Sunday, September 19, 2010


The term oversharing refers to someone who lets loose into the public sphere something that would be best left elsewhere. It doesn't necessarily mean information that isn't already public, as oversharing can be the result of taking something that is already public knowledge, but isn't really noticed by most people, and shining the light of public opinion on it. Examples of the first kind are common - for instance the person who puts their social security number up on facebook. Often this sort of thing happens by accident, or out of naivete. But in the latter case, that of attracting undue or undesired attention, is something much more grey as it's the kind of thing that is often done for laudable purposes. For instance, often folks like me will speak out about things that are common place in our own professions. In particular we like to highlight things that make us passionate about our work, stuff that's cool, or anything that gives the broader insight on what it means to be one of us. Done right, we call it E/PO which stands for Education and Public Outreach, and it's an invaluable asset in the sciences where much of our funding comes from government and demands public support. Despite this, there can sometimes be "oversharing" in which material may be posted which can be taken out of context.

A recent example of this kind of EPO gone awry was posted by the good folks over at the Online Engineer Blog ( in the form of a youtube video entitled "Stairway to Heaven." The video showed a couple of electrical technicians (linesmen?) climbing up a 1768 foot guyed tower and antenna to effectuate work on the upper surfaces. Like all structural engineering (at least to me, a former engineer!), guyed masts like these are very neat. They can soar to incredible heights, even reaching above 600m to send out radio signals over thousands of square miles. We don't often get to see them from the perspective of the top and many of us have wondered exactly how you would go about fixing one, should it break. Thus, the video by showing technicians ascending to the top gives us a vicarious glimpse into their work and something they no doubt find to be a very cool part of the job.

Taken solely in this way, the video is a masterstroke piece of EPO. Heck, it even went viral on youtube! If only my martian wind or telltale animations had those kind of page-views! However, one issue with these sorts of things is that people often evaluate them out of context using what they know of their ordinary lives. And success always brings things out of the woodwork. In this case, the downfall of the video was showing the technicians free-climbing. Not something that I would want to do, but something that they are trained to do and something that helps them to do their job. The video even helpfully points out that this type of work is entirely legal and is permitted by regulations that have always been available for download from OSHA. But it didn't matter. People complained that there was no way this was legal. Two TV stations, sensing controversy and a story, asked to run the video. Finally, after much controversy, the video was ultimately withdrawn by the author.

In some ways this is a bit like the unexpected hubub surrounding the "demotion" of Pluto by the IAU back in the earlier part of this decade. To this day, we still get questions about that one at the observatory. I've often been told that the pluto controversy was a good thing for astronomy and planetary science - it provided a teachable moment which gave us all an in which we could use to engage the public. Still there are those who interpret it only as an affront. Why else would Pluto still be a planet when "within the skies of New Mexico and Illinois" by legislative fiat?

Both cases are a result of what is largely an internal point of interest leaking out into the public sphere in ways that were, perhaps, a bit counter-productive. What makes the "stairway to heaven" video different is that, unlike with Pluto (with apologies to Alan Stern and the New Horizons mission), there is serious money involved with the building and maintenance of radio towers. i don't know if the technician who shot the video had the permission of his employer or the operator of the tower to release the video. Probably no one would have cared, (heck, I bet the employer and owner would have enjoyed the exposure!) had it remained a simple point of interest amongst a group of technofiles like myself.

But when it first got popular and then got controversial the forces that be aligned against it. While the site of the tower is not explicitly given, a quick 15-minute google search reveals its location (I won't be more precise then to say that it's in Texas) and the owner. And from there it would be a short trip to the identity of the climber for those involved. That climber wants to keep working. The owner doesn't want a surprise OSHA inspection which a public outcry would demand, despite a lack of wrongdoing. And absolutely no one wants a crusade for an unnecessary change in legislation and working conditions. So there was no way the video could stay up, to the chagrin of many of us who want to experience the understanding (and vicarious thrill!) of watching a well-trained engineer at work.

As for planetary science and myself, this issue goes way beyond "Pluto" and other teachable moments. The mere fact that I write this blog openly (way to infrequently, I know, loyal reader!) is somewhat of a risk. Having no public opinions is always the safer path, but eventually all successful scientists, by virtue of the constituency we serve, need a public presence. While I try to keep things as positive as possible, there is the chance that I will insult or slight others in my industry with my words here. For that I apologize in advance. But I feel the risk is a justified one. I feel fortunate to do what I do for a living and I want to get the word out, good and bad. That's why I help out on public viewing nights at the York Observatory. That's why I write these words here. And maybe, just maybe, someday some future employer will read what I write here to get some measure of this man and something about what I've had to say will tip the scales in my favour in a close race. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Banting Fellowships: Growing Pains

The requirements for the much-ballyhooed Banting postdocs have finally been posted. These are the funding awards announced by the Canadian Government earlier this year which look like very fancy versions of the Australian Super Science Fellowship program. They appear designed to attempt to keep Canadian talent in Canada and are set to become the most prestigious fellowships in the Nation offered to young researchers. Yet, the first year of disbursements will likely feature a very shallow pool which could lead to mixed results for the program a few years down the road. As well a structural issue with eligibility threatens to keep the best candidates from the program.

Quickly, this year's Banting Fellowships would pay $70,000 a year (taxable) to those who graduated with a PhD between Nov 2007 and Dec 2010, i.e. 0-3 years post PhD. Departments would be permitted to supplement this extremely generous salary and would be encouraged to provide substantial research/travel funding to allow the chosen candidates to carry out an ambitious program. Since a significant commitment is required from individual universities and departments, they would be required to nominate only fellows they would be willing to support. Thus the position is somewhere between a traditional postdoc and a starting faculty position.

So far, this all sounds good, however, there is one clause which looks innocuous on the surface, but which has a significant impact on who would be eligible to apply in the first year of the program. (Complete eligibility requirements can be found here, as provided by UBC) Specifically, the eligibility requirements prohibit anyone who currently holds an NSERC, SSHRC or CIHR postdoctoral award which runs out after March 31, 2011 from applying. Since these awards may be cancelled by the applicant at any time, could you announce your intent to terminate the award on March 31st and still apply? The rules say no. Thus those of us who currently hold the most prestigious awards in the country are barred from applying.

You must be thinking that this is no big deal. After all, why would you want to provide awards to people who are already awarded? Better to spread the wealth around. Well, the danger here is in the timing. Since academic jobs and grants are scarce, PhDs often start looking for a job long before they need one. In fact, if your funding runs out less than a year from now, you are in hot water whose temperature will be slowly rising as you approach that cut off date. Making things worse, is the timing of the award to exclude next year's may graduates in contrast to NSERC's usual application cycle.

Here is what I mean by that last paragraph. According to the rules and regulations, only the following people would be permitted to apply:

(1) PhDs who have not yet graduated, but will do so before Dec 31 of this year, and were losers in the spring NSERC competition, or have not begun looking for a job.
(2) Postdocs that are less than 3 years out (mostly 2 years out, due to typical graduation in May) but have been unable to secure funding beyond next March.
(3) Canadians doing postdocs abroad who wish to return home.

There are issues with all these groups. For (1) and (2) either NSERC or their advisors have shown a lack of faith in their abilities, or they have been unlucky (due to the economy, for instance). But the situation is worst for (3). This is the group you would most like to attract, however, they would need to be well-known to a Canadian department in order to merit being nominated above that department's own. Experience has shown that a star of that magnitude is more interested in a faculty position 2 years out than a second postdoc, though there may be some who see this as a bridging position that would make them more attractive to a particular university. However, there is a reason that they left for greener pastures in the first place, and that reason is not likely to have been money.

This suggests that the pool of applicants for the fellowships will be exceptionally shallow this year, and the recipients may not be the top Canadian early career researchers due to the eligibility restrictions. This should be better beginning next year, however, there is one change I would make: extend the eligibility of graduation out to the middle of the next year from the end of March. This would align the fellowships with the NSERC cycle and allow applicants to apply to both simultaneously.

As awareness of the Banting fellowships grows, the program will improve. But it looks a bit rushed this year, almost as if the politicians who made the announcement are desperate to have recipients in front of the camera ASAP.