Archive for April, 2010

Some links to interesting stories: multitasking, genes, SFI, start-ups, Obama’s Science advisors and some fraud

April 29, 2010 Leave a comment

The brain can do as many as two things at once!

So you think you can multitask?

Motivated Multitasking: How the Brain Keeps Tabs on Two Tasks at Once
New research shows that rather than being totally devoted to one goal at a time, the human brain can distribute two goals to different hemispheres to keep them both in mind–if it perceives a worthy reward for doing so.

The cancer-yeast connection:

The Search for Genes Leads to Unexpected Places By CARL ZIMMER
Edward M. Marcotte is looking for drugs that can kill tumors by stopping blood vessel growth, and he and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin recently found some good targets — five human genes that are essential for that growth. Now they’re hunting for drugs that can stop those genes from working. Strangely, though, Dr. Marcotte did not discover the new genes in the human genome, nor in lab mice or even fruit flies. He and his colleagues found the genes in yeast.

Science Foundation Ireland’s latest grant round (and Dick Ahlstrom’s story in the Irish Times)

Two good news start-up stories:

Start-ups gaining from technology recovery;Two founders share €11m in sale of Irish bio company

Obama’s science advisors (Jeff Akst reports):

The three co-chairs: John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy; Eric Lander, professor at both Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School; and Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

The other 18 members of PCAST are as follows:
Read more…

Tracking a Global Academic Revolution « Ninth Level Ireland

April 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Tracking a Global Academic Revolution « Ninth Level Ireland.

Superb article on the past, present and future of the university in a global context, which should be essential reading for our new Minister for Education.

I’ve chosen some different quotes from those chosen by by Steve at Ninth Level:

The Research Environment

Research universities are at the pinnacle of the academic system and are a key driver of the global knowledge network. They require major expenditures to build and are expensive to maintain. Their facilities—including laboratories, libraries, and information and technology infrastructures—must be maintained to the highest international standards. Research production in key areas, such as information technology and the life sciences, has become extremely important, not just to the prestige of individual institutions but also to national development agendas.

Financing Higher Education and the Public Good/Private Good Debate

Not just in the US but across the world, higher education is increasingly viewed as a major engine of economic development. At the same time, tax revenues are not keeping pace with the rapidly rising costs of higher education. Funding shortages due to massification have meant that higher education systems and institutions are increasingly responsible for generating larger percentages of their own revenue by strategies such as the development of university-industry linkages, research, the sale of university-related products, and other entrepreneurial activities.

But potentially the largest source of non-state revenues is tuition. So the expansion of student numbers has presented a particular problem for systems where the tradition has been to provide access to free or highly subsidized tertiary education—in the Scandinavian countries, for instance. In financial terms, this has become an unsustainable fiscal model, placing pressure on systems to fundamentally restructure the social contract between higher education and society at large.

If these two points were acted upon, our universities might actually be able to play the role that is demanded of them within society.

UPDATE: The original article is based on Altbach, Reisberg, and Rumbley’s Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution. A Report Prepared for the UNESCO 2009 World Conference on Higher Education. Paris: UNESCO, 2009

Eyjafjallajokull’s global fallout | e! Science News (Eureka Alerts)

April 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Eyjafjallajokull’s global fallout | e! Science News.

Eyjafjallajokull’s global fallout
Published: Friday, April 23, 2010 – 08:37 in Mathematics & Economics

Eyjafjallajökull and its massive cloud of volcanic ash clearly have had an enormous impact on Europe and its airports, disrupting the mobility of millions and costing airlines more than a billion euros. But what about the volcano’s effect globally? While much more difficult to determine, Northwestern University professor Dirk Brockmann and his research group jumped at the chance to examine the global impact. Mobility patterns in places far from Europe — including the United States, India and southeast Asia — were significantly affected by the European disruption, to the surprise of Brockmann.

The team compared the entire worldwide air transportation network before and after the 27 major European airports were closed and used complex network theory to compute and list the most affected airports still operating.

“We were surprised to discover that at the top of the list were airports outside of Europe, not airports in Europe,” Brockmann said. “Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing are some of the high-traffic airports most affected, despite being geographically distant from Europe and separated from Iceland by continents.”

He and his graduate students Daniel Grady, Christian Thiemann and Olivia Woolley also found that airports like Madrid and Dubai have become more central in the entire air transportation network, taking over the role of the closed airports.

Brockmann and his group have expertise in running simulations and computational models of human transportation networks and pandemic diseases. He is associate professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“European airports are bridges to the world — the majority of global air traffic goes through Europe,” Brockmann said. “The distances to places have increased globally as a result of the volcanic ash disruption. Mumbai, for example, has become more disconnected than we expected from the U.S. and Africa. Flights from the U.S. to Mumbai normally go through Europe, but now Mumbai is a more distant city to us.”

A trip that may have required two flights before the volcano’s eruption might have taken four or five trips when the situation was at its worst, which translates into more time, says Brockmann.

At the peak of the disruption, with the 27 major European airports closed, 10 percent of the entire global air traffic system was removed. The slowdown in air traffic affected not only the mobility of people but that of fresh vegetables and fruit, grains and other food, medicine, machinery parts and more.

“The removal of those 27 nodes dramatically affects the entire complex system,” said Brockmann. “We can quantify Eyjafjallajökull’s effect and illustrate it, which is not a simple thing to do.” (After much practice, he can pronounce the volcano’s name. It is pronounced EYE-a-fyat-la-jo-kutl.)

“In this case, the entire air transportation system was slowed but still works,” said Brockmann, who most recently studied the spread of swine flu. “Our calculations show that an actual system breakdown requires the removal of 80 percent of the airports from the system. This shows how robust the system is.”

The researchers next plan to make a comparative analysis of the Eyjafjallajökull’s event and the effects of 9/11 on air traffic and mobility.

Source: Northwestern University

QS Rankings & Global Higher Education Trends – University Ranking Newsletter

April 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Understanding the QS Methodology
Nunzio Quacquarelli, Research Director for the QS World University Rankings™, gives the reasoning behind the methodology and answers frequently asked questions.
Read More

Recession and international student mobility
Many commentators predicted that international student mobility would fall as a result of the global recession, but the reverse may be true.
Read More

Comparing ranking systems
Martin Ince, executive member of the QS World University Rankings Advisory Board looks at the differences between the most influential university ranking systems in the world.
Read More

QS Intelligence Unit Blog

Follow the latest news and developments from the QS Intelligence Unit at

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New developments

  • QS teams up with Nouvel Observateur for 2010 QS World University Rankings™
  • Read More
  • When Patents Kill Innovation – The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

    April 21, 2010 Leave a comment

    When Patents Kill Innovation – The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan.

    Interesting set of thoughts. Maybe going opensource and relying on the stickiness of IP as property of local intellectual networks might be a better approach to innovation in Ireland – especially if coupled to a realistic innovation and commercialisation agenda (and not the intuitively-appealing but empirically unfounded ideas presented by certain politicians, as discussed here in a previous post).

    Blog post reproduced in full:

    21 Apr 2010 02:47 pm

    Michelle Geis points to a new report in Genetics in Medicine suggesting that “exclusive licensing of gene patents does more to block competition and decrease patients’ access to testing than it does to spur innovation.” The Economist has more:

    “For example, where gene-testing monopolies do not accept the miserly reimbursements offered by Medicaid—the American government health scheme for the poor—the indigent suffer. Furthermore, the lack of a rival provider of tests to get a second opinion makes it impossible to ensure that results are accurate.

    Even more striking is the claim made by the Duke researchers that patent exclusivity is not necessary to spur innovation in genetic testing. Dr Cook-Deegan argues that testing, unlike pricey drug development, has low barriers to entry and is relatively cheap, so a monopoly is not required to lure investors. As evidence, he points to the case of cystic fibrosis: unlike breast cancer, no monopoly patent blocks access to the relevant gene, and dozens of rival testing companies flourish.”

    Science in the UK General Election – Some coverage from the Times Online – Eureka Zone: Science letter to the leaders: Clegg and Cameron respond, nothing yet from Brown

    April 21, 2010 Leave a comment

    Times Online – Eureka Zone – WBLG: Science letter to the leaders: Clegg and Cameron respond, nothing yet from Brown.

    A quote:

    At the beginning of last month, the Campaign for Science and Engineering sent a letter to The Times, challenging the leaders of the three main UK parties to spell out their science policies in detail.

    Two of those leaders have accepted that challenge, and Case has today published the letters it received in reply from David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Gordon Brown has yet to respond, though Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, has promised that Labour will publish a science manifesto before the election. Case says it will publish the Prime Minister’s letter when it receives one.

    New Standard Licensing Agreement Expedites University Startups, According to Kauffman Foundation Paper

    April 21, 2010 Leave a comment

    A new approach to driving innovation from university research.

    New Standard Licensing Agreement Expedites University Startups, According to Kauffman Foundation Paper.


    Improving how research comes to market will keep the nation competitive (KANSAS CITY, Mo.)
    April 20, 2010 – A new licensing process for commercializing university research will support American universities’ startup companies and enable long-term economic growth, according to a new paper released today by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. As universities are debating how best to expedite commercialization of research, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has developed the Carolina Express License Agreement, a standard licensing agreement to commercialize academic discoveries that promises to ease the formation of new companies and maintain American competitiveness by promoting new firm formation.

    As the paper outlines, accelerating the process by which university researchers license innovations to a startup company is a way to drive economic growth and create jobs—but at many universities, this will require systemic changes to the commercialization process. The groundbreaking agreement allows potential startups to select an appropriate standardized licensing agreement rather than undertake a customized negotiation with the university that can take considerable time with unpredictable results.

    “Our country’s current economic state demands new mechanisms to advance innovation. With the federal government providing much of the money for academic research, we need more tools that help our universities and entrepreneurs facilitate the kind of research that can spark industry shifts and drive job growth,” said Lesa Mitchell, vice president at the Kauffman Foundation and one of the paper’s co-authors. “The Carolina Express License Agreement is an example of how universities and entrepreneurs can streamline collaborations to facilitate the formation of new companies and jobs.”

    Read more…

    Some (apparently) counter-intuitive data: Hard choices in UK Public Policy: Fees harm access – a case of pub economics » Election experts

    April 21, 2010 1 comment

    Hard choices in UK Public Policy: Fees harm access – a case of pub economics » Election experts.

    It appears from UK data, that the introduction of fees for third-level, far from harming access to third-level education, actually has had no such effect. What are the chances of data and evidence of this type permeating public discussion of the fees issue in our hugely-underfunded third-level education system? Ideological commitments are one thing: the implications of data and evidence for educational policy are quite another.

    Blog post reproduced in full:

    No matter who forms the new government in May 2010, the new set of ministers will have to tackle the worst deficit in UK public finance for decades. The 2010 to 2015 period will inevitably require policy-makers and citizens to make some hard choices – either raising taxes or pruning spending on previously highly valued public services.

    In the third of our ‘Hard Choices’ series, Nicholas Barr looks at the arguments against free higher education.

    What I call ‘pub economics’ relates to something that is obviously right and everybody knows it’s right – but it’s wrong.  The argument that ‘free’ higher education widens participation is just such a case. The issue is contentious, so the government has set up a review (the Browne Review) to report after the election.  Till then, politicians will duck most questions on fees and loans, on the grounds that it would be wrong to pre-empt the review’s report.

    What’s wrong with Taxpayer finance?
    Taxpayer support for higher education should remain a permanent part of the landscape, but not on its own.

    • Tax finance does not widen participation.  Between 1960 and 1998, when there were no tuition fees, access hardly improved.
    • Taxpayer finance can harm access by leading to a shortage of places.  Even without the economic crisis, universities will lose out to the NHS, nursery education and school education.  And if  places are short, it is predictable who gets left out.
    • The people who go to university continue to be mainly from better off backgrounds.  Why should the taxes of the truck driver pay for the degree of the old Etonian?

    What are the real determinants of participation?
    To anyone who is serious about the evidence, one message stands out – it’s school attainment, stupid.  As a researcher into early child development tragically put it, ‘By the time they are eighteen, all the damage has been done’.  In 2002 (when students from poor backgrounds paid no fees), 81 per cent of children from professional backgrounds went to university; the comparable figure for children from manual backgrounds was 15 per cent (according to the UK Education and Skills Committee in 2002) – a shameful record.  Yet restricting the sample to young people with good A levels, the figure was roughly 90 per cent for both groups.

    Source: UK Office for National Statistics (2004), Focus on Social Inequalities, 2004 edition, London: TSO, Figure 2.15.

    The Figure makes this very clear.  The top pair of bars show that about 95 per cent of people with the best A levels went to university, with virtually no difference in participation between people from the top 3 socioeconomic groups (the lighter shading) and the bottom 3 (the darker shading).  For people with slightly less good A levels, the figure was 90 per cent.  The main driver of participation is a person’s prior attainment.

    What has happened since fees were introduced?
    A study by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on the effects of the introduction of fees offers powerful results that are worth quoting extensively:

    ‘ [T]here is no indication from the national-level trends that changes to HE tuition fees or student support arrangements have been associated with material reductions in the overall HE participation rate’ (para. 23).

    ‘Substantial, sustained and materially significant participation increases for the most disadvantaged areas across the 04:05 to 09:10 cohorts are found regardless of whether educational, occupational or income disadvantage is considered. Typically, young people from the 09:10 cohort living in the most disadvantaged areas are around +30 per cent more likely to enter higher education than they were five years previously (04:05 cohort), and around +50 per cent more likely to enter higher education than 15 years previously (94:95 cohort)’ (para. 28, emphasis added).

    ‘Trends in social statistics – such as HE participation rates – that are associated with deeply rooted differences in advantage do not usually show rapid change. A set of robustness and credibility checks give confidence that the analysis in this report is faithfully describing HE participation trends. In particular, the unusually rapid increases in HE participation recorded since the mid-2000s for young people living in disadvantaged areas are supported by changes in the GCSE attainment of the matching cohorts of young people ….’ (para. 31, emphasis added).

    These arguments are not just an exercise in academic logic chopping.  The argument that fees harm access makes the wrong diagnosis and therefore leads to the wrong prescription. The policy spends money on ‘free’ higher education instead of improving earlier education, providing more and better information, and raising aspirations, and thus spends money on a policy that does not work.

    Update: today’s Irish Times carries a story that there are 26,000 students in fee-paying second-level schools paying at least €6000 per annum. What does this say for capacity to pay fees at third-level?

    Prof. Daniel Geschwind seminar: Thursday 22nd April: “A framework for functional genomic investigation of human higher cognition”

    April 21, 2010 Leave a comment

    From my colleague, Kevin Mitchell:

    Hi all,

    With any luck, Dan Geschwind will be visiting tomorrow and giving a seminar, in the TCIN building at 4pm.
    Prof. Geschwind is a world-leader in the genetics and neuroscience of autism and in the study of the development and evolution of gene networks underlying human cortical structure and function and the evolution of human cognitive abilities, including language.  Please see below for a list of some of his papers related to the latter topics.
    best wishes,

    Neurogenetics Seminar

    ” A framework for functional genomic investigation of human higher cognition”

    Prof. Daniel Geschwind
    University of California, Los Angeles

    Thursday 22nd April
    4pm, LB11, Lloyd Building

    Human-specific transcriptional regulation of CNS development genes by FOXP2.
    Konopka G, Bomar JM, Winden K, Coppola G, Jonsson ZO, Gao F, Peng S, Preuss TM, Wohlschlegel JA, Geschwind DH.
    Nature. 2009 Nov 12;462(7270):213-7.

    Neuroscience in the era of functional genomics and systems biology.
    Geschwind DH, Konopka G.
    Nature. 2009 Oct 15;461(7266):908-15. Review.

    The organization of the transcriptional network in specific neuronal classes.
    Winden KD, Oldham MC, Mirnics K, Ebert PJ, Swan CH, Levitt P, Rubenstein JL, Horvath S, Geschwind DH.
    Mol Syst Biol. 2009;5:291. Epub 2009 Jul 28.

    Functional organization of the transcriptome in human brain.
    Oldham MC, Konopka G, Iwamoto K, Langfelder P, Kato T, Horvath S, Geschwind DH.
    Nat Neurosci. 2008 Nov;11(11):1271-82. Epub 2008 Oct 12.

    Irish Skeptics Society Lecture: “Do you see what I see? The genetics of perception”

    April 21, 2010 Leave a comment

    Irish Skeptics Society


    Wednesday, April 21st at 8.00pm in the Aston Suite, Alexander Hotel.

    “Do you see what I see? The genetics of perception”

    Dr. Kevin Mitchell

    Smurfit Institute of Genetics
    and Institute of Neuroscience
    Trinity College Dublin

    Categories: Uncategorized