Tag: innovation

04
Jan

Does NIH fund innovative work? Does Nature care about publishing accurate articles?

Editor's Note: In a recent post we disagreed with a Nature article claiming that NIH doesn't support innovation. Our colleague Steven Salzberg actually looked at the data and wrote the guest post below. 

Nature published an article last month with the provocative title "Research grants: Conform and be funded."  The authors looked at papers with over 1000 citations to find out whether scientists "who do the most influential scientific work get funded by the NIH."  Their dramatic conclusion, widely reported, was that only 40% of such influential scientists get funding.

Dramatic, but wrong.  I re-analyzed the authors' data and wrote a letter to Nature, which was published today along with the authors response, which more or less ignored my points.  Unfortunately, Nature cut my already-short letter in half, so what readers see in the journal omits half my argument.  My entire letter is published here, thanks to my colleagues at Simply Statistics.  I titled it "NIH funds the overwhelming majority of highly influential original science results," because that's what the original study should have concluded from their very own data.  Here goes:

To the Editors:

In their recent commentary, "Conform and be funded," Joshua Nicholson and John Ioannidis claim that "too many US authors of the most innovative and influential papers in the life sciences do not receive NIH funding."  They support their thesis with an analysis of 200 papers sampled from 700 life science papers with over 1,000 citations.  Their main finding was that only 40% of "primary authors" on these papers are PIs on NIH grants, from which they argue that the peer review system "encourage[s] conformity if not mediocrity."

While this makes for an appealing headline, the authors' own data does not support their conclusion.  I downloaded the full text for a random sample of 125 of the 700 highly cited papers [data available upon request].  A majority of these papers were either reviews (63), which do not report original findings, or not in the life sciences (17) despite being included in the authors' database.  For the remaining 45 papers, I looked at each paper to see if the work was supported by NIH.  In a few cases where the paper did not include this information, I used the NIH grants database to determine if the corresponding author has current NIH support.  34 out of 45 (75%) of these highly-cited papers were supported by NIH.  The 11 papers not supported included papers published by other branches of the U.S. government, including the CDC and the U.S. Army, for which NIH support would not be appropriate.  Thus, using the authors' own data, one would have to conclude that NIH has supported a large majority of highly influential life sciences discoveries in the past twelve years.

The authors – and the editors at Nature, who contributed to the article – suffer from the same biases that Ioannidis himself has often criticized.  Their inclusion of inappropriate articles and especially the choice to require that both the first and last author be PIs on an NIH grant, even when the first author was a student, produced an artificially low number that misrepresents the degree to which NIH supports innovative original research.

It seems pretty clear that Nature wanted a headline about how NIH doesn't support innovation, and Ioannidis was happy to give it to them.  Now, I'd love it if NIH had the funds to support more scientists, and I'd also be in favor of funding at least some work retrospectively - based on recent major achievements, for example, rather than proposed future work.  But the evidence doesn't support the "Conform and be funded" headline, however much Nature might want it to be true.

10
Aug

Why we are teaching massive open online courses (MOOCs) in R/statistics for Coursera

Editor’s Note: This post written by Roger Peng and Jeff Leek. 

A couple of weeks ago, we announced that we would be teaching free courses in Computing for Data Analysis and Data Analysis on the Coursera platform. At the same time, a number of other universities also announced partnerships with Coursera leading to a large number of new offerings. That, coupled with a new round of funding for Coursera, led to press coverage in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and other media outlets.

There was an ensuing explosion of blog posts and commentaries from academics. The opinions ranged from dramatic, to negative, to critical, to um…hilariously angry. Rafa posted a few days ago that many of the folks freaking out are missing the point - the opportunity to reach a much broader audience of folks with our course content. 

[Before continuing, we’d like to make clear that at this point no money has been exchanged between Coursera and Johns Hopkins. Coursera has not given us anything and Johns Hopkins hasn’t given them anything. For now, it’s just a mutually beneficial partnership — we get their platform and they get to use our content. In the future, Coursera will need to figure out a way to make money, and they are currently considering a number of options.] 

Now that the initial wave of hype has died down, we thought we’d outline why we are excited about participating in Coursera. We think it is only fair to start by saying this is definitely an experiment. Coursera is a newish startup and as such is still figuring out its plan/business model. Similarly, our involvement so far has been a little whirlwind and we haven’t actually taught courses yet, and we are happy to collect data and see how things turn out. So ask us again in 6 months when we are both done teaching.

But for now, this is why we are excited.

  1. Open Access. As Rafa alluded to in his post, this is an opportunity to reach a broad and diverse audience. As academics devoted to open science, we also think that opening up our courses to the biggest possible audience is, in principle, a good thing. That is why we are both basing our courses on free software and teaching the courses for free to anyone with an internet connection. 
  2. Excitement about statistics. The data revolution means that there is a really intense interest in statistics right now. It’s so exciting that Joe Blitzstein’s stat class on iTunes U has been one of the top courses on that platform. Our local superstar John McGready has also put his statistical reasoning course up on iTunes U to a similar explosion of interest. Rafa recently put his statistics for genomics lectures up on Youtube and they have already been viewed thousands of times. As people who are super pumped about the power and importance of statistics, we want to get in on the game. 
  3. We work hard to develop good materials. We put effort into building materials that our students will find useful. We want to maximize the impact of these efforts. We have over 30,000 students enrolled in our two courses so far. 
  4. It is an exciting experiment. Online teaching, including very very good online teaching, has been around for a long time. But the model of free courses at incredibly large scale is actually really new. Whether you think it is a gimmick or something here to stay, it is exciting to be part of the first experimental efforts to build courses at scale. Of course, this could flame out. We don’t know, but that is the fun of any new experiment. 
  5. Good advertising. Every professor at a research school is a start-up of one. This idea deserves it’s own blog post. But if you accept that premise, to keep the operation going you need good advertising. One way to do that is writing good research papers, another is having awesome students, a third is giving talks at statistical and scientific conferences. This is an amazing new opportunity to showcase the cool things that we are doing. 
  6. Coursera built some cool toys. As statisticians, we love new types of data. It’s like candy. Coursera has all sorts of cool toys for collecting data about drop out rates, participation, discussion board answers, peer review of assignments, etc. We are pretty psyched to take these out for a spin and see how we can use them to improve our teaching.
  7. Innovation is going to happen in education. The music industry spent years fighting a losing battle over music sharing. Mostly, this damaged their reputation and stopped them from developing new technology like iTunes/Spotify that became hugely influential/profitable. Education has been done the same way for hundreds (or thousands) of years. As new educational technologies develop, we’d rather be on the front lines figuring out the best new model than fighting to hold on to the old model. 

Finally, we’d like to say a word about why we think in-person education isn’t really threatened by MOOCs, at least for our courses. If you take one of our courses through Coursera you will get to see the lectures and do a few assignments. We will interact with students through message boards, videos, and tutorials. But there are only 2 of us and 30,000 people registered. So you won’t get much one on one interaction. On the other hand, if you come to the top Ph.D. program in biostatistics and take Data Analysis, you will now get 16 weeks of one-on-one interaction with Jeff in a classroom, working on tons of problems together. In other words, putting our lectures online now means at Johns Hopkins you get the most qualified TA you have ever had. Your professor.