history of science


With 50 Million Users, Is Academia.edu Speeding Up Science?

Today we follow up with Richard Price, the founder and CEO of the most popular social sharing site for the academic sector, Academia.edu. When we talked to Richard almost five years ago, the site had 1.5 million users, mostly academics sharing their own papers so that their peers had access without any paywalls. Today the site boasts over 50 million users and serves as a laboratory for the future of academic publishing.

It’s not hard to understand the site's phenomenal growth. Weathering the hit back by Elsevier and other prestige publishing houses, Academia.edu has been able to open up access to millions of scholarly papers which otherwise would not have been accessible. And the papers are not only available to academics. Anyone can get an account for free. Richard recently found a farmer from Sub-Saharan Africa downloading a paper on water conservation.

In addition, many users now choose to publish on the site rather than with an established journal. An emeritus professor at Berkeley told Richard this:

“If I publish in a journal, it takes two years to come out and seventeen people read the paper. If I upload to Academia, I get 100 views in the first week."

It's a success story in terms of uptake by the scholarly sector, but what does this success mean to Richard and the company, and to its users and the future of publishing?

So far revenue sources are limited. Experiments with a premium service have had mixed results with users pushing back and arguing that "open access to scholarship should be a human right, not a business model." How will the site, which requires huge infrastructure, sustain itself?

Richard said before that the site could speed up science. Has it?

Join us behind the scenes with the mastermind of Academia.edu.

Art in the Lab (Falling in Love with Bacteria)

Today’s guest makes time to create beauty in the lab. Memo Berkmen is a bacterial artist along with being a staff scientist at New England Bio Labs. He and his colleague, Maria Penil, were the winners of the American Society for Microbiology’s agar art contest in 2015. Their felicitous relationship with the unseen, often unnoticed, world of ancient organisms fills us with wonder and inspiration.

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Bacteria art by Memo Berkmen, Maria Penil

Democracy and Science Have Tea at the White House

The wheels on his navy blue Toyota Prius could be heard squeeling as Science wound down the parking structure in Bethesda.  Yes, it's true, Science's parking spot involved two stories and some undwinding to get out on the open road.  Today Mr. Science was headed to the White House for tea with Ms. Democracy.

As it happens, on this particular day, our Mr. Science is a religious man.  One doesn't know how it happened.  It just happened.

Flint Whistleblower Says Today's Science Is to Blame for Its Own Lack of Public Trust

Marc Edwards is telling a different story than the one most of us have been reading and hearing lately. But then he’s used to it.

Marc was the engineer from Virginia Tech who was called one day in September, 2015, by a resident of Flint, Michigan. A Ms Lee Ann Walters wanted Marc to check out her water. When Marc and his team got to Flint they uncovered super high levels of lead in the potable water, with over 100,000 people exposed to high lead levels and 12,000 people with lead poisoning. You know the rest.

But you may not know that a very similar story to Flint played out in the nation’s capital in 2003. A Washington DC water crisis led to a hearing in which Congress found that the CDC had released “scientifically indefensible” reports on the water.

Marc Edwards exposed those reports and lost a contract with the EPA over it.

Aghast at the world of academic science which he says is "gamed by a system of quantitative incentives" and at government agencies who often overlook the truth, Marc now takes aim at the whole system of science. Last year he co-authored a report Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition. The report warns of a tipping point where science “itself becomes inherently corrupt and public trust is lost, risking a new dark age."

The integrity of science has been a major theme here on the program, so while Marc is not a biomedical researcher, his experience in exposing bad science resonates within our own life science community.

In line after quotable line (“The idea of science as a public good is getting lost. In science our product is truth, and our brand is trust. The greatest proportion of truth seekers are not going into science as opposed to other human endeavors."), Marc fillets today’s scientists in government and academia, arguing that the system of science is skewed towards quantitative markers rather than quality: the pressure to publish more papers each year, citations, how much funding, etc.

Marc thinks things have gone so wrong that the war on science today (and yes, he does think there is a war on science), is more the fault of the scientists than any political movement. Somewhat with irony, but more with sadness, he says:

“The Flint water crisis was so bad it restored my faith in politicians. I mean that’s how screwed up it was. The politicians behaved themselves really well. The people who have been indicted are the scientists and engineers."

Homo Sapiens (D)Evolves into Homo Medicus

A well known science and medical author, Wades Tudeep, has proposed an upgrade to a famous Shakespeare quote from Hamlet:

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable!  In action how like an Angel!  In apprehension how like a god! . . . [proposed addition] . . . In DNA, what an  encyclopedia of disease!"

Five Reasons Why Scientists Should Not March . . . And Five Reasons Why They Might Just Should

Gene and Tonic

1.  There’s no good and elegant way for a scientist to march.  For one thing, there are no slide projectors.  In fact, there are really no tools for marching, except the bull horn.  And that takes someone who wants to talk loudly.   Duh!  Scientists don’t actually do things.  They get tools to do them.  

2.  Scientists marching in America would look too French.  Guillotines are for frogs and mice, not people.  

Many Biologists Today Don’t Have Enough Computer Science to Use the Databases

Moray Campbell was for all intents and purposes an accomplished and successful cancer biologist at the renowned Roswell Park Cancer Center. Then one day he woke up and realized he was becoming irrelevant. He was a traditionally trained wet lab biologist who was getting left behind by computer science. Any scientist must keep up with their field, but this was different. A few conferences and journals--reading the news everyday was not going to be enough. Facing reality, Moray enrolled in a bioinformatics masters program at Johns Hopkins.

That was in 2013.

"Biology is genomics. And genomics is basically computer science,” says Moray at the outset of today’s program. “In 2013 I would have said I look at the epigenetics of prostate cancer. Now I say that I look at the epigenomics of prostate cancer. I’ve become genomically literate."

What was it like for Moray to go back to school mid-career with teachers and homework and finals? Did he doubt his decision when the going got tough? Is it harder for biologists to learn coding or coders to learn biology?

Moray is now finished with his degree and in the process learned that as a discipline, we're still struggling with how to teach genomics to biologists.

He gives the example of datasets such as TCGA that many biologists today don’t even know how to use.

“These data are there. And they’re being used very deeply,” he says. "But I suspect by quite a restricted community. If you don’t even know how to download a file, how are you going to be able to analyze it?"

It's been a dramatic transition for Moray. Looking back now he says, "biology is dead; long live biology."

Hank Greely on “The End of Sex" and Other Stuff

Each year at this time we bring on a guest who is somewhat out of the way of our normal lineup, for example, a science fiction writer or a philosopher. Today Theral interviews a law professor who loves to philosophize and write about the impact of biotechnology on our lives now and in the near future. His newest book out this year, “The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction,” is another comprehensive and provocative example of what has made Stanford’s Hank Greely such an in-demand speaker both to scientist and non-scientist audiences alike.

“My prediction in the book is that in twenty to forty years, most people with good healthcare will conceive their children in a lab using stem cell derived eggs--and sometimes sperm—and then do whole genome sequencing preimplantation genetic diagnosis and pick the embryo they want,” says Hank at the outset of today’s extended interview.

Whereas sci-fi writers and the mainstream press often play into what Hank calls "our need for scary bedtime stories," he seeks to understand and elucidate the actual--and less dramatic--"muddling through" of new technologies into our lives.

In addition to discussing the book, we talk with Hank about his relationship to his colleague scientists at Stanford, what he thinks is the breakthrough technology of 2016, and the future of the FDA in the era of Trump.

Luke Timmerman on His New Biography of Lee Hood

There is tons of life science journalism. Our coffee tables and inboxes fill up each week with that quarterly or that daily. We sift through headlines and product advertisements to assess what’s going on in our industry. It’s our job to know. In this age of several-times-per-day newsletters and 24 hrs a day Twitter, we catch what we can.

And occasionally, we come across a carefully written piece or a well done interview, and we take a moment to realize with some awe the history that is being made in our industry.

Occasionally. Which is why a new book out by veteran biotech journalist and the guest of today’s show, Luke Timmerman, is such a rare treat.

Hood is a thrilling ride through the life of the visionary biologist, Lee Hood, told by someone who is not afraid to show the shiny and the not so shiny. From his boyhood in Montana to being chair of the biology department at Caltech where he oversaw the invention of the automated DNA sequencer, to being recruited to Seattle by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Hood’s journey becomes the perfect vehicle for Timmerman to probe into the messy corners of science and put an intimate, human face on the history of biotech. Covering Hood’s move to the University of Washington as a young Seattle based reporter, Timmerman has known Lee Hood for several years. It's a full scale biography, efficiently and confidently written with an insider's perspective and access. Timmerman says it's an “unofficial biography,” meaning Hood was supportive of the project, but Timmerman had full freedom.

Playing historian has been somewhat of a fantasy for the long time journalist.

"There are things that are happening in the moment which a journalist can call people on, but you don’t really get the whole story. There’s only so much people can say and there are not a whole lot of documents that come available when you’re on deadline. But when you’re a biographer, and you have the luxury of time, and people have moved on, things become a lot less sensitive. People become more willing to talk, and a whole lot of documents become available through the public record.”

Who is this man, Lee Hood, and how has he impacted our industry? In the book, we read of the time when Hood holds a press conference to announce his team has done it—they’ve got an automated DNA sequencer. But, standing at perhaps the pinnacle of his career, Hood forgets to mention the "team" part. It’s a flaw that will go on to haunt what by any measure has been a remarkably successful career.

What impact has the subject made on the author? And what does Timmerman hope for the book?

To round out the interview, we get Timmerman’s thoughts on his new gig, the Timmerman Report, and the recent Sarepta decision by the FDA.



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