Students and faculty sponsors work in tandem to design and implement a research or scholarly project, and its important to support the student aspect of the equation. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Do you remember the feeling you had the first time sitting at the wheel of a car? Were you overcome by the feeling of excitement, anticipation, fear, or perhaps a combination of them all? For many, obtaining a driver’s license is a rite of passage; a symbol that you are equipped with both the knowledge and skill of how to safely operate a motor vehicle. This achievement, however, would not have been made possible without the sacrifice of devoting hours to driver’s education and training under a supervisor.

Forging new paths

By the same token, college students who have dedicated years of study in various academic fields may also be ambivalent about conducting research. They will be in dire need of an experienced researcher’s guidance as they navigate down the unfamiliar road of academic research. It is their responsibility to help shape the student’s research interests and forge new paths.

By fostering student-led research, faculty sponsors can assist students by aligning their educational experiences with their career goals. This positions them for compelling careers in academic research.

Student at the wheel

Before a student can be placed in the driver’s seat of their own research protocol, they must be fully equipped with the right tools. If not, they will begin this journey without clear direction. Such was the case of several students at an unnamed university who conducted more than minimal risk studies without IRB approval.

The students started the protocol but were advised by their faculty sponsor that IRB approval wasn’t necessary before conducting research. One of the students rode in ambulances collecting data. They published their findings and even graduated before this was brought to the attention of the university’s Office of Compliance. This is a clear case of noncompliance and the severity of this issue is similar to driving a car without a license.

The Institutional Review Board (IRB) is the governing entity for human subject research. Their role isn’t primarily a research review process. It ensures that human subjects are treated ethically and that their rights are protected. This brought up issues of consent, confidentiality, and potential risk to human subjects and was an example of significant non-compliance.

Federal regulations and university policy mandate IRB approval for research involving human subjects. The requisite applies to faculty, staff and students. The availability of options may create more questions than answers when submitting their first student-led research protocol.

Mapping it out

The University of Houston has taken steps to manage research compliance and optimize student success. It established an Institutional Review Board that reviews only student-led protocols. It’s unique in that very few institutions have this sort of program available. In the two years since its inception, the program has become a transformative resource for both students and their faculty advisors.

Faculty and student protocols are typically grouped together. However, the UH Student IRB Program gives them a single point of contact for IRB-related concerns and individualized support.

The UH Office of Research Integrity and Oversight (RIO) has established an infrastructure to support student-led research through their pre-IRB review process. Students are encouraged to drop by to seek advice or brainstorm with a coordinator. Services, training and educational materials, such as the Faculty Sponsor Manual, are also available to support faculty sponsors.

The submission process can be pretty daunting. Kirstin Holzschuh, executive director of RIO, mentioned that students are unfamilar with the IRB requirements and process. As a result, their protocols would often be sent back for significant revisions. The pre-review system helps eliminate the possibility of their protocols getting stuck in the review process.

Representatives from this office regularly interface with the UH research community. They travel to various colleges and departments across campus and guest lecture on the IRB submission process. They also talk about the ethics of conducting research with human subjects.

Students and faculty sponsors work in tandem to design and implement a research or scholarly project. Therefore, it’s imperative to cultivate an environment where student researchers feel informed and supported by their advisors and the UH community.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Nitiya Spearman, the author of this post, is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.

To be better leaders, the administration should engage its primary audience: the faculty. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Faculty in research and what you need to know, according to this Houston expert

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The world of academic research is tough. As institutional research offices juggle regulatory and financial challenges within a continually strained system, they still have to lead their respective enterprises and serve their research communities.

“Service before leadership,” said Amr Elnashai, vice president/vice chancellor for research and technology transfer at the University of Houston. “We cannot miss this very important fact – we have to serve the needs of our research communities, first, before they will trust us to lead.”

How can we better serve faculty while tackling the many challenges faced by research divisions?

Sara Bible, associate vice provost for research at Stanford University, says the best way is to continually engage faculty in the business of research.

Rule making within research

Let’s be honest – faculty don’t particularly enjoy the administrative overburden dished out by university research offices. Nor should they.

But involving faculty in the process is the quickest way to earn their cooperation.

“You will have good results if you put in the time,” said Bible. “It’s really important to be flexible with faculty and staff on campus.”

One way Bible has successfully engaged her research community is in policy development. Her office at Stanford implemented a research policy working group that spends months testing policy language and effectiveness with university faculty and staff before it is launched.

“We’ve had great results,” she said. “People want to engage and be part of the process, not just be expected to follow a rigid set of rules.”

The pre-deadline deadline

Another way to partner with faculty is to work with them to improve the proposal review cycle, for everyone knows the risks of pushing the magic button mere minutes before the deadline.

Melinda Cotton, assistant vice president for Sponsored Programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, recommends creating a pre-deadline deadline.

Her office worked with faculty, schools and departments to establish the submission of proposals a full seven days before their due dates. This gave the office time to strengthen merit of the research project and fix minor details that could disqualify a proposal.

“Within our School of Medicine, more than 80 percent of our proposals came in by our pre-deadline,” she said. “We work hard to communicate and advocate to faculty that we can serve them better by doing it this way, and it’s working for us.”

Ultimately, there are lots of processes university research offices have to put in place to do the business of research. But to be better leaders, the administration should engage its primary audience: the faculty.

Engagement in policy-making, for instance, gives insight into pain points and allows research offices to put the best processes in place to get the job done for everyone.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Lindsay Lewis, the author of this piece, formerly served as the executive director of communications for the UH Division of Research.


Absolutism has no bearing on the scientific process. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Why absolutism has no place in research, according to University of Houston

Houston voices

Science, like politics, can elicit polarizing opinions. But with an ever-expanding body of knowledge — and the especially dizzying flurry of findings during the pandemic — is it fair to say that views on science are becoming more extreme?

Measuring the polarization

“A standard way of measuring polarization in the U.S. is asking Democrats and Republicans how warmly they feel toward members of their own group and members of their outgroup on a feeling thermometer from 0 to 100,” said Jessica Gottlieb, professor at the UH Hobby School of Public Affairs. “The difference in ingroup-outgroup warmth is then considered a measure of polarization. This has been measured by the American National Elections Studies systematically over the past several decades, and indeed the level of affective polarization has been increasing in the U.S.”

“Absolutism is the culprit.”

In an article in Foreign Affairs entitled, “How Extremism Went Mainstream,” the author notes that “the tools that authorities use to combat extremists become less useful when the line between the fringe and the center starts to blur.”

Science has traditionally been one such tool. However, this extremism — where everything is black and white — in politics, has made its unfortunate way into academia. John Lienhard is a professor at the University of Houston and host of “Engines of Our Ingenuity,” a national radio program which has been telling stories of how creativity has shaped our culture since 1988. According to Lienhard, extremism — as seen within the scientific enterprise — goes by a different name.

“Absolutism is the culprit – the need on the part of so many of us to know The Right Answer. The absolutists in the world will glom onto whatever vehicle suits them – religion, politics, education, and ultimately, science itself,” said Lienhard. In other words, good scientists amend and revise, while “the absolutist finds the honest practice of science hateful,” he says, “because science is a way of life where everything lies open to question.”

A series of approximations

In an article entitled, “If You Say Science Is Right You’re Wrong,” professor Naomi Oreskes introduces this quote by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg:

“Even though a scientific theory is in a sense a social consensus, it is unlike any other sort of consensus in that it is culture-free and permanent.”

Well, no. Even a modest familiarity with the history of science offers many examples of matters that scientists thought they had resolved, only to discover that they needed to be reconsidered.

Some familiar examples are Earth as the center of the universe, the absolute nature of time and space, the stability of continents and the cause of infectious disease.

Absolutism in science is dangerous. Good scientists know how important it is to ask probing questions. In his book entitled, Science versus Absolutism: Science Approaches Truth by a Series of Approximations, the chemist T. Swann Harding asks the question: “What are scientific laws?” He goes on to answer:

“Most people appear to regard them as singularly exact and unalterable things … to violate them brings swift retribution. They are unchanging and eternal in character. Yet the so-called laws of science are really rules pieced together by man on a basis of much observation and experiment.”

In the past, so much of science was just plain wrong – until another researcher came around and amended the original belief (think Galileo). How are our modern times any different? There are still many situations where scientific thought has needed to be amended. Even as recently as the COVID crisis, researchers were revising their thoughts about the spread and contagiousness of the disease.

Allowing for dissent

In a Scientific American blog, Matt Nolan writes that “Dissent in Science Is Essential–up to a Point.” In it, he said, “It is the public who pay the price when marginalized science informs policy. History reminds us this is unsafe territory.” However, Lienhard adds that Einstein set limits on the validity of Newton’s laws just as nuclear fission provided an amendment to the conservation of energy law. There is always a new question to formalize where experimentation is being conducted.

Referred to as the “file drawer effect,” another predicament occurs when a researcher does not get the answer they were expecting, and therefore, decides to not publish the negative findings. Every answer is meaningful. And sometimes a negative answer — or no answer — is an answer.

Dissent, and perhaps a certain measure of disappointment, is a critical part of scientific inquiry.

The Big Idea

Science can be thought of as the best we know to the degree we understand a given problem at a given place and time. Absolutism has no bearing on the scientific process and in some cases actively obscures and colors that understanding. And that’s not black and white at all; that’s about as gray as it gets.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

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Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors.

Texas A&M says the institute “will conduct high-impact research on threats to and protections for the nation’s security and economy while uniquely preparing students to excel in the ever-growing cybersecurity field.”

Katherine Banks, president of A&M, says the new institute positions the university as a hub for cybersecurity research and education.

“It builds upon the strong base of Texas A&M’s Cybersecurity Center and will help us educate the cybersecurity leaders of the future,” she says in a news release.

Tyson Voelkel, president of the Texas A&M Foundation, emphasizes the institute’s potential to not only prepare students for cybersecurity careers but also to raise awareness of cyberthreats among all students.

“Cybersecurity is a concern for businesses, our economy and our national security that affects both the public and private sector,” Voelkel says.

Revenue in the cybersecurity market is projected to reach $64.86 billion this year, according to data provider Statista. By 2027, that number is expected to climb to $116.3 billion.

In line with that projected revenue growth, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts the number of information security analysts in the U.S. will rise 35 percent between 2021 and 2031. The bureau lists the median pay for an information security analyst as $102,600 per year.

To err is human, after all. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

University of Houston: Navigating non-compliance and human error in research

houston voices

To comply is to obey, or conform to instruction or official requirements. In a perfect world, research non-compliance wouldn’t occur and following the rules would be a behavioral norm. But the reality is, to err is human.

To err is human

Often times the judgement of our own, and others, poor decision-making is rooted in the innate tendency to view things in black or white – categorizing behaviors as either right or wrong, good or bad, thus deeming them as either ethical or unethical.

But this way of thinking often conflicts with the gray world in which we exist. So what happens when research decisions land somewhere in the moral gray area?

Before answering, here are two situations to consider that involve the over-enrollment of research participants:

Case 1:
The IRB has approved a survey for 40 subjects. The PI realizes after the survey has been open for several weeks that she forgot to set a participant limit within the survey program and 60 subjects have completed the survey.

Case 2:

A study involving a new drug to control diabetes symptoms is approved to enroll 30 participants. The study doctor thinks the drug may be beneficial, so she continues enrolling, for a total of 80 subjects.

The devil is in the details

Why is over-enrollment of subjects considered non-compliance?

Many institutions have agreed, within their assurance to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to apply the Common Rule to all human subjects research, whether the research is funded or not.

The Common Rule regulations found at 45 CFR 46.109(a) and 45 CFR 46.111 (1) state that the IRB shall review and have authority to approve, require modifications in (to secure approval), or disapprove all research activities. This includes the maximum number of research .

And what must the IRB review?

Under the above regulatory requirements, the IRB must evaluate all instances of non-compliance.

In these cases of over-enrollment, the IRB must review the number of subjects over-enrolled and assess any potential effects on additional subjects and/or the research, as well as determine if the noncompliant data may be used for research purposes.

What UH IRB says about Case 1:

While over-enrollment in a survey seems low-risk, depending on the content of the survey questions, the IRB could determine the issue to be more serious, such as for a study collecting data related to illegal substance use or questions about traumatic events (legal or psychological harm). The IRB must ensure that risks to subjects are minimized; only the number of subjects needed to statistically justify the research are approved. Depending on the number of subjects over-enrolled and the time period over which they participated, the non-compliance could also be considered continuing.

What UH IRB says about Case 2:

Investigational drug studies often pose more than minimal risk of harm to subjects. In these studies, it is even more critical to ensure that additional subjects are not exposed to potential harms without scientific justification

In a drug study, the PI may not continue a study based on opinion; the reason a physician is blinded to treatment assignment in many drug studies is to avoid potential bias.

Finding non-compliance: What can you do?

If the number of subjects enrolled exceeds the number approved by the IRB, a finding of non-compliance is justified. The IRB will review the numbers, the Principal Investigator’s reasons for over-enrollment and assess what procedures were conducted in these subjects. Often over-enrollment is inadvertent, however the committee also has the ultimate authority to determine whether the data may be used for research purposes.

Corrective actions, such as continuing education of the PI and/or study team to ensure this issue does not occur again in the future, are often required. In the most serious cases, the IRB may suspend or terminate approval.

If the non-compliance rises to the level of being serious (harms or has the potential to harm subjects or others) and/or continuing in nature, it must be reported to federal oversight agencies such as the Health and Human Services Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and the FDA. These agencies ensure that the institution is monitoring for these activities and puts appropriate fixes in place.

The importance of intetrity

Non-compliant research can be due to inadvertent errors or deliberate acts of noncompliance. The results could be the same. Human subjects could be harmed. Funding and reputation at an institution conducting research could be negatively affected. In times of reduced federal funding for basic research, there are direct financial costs to the agencies when funds and resources are misused.

The responsibility of ensuring that research protocols are adhered to rests upon the shoulders of the researchers involved.

If you were a member on the IRB, what would you consider to be appropriate consequences for the PI in these situations?

It’s important to note that non-compliance, whether it’s a “little white lie/inadvertent error” or a deliberate violation of the approved protocol can undermine the integrity of both the research process and the academic research enterprise.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Nitiya Spearman, the author of this post, is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.

There are a few things to remember about altmetrics when tapping into non-traditional methods of metrics reporting. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

University of Houston: How to navigate 'altmetrics' in your innovative research project

Houston voices

Alternative metrics, or “altmetrics,” refers to the use of non-traditional methods for judging a researcher’s reach and impact.

Being published in a peer-reviewed journal is surely a great feat. It’s the typical way professors get their research out there. But the tools established to measure this output might end up giving the skewed impression about an author’s impact in spheres both academic and social.

Traditional metrics

Web of Science and Scopus are the main platforms that researchers rely on for collecting article citations. Web of Science’s indexing goes back to 1900, and Scopus boasts the largest database abstract and citations. The caveat with these repositories is that each resource only gives you a rating based on the range and breadth of journals it indexes. Different journals are recorded in different tools, so you may not be getting a comprehensive metric from either.

Let’s talk about h index

The h index is probably never going away, although it is always being improved upon.

An h index is a complex equation that tells the story of how often a researcher is cited. For instance, if a scholar published six papers, and all six papers were each cited by at least six other authors, they would have an h index of 6.

This equation doesn’t work out too well for an academic who, say, had one paper that was continuously cited – they would still have an h index of 1. Brené Brown, Ph.D., even with her veritable empire of vulnerability and shame related self-help has h index of 7 according to Semantic Scholar.

On to altmetrics

When a psychology professor goes on a morning show to discuss self-esteem of young Black women, for instance, she is not helping her h index. Her societal impact is huge, however.

“When I use altmetrics to deliver a professor his or her impact report, I seek out nontraditional sources like social media. For instance, I check how many shares, comments or likes they received for their research. Or maybe their work was reported in the news,” said Andrea Malone, Research Visibility and Impact Coordinator at the University of Houston Libraries.

Altmetrics aim to answer the question of how academia accounts for the numerous other ways scholarly work impacts our society. What about performances done in the humanities, exhibitions, gallery shows or novels published by creative writers?

Alternative metrics are especially important for research done in the humanities and arts but can offer social science and hard science practitioners a better sense of their scope as well. With the constant connections we foster in our lives, the bubble of social media and such, there is a niche for everyone.

The equalizer

For some, Twitter or Facebook is where they like to publish or advertise their data or results.

“When altmetrics are employed, the general public finds out about research, and is able to comment, share and like. They can talk about it on Twitter. The impact of the work is outside of academia,” said Malone. She even checks a database to see if any of the professor’s works have been included in syllabi around the country.

Academia.edu is another social network offering a platform for publishing and searching scholarly content. It has a fee for premium access, whereas Google Scholar is free. Its profile numbers are usually high because it can pick up any public data – even a slide of a PowerPoint.

The Big Idea

At the University of Houston, altmetrics are categorized thusly: articles, books and book chapters, data, posters, slides and videos. While one would think there’s no downside to recording all of the many places academic work ends up, there are a few things to remember about altmetrics:

  1. They lack a standard definition. But this is being worked on currently by the NISO Alternative Assessment Metrics Initiative.
  2. Altmetrics data are not normalized. Tell a story with your metrics, but don’t compare between two unlike sources. Youtube and Twitter will deliver different insights about your research, but they can’t be compared as though they measure the same exact thing.
  3. They are time-dependent. Don’t be discouraged if an older paper doesn’t have much to show as far as altmetrics. The newer the research, the more likely it will have a social media footprint, for example.
  4. They have known tracking issues. Altmetrics work best with items that have a Digital Object Identifier (DOI).

So have an untraditional go of it and enlist help from a librarian or researcher to determine where your research is making the biggest societal impact.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Amazon rolls out hundreds of new electric vans for Houston's holiday delivery season

Electric avenue

Amazon CEO/occasional space traveler Jeff Bezos is doing his best to supplant a certain jolly fellow from the North Pole as tops for holiday gift delivery.

His latest move: Amazon is rolling out more than 1,000 electric delivery vehicles, designed by electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian, ready to make deliveries in more than 100 cities across the U.S. On the Texas good list: Houston, Austin, and Dallas. Bezos' juggernaut began deliveries in Dallas in July, along with Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, Nashville, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, and St. Louis.

These zero-emissions vans have delivered more than 5 million packages to customers in the U.S., according to Amazon. The latest boost in vehicles now includes Houston and Austin; Boston; Denver; Indianapolis; Las Vegas; Madison, Wisconsin; Newark, New Jersey; New York, Oakland, California; Pittsburgh, Portland, Oregon; Provo, Utah; and Salt Lake City.

Plans for the Amazon and Rivian partnership call for thousands of vehicles on the road by the end of the year and 100,000 vehicles by 2030.

“We’re always excited for the holiday season, but making deliveries to customers across the country with our new zero-emission vehicles for the first time makes this year unique,” said Udit Madan, vice president of Amazon Transportation, in a statement. “We’ve already delivered over 5 million packages with our vehicles produced by Rivian, and this is still just the beginning—that figure will grow exponentially as we continue to make progress toward our 100,000-vehicle goal.”

This all comes as part of Amazon's commitment to reaching net-zero carbon by 2040, as a part of its The Climate Pledge; Amazon promises to eliminate millions of metric tons of carbon per year with it s commitment to 100,000 electric delivery vehicles by 2030, press materials note.

Additionally, Amazon announced plans to invest more than $1 billion over the next five years to further electrify and decarbonize its transportation network across Europe. This investment is meant to spark innovation and encourage more public charging infrastructure across the continent.

“Fleet electrification is essential to reaching the world’s zero-emissions goal,” said Jiten Behl, chief growth officer at Rivian, in a statement. “So, to see our ramp up in production supporting Amazon’s rollout in cities across the country is amazing. Not just for the environment, but also for our teams working hard to get tens of thousands of electric delivery vehicles on the road. They continue to be motivated by our combined mission and the great feedback about the vehicle’s performance and quality.”

A little about the vans: Drivers’ favorite features include a spacious cabin and cargo area, superior visibility with a large windshield and 360-degree cameras, and ventilated seats for fast heating and cooling — a must for Bayou City summers ... or winters, for that matter.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston low-carbon fuel company scores United investment, plans to IPO via spac

big moves

It’s been a momentous month for Houston-based NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc.

On November 15, United Airlines Ventures announced an investment of up to $37.5 million in the next-generation, low-carbon fuel producing company.

Just a week later, the company revealed it’s going public through a SPAC merger with Industrial Tech Acquisitions II Inc. The deal, expected to close in the second quarter of 2023, assigns a $666 million equity value to NEXT. The publicly traded company will be named NXTCLEAN Fuels Inc.

NEXT, founded in 2016, produces low-carbon fuels from organic feedstock. The company plans to open a biofuel refinery in Port Westward, Oregon, that’s set to start production in 2026. The refinery could produce up to 50,000 barrels per day of sustainable aviation fuel, renewable diesel, and other renewable fuels.

“West Coast states are demanding a clean fuels conversion of the transportation and aviation industries with aggressive targets necessitating rapid increases in clean fuel supplies,” Christopher Efird, executive chairman and CEO of NEXT, says in a news release. “[The company] is advancing toward becoming one of the largest U.S.-based suppliers of clean fuels for these markets, and is investigating and pursuing potential vertical expansion into other clean fuels.”

The proposed public listing of NEXT’s stock on the Nasdaq market and United’s investment are poised to help NEXT reach its goal of becoming a leader in the clean fuel sector. United’s investment appears to be the first equity funding for NEXT.

“Right now, one of the biggest barriers to increasing supply and lowering costs of sustainable fuel is that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to transport it efficiently, but NEXT’s strategic location and assets solve that problem and provide a blueprint for future facilities that need to be built,” Michael Leskinen, president of United Airline Ventures, says in a news release.

United’s investment arm, launched in 2021, targets ventures that will complement the airline’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.