Thomas R. O'Donnell

Going dark: ISU abandoning the Fick Observatory

In University research on July 8, 2015 at 2:41 pm
The deteriorating sign marking the entrance to ISU's Fick Observatory southwest of Boone.

The deteriorating sign marking the entrance to ISU’s Fick Observatory southwest of Boone.

For nearly 40 years, Iowa State University students and researchers made nightly drives west to a humble steel building in a wooded clearing southwest of Boone.

When skies were clear, they would roll back the roof and fire up a 24-inch reflector telescope and other, smaller instruments to focus on distant stars and galaxies.

But a visit to the Erwin W. Fick Observatory today finds no students or professors and little more than weeds. ISU has closed it and moved most of the telescopes and equipment to campus.

For the first time in decades, Iowa State has no major astronomical facility – and it’s unlikely to ever have one again.

ISU AIDS research fraud: the denouement

In University research on July 2, 2015 at 8:38 am
Graphic of the HIV virus structure

In this schematic of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the glycoproteins gp41 and gp120 are the base and tip, respectively, of the “spikes” protruding from the virus membrane.

Another quick post to note the final outcome of a case I wrote about frequently last year: Iowa State University researcher Dong-Pyou Han’s admission that he faked AIDS research lab results.

The Des Moines Register’s Tony Leys offers a wrapup of Han’s sentencing: nearly five years in prison and repayment of $7.2 million in fraudulently gained federal grants. The experts Leys consulted noted the penalty’s unusual stiffness and its ramifications. U.S. District Judge James Gritzner essentially put researchers on notice that academic misconduct has consequences. It remains to be seen whether the sentence actually inhibits other scientists from cheating, and we may never know if it does.

As I’ve written before, the scandal came to light not through a police or federal agency investigation, but through the self-checks built into research: Suspicions first were raised when other scientists failed to duplicate the ISU team’s results. That’s how the system is supposed to work. Maybe it doesn’t always succeed and some bad science and fraud slips through, but that’s true everywhere: How many crimes go undetected and unpunished every day – even crimes on this scale, with millions of dollars at stake?

A brief update: Next Generation Science Standards

In Uncategorized on June 14, 2015 at 5:45 pm
"Dr. Doom" menaces the world, from Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum.

From Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum. Perhaps conservatives view the Iowa Department of Education this way. They would be wrong.

Here’s a quick update on Iowa’s possible adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

You may recall that a task force of educators began considering the standards in October as part of a regular review of Iowa classroom standards. After weighing the benefits of several sets of standards, the task force said the NGSS (which were developed by a coalition of states and education organizations) were the best choice to adapt for Iowa.

Since then, the group has been busy writing its report to the State Board of Education. On Friday, the board heard a brief report on the task force’s status. Your faithful correspondent was there.

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