STEM employers in North Carolina: Time to put your money where your mouths are

Morehead Planetarium on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill (Flickr: William Yeung)

Morehead Planetarium on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill (Flickr: William Yeung)

North Carolina’s got a shiny new law legalizing antigay discrimination and legislating where trans folk can pee. (More specifically, it forbids the state’s cities and municipalities from passing nondiscrimination laws that protect sexual orientation and gender identity, which some have done.) It’s probably in violation of current Federal regulations and the Constitution, but it could be years before that’s sorted out in court.

H2 was written, passed in a special legislative session, and signed into law in about 10 hours — so quickly that some Democrats walked out of the state Senate in protest of the procedural chicanery. There was effectively no time to mount any public campaign against the law before it became law. Which is a pity, because a similar law under consideration in Georgia is now literally up against Mary Poppins and Captain America: the Walt Disney Company and its subsidiary Marvel Entertainment are threatening to pull operations from the state if the bill passes.

I’m not aware that North Carolina has much of an economic stake in making superhero science fiction, but I do happen to know that the state is deeply invested in actual science. The Research Triangle is a development region created in a public-private partnership to foster science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) businesses with close ties to Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University. It was named one of the “Top 10 Biopharma Clusters” last year. So this seems like it might be a problem for the academic side of all that partnership:

As interpreted by the Department of Education, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 forbids discrimination against trans students in any school that receives federal funding. These schools are prohibited from excluding trans students from the bathroom consistent with their gender identity. The new North Carolina law, dubbed H2, rebukes this federal mandate by forbidding public schools from allowing trans students to use the correct bathroom. That jeopardizes the more than $4.5 billion in federal education funding that North Carolina expected to receive in 2016.

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In which I can kinda fake Sorkin dialogue?

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(Previously, on Twitter)

OPEN ON Toby Ziegler and Josh Lyman, walking down a hallway in the West Wing.

Toby: Nominee’s out. Merrick—
Josh: Merrick?
Toby: Garland.
Josh: Merrick Garland?
Toby: Merrick Garland.
Josh: What, did Hermione Granger turn us down?
Toby: Is she on the D.C. Circuit, or the 5th?
Josh: Aw, you know what I mean. He just sounds really—
Toby: White?
Josh: I was going to say WASPy, but sure.
Toby: You work for a Josiah Bartlett.
Josh: …
Toby: Anyway, he’s a good judge. Great experience. Prosecuted Tim McVeigh.
Josh: I just thought we were going to be more, uh, creative.
Toby: It’s a bad time for creative.
Josh: Is it ever a good one?
Toby: The Judiciary Committee isn’t going to end the freezeout for creative
Josh: You think the Judiciary Committee is going to end the freezeout for Merrick Garland?
Toby: Well, they’ll look dumb if they don’t
Josh: They look dumb anyway!
Toby: Gotta heighten the contradictions. Freezing out a boring, obviously qualified nominee
Josh: You think they’ll crack?
Toby: If they do, we get Justice Merrick Garland. If they don’t, we try again after the election.
Josh: AFTER THE ELECTION?
Toby: It’s nuts, I agree.
Josh: It’s NUTS.
Toby: The Republicans are nuts.
Josh: You’d think people who talked so much about the Constitution would—
Toby: Follow it?
Josh: Yeah.
Toby: Are you new here?
Josh: So if they freeze out Merrick Garland, AND we win the election, we can get creative?
Toby: More creative, yeah. Not much, though — because we still might not get the Senate back.
Josh: Jeez. Maybe nominating Hermione Granger would be more realistic.
Toby: [shrugs]

FIN

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Today, in statistics that lose almost all meaning when you really think about them

Someone in my Twitter stream passed along a Washington Post WonkBlog item, which, drawing from WaPo’s important and impressive tracking of shootings by U.S. police, estimates that as of the posting date (June 1), police were responsible for 1 in 13 gun deaths in the U.S. There’s a graphic, for extra share-ability:

One in 13! ONE in THIRTEEN! ONE in THIRTEEN!

… Is that a lot?

Actually, we know it’s an estimated 385 deaths, because the numbers are right there on the shareable graphic. (Good practice, that, well done!) But the first thing that occurred to me, as I looked at the graphic, was that the “one in 13” ratio is only alarming to me because I knew, even before I saw the raw numbers, that Americans shoot a lot of each other. According to the Post’s data, there were 5,099 shooting deaths in the first five months of 2015! If we had the per-capita shooting death rate of a civilized nation, the police could shoot exactly as many people and end up with a much higher ratio, but would that be proportionally more alarming?

And then the second thing that occurred to me was that, actually, I can picture a scenario in which I’d prefer for the ratio to be higher — if I could trust the police to shoot people only when necessary, unencumbered by systematic biases and a proclivity to use maximal force. Heck, in a world where fully trustworthy police were responsible for 100% of gun deaths, that’d mean no gun deaths resulting from four-year-olds rummaging in their parents’ nightstands, and no gun deaths by paranoid old white dudes who hate rap music. I’d actually quite like to live in that world.

Really, all of the underlying understanding that makes the info-graphic stat alarming and newsworthy and share-able is more depressing and infuriating than the statistic itself: we live in a country where guns are used to kill far too many people, and we don’t trust the police to treat their fellow citizens fairly. Happy day-after-Independence-Day!

(As expounded previously on Twitter.)

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The Molecular Ecologist: I read A Troublesome Inheritance so you don’t have to

World Map - Abstract Acrylic Image by Lara Mukahirn.

Over at The Molecular Ecologist I’ve done an in-depth review of the population genetics data cited by Nicholas Wade in his book A Troublesome Inheritance, which argues that social, cultural, and economic differences between human populations are all in our genes. Digging into the book’s endnotes, it didn’t take me long to find discrepancies between Wade’s description of basic population genetic results and the actual, um, results.

First and foremost, Wade claims that when population geneticists apply a class of statistical methods called clustering algorithms to datasets containing hundreds or thousands of genetic markers, they objectively identify five geographic groups that he calls “continental races”—differentiating African, European/Middle Eastern/South Asian, East Asian, Oceanian, and American people. What he does not make particularly clear is that while clustering methods do group genetic samples without direct instructions, the algorithms do not decide how many clusters there are. The geneticists using them do.

To make me feel somewhat better for having paid actual money to read this book, go read my whole review.◼

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Proposed new consumer information labels for food products

Energy in Bananas Photo by Robert Fornal.

Produced with genetic engineering.

Contents derived from organisms produced by millennia of only occasionally deliberate selective breeding, and which may be so freakishly modified from their ancestral state that they would not survive five days without constant care and attention.

Product may make your tongue appear to be purple in color, but this effect is not permanent.

Useful for, at most, temporary relief of emotional distress resulting from a breakup, firing, or other traumatic life experience.

Will not taste anything like what your mother used to make.

Processed in a facility that also sells to Republicans.

Can be habit-forming if consumed periodically in a regular place, at a set time of day, or in conjunction with routine activities.

Contains no material that is truly describable using the word “marshmallow.”

May produce sensory stimuli with strong associations to formative childhood experiences, which can trigger periods of abstraction, rumination, nostalgia, regret, and panic attacks.

Made in desperation.◼

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Conscience, and objections

A wilderness firefighting crew of conscientious objectors in 1945, who were clearly doing it all wrong. (WikiMedia Commons)

There’s an emerging strain of thought in contemporary, politicized U.S. Christianity, which holds that freedom of religion logically must permit pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills if they believe that birth control is wrong; or, more lately, for people who provide wedding-related services to refuse to serve gay or lesbian couples if they oppose same-sex marriage. These refusals of service are an expression of conscience, the reasoning goes, and you can’t just force someone to violate their conscience, even if it’s in the course of doing their job.

This thinking would have come as quite the surprise to the Christian tradition in which I was raised. Mennonites know something about conscientious objection, since they’re pacifists—so, rather than take up arms, my grandparents’ generation spent the Second World War doing alternative, nonviolent service in forestry and soil conservation, in public health and psychiatric care, as wilderness fire fighters, and even as human guinea pigs. That is to say, they felt it was wrong to kill, so they opted to do hard, unpleasant, even quite dangerous things rather than take a job that required them to kill.

But clearly what those COs should actually have done was sign right up for the draft, work their ways through boot camp, ship out to the front—and then lay down their arms. From what I can tell, the current generation of “dissenters” would say it was only a free exercise of their Constitutional rights.◼

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Because credit cards are probably symbols of the Papacy or something

On the off chance that anyone you encounter over the course of this holiday season should happen to mention the “War on Christmas,” and go on to complain that political correctness has stifled the celebration of real, American traditions, the appropriate response is to nod in vigorous agreement and say, “I know! And the worst part is, who has five shillings to pay the fine these days?”

Have a merry Foolstide, everyone!◼

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The science gender gap gets personal with #MyGenderGap

2010.04.08 - The team Part of the 2010 Joshua tree field crew. Photo by jby.

Thanks to Anne Jefferson on Twitter, I see that Alex Bond has called our collective attention to Nature‘s great feature on gender equity in the sciences by making the whole thing as personal as possible: asking people to total up their collaborators and see what female-to-male ratio they find:

There’s lots out there on women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the challenges they face, and the degree to which they are under-appreciated (including historical figures).

So what can I, a white man, do?

Well, the data in the Nature article had to come from somewhere. So as an actively publishing scientist, I contribute to this phenomenon (regardless of whether my data were included in Nature).

It so happens that I just put together a comprehensive list of everyone with whom I’ve ever co-authored for a grant proposal, so this took exactly as long as I needed to go down the list and recall everyone’s gender identity. As of right now, I have 42 (!) co-authors; with the addition of three undergrad research assistants who didn’t rate (or haven’t yet rated) co-authorships, I’ve directly collaborated with 29 men and 16 women, which gives a gender-gap ratio of 0.55. That’s better than the US-wide average of 0.43 given in the Nature piece, but still not nearly what I’d call parity.

Folks are tweeting their ratios with the #MyGenderGap hashtag, so it’ll be interesting to see what emerges.◼

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Science online, shutdown edition

Aedes aegypti mosquito A safer DEET successor can’t arrive soon enough. Photo by Sanofi Pasteur.

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