Category: Politics (page 2 of 3)

A Loss For Spain; US Science Gains

A quick post this morning. In the Guardian, I came across (courtesy my friend and erstwhile NatureBlogs colleague, Dr. Austin Eliott) this Open Letter to the Spanish Prime Minister from a Spanish researcher, an Astrophysicist no less, whom the current circumstances have forced to leave Spain and take her trade elsewhere. Dr. Amaya Moro-Martín’s letter (translated English text in the Guardian), written with brilliant, acerbic wit, paints a tragic picture of the status of scientific research in that country and how it is mired in countless bureaucratic impediments. She contends that this, along with an egregious lack of funding, is what has forced her and many others (link in the published essay) to abandon Spain in search of better futures elsewhere.

It is, indeed, a sad, sad situation. Dr. Moro-Martín’s position at the Spanish National Research Council bore the name of Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), a Nobel Laureate pathologist and neuroscientist from Spain, who had transformed the study of the nervous system. I am sure he would have been devastated by this turn of events. As Dr. Moro-Martín wrote, what is even more galling is the resounding silence from the Mariano Rajoy government on this predicament of the Spanish scientists.

In the comments, at least two individuals have pointed out that a very similar situation exists in Portugal and Greece. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well at all for the future of science in the EU.

I wish Dr. Moro-Martín all the very best for her transition to NASA. A transcontinental move, with family, isn’t the easiest thing to do, and having to start a professional life almost from scratch and rebuild relationships can be a daunting task. A distinguished researcher of her stature should be welcomed with open arms in any scientific community. In that respect, one niggling question that continues to bother me: is the situation with science funding much better in the US currently? I hope Dr. Moro-Martín is not stepping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.

A Sad Reality of a Non-Immigrant Biomedical Researcher in the US

(Note: This is a post in which I share some personal anguish surrounding a particular issue; please feel free to skip it altogether if you are not interested in this issue.)

Like me, my wife is a biomedical researcher, and has been working as a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Medicine in my university. I work in immunology and host-pathogen interactions, but my wife moves in more exalted circles of molecular and cellular biology. She has studied small nucleolar RNA, as well as intracellular regulatory mechanisms associated with breast cancer and leukemia. She is about to join the School’s pediatrics department, in order to work under an NIH-funded project to find a strategy against a virus that is harmful to newborn babies.

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Sam Stein (Huffington Post) Exposes Ugly Effect of Sequestration on US Science

Many of you know that I have been extremely concerned about the continuing deleterious effect of the sequestration on Federally-funded Biomedical Research in the United States. I have tried to highlight how Science funding and the future prosperity of this nation have been put on the line via drastic spending cuts. A piece of heartening news came through last month in which a proposed Senate Bill sought to boost the NIH budget. I wrote at that time: “I hope the American political leadership wakes up soon to the loss of intellectual capital they are incurring due to the sequester.”

Fat chance of that, it seems, as time passes on. Today, in Huffington Post, noted political reporter Sam Stein wrote a long essay in which he exposed the ugly effects of the sequester already weighing heavy on scientific research in the US. He has interviewed real researchers in different universities whose invaluable research work is in clear and present danger of being shut down. As the essay goes on to say:

Over the past few months, The Huffington Post has set out to understand the breadth of these cuts. The roughly two dozen scientists and academic officials interviewed were naturally distraught over the impact sequestration is having on their own work and institutions. The nature of the business is to assume you’re on the cusp of a major breakthrough.

But beyond that, they shuddered at the damage being done to the field at large. Yes, they conceded, the NIH’s budget remains large at $29 billion. But without more investment, the nation’s role as an international leader in scientific research is at risk. Moreover, the money being cut now will have lasting damage, both economic and medical, as cures to diseases are left undiscovered and treatments left unearthed.

A lot of people were hoping for the benevolence of for-profit private parties to keep the research efforts afloat. But as Stein points out, it is not a viable proposition. The times have been so desperate that several scientists are actively considering the idea of setting up shop in other, more conducive countries where they can carry on their work unimpeded.

The saddest and most dire message that Stein has portrayed? This:

… (At the University of Virginia) Patrick Grant, an Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, said his lab was down to two researchers from a peak of a dozen. His federal funding ran out last year.

“I wouldn’t advise people to go into science,” he said. “I think it’s a tough career to follow. It’s not the career that I thought it was, or that it was for me a couple of years ago.”

Do go read the HuffPo piece. It is disheartening and reeks of despair, but it needs to be read and the message spread. They also have a project to record the experiences of real people affected by the sequester, and are asking for input from the reading public.

Italian Biomedical Research in Peril

Those of you who are familiar with my views on animal experimentation (e.g. see here and here) probably know and understand that in order for biomedical science to progress for the benefit of humans and animals, it is important to engage in reasonable animal experimentation. I emphasize the word ‘reasonable’, because the welfare and humane treatment of research animals remains one amongst the most important tenets guiding animal experimentation. These tenets also behoove us biomedical researchers to actively seek non-animal, alternative study methods wherever possible, and employ rigorous analytical tools to minimize the number of animals to be used.

At the same time, however, I also emphasize that animal experimentation remains a very important and crucial experimental tool. Let’s take an example that I came across in today’s Nature Medicine alert. SARS (Severe Acquired Respiratory Syndrome), a form of viral pneumonia, affects a variety of small mammals, a fortuitous fact which the scientists have utilized for over a decade to study the ways and means to stop this deadly coronavirus pathogen. However, the etiological agent of the so-called MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), another coronavirus (CoV) that is wreaking havoc in Saudi Arabia, doesn’t seem to be able to infect the usual subjects, small lab animals (such as rodents) – reports Elizabeth Devitt (DOI: 10.1038/nm0813-952) in Nature Medicine News. This has seriously hampered the search for a treatment or preventive vaccine. Teams of scientists have, of necessity, moved to a non-human primate model, Rhesus Macaques, in which the MERS-CoV does cause a form of disease that is less severe than one seen in humans. In this model, possible vaccine candidates, as well as two antiviral drugs, are to be tested.

All this is why I found a piece of news in a recent Nature News Blog highly alarming and disappointing. Reported Alison Abbott, Italian parliament approves sweeping restrictions to use of research animals.

As Allison explained, Italy, as a member of the European Union, was required to legislate the protection of animals used in scientific research, following a 2010 EU directive that was seen as striking “a delicate balance between animal welfare and the needs of biomedical research” but was also amongst the strictest of such regulations around the world. However, the Italian Senate introduced last month a series of amendments in favour of placing extreme restrictions on animal research:

  • Forbidding the use of non-human primates, dogs and cats – except to test drugs or perform translational research,
  • Mandating anesthesia use even in mildly and transiently painful procedures, such as injections, and
  • Prohibiting animal use in some specific research areas, such as xenotransplantation (transplantation of cells and tissues between species, an important research area associated with transplant medicine), and addiction.

Not surprisingly, the scientific establishment of Italy is crying foul, voicing the concern that these measures would seriously hinder important biomedical research in Italy. It is not difficult at all to see why they should feel this way. Allison’s blog post is followed (at the last reading) by an illuminating discussion by five illustrious commenters, some noted biomedical researchers amongst them: neuroscientist Prof. Stefan Treue (Director of the German Primate Center, and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Biological Psychology, University of Göttingen), Constitutional scholar Prof. Francesco Clementi (Professor of Political Science, University of Perugia), neuroscientist Prof. Nikos Logothetis (Director, “Physiology of Cognitive Processes” Department, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen), neuroscientist Prof. François Lachapelle (Research director, National Animal Welfare Office, INSERM) and Science blogger Dr. Paul Browne of the Speaking of Research blog. I encourage everyone to head over to Allison’s blog and read these comments.

Paul Browne’s comment brought back to my mind an excellent 2010 post he wrote along with Dr. Allyson Bennett on the Basel Declaration, “a declaration that affirms commitment to responsible research and animal welfare and calls for increased effort to facilitate public understanding of the essential role that animal studies play in contributing to scientific and medical progress” (Full Disclosure: I am an individual signatory to the Basel Declaration).

Particularly in relation to the Italian legislation’s intent to allow animal research for some, but not all, biomedical research, this line from the Declaration is especially important:

“…Biomedical research in particular cannot be separated into ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research; it is a continuum stretching from studies of fundamental physiological processes to an understanding of the principles of disease and the development of therapies.”

Paul’s comment after Allison’s post includes a note of hope. He wrote, “… it has become apparent that the voices of science are beginning to be heard by Italian politicians.” I hope that is true – not only for Italy, but across the world, especially in the US, as well.

Crucial Legislative Alert From American Society for Microbiology

Wasn’t it yesterday that I wrote about the proposed US Senate bill that would increase the budget of the National Institutes of Health to USD 31 billion in 2014 for biomedical research? I also expressed the concern that although this seemed like the much-awaited glimmer of hope, the bill would have to pass through the Republican-controlled House and would undoubtedly suffer major setbacks to the point of being scuttled. I am powerless to do anything directly, since I am not a US citizen – but I can certainly try to raise awareness of this issue, so that other American scientists and colleagues may do their part and communicate their concerns to their elected members of the Congress.

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Checking in…

Hello there! Did you miss me? I’m kidding. Of course you didn’t. Anyway, I have been really busy in boring academic work (yes, I do have to keep doing what I do at the bench – sigh!), and haven’t found time to sit down and write. This brief interlude hasn’t ended yet, but I am checking in to say a quick ‘Hi!’ to you, and put down a few good news that caught my eyes via the Nature News highlights that comes to my inbox.

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Science Funding and Future Prosperity of the Nation, All On the Line

How are y’all doing? Me, I am scared sh… Let’s say, into a constipative mode. The exact situation that I had worried about last September has finally come to pass. Late on the night of Friday, the 1st of March, the studied intransigence of the Congressional Republicans on fiscal matters bore fruit and President Obama signed the order that put the across-the-board, indiscriminate, $85 billion spending-cuts (a.k.a sequestration, or the Sequester) into grim effect.

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Politics of Science Policy: A Critical and Embarrassing Lacuna

For those who may not be aware, ScienceDebate dot org, founded by Shawn Otto and Matthew Chapman, is a US not-for-profit agency that engages elected officials, including presidential candidates, to talk about science and technology policy. Otto and Chapman are both screenwriters and authors, and Chapman has the added street-cred of being a great-great grandson of Charles Darwin (yes, that Darwin!). One of the major achievements of ScienceDebate in recent times has been to get President Obama and the Presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, to present their answers to 14 top science policy-related questions, chosen from thousands of questions submitted by scientists, engineers and concerned citizens. The variety of topics covered in these questions ranged from innovation, research and economy, education, climate change, energy, biosecurity, public health, to conservation of natural resources, thereby underscoring the importance of science in all walks of life and the critical need to incorporate it in national policy-making. I invite you all, dear readers, to take a look at the answers by Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. I, personally, thought that Mr. Obama had a better understanding of the situation and what needs to be done, whereas Mr. Romney was perhaps more interested in treating the answers as his stump speeches, big on rhetoric, short on solid policy, with a soupçon of climate change denial. But don’t take my word for it; as always, YMMV.

Unfortunately, the first presidential debate (October 3) and the vice presidential debate (October 11) ignored science and science-policy questions almost entirely, and the second presidential debate yesterday (October 16) paid lip-service to science policy in terms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, and some rudimentary discussions of energy and innovation.

I hope science policy would get a little more screen time during the third debate (October 22); it is difficult to imagine why a presidential campaign would not want to address this important issue, particularly during a time when this country appears to be suffering from a slump in American students’ performance in the STEM topics and the nation has been accused of a growing wave of anti-intellectualism and an unhealthy disregard for scholarship (For a more in-depth analysis, see Paul Rosenberg’s opinion essay here).

It is perhaps a testament to the alleged anti-intellectualism that, when ScienceDebate, along with Scientific American, asked 33 leaders of science-oriented congressional committees to respond to the top American science questions (a subset of 8 from the above-mentioned 14), this is what happened:

Six of them declined outright, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, who were asked to participate because of their overall responsibility for the flow of legislation through congress. Several more ignored numerous requests from ScienceDebate and Scientific American. Nine of the thirty-three responded.

“Americans should be concerned that only nine of the thirty-three key leaders on science-related congressional committees feel the need to let the public know their views on science,” said Shawn Otto, CEO of ScienceDebate.org. “As to the nine who did respond—members of both parties—their leadership should be applauded.”

The nine responders were comprised of seven Democrats and two Republicans, but that is beside the point. Science policy is supposed to be evidence-based, rooted in rational thinking, and therefore, not a matter of partisan haggling. This assumes fresh, and more critical, significance in the light of the events of recent times, in which more than one of the elected Republican members of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology have been caught on tape uttering embarrassingly meaningless and scientifically inaccurate tripe (video below).

As the Scientific American observed astutely:

… even the most science-savvy chief executive needs scientifically literate partners in Congress to implement sound initiatives. After all, the nation’s laws ultimately get debated and passed on the floors of the House of Representatives and Senate. Because most of Congress’s legislative work occurs within committees, we thought it made sense to find out how the top-ranking members of those committees approach issues that have some sort of foundation in science.

It’s high time Americans who are professionally invested in the STEM disciplines, as well as sundry citizens, started asking their elected representatives to step up to the plate and come together to formulate an effective science policy capable of circumventing the top challenges of tomorrow, as embodied in the questions posed to the 2012 Presidential candidates. The long-term future of this nation is at stake.


Further reading:

  1. Shawn Otto, Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy. Scientific American, November, 2012.
  2. The Science Agenda, U.S. Should Adopt Higher Standards for Science Education. Scientific American, August, 2012.
  3. The Science Agenda, Future Jobs Depend on a Science-Based Economy. Scientific American, November, 2012.

Sequestration Risks to Science and Public Health Programs: ASM Legislative Alert

This morning I received a legislative alert from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM, the world’s oldest and largest scientific membership organization), of which I am a member, via their Public and Scientific Affairs Board. I am not a citizen of the United States, the country I live and work in, and therefore, have no voting rights. But I am keenly aware of the current economic realities, as well as the politics and public policy-making surrounding them. And I think it is absolutely imperative for scientists, researchers and administrators to be aware of the direness of the situation – and to do their bit – because if not, the impact on scientific research and public health programs, both points of pride of this nation, is going to be devastating. I wanted to share this important missive for the sake of awareness.

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AAAS voices concern over science funding in the US

A couple of weeks back, a New York Times piece prompted me to voice my concerns about the future of science funding in the US. Today I came across a news release made around the same time by the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), which reflected the same concern.

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