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Thursday, January 22, 2004

Filling a Need

An enterprising sophomore at my alma mater has taken it upon himself to use the internet to make it easier to find the parties and the bars outside of campus. He started Pitt Party Central to let the students find out where and when parties would occur (I suspect, though, given how the Pitt Police loved to bust those parties that actually announcing other than by word of mouth isn't going to happen), specials at bars and other events.

The Web site includes a place to list house parties, a list of bar specials and information about Pittsburgh nightclubs - complete with directions for those new to the city.

By including businesses and events outside of Oakland on his site, Chu hopes to reach out to college students and young adults throughout the city.

Since he began his project, Chu has been joined by Tamer Ali, Danny Zhu and Ron Watson. Counting the four of them and the street team they use to promote events, there are about 10 people on the staff.

"We just try to make the life of going out much simpler," Chu said.

Not only does the Web site offer free advertising for house parties and clubs on the site, but it also contracts out DJs and provides prizes, including DVD players and bar kits, at clubs. The prizes are an incentive for students and other people to go out, especially now that it is getting cold outside, he said.

Since the site is still relatively new, Chu calls local places and asks the management if they would like some free advertising on his site. Then he visits the place to get a feel for it and to take pictures to put up on the site. After becoming familiar with the place, he writes a review to add to the site as well, and he asks the management if they would like to have a PittPartyCentral night.

I think this is great. Giving the students information on the things they really care about, and helping to encourage Pitt students to look outside of the campus and the immediate bars.

Of course, I wait for the backlash from those who say it does nothing but encourage and glorify drinking and underage drinking.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Here a Drain, There a Brain, Everywhere a Brain Drain

In Cleveland, there are ongoing concerns of a "brain drain"; and the same sort of concern is expressed in Pittsburgh.

Now I see a story on the "Brain Drain" in Europe (via Instaguy). In the US cities, the issue of brain drain is related to jobs and earning a living, and it applies to anyone who earns a college degree. In Europe, the brain drain is all about science, technology and research. People who have doctorates. The issue isn't about jobs, it's about "generous funding, better facilities and meritocratic culture."

European research facilities at universities are so bound by bureaucracies, rigid hierarchies and frustrating scientific fragmentation, that it hinders and at times impedes work. The problem is the budget for research facilities, even at the universities are directly controlled by the politicians and bureaucrats. Unlike a US State university, the European school or research lab doesn't just get the money with almost full discretion on where to put/use the money (gross oversimplification, I know, but compared to European oversight it is close to reality), there are rigid controls and lots of red tape.

But complaints like those of Claude Allegre, the former French Education Minister who heads the Paris VII geochemical lab, are all too common. He decries France's anachronistic "Soviet" system, in which control is centralized and researchers must run a bureaucratic obstacle course, whether to buy expensive equipment or order basic office supplies. "I'm planning on moving to the U.S. indefinitely because I want to continue my research," says Allegre. "I can't do so in the current conditions."
[Another example MATTHIAS TSCHOP] landed at the German Institute of Human Nutrition (DIfE) in Potsdam, and the shock set in. As at many German institutions, his colleagues were top-notch, but there was little money, and bureaucracy had a stranglehold on what resources were available. Though he quickly helped to win an E 11.7 million E.U. grant for obesity research in collaboration with more than two dozen other institutions, it wasn't enough to overcome his disillusionment. "You had to file a four-page application to get a used computer, only to be rejected because of a mistake in paragraph 342," he says. "I could not deal with all that." He kept a visiting professorship at the DIfE and a role in the obesity project, but headed back to America, where he's now an associate professor in the University of Cincinnati's psychiatry department. He still laughs when he thinks of the $750,000 he got for his new lab, staff and travel at Cincinnati. In Germany, he says, "I couldn't even get a start-up grant."

Also, the rigid controls keep any potential outside funding from helping. Can you imagine US schools not being able to get grants and money from US Corporations, foundations and individuals?

And what if a scientist tries to cover the shortfall by procuring funds on his own? In some places, that apparently deserves punishment. Michael Krausz, a professor at Hamburg University's Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, accepted research funds from an unnamed drugmaker; German prosecutors are investigating whether he did so in exchange for promotion of its products. Clinic director Dieter Naber, who notes that a 2001 university inquiry cleared Krausz of wrongdoing, wonders how institutes like his are supposed to pay their bills. Industry is an essential source of funding -- though in 2000, E.U. firms spent E 79 billion less on R and D than U.S. companies -- but Germany lacks a clear legal framework for the donor-recipient relationship. "Nearly every contact to industry is being criminalized," Naber says. "Because local governments are bankrupt, we are being asked to procure third-party funding, including funds from industry. But often, when we do so, prosecutors are called in."

The issue of course, then becomes: How to change it? In individual countries, like Ireland, they seem to be taking steps to increase funding. The other problem though, is still dealing with old hierarchies and the disincentives in Europe for trying anything even approaching entrepreneurial:

Whenever astronomer sandra savaglio thinks about returning to Italy, her memory of October 2002 reminds her why she's still in the U.S. Researchers often retain ties with their home institutions in Europe, so when Savaglio moved to Johns Hopkins University in 2001 she kept her collaboration with colleagues at the Rome Observatory. Her work focuses on gamma-ray bursts, massive energy explosions believed to occur when a giant star dies. In the fall of 2002, "I was working very hard, and things were looking very interesting," Savaglio says. So interesting, in fact, that the data caught the eye of her principal investigator in Rome. "He said, 'This is interesting, but let's be clear: if you get something, and we publish, I'll get the first name,'" Savaglio recalls. "We didn't even know what the final results would be, and he was already thinking of who would be first author."

Authorship can make a researcher's career, and Savaglio cites such hierarchical attitudes -- in research credit as well as in everyday office politics -- as a key factor in her decision to stay in the U.S. for now. Still, she harbors no ill will toward her colleague in Rome: "That's just the system. If you're in the system, you do what you have to do to survive. Someone probably did the same thing to him. The culture is the main problem. It has always been like this."

No amount of funding can buy a culture of competitiveness. And if researchers don't see opportunities for reward, they'll take their talent to the States, where innovation and hard work are rewarded with generous grants, full credit and a financial stake in your work. "The U.S. has an entrepreneurial culture," says Finnish molecular biologist Erkki Ruoslahti, who moved to the U.S. in the 1970s and helped build San Diego's Burnham Institute into a top medical-research facility. "People tend to be more enterprising -- because they have to be. Otherwise, they're out of business."

Scientists say the competitive spirit found in Ruoslahti's largely European-staffed lab and across America is absent from much of the Continent. In the U.S., "young people who prove they're good get many more opportunities, including perhaps the freedom to run their own labs," says physicist Guido Langouche, vice rector of the Catholic University of Leuven (K.U.L.), who did his postdoc work at Stanford and returned to Belgium for family reasons. "In Europe, you usually have to work for an older professor for 10 years before you get that chance."

Of course the European approach to resolving this appears to be to form a European Union based commission to study and make recommendations. Strangely, this is described in the article as a "step in the right direction." I find this to be the worst possible idea. They want to decrease the "brain drain" by studying and coming up with a larger centralized solution; when the problem appear to be, at least in part, a centralized controlled system in most European countries and old hierarchies that hinder and discourage risk taking or pushing the system. Flexiblility, freedom, potential rewards, and a meritocratic system appears to be what is needed.

This should be an interesting thing for cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh to consider in their desire to address the "brain drains" locally. Do we need another study to show these things? Do we need the local government to just throw money and tax incentives to big companies to stay or hope they come. Or, perhaps, what is needed is to provide simplicity and encouragement to smaller businesses and companies to take a chance in the area without worrying that they will be audited and inspected for every action they take.

Mega Millions Insanity Continues in Ohio

First someone came forward claiming they had the winning ticket but lost it. Then it turned out to be a lie. Now the city of South Euclid, which stood to collect about $1.4 million dollars in tax revenue from the winner will get bupkis.

South Euclid officials were stunned to learn Monday that the city won't get the $1.4 million in income taxes from Jemison's winnings because its city charter had not been updated to include lotteries as taxable income.

City Law Director Michael Lograsso said Monday that former Mayor John Kocevar's administration failed to act on a 1996 letter from the Regional Income Tax Agency advising the city to amend its charter if it wanted to tax lottery winnings.

That year, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that in order for cities to collect the tax, they would have to specifically state "lottery winnings" as taxable income in their charters along with other income such as salaries and commissions, Lograsso said.

This is doubly inexcusable since the Ohio Supreme Court reaffirmed the decision in 2003 -- the city of Euclid (not South Euclid) also had failed to amend their local tax code and fought to collect the money.

Oh, and just to keep the weirdness coming in the whole thing:

In another twist, the Ohio Lottery Commission said last week that the man who said he was the owner of Quick Stop Food Mart -- where the ticket was bought -- was neither the store owner nor a co-owner.

He was the store's manager and accepted the $100,000 ceremonial check and a seven-day cruise because the store sold the winning ticket.


(Copyright © 2002-2005 Chas Rich All rights Reserved.);
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