hard number right away, but signal that it's worth talking about.
  • Before having such a discussion, it's worth thinking about what number seems fair to you. There is the NIH minimum, and then there's your life situation and location and so forth. You are an adult with a PhD, so take stock of what you think you need to be happy and productive, and don't be afraid of saying so. What can help with this is to think about what you might otherwise make outside of academia, or what the average cost of living is in your area, our your particular personal situation, or whatever other factors, and come up with a number. Having some rationalization for your number, whatever it may be, is important to help you maintain fortitude when you do discuss pay and not feel like you're being impudent. Remember that the PI probably finds this awkward as well, and so having guidance can actually help both parties! And if you're a decent candidate, you may have a surprising amount of bargaining power. At the same time, remember that the PI may have their own expectations for the discussion (which may include not having the conversation!), and so you may catch them a bit off guard, depending.
  • Some basic orientation about pay: the major national guideline comes from the NIH. The NIH sets a *minimum for fellowship* pay. This used to be ~$42K a year for a starting postdoc, and then there was some labor ruling that caused that to increase to ~$48K a year. Institutions often follow this NIH guidance to set up their pay guidelines. This ruling got overturned recently, and so now some institutions have gone back to $42K starting, while some others have not. These are the national guidelines for a baseline. Clearly, some places in the country are going to be more expensive than others.
  • This is the NIH guidance on the minimum. At some places, yes, you can definitely be paid more than the minimum (apparently, many trainees didn't know that). At some places, there are institutional rules that prevent PIs from paying more than the minimum or some other defined number or range. At some places, there are institutional rules that require PIs to pay above the minimum. If the PI has flexibility, they may have their own internal lab policy on pay, including a "performance raise" if you get a fellowship. And it's also possible that the PI just doesn't have any clue about any of this and just goes along with what HR tells them. At the same time, keep in mind that the PI does manage a team with existing players, and they must manage issues of fairness as well. Anyway, point is ask, do not ever assume.
  • Some points of reference. Many (most?) postdocs work for the NIH minimum (which of course does not mean you should or should not, necessarily). Stanford institutionally starts at $50K. As mentioned last time, some folks pay $60K (Tweet was from Daniel MacArthur, who has asked that I not subtweet, sorry). Right or wrong, clearly some PIs take issue with this. I've heard of some fellowships that went up north of $80K. I think that $80K is probably considered by most to be a pretty eye-poppingly high salary for a postdoc, but dunno, I'm old now. Computational work often pays more than straight biology because a lot of those folks could make so much in industry that it's harder to attract them for less (maybe $10K+ premium?). Math often pays higher than biology because postdocs are considered sort of like junior faculty. Physics often pays better as well, perhaps dependent on whether you have some named fellowship. Anyway, you have an advanced degree, do some homework. I think it makes sense to be sure your number reflects your self-assessed worth but is within reasonable norms, however you choose to define "reasonable".
  • As in any negotiation, there may be back and forth. As this happens, you may have areas in which you are flexible, and maybe the PI is flexible. It is also possible that the PI is unable or unwilling to bend on pay. At that point, it is up to you to make the decision about whether that sacrifice is worth it for you. There are of course further policy discussions that must happen in this regard, but for now, this is what you are faced with, and it's your decision to make.
  • It is possible that PIs may not even know all the options for pay. Sometimes, there is some institutional inertia on "how they do things" that everyone just goes along with. This can be hard to find out until you get there and find out who to ask, though.
  • There are often some hidden costs, and it's worth considering what those may be in your case. These can include things like out of pocket payments for health insurance (including family), gym memberships, and various other benefits. Note that sometimes these costs can vary depending on your official position at the institution, which in turn can change depending on whether you have a fellowship or whatever (sometimes, a fellowship reduces your status, thus costing you more for many things, ironically). There may be some sort of child care benefit or something, or at least access to the university daycare. And there may be some commuting benefits, in case that's relevant. Some places are able to cover moving costs if the PI wishes.
  • There are a host of issues for foreign postdocs, and someone more knowledgeable than I should probably write about them, but some costs I've seen are visa costs (sometimes paid by institution, sometimes not, very confusing), and also travel costs associated with yearly return visits to the home country for visa purposes. These return visits, by the way, may be avoidable with longer contracts, which may or may not be available, which was something I just learned recently myself.
  • For a lot of the above hidden costs, the PI may not even realize that these sorts of things are going on, and they may be willing to help. There is a possibility that they can cover some of these costs, depending on institutional rules, or maybe it can be a rationale to negotiate a higher salary.
Here are some thoughts for PIs, probably mostly for junior people (which I still consider myself, but I'm probably just kidding myself). Most of these I'm just kind of making up on the spot, being a relatively inexperienced postdoc-hirer myself:
  • It took me a while to learn all the intricacies of what constitutes pay. What are the pay scales? What can I pay for? Moving costs? Commuting costs? Benefits? I still don't think I fully understand all of this, but I wish I had a better understanding when I started. When I started, it was like "you can hire a postdoc, here you go."
  • I'm still not fully clear on all the hidden costs to my people and what benefits they get, and I should really brush up on that, potentially making a plain English document for new lab members.
  • At the institutional level, it took me a while to disentangle what is actual policy on things like pay vs. what is just "the way we have always done it". Breaking these unofficial rules gave me some flexibility to do good things for my people.
  • I am thinking of developing a coherent lab policy on pay, explicitly stating what I will and will consider when figuring out overall pay level, relative pay between people, etc. I haven't really worried about it so far, and that's been fine, but having something like that would really help. I guess that's sort of obvious, so maybe I'm just sort of late to this bit of common sense. Am I alone in that?
  • I think in the course of coming up with such a policy on pay, I'll probably think about exactly what my values are, what these kids' opportunity costs are, and how much I think is reasonable to live on in Philly. I mean, I kinda do this already, but haven't really thought about it very seriously, and periodic reexamination seems appropriate.
  • I'm not entirely sure I would share this policy within the lab, though. Thing is, everyone's circumstances are different, and exceptions are frankly pretty much the rule. I think the point is just to have some sort of internal guidance so that at least you won't forget about anything when deliberating.
  • I'm wondering whether and to what extent it's worth discussing lab cost management with the people in your lab so that they see how the sausage gets made. I had one trainee who was surprised to find out (not from me, but rather from Penn HR) exactly how much their pay actually counted against a grant once all the benefits and so forth were added in. There is an argument to be made (that I've mostly subscribed to) that postdocs should just focus on their work and not worry about the lab bills. There's another argument to be made that sharing such information gives people a sense of the true costs of running a lab for training purposes. Then again, it's a fine line between being informative and passive-aggressive. Dunno on this one.
Anyway, who knows if this will help anything, but consider this my contribution to the discussion for now. While it certainly won't solve all the problems out there, given the surprising lack of knowledge out there, perhaps this information will be of some use. More in another post later on policy things that came up, as well as how to talk about these things on the internet.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Some (reluctant) thoughts on postdoc pay

Update 12/7/2016: (first follow up here, second follow up here)

I have generally steered well clear of the issue of postdoc pay, which engenders pretty heated conversations that I'm SO not interested in getting into publicly, but one thing I'm seeing is really bugging me these days: people bragging on Twitter about how much they pay their postdocs above the NIH minimum. Like this:

I don't mean to single these folks out—it just happened that I saw these tweets most recently—but I've seen a few such statements over the last year or so since the announcement that the mimimum for salaried workers would be increased to ~$48K or so (which was just recently reversed).

Why is this irritating? Well, first of all, in this funding climate, and given many labs that have to make many tough choices, it does strike me as a bit arrogant to talk about how much more you can afford to pay than many, many other very well-intentioned scientists. The implication is that people who don't pay as much as you do are paying an abusively low amount, which is I think an unfair charge. For these reasons (and maybe a few others), I just don't think it's really appropriate to publicly talk about how much you pay your people. For the record, I support paying postdocs well, and I think the increase is overall a good idea. My point here will be that there is not an obvious default "right" position on the issue of postdoc pay, and I think it is far more complex than just saying "We should pay postdocs a decent wage."

Indeed, I think the key difficulty is pinning down exactly what we mean by the notion of "decent wage". For instance, in the first tweet above, the PI is from Cambridge/Boston, and the second is from NYC. Now, the proposed federal regulation for starting postdocs is (was) $47,484, and that would apply everywhere. Including, say, Ann Arbor, Michigan (which I choose for no particular reason other than it's home to a major, world-class research institution, but in a relatively affordable location). Now, comparing the cost of living of any two places is tricky, but I found this estimate that Boston is roughly 1.4x as pricey as Ann Arbor (which sounds probably about right). Bragging about paying $60K? Well, shouldn't that be $66K? Live in Cambridge MA instead? No better, $76K. So let's stop crowing about how "decently" the Broad Institute pays, okay?

So, is $60K "fair"? Hmm. From the PI perspective: a Boston PI could say, well my dollars don't go as far, so in a way, doesn't the Michigan PI have an unfair advantage? Then again, the Michigan PI could say hey, why do I have to pay more (relatively speaking) for my postdocs? Why does the Boston PI not have to pay the same effective wages I do? Why should they not have an enforced effective minimum standard pay and have the freedom to pay effectively less?

The motivation of PIs may also matter here as well. The focus in the discussion has been on PIs taking advantage of cheap labor, and that definitely happens. But some PIs may define their mission as training as many scientists as possible, which certainly seems reasonable to me, at least from one point of view. (And I do wonder how often those who brag about paying so much above the minimum have actually had to make the tough choice of turning away a talented postdoc candidate due to constrained funding.)

From the NIH perspective: what is the goal? To get as much science as "efficiently" as possible? To train people? To create a stable scientific workforce? Or to better human health? Should the NIH even allow people in high cost of living areas to pay their postdocs more? Would it be fair to consider this pay scale in grant review, just as other areas of budgets are scrutinized? Does increasing the minimum penalize those who pay the minimum in non-Boston/SF locations unfairly, thus increasing inequity? Or does it provide a general boost for those places, now making them more attractive because their NIH minimum dollars go further? Should the NIH scale the size of grant by cost of living in the area of the host institution? To what extent should the NIH support diversity of locations, anyway?

From the trainee perspective: It's pretty easy for trainees to say that whatever they're paid right now is not fair (though you might be surprised how little many assistant professors make). So for trainees reading this post, let me ask: what would be fair? Okay, maybe now you have a number in your head. Where does that number come from? Is it based on need? Consider: should a postdoc who has a family be paid more? Wait a minute, what about the postdoc without a family? What about immigrants with expensive visa costs? Or potentially families to support in their home country? Moving costs? Commuting costs? Should postdocs be paid more when the institution is in an expensive city? Should postdocs be forced to live further away from the institute to seek more affordable housing? My point is that there is no clear line between necessity and luxury, and wherever that blurry line does get drawn will be highly dependent on a trainee's circumstances and choices.

Or should that number be based on performance? Should the postdoc entering the lab with a flashy paper or two be paid more than the one without? Should a postdoc get a raise every time they publish a paper, scaled by how important the paper is? How many grants it generates? I think it's reasonable to assume that such an environment would be toxic within a lab, but wouldn't the same be true of pay based on personal circumstance, as just discussed above? And isn't such performance-based pay already what's sort of happening at a more global level in flush institutes where PIs can get enough grants to pay well above the minimum?

As you have probably noticed, this post has way more question marks than periods, and I don't claim to know the answers to any of these questions. I have thoughts, like everyone else, and I'm happy to talk about them in person, where nuance and human connection tend to breed more consensus than discord. My point is that reducing all this to a single number is sort of ridiculous, but that's how it works, and so that's what we all have to start from, along with various institutional prerogatives. In the meantime, given how simplistic it is to reduce this discussion to a single number, can we please stop with the public postdoc pay-shaming?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Anti-Asian bias in science

Scientists are a cloyingly liberal bunch. In the wake of this (horrifying) election, seems like every other science Tweet I saw was like
To all my Inuit friends and colleagues: I stand with you. Against fear. Against hate.
Lovely sentiments, for sure, and as a non-white person living in the Philly suburbs at this frightening time, that is welcome. (Although I do wonder who would actually step up if something really went down. Would I? Would I even stand up for myself?)

At the same time, beneath this moralistic veneer, it is of course impossible to deny that there is tons of discrimination and bias in science. Virtually any objective look at the numbers shows that women and under-represented minorities face hurdles that I most definitely have not, and these numbers are backed up with the personal stories we have all heard that are truly appalling. But there is, I think, another less widely-acknowledged or discussed form of discrimination in science, which is discrimination targeted towards Asian scientists.

Asians make up a relatively small (though rapidly growing) portion of the US population. In science, however, they're highly over-represented, making up a large fraction of the scientific workforce. And with that comes a strange situation: a group that is clearly not a small minority, and that is doing well in this highly regarded and respected area, and yet clearly faces bias and discrimination in a number of ways, many of which may be different from those that other minorities face.

First off, what do I mean by Asian? I'm guessing I'm not the only one who feels like I'm checking the "miscellaneous box" when I'm faced with one of these forms and choose "Asian":

I mean, there's a billion Indians and a billion Chinese people EACH out there (not to mention 10s to 100s of millions of other Asian groups), but whatever. Point is, Asians are a diverse group, and I think these different groups face some common and some distinct forms of discrimination. Aside from the various distinctions by ethnic category, there are also distinct forms of bias directed towards Asians coming from abroad as opposed to Asian-Americans. I think all Asians face some measure of discrimination, and in particular, those of East Asian (and within that, Chinese) origin face some of the biggest obstacles.

(I could be completely wrong about this, but I do feel like East Asian scientists face more barriers than South Asians for whatever reason. Part of this may be an matter of numbers: there are simply fewer South Asians in science to begin with. And certainly South Asians from abroad run into trouble, especially a generation ago. That said, as an Indian-American I don't personally feel like I've been on the short end of the stick for racial reasons. Then again, who knows what I'm not hearing, know what I mean? Indeed, I think it's specifically because I'm not Chinese that I've seen mostly anti-Chinese bias, which is what I'll focus on here.)

Exactly what are these barriers? After all, don't the stereotypes of Chinese in the US typically involve words like "diligent", "hard working", "good at math"? Well, I think it's important to realize that it is these very words that implicitly provide an upper limit on what Chinese scientists can aspire to in academia. Consider the following statement I heard from someone (I can't exactly remember the context) that went something like "Oh, they'll just hire a bunch of Chinese postdocs for that, I'm sure." As in "do what they're told", "just labor", "interchangeable", "quiet". Are such sentiments that far from "not independent-minded" or "lacking vision"?

You'd think that these stereotypes may have faded in recent years, and I think that is true to some extent. Then again, take a look at this well-meaning guide from a university in Germany for Chinese/German relationships called "When a Chinese PhD student meets a German supervisor", written by a couple of Chinese PhD students in Germany. I think it actually has a lot of useful things in there, and it would be disingenuous to say that there are no meaningful cultural differences, especially for a foreign student coming to Germany. At the same time, I found some aspects of the guide worrisome:
Through constant discussions, Ming gradually learned when he should obey his supervisor and when he should argue. Ming’s supervisor was very happy when he noticed that the way Ming approached his work had changed and therefore said, “German universities train PhD students to think independently and critically.”
There it is: implicitly, Chinese students don't think independently or critically without extensive German retraining.

And check out this one:
PhD students in Germany are not just students, they often are also researchers and employees at universities. On the one hand, they need to finish their scientific projects independently; on the other hand, they have to teach courses that are assigned by the university or their research groups and they have to do daily organizational work as well. All these tasks require professional qualities. In each research group, every member performs his or her duties according to their contracts.

At the beginning of his PhD, Ming had no plan or agenda at all when he talked to his supervisor, which resulted in aimless and inefficient discussions. After being reminded by the supervisor, Ming began to write agendas for their discussions, but they were always extensive instead of being brief, which made it a laborious task for the supervisor to read. Then the supervisor taught Ming to use bullet points, i.e., to list every question or issue that needs to be discussed with a word or a short phrase.
Right… because I've never had non-Asian students who had these problems with "professional qualities".

I mean, I think this guide is addressing some real concerns and is probably very helpful (check out the part where they describe how to sort garbage like the locals—sounds like someone had a traumatic experience leading to that particular section). But there are long-term consequences to reinforcing the stereotypes of lack of independence, lack of communication skills and the such. Notice how these stereotypes are all about the qualities people think are required for getting to the next level in academia?

Also, this stereotyping is not the only form of bias and racism that Chinese people face in science. Indeed, because the number of Chinese people in science is so large, they must constantly be vigilant about accusations of favoritism and reverse bias. This can come out in particularly nasty ways. For instance, I recently went to a major conference and had a chat with a rather well-known colleague after a meal. As is standard, we spent some time complaining about annoying reviewers, and all of a sudden, my colleague said "And I just KNOW this reviewer is Chinese." The venom with which the word "Chinese" came out of their mouth really took me by surprise, but I'm betting I'm not the only one who's heard that sort of thing, and more than once. Just imagine hearing this kind of talk about any other racial or ethnic group.

In that environment, is it surprising that it is hard for Asian scientists to break through to higher levels in academia? It seems to me that Asians form an under-over-represented class in science: they are a big part of making the scientific enterprise run, but have got plenty of extra hurdles to jump through to get to the next level, with bias working against them on precisely all those extra, conveniently unquantifiable qualities deemed necessary to get, say, a faculty position. My father is an academic, and was pretty sure that he faced racism earlier in his career, though it's hard to pinpoint exactly where and how. I had a recent conversation with a Chinese colleague who told me the exact same thing: he knows its harder for him for a number of reasons, but it's just so hard to prove. It is the soft nature of this bias that makes it so pernicious, which is of course true for other groups as well, but I feel like we don't think about it as much for Asians because they are so visibly over-represented, so we think "What's the problem?".

All this is not to say that there's been no progress. For instance, at the very conference where my colleague lamented their allegedly Chinese reviewer, I noted just how many of the best and brightest PIs in attendance were Asian, including a large number of Chinese and Chinese-American scientists. Indeed, I just visited a university where my hosts were extremely successful Asian scientists, and they so were warm and welcoming, inviting me to dinner at their home together with a few other Asian scientists, all of whom I really admire and respect. At those times, I think the vision of an inclusive, open-minded scientific community is not only possible, but perhaps attainable.

At the same time, I think recent events have shown that these changes do not come for free. It is a cliché, but it is true that we must all fight for these changes and stand against fear and against hate, etc., etc. Great, that's fine and well, and I'm all for it. At the same time, I think it's important to acknowledge that when it comes down to it, social pressures often make it hard to say something in the moment when these situations arise. Looking back at my own experiences, I think I am not alone in saying that I have more regrets about lost opportunities to do or say the right thing rather than proud moments of actually standing up to what I think was wrong. Just saying "we should stand up to bias and discrimination" is very different than providing a blueprint for how to do so.

As such, all moral grandstanding aside, I think there is an interesting question facing us Asians now as a group. Thus far, I feel that Asian scientists have relied on the goodwill of non-Asians to advocate for us, push our careers, make a place for us in science—and to the many, many wonderful scientists who have supported Asians, including myself, a sincere thank you. But it's important to realize that this means, essentially, succeeding on other people's terms. Those terms have generally been favorable to Asian scientists (and non-scientists) so far, but are there limits to Asian success in that model? Do we need to start asserting our rights more aggressively and in a more organized fashion? A postdoc in my lab, Uschi, has vigorously spoken out for postdoc rights here at Penn, and guess what: it makes a difference. I would imagine that advocating for Asians scientists could result in similar benefits. Should this be part of a larger effort to assert Asian rights on a national stage? After all, while relying on the benevolence of kind-hearted non-Asian scientists has worked okay so far in our little science bubble, if we think that general nerdiness and funny accents are going to save us in Gen Pop, well, take a look at what's going on in the aftermath of this election. Maybe it will require concerted, coordinated advocacy to change the policies and bias that make things difficult for foreigners that science in this country relies on, Asian and otherwise.

Gotta say, I felt very weird writing this last paragraph. Does this come across as shrill and ungrateful? Why am I rocking the boat? Making a mountain out of a molehill? Shouldn't we just keep our heads down and focus on our work? These are questions I asked myself as I wrote this as a person who has done well in the system and doesn't really have that much to complain about. But maybe that's just me "being Asian"?

PS: Here's another snippet from the German guide for Chinese students:
The third surprise was that on the same day Ming arrived in Konstanz, the research group threw a welcome party for him and all the group members showed up. At that party, Ming got to know everybody. Besides, there was a discussion about picking a German name for Ming. Based on the group members’ opinions and Ming’s agreement, he was finally named Felix, which indicates optimism and therefore matches his character. From then on, he has had a German name. The thoughtful and warm welcome from his research group touched Ming and he was looking forward to the cooperation with his research group.
Okay, whatever else happens, can we at least agree to stop this forced renaming business?

[Update, 11/20: Apparently, the word Eskimo is now considered derogatory; changed to Inuit, no offense intended.]

Saturday, November 5, 2016

On bar graphs, buying guides and avoiding the tyranny of choice

Ah, the curse of the internet! Once upon a time, we would be satisfied just to get an okay taco in NYC. Now, unless you get the VERY best anything as rated by the internet, you’re stuck feeling like this:

Same goes for everything from chef’s knives to backpacks to whatever it is (I recommend The Sweethome as an excellent site with buying guides for tons of products). Funnily enough, I think we have ended up with this problem for the same reason that people whine on about bar graphs: because we fail to show the data points underlying the summary statistic. Take a look at these examples from this paper:

For most buying guides, they usually just report the max (rather than the mean in most scientific bar graphs), but the problem is the same. The max is most useful when your distribution looks like this:
However, reporting the max is far less useful a statistic when your distribution looks like this or this:

What I mean by all this is that when we read an online shopping guide, we assume that their top pick is WAY better than all the other options—a classic case of the outlier distribution I showed first. (This is why we feel like assholes for getting the second best anything.) But for many things, the best scoring item is not all that much better than the second best. Or maybe even the third best. Like this morning, when I was thinking of getting a toilet brush and instinctively went to look up a review. Perhaps there are some toilet brushes are better than others. Maybe there are some with a fatal flaw that means you really shouldn’t buy them. But I’m guessing that most toilet brushes basically are just fine. Of course, that doesn’t prevent The Sweethome providing me a guide for the best toilet brush: great, deeply appreciative. But if I just go to the local store and get a toilet brush, I’m probably not all that far off. Which is to say that the distribution of “scores” for the toilet brush are probably closely packed and not particularly differentiated—there is no outlier toilet brush.

While there may be cases where there is truly a clear outlier (like the early days of the iPod or Google (remember AltaVista?)), I venture to say that the distribution of goodness most of the time is probably bimodal. Some products are good and roughly equivalent, some are duds. Often the duds will have some particular characteristic to avoid, like when The Sweethome says this about toilet brushes:
We were quick to dismiss toilet brushes whose holders were entirely closed, or had no holders at all. In the latter category, that meant eliminating the swab-style Fuller brush, a $3 mop, and a very cheap wire-ring brush.
I think this sort of information should be at the top of the page, and so you buying guide could say “Pretty much all decent toilet brushes are similar, but be sure to get one with an open holder. And spend around $5-10.”

Then again, when you read these guides, it often seems that there’s no other rational option than their top choice, portraying it as being by far and away the best based on their extensive testing. But that’s mostly because they’ve just spend like 79 hours with toilet brushes and are probably magnifying subtle distinctions invisible to the majority of people, and have already long since discarded all the duds. It’s like they did this:

Now this is not to say those smaller distinctions don’t matter, and by all means get the best one, but let’s not kill ourselves trying to get the very best everything. After all, do those differences really matter for the few hours you’re likely to spend with a toilet brush over your entire lifetime? (And how valuable was the time you spent on the decision itself?)

All of this reminds me of a trip I took to New York City to hang out with my brother a few months back. New York is the world capital of “Oh, don't bother with these, I know the best place to get toilet brushes”, and my brother is no exception. Which is actually pretty awesome—we had a great time checking out some amazing eats across town. But then, at the end, I saw a Haagen Dazs and was like "Oh, let's get a coffee milkshake!". My brother said "Oh, no, I know this incredible milkshake place, we should go there." To which I said, "You ever had a coffee milkshake from Haagen Dazs? It's actually pretty damn good." And good it was.