Back to the Middle Ages

The current administration under the direction of Trumph has published a new budget proposal for 2018 discretionary spending. It does not take a Ph.D. in economics to realize that aside from a huge 54 billion dollar increase to the military (and with the exception of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs), all of the domestic departments have been targeted for massive cuts. This includes the Department of Health and Human Services, which is the department that houses the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The NIH currently has a budget of about 31 billion dollars, which it uses to supports competitive grant programs that are the mainstay of this country’s research enterprise. These are grants in basic science and biomedical research as well as so-called ‘translational grants’ aimed at translating basic research findings to bedside treatments, and of course purely clinical research such as drug trials in patients. Trump has proposed a draconian cut in funding of about 18% or 5.8 billion dollars, that would reduce funding to 25 billion dollars—a funding low not seen in this millennium.

Just for context, for the last ~15 years, NIH funding has remained fairly stagnant, with the exception of a much awaited bipartisan-supported 2 billion dollar increase last year. The flat budget has seen a severe decline in US-led research advances, as mounting costs for equipment, research tools and reagents, and of course, personnel, have dramatically decreased the ability of researchers to make significant new discoveries. This, coupled with the natural growth of the number of biomedical researchers (without increasing funding for more grants) has led to low success rates for grant applicants.

There is little doubt that such a cut would have a devastating effect on our biomedical research program, which until now, has been the envy of countries around the world. The US has been able to draw the best and the brightest to its shores, to take advantage of the critical mass of brainpower and outstanding research infrastructure that we have enjoyed. This has fueled and incredible satellite community of biotech stat-ups and advanced equipment, all of which have a huge impact on our economy.

Of course, the major concern is not merely the negative impact on the economy, it is the overwhelming hit that biomedical research may suffer. Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg once said: “Without advances, medicine regresses and reverts to witchcraft.” Former director of the NIH appointed by George W. Bush, Elias Zerhouni, said that the cuts would be catastrophic, and said the following: “It will be a catastrophic event because the NIH funds grants over four or five years and therefore only has 20% of its budget to give at any one year. Therefore, if you cut it by $6 billion it means next year there will be no grants. It’s really ill-advised, I think, to change budgets so drastically so quickly. It will be very detrimental, especially on young investigators or new investigators, new science.”

Fortunately, the NIH enjoys broad-based bipartisan support from the US Congress and Senate, and representative from both parties have started to voice their serious concerns with the budget proposal overall, and the NIH budget cuts specifically. As scientists, the time has come to stand up for science and objective truth. Every one alive suffers or will suffer from disease, and without biomedical research, we will regress to the middle ages.

 

 

 

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SAVING ONE–my 4th lab lit novel is now available!

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After a hiatus of nearly four years, my fourth novel featuring biomedical researchers as protagonists has finally been published, and is now available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon. Or you can get an autographed copy if you purchase through my website.

In SAVING ONE, I return to the setting of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where I spent just over 4.5 terrific years and nostalgic years (along with thousands of other enthusiastic post-doctoral fellows)–and where I have been returning for grant-review sessions every 4 months for the past 5-6 years.

Jeffrey Coleman is a successful principal investigator who has recently lost his wife to breast cancer. But he faces an even worse dilemma: his twins are both ill with polycystic kidney disease–and both are in need of a kidney transplant.

Described by a fellow author/reviewer as “a fast paced medical thriller,” I think that SAVING ONE is my best work yet (I know all authors say that about their most recent novel, but in this case, I really think it’s true). It’s also my second time publishing with Robin Stratton at Big Table Publishing Company, which has been a superb experience. Robin is a wonderful editor, and a joy to work with, and having read a number of the novels published through this small press, I feel honored to have been selected from the throngs of wannabe writers.

I will say no more, and hope that this topic may be of interest to some of you–and I’d be delighted to hear any feedback!

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Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the White House

Full disclosure: I am not a psychiatrist.

But it doesn’t take a board certified psychiatrist to see ominous parallels between the behavior of the recently elected president of the United States and a mental illness known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

The Mayo Clinic describes NPD in the following way:

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) which is a sort of “Bible” of psychiatric illness published by the American Psychiatric Association, lists several of the following criteria for NPD:

Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance

Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it

Exaggerating your achievements and talents

Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate

Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people

Requiring constant admiration

Having a sense of entitlement

Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations

Taking advantage of others to get what you want

Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others

Being envious of others and believing others envy you

Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

Sound familiar?

Many Americans maintained that Trump would become “presidential” and change his tone once he assumed the responsibilities of the job; once he was sworn in. But that moment has come and gone. And we are left with a person who is all-consumed by the most significant issue facing the United States in decades: whether the crowd at his inauguration was larger than that of President Obama’s two inaugurations. (Requiring constant admiration, Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance, Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it, Exaggerating your achievements and talents). Anyone recall his taking issue with Marco Rubio’s taunt about his hand size?

This issue is so cardinal to Trump, that he attacked the press from CIA headquarters, and had his press secretary viciously and, with blatant lies, read a statement claiming that the press was lying on this matter. The same Trump, after incessantly attacking the CIA and US intelligence services for their analysis that Putin and the Russians interfered in the US elections, blamed the press the his “supposed” discord with the intelligence communities. Just a few days after comparing them to Nazi Germany. Why does he do this? Because this apparently undermines his sense of being admired for winning the election. There is no other reason for this behavior.

I could go on and on with countless examples. Unable to stomach criticism from anyone on any matter. Examples that fit every single one of the criteria listed above. And so blatant and clear, that it’s hard to imagine how those near him, those in the Republican party who willingly or unwillingly have come to support him, fail to see it.

Fail to see it? Of course they see it. Of course they know it. It is the elephant in the room. And while I hope that as a country we get through the next 4 years unscathed, if things devolve into chaos and trauma for this country, in the words of Emile Zola: J’accuse.

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No escape from the geeky scientist phenotype–or is that stereotype?

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Professor John Nerdelbaum Frink, Jr., scientist from “The Simpsons.” A familiar stereotype.

For years I’ve been trying to combat the misconception that all scientists are, generally speaking, a geekish bunch who have little or no interest in anything but their own miniscule scientific worlds. Such a perception has been trumpeted in films, the media, and books, and has been challenged to some extent by those of us who try to portray scientists as ordinary people—albeit in extraordinary careers (author’s view!).

For this reason, I became incensed several days ago as I listened to music on “Spotify” during my morning exercise routine. An advertisement for the Exxon oil company popped up. As an aside, do they really need to advertise? For what? So people will pull into their gas stations and purchase their gasoline? Hard to imagine. To drum up public support for Trump’s Secretary of State nominee and former Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson? Who knows… What really irritated me was the stereotypical depiction of scientists—not brave seekers of truth and explorers of new worlds—but as geeks.

The advertisement starts with the announcer noting that “This is the sound of seven Exxon scientists hard at work.” There is, of course, no sound. The scientists must be focused exclusively on their impossible-to-understand-for-normal-folks work, and patronized as those idiots that none of us would want to be, but necessary fools to keep things moving. The announcer goes on to say “They sure know how to party,” further distancing the listening public from those introverted fools, until one of the scientists utters an irritated “Shhhhh” in the background.

Some might conclude that this is a flattering depiction of brilliant scientists hard at work for the good of–well–for the good of an oil company. I do not. Such depictions neither portray scientists accurately, nor in a positive light. They do not foment empathy with scientists and science, and only serve to further distance the general public from science. It’s time for scientists to take a stand and reject such stereotypes. Otherwise how can we convince the general public of the importance of scientific progress, not to mention the integrity and understanding that science is the frontier of truth–with a characterization of bumbling, doddering introverted fools?

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The Autopsy, and what next?

I began this blog on Nov. 13, less than a week after the elections. It was too painful for me to continue. Not that there are many bright spots on the horizon that have appeared over the last 6 weeks, but the time has come for me to put this blog to rest and move on. So here it is, no less painful, but blunted slightly by mankind’s ability to adapt to new and stressful situations, time and time again…

The polls were wrong. The statistical aggregators were wrong. The pundits were wrong. The Democratic party was wrong. And the Republican party was wrong. And I was wrong. And while I won’t be eating any bugs, I am tremendously worried about the future of this country, the free world, and the planet.

What happened? There is no simple answer. And every one of the ~120,000,000 voters probably had a slightly different reason for casting her/his vote. One thing is clear, though; a large number of those who cast votes, did so with emphasis on outcomes that differ from what most analysts thought.

Some comments on the situation: The Irony: Early on in this election, it is clear that the Democrats realized that this election should first and foremost be a referendum on the character and temperament of Trump. It isn’t hard to understand why, or to fault this strategy. As noted by Clinton and the Democrats, does the country want a man who can be baited by a tweet? Whose anger at criticism boils over until he vents his frustration at common citizens in the middle of the night? Who cannot control his temper, frustration and anger during debates? The democrats, seemingly wisely, made this a key element of the campaign for Clinton for president. This left little time to really contrast policy.

And now, Americans are realizing that into the Oval office will go a Republican ticket that wants to turn back the clock on a woman’s control over her reproductive rights, that wants to annul gay marriage and (at least the Vice Presidential candidate) apparently supports “conversion therapy” for gays. Ironically, such ‘policies’ are largely considered to be anachronistic in American society, and surveys show that the vast majority of Americans are reject these attempts to infringe on the rights of minorities, women and LGBT community members. This irony can be extended for the environment–the new administration has put a climate change denier in control of the transition team of the American Environmental Protection Agency (*note: this has gotten far worse since Nov. 13), and I suspect that when millennials and many who were apathetic during the election realize the extent to which the Trump administration will ignore environmental concerns. *Additional irony since Nov. 13: Trump’s self-declared “landslide victory” includes a loss of the popular vote by nearly 3 million voters. Of course, he maintains through his post-truth ignorance of data, that this defeat in the popular vote stems from the “millions of illegal immigrants who illegally voted against him.” An ego such as his has no clause for losing.

Why did Hilary Clinton really lose the election? Was it the famous server in her basement? The perception by the working person that democrats took them for granted?  The growing loss of faith in institutions?  Was it FBI chief Comey’s two interventions? The Russian hackers? The tremendous smear campaign waged by the Republicans? The accumulation of “Fake News” and elevation of its significance to that of “Real News?” The desire for something different? Even as different as Trump, with 67% of the American public of the opinion that he does not have the skills, abilities and temperament required to be president? Or–is it all–“The economy, stupid!” *As an aside, significant numbers of people who voted for Trump are now very concerned about losing their healthcare insurance through “ObamaCare.” Some of these people, when interviewed, even said that they didn’t take Trump literally when he said he would repeal the act. Guess what?

I remain optimistic. I hope that these next four years will be better than I predict–despite tremendous misgivings regarding the president-elect–and I will not forgive any of the bigot-racist statements (in particular the birtherism and stirring of hatred towards President Obama) or “Locker room talk” and sexist behavior–but I still hope for the success of the government and country. After all, I live here. My goal is not to say “I told you so” in a few years (or months)–but rather–if at all possible: well, we are still moving forward.

At the same time, demography, the popular vote, a perceived weak democratic candidate,  a desire for change after 8 years and attention by the working classes all combined, in my humble opinion, to make this an exceptional and unusual election–with an unexpected outcome. Social issues, science, technology and equality for all people cannot be erased and the clock cannot be turned back. Let’s hope that the president-elect realizes that the clock needs winding.

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Final Comments before (Armageddon?) Nov. 8, 2016

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My early vote cast weeks ago; couldn’t rest until the ballot was submitted…

On Tuesday Nov. 8, the United States will have one of its most crucial elections in the history of the nation. Yes, I realize that many will say that just as many people felt that way when Democrat Obama faced off against Republican McCain in 2008 or when the former competed against Republican Romney in 2012. Or when Republican George W. Bush defeated Gore by the narrowest of margins in the electoral vote in 2000. But the overall indecency, mendacious behavior, boorishness, misogyny, racism and complete lack of moral character of Donald Trump make this election cycle an entirely different beast. So much so, that in retrospect, regardless of very different policy positions, all of the former Republican and Democrat presidential candidates, Obama, Romney, McCain, Kerry, Bush and Gore, seem like the same thing when compared with such a horrific outlier as Trump. NONE of these presidential nominees and presidents, by the way, will support Trump on election day. Neither from the Democrat side nor from the Republican side.

Statistics and Bug-Eyed Recipes

To start with science—or at least statistics—going towards Tuesday there are very different outlooks among the pundits and pollsters. I have been clicking with a high level of obsessive-compulsive disorder every few hours, looking for trends and changes. My clicking usually starts with the New York Times (NYT) Upshot, which provides a percentage-based prediction for the likelihood of an electoral vote victory. This is regardless of the number of electoral votes (EV)—it provides the percentage of likelihood that, say, Clinton will obtain over 269 EV, which is enough (270) to win the election.

Right now, Clinton stands at 84% likelihood. This is based primarily on state polling data (and some national data, I believe) and there is a calculation of the relevance of each poll (its overall technique and quality, the number of people surveyed, how recent it was, etc.). Accordingly, based on these polls, a % prediction for the individual state is made. Once all 50 states have their specific prediction values, the election is simulated millions of times, and the likelihood of all possible outcomes is calculated. Thus, a histogram plot is obtained, and if Clinton wins more than 269 EV 84% of the time (and that could be 270 to 538), her election chances are given at 84%.

The NYT Upshot is in the middle of the pack, with Nate Silver’s 538 website currently the most conservative of the statisticians at 64%, whereas Prof. Sam Wang (a neuroscientist) at the Princeton Election Consortium (PEC) has calmly maintained that “the cake is baked” and lists a >99% likelihood for a Clinton win. In fact, he is so confident that he has tweeted that he will eat a bug if Trump wins over 240 EV. Admittedly, this was before the recent Comey/FBI affair, but Prof. Wang has said on CNN that he stands by his calculations—that he believes are more accurate than Nate Silver’s algorithms–and his contention that this election is actually one of the most statistically stable that he has seen. I hope he is right, although from my in Belize, I learned that termites are nutritious and taste a little like carrots…

Other prediction sites still waver between mid 80s to low 90s in terms of probability that Clinton will win. One interesting site, now at 87% probability of a Clinton win, is the PredictWise site that essentially doesn’t work by polls and statistics, but primarily uses betting markets to calculate possibilities. Starting near 60% for Clinton in Jan. 2016, this site has steadily climbed toward the ~90% range where it stands today.

And Yet

And yet, since this is no ordinary election, any prediction that leaves 35%, 16%, 10%, 5%, or frankly, even <1% possibility that Trump wins, is still enough to unsettle my stomach.

MTV and GOTV

The common wisdom at this point of the election cycle is that the key is now to Get Out The Vote (GOTV). Clinton has been using her strong support by popular President Obama, even more popular First-Lady Michelle Obama, and a slew of pop culture favorites who are (hopefully) going to sway the millennial and young voters to go vote on Tuesday. I did my share, volunteering to man the phone banks at the Democratic Party of Nebraska headquarters, here in Omaha. If the race turns out to be tighter than Sam Wang expects, pundits believe that a potential path to 270 for Trump goes through Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, and New Hampshire (as well as a single EV from one district in Maine), possibly leaving him stranded at 269 EV. Nebraska, like Maine, is one of only 2 states that can split its EV and isn’t simply all-or-nothing. While Nebraska is typically considered a “red” or Republican state, this is somewhat of a misnomer. We have 5 EV, and 3 districts, with 1 EV going for each district winner, and 2 EV for the overall state winner. Omaha largely constitutes a district, and in 2008 went for Obama, splitting Nebraska’s EV vote to 4 for republicans and 1 for Democrats. “Redistricting” (also known as Gerrymandering) likely caused our District 2 to support Romney in 2012, but the race is tight for our district now in 2016.

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Nebraska, striped purple in the middle, could potentially contribute a crucial EV

Remarkably, and unlike the previous elections here in Omaha, there are NO ELECTION SIGNS. NONE. Except for congress (Ashford vs. Bacon) and local legislature, which is also on our ballot. This is a sign that both candidates are deeply disliked; but in a typically red state, I would guess that it says more about Trump than Clinton.

Banking On It

Work on the phone banks was mind numbing. Given a laptop that automatically dialed potential democratic voters or independents to ask them if they were going to support Clinton and go to vote Tuesday, I realized how many Americans take our governmental system for granted and are largely unconcerned about what happens. Or uninformed. I was struck by people who honestly told me that they hadn’t yet made up their minds, or hadn’t really thought about who to vote for. To me, it seems as though they must be living on a different planet. But perhaps they look at me and wonder why I have high blood pressure. Perhaps one has to fear for the loss of the democratic process in order to appreciate how important it is.

Latinos to the Rescue?

As the pundits continue to push nervous viewers like me into sleepless suspense, worries crop up about low African American early voting levels (especially compared with Obama’s support in the previous 2 cycles), I feel my blood pressure spike and worries pop up about Florida and North Carolina, two key states that would seal a victory for Clinton—probably if she were to win either, and certainly if she were to win both. At the same time, Latino population growth (especially in Florida and also in another key state, Nevada) and early voting is reportedly at record highs—strongly supporting the democratic ticket. And racist “dog whistles” (although I resent the term, as my dog is an equal opportunity canine who loves all people regardless of skin color) are coming straight out of the Trump campaign in an effort to deny and complain about the Latino voters. Most recently it was a complaint that the polls are being kept open late to allow them to vote. Coupled with attempts to suppress African American voters in states such as North Carolina, and attempts to solicit intimidating “vote watchers” at the polls, it’s clear that the strategy of Trump is to prevent votes from minorities. Whatever happened to the party of Lincoln? Dead on arrival…

My Predictions for Nov. 8 and Afterward

Scientists need to be optimists—especially with the grant situation the way it is. Based on the data, and despite the emotional ups and downs and the changes in the scope of victory predicted from just a few weeks ago, I am inclined to predict that Clinton wins with 312-323 EV. The more the merrier, but any combination above 270 is sufficient.

I am almost embarrassed to note that I almost wanted Trump to win the Republican primary, as I thought that it would tear apart the Republican party for generations to come. That may still happen; or perhaps it has already happened, as can be seen by the number of high-ranking Republicans who have shunned him. It is entirely feasible that should he lose, the party will essentially be split, and an inner party war will occur with a fight over the future of the party between those Trumpists and alt-rightists, and those who are appalled by what the Republican party has become. Conservative columnist George Will of the Washington Post resigned his Republican registration in protest, and wrote a column discussing how the GOP needs chemotherapy. In a short email discourse with him in response to his column, he agreed about my take on the direction of the party and wrote that he had written in a ballot for the junior Republican congressman of Nebraska, Ben Sasse, who has consistently maintained staunch opposition to Trump.

What will Trump do if he loses, as I anticipate? His contention about “the election being rigged” does not bode well. He is neither a good loser nor a good winner (for that matter, he is not good at anything). The most likely scenario is a failure to concede gracefully, possibly coupled with calls of corrupt elections and more people-whistles. To what end? Some say for a TV-media empire. I don’t know—my guess is that like with most things, there is no particular plan except to satisfy his anger, frustration ego and greed, and to cover his incompetence. Just as he couldn’t refrain from tweeting lies about a former Miss Universe in the middle of the night, he will be unable to contain his embarrassment about losing (and to a woman!). What ramifications will that have for the country? I think that will speed the splitting of the Republican party. For now, many low-life hangers-on are awaiting potential political booty in case he wins (Giuliani, Christie). But when he loses, and becomes just another loser in the course of US history (as he has called Romney and McCain so disdainfully)—that’s when everyone will finally abandon ship.

On the other hand, if he does win? With a candidate who threatens to put his opponent in jail, and threatens the free press—this could very well be my final blog. Yes. It’s that serious. Take him literally.

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The Ultimate Conspiracy–the importance of being Donald

Children–and adults–often believe that when they root or hope for a team or for an event to occur, that their wishes can influence the outcome. This irrational behavior probably underlies the fervent cheering for sports teams. And candidates in political processes. Despite my adherence to scientific and rational principles, I admit that I too am guilty of these sins on occasion.

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Statistician/blogger Nate Silver‘s prediction for the US election, if all women abandon Donald Trump!

Months ago, when pundits here in the US were mostly rejecting the notion that Donald Trump might win the Republican primaries and become the Republican nominee in the presidential elections, I was saying “Bring it on!”

Being a supporter of the Democrats since my arrival in the US in 1998, I predicted that the election of such an unimpressive (to say the least!) candidate–someone who is a populist and not even part of the mainstream conservative movement, would likely fracture the party. Little did I know that the drama would play out just a month before the election, although I knew that “unimpressive” could easily turn to “utterly disgusting,” “revolting,” “racist,” “birther,” “misogynist,” “sexual harasser,” “criminal,” “tax evader,” “serial liar,” “vengeful,” “misfit,” “bad judgment,” “poor temperament,” etc. etc.

It did. But only after the release of a particularly disgusting conversation between Trump and another TV celebrity. What is remarkable to me is how long and how many individual incidents registered with the American public until this one finally is causing the Trump campaign to truly crash. And why?

The list of Trump follies has been growing exponentially in recent weeks. We have seen a man who cannot sling two sentences together and speaks with no filter in a stream of consciousness that offends women, African Americans, Latinos, disabled people, and families of veterans who died in defense of the country. A narcissistic being whose thoughts focus first and foremost of himself. A rich, privileged, spoiled-brat, who always had money and power, and abused it at every opportunity. A man whose business principles include stiffing contractors and ordinary people, because he knows that they cannot afford to sue him in court.

Trump has probably paid little or income tax in many years, and apparently hasn’t given a cent to charity in recent years. He has led the racist birther movement, claiming that President Obama wasn’t born in the US, even after the President showed his birth certificate. He has made outrageous and demeaning statements about women, ranting about their bodies and looks, rating and ranking them like prize cattle. He has called woman “disgusting,”  “fat pigs” and “slobs.” He goes on frequent Twitter rampages attacking anyone who dares criticize him, particularly women.

And yet-and yet- despite this very partial list of his egregious behaviors, Trump has, until recently, received support from about 40% of likely voters in the US. How is that possible? And why only now, are Republican leaders beginning to abandon ship?

Statistician, blogger, and head of the “538” website Nate Silver, wrote just now that had Trump been up by 5-6% in the polls, rather than down by that margin (as he is–or was–just before the video tape broke), it’s quite possible that we would not be seeing so many rats jumping a sinking ship.

With regard to the questions I penned above: Why (until now) ~40% support? The US is a polarized society, with roughly 50% of the electorate supporting democrats, and 50% supporting republicans. I won’t get into the history of this, but it’s fair to say that the Republican Party is also polarized from within. The so-called Tea Party, or more conservative branch of the Republican Party may include up to 50% of the Republicans. Anywhere from 30-50%. Hard-core enthusiastic Trump supporters may also comprise up to 50% of the Republican base, and probably include a large segment of the Tea Party group. I believe that with this base of core supporters, nothing that Trump will say or do will change their minds. It is the other half of the Republicans–still supporting Trump (until now), who are beginning to rethink their support. Until now, they have rationalized their decision by maintaining that a vote for the democrats will help elect a democratic supreme court and democratic agenda–which is more important than the integrity of the president. However, the absolute vulgarity–not to mention likely illegal behavior–exhibited on prime time television, has begun to sway the tide.

We have heard so many Trump-invented conspiracy theories: The “birther” conspiracy, the delegitimization of highly popular President Obama by fabricating stories that he was born abroad (even after he produced a birth certificate), that the elections are “rigged” against Trump, that the media has been unfair to Trump (the media has been far too patient). The list goes on and on. So now it is time for the ultimate conspiracy.

I may have been correct about Trump causing a civil war within the Republican party–but what if–what if–WHAT If TRUMP and his ascension to the Republican Party presidential nominee IS MERELY A TRICK PERPETRATED BY THE DEMOCRATS TO GET HILARY CLINTON ELECTED?

Stew on that one, Trump campaign…

 

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Sanexit would make Brexit look like child’s play

For months I have been avoiding a critical civic duty, and have abstained from writing about the political situation in the US. Not from a lack of conviction or interest in the situation. No, I find myself obsessed with the presidential race–so much so, that I check 8 different poll aggregates multiple times a day, to try to reassure myself. But I am not reassured.

Another reason I have not written on the situation to date is that there is a feeling that what more can be said?! We have a candidate, Mr. Trump, who (it has been said, accurately) lies every time his lips move. Mr. Trump tosses around incredible conspiracy theories–such as one that President Obama wasn’t born in the US and therefore is not a legitimate president, or that if he loses in the upcoming race, it is only because Secretary Clinton cheats and rigs the elections. He is utterly ignorant of international affairs, and too lazy to read, learn or pay attention to briefings. Worse yet, he points to his ignorance pridefully, maintaining that his (very debatable) business acumen will suffice. In the same breath, he will tell the public that he knows more about the Islamic State than the generals, and that he has all the solutions. Trust him. He’ll make it right. So fast, your head will spin. Like hell…

So much has been said, by so many, that my words are just a drop in the bucket. Perhaps the ocean. Or perhaps, keeping with the proper metaphor, a drop in the sewage tank. He has been described as having grandiose narcissistic behavior. Hundreds of former high ranking Republican officials, including the most recent Republican presidents and presidential nominees have refused to endorse him and stated that his candidacy is a danger to the United States. Centrist New York Times journalist, Tom Friedman, who has advocated for years that a stronger US needs more cooperation between Democrats and Republicans and a strong center, has simply described Mr. Trump as “a despicable human being.” Again, what more can I add?!

The last straw, the one that broke me and induced me to sit down today and spill my guts, was a minor one, in the scheme of things. A simple Tweet put out by Mr. Trump on Friday morning, but one that showcases who he is and how he behaves:

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First, Mika happens to be the name of my daughter. So while that has nothing to do with the matter at hand, it managed to draw this particular characteristic and highly offensive tweet to my attention.

Is this the type of leadership, the role model for our children and our nation that we want? A man who did not know that the Russians invaded Crimea, and had no idea what Brexit was until he landed in Scotland the day of the referendum, has ample time to watch cable news on television and respond insultingly to every perceived slight? A man who has called women “fat pigs” and when asked which women would be suitable for his future cabinet, could not come up with a single name except for that of his own daughter?

I could go on indefinitely. Every one of his numerous lies, ugly and childish insults, bigoted and false statements, narcissistic ego-filled blustery comments and crazy conspiracy theories would be enough to sink any serious candidate. But that has not happened. Yet.

The exit from sanity, or Sanexit, that a Trump presidency would be akin to pushing us back to the middle ages. This is no longer a race between Democrat and Republican, between trickle-down economics vs breaks for the poor and middle class. It is not a contest between those who believe in the freedom of a woman to have an abortion against those who believe that life begins at conception. It is not a fight between those favoring stricter gun-control laws and those who oppose them. Nor is it a battle between those who want the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to impose stronger regulations on businesses and those who would disband the EPA. This election will go far beyond any such “minor” issues, and go to the heart of American society. This election will determine if the majority of Americans want rational, sane government, or whether their frustration is so great that they would put control of the country in the hands of an egotistic bully whose ignorance knows no bounds, and whose insults don’t either.

Only time will tell, and I will update over the next few months with my humble analysis on the situation. But for now, I need to get back and check the polls…

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Flowers for Algae-non?

I am delighted to report that I am now happily entrenched in my new environment–just 2 miles west of my previous home–here at the western edge of the city of Omaha. “Chez Ginger,” as we have named our new place (after Ginger the dog), came from a desire of an already-suburban midwest family to live in close proximity of walking paths.

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Ginger et moi

Indeed, we were extremely fortunate to find a home backing onto a small lake–or a large pond, rather–that ties in to a system of trails with short links and both west and east to larger lakes with trails.

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Our lake/pond, as seen from our back deck

We have already seen dramatic changes in the biology (flora and fauna) in our new environment, despite the proximity. The open space of the lake is less hospitable to woodpeckers and warblers (which we miss!)–but of course we have traded them for sparrows, cormorants, herons, geese, ducks and wild turkeys.

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Overall, we are having a great time exploring our new area, which borders on woods and farmland. The one issue that has become a bit of an eye-sore is the algal bloom on the lake.

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Large areas of the lake are now covered in this phytoplankton. In reading up on the problem, it turns out that this is fairly common for bodies of fresh water that have minimal water movement; while the lake is a coalescence of two streams that run into a larger low-lying area (that has been dammed), the water flow is slow. There is a fountain that has been installed to stir up movement, provide oxygen and increase the likelihood of healthy fauna (fish, ducks, geese and other water fowl. However, run-off from the neighborhood, apparently from those who apply fertilizers to their gardens/lawns, creates a nutrient-rich atmosphere that, combined with the excessive global-warming-derived heat, leads to this algal bloom. Drastic treatments may endanger the fish and other water wildlife, so it was decided to take a cautious approach with minimal intervention, and hope for a respite in the coming season.

For now, I try to enjoy the view when the algae get blown to the other end of the lake–and I wait (not impatiently) for the seasons to change, with great curiosity to see how the lake will freeze come December.

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Paid overtime for post-docs? Implications!

A new rule issued by the US Department of Labor, scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 1, 2016, is likely to have a major impact on the structure of the biomedical research enterprise in this country. This rule, which was designed to provide help to those at the lower end of the pay scale, has raised the threshold that absolves employers from paying overtime from around $24,000 a year to $47,476 a year.

What does this mean? Currently, it is not required for an employer to pay overtime for any worker earning less than ~$24,000 a year. Accordingly, post-doctoral fellows in the US, whose NIH-recommended salaries begin in the lower $40,000 range do not qualify for overtime. Post-docs who are not at the NIH—particularly those who live and work in less expensive areas of the country, often earn considerably less. The scale could be in the mid-to-high 30K for the midwest or periphery (at least for a starting position). By the current overtime rules, these post-docs still earn well above the $24,000/year threshold, and therefore are also ineligible for overtime pay.

However, with the change in the rules Dec. 1, even post-docs earning $45,000/year will now need to be paid overtime for any work that goes beyond an 8 hour day and 5 day work-week. For many of us who put in 6-7 day weeks, often with 60-80 hours physically in the lab (not to mention reading, writing and thinking science at home) during our post-doctoral stints (and graduate days), a 40 hour work-week just doesn’t seem sufficient to compete in today’s highly competitive world. A post-doc working such hours and intending to obtain a tenure-track position will be at a significant disadvantage if he/she is forbidden from spending more time in the lab or working at home to abide by labor regulations, AND to avoid the employer (i.e., the principal investigator) from having to pay overtime. On top of these serious concerns comes the virtual impossibility of clocking work when dedicated researchers read at home on the computer, pencil ideas on napkins during dinner, and make finger-drawn diagrams in the steam on the shower door.

What is the alternative? Raising salaries so that post-docs meet the $47,476/year threshold, and that no overtime pay is necessary. In fact, this is really the only solution, since overtime pay would be practically impossible to enforce.

The problem? I am all in favor of better wages for post-docs and students. However, not only are grants in this country harder and harder to obtain and maintain—but they have not increased with the cost of living in the 13 years since I have been a principal investigator. The cost of research materials and reagents goes up every year. Serum for cell culture has risen to ~$400 for a 500 ml bottle! It’s hard to purchase an antibody for under $400. Students stipends have gone up to ~$25,000, and post-doctoral fellowship stipends have almost doubled since I was a post-doc (between 1998-2003). The starting post-doc stipend at NIH was about $22,000 in 1998—less than a student earns today.

Don’t get me wrong—this is progress! But the problem is that the funding situation has not progressed at all in parallel. It has worsened. And as a result, I predict that while post-docs will soon earn more when they attain their position, I suspect that many fewer researchers will be able to afford a post-doctoral fellow. This means that most likely, post-doctoral positions will be far more competitive to obtain.

Is this all bad? Truthfully, I don’t know. Many claim that we train too many post-docs for too few faculty and biotech positions. Others think that the post-doctoral position awards a final chance for those who may not have succeeded as well they intended as graduate students to prove themselves as highly capable researchers. But in an era where post-doctoral positions are few and far in between—and with attempts to have students graduate timely within 5 years—there may no longer be second chances, and this may increase the pressure on student trainees to be highly productive.

 

 

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