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One of the (many) scourges of the Bush Era has been the suppression of science.  From the block on funding of stem cell research, to the muzzling of climate scientist James Hansen, to John McCain mocking the use of DNA in conservation work on endangered grizzlies in the Northern Rockies, to the push for teaching "creation science" in the public schools, to a thousand other examples, the Right loves to use science as a punching bag.

So, the Obama Administration is likely to usher in a new renaissance in scientific research?  Not so fast!  Just as one door opens, another slams shut.

A pair of articles in a recent issue of Science (the official organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) caught my eye.  First of all, there's the small matter of funding for scientific research (subscription so you probably won't be able to see all this), much of which comes from private charities like the American Cancer Society:

Uncertainty has become the new norm for economic forecasters. But scientists planning next year's experiments want to know how the stock market turmoil, a credit crunch, and a recession will affect their research. It's an urgent question, especially with the U.S. government facing a yawning deficit and a likely squeeze on domestic spending. Among the first to feel the slowdown are charitable foundations and other philanthropies, which provide billions of dollars in funding to scientists each year, including support for innovative, risky research that the government may be reluctant to back. Some are scaling back; some say they're holding steady. Others say they cannot plan far ahead--not even to predict what the next 2 months, normally flush fundraising time, will bring.
One of the hardest-hit organizations so far is the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation in Needham, Massachusetts, which has delayed $65 million in research funding to dozens of investigators for the second half of 2008 and 2009. Projects in melanoma, lymphoma, neurodegenerative diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, and others were ready to go, says Bruce Dobkin, the group's executive director and a neurologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Now, we're going to have to wait and see what happens." Dobkin says he doesn't know what, precisely, prompted such drastic action, and the foundation declined to comment further.

Whether it's in the matter of current year donations for operating expenses, or whether it's funding based on endowments invested in the stock market, things are very uncertain in the world of philanthropic foundations and private universities.  Unknown amounts of research already underway may end up curtailed.  And state and local budgets are in trouble, which spells likely trouble for public universities as well.

For organizations that live off endowment income, the drop in their value can be dizzying: The Burroughs Wellcome Fund fell from nearly $700 million at the end of July to $540 million last Friday, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation lost $3.6 billion between the beginning of this year and the end of September, to end with $35.1 billion. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute's (HHMI's) worth fell from $18.7 billion in August 2007 to $17.4 billion at the end of August this year--and that was before the big drop in the stock market. (Neither the Gates Foundation nor HHMI would release current figures.) "Sometimes you go into a meeting and by the time you come out the endowment's gained $10 million, and by the end of the day it's lost $20 million," says Burroughs Wellcome spokesperson Russ Campbell, describing the wild gyrations in the market.

HHMI is required by law to distribute 3.5% of its assets each year, and foundations like Burroughs Wellcome must give out 5%. This is normally not a problem because these groups offset the outflow with investment gains, keeping their principal intact. Not all may be able to manage that this year.

Numerous foundations have pledged to keep support up, even if it means additional hits on their endowments.  But that's not sustainable, so it's only a stop gap measure.

All of which is to say that even without John McCain slashing and burning through research budgets, and with Hansen with greater freedom to educate the public about climate change issues, science is likely to be in suboptimal condition for the foreseable.

Demographics of Principal Investigators

But another, longer-term trend also caught my eye, regarding the demographics of the scientists getting funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  The graph to the right says it pretty succinctly.

Just when we're in need of developing young science and engineering talent (for global "competitiveness", new technologies and so on), opportunities for launching scientific careers are getting scarcer and scarcer, almost by the minute.  Good talent is getting lost, and it's a shame.  And it's useful to keep in mind that a lot of Nobel Prize winning scientific breakthroughs come in the first decade of a scientist's career.

Here's an example of a PI who's helping skew that bar graph above to the right (same subscription issues at Science, sorry):

Roger Unger found himself drawn to research as a young internal medicine resident sometime around 1950, when he was treating diabetes patients in New York City. He had a controversial idea--that glucagon, a biomolecule then thought to be a contaminant in insulin made from ground-up beef and pork pancreases, might actually be a key hormone affecting blood sugar. Unger and colleagues in Texas had no direct evidence for this, but "we had the tools to answer the question, and we needed some money," Unger says. So at age 32, Unger applied for and won a research grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Today, at 84, Unger still runs a lab that enjoys NIH support. Now he's motivated by a new public health problem--the "meltdown" in Americans' health due to rising rates of obesity, he says. He's deep into exploring a concept his lab put forward: that a surfeit of lipids in obese people contributes to diabetes and heart disease. "I always decided I would retire when I ran out of ideas. But I didn't. The ideas got more exciting," says Unger.

Other scientists, such as geneticist Robert Well (70) at Texas A&M, are stepping aside to help make room for the young talent they've trained.  He's planning to stay active as an advocate for science.  Plus it's tougher to get start-up grants than in earlier decades:

One strong theme--a sense that the review process was more interested in originality in the past--emerged in comments from this generation of scientists who applied for their first grants in the 1960s or earlier, often in their 20s or early 30s. It was a different game, they say. Not only did NIH have plenty of money to go around, but peer reviewers wanted ideas, not preliminary data. Microbiologist Samuel Kaplan, 74, of the University of Texas Medical School in Houston says he proposed studying a "newish" bacterium that he had never cultured. "If I submitted a proposal like that now, the study session couldn't stop laughing," he says. Peter von Hippel, 77, who earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge at age 24 and then moved on to a postdoc there, found his grant waiting for him when he joined the Dartmouth Medical School faculty at age 28. "There was less to learn, and if you got on to a good project, things moved along pretty fast," says Von Hippel, now a professor emeritus and researcher at the University of Oregon, Eugene.

Some of these scientists were part of a cadre who created the field of molecular biology. Others were pioneers in areas such as spectroscopy and protein chemistry.

So, like I said in the opening:  Just as one huge obstacle to good science is finally getting swept aside, others are looming up to be just as daunting.

Originally posted to Land of Enchantment on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 01:53 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'd Give My Left Arm For Science (4+ / 0-)

    serious .......

    "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle

    by webranding on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 02:02:25 PM PST

  •  ugh (4+ / 0-)

    this sucks.

    The government could step in by funding a massive, Manhattan-Project-type federal program to develop alternative energy and sustainable technologies. But that wouldn't help biology very much.

  •  I think the gov't will step up (6+ / 0-)

    As a member of the biomedical community, I have been greatly heartened by the number of times Obama refers directly to scientists in his public addresses. Furthermore, the congress recently tried to pass a stimulus bill that specifically added more $ for NIH. They know we are the future, are hurting for cash, and are a decent route for a short term stimulus that brings long term rewards.

    I am reasonably optimistic, in fact.

  •  Damn. (7+ / 0-)

    No universal healthcare.   Lack of funding for lymphoma research.  Being mine is as rare as it is, I'm pretty well screwed.  

    Happy holidays.

    "Ancora Imparo." ("I am still learning.") - Michelangelo, Age 87

    by Dreaming of Better Days on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 02:04:07 PM PST

    •  No. (4+ / 0-)

      Federal funding was nearly doubled over the period of '95-'03.  Since then, funding has been constant.

      And that's ignoring the effects of inflation.  Including inflation, federal funding has actually shrunk over the past five years.

      •  Numbers say yes. (0+ / 0-)
        1. 2007 was all time high for US basic research funding in current and constant dollar terms.
        1. "And that's ignoring the effects of inflation". Inflation was not 50% over last 10 years so real growth in basic resarch funding.
        1. "federal funding has actually shrunk over the past five years" Numbers from AAAS show real dollar increase.
        •  Can't help thinking that... (0+ / 0-)

          ... that's a trick question.  Like it went for weapons or big chunks were secretly shuttled to "creation science".  I have zero evidence for this mind you, aside from general PTSD-esque weariness from all the abuses carried out by this Administration.  A once-burned, twice-shy kinda thing.

          "The river always wins" - Mark Twain

          by Land of Enchantment on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 03:57:35 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Not the chart you linked to. (2+ / 0-)

          The graph that you linked to contradicts everything that you just said -- as does most of what I've read over the past few months.  See this, for example.

          There have been increases, but those increases are poorly distributed, and focus primarily on the latest 'flashy' research.  See this for details: all of the effective budget increases over the past decade have concentrated upon biomedical funding -- and those have also flat-lined over the past few years.

  •  The "dark ages" will be ending soon (2+ / 0-)


  •  The problems are real, but so are the solutions (3+ / 0-)

    The situation is not nearly as dour as you suggest. The federal government is the most critical part of science and Obama has already described science as one part of the infrastructure he wants to develop. I think we will see a renewed commitment to science funding.

    As you point out, foundations must pay out a percentage of their worth.  This amount declines as the value of the foundation declines, so the Gagtes foundation, which has declined 10% might have to reduce their payout by 10%.  I suspect that it won't happen.

    As for again scientists, the only solution for that is that they need to become senile like the Bush administration and thus unable to compete for grants.  As long as the scientists are innovative and advancing science I have no problem with them competing successfully with younger scientists.  We simply need more funding for all the talent out there, and there is a lot of talent.

    •  Didn't mean to be dour. (0+ / 0-)

      Just meant to suggest that there's plenty of problems to solve, and work to do, ahead.  It's not gonna be the land of milk and honey any time soon.  And those ideological obstacles science will be coming down, and that matters quite a lot.

      I started with the title "Not Good" for this diary, but switched to "Not Great" exactly because the former sounded entirely too negative.

      "The river always wins" - Mark Twain

      by Land of Enchantment on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 02:28:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Actually, the main reason... (0+ / 0-)

      ... I posted this is because I'm burned out on writing about elections and political races.  Thinking maybe I'll turn my attention to science stories more.  And this one just happened to catch my eye, like a raven and a shiny object.

      "The river always wins" - Mark Twain

      by Land of Enchantment on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 02:50:10 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  At least Obama realizes (3+ / 0-)

    that scientific research is not, as some would suggest, a money pit.  It may take a while for tangible benefits to materialize, but there will be benefits.  Knowledge is power.

    •  Some lines of research will be dead ends. (3+ / 0-)

      But ya never know when that petrie dish on the windowsill is gonna snag ya some penicillin.  Good science has creativity to it, and serendipitous astonishments, and ya never know where that's gonna lead.  

      Hell, it was military funding to advance being able to locate and relocate specific spots on the ocean floor that stumbled upon the hydrothermal vents, for marvellous one little example.  With its whole new phylum of creatures without digestive systems, and a whole new bunch of microbial redox pathways and so on.  Sometimes I wonder about if some of those ammonia-nitrite-nitrate pathways (and bacterial enzymes) are gonna end up relevant to StrandedWind's energy work, for example.

      No one gave a second thought to Gregor Mendel's fascination with peas, till centuries later.  Ya never know when something from the back shelf is gonna matter even years later.  Impossible to know where it will all lead ahead of time.

      "The river always wins" - Mark Twain

      by Land of Enchantment on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 02:46:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Concomitantly (2+ / 0-)

    faculty searches are seizing up:

    Harvard freezes staff hiring, scrutinizes faculty searches
    ....The dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences has called for an immediate freeze on staff hiring and strongly encouraged department heads to consider canceling faculty searches....


    Faculty assail UMass Amherst budget cuts

    ...Faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are criticizing Chancellor Robert C. Holub's decision to freeze hiring and cut spending by $12 million in response to reduced state subsidies, contending he should instead tap reserves to offset the lost revenue....

    Nowhere to go, even if you could get a grant.

    Darwinic pilgrims claim the image fills them with an overwhelming feeling of logic. --The Onion

    by mem from somerville on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 03:17:45 PM PST

  •  The biggest problem, at least from my own (2+ / 0-)

    experience, is that scientists get paid pennies on the dollar of what a new grad in business can make.  Has anyone seriously considered a union for scientists?  It seems to me that by banding together, we could demand far better pay and resources.  After all, without science, where would business be?  We should be the ones running things, not the businessmen.

    The hard work of one does more than the prayers of millions

    by dog lover for obama on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 03:23:59 PM PST

  •  Obviously a critically important perspective here (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Land of Enchantment

    As someone who has worked in 'community science,' especially in support of "Community-Based-Participatory-Research," or CBPR, I see aspects to this issue that are less a matter of a lack of up-and-coming experts and more a matter of providing communities with the tools, resources, and place-at-the-table necessary to achieve something akin to citizen science.  A democracy, one might reasonably believe, requires nothing less.

    I bow to those who seek the truth; I flee from those who have 'found' it.

    by SERMCAP on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 03:29:35 PM PST

    •  I have mixed feelings on this (2+ / 0-)

      because "citizen science" (well, they claim it is) is causing kids to not get vaccinated and get infectious diseases that should not be an issue at this time in our civilization.

      There is danger there.  

      Darwinic pilgrims claim the image fills them with an overwhelming feeling of logic. --The Onion

      by mem from somerville on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 03:33:48 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  You have a point. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Land of Enchantment

        But one reason that countries like France and Sweden, and Japan and Korea, all VASTLY different socially, will thrive in the coming period, if we don't utterly blow up the ship, is that they uniformly provide ways for citizen capacitation and participation.  Thus, instead of being a critique of CBPR, your notes, even if completely true and not overly simplistic--which is a big chat for another time, perhaps--argue for more commitment of resources to community empowerment and involvement not less.

        You will never induce the benefits of democracy by contending that the people are too ignorant to participate.  That is axiomatic, n'est ce pas?

        I bow to those who seek the truth; I flee from those who have 'found' it.

        by SERMCAP on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 04:32:12 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  An advantage those countries have (3+ / 0-)

          is national health care.  I have been to many meetings where researchers describe results from studies that would not be done here because participants would fear "pre-existing conditions" and not join studies. Oui?

          That is a whole separate other conversation, for sure.

          And I didn't say all community participation was unwelcome, but that is has danger if not done right.  It is a fact that decreasing vaccination is occurring because of people who are not "too ignorant to participate" but willfully antagonistic.  C'est vrai.

          Darwinic pilgrims claim the image fills them with an overwhelming feeling of logic. --The Onion

          by mem from somerville on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 04:40:35 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Thanks for this. (0+ / 0-)

            You are clearly working in the trenches.  To me, the points that you make are not "a whole separate other conversation."  On the contrary, seeing this sort of issue in an integrative way is decidedly the only fashion which will lead both to good science and to greater community empowerment and engagement.

            Thanks for the chatter; keep it up.

            I bow to those who seek the truth; I flee from those who have 'found' it.

            by SERMCAP on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 05:22:30 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  I have been on review panels (2+ / 0-)

          with citizen participation -- and the citizen input is taken seriously and given significant weight.

    •  I don't find citizens well-prepared to think (2+ / 0-)

      about science as much as I wish otherwise.
      We need scientists to contribute to curriculum  development in elementary schools so that we do a  better job teaching critical thinking and statistics/probability.

      Until we develop those skills, citizen science is not likely to play a significant role in scientific advances.  The huge discrepancy in thinking about the causes of autism between citizens and scientists is a good example.  

      •  I can buy much of what you say. (0+ / 0-)

        I teach a course in critical reading called "A Course in How to Think," and the lack of preparation to understand, dissect, critique, and reformulate arguments is amazing indeed.  The point, however, is not therefore to dismiss citizen participation but to insist on upgrades in learning and to stand for 'experts' who can communicate with and help to empower ordinary folks.

        As to the matter of the possible role of mercury preservatives in autism onset, the jury is decidedly out on the matter.  All but a couple of the studies that are currently extant show no significant correlation between symptoms and vaccination, but many credible and intelligent folks, scientific and non-technical, are cautious about the matter.

        And I know that at least some of the science which dismisses this possibility emanated from sources that are not necessarily unbiased in the matter.  Moreover, the role of mercury generally in the sort of symptomology that we now define as autism is incontrovertible.

        Anyhow, time will tell; I'd wager that within five years, mercury preservatives will be illegal here, and decidedly against 'best practice' anywhere.  Are you a gambling man?  I'd bet a cup of coffee or more.

        I bow to those who seek the truth; I flee from those who have 'found' it.

        by SERMCAP on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 04:39:59 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Decidely wrong: (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Land of Enchantment

          the jury is decidedly out on the matter.  

          Well, there goes your credibility on citizen participation.  Thanks for playing.

          Darwinic pilgrims claim the image fills them with an overwhelming feeling of logic. --The Onion

          by mem from somerville on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 04:43:34 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Arrogance is not science. (0+ / 0-)

            In fact, it is likely a sign of intellectual inferiority.  That said, I will assert and prove, whenever you would like, that mercury incontrovertibly causes all sorts of neurological problems that most doctors and neuroscientists would acknowledge are in some ways parallel or analogous to autism.  I know this because I worked with communities in and around Anniston, Alabama that had abnormally high rates of such disorders, including, in addition to various autistic diagnoses, muscular distrophy, mild retardation, and more.

            Because I believe in engagement, even though I too can be an asshole when the occasion calls, here's some evidence.  Perhaps that is a concept with which you are not familiar?  Just because you are the majority does not make you right.  I'll put my money where my mouth is.  How about you?  Toodles.

            Autism Risk Linked To Distance From Power Plants, Other Mercury-releasing Sources

            ScienceDaily (Apr. 25, 2008) — How do mercury emissions affect pregnant mothers, the unborn and toddlers? Do the level of emissions impact autism rates? Does it matter whether a mercury-emitting source is 10 miles away from families versus 20 miles? Is the risk of autism greater for children who live closer to the pollution source?
            See also:
            Health & Medicine

               * Children's Health
               * Birth Defects
               * Staying Healthy

            Mind & Brain

               * Autism
               * Child Development
               * Child Psychology


               * Autistic spectrum
               * Mercury poisoning
               * Oily fish
               * Gluten-free, casein-free diet

            A newly published study of Texas school district data and industrial mercury-release data, conducted by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, indeed shows a statistically significant link between pounds of industrial release of mercury and increased autism rates. It also shows—for the first time in scientific literature—a statistically significant association between autism risk and distance from the mercury source.

            "This is not a definitive study, but just one more that furthers the association between environmental mercury and autism," said lead author Raymond F. Palmer, Ph.D., associate professor of family and community medicine at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio. The article is in the journal Health & Place.

            Dr. Palmer, Stephen Blanchard, Ph.D., of Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio and Robert Wood of the UT Health Science Center found that community autism prevalence is reduced by 1 percent to 2 percent with each 10 miles of distance from the pollution source.

            "This study was not designed to understand which individuals in the population are at risk due to mercury exposure," Dr. Palmer said. "However, it does suggest generally that there is greater autism risk closer to the polluting source."

            The study should encourage further investigations designed to determine the multiple routes of mercury exposure. "The effects of persistent, low-dose exposure to mercury pollution, in addition to fish consumption, deserve attention," Dr. Palmer said. "Ultimately, we will want to know who in the general population is at greatest risk based on genetic susceptibilities such as subtle deficits in the ability to detoxify heavy metals."

            The new study findings are consistent with a host of other studies that confirm higher amounts of mercury in plants, animals and humans the closer they are to the pollution source. The price on children may be the highest.

            "We suspect low-dose exposures to various environmental toxicants, including mercury, that occur during critical windows of neural development among genetically susceptible children may increase the risk for developmental disorders such as autism," the authors wrote.

            Study highlights

               * Mercury-release data examined were from 39 coal-fired power plants and 56 industrial facilities in Texas.
               * Autism rates examined were from 1,040 Texas school districts.
               * For every 1,000 pounds of mercury released by all industrial sources in Texas into the environment in 1998, there was a corresponding 2.6 percent increase in autism rates in the Texas school districts in 2002.
               * For every 1,000 pounds of mercury released by Texas power plants in 1998, there was a corresponding 3.7 percent increase in autism rates in Texas school districts in 2002.
               * Autism prevalence diminished 1 percent to 2 percent for every 10 miles from the source.
               * Mercury exposure through fish consumption is well documented, but very little is known about exposure routes through air and ground water.
               * There is evidence that children and other developing organisms are more susceptible to neurobiological effects of mercury.


            "We need to be concerned about global mercury emissions since a substantial proportion of mercury releases are spread around the world by long-range air and ocean currents," Dr. Palmer said. "Steps for controlling and eliminating mercury pollution on a worldwide basis may be advantageous. This entails greener, non-mercury-polluting technologies."

            The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated environmental mercury releases at 158 million tons annually nationwide in the late 1990s, the time period studied by the Texas team. Most exposures were said to come from coal-fired utility plants (33 percent of exposures), municipal/medical waste incinerators (29 percent) and commercial/industrial boilers (18 percent). Cement plants also release mercury.

            With the enactment of clean air legislation and other measures, mercury deposition into the environment is decreasing slightly.


            Dr. Palmer and his colleagues pointed out the study did not reflect the true community prevalence rates of autism because children younger than school age are not counted in the Texas Education Agency data system. The 1:500 autism rates in the study are lower than the 1:150 autism rates in recent reports of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

            Furthermore, the authors note that distance was not calculated from individual homes to the pollution source but from central points in school districts that varied widely in area.

            Data sources

            Data for environmentally released mercury were from the United States Environmental Protection Agency Toxics Release Inventory. Data for releases by coal-fired power plants came from the same inventory and from the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality. Data for school district autism came from the Texas Education Agency.

            Journal reference: Palmer, R.F., et al., Proximity to point sources of environmental mercury release as a predictor of autism prevalence. Health & Place (2008), doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.02.001.

            I bow to those who seek the truth; I flee from those who have 'found' it.

            by SERMCAP on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 05:19:54 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  I see part of your problem (2+ / 0-)

              For some reason you think emissions are vaccinations. Wrong again.  

              Further, the MMR vaccine--upon which a terribly done study that unleashed the autism furor was based--never contained thimerosal.  

              And apparently copyright is something with which you are not familiar.  

              But I'm not going to continue to argue this with you because we are talking about the practice of science in this diary. I would encourage you to read up on this matter at Respectful Insolence.

              Darwinic pilgrims claim the image fills them with an overwhelming feeling of logic. --The Onion

              by mem from somerville on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 05:42:41 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Give up (2+ / 0-)

                People like this don't care about facts. It is like arguing with the fundamentalists who insist the world is 6000 years old. There are so many important questions that need research resources and they want to study something for which we know the answer.

                There is a big problem with the politicization of science. It starts with the current President, who himself promotes the idea that all scientific opinions are valid in order to satisfy the part of the Republican base that wants creationism taught in science classes. It continues with global warming denial and the nonsense about vaccines and autism -- nonsense that has resulted in measles outbreaks in places like Brooklyn, NY!

                It will take a while to undo this damage.

                •  "Give up?" (0+ / 0-)

                  Now that's a scientific sentiment; along with the cocksure arrogance that "we know the answer."  If "we know the answer," then why has much of Europe already banned mercury as a preservative, ignorant fool?  If "we already know the answer," then why are research protocols that are not totally governed by corporate corruption--here's a clue, I'm talking about the U.S.--very open to further investigation here?  

                  Your brand of 'expertise' is sickening.  It would be laughable if it didn't cause so much damage.  But if you expect me to lie down while you take a piddle, you're fantasizing.  I'm capable of being wrong, if I'm not an idiot at least daily I know I'm missing something, but I can tell a fraud who pretends to be a know-it-all a mile away.

                  Thanks for the knock-off, as the saying goes.

                  I bow to those who seek the truth; I flee from those who have 'found' it.

                  by SERMCAP on Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 06:03:47 AM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  Your brand of 'expertise' (0+ / 0-)

                    is a danger to the public health.  I wish that the public would have to sit through an entire course in infectious disease as I have so that they could really understand the implications of their reckless demands.  But I don't expect that will happen.  

                    Like the commenter said, no amount of facts and data seem to reach the willfully antagonistic.

                    Darwinic pilgrims claim the image fills them with an overwhelming feeling of logic. --The Onion

                    by mem from somerville on Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 10:12:50 AM PST

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  Just to change the tune a little (1+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:

                      There's other kinds of citizen science which are a definite benefit.  Lower quality and consistency of data made up for by volume.  What I have in mind is the multitudes of birders who have been doing Audubon Christmas Bird Counts, breeding bird surveys, migration counts and the like.  The CBCs are the world's biggest natural data set, stretching back over a century.

                      There's probably some weakness to celebrity-driven science too.  Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve and so on do help raise money, but sometimes how they set the agenda associated with their fundraising efforts can contain problems.  Not to criticize those individuals specifically, but rather just to toss in the issue.

                      Of course, there's some kinds of biases built into even peer review and government agencies or foundations holding the purse strings.  There was a lot of resistance to Antarctic ozone hole issues in the US, for example.  Took some British scientists working lower tech.

                      We're losing the last of a generation of scientists with good field identification skills, and they are mostly not being replaced.  It's all well and good to do taxonomy by mitochondrial DNA, but basic field skills are falling by the wayside.  I think that's unfortunate, but it does seem to be the way of things nowadays.

                      (since this little thread is one little side thread on the larger issue)

                      Community efforts to monitor water quality in local streams is a good kind of citizen science, too.  Probably not where to look for Nobel-kinda breakthroughs.  But there's definitely a role for that sort of thing, too.

                      "The river always wins" - Mark Twain

                      by Land of Enchantment on Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 10:27:18 AM PST

                      [ Parent ]

                      •  Thanks for these thoughtful ideas. (0+ / 0-)

                        And this is not at all the sum total of what democratic science can be.  The concept of citizens panels, or citizens juries is one that works well in parts of Europe.  The condescending and dismissive sorts may feel superior all they like.  The point that I make is that intelligent laymen have as much right to participate as do the juried essayists.  

                        Moreover, plenty of 'experts' find themselves backing what I say in regard to the vaccinations.  As I promised, I will post on this, and folks who want to take it on, as if they already know the answers before they pose the issue, can demonstrate their closed-mindedness then.  

                        Clearly, though, your points are well-taken, encouraging involvement of community members, students, and so on, who can do quality surveys, toxic effluent measurements, specimen counts, and all sorts of such data-gathering.  My argument is that this is just the obvious beginning, and that the experts are going to have to get used to the idea of sharing the round table with regular people who are willing to do their homework.

                        I bow to those who seek the truth; I flee from those who have 'found' it.

                        by SERMCAP on Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 10:41:37 PM PST

                        [ Parent ]

                    •  Listen, you! (0+ / 0-)

                      Mercury is a deadly neurotoxin.  A dozen or more European countries have banned the use of mercury as a preservative in their inoculations.  Why do you think that this is?  Here's a clue; this decision is a result of cautious and objective science, not a "danger to the public health."  

                      Your arrogant presumption of superiority is what is the risk, not just to public health, but to any sort of democracy in science.  When one recalls the obvious instances of bias and perfidy that have on occasions characterized scientists, then perhaps someone with more sense and compassion could understand the suspicion with which common people often regard 'experts,' who "know" all the answers yet can't explain why their choices are right when folks elsewhere, as in Russia, England, Sweden, and Germany, for example, adopt a more cautious approach that accepts as likely the harmful effects of mercury injections into children and infants.  

                      It's a huge "Duh!!"  The point is not to refuse vaccines, but to insure that the least amount of harm occurs as a result of those decisions.  And that means, "GET RID OF MERCURY," because it is good common sense and good science both.  Jesus!  What arrogant idiots who act as if they know it all.  It's disgusting, it really is.

                      I bow to those who seek the truth; I flee from those who have 'found' it.

                      by SERMCAP on Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 10:52:48 PM PST

                      [ Parent ]

            •  I was referring to the uncritical belief that (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Land of Enchantment, SERMCAP

              mercury in vaccines causes autism.  There is plenty of data to refute that notion.  On the other hand, there is absolutely no doubt that mercury can cause neurological problems.  You would be hard pressed to find a scientist that disagrees with that, and it is even discussed in literature (e.g., "mad as a hatter.")  

              I worry that the few radicals who hold this unfounded belief have the public so focused on  vaccines that we are causing several worse public health consequences (unnecessary illness, and reduced interest in manufacturing vaccines so that everyone suffers).  I also worry that it distracts from focusing on other more likely sources of mercury exposure (e.g., increased fish consumption during pregnancy, painting with latex paint during pregnancy, or other sources mentioned above.)    

              •  But this is not what folks said. (0+ / 0-)

                You attacked someone without understanding the subtlety of the argument.  You oversimplified a complex situation.  I do not contend that I can PROVE that vaccines cause autism, although the research suggesting otherwise is hardly definitive, "plenty of data" notwithstanding.  Part of the problem with corporate science is that the motivation is, to say the least, small to study matters that might redound against the bottom line.

                That said, I understand your concern about people who respond hysterically to problems that--anyone with a gram of compassion will admit are pretty grotesque--reasonably might be expected to produce hysteria among folks so afflicted.  Such is not an environment conducive to rational or honest investigation.

                Again, though, I never sided with hysteria.  I noted, objectively and 'falsifiably,' as it were, that this was still an issue necessary to investigate.  A lot of nations and experts agree with me, although others, in particular those with a corporate ax to grind, say, "Oh shut up, you idiot!"  

                Since I do my best to document my own idiocy, I can react a bit testily when others level the charge against me preemptively.  So saying, thanks for the measured and reasonable response above.  I will post about this, too, if you think that you have more critique of these ideas to offer.

                I bow to those who seek the truth; I flee from those who have 'found' it.

                by SERMCAP on Mon Dec 01, 2008 at 06:21:14 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

      •  I'd love to help elementary and high schools (2+ / 0-)

        but there is essentially zero funding for that. Not all studies are equal and the autism example is a good one. The study that reported a link has been followed with many studies, of a much better design, that show no link. The lack of association is as proven as anything ever gets in medicine. We might as well argue about cigarette smoking and lung cancer, or HIV and AIDS.

        •  Who works with state school boards to develop (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Land of Enchantment

          state-mandated science curriculum? Several years ago I quickly looked at the mandated science curricula across states and at the lowest grades.  I wondered whether we might be able to teach more basic scientific concepts and critical thinking at the earliest grades.  

          I don't see much integration between scientists and teachers.  I agree, there isn't much funding for that.  Sad.

          •  There's different ways to teach science, too (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            chocolate cliffs

            There could be courses focused on energy (slipping in some earth systems and climate change) or on nutrition (with good coverage of anatomy and physiology and agricultural practices), that include good solid scientific concepts, but with content relevant to students whether they go into science or not in later life.

            "The river always wins" - Mark Twain

            by Land of Enchantment on Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 08:41:47 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

    •  We just made a major investment (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Land of Enchantment

      in recruiting a senior investigator with experience in CBPR. It will be particularly important in order to have research studies whose results are more generalizable than at present. But CBPR is more expensive than conventional research, and in this time of limited resources....

  •  I Think Federal Contractors Will Get Wage Cuts (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Land of Enchantment

    I think the feds will offer federal contractors like SAIC a tough choice - take less money or give up their contracts.

    Since federal contractors can't cut head count and still fulfill their contracts, I expect federal contractors will cut salaries 10 or 20% across the board.  

  •  watched a couple of friends.... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Land of Enchantment

    ...who I can only describe as brilliant get their PhDs in various fields, spend several years doing postdoc work, and simply not be able to carve out places for themselves.  Teaching positions proved as hard to come by as research slots.  They left to do other things, usually for a lot more money...and in each case, very sadly (nor did they change careers -- these are folks I knew most of my life -- from economic motivations)

    Not having been in the system, I'm not in a position to critique specifics...but it sure seems screwy from here.    

    ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

    by jessical on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 03:38:06 PM PST

  •  I keep wondering about the red/blue state divide (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Land of Enchantment

    and whether it represents a need for a broader distribution of research funding across states.  I know there are programs designed for funding states that do not receive their fair share, but I doubt they come close to compensating for this problem.  I also wonder whether the institutions that receive a greater proportion of funding ever stop to wonder whether the spatial gradients in research funding across this nation might someday come back to bite them by an overall reduction in research funding due to a lack of public appreciation for scientific research.  We have nearly experienced that during the Bush administration but the best funded institutions hadn't yet experienced the pain that many other institutions are feeling.  

  •  Cool diary LoE. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Land of Enchantment

    "The truth shall set you free - but first it'll piss you off." Gloria Steinem

    Iraq Moratorium

    by One Pissed Off Liberal on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 03:59:46 PM PST

  •  Researchers may well have to... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Land of Enchantment

    ...focus on needful projects, and put the plain curiosity on hold or seek private funding. I expect science will survive, though. It's way too useful to humanity in general to allow to atrophy.

    •  That comment is true if one assumes (3+ / 0-)

      that the basic scientific knowledge is solid enough so that we are on the cusp of advances in applied research.  But if the basic research knowledge is not at such an advanced state, putting basic research on hold will delay clinical advances.

    •  "needful" is very elusive (3+ / 0-)

      A Nobel Prize this year was given for a protein that came out of jellyfish.  There were probably a whole bunch of people who wouldn't have characterized that as "needful" research at the time.

      And let's keep in mind what happened to one of the scientists involved in the original effort:

      Ala. car dealership’s employee aided Nobel winners

      ....Research done by Douglas Prasher, who now works at Bill Penney Toyota in Huntsville, Ala., helped facilitate winners Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien’s work in using a glowing green protein from jellyfish to study how cells work....

      With the bills mounting at home, he took the job driving the courtesy van for the Huntsville dealership. He said he thought driving the van would be a good way to meet people and potentially make business contacts.

      "He’s very overqualified for the job," Bill Penney’s service director, Bob Pruitt, said Thursday. "You don’t get too many biochemical engineers wanting to be your porter, but he wanted to keep himself busy doing something."  

      Darwinic pilgrims claim the image fills them with an overwhelming feeling of logic. --The Onion

      by mem from somerville on Sat Nov 29, 2008 at 04:31:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  That's already happening. (3+ / 0-)

      In most, if not all, areas of biomedical research.  The lab I work in as a researcher gets it's funding from the NEI (Nat'l Eye Institute) and if your grant proposal doesn't have some aspect of translational research (i.e. research that can have a clear, if not immediate, impact on developing a new therapeutic for a given disease) in it, don't even bother submitting it no matter how interesting the project may be.  It really kind of sucks being constrained in this matter, although I can understand the move in this direction.  If the NIH goes to Congress asking for more money, they're going to have to be able to show that the money will go toward something with a relatively quick payoff in order to justify it.

  •  There are really two issues (4+ / 0-)

    1.) Basic vs targeted science

    Turns out that targeted science has never resulted in a paradigm-shifting discover.  In general targeted research USES the discoveries of basic science.  One never knows where a paradigm-shifting discovery will come - and consequently one needs to cast a wide net.  By far the largest funding entity for unencumbered basic science has always been the NIH.  It has been a driver of discovery – which gets us to #2.

    2.) The mechanism of current NIH funding!  When the Bushy’s took over they put at the top of the NIH a "buddy" from Houston.  The directive was to turn the NIH into a "corporation of translational research".  Like most of the Bush appointees – this one was no smarter – and proceeded to redirect the NIH funding into "directed" translational research programs" and "roadmaps" to discovery.  My take was that they were trying to turn the NIH into a Big Pharma organization.  (one can google THAT success!)

    What this effort did was to tie up very large chunks of funds into directed programs and "consortiums" of "translational research".  Let me be clear.  The last time this was done was with AIDS in the early 1980s.  I can tell you that the WASTE of research dollars in the first 5+ years of that directive was enormous!  Any idiot that used the word AIDS/HIV in their grants was given money.  Yet the major discoveries came from ancillary work on infectious disease and laboratories that were already working on the retrovirus problem before the "directive".

    What REALLY needs to happen in a Obama Admisnistration is a dismantling of the "directed" and "roadmap" programs and a refunneling of those dollars into true basic science initiatives.  Instead of "Consortium Grants" – return the funding to "Investigator Initiated" grants.  Let the paradigm-shifting discovery come from the able investigators that are following their nose.  While more funding would help (we spend ~2% of or GNP on such R&D when it should be closer to 10%), just a redirection into investigator initiated research would change things over night.  Science (and Science Administration) is not sophisticated enough to predict discovery ... and the origin of cures.

  •  This country is basically broke (0+ / 0-)

    To balance the budget the country would have to about double the personal income tax.

    The 15% rate would have go to 30% and the 36% rate would have to go to 72%.

    Retail clerks would be paying a marginal rate of 38% in a state with no income tax and about 44% in most states.

    We have been running cons like the Internet stocks and mortgage scams and foreign governments are probably demanding and getting reimbursed with Paulson's funny money.

  •  Things are indeed bad (3+ / 0-)

    In several ways.

    First, NIH has decided to concentrate most of its research efforts into a few dozen institutions who have received a Clinical and Translational Science Award. (Full disclosure: part of my salary is paid by my institution's CTSA.) I feel bad for people at most institutions, who will not ever receive one.

    Second, it is getting difficult for even the best and most established researchers to get their research funded. A successful track record is one of the things that reviewers look at when evaluating the merit of research proposals. I feel bad for people who are only a few years out of graduate school.

    Third, the career track for researchers has collapsed. Grad school used to lead to a tenure track faculty position after at most one postdoc fellowship. I went straight into a tenure track position without a postdoc. But today, new researchers will string along postdoc after postdoc after postdoc -- or give up and teach high school. (I personally know two such recent PhDs.) And the "up or out" rule in most academic institutions means that a new researcher can't make any mistakes in his/her early career -- getting turned down for promotion and tenure is basically a career-ender. I'm lucky to be at an institution that doesn't have an "up or out" rule, and I'm now the chairman of the committee that decides which Assistant Professors become Associate Professors where I've been trying to enforce reasonable but not impossible standards.

    Fourth, Americans have pretty much stopped pursuing scientific careers. I think this is the most dangerous of all the problems for the country's future. A bright person can go straight from college to a 2 year MBA and make six figures at age 23; many tenured full professors don't make that much. In some fields, including mine, almost all graduate students are from Asia. Fortunately, most of them decide that they'd like to remain in the US after they graduate, but if the anti-immigration folks in the US ever get their way, these bright young people will return to their home countries and help them to build a scientific infrastructure that will cause China and India, and not the US, to be the powerhouses of the 21st century. (Can someone please explain this to Lou Dobbs?)

    A substantial increase in research funding from the federal government is a necessary, but not sufficient, step in solving these problems. We may need an upset like Sputnik to get Americans interested in science again. That we've had a President who accepts factual relativism and supports teaching of non-science in science classes hasn't helped, and neither has the politicization of science during the past 8 years.

    •  This is what concerns me most. (2+ / 0-)

      The drying up in opportunity for promising young talent.  I was on an NSF fellowship in grad school, which as you likely know, are not easy to come by.  I had personal trauma (a rape, my father died) that derailed my career path.  There wasn't any recovery time allowed, and I fell by the wayside.  So for me, my "mistake" was nothing more than losing some focus during one of the worst periods of my life emotionally.

      I was on rotation in Roger Tsien's lab, the guy who just got the Nobel this year, starting just a few weeks after the rape.  I told him about it after a coupla weeks in the lab (or so), and his reaction appeared to be confusion, like why was I even telling him.  "That was a long time ago" was what he said - almost like he didn't see why it should even be mentioned.  As if I'd had the flu or an ear inflection or some such.  I might have gotten more sympathy and accomodation had I fallen down the stairs and broken my arm.  But six weeks later, when the cast was off, even then I wonder if time off lab work for physical therapy would have been held against me.  As it was, there were no external signs, and there was no mercy either.  I can't imagine what would happen if I'd pressed charges, and had to devote time to police reports and testimony at a prosecution and so on.  I never did report it, though I did "waste" some time (because it took away from lab time, it was valuable for me) going to a rape counselor.

      I couldn't muster what I needed to work enough hours, with enough focus.  I ended up taking a year of leave, and never going back.  I did actually break my wrist that year, too, in a freak low speed bicycle accident, plus my father died and a few other substantial problems that took a toll, and I just wasn't tough enough to go on as if nothing had happened.  Are those the kinds of things you want to have "weed out" people with good talent and skills?  Largely random luck?

      I liked the work, too.  A lot of fancy confocal and other microscopes (loved that stuff), imaging of calcium paths in the electroreceptors in some marine rays.  I even liked the scuba trips to go collect them - there was a guy who knew just how to hold the catch bags and prod them so they'd land in the bag with their instinctive back flip "fight or flight" escape behavior.  I'd hold the bags, and he'd "herd" them in.  That other grad student and I would start super early on imaging days to dissect out the sensory to be worked on, so the preps would be ready when the big guns came in.  There'd be like 8 people in this dark little room, slightly reminiscent of the Marx Brothers state room scene from A Night at the Opera.  But I wasn't up to the standard of that lab at that moment.  Bad luck.  And so my life has followed a very different path.  Work like writing water quality standards, grant writing, growing an orchard.  Very different.  Not necessarily better or worse, but very different.

      I remember having a poster at Neurosciences of the work in Tsien's lab.  Another grad student and I were "on duty", plus the second author on the project, a guy called Bennett from New York somewhere.  It was such a blur - my father had died two days before our poster session, and I flew out overnight after it for the funeral.  I was at suboptimal performance (not surprisingly), and there really was no mercy for being "off my game".

      But there's a lot of very good scientists I know from that time: smart, good hard workers, inventive, productive - on and on - whose career paths have derailed, too, even without such high drama to deal with like I had.  Who aren't working in science any more.  Often just for failure to bring in enough grant money.  And there really is no recovery.  A little falter along the way, and second chances just doesn't happen.  A waste of talent and a waste of a lot of investment that went into training them, too.

      I recall several different excellent professors saying they didn't think they would have succeeded in the current climate.  When they were in grad school, you did your requirements the first year, and really did a lot of exploratory stuff the second year.  Didn't settle down to your own research projects till after that.  Nowadays, there's pressure to publish by the second year.  And looking at that demographic curve above, it sure seems that we're just not encouraging young talent.

      "The river always wins" - Mark Twain

      by Land of Enchantment on Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 07:53:18 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Wow. Tough breaks LoE. (2+ / 0-)

        Such a shame that we aren't more sympathetic and accommodating as a society.

        "The truth shall set you free - but first it'll piss you off." Gloria Steinem

        Iraq Moratorium

        by One Pissed Off Liberal on Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 10:33:49 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Long time ago now. (2+ / 0-)

          And while I don't subscribe to New Age kind of thinking like the universe has a purpose for it all, I do have my own "philosophical" take on it.  No matter what bad happens, and you curse (one curses) and suffer and rage at the gods, are full of bitterness and resentment, sooner or later a time comes of some exquisite wonder and bliss and goodness and joy that you wouldn't give up for anything.  And you realize (one realizes) that without the bad stuff, your life would have followed a different path entirely, and you'd have missed those high points and gifts.

          For example:  You've written about some pretty harrowing patches in your own life.  But about good stuff too, like your son.  I doubt you'd want to give him up for anything, even if it meant you wouldn't have had to go through that other stuff.  I'm assuming I'm right about that, and I see my own life much the same way.  No matter what path a life follows, there's great stuff along the way.

          I brought up my experience mostly to highlight that it's unfortunate on the societal level that a lot of good talent in science is squandered.  (Rather than bringing it up in a quest for sympathy, or a "poor poor pitiful me" kinda thing...)  That, and reading that Tsien got the Nobel tweaked my memory that time - something I'd not thought about for ages.  That's one smart dude!

          "The river always wins" - Mark Twain

          by Land of Enchantment on Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 10:59:48 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  The voice of wisdom. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Land of Enchantment

            "The truth shall set you free - but first it'll piss you off." Gloria Steinem

            Iraq Moratorium

            by One Pissed Off Liberal on Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 11:03:04 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  You have a great wisdom that would have served (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Land of Enchantment

            students well.  

            You also clearly illustrate in your story how little training there is for the role of advisor/mentor.

            For the record, there was nothing in your comment to suggest you were asking for sympathy.  It was quite the opposite.

            •  Kind words. Thanks. (0+ / 0-)

              Never a shortage of people willing to speak ill.  So it's nice to take the time to be kind.  I did a Master's at another institution, and always thought my most successful student was one I had to work pretty hard with during office hours to get him a C.  He was from a rough big city neighborhood, and an athlete.  His dream was to go back there and open an after school gymnastics program.  And to do it, he had to pass a coupla required biology courses with a C.  He was really motivated, even if he struggled with the material.  And so, when he made the C, it felt like a huge triumphal success.  Great kid he was.

              "The river always wins" - Mark Twain

              by Land of Enchantment on Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 02:22:18 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

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