Greece’s Debt Crisis Torments Scientists

Published at Lab Times

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Greece’s financial crisis, which has taken Europe by storm this past year, climaxed last month. Banks shut down and the Greek economy came to a grinding halt. Worse, the indebted nation was left with accepting austerity measures imposed by its creditors – in exchange for a bailout, the only option to rebuild a fractured economy – but boldly rejected the terms, showcasing its proclivity for “humanitarianism” and “democracy.” Luckily, thanks to another round of negotiations with the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the country gradually dusted itself off and closely evaded “Grexit,” or Greece’s exit from the EU.

But a happy ending for Greece, it appears, is still a distant dream. As per ongoing talks, Greece will soon receive a third international bailout of €86 billion – two earlier bailouts totaled €240 billion – to mitigate its international debt. But the country’s research and education sector, as many of its other domains, continue to face the brunt of the recession. Will Greece be able to sustain funds for research and education, or will science take a back seat in the wake of the crisis? Read More

Overworking Your Brain Can Spark Ideas

Published at Scientific American

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If you walk down to the office gallery at Pearlfisher Inc., a design agency based in London, you are bound to hear the unmistakable cluck of plastic balls colliding. At first, you might dismiss it as the sound of employees chilling out on a ping pong game. But if you walk further, following signs for “Jump In!,” the sound will turn into a rattle like that of maracas. What you see next might take your breath away – a huge ball pit filled with 81,000 white plastic balls. But frolicking in the pit are not preschoolers or kindergartners. They are in fact corporate managers and associates, dressed in business suits, in an afternoon brainstorming session.

Companies relying on innovation go to astonishing lengths to imbue creativity in their staff. Jump In!, the wacky brainchild of Pearlfisher’s creative strategist, is for instance, built on the premise that interleaving work and play can spark creativity in grown-ups, just like it did back in school days. Many companies including Google, Skype and Facebook similarly emphasize the power of play, while others, such as the news website The Huffington Post, insist on peace and quiet during the break hours. Their offices instead sport nap nooks, where employees can grab some z’s and feel refreshed before returning to write. In theory, both strategies can inspire creativity – one perhaps better than the other depending on whether, for instance, you design products or pen stories for a living. They essentially have the same effect on us: they help us relax and unwind, restoring some of our dulled senses.

But it turns out that mental exhaustion from overwork can itself unleash creativity. When we are tired, our mind can be too weary to control our thoughts, and eccentric ideas that might normally be filtered out as non-relevant can bubble up, suggests a recent study by Rémi Radel at the University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis, France. This means that perhaps creative ideas can be hatched at the workplace, right when we feel drained from a mental overload. Read More

Know Thy Publisher

Cover story in Lab Times 03-2015.

Publish, publish, and publish, lest you perish. In this Darwinian struggle in the academic world, selection pressures come from our competitors, reviewers, editors, and so on. But topping them all, is the growing pressure of predatory publishers – ones that seek to endanger not only our careers but also the very credibility of scientific research.

In the summer last year, two e-mails popped up in Alex Smolyanitsky’s inbox. Like most invited paper requests that the materials scientist receives, these letters, from two scientific journals, directly addressed him. They used a language that Alex describes as “impressive,” and lured him into submitting a paper. So, he prepared a manuscript in less than 15 minutes and sent it off to both journals. Within a few days, he got great news. Sure enough, the paper was accepted for publication.

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The funny spoof paper received a funnier acceptance letter

The manuscript “Fuzzy, Homogenous Configurations” was a joke, admits Alex. In fact, the authors are cartoon characters from The Simpsons, affiliated to a fictitious university. “I never wrote that paper. It’s all from SCIgen,” he says, referring to an online research paper generator. The text is a bunch of gobbledygook. The figures are a child’s doodles. Had even a high-school student sat on the review panel, the paper would have been rejected. Yet, both the Journal of Computational Intelligence and Electronic Systems and Aperito Journal of Nanoscience Technology promptly approved the manuscript. They even published it on their websites and kept invoicing Alex for hundreds of dollars. Read More