My Best Shot at Science Advocacy


Recently, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) wrote an editorial titled “‘Global’ Science Advocacy.” He calls for scientists to be advocates not only on Capitol Hill through their professional societies, but also by recruiting friends, neighbors, city council members, etc., to the cause of science advocacy. This is written in response to the proposed FY2009 budget request Bush made to Congress in which some agencies “such as the NIH, are slated for flat funding or worse.” After reading this, I decided I must heed the call and do a little science advocacy.

Before I go on, there is an interesting aside. Mr. Leshner (the CEO of AAAS) states that “US research will see its fifth consecutive year of decreased support (in inflation-adjusted constant dollars).” Basically, US research hasn’t received a cost-of-living raise in 4 years: it’s feeling the inflation tax, and it hurts!

From 1998–2003, the NIH budget was doubled. I started graduate school during this time period, and things were booming. The way I heard it, Bill Clinton doubled the budget, but Mr. Leshner writes that John Porter, Arlen Specter, and Tom Harkin led the effort. Regardless, a lot of this doubling actually went to Big Science – large budget, long-term projects usually requiring a lot of infrastructure. This is as opposed to individual scientists (called Primary Investigators, or PI’s) at universities receiving the money through research grants. In fact, the fraction of money going to PI’s fell during this period.

Since 2003, however, the funding has remained stagnant in terms of actual dollars, and has decreased in terms of what those dollars can buy. But the Big Science research centers haven’t been closed, of course, so PI’s and universities have had their funding cut. Actually cut. Not just “not increased at a fast enough rate.” Grants are not getting renewed, or are getting renewed at a lower level than before.

It makes things tough. Stress is high and scientists are pessimistic. To add to the woes, this large influx of money between 1998–2003 had to be spent. So universities built new buildings, hired new faculty, and recruited more students. The buildings will require continuing revenue to maintain and the new faculty are applying for their own grants (in competition with the existing faculty). So it’s been a typical Boom-and-Bust (the bust is still forthcoming…I’d say we’re in a science-recession).

My incoming class to the Berkeley biology program was the largest class to date. And all of the ones that followed my class were even bigger. In my view, this was incredibly irresponsible, although unavoidable when grants are inflated. Thousands of biologists are graduating with PhD’s every year and they need jobs. But, we’ve all just been kicked out of the nest and told “Good luck. You’ll need it.”

Over the course of the last 30 years, a PhD has become essential to climbing the ladder at a pharmaceutical company. And now, one or two postdoctoral fellowships (2–4 years each) are needed to land almost any job in biology. This is inflation of education. Try getting a job doing completely mindless work at your neighborhood biotech with a high school diploma. Those jobs are reserved for people with Bachelor’s degrees from good universities. Do you want to actually apply the knowledge you learned in your senior-level lab course and develop an experimental plan? You’ll need a Masters or PhD for that. From Harvard.

At the AAAS national meeting last week, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sent representatives to address the scientists that had gathered. Not surprisingly, they call for “big boosts to research funding.” This sounds a lot like a stimulus package, and it’s typical pandering to a special interest group by promising more money and everything will be free. Of course, this is welcomed by many scientists: the outgoing President of the AAAS reportedly stated that Congress has passed “a budget that does not meet the needs of American Science.” An NIH budget that is 100% higher than the one ten years ago does not meet our needs. Whoops! I mean: A budget that is 0% higher than last year does not meet our needs.

If you watched the MTV presidential candidate forum last month, you’ll recall that students are all going to get a lot of federal money from Hill-bama to pay for college (you’ll also recall that the entire studio audience was college students, but I’m sure that was just a coincidence). I think we already have too many college graduates in this country, but soon there will be more. Then they, too, will get PhD’s when they find out that their B.S. is just that. At some point, 15 years as a postdoctoral fellow will be the norm, which means scientists will start their first job at age 42 (as opposed to 30 currently: diploma at 18 + 4 years for college + 5 years for grad school + 3 years for postdoc).

This is a terrible system, and inflating it with evermore funding is not going to fix it. Last year, the NIH funding was not increased (3.8% cut accounting for official inflation). We need more of this, and by “this,” I mean NIH budget cuts. That means universities will have to train fewer PhD’s, and they will be hiring fewer research professors. Private industry as well as academia will have to start giving people with less education more responsibility. It will be painful, but healthy. Who knows: maybe the next biotech innovation will be that they will start promoting people with good college educations (but no additional letters behind their name) to managerial positions, allowing them to increase expenditures on capital (instead of letters) and really take medicine into the future.

So call your city council member and get them to resolve that this madness must stop. Write your representative in DC and tell them that private industry and charities will best be able to fund the future of medicine. Advocate for the future of science in America!

(There will be a science debate in April in Philadelphia and Ron Paul has not been invited. Who better to explain to scientists that they have become obese and need to cut back on carbs than the doctor himself?)

February 23, 2008