Opinion: Clearing the Air About Unenforceable Policies

Opinion: Clearing the Air About Unenforceable Policies

by Kristina Victoreen

Is a policy without enforcement really a policy, or is it just an aspiration? That question has been on my mind lately, in two different contexts, both related to the air we breathe. First, there’s Penn’s new “Tobacco-free Campus” policy. I first noticed the signs in November, when they quietly popped up here and there around campus. As someone who has spent many a lunch hour going from bench to bench all around campus in an often-vain attempt to find a place to sit and eat my lunch without having to breathe second-hand smoke, I was really excited to see those signs. But I confess I was much less excited when I went online and read the actual policy, particularly the section on enforcement. You can read it here.

What it seems to say is that there is no enforcement, and if you have any questions, ask the person you report to or your Dean. In other words, Penn wants you to not smoke but if you do, probably nothing will happen. This idea that the policy won’t be enforced, was confirmed in Rahul Chopra’s December 3rd DP article, in which Frank Leone, Director of the Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program at Perelman School of Medicine, was quoted as stating that "There's not going to be enforcement or an effort to corral smokers." So Penn’s idea is to try to change the norms, and also provide supports for those who are trying to quit, perhaps partly by removing some of the triggers. For example, the smoking pole outside Van Pelt Library has been removed and replaced with a sign, with the expectation that folks won’t just stand where the pole used to be and drop their cigarette buts on the ground. I’m definitely not an expert on smoking cessation or behavioral economics principles and I know lots of research and some testing went into choosing this approach. Presumably robust baseline data have been collected on smoking behaviors, so that the success of the program can be measured with real outcomes, and I will be very interested to see the results, (and to enjoy a smoke free outdoor lunch when the weather gets warmer.) Certainly it’s no longer unusual to use "nudge" techniques to try to elicit desired behaviour changes, and such policies are popular because they are non-coercive and can be very cost effective. The alternative would be to have the campus police enforce the tobacco policy, and I’m guessing that this may be viewed by the Administration as much more trouble than it's worth, perhaps alienating the people the policy targets, and diverting resources from campus police who have other more pressing concerns. 

In Philadelphia, diesel and other vehicles are subject to several anti-idling laws, enforced (in theory) by different agencies. You can see them all in one place at this helpful site from Pennsylvania Diesel Difference. For example, you can be issued a ticket for $101 by the Philadelphia Parking Authority for excessive idling, and the Department of Health’s Air Management Services can issue a citation to the operator of a heavy duty diesel truck, bus or other vehicle under a separate law, for idling over 2 minutes. There are many exceptions, having to do with things like ambient temperature, (look here for the details) which make the laws incredibly difficult to enforce even if any agency were inclined to enforce them. In addition to Philadelphia’s laws, Pennsylvania has a separate diesel idling law that can be enforced by the State Police. Confused yet? Here’s an experiment to try. Next time you see a PPA agent giving out tickets, try to report an idling vehicle. You might get a quizzical look. I tried this only once, but the PPA officer I asked did not seem to have heard of the anti-idling law. There are a few No Idling signs here and there, but you have to look hard to find them. Thanks to the Clean Air Council, there is a web site where anyone can report an idling vehicle. But it’s doubtful that citations will be issued on the basis of only a citizen complaint, especially without a video to show how long the vehicle idled, and the citizen needs to know the law and be willing to do the reporting.

In short, there are many laws, little enforcement, and no incentive for compliance. So what’s the solution? Should the City be employing nudge methods, and/or trying to change the culture around idling? What would it take to do that? Should the PPA be issuing tickets? I am guessing that a $100 ticket may be seen as a reasonable cost of doing business for the operator of even a small fleet. What about higher fines? According the the New York State web site, there you can be fined up to $18,000 for a first offense with certain idling violations. It seems that steep fines might generate funds to pay for some grants for replacing older engines and doing clean diesel retrofits, but you still need enforcement in order to collect those fines. So at least in the case of vehicle emissions, it appears that policies without enforcement sometimes amount to little more than hope, and as Rudy Giuliani famously said, hope is not a strategy.

Tracing the ancestry and migration of HIV/AIDS in America

by Arpita Myles
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS is a global health problem that has terrified and intrigued scientists and laypeople alike for decades. AIDS is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, which is transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and from an infected mother to her child [1]. Infection leads to failure of the immune system, increasing susceptibility to secondary infections and cancer, which are mostly fatal. Considerable efforts are being put into developing prophylactic and therapeutic approaches to tackle HIV-AIDS, but there is also interest in understanding how the disease became so wide-spread. With the advent of the Ebola and Zika viruses in the last couple of years, there is a renewed urgency in understanding the emergence and spread of viruses in the past in order to prevent those in the future. The narrative surrounding the spread of HIV has been somewhat convoluted, but a new paper in Nature by Worobey et. al, hopes to set the record straight [2].
Humans are supposed to have acquired HIV from African chimpanzees- presumably as a result of hunters coming in contact with infected blood, containing a variant of the virus that had adapted to infect humans. The earliest known case of HIV in humans was detected in 1959 in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the specific mode of transmission was never ascertained [3].
There has been little or no information about how HIV spread to United States, until now. HIV incidences were first reported in the US in 1981, leading to the recognition of AIDS [4]. Since the virus can persist for a decade or more prior to manifestation of symptoms, it is possible that it arrived in the region long before 1981. However, since most samples from AIDS patients were collected after this date, efforts to establish a timeline for HIV’s entry into the states met with little success. Now, researchers have attempted to trace the spread of HIV by comparing genetic sequences of contemporary HIV strains with blood samples from HIV patients dating back to the late 1970’s [2]. These samples were initially collected for a study pertaining to Hepatitis B, but some were found to be HIV seropositive. This is the first comprehensive genetic study of the HIV virus in samples collected prior to 1981.
The technical accomplishment of this work is significant as well. In order to circumvent the problems of low amounts and extensive degradation of the viral RNA from the patient samples, they developed a technique they call “RNA jackhammering.”  In essence, a patient’s genome is broken down into small bits and overlapping sequences of viral RNA are amplified. This enables them to “piece together” the viral genome, which they can then subject to phylogenetic analysis.
Using novel statistical analysis methods, Worobey et al. reveal that the virus had probably entered New York from Africa (Haiti) during the 1970s, whereupon it spread to San Francisco and other regions. Upon analyzing the older samples, the researchers found that despite bearing similarities with the Caribbean strain, the strains from San Francisco and New York samples differed amongst themselves. This suggests that the virus had entered the US multiple, discreet times and then began circulating and mutating. Questions still remain regarding the route of transmission of the virus from Haiti to New York.
The relevance of this study is manifold. Based on the data, one can attempt to understand how pathogens spread from one population to another and how viruses mutate and evolve to escape natural immunity and engineered therapeutics. Their molecular and analytical techniques can be applied to other diseases and provide valuable information for clinicians and epidemiologists alike. Perhaps the most startling revelation of this study is that contemporary HIV strains are more closely related to their ancestors than to each other. This implies that information derived from ancestral strains could lead to development of successful vaccine strategies.
Beyond the clinic and research labs, there are societal lessons to be learned as well. Published in 1984, a study by CDC (Center for Disease Control) researcher William Darrow and colleagues traced the initial spread of HIV in the US to Gaétan Dugas- a French Canadian air steward. Examination of Dugas’s case provided evidence linking HIV transmission with sexual activity. Researchers labeled Dugas as “Patient O”, as in “Out of California” [5]. This was misinterpreted as “Patient Zero” by the media- a term still used in the context of other epidemics like flu and Ebola. The dark side of this story is that Dugas was demonized in the public domain as the one who brought HIV to the US. As our understanding of the disease and its spread broadened, scientists and historians began to discredit the notion that Dugas played a significant role. However, scientific facts were buried beneath layers of sensationalism and hearsay and the stigma remained.
Now, with the new information brought to light by Worobey’s group, Dugas’s name has been cleared. Phylogenetic analysis of Dugas’s strain of HIV was sufficiently different from the ancestral ones, negating the possibility that he initiated the epidemic.
The saga in its entirety highlights the moral dilemma of epidemiological studies and the extent to which the findings should be made public. Biological systems are complicated, and while narrowing down origin of a disease has significance clinical relevance, we often fail to consider collateral damage. The tale of tracking the spread of HIV is a cautionary one; scientific and social efforts should be focused more on resolution and management, rather than on vilifying unsuspecting individuals for “causing” an outbreak.

1. Maartens G, Celum C, Lewin SR. HIV infection: epidemiology, pathogenesis, treatment, and prevention. Lancet. 2014 Jul 19;384(9939):258-71.
2. Worobey M, Watts TD, McKay RA et al., 1970s and 'Patient 0' HIV-1 genomes illuminate early HIV/AIDS history in North America. Nature. 2016 Oct 26. doi: 10.1038/nature19827.
3. Faria NR, Rambaut A et al., HIV epidemiology. The early spread and epidemic ignition of HIV-1 in human populations. Science. 2014 Oct 3;346(6205):56-61.
4. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Pneumocystis pneumonia--Los Angeles. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1981 Jun 5;30(21):250-2.
5. McKay RA. “Patient Zero”: The Absence of a Patient’s View of the Early North American AIDS Epidemic. Bull Hist Med. 2014 Spring: 161-194.

Reminder: Science does not happen in a vacuum

by Chris Yarosh

It is very easy to become wrapped up in day-to-day scientific life. There is always another experiment to do, or a paper to read, or a grant to submit. This result leads to that hypothesis, and that hypothesis needs to be tested, revised, re-tested, etc. Scientists literally study the inner workings of life, matter and the universe itself, yet science often seems set apart from other worldly concerns.

But it’s not.

The terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis have drawn the world’s attention, and rightfully so. These are genuine catastrophes, and it is difficult to imagine the suffering of those who must face the aftermath of these bouts of shocking violence.

At the same time, 80 world leaders are preparing to gather in freshly scarred Paris for another round of global climate talks. In a perfect world, these talks would focus only on the sound science and overwhelming consensus supporting action on climate change, and they would lead to an agreement that sets us on a path toward healing our shared home.

But this is not a perfect world.

In addition to the ongoing political struggle and general inertia surrounding climate change, we now must throw the fallout from the Paris attacks into the mix. Because of this, the event schedule will be limited to core discussions, which will deprive some people of their chance to demonstrate and make their voices heard on a large stage. This is a shame, but at least the meeting will go on. If the situation is as dire as many scientists and policy experts say it is, this meeting may be our last chance to align the world’s priorities and roll back the damage being caused to our planet. It was never going to be easy, and the fearful specter of terrorism—and the attention and resources devoted to the fight against it— does nothing to improve the situation.

This is a direct example of world events driving science and science policy, but possible indirect effects abound as well. It is not outside the realm of possibility that political disagreement over refugee relocation may lead to budget fights or government shutdown, both of which could seriously derail research in the U.S. With Election 2016 rapidly approaching, it is also possible that events abroad can drive voter preferences at home, with unforeseen impacts on how research is funded, conducted, and disseminated.

What does this mean for science and science policy?

For one, events like this remind us once again that scientists must stay informed and be ready to adapt as sentiments and attention shift in real time. Climate change and terrorism may not have seemed linked until now (though there is good reason to think that this connection runs deep), but the dramatic juxtaposition of both in Paris changes that. Scientists can offer our voices to the discussion, but it is vital that we keep abreast of the shifting political landscapes that influence the conduct and application of science. Keeping this birds-eye view is critical, because while these terrorist attacks certainly demand attention and action, they do nothing to change the urgent need for action on the climate, on health, and on a whole host of issues that require scientific expertise.

While staying current and engaging in policymaking is always a good thing for science (feel free to contact your representatives at any time), situations like the Syrian refugee crisis offer a more unique chance to lend a hand. Science is one of humanity’s greatest shared endeavors, an approach to understanding the world that capitalizes on the innate curiosity that all people share. This shared interest has always extended to displaced peoples, with the resulting collaborations providing a silver lining to the negative events that precipitated their migrations. Where feasible, it would be wise for universities across the globe to welcome Syrians with scientific backgrounds; doing so would provide continuity and support for the displaced while preventing a loss of human capital. Efforts to this effect are currently underway in Europe, though it is unclear how long these programs can survive the tension surrounding that continent.

For good and ill, world events have always shaped science. The tragedies in France, Syria, and elsewhere have incurred great human costs, and they will serve as a test of our shared humanity. As practitioners of one of our great shared enterprises, scientists have a uniquely privileged place in society, and we should use our station to help people everywhere in any way possible.

New funding mechanism aims to bring balance to the biomedical research (work)force

by Chris Yarosh

This past March, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) announced a new funding mechanism designed to stabilize the biomedical research enterprise by creating new career paths for PhD-level scientists. That mechanism, called the NCI Research Specialist Award (R50), is now live. Applications (of which there will likely be many) for the R50 will be accepted beginning in January, with the first crop of directly-funded Research Specialists starting in October 2016. More details about the grant can be found in the newly released FOA.

Why is this a big deal? In recent years, there have been increased calls for reform of the biomedical enterprise. More people than ever hold PhDs, and professor positions (the traditional career goal of doctorate holders) are scarce. This leaves many young researchers trapped somewhere in the middle in postdoctoral positions, something we've talked about  before on this blog. These positions are still considered to be training positions, and without professor openings (or funding for independent labs), these scientists often seek industry positions or leave the bench altogether in lieu of finding academic employment.

On the flip side, modern academic labs are highly dependent on a constant stream of graduate students and postdocs to do the lion’s share of the research funded by principal investigator-level grants (R01s). This creates a situation where entire labs can turn over in relatively short periods of time, possibly diminishing the impact of crucial research programs.

But what if there was another way? That, in a nutshell, is the aim of the R50. By funding the salaries (but not the research costs) of PhD-level researchers, the R50 seeks to create opportunities for scientists to join established research programs or core facilities without having to obtain larger grants or academic appointments. This attempts to kill two birds with one stone: more jobs for PhDs, less turnover in labs already funded by other NCI grants.

This approach is not all roses, however. For one, this doesn’t change the fact that research funding has been flat or worse in recent years. Even with more stable staffing, the amount of research being completed will continue to atrophy. Moreover, the money for future R50s will need to come from somewhere, and it is possible that this will put additional strain on the NCI’s budget if overall R&D spending is not increased soon. Lastly, there are some concerns about how the R50 will work in practice. For example, Research Specialists will be able to move to other labs with NCI approval, but how will this actually play out? Will R50s really be pegged to their recipients, or will there be an implicit understanding that they are tied to the supporting labs/institutions?

It should be noted that this is only a trial period, and that full evaluation of the program will not be possible until awards are actually made. Still, this seems like a positive response to the forces currently influencing the biomedical research enterprise, and it will be interesting to see if and when the other NIH institutes give something like this a shot.

NIH to chimera researchers: Let's talk about this...

by Chris Yarosh

When we think about the role of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in biomedical research, we often think only in terms of dollars and cents. The NIH is a funding agency, after all, and most researchers submit grants with this relationship in mind. However, because the NIH holds the power of the purse, it also plays a large role in dictating the scope of biomedical research conducted in the U.S. It is noteworthy, then, that the NIH recently delayed some high profile grant applications related to one type of research: chimeras.

Chimeras, named for a Greek mythological monster composed of several different animals, are organisms that feature cells that are genetically distinct.  In the lab, this commonly refers to animals that contain cells from more than once species. Research into chimeras is not new; scientists have been successfully using animal/animal (e.g. sheep/goat) chimeras for over 30 years to learn about how animals develop. Human/animal chimeras are also a common research tool. For example, the transfer of cancerous human tissue into mice with weakened immune systems is standard practice in cancer biology research because it allows researchers to test chemotherapy drugs in a system that is more complex than a dish of cells before testing them in human subjects. These experiments are largely uncontroversial, save for individuals who fall into the anti-animal testing camp (and those who dispute the predictive power of mouse models in general). Why then, has the NIH decided to pump the brakes on this line of research?

Like many things, the answer lies in the timing. The temporarily-stalled research involves injecting human pluripotent cells—undifferentiated cells that can develop into any number of different cell types—not into mature animals, but instead into animal embryos. Unlike the tumor-in-a-mouse research mentioned above, this kind of experiment is specifically trying to get normal human cells to develop as an animal matures and remain, well, normal human cells. One idea is that someday we could grow an organ (liver, pancreas, etc.) in an animal, such as a pig, that is still a human organ. This would lower the barrier for successful transplantation, meaning that somebody in serious need of a new liver could receive one from livestock instead of waiting for a human donor from a transplant list. Another thought is that chimeric animals will better model human physiology, making subsequent clinical trials more accurate.

If you read the last paragraph and felt a bit uneasy, you’re not alone. For some, this type of research crosses the invisible line that separates humans from animals, and is therefore unacceptable. Others find this research troubling from an animal welfare standpoint, and still other worry about unanticipated differentiation (e.g. “we wanted a liver, but we found some human cells in the pig’s nerves, too”) or unethical uses for this type of technology.

The NIH hears these concerns, and wants to talk about them before giving scientists the go ahead to use public funds on this type of research. Some researchers have reacted negatively to this, fearing broader restrictions in the future, but I think this is an important part of the scientific process. We live (and for scientists, work) in an era of unprecedented ability to modify genomes and cell lineages, and human/animal chimeras are just one example of a type of research destined for more attention and oversight. It is important to get the guidelines right.

The NIH will convene a panel of scientists and bioethicists to discuss human/animal chimera research on November 6th, so keep an eye out for possible policy revisions after then. Given the promise of this type of research and the potential concerns over its use, this surely is only the beginning of the deliberative process.

UPDATE (11/05/2015): Scientists from Stanford University have posted an open letter in Science calling for a repeal of the current restrictions in this field. The full letter, found here, argues that there is little scientific justification for the NIH's stated concerns. Over at Gizmodo,  the NIH has responded by claiming that the true purpose of the stop order and review is to "stay ahead" of current research and anticipate future work. This is consistent with the NIH's views as articulated on the Under the Poliscope blog. All things considered, the workshop tomorrow, and any guidelines resulting from it, should be very interesting for people who wish to develop and use these tools.

Training the biomedical workforce - a discussion of postdoc inflation

By Ian McLaughlin

Earlier this month, postdocs and graduate students from several fields met to candidly discuss the challenges postdocs are encountering while pursuing careers in academic research.  The meeting began with an enumeration of these challenges, discussing the different elements contributing to the mounting obstacles preventing postdocs from attaining faculty positions – such as the scarcity of faculty positions and ballooning number of rising postdocs, funding mechanisms and cuts, the sub-optimal relationship between publications and the quality of science, and the inaccurate conception of what exactly a postdoctoral position should entail.

From [15]

At a fundamental level, there’s a surplus of rising doctoral students whose progression outpaces the availability of faculty positions at institutions capable of hosting the research they intended to perform [10,15].  While 65% of PhDs attain postdocs, only 15-20% of postdocs attain tenure-track faculty positions [1].  This translates to significant extensions of postdoctoral positions, with the intentions of bolstering credentials and generating more publications to increase their appeal to hiring institutions.  Despite this increased time, postdocs often do not benefit from continued teaching experiences, and are also unable to attend classes to cultivate professional development.

From [10]
Additionally, there may never be an adequate position available. Instead of providing the training and mentorship necessary to generate exceptional scientists, postdoctoral positions have become “holding tanks” for many PhD holders unable to transition into permanent positions [5,11], resulting in considerably lower compensation relative to alternative careers 5 years after attaining a PhD.

From [13]

Perhaps this wouldn’t be quite so problematic if the compensation of the primary workhorse of basic biomedical research in the US was better.  In 2014, the US National Academies called for an increase of the starting postdoc salary of $42,840 to $50,000 – as well as a 5-year limit on the length of postdocs [1].  While the salary increase would certainly help, institutions like NYU, the University of California system, and UNC Chapel Hill have explored term limits.  Unfortunately, a frequent outcome of term limits was the promotion of postdocs to superficial positions that simply confer a new title, but are effectively extended postdocs. 

Given the time commitment required to attain a PhD, and the expanding durations of postdocs, several of the meeting’s attendees identified a particularly painful interference with their ability to start a family.  Despite excelling in challenging academic fields at top institutions, and dedicating professionally productive years to their work, several postdocs stated that they don’t foresee the financial capacity to start a family before fertility challenges render the effort prohibitively difficult.

However, administrators of the NIH have suggested this apparent disparity between the number of rising postdocs and available positions is not a significant problem, despite having no apparent data to back up their position. As Polka et al. wrote earlier this year, NIH administrators don’t have data quantifying the total numbers of postdocs in the country at their disposal – calling into question whether they are prepared to address this fundamental problem [5].

A possible approach to mitigate this lack of opportunity would be to integrate permanent “superdoc” positions for talented postdocs who don’t have ambitions to start their own labs, but have technical skills needed to advance basic research.  The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has proposed a grant program to cover salaries between $75,000-$100,000 for between 50-60 of such positions [1,2], which might be expanded to cover the salaries of more scientists.  Additionally, a majority of the postdocs attending the meeting voiced their desire for more comprehensive career guidance.  In particular, while they are aware that PhD holders are viable candidates for jobs outside of academia – the career trajectory out of academia remains opaque to them.

This situation stands in stark contrast to the misconception that the US suffers from a shortage of STEM graduates.  While the careers of postdocs stall due to a scarcity of faculty positions, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology announced a goal of one million STEM trainees in 2012 [3], despite the fact that only 11% of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in science end up in fields related to science [4] due in part, perhaps, to an inflated sense of job security.  While the numbers of grad students and postdocs have increased almost two-fold, the proliferation of permanent research positions hasn’t been commensurate [5]. So, while making science a priority is certainly prudent – the point of tension is not necessarily a shortage of students engaging the fields, but rather a paucity of research positions available to them once they’ve attained graduate degrees. 

Suggested Solutions

Ultimately, if the career prospects for academic researchers in the US don't change, increasing numbers of PhD students will leave basic science research in favor of alternatives that offer better compensation and career trajectories – or leave the country for international opportunities.  At the heart of the problem is a fundamental imbalance between the funding available for basic academic research and the growing community of scientists in the U.S [9,14], and a dysfunctional career pipeline in biomedical research [9].  Some ideas of strategies to confront this problem included the following suggestions.

Federal grant-awarding agencies need to collect accurate data on the yearly numbers of postdoctoral positions available.  This way, career counselors, potential students, rising PhD students, and the institutions themselves will have a better grasp of the apparent scarcity of academic research opportunities.

As the US National Academies have suggested, the postdoc salary ought to be increased.  One possible strategy would be to increase the prevalence of “superdoc”-type positions creating a viable career alternative for talented researchers who wish to support a family but not secure the funding needed to open their own labs.  Additionally, if institutions at which postdocs receive federal funding were to consider them employees with all associated benefits, rather than trainees, rising scientists might better avoid career stagnation and an inability to support families [11].

As the number of rising PhDs currently outpaces the availability of permanent faculty positions, one strategy may be to limit the number of PhD positions available at each institution to prevent continued escalation of postdocs without viable faculty positions to which they might apply.  One attendee noted that this could immediately halt the growth of PhDs with bleak career prospects.

Several attendees brought up the problems many postdocs encounter in particularly large labs, which tend to receive disproportionately high grant funding.  Postdocs in such labs feel pressure to generate useful data to ensure they can compete with their peers, while neglecting other elements of their professional development and personal life. As well, the current system funnels funding to labs that can guarantee positive results, favoring conservative rather than potentially paradigm-shifting proposals – translating to reduced funding for new investigators [9]. Grant awarding agencies’ evaluations of grant proposals might integrate considerations of the sizes of labs with the goal of fostering progress in smaller labs. Additionally, efforts like Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s bioRχiv might be more widely used to pre-register research projects so that postdocs are aware of the efforts of their peers – enabling them to focus on innovation when appropriate.

While increased funding for basic science research would help to avoid the loss of talented scientists, and private sources may help to compensate for fickle federal funds [6], some attendees of the meeting suggested that the current mechanisms by which facilities and administrations costs are funded might be restructured. These costs, also called “indirect costs” - which cover expenditures associated with running research facilities, and not specific projects - might be restructured to avoid over 50 cents of every federally allocated dollar going to the institution itself, rather than the researchers of the projects that grants fund [7,8].  This dynamic has been suggested to foster the growth of institutions rather than investment in researchers, and optimizing this component of research funding might reveal opportunities to better support the careers of rising scientists [9,12]

Additionally, if the state of federal funding could be more predictable, dramatic fluctuations of the numbers of faculty positions and rising scientists might not result in such disparities [9].  For example, if appropriations legislation consistently adhered to 5 year funding plans, dynamics in biomedical research might avoid unexpected deficits of opportunities.

From [5]

Career counselors ought to provide accurate descriptions of how competitive a search for permanent faculty positions can be to their students, so they don’t enter a field with a misconceived sense of security.  Quotes from a survey conducted by Polka et al. reveal a substantial disparity between expectations and outcomes in academic careers, and adequate guidance might help avoid such circumstances.

As shown in the NSF’s Indicators report from 2014, the most rapidly growing reason postdocs identify as their rationale for beginning their projects is “other employment not available” – suggesting that a PhD in fields associated with biomedical sciences currently translates to limited opportunities. Even successful scientists and talented postdocs have become progressively more pessimistic about their career prospects.  Accordingly - while there are several possible solutions to this problem - if some remedial action isn’t taken, biomedical research in the U.S. may stagnate and suffer in upcoming coming years.

 1.    Alberts B, Kirschner MW, Tilghman S, Varmus H. Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Apr 22;111(16):5773-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1404402111. Epub 2014 Apr 14.
 2.    http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2015/03/cancer-institute-plans-new-award-staff-scientists
 3.    https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-engage-to-excel-final_2-25-12.pdf
 4.    http://www.nationalreview.com/article/378334/what-stem-shortage-steven-camarota
 5.    Polka JK, Krukenberg KA, McDowell GS. A call for transparency in tracking student and postdoc career outcomes. Mol Biol Cell. 2015 Apr 15;26(8):1413-5. doi: 10.1091/mbc.E14-10-1432.
 6.    http://sciencephilanthropyalliance.org/about.html
 7.    http://datahound.scientopia.org/2014/05/10/indirect-cost-rate-survey/
 8.    Ledford H. Indirect costs: keeping the lights on. Nature. 2014 Nov 20;515(7527):326-9. doi: 10.1038/515326a. Erratum in: Nature. 2015 Jan 8;517(7533):131
 9.    Alberts B, Kirschner MW, Tilghman S, Varmus H. Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Apr 22;111(16):5773-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1404402111. Epub 2014 Apr 14.
 10.    National Science Foundation (2014) National Science and Engineering Indicators (National Science Foundation, Washington, DC).
 11.    Bourne HR. A fair deal for PhD students and postdocs. Elife. 2013 Oct 1;2:e01139. doi: 10.7554/eLife.01139.
 12.    Bourne HR. The writing on the wall. Elife. 2013 Mar 26;2:e00642. doi: 10.7554/eLife.00642.
 13.    Powell K. The future of the postdoc. Nature. 2015 Apr 9;520(7546):144-7. doi: 10.1038/520144a.
 14.    Fix the PhD. Nature. 2011 Apr 21;472(7343):259-60. doi: 10.1038/472259b.
 15.   Schillebeeckx M, Maricque B, Lewis C. The missing piece to changing the university culture. Nat Biotechnol. 2013 Oct;31(10):938-41. doi: 10.1038/nbt.2706.

AAAS Forum Take #2

Another point of view of the AAAS Forum by Matthew Facciani:

I have provided scientific testimony and met with some of my local legislators, but I’ve never had any formal exposure to science policy. I was really excited to hear about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum to learn more about how scientists can impact policy. The information I absorbed at the conference was overwhelming, but incredibly stimulating. Some of the lectures discussed the budget cuts and the depressing barriers for achieving science policy. However, I felt there was definitely an atmosphere of optimism at the conference and it was focused on how we can create positive change.

One of my favorite aspects of the conference were the discussions of how to effectively communicate science to non-scientists. Before we can even have discussions of funding, the general public needs to understand how science works and why basic science is so important. For example, science never proves anything with 100% certainty, but it may sound weak if politicians are only saying that science “suggests” instead of “proves.” One creative way to circumvent this problem is to use comparisons. Instead of saying “science suggests GMOs are safe” we could say “scientists are as sure that GMOs are safe as they are sure that smoking is bad for your health.” The conference was rife with these kinds of effective tactics and I left the conference with a sense of confidence that we can collectively make a difference to influence science policy.

Matthew Facciani is a sociology PhD student at The University of South Carolina. He is also a gender equality activist and science communicator. Learn more at www.matthewfacciani.com, and follow him at @MatthewFacciani.

2015 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Forum Summary

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 2015 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Forum in Washington, D.C. This annual meeting brings together a range of academics and professionals to discuss the broad S&T policy landscape. Below are some of my takeaways from the meeting. I hope to have additional comments from other National Science Policy Group members up soon.

By Chris Yarosh

The talks and panels at the Forum encompassed a huge range of topics from the federal budget and the appropriations outlook to manufacturing policy and, of course, shrimp treadmills. My opinion of the uniting themes tying this gamut together is just that—my opinion— and should only be taken as such. That being said, the threads I picked on in many of the talks can be summarized by three C’s: cooperation, communication, and citizenship.

First up, cooperation. Although sequestration’s most jarring impacts have faded, AAAS’s budget guru Matthew Hourihan warns that fiscal year 2016 could see a return of…let’s call it enhanced frugality. These cuts will fall disproportionately on social science, clean energy, and geoscience programs. With the possibility of more cuts to come, many speakers suggested that increased cooperation between entities could maximize value. This means increased partnership between science agencies and private organizations, as mentioned by White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren, and between federal agencies and state and local governments, as highlighted by NSF Director France Córdova. Cooperation across directorates and agencies will also be a major focus of big interdisciplinary science and efforts to improve STEM education. Whatever the form, the name of the game will be recognizing fiscal limitations and fostering cooperation to make the most of what is available.

The next “C” is communication. Dr. Córdova made a point of listing communication among the top challenges facing the NSF, and talks given by Drs. Patricia Brennan (of duck penis fame) and David Scholnick (the aforementioned shrimp) reinforced the scale of this challenge. As these two researchers reminded us so clearly, information on the Web and in the media can be easily be misconstrued for political or other purposes in absence of the correct scientific context. To combat this, many speakers made it clear that basic science researchers must engage a wider audience, including elected officials, or risk our research being misconstrued, distorted, or deemed unnecessary. As Dr. Brennan said, it is important to remind the public that while not every basic research project develops into something applied, “every application derives from basic science.”

The last “C” is citizenship. Several of the speakers discussed the culture of science and interconnections between scientists and non-scientists. I think that these presentations collectively described what I’ll call good science citizenship.  For one, good science citizenship means that scientists will increasingly need to recognize our role in the wider innovation ecosystem if major new programs are ever going to move forward. For example, a panel on new initiatives in biomedical research focused on 21st Century Cures and President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative. Both of these proposal are going to be massive undertakings; the former will involve the NIH and FDA collaborating to speed the development and introduction of new drugs to the market, while the latter is going to require buy in from a spectrum of stakeholders including funders, patient groups, bioethicists, and civil liberty organizations. Scientists are critical to these endeavors, obviously, but we will need to work seamlessly across disciplines and with other stakeholders to ensure the data collected from these programs are interpreted and applied responsibly.

Good science citizenship will also require critical evaluation of the scientific enterprise and the separation of the scientific process from scientific values, a duality discussed during the William D. Carey lecture given by Dr. William Press. This means that scientists must actively protect the integrity of the research enterprise by supporting all branches of science, including the social sciences (a topic highlighted throughout the event), and by rigorously weeding out misconduct and fraud. Scientists must also do a better job of making our rationalist approach works with different value systems, recognizing that people will need to come together to address major challenges like climate change.  Part of this will be better communication to the public, but part of it will also be learning how different value systems influence judgement of complicated scientific issues (a subject of another great panel about Public Opinion and Policy Making). Good science citizenship, cultivated through professionalism and respectful engagement of non-scientists, will ultimately be critical to maintaining broad support for science in the U.S.

The Richest Return of Wisdom

 By Brian S. Cole

    The real lesson I’ve gleaned from my time in pursuit of a PhD in biomedical research hasn’t been the research itself; indeed many of my colleagues and I came into the program already equipped with extensive bench experience, but the real eye-opener has been how science is communicated.  When I was an undergraduate, assiduously repeating PCR after PCR that quietly and dutifully failed to put bands on a gel, I just assumed that experiments always worked in the well-funded, well-respected, well-published labs that wrote the papers we read in school.  As an undergraduate, I had implicit trust in scientific publications; at the end of the PhD, I have implicit skepticism.  It turns out I’m not alone.

    The open access movement has taken a new tone in the past year: increasing recognition of the irreplicability1 and alarming prevalence of scientific misconduct2 in highly-cited journals has led to questioning of the closed review process.  Such a process disallows the public access to reviewers’ comments on the work, as well as the editorial correspondence and decision process.  The reality of the publication industry is selling ads and subscriptions, and it is likely that editors often override scientific input by peer reviewers that throws a sexy new manuscript into question.  The problem is the public doesn’t get access to the review process, and closed peer review is tantamount to no peer review at all as far as accountability is concerned.

    For these reasons, our current scientific publication platform has two large-scale negative consequences: the first economic, and the second epistemic.  First, intellectual property rights for publicly funded research are routinely transferred to nonpublic entities that then use these rights for profit.  Second, there is insufficient interactivity within the scientific community and with the public as a result of the silo effect of proprietary journals.  The open access revolution is gaining momentum on the gravity of these issues, but to date, open access journals and publishers have largely conformed to the existing model of journals and isolated manuscripts, and while open access journals have enabled public access to scientific publications, they fail to provide the direly needed interactivity that the internet enables.

    In the background of the open access revolution in science, a 70 year old idea3 about a new system for disseminating scientific publications was realized two decades ago on a publicly licensed code stack4 that allows not just open review, but distributed and continuous open review with real-time version control and hypertext interlinking: not just citations, links to the actual source.  Imagine being able to publish a paper that anybody can review, suggest edits to, add links to, and discuss publicly, with every step of that ongoing process versioned and stored.  If another researcher repeats your experiment, they can contribute their data.  If you extend or strengthen the message of your paper with a future experiment, that can also be appended.  Such a platform would utterly transform scientific publication from a series of soliloquies into an evolving cloud of interlinked ideas.  We’ve had that technology for an alarmingly long time given its lack of adoption by researchers who continue to grant highly cited journals ownership over the work the public has already paid for.

    I’ve kicked around the idea of a Wikiscience5 publication system for a long time with a lot of scientists, and the concerns that came up were cogent and constructive.  In testament to the tractability of a wiki replacement for our system of scientific publication is Wikipedia, one of the greatest gifts to humankind ever to grace the worldwide web.  The distributed review and discussion system that makes Wikipedia evolve does work, and most of us are old enough to remember a time when nobody thought it would.  But how can we assess impact and retain attribution in a distributed publication and review system such as a wiki?  Metrics such as journal impact factor and article-level metrics wouldn’t directly apply to a community-edited, community-reviewed scientific resource.  Attribution and impact assessment are important challenges to any system that aims to replace our journal and manuscript method for disseminating scientific information.  While a distributed scientific information system would not easily fit into the context of the current metrics for publication impact that are an intimate part of the funding, hiring, and promotion processes in academia, the consideration of such a system presents an opportunity to explore innovative analyses of the relevance and impact of scientific research.  Indeed, rethinking the evaluation of scientists and their work6 is a pressing need even within the context of the current publication system.

    We should be thinking about the benefit of the networked consciousness of online collectivism, not the startling failures of our current publication system to put scientific communication into the hands of the public that enabled it, or even the challenges in preserving integrity and attribution in a commons-based peer production system.7  We are the generation that grew up with Napster and 4chan, the information generation, the click-on-it-and-it’s-mine generation, born into a world of unimaginable technological wealth.  Surely we can do better than paywalls, closed peer review, and for-profit publishers.  We owe it to everybody: as Emerson put it, “He who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom.” 8

This article accompanies a feature piece about scientific publishing in the digital era and also appeared in the Penn Science Policy Group January 2015 newsletter

Brian S. Cole

1Ioannidis, John P. A. "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False."PLoS Medicine 2.8 (2005): E124.
2Stern, Andrew M., Arturo Casadevall, R. Grant Steen, and Ferric C. Fang. "Research: Financial Costs and Personal Consequences of Research Misconduct Resulting in Retracted Publications." ELife 3 (2014)
3Bush, Vannevar. "As We May Think." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 01 July 1945.
4"MediaWiki 1.24." - MediaWiki. <http://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/MediaWiki_1.24>.
5"WikiScience." - Meta. <http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/WikiScience>.
6"San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment." American Society for Cell Biology. <http://www.ascb.org/dora/>.
7"3. Peer Production and Sharing." <http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/wealth_of_networks/3._Peer_Production_and_Sharing>.
8Emerson, Ralph W. "The American Scholar." The American Scholar. Web. <http://www.emersoncentral.com/amscholar.htm>.

Purdue professor Dr. Sanders responds to commentary about his Ebola interview with Fox News

Last month I analyzed the media coverage of Ebola in a post where I dissected an interview between Fox News reporters and Dr. David Sanders. I was recently contacted by Dr. Sanders, who wished to clarify a few issues that I raised in my article. The purpose of my post was to demonstrate how the media sometimes covers scientific issues in ways that exaggerate and oversimplify concepts, which can potentially mislead non-scientist citizens.

I stated that the way Dr. Sanders described his research sounded a little misleading. I intended to convey how I thought an average non-scientist listener might interpret the dialogue. However, Dr. Sanders points out that he was careful with his wording to avoid possible confusion. He explained, “as you have pointed out, one says one thing, and the media (and the Internet) render it as something else.  I would just like to point out that I carefully stated that Ebola can ENTER human lung from the airway side; I never said infect.  I also try to avoid the use of the term ‘airborne’ because of the confusion about its meaning.”

Also, he had several good scientific points about the validity of using pseudotyped viruses and the comparison to other viruses when considering the potential for a change in Ebola transmission.

“Pseudotyped viruses are used widely for studying viral entry, and I know of no examples where the conclusions on the cell biology of the entry of pseudotyped viruses have been contradicted by studies of entry of the intact virus despite such comparisons having been published numerous times.” 

“When we discovered that there was maternal-child transmission of HIV was that a new mode of transmission or merely a discovery of a previously unknown mode of transmission? How was Hepatitis C transmitted between humans before injections and blood transfusions? I don't know either. How is Ebola virus transmitted between fruit bats or from fruit bats to humans? Perhaps modes of transmission differ in their efficiency. The HIV comparison with Ebola ("HIV hasn't become airborne") is fallacious given the cell biology of entry for the two viruses.  The receptors for HIV (the CD4 attachment factor and the chemokine receptor) are present on blood cells and not on lung tissue.  The receptors for Ebola are present on a diverse set of cells including lung cells. In addition, Influenza A switches in real time from a gastrointestinal virus in birds to a respiratory virus in mammals--not that many mutations required.”

Additionally, he wisely pointed out that “precedent may be a valid argument in medical practice or the law, but it is not valid in science.” In fact, science seeks to uncover things that were previously unknown, and thus were without precedent.

I appreciate Dr. Sander’s response to my article. I think that rational and in-depth discussions about science need to happen more frequently in the media. Short, simplified stories with shock-factor headlines only detract from the important conversations that are necessary to find practical solutions to challenges like Ebola.

-Mike Allegrezza

Fox News demonstrates both good and bad ways to cover Ebola

Some news outlets, including Fox, have been wildly spreading fears about Ebola. As an example of both good and bad ways that the media covers science, let’s take a look at a recent clip from Fox News in which they interview Dr. David Sanders about the possibility of Ebola virus mutating to become airborne-transmissible (right now it is only spread by direct contact!)

Their story is titled "Purdue professor says Ebola 'primed' to go airborne.Here is a link to the video.

I’ll start off with the good things:

1) Dr. Sanders did a good job explaining that Ebola is not airborne right now, but there is a "non-zero" probability that Ebola might mutate to infect the lungs and become air transmissible. And this probability increases as more people are infected.
2) The newscasters did a good job of accurately recapping what he was explaining without blowing it out of proportion.

Now for some bad things:

1) Quite obviously, the scare-you-into-clicking-on-it title. First of all, it's completely misleading for the sole purpose of grabbing attention (it got me!). Second of all, it's completely false. I watched it three times and Dr. Sanders never said "primed." So it is blatantly incorrect.
2) They did not include coverage of other scientists that claim the fears of airborne transmission are over-hyped because there are no instances of that ever happening naturally for a virus that infects humans. HIV and hepatitis are both good examples that have infected millions without changing their route of transmission.
3) The way Dr. Sanders describes his published research is a little misleading in the context of this story. It sounds like he describes the research demonstrated Ebola virus can infect the lungs. In fact, the actual study showed that if you take some of the proteins from the surface of Ebola and code them into a completely different virus (in this case a feline lentivirus, similar to HIV), you can infect human airway epithelial cells grown in cell culture. So this research did not use the full Ebola virus, and did not demonstrate this infection in a live animal model. Link to study here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12719583

Some of these negative aspects might be a consequence of the brevity of this story. However, in an information-dense world, people get the news in short snippets, so the media needs to be careful not to compromise accuracy.

Interestingly, on the same network, Shep Smith reported on Ebola with commendable accuracy. He communicated the facts clearly and concisely while criticizing “hysterical” reporting as “irresponsible.” 

I hope future reports from Fox News and the rest of the media follow his tone.

*Update Nov 19, 2014: A follow up to this post detailing a thoughtful response from Dr. Sanders can be found here.

Guest post: Congress shuts down America’s young scientists

 How is the government shutdown affecting me? Well, it hasn’t… yet. But even if this shutdown is over in the next few days, its impacts will ripple through American scientific research and our innovation-dependent economy for years to come.
     No, I have not been furloughed. I am free to keep doing my research since I work in a university lab which are usually state or private institutions. However I, like the vast majority of American scientists (and for that matter most scientists world-wide), work with federal grant money. We scientists have to compete incredibly hard to get those grants, and the process is long and arduous. On October 1st, the main grant funding departments were shut down including the National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). It takes a lot of work for them to sift through the thousands of brilliant grant applications to find the absolutely most brilliant and promising ones. Since many steps of this process need to be planned months in advance, and are not easily rescheduled, their operations will be severely delayed.
     My advisor (my boss, the head of the lab) is a new professor, and she trying to get her first major grant. You basically can’t keep running a lab without one. Just before the shutdown she was told by the NIH that her application scored exceptionally well, and will most likely get funded. However, I’ve chatted with others, one of whom was in the exact same situation during the previous shutdown back in the 90’s, which only lasted 3 weeks. Yes, they were finally awarded the promised funding, but it was 16 months late. Also, on a more personal level, I have no idea what will happen with the one small grant I was planning to apply to as a PhD student. I’ll still apply, but those kind of delays could mean that I graduate too soon to use the funding, even if they awarded it to me. This spotty funding is problematic when you want to, say, plan and then actually accomplish interesting experiments. In short, it makes it very hard to do our jobs.
     Therein lies the biggest problem--the uncertainty. We just don’t know what will happen in the near or distant future, so we don’t know how we should be using our funds most effectively. For some scientists, the consequences of the shutdown are immediate. NIH scientists are now indefinitely barred from entering their laboratories while field researchers may be forced to delay or even skip their next data gathering expeditions. There are already hundreds of personal accounts of how the shutdown will affect scientists and their work1.
     Even worse is the fact that science in America is actually taking a double-hit: the effects of the shutdown will occur on top of the fact that members of congress have successfully pushed to slash funding for the NIH and NSA, which directly translates fewer and smaller grants given to researchers. These budgets used to grow a little every year, or at least track inflation, helping America stay on top of health technology and innovation. But the budget was recently reduced this year by 5%, and some members of congress are proposing for a further 10% cut. It is scary times to be a scientist in training. I have no idea where funding levels will be when I try to start my own lab in a few years. It is already competitive out there, but the number of positions will probably shrink even further.
     I just want to get everyones’ head on straight about this; the political games congress is playing will affect us all for years to come, from stunting the careers of young scientists, to dulling America’s scientific, technological and economic edge.

So, how is the government shutdown affecting you?

TL/DR: The shutdown is blowing it for American science for years to come.

-Ryan G. Natan, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Group
      Ryan works in UPenn’s Laboratory of Auditory Coding studying how the auditory cortex helps us notice changes in sounds we hear and how we get used to repetitive sounds. 

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul-How the Federal Sequester will damage our National Role as Medical Innovator

by: Nicole Aiello, Penn Biomedical Graduate Student

The United States federal government is poised to impose arbitrary cuts on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget, as a part of a series of global budget reductions termed “sequestration.” These cuts will stifle medical progress, kill research jobs, and fail to reduce the national deficit in a meaningful way. Sequestration will trickle down to negatively impact thousands of research facilities across the country that rely heavily on federally funded grants to address the fundamental scientific questions that drive medical breakthroughs. Although the University of Pennsylvania is a private institution, biomedical research labs here operate almost exclusively on grants awarded by the NIH, which is poised to endure a $1.6 billion reduction in funding on March 1st if Congress fails to act on the looming sequestration.

The NIH distributes more than 80% of its funding to researchers at universities and other institutions all over the country to support biomedical research. Its budget has been flat for the last ten years, and as inflation continues to climb each year the NIH can do less and less with its money. If the sequestration is allowed to occur, the NIH will lose 5.1% of its already stagnant budget, which means that significantly fewer scientific projects will be funded. These are projects that address fundamental questions about how diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes arise and how they might be targeted for treatment.  Importantly, these proposals often would not go forward without federal funding, because profit-driven private sector companies do not consider them a cost-effective investment.

The competition surrounding NIH funds is already at an all-time high and will only become more cut-throat if the sequestration is allowed to occur. Labs in academia, even though they operate within a university, rely almost entirely on grants. The loss of financial support would force some labs to shut their doors, halt critical biomedical research, and deter young scientists from pursuing careers in academia. Job prospects for science PhD holders have been grim in recent years, with a steady flow of incoming graduate students and dwindling opportunities for traditional academic positions, and the situation will become even more dire if the NIH budget is cut. As a graduate student waiting to hear back about a federal grant application, I can attest to the uncertainty surrounding the current funding situation. Because Congress has pushed the decision on sequestration to March 1st, my application exists in a state of limbo until the NIH receives its budget for 2013. There are tens of thousands of researchers in the same position all over the country, many of whom desperately need these grants to carry on with, or even begin, their research projects.

Cuts to the NIH budget will have an obvious negative impact on the scientific community, but they will also indirectly hurt the economy, especially here in Philadelphia. Federal investment in research is a large source of support for academic universities, which rank among the top employers in the Philadelphia region. For instance the University of Pennsylvania, which received $472 million in NIH awards in 2011, is the 2nd largest employer in the region, with Temple and Drexel also falling in the top 50. These universities drive the local economy, and they all directly benefit from publicly funded research. This means that the less support the NIH can give to our universities, the less support they can give to the Philadelphia community.

Unfortunately, deep cuts to the NIH budget will not only hinder medical progress but will only amount to a mere 0.04% in savings on the national budget. To put that into perspective, it’s like saving a nickel on a $100 purchase. Politicians have been throwing around the buzzwords of “shared sacrifice,” but we as a people should not have to forfeit the future of medical research in a desperate attempt to balance the budget. Indiscriminately slashing research funding is a bad short-term solution for reducing the national deficit, with even worse long-term repercussions for the economy and the health of our nation.

Time to politicize Science Research?

By: Alana Sharp, Penn Biomedical Graduate Student

There has perhaps always been a bizarre disconnect between scientific research, the general public, and politics.  The story of measles is a fitting example.  A highly contagious viral infection first described as early as 68 AD, measles was once “as inevitable as death and taxes” (Babbott Am J Med Sci 1954).  In the 1971, Merck & Co. began marketing Maurice Hilleman’s combined vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella; today, MMRV is a CDC-recommended vaccination, and measles is no longer considered endemic in the United States.  However, due to the reverberations of a now-retracted study linking childhood vaccinations with developmental disorders, an obstinate anti-vaccination movement persists in the United States.  In the past twenty years, enclaves of children unvaccinated due to parental refusal have permitted sporadic outbreaks of the disease.  Such outbreaks have been thus far contained by surrounding vaccination-compliant communities; however, the growth of this anti-vaccination movement bodes ill for the future eradication of measles.  In this way, one of our greatest medical advances has thus been sullied and distorted, to the detriment of both childhood health and the reputation of the scientific community.

Another illustration of the divide between science and politics is that of anthropomorphic climate change.  The now renowned assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 predicted significant changes to global temperatures, weather patterns, sea levels and acidification, and losses to biodiversity.  This report has repeatedly been shown to be overly conservative, as new data suggest faster Arctic ice melting and temperature rises, and reveal broader detrimental impacts to ecosystems, food safety, and political stability.  In the realm of American politics, these warnings are generally unheeded.  With the exception of occasional head nods by Barack Obama and the political left, the impetus to shift toward renewable energy sources and green infrastructure has been weak and unsustained.  Indeed, a significant contingent of our political system and mainstream media maintains that global climate change is a hoax, and an untold network of unreported funding continues to nurture anti-science organizations and promulgate propaganda and misinformation.

The risks in politicizing science are significant.  To the researcher, they may be personal and severe, as demonstrated by the ‘Climategate’ attacks of 2009 and the firing of the NWS scientist last month.  Some believe that the politicizing of scientific discovery will tarnish the reputation of scientists as unbiased purveyors of truth.  Furthermore, bringing research to the general public is a time-consuming pursuit, made worse by an educational climate in which politicians threaten to ban critical thinking and wherein sensitive scientific topics are altogether ignored.  In contrast, it is much easier to research tissue engineering without delving into the controversies over human embryonic stem cell research.  It may seem nobler to publish on the therapeutic benefits of entheogenic compounds without delving into drug policy reform.  The scientist may feel better trained to produce data on climate change, or to develop cancer treatments, than to contribute a voice to the politics of carbon taxes and Medicare reform.  I argue, however, that this reluctance by scientists to address the political ramifications of their research, and confront those that would usurp and pervert it, is at best an act of self-preservation and at worst an act of cowardice.  

This issue will come to a head March 1, when Congress must cut $85 billion in federal spending.  This spending ‘sequestration’ will produce lasting effects to federal funding of scientific research, with cuts of 5.0-8.2% to funding agencies including the NSF, NIH, FDA, NWS, DOE, NASA, and more.  Superimposed on a largely stagnant funding climate, these cuts will produce significant changes to research funding.  The NSF is expecting to award fewer new grants, and the NIH will reduce the size of existing research grants; furthermore, the funding of large projects may be rejected in favor of safer, incremental proposals.  We can expect the career trajectory of young scientists to suffer and for graduating PhD students to struggle to find employment.  Academic institutions with meager endowments will suffer, and the United States will continue to drop in international rankings of education and scientific productivity.  

If there was ever a time for the scientific community to speak up, the time is now.  Congress will not make our case for us.  The public will not make our case for us.  It is for us to contribute to the dialogue and remind the country that science is valuable and inextricably linked to American progress.  We must explain that many of our great intellectual steps forward were initially preliminary projects nurtured by federal grants, most of which were deemed too risky to fund by private corporations.  We must explain the relationship between the scientist in the lab and treatments for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease; we must demonstrate the link between the technologies of our future and the funding that will make them realities; and we must elucidate the economic, intellectual, medical, political, and security payoffs of research.  In the days to come, we must make our voices heard.

The Sequester and its impact on Medical Breakthroughs

I believe that we are entering a new era of hope in medical research.  Seemingly every day we hear about new and exotic therapies that read more like science fiction than scientific reporting: immune cells are removed from our bodies and re-engineered to destroy cancer; patients are cured of AIDS by receiving bone marrow transplants; children are given vaccinations to prevent the development of cancers when they become adults; and massive genetic analyses are providing insight into the causes of disease and directions for developing the therapies of the future. 
It is therefore deeply concerning that in the midst of such promise and growth, we stand at the edge of a deep precipice of cuts to research funding.  The United State’s federal debt has ballooned into a number that is increasingly difficult to look at, and en lieu of rational fiscal policies and bipartisan compromise, Congress has instead backed itself into a corner called “sequestration.” 
Beginning in 1917, as part of a rarely discussed operational formality, federal budgets were limited by a pseudo-arbitrary debt ceiling.  Without much discussion, this limit has every year since been reached and subsequently raised.  In 2011, however, an impasse was reached wherein the national debt was suddenly decried as a threat to the nation’s future.  At the hand of overzealous small government advocates and divisive partisanship, the Budget Control Act was enacted, resulting in immediate federal budget cuts totaling $900 billion.  In conjunction, a “super committee” of congressional representatives was assembled and assigned the task of cutting $1.2 trillion from the national budget.  This exercise ended in failure.   
In the wake of this disappointment, the task of making the $1.2 trillion spending cuts has fallen to Congress.  In what has been termed the ‘nuclear option,’ failure to institute these cuts will result in sequestration, wherein draconian across-the-board cuts will be instituted automatically.  Sequestration is currently slated to go into effect March 1.
The primary medical research funding agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), risks disproportionate funding cuts if sequestration is permitted to occur.  The NIH’s budget has been neither adjusted for inflation nor increased in the last decade, an oversight unseemly in light of the increasing prevalence of preventable disease, the emergence of novel infectious disease, and the need for improved therapeutics for undertreated disorders.  To compound this flat-lined funding with budget cuts is shortsighted and reprehensible.  Furthermore, it is inefficient: the proposed 8% cut in NIH funding constitutes an inconsequential 0.08% of the federal budget.  The NIH funds our medical institutions, pays for our medical research, and supports graduate education for the future leaders in basic and clinical sciences.  To decry the failings of our educational system and urge for a larger, more competitive scientific workforce, while simultaneously gutting the NIH’s funding, is simply senseless.
Furthermore, the economic payoff from investment in scientific funding is disproportionately high.  Investment in biomedical research pays off in many ways: in many states, research facilities are a significant employer, which is invaluable in periods of high unemployment.  Development of new and improved medical therapies generates savings in the providing of medical care, a worthwhile aim when healthcare costs threaten many families’ savings.  Many pharmaceutical and private medical corporations, economic drivers and major employers themselves, received public funding in their nascent development.  The preparation of vaccines and treatments for emerging diseases is essential for guarding our national security against bioterrorism.  And, really, who wants to lose a loved one because the medication that could have treated them was halted mid-development due to lack of funding?
I urge everyone in America to stand up and demand that medical research not be subjected to these budget cuts.  To allow sequestration to proceed would be a thoughtless step backward, but it is within our power to demand of our elected officials that these cuts not be made.  Perhaps Barack Obama said it best, in 2009: “At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities.  I fundamentally disagree.  Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before.” 

by: Alana Sharp, Penn Biomedical Graduate Student

Save the NIH from the Sequester!
On March 1st, sequestration will eliminate $1.6 billion from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget. The deadline is fast approaching, and Congress has failed to put forth any alternative plans for avoiding the drastic cuts sequestration would entail. As a biomedical graduate student, whose research and training are supported by the federally funded NIH, these cuts deeply concern me. Although many argue that spending cuts are necessary in an era when the country has amassed trillions of dollars in debt, austerity does not translate well to medical research nor to the well being of the general public. The amount cut from the NIH would save the federal government 0.042% of the national budget, but would have devastating effects on the economy, medical research, and the training of a new generation of scientists and medical doctors. Is the paltry amount of money saved really worth all that will be lost?
It is impossible to estimate how a loss of $1.6 billion would affect our lifespan, health, or quality of living. This money funds research that develops treatments for cancer, diabetes, and countless other diseases. Since 1962, NIH-funded research has played a role in the development of 153 FDA-approved drugs, vaccines, and new indications for currently approved medication. Furthermore, without the NIH, basic scientific discoveries that fuel new treatments will not happen. The basic research funded by the NIH is essential to designing the best drug treatments and therapies, but because they are long-term investments and do not guarantee a high profit margin, private industry is wary of investing its time and money in these projects. Thus, sequestration would both harm the NIH’s ability to promote new areas of discovery-based research and indirectly impact the NIH-dependent pharmaceutical industry.
Under sequestration, the NIH is slated to lose 5.1% of its annual $31 billion budget, a sum of $1.6 billion. This loss would have a devastating impact on the nation’s economy, as the NIH is a major source of employment and expenditures, and essentially acts as the base for the U.S. medical innovation sector. In 2011, the NIH contributed $61 billion to the U.S. economy, and supported over 432,000 jobs. In spite of the fact that government funding for health research and development has been stagnant over the past decade, the NIH has proven that the returns it generates are well worth the investment.
If the sequester takes effect, a substantial number of important research projects will be rejected simply due to lack of funding. Only the top 18% of research projects in the country acquire coveted NIH funds, which means that many worthwhile projects are already being cast aside. Under sequestration, the grant success rate would drop to 14%, at least 20,000 jobs would be lost, and 3 billion fewer dollars would be funneled into the economy. To put the $1.6 billion figure into even sharper perspective, this is double the amount currently invested in training grants and fellowships. Consequentially, many of our most talented young scientists will take their skills to other fields, or leave the country altogether, creating a lost generation of trained biomedical researchers and doctors.
Congress seems inclined to let the sequester pass, as a means to score political points for each party. Congress needs to be reminded that biomedical research is largely a non-partisan issue, and historically has been supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Both parties understand how biomedical research can reduce the cost of healthcare, and representatives from each political party have indicated that the NIH plays a crucial role in such endeavors. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has said, “Doing what we can to facilitate medical breakthroughs . . . should be a priority. We can and must do better.” If Congress truly believes that federally funded advances in medical research are worthwhile, they should act quickly to ensure that the NIH is spared the results of sequestration. 
Spending cuts for federally funded medical research affect everyone to some extent, as most individuals have experience with a family member that has a chronic disease or illness. The most recent statistics collected by Research!America found that nearly 50% of Americans think the government isn’t investing enough resources in medical research, and 54% would be willing to pay slightly more in taxes provided their money went directly to medical research. I urge you to take this same passion and contact your congressmen about sequestration. The future of the NIH, the healthcare driven economy, and medical research in the U.S. depends on your support.

 By Ellen Elliot, Penn Biomedical Graduate Student

Check out our first op-ed piece! (Originally published at the Daily Pennsylvanian http://goo.gl/cZpwk)


Two weeks is all that remains before the largest automatic federal budget cuts take place, which could have devastating affects for the Penn Community. If these automatic budgets cuts occur, expect Penn’s ability as a science innovator to be hampered as the sequester would slash billions from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Graduate Medical Education (GME) programs-all programs that fund science research at Penn.

How could Congress and the President allow this to occur? The sequester was born out of two years of political fights over the national debt and federal spending habits. These automatic cuts were constructed as a nuclear option to force both parties into negotiations over federal spending, by having severe financial consequences if it was ever triggered. However the sequester mechanism was triggered in the fall of the 2011, as a bipartisan budget committee failed to compromise on how to rein in federal spending.

These automatic cuts call for equal across the board cuts to military and non-military agencies. With the recent Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, the automatic sequester was delayed till March 1st, 2013, with the hope that a polarized Congress could figure out a solution.  At this point in time, non-military agencies are slated to lose $42.5 billion in funding, or roughly 5-6% of their budgets this year. Additional reports are now suggesting that Congress is also content to let sequester occur, which could have dire circumstances at Penn.

Penn biomedical research labs depend on funding from the NIH, which is slated to lose at least $1.6 billion this year-a savings of less than 1% of the federal budget! This would severely hamper the discovery of advances in basic and clinical science. Penn is a leader for cancer immunotherapies, thanks, in part, to Dr. Carl June’s Phase I clinical trial (NIH funded) that resulted in amazing regression of lymphoma in pediatric patients. Without the initial NIH investment, this trial would have been nearly impossible to conduct, as pharma companies deemed it too risky to invest in.  Breakthrough vaccine development has also occurred at Penn, as exemplified by Dr. Paul Offit’s pediatric vaccine to rotavirus, another example of research that would not have been possible without NIH funds. Thanks to the sequester, reduced NIH funding will have a chilling effect on new therapeutic development at Penn and possibly drive away talented individuals from scientific careers.

Reduction in NIH funding would severely impact the training of the next generation of biomedical scientists and could impact the U.S.’s position as a leader in innovation in the coming decades. In addition, Graduate Medical Education, or residency training, would also be hampered due to a 2% cut in Medicare and thus is a real concern for Penn Medical Students and Residents. This would also undercut the mission of the nation’s #1 Children’s Hospital. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds researchers in the Engineering Program and the School of Arts and Sciences, would also lose $300-500 million (5-6%) this year.   Collectively, these cuts have the potential to create a lost generation of newly trained scientists, engineers and clinicians.

In light of this information, the Penn community needs to tell Congress and President Obama how important this funding is to the viability of this institution and to Pennsylvania as a whole. Pennsylvania is one of the top 5 recipients of federal research dollars. The biomedical industry alone creates millions of dollars of revenue in the state and more than 350,000 jobs including those due to the ripple effect. Continued support of research is good for the university and it is a smart investment for the economy.  Obviously the sequester will be a job killer in this struggling economy.

We need you to act, in order to avoid the full severity of these automatic budget cuts. You can e-mail your Congressperson through this link- http://goo.gl/to9Pv

We also welcome to you to join the newly formed Penn Science Policy Group, to learn more about this issue.  This coalition of science graduate students and post-docs are contacting our Congressional leaders to promote the necessity of continuing to invest in American innovation. To learn about this group, email at penn.science.policy-at-gmail.com.