News from Nature: Gender Bias in Geoscience, Psychological Disputes, and Mining Asteroids

Here’s a few intriguing and nuanced stories I’ve been working on lately for Nature in Washington, D.C. If you’re interested in them, you can read the whole thing on Nature‘s website. (And if you quote or cite any of them, please give proper credit.) Special thanks go to my editors, Lauren Morello and Jane Lee.


Women postdocs less likely than men to get a glowing reference

Women and men applying for geoscience postdocs receive very different letters of support from their mentors.

Gender bias in scientific fields is no secret, and it is pervasive. It even creeps into the all-important recommendation letter, in which mentors typically bolster the credentials of their protégés.

Globally, female applicants are about 10% less likely than their male counterparts to receive ‘excellent’ letters for postdoctoral positions in the Earth sciences, according to a study published in Nature Geoscience on 3 October. The finding holds regardless of the gender of their recommenders or what part of the world the applicant works in.

“These results uncover a real problem in the geosciences, just like other disciplines,” says Kuheli Dutt, a social scientist at Columbia University in New York City and lead author of the paper. Women start off at a disadvantage, she adds, because they’re perceived as less competent than their male counterparts.

For example, in the US, women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics earn 41% of doctoral degrees, yet in 2012–13 they accounted for only 24% of postdoctoral positions at US federally funded research centres and labs, according to the National Science Foundation. In the geosciences, less than 10% of full professors are women, indicating that the postdoctoral stage — the usual gateway into faculty jobs — is the point at which many women leave the field.

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 3 October 2016.]


Psychologists fail to replicate well-known behaviour linked to learning

Numerous failed attempts to replicate the ‘blocking effect’ cast doubt on its scope.

Physiologist Ivan Pavlov conditioned dogs to associate food with the sound of a buzzer, which left them salivating. Decades later, researchers discovered such training appears to block efforts to teach the animals to link other stimuli to the same reward. Dogs trained to expect food when a buzzer sounds can then be conditioned to salivate when they are exposed to the noise and a flash of light simultaneously. But light alone will not cue them to drool.

This ‘blocking effect’ is well-known in psychology, but new research suggests that the concept might not be so simple. Psychologists in Belgium failed to replicate the effect in 15 independent experiments, they report this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

“For a long time, you tend to think, ‘It’s me’ — I’m doing something wrong, or messing up the experiment,’” says lead author Tom Beckers, a psychologist at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium. But after his student, co-author Elisa Maes, also could not replicate the blocking effect, and the team failed again in experiments in other labs, Beckers realized that “it can’t just be us”.

The scientists do not claim that the blocking effect is not real, or that previous observations of it are wrong. Instead, Beckers thinks that psychologists do not yet know enough about the precise conditions under which it applies…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 26 September 2016.]


OSIRIS-REx spacecraft blazes trail for asteroid miners

Retrieval of a space-rock sample would be proof of concept for mining metals and water.

On 8 September, a NASA spacecraft is set to launch on a seven-year mission to retrieve rocks and dust from a near-Earth asteroid called Bennu. Those samples could help scientists to better understand the origins of the Solar System’s planets — and, perhaps, of life itself.

Called OSIRIS-REx, the mission comes as a handful of companies pursue controversial plans to mine asteroids, in search of rare minerals or even fuel for extended space missions. If the NASA effort succeeds, it will serve as a proof of concept for more ambitious attempts to exploit asteroids for scientific or commercial gain.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

“We’re cheering for them for a successful launch and mission,” says Chris Lewicki, president and chief executive of Planetary Resources in Redmond, Washington, a company that is developing technology to mine asteroids. Extracting resources from space rocks, he says, will “unleash the economic potential of exploring the Solar System”…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 2 September 2016.]

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