Thursday, May 1, 2008

A rant on funding, again

We need a science White House. At this point, I am almost past caring whether it is Democratic (though I would prefer a Democratic White House) or Republican (OH SWEET REASON NO), I just want them to give more money to the NIH and NSF. The Department of Defense doesn't need all the crap it gets. No military in the world is nearly as technologically advanced as ours.

The reason I say this is because there is good research that is getting tossed by the wayside because it doesn't have enough money or there are laboratories that cannot afford to hire an adequate number of researchers.

For example, John McCain showed his ignorance of all but the most obvious research when he made a snide comment about a bear DNA investigation that was part of investigating ecological dynamics in a key species. McCain is a man who has no understanding of science, although we can't fault him more than a reasonable amount because he's not science-educated.

There are plenty of PhDs who are unemployed because of the shortage of fundings. GrrlScientist is an ornithologist who has been unemployed for the past while, for example, and she delivers an interesting and rather exquisite rant on her own unemployment.

This is research not getting done because of governmental ignorance. How much development would we have had if Bush was not in office? Let's think of research topics that might be done if the government gave us more money:

- topics concerning keystone species which are vital to their environment
- research into rare diseases
- more investigation of the neural bases of intelligence

There is also a lamentable lack of science education. We American-born scientists (in this number are also counted mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers in addition to biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine) are a small bunch; apparently, we have to import the rest of our colleagues from Asia and Europe because the vast majority of the rest of you can't be arsed to have as motivation for your job anything other than money. I don't give a flying crap how much I earn as long as I'm doing neuroscience; I would live in a space similar to my friend Bill's crusty old attic if I had to (although with sufficient weatherproofing and maybe a space heater).

We would have more American-born scientists if the vast majority of the aforementioned rest of you stopped being greedy and had some discipline and actually knew something about science. (Interestingly, this reminds me of a discussion I had at Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at UW-Madison, the atheist group that I am a member in, when we were talking about the theists' so-called 'miracles'. None of the theists who were arguing this point - I say this because the only theist who usually sides with us, my friend Rachel the Spinozan panentheist, is as far as I know majoring in science and wasn't really participating in the conversation, and the theists I personally know who are scientists are comparably sane to my fellow scientist atheists - were majors in science, and Chris, Nick, Travis and I, who are all science majors and all atheists - well, Chris is also a philosophy major - were using probably the most substantive arguments which arise mainly from science to argue that the rather fundamentalist theists were full of shit, and our arguments apparently went over their heads - they apparently went over the heads of the other atheists, too.)

And no, we're not going to resort to framing and marketing it like some sort of product. Is the American public really this stupid?

Seriously, if it gets much worse, I WILL bail on the United States after I get my PhD, as one more scientist who takes their talent to where it will be acknowledged. You can say hello to me in Amsterdam.

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TomJoe said...

LOL. The best funding in the world can be found in the United States. Take your act elsewhere and in a couple of years you'll be wishing you were back in the USA. Besides, it makes it better for the rest of us. One less malcontent fighting for the same dollars.

kldickson said...

In a couple of years, you'll be asking 'What funding?'

TomJoe said...

So, in a couple years you can either say to me "Told you so." or I can come back and laugh at you.

The NIH spends over 28 billion annually on medical research. The USDA spends another ~2 billion on agricultural research. The DOE allocated almost 4.5 billion dollars for research money in 2008 as well. The well isn't going to run dry, despite any alarmist protestations to the contrary.

All of this during an obviously trying time. And by trying, I'm being generous.

Would we all want more research dollars? Heck yeah. Is there a fair amount of money being spent which is basically wasted? Sure, and I've said as much myself at my own blog. But nevertheless, there is a fair amount of money to go around ... and if a scientist is competent, they'll get their funding. If you're a poor research ... well, you'll flounder and not get any research dollars.

kldickson said...

Indeed, tomjoe, but it is a little incensing that it has become far more of a rat race for scientists to get grants when they are younger but still may have very good research.

I see that you are an environmental microbiologist. From my knowledge, and correct me if I am wrong, studies of microbe populations in wastewater and riparian environments are pretty friggin' important right now for judging the health of an environment. You are doing research that currently has the public's attention and probably getting quite a lot of money for it. Biofuels are hot shit. You are probably well-funded. Please correct me if I'm wrong - environmental microbiology is not what I study, nor do I study much of anything having to do with anything other than organisms in the kingdom Animalia.

So 'what funding' may not be the right answer if from that you say that all scientists will be suffering from a lack of funding, but certainly, there will be a lot of competent scientists with worthy experiments asking this question if the HHS, the DOA, and the DOE's budgets don't start rising. The big topics in research right now - pollution, global warming, HIV, et cetera - are certainly important, but there are things that people are not paying attention to that are just as important, but are simply apparently not 'sexy' enough to the quivering fleshy masses to merit much attention, such as our efforts to communicate science to the rest of society and to educate the next crop of scientists, or novel ways to deal with mental illness, which affects as much as 20% of the population.

I'm not sure how many important priorities the government is willing to handle, since they seem to be focusing on maybe a small set of about ten to twenty, some of which are not quite as pressing and which are really very short-term problems which really ought to be passed over in favor of more long-term issues. None of the issues I've mentioned should lose much importance in the next ten years, but there are more things which the government needs to prioritize.

TomJoe said...

Ok, first off, guess I've been a bit more aggressive in my posting than I should have been. My apologies. I would just say that "shooting from the hip", just isn't a good idea (listen to me, eh?).

Second, I didn't start as an environmental microbiologist. My training was in clinical microbiology (by which I mean pure clinical research ... test development, etc), followed by medical microbiology and immunology (with a more "basic science" research approach, and a heavy dose of molecular biology). Given my "skill set", applying the tools I learned to any given problem is simple. When I went looking for jobs out of my postdoc and people looked at my thesis (a heavy dose of microarray gene expression analysis in pathogen) and they're hiring someone to do environmental microbial analysis and microbial biofuel production, I simply told them "My skill set spans fields. My tools will solve your problems as easily as they solved the ones I was working on prior to applying here."

You must be creative. You must develop a set of contacts which will help you play the politics when you start your own career. You're spot on when you say there is a lot of competition for the dollars. That's when it comes down "It's who you know." as well as "It's what you know." Hopefully you've picked a Ph.D. adviser who is funded and has some good collaborators. And if not, you make sure your postdoc has those components to it.

As a fledgling scientist, there are other ways to get funding as well. When I started looking for jobs, I made sure when I applied to academia that my startup package included research dollars to see me through the first couple of years. It wasn't a huge amount, but it would've been enough. You need time to get your lab up, stocked, and running ... never mind getting a publication or two to convince people that you can do the job (you'll need the preliminary data as well). Also, while it's nice to hit a homerun with an NIH grant your first time in the batters box, swing for the smaller grants as well. I knew a researcher at the place where I got my PhD who received AHA funding to study Borrelia burgdorferi, the etiological agent of Lyme disease. He used that money to get some research done, collected enough data and got himself an R01.

Realistically, the funding is going to go where the public focus is. That's the way it's always been, here in the United States, and elsewhere. I'd expect more research dollars to go towards geriatric issues in the future, in part because of the large Baby Boomer population (which makes up the largest voting bloc in the USA). Finding the funding, and establishing your niche is part of the test for scientists. It's not the stress-free way to make a living I think we'd all like, but it is a tool which helps us do what we love, and pay the bills.

Anyways, I'd definitely write my congress-people, make sure my vote was carefully considered, and keep my eyes and ears open for opportunities to teach people. I'd do it with a fair degree of consideration for the individual (no matter their political, philosophical, or theological leanings). Best of luck. :)