Category Archives: democracy

Dangerous Photosynthesizers

Because photosynthetic organisms are the energetic foundation of our biosphere, we always tend to think of them as allies, organisms with a positive connotation. Their trademark color green is universally linked with goodness, growth, and life. However, there are some bad apples in the bunch that just seem to have it out for us heterotrophs. Well, maybe not apples (though I’m sure there are some poisonous apples out there somewhere*), but nature is filled with examples of poisonous plants. Many toxins and pharmaceuticals have botanical origins.

The focus of today’s blog post sinks even lower- algae, pond scum, cyanobacteria. Most of these aquatic photosynthesizers quietly convert sunlight to biochemical energy without any ill effects to anyone. I’ve written previously, that under the right conditions (warm and nutrient-rich waters) these otherwise inconspicuous organisms bloom in great numbers and overwhelm their environments. Like all life on earth, algae are programmed to capitalize on favorable conditions for reproduction. The ultimate crashes of these blooms can result in aquatic dead zones, areas with dissolved oxygen levels too low to support life.**

Algal bloom in Lake Erie 2011 from the NASA Earth Observatory Credit: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon via Wikimedia

However, in some cases, the effects of these algal ‘blooms’ go beyond sheer numbers. Some algae produce toxins which cause serious health problems for those of us heterotrophs sharing their environment. The individual constituents of these ‘harmful algal blooms’ (HABs) measure in at ~1-2 µm, but they can wreak all kinds of havoc on the scale of large cities. HABs can stop your summer fun by forcing beaches to close or eliminating certain shellfish from your diet, but this summer the problems went beyond recreation to something much more fundamental- potable water.

Clean, safe drinking water is a fundamental service of human civilization. In our modern society, just turn on the tap, cook, clean, bathe, drink. It has been such a staple of American cities that it is taken for granted. That is, until it’s no longer available. That was the exact situation in Toledo earlier this month. A large American city, in the year 2014, was without safe drinking water for a whole weekend. Approximately, 500,000 citizens were affected. All because of toxic algae.

Microcystin-LR chemical structure Credit: cacycle via Wikimedia

In this case, the culprit was a bloom of cyanobacteria which produce the toxin microcystin. This molecule is harmful to the health of humans, pets and wildlife by acting as a liver toxin. It also has neurotoxic effects. The toxicity of microcystins has been extensively characterized and long-known to be associated with certain cyanobacterial species. Because of the potential adverse effects of microcystin-producing cyanobacteria on modern water supplies, treatment facilities routinely check the levels of this toxin. Only one part per billion of this molecule is considered acceptable. When a microcystin-producing algal bloom occurs near the intake of a municipal water supply (as it did for Toledo this month) the facilities can quickly be overwhelmed causing the water supply to exceed acceptable microcystin levels. The situation is compounded by the fact that microcystins are resistant to boiling. While boiling water may destroy other toxins or contaminating bacteria, it only concentrates microcystins. In order to bring the toxin levels down, the problem must be addressed at the water treatment facility (using methods like activated carbon, ozone treatment and membrane filtration). By adjusting the normal procedures to account for increased microcystins, the water supply can be treated to once again safe levels. All of this is accompanied by exhaustive analysis of microcystin levels and vigilant monitoring after the incident.

Scientists and government agencies are always working to monitor our water systems for HABs. Check out some of the links below for descriptions of continuous efforts to monitor our environment for HABs. How do we get to the point of 500,000 people without water for a weekend with everyone watching out for it? I mean, we’re watching it from space! Even with all of these sophisticated tools and models, nature can be surprisingly swift. Check out these images and reports from the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab on Aug 1, 2014 and Aug 4, 2014 showing false-colored images tracking the algal growth.

Simultaneously in the news cycle with the Toledo water crisis, two Ebola patients were being treated in premier isolation facilities on American soil. The nation’s attention was rapt with the details of their treatment and speculation was rampant as to the possibility of an outbreak in America (an infinitesimally small probability not worth talking seriously about among scientists and epidemiological experts, but a great ratings-driver). Worldwide, the Ebola death-toll numbers in the thousands, not just from this year, but ever. Based on pure body count, there are many deadlier infectious diseases, which we as the public dismiss more easily. Beyond those numbers, the lack of clean water for drinking, food preparation and sanitation results in the deaths of ~3 million people every year across the globe. A safe and reliable water supply, as a basic right, continues to elude human civilization.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink… Credit: de:Benutzer:Alex Anlicker

HABs are only a part of the world’s water problem. However, the disruption of Toledo’s water supply should have been an event that caught our attention and held it for a while longer. It may be easy to turn on the tap, but getting the clean water to that point takes a significant amount of effort with infrastructure maintenance, monitoring and treatment. All of these things are largely invisible to us in modern society. Unfortunately, all of these things are affected by other societal choices like economics, aesthetics, environmental regulations, and the practices of our agricultural systems and other industries. As a society, we should start having the longer, difficult conversations necessary to attack this complicated problem rather than the transient chats that occur when we are in crisis mode. Find out about your community’s water situation and the issues related to your supply. Talk to your community leaders today to ensure that safe water is part of your future.

 

 

Johnna

*Hey, it’s hard to transition away from the summer’s Disney theme completely in a single post. However, I’m not just talking about the evil queen’s poisoned apple from the fairy tale. Apples have a huge amount of genetic diversity and I’m sure there are some varieties out there that are poisonous or so foul-tasting that you would think they are. After all, apples concentrate toxic substances in their seeds.

http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/atoz/malus_john_downie.htm

**In case you’re wondering, this year’s Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone measured ~5500 square miles. That’s not breaking any records for size, but still about as large as the state of Connecticut. Read more about it here.

 

References and Links:

http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/hab/

http://www.cop.noaa.gov/stressors/extremeevents/hab/current/noaaHab.aspx

http://www.cop.noaa.gov/stressors/extremeevents/hab/current/HAB_Econ.aspx

http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hsb/hab/default.htm

http://www.whoi.edu/redtide/page.do?pid=14898

http://www2.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/harmful-algal-blooms

http://www2.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/effects-human-health

http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2014/08/04/this-bloom-is-in-bad-location.html

http://www.lakeeriewaterkeeper.org/

http://www.gulfhypoxia.net/news/default.asp?XMLFilename=201408111452.xml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microcystin

http://iaspub.epa.gov/tdb/pages/contaminant/contaminantOverview.do?contaminantId=-1336577584

http://www.weather.com/health/what-you-need-know-about-microcystin-toledos-water-toxin-20140804

http://water.org/water-crisis/water-facts/water/

http://water.org/water-crisis/one-billion-affected/

http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/global/wash_statistics.html

Science Shutdown: New Paradigms for Keeping Science Going

Since the federal government shut down yesterday, the scientific community has come to some uncomfortable realizations about our connection to the federal government. Here are some tweets about how science has been affected since yesterday.

This blog post by Jonathon Eisen shows you screen shots of the government-run websites scientists use every day for their research.

Check out this scientist’s perspective via a reddit thread to get an idea of the modern science environment.

The main worry for scientists working outside of industry is always money. This is true even before a government shutdown, but the closing of the federal government just emphasizes how closely chained we are to them for support. I challenged the broader internet community yesterday to see if there were any ideas for better funding models (ones that don’t rely on a functional federal government or laboratory bake sales).

Crowdfunding continues to emerge as a new possibility, but I have a really hard time wrapping my head around this as a long-term solution to support laboratories over a research lifetime. Here are some timely links of crowdfunding successes and new initiatives.

Private/Industry partnerships with academia can work in some instances. It’s a great opportunity for scientists to tap into a separate pool of funds, but as I’ve mentioned there can be entanglements. One sure way of identifying bias in any kind of scientific study is to follow the money. When you can trace it back to a corporation with a significant vested interest in a particular result, then readers have every right to be suspicious. For scientists, maintaining credibility and integrity is everything. This is my main reason for steering clear of this method of funding on a larger scale. For my research area in particular, I’m sure agricultural and plant science biotech giants like Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer, Syngenta and BASF (all of the BigAg companies we love to hate, right?) could be persuaded to invest in me, but the science bred from any of those relationships would likely not be well-received by the general public. For polarizing scientific topics it is important to maintain independence. A prime example in the case of the plant sciences (agriculture, GMOs etc) is Dr. Kevin Folta, a scientist at the University of Florida, Horticultural Sciences Department. He is financially independent of corporate research interests (Monsanto), but is still the target of internet sleuths with opposing viewpoints that try to link him to Monsanto.

We can continue to evolve funding strategies, but we also have to seriously consider solving the more systemic issues with academic science. Check out this series of articles by Henry R. Bourne at UCSF with suggestions for alleviating these problems.

http://elife.elifesciences.org/content/2/e00642

http://elife.elifesciences.org/content/2/e01138

http://elife.elifesciences.org/content/2/e01139

http://biomedwatch.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/the-postdoc-holding-tank-trr-vi/

In think it’s safe to say that the future of science will be uncomfortable. Scientists are still taking suggestions for alternative funding models because we still think it’s an essential function of society.

Johnna

The Government Shutdown and A Window of Opportunity

So, the federal government shut down today. I’m not going to get into the details of how we got to this point as a nation- not really my area of expertise. The government shutdown will affect people in many different ways, but the scientific community is definitely taking a hit. It’s not just closed national parks, museums and panda cams. There are ripple effects further than most people realize. Even the Mars Curiosity rover is on standby.

Non-essential scientists cannot do their jobs today or any other day until congress works out a budget for the 2014 fiscal year. Experiments will not be done. Experiments that have been started cannot be finished. All of these are experiments that will eventually have to be repeated. I can’t think of any ongoing work that can just be ‘skipped.’ Not only is there a real cost for the supplies, reagents and personnel hours to get this research back online, but we are sacrificing our most precious resource in science- time. Information maintained in our federally-supported databases is no longer current. Launch windows are still closing during the Congressional stalemate.* The CDC is no longer monitoring disease outbreaks like influenza.

None of the federal granting agencies are accepting or reviewing grant proposal submissions. This means that scientists that don’t work directly for the government, but rely on government funds to support their research (basically all of academia) will have to go without. They will either have to wait for decisions or disbursements. For most of us, our labs have funded projects in progress and we can continue to keep spending the money in our accounts. However, the future is even more uncertain.

These recent events bring to the forefront the ugly side of our national basic research enterprise. There have been grumblings for a while about stagnating funds and what to do with the glut of STEM trainees with advanced degrees. Our current system is broken and unsustainable. Sure, there are those scientists among us that will continue to be successful at the funding game, but a lot of good science is falling through the cracks.

The nature of basic research is incompatible with private/industry interests for several reasons. There usually isn’t a clear path for a return on investment and even when there is one, it can be much longer than any rational investor would support. Also, private funding of research entangles economic interests with scientific studies. New innovations will come at a price outside of the lab rather than be made publicly available. Alternatively, some findings may trigger suppression if it affects corporate bottom lines. Of course, these things are possible as long as there is any human and monetary involvement (which, of course, there will always be), but our current system does a relatively good job at openness. The cost of modern science makes is prohibitively expensive for scientists to go it alone and stake their own money.** Finally, most basic science is useful in the context of larger research communities and the lone mad scientist would be at a disadvantage. Adam Ruben had some more creative ideas last week for laboratory fundraising, but hopefully if won’t come to those.

This is a serious question for the scientific community.

How do we create a better funding system and infrastructure for scientific research?

Surely, we are creative enough to come up with something better. I know there are a lot of engineers with the day off that could take this time to design an improved system. I’m tired of bemoaning funding allocations and reading commentaries about how scientists must ‘settle’ for other employment opportunities.***Anybody out there have any ideas? Now that the government doors are closed, let’s take this opportunity to open a window to something better.

Johnna

* NASA scientists and engineers had been furtively working towards the Mars MAVEN mission set to launch in November. The laws of physics allow for a launch window only every 26 months. If the mission isn’t ready for launch, it will be 2016 before they can try again. When you think about the pace of science and engineering advances, two years is an enormous amount of time to waste. Not to mention it’s a $600 million investment. This was the only official link I could find for MAVEN that hadn’t dark: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/programmissions/missions/future/maven/  and here is the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAVEN

** Grad student stipends and postdoc salaries don’t allow much room for building up savings, but maybe there are some of us from the upper echelons of society that have access to personal wealth.

*** This is NOT a disparagement of ‘alternative’ opportunities, but for those trainees that thrive on research, there should be a way to continue to be productive at it (and still earn a living wage).

Links on commentary about how the government shutdown will affect science:

http://www.scilogs.com/communication_breakdown/brief-shutdown/

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/10/01/government_shutdown_nasa_is_grounded.html

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2013_09_27/caredit.a1300213

http://www.theverge.com/2013/9/30/4789162/shutdown-us-2013-nasa-epa-hhs

http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/37721/title/Government-Shutdown-to-Impact-Science/

http://gizmodo.com/how-a-government-shutdown-would-affect-science-and-tech-1426859370#

http://physicsbuzz.physicscentral.com/2013/09/government-shutdown-science-suspended.html

http://www.popsci.com/article/science/no-more-panda-cam-how-government-shutdown-will-affect-things-we-care-about

http://modernfarmer.com/2013/09/shutdown-means-people-eat-grow-food/

http://www.nature.com/news/us-government-shuts-down-1.13865

Shaking it up: Citizen Science Projects on Earthquakes, Volcanoes, Landslides and Seasonal Changes

ShakingitupToday I’m shaking things up a bit. Let’s take a detour from plants, plankton and publications. I came across some interesting citizen science initiatives through the U.S. Geological Survey that I would like to pass along to you. Collecting geological data? Sounds boring, right? Think again. We’re not talking about pens and leather-bound journals, Milicent. We’re talking on-line reporting and tweets.

Help the U.S.G.S. collect earthquake data through their program ‘Did you feel it?’ Providing information through their website about the location and intensity of seismic activity will help their scientists create maps and study the effects of these earthquakes. The Tweet Earthquake Dispatch has two twitter accounts offering earthquake alerts if you are interested in following them (if the shaking wasn’t alert enough for you). Also, the U.S.G.S. surveys tweets for the word for earthquake in a number of different languages to detect earthquakes. It turns out that this kind of survey is able to detect seismic activity ~30s – 2min faster than official recorders in some areas. This was true of the 5.8 magnitude 2011 quake in Virginia where seismic activity is rare and official recorders are few and far between. Now, that is government surveillance I can get behind!

If earthquakes aren’t your thing, there are also programs for reporting landslides (Did you see it?) and volcanic activity (Is ash falling?). You can also add data to The National Map to create a more complete picture of the U.S. with buildings and other features. The U.S.G.S. is also a partner of the National Phenology Network, which collect a wide range of data from nature to benefit scientific studies. If you enjoy spending time in nature, which could include your own backyard, then consider contributing to their Nature’s Notebook on-line reporting program. You can submit your observation location and keep track of certain species of plants and animals for scientists that use their data to track seasonal information. For my Baton Rouge area friends, this can be as simple as letting them know when your magnolia tree is blooming or when your pecans are falling off your trees. (Hey, I guess there is a plant connection after all.) I think someone somewhere would also like to know that there were no blueberries and the figs are late this year.

These can be great hobbies, family activities or group volunteer projects for school classes, scout troops, 4-H clubs, senior centers etc. So get involved!

Johnna

*I also came across this post if you are looking for a more complete description of citizen science.

References:

http://www.usgs.gov/blogs/features/usgs_top_story/scientists-need-your-eyes-and-ears/

http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2005/3016/pdf/FS-2005-3016.pdf

http://fcw.com/articles/2013/02/06/twitter-earthquake.aspx

http://www.scribd.com/doc/152756960/Transforming-Earthquake-Detection-and-Science-Through-Citizen-Seismology

Not-So-Risky Business: What are we missing out on?

I’ve outlined the way things generally work for obtaining federal research grant funding before, but the pressures of lower funding success rates have other consequences as well. The proposal review process is designed to reduce the risk associated with ‘real science’ so that money is not wasted on unrealistic or unattainable projects. But are these safeguards against risk really guiding us to the best investments among submitted proposals? This question is harder to answer than you would think as the pool of worthy applicants grows and the available funds do not.

Fierce competition for funds means highly polished proposals full of preliminary supporting data with meticulous experimental plans to pursue these findings. All of this neatly wrapped in a well-written document highlighting the critical nature of the research topic to human existence with bonus features like thorough budgets along with descriptions of science education and outreach activities and mentoring plans. Sounds pretty good, what’s wrong with that? The simple answer is- nothing. Except that many impressive proposals do not receive funding. When proposals are reviewed during panel sessions, there are many high quality candidates, but they must be ranked according to recommendation for funding (a decision ultimately made by the program officer within the agency). When it comes to selecting the top 20%, the margin between the proposals that get funded and those that wait to be resubmitted is slim. It is difficult to predict what small imperfections will separate these two groups.

These pressures have caused a trend in the way that proposals are assembled and how science is done. In order for a proposal to appear like a safe investment, increasing amounts of preliminary data have become the norm. This trend has been the subject of a PhD comic. While I don’t think things have gotten as extreme as that example, there is a fine line between showing an adequate amount of data to show likelihood of future success and showing so much that the focus of the proposal should be significantly extended. When we’ve reached this point, we are under-cutting ourselves and I think the current system of peer review does a good job and distinguishing this margin in favor of good science.

There is also a narrow region between safe, incremental science and the outrageously unfeasible. In a perfect world, all science would advance logically, going deeper by defined steps. In real life, this may seem boring and inconsequential- both to perform and to read about in a grant proposal. Some sound experimental plans may get lost in the unfunded pile after panel review if the investigator hasn’t dressed it up a little better in the proposal. Even so, some proposals may seem more or less fashionable (read: fundable) if they aren’t using the catchy technique of the month (anything with lasers that requires sequencing an entire genome) or working in an emerging interdisciplinary field (computational paleontology or aerospace biochemistry). At the same time the reviewers and program officers must discern revolutionary proposals from those that are all flash with no chance in hell of actually producing results.

In science, we are always skeptical and second-guessing ourselves is part of the job description. It should not be surprising to find that we also feel that way about our funding system as well. Is it really the best way of supporting research? I have no doubt that the the projects receiving funding are of the the highest quality in areas of importance by investigators that value mentoring and outreach. Some draft legislation earlier this year called the review process into question regarding its ability to achieve that goal*. My larger concern is- what are we missing out on? How many great research projects have we left on the bench for lack of funding? Are labs really functioning efficiently with the trend towards escalating preliminary data? What fundamental research is being overlooked because it is less trendy? Finally, are we not being bold enough with our research projects? Have we become too skeptical and jaded to see visionary innovation when it lands in the review pile? I wish I could answer these questions favorably.

How do we resolve these systemic issues? There’s no one clear answer. I’ve mentioned that additional funding would always be welcome, but it doesn’t address all of these issues. Other suggestions have been made to change the system**, but they all have their own merits and flaws. Scientists along with our investors, the public, must honestly evaluate our funding system to make sure it’s working to give us all the best returns. No, the irony is not lost on me that I, a scientist, am suggesting that we study and experiment with our scientific infrastructure to make it better. It is the epitome of nerd-dom, but also encapsulates the seriousness of the issue. All hypotheses are welcome.

Johnna

*Earlier this spring the Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) drafted legislation called the High Quality Research Act aimed at improving the NSF peer review process. The spirit of the legislation was to increase accountability with respect to the research funded with your tax dollars. However, the language in the draft bill did little to meaningfully extend the current guidelines for the NSF peer review system, but did succeed in riling the scientific community into thinking all research would subsequently be subject to what amounts to political review. There was some drama between the committee and administrators at NSF regarding specific projects, but ultimately the HQRA legislation was not formally introduced. As a scientist doing basic research, it was a wake-up call about the importance of science communication and public outreach.

**These include models where agencies would support individual investigators based on past and predicted career success regardless of specific research direction, increasing the duration of funding cycles (2-5 years is the current grant lifespan), equivalently dividing funding among all submitted proposals, and lottery-based funding among worthy proposals.

It’s all about the money: Research Spending

moneyIn yesterday’s post, I encouraged you to be an investor in scientific research. In truth, you already are through your tax dollars. I bet you’d be interested to know how much of your money we are talking about. That is the bottom-line of today’s post.

It may be no surprise to you that the U.S. government does a better job at counting and reporting things like annual corn production in every county and energy consumption from coal than it does how much money it spends. I had a much harder time tracking down current spending and budgetary numbers than I imagined. So if anyone out there accounting for government dollars has additional data or insights, please feel free to comment below. The number I found for U.S. research and development (R&D) spending across all sectors (business, government, other) was ~$400 billion dollars*. For most people, and I assume all of my blog readers, this is an enormous sum of money. But- how does it really add up in the context of all the money we generate and spend?

In the U.S., total R&D spending is just less than 3% of its GDP split among government, industry and other funding sources. Government funding represents just under a third of this number (~0.8 – 0.9% GDP). Business R&D comprises the largest chunk of this total investment with other funding agencies like universities and non-profit organizations having the smallest contribution. The worldwide average of R&D spending is ~2% GDP. Check out this article with very useful graphics comparing global spending on research. If you are interested in more data on European science spending, check out Scienceogram.

researchspendingbreakdown

Clearly, the U.S. is above average when it comes to spending on research. Because it is also the world’s largest national economy with a ~$15.7 trillion GDP in 2012, it also spends the most money in absolute terms as well. (That’s ~$440 billion in spending across all sectors from these figures.) These numbers indicate that the U.S. is the world leader in terms of investment in scientific research. However, now is no time to sit on our laurels. South Korea and Japan are committing larger percentages of their GDPs to R&D, and China’s economy is expanding at a faster pace than that of the U.S. So, the U.S. may have to cede this position in the coming years.

The values for U.S. R&D spending indicate a greater investment and commitment to science by the business sector rather than the government. (Thanks capitalism!) The programs funded by federal money mostly sponsor basic research- fundamentally important things we should know more about, but without a clearly defined application or product. These are projects whose timescale of investment would not survive in a purely capitalistic environment favoring short-term gains. Federal funds also drive research in areas critical to the national interest- food, energy, healthcare, the environment, security. In 2012, that amounted to ~$139 billion dollars.

Do we really need to commit more federal money if we are already spending many billions of dollars each year? Yes. This was the slow and steady increase I mentioned in yesterday’s post. At the very least, we cannot go backward. The President’s budget request for the 2013 fiscal year had only a 0.2% increase in R&D funding. Research funding even across a number of separate divisions (DOE, NIH, NSF, NASA, USDA etc) represents a small portion of the federal budget. The total U.S. budget expenditures in recent years are ~$3.8 trillion dollars. We are only allocating ~3.7% of our total budget for scientific research. With this level of investment, I do not believe as a nation we are investing enough for a comfortable retirement as citizens of earth.

Check out this graphic representation of the U.S. budget for 2010 from PhDcomics.com for some perspective on how science funding ranks in importance when real dollars are on the line or here for another graphic from Scientific American for the 2009 numbers. Surely there are other places within the federal budget than could be streamlined to provide some more room for science given the potential research has to reduce costs in other areas (agriculture, energy, healthcare). Here’s how the budget breaks down for 2011 estimates:

thefederalbudget

What do these budget numbers mean for scientific progress via federally funded research? It means fewer grants are being funded. Federal agencies are reporting funding success rates of ~18 – 20%. (Anecdotal rumors within academia in recent years put these numbers much smaller.) This means only about 1 in 5 submitted proposals will receive funding. With such abysmal success rates for funding, it means ~80% of proposed projects don’t get done. Of course, a percentage of those proposals may have significant flaws, but even accounting for some of those, that’s still a large amount of research left waiting on the lab bench.

While we may be the highest funded system in the world, these numbers are still disturbing. They mean that as a nation we are still only investing a small percentage of ourselves in innovation for the future. It means that our words and our actions are not congruent. It means that we will invest in scientists up to a certain point, but not give them the resources they need to conduct their independent projects. We can do better than this. Before the accountants and economists start coming out of the woodwork to bludgeon my proposal, let’s figure out a way to increase the research funding significantly and steadily in the coming years. Instead of fighting over why we find ourselves in our current state of financial affairs, let’s work toward the future. Even if we were to increase the research spending portion of the budget by 30%, it would still total a very small slice of the federal fiscal pie (less than 5%).**

Johnna

*PPP$ = US dollars at purchasing power parity (PPP$) for the latest year available.

“PPP$ better reflects the real value of investments and allows for more comparability by eliminating differences in price levels among countries. Essentially, this means that a sum of money converted into US dollars at PPP rates will buy the same basket of goods and services in all countries. Source: UNESCO”

**I realize the number representing the 100% for our federal budget is more controversial because of deficits. Every item we increase allocations for now means borrowing money with interest we must pay later. When it comes to science, I still think it’s worth it.

Reference Links

http://www.uis.unesco.org/FactSheets/Documents/sti-rd-investment-en.pdf

http://theconversation.com/infographic-how-much-does-the-world-spend-on-science-14069

http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0473.pdf

https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42410.pdf

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=money-for-science

http://www.phdcomics.com/documents/phd041410.pdf

http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/82xx/doc8221/06-18-research.pdf

http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2013/01/02/fy2012-by-the-numbers-success-rates-applications-investigators-and-awards/

http://www.nsf.gov/about/budget/fy2013/pdf/04_fy2013.pdf

Science: A Long-term Investment

contract

This is part of a series of posts describing science in terms of a new social contract with clauses and expectations of both scientists and society. The links for all of the posts so far can be found on the ‘highlights’ page. So if you are interested, start there to get the complete contract.

In my original post about a new social contract for science and society, I didn’t go into too many practical details as to how to make these terms work for all of us. So let’s dig a little deeper on the investment clause…

“You will understand that this joint endeavor requires a long-term investment of significant resources- time, money, and people; we will be accountable for those resources. “

Some science explicitly falls under a traditional investment model. In industry, the research and development sectors of companies offering science-based innovation follow certain principles in order to stay in business. These companies must focus their scientific efforts with their customers, shareholders and bottom-lines ever in view. In many ways, basic research should adhere to the same guiding principles, but the timescale is significantly different, the ‘company’ is less organized, and the ‘products’ seem more nebulous. Despite these differences, basic scientific research should also be treated like an investment.

While some innovations occur in a flash and their applications take hold quickly, the true benefits of science occur in smaller increments over much longer timescales. The problems of chronic diseases affecting human health, sustainable energy supply, adequate agricultural production, and ecological protection are large problems. The solutions to these issues will not come overnight; the transformative science required to address these issues takes many people working together for decades. This is in stark contrast to the rest of society in this age of instant information, fleeting media cycles with their thirty-second sound bites and short political and electoral cycles. These diametrically opposed trends must find reconciliation with one another for meaningful scientific progress to occur over the coming years. Science is getting faster and more applicable, but society must also be patient and less fickle with their support.

Just like a monetary account, investment that is steady over a long duration offers the best returns. There’s always a chance you could go to the casino with $5K the week before you retire and win enough to cover your living expenses for another twenty years, but the probability is low*. A much better strategy would be to add to an account at a slow and steady pace and let compounding interest work in your favor. Science is much the same way. Society is facing problems with finite time restrictions (I’ve mentioned previously that scientists have been keeping track of some worrying numbers). To more effectively solve the problems or at least offer more attractive solutions, a steady investment in science must be made before problems are imminent. Eventually, it will not matter how much money and how many people you throw at a problem because the buzzer has already gone off. Game over. Thanks for playing.

Like any good long-term investment portfolio, science needs to be diversified. We need scientists working in all fields (even on things you may find absurd, as mentioned previously). There should be a good mix of projects that are currently giving high returns as well as those projects that are consistently yielding reliable, smaller returns in areas that will always be beneficial. Your role as an investor is to make sure that your brokerage companies are providing you with diversified investment strategies. As daunting as it may seem to have a one-on-one conversation with your financial advisor, it usually works to your benefit. In the same way, feel free to make your voice heard to your elected officials, program managers or non-profit funding boards that control the directions of your monetary contributions to the scientific research enterprise. Many of us need to make decisions today to make sure we will have enough money for life after retirement. The decisions affecting your science portfolio are no different, and, as mentioned above, the deadlines are looming; let’s make sure we have invested enough in science to ‘retire’ in peace.

The ‘scientific system’ we have now is performing well at training scientists in diverse fields at high levels. Let’s just make sure that this resource is being used to its fullest potential. Some scientists transition out of this training system into the industry sector where their employment and their research are intimately linked to providing customers with useful products and services. Other scientists stay closer to basic research within academia and governmental labs, which are dependent upon federal and state funding. The health of the broader economy affects all of these scientists, but because basic research is inherently further-removed from everyday applications, it ends up on the chopping block when cuts must be made.

Do not think that this post is just a request for a blank check for basic scientific research. More money will not magically fix the problems of the science enterprise, but it should be approached as an investment and instead of a charity. We expect to be held accountable. Scientists must submit financial reports as to where their research money is being spent- salaries, supplies, equipment, travel, etc. are all documented for each award. Our publications, websites, outreach projects and grant proposals comprise our prospectus to you, our potential investors. The federal granting agencies and non-profit organizations function equivalently to major trading brokerage firms in the financial sector. They do the research on us and make informed decisions about investing your money. The more recent attempts at crowd-funding science with direct investors represent the do-it-yourself trading programs in this analogy. Finally, like any financial investment, scientists would ultimately like to pay dividends to their shareholders. Our discoveries should lead to technologies that will improve your daily life.

Ideals always look good in print, but in practice things seem to fall apart. It’s the difference between stating in conversation that you support Cause ABC compared to actually donating your money or volunteering your time for it. As far as science goes, the current system is doing a good job creating a pipeline full of capable hands and creative minds. Time is running dangerously short for some of our critical societal problems, and that is a variable we can do little to extend. Providing financial resources is always divisive because within a budget money is finite** and allocating more funds to one area means less for another area. If you are looking for bottom-line numbers on the dollars I’m talking about when it comes to significant, steady resources, check back for tomorrow’s post. All of society must grapple with these issues and the consequences of their decisions. Scientists just want to make a pitch to their investors- you. Let us prove we are a good investment.

Johnna

* I am not a financial advisor. Regardless do no use this as a retirement strategy, but do start saving now and talk to Chuck or ING or Fidelity etc.

**I know there are some economists and politicians that may disagree with me on the subject of how budgets work with respect to finite resources. However, in a closed system, I’m sure the laws of thermodynamics will bear me out on this one.

UPDATE: Here’s a recent article from Science about funding research. What’s so special about science (and how much should we be spending on it)?

“Our message is that science is a single, unified, long-term enterprise in which basic science discoveries, and research accomplishments of applied science and engineering, are things to be admired in their own right that also, often unpredictably, lead to better jobs and better lives, new products and new industries.”