Another school shooting–will anything change?

It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep one’s nose to the grindstone and carry on in America of 2018 as though everything is okay. That’s because it isn’t.

I have to be optimistic—and despite Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s wariness of optimists in his great book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” I remain optimistic on several accounts. Just as an aside, Kahneman noted in his book that he never met a scientist without an optimistic and over-inflated view of the significance of his/her project. Point taken.

Why and how can I be optimistic when 17 teens were just gunned down by a 19-year old who legally purchased a semi-automatic assault rifle? Yes, it’s hard. But I feel that change is coming. Slowly. Surely. And guess what? Guess what may be catalyzing the rate of change in this country? Still guessing? How about a narcissistic, ignorant and highly unqualified president, with below level intelligence, and the ethics of a 3rd-world country dictator. And did I mention small hands?

Yes. The same man who needs cue cards to try and fool people that he feels empathy for others. Empathy? Narcissists only empathize with themselves. The little cue cards, photographed in his little hands and blown up to show was written, show-cased his mental acuity, introspection and tremendous empathy:  “I hear you” and “What do you want me to know about your experience?” This probably reflects what we’re dealing with in the White House as much as anything else the public has seen in the last crazy year.

This less-than-stable and certainly a far cry below-average-intelligence-president, has proposed, in the wake of another horrible school shooting—as his solution—to arm teachers with guns. And the net result, I predict, will be a rallying cry for change that has not been possible for many years. In other words, in the aftermath of such a terrible president, we will be getting a regression to the mean…

Why is this such a terrible idea, the arming of teachers in schools? After all, in a raving, ranting speech in front of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), National Rifle Association (NRA) president Wayne LaPierre not only supported this idea, but also accused anyone other than himself of being a European socialist (that European jibe—really gets those nationalist juices flowing) and a traitor to (white) American ideals—if the 1950s were a good time for you. It’s worth listening to the speech just to see how out of whack he is with reality. But back to the idea of arming teachers.

First, it seems that the whole notion of arming teachers is an exercise in distraction—from the number one issue and most obvious problem that we have: the availability of assault-style guns for purchase. Let’s leave aside hunting rifles and personal hand-guns and focus on these assault rifles: what rationale is there for them to be sold? Such rifles are made for the military, not self protection or hunting. Their only purpose is to kill as many people as rapidly as possible. Why would any-law abiding citizen think such a weapon should be available outside the military? So why are they even sold in this country? They are illegal in every other western democracy.

I witnessed Senator Marco Rubio argue against banning them. Why? Because he maintains that a ban would not block the sale of 200 other types of very similar types of weapons with similar capabilities. At least Rubio addressed the problem—but what a silly argument! The father of slain high-schooler Jaimie Guttenberg, Fred Guttenberg, possessed immense personal courage and responsibility for the future of children in this country when he replied to Rubio in a town hall meeting after the Florida school massacre: “So ban them too!” Is it really that complicated? And can anyone deny the irrationality of selling such weapons? The so-called 2nd amendment aficionados know that “the right to self defense” does not include the purchase of a bazooka, a grenade launcher, mortars, tanks, or artillery pieces. Or for that matter, nerve gas or weaponized anthrax. Do we even have to spell out “common sense?!”

In addition to major changes in gun control, I agree that other issues should also be addressed. Obviously mental health comes to mind, data bases and background checks for any weapons, and so on. But guns for teachers? Let’s examine that more carefully.

In the little Trump brain, he envisions a heavily armed attacker coming into a school, firing indiscriminately with an assault rifle in every direction, and a teacher materializing out of a classroom to neutralize the gunman. Presto. Really? I think someone needs to wean him off television. Or better yet, lead him out of the Oval Office.

Such a scenario, of an armed teacher being able neutralize a gunman with an assault rifle in the midst of a horrific and chaotic attack is extremely unlikely Even a trained guard outside the Florida school failed to act and prevent or limit the tragedy in real time. Trump called him a “coward–” easy said, coming from Mr. Bone Spurs, who never served in the military. But the truth is that until tested in combat, it is difficult to know how even the very best-trained soldiers will react or perform. Don’t believe me? Just go back and read Kahneman’s book, on the section about the difficulties in predicting successful future army officers.

I served 3 years in the military. Only the most intense basic training, including how to react after significant sleep deprivation and having responses drilled into one’s very being, help prepare one for a combat-like situation. And this is on the battlefield—where one knows and identifies where the enemy is and where they are coming from. The training I received doesn’t even compare to that received by special-forces—which can number several years—and would be needed to reach the level required for successful action in such a complex scenario as a school attack. How could one possibly think that a teacher, even with some basic training (and shooting accuracy is only a small part of what training would need to be), could possibly move into a smoke-filled corridor, packed with screaming students and teachers, horrific noise, and identify and accurately neutralize a shooter? Wishful thinking, I’m sorry to say.

None of these issues take into consideration many of the other problems with this idea: the cost of arming teachers, the emotional and educational impact of having teachers with guns on the students and school atmosphere, the safety issues of having weapons circulating in a school (potential negligence/errors in teacher judgment), and so on. Because in any case, this is just a stupid idea.

So why do I remain optimistic? Because Trump, in his narcissistic stupidity and lack of empathy is generating a slow tidal wave—a tsunami perhaps—among the younger generation, and causing people the younger generation in particular to abandon inert and lethargic lives in favor of new found activism. The tide is turning, and beware to those who inhabit or pretend to dry swamps.

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Even scientists have birthdays

Scientist bday

What do you get for a scientist who has everything? Except, perhaps, all the grants and papers he wants….

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This is NOT the America I know

This is NOT the America I know

I am an American by birth, although until the age of 34, I never lived in the United States except as a baby. Thus, I am here by choice. And I am saddened by what Donald Trump has done to this country—because this is NOT the America I know.

I did not choose Donald Trump. I did not choose his “Shithole version of America.” I did not choose his overt racism and bigotry. I did not choose his favorable attitude to white supremacists. I did not choose his incessant and often ridiculous lies. I did not choose his narcissistic ways and complete lack of empathy for anyone other than himself. I did not choose his cruelty. I did not choose his personal attacks on individuals from the office of the president. I did not choose his inherent bullying nature. I did not choose his crudeness or vulgarity, and his attacks on women and their appearance. I did not choose his attacks on Mexicans or Haitians, and I did not choose his contempt for African American sports stars. I did not choose his failure to understand the constitution. I did not choose his failure to comprehend the meaning of free speech. I did not choose his attacks on the press. I did not choose his ignorance, his lack of morality, his complete inability to grasp complex concepts, and his non-existent attention span. I did not choose his bragging. I did not choose his cronyism. I did not choose his corruptness. I did not choose his nepotism. I did not choose his tendency to make every issue, first and foremost about himself. I did not choose the way he brings out the very worst in the people of this country. And most importantly, the majority of American voters did not choose Donald Trump.

It is necessary for me to reassure myself, and explain what I DID choose, and why I did come back to the United States for my adult life. Trump’s America is NOT the America that I see. I chose a country that rewards hard work and sacrifice. I chose a country where people are respected for their work ethic (regardless of their job) and their kind behavior to others. I chose a country made up of immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants from around the globe. I chose a country where people are equal before the law, and where all are free to practice their own religions or belief systems (as long as they do not impose them or interfere with the rights of others). I chose a country of tolerance. I chose a country where my children went to a multi-cultural pre-school with children from a variety of nations and religions, who had every conceivable shade of skin color, and diversity was celebrated. I chose a country where science was encouraged and respected. A country that other countries worried would attract their best people and cause a brain-drain. I chose a country filled with people who are the most philanthropic in the world. I chose a country that respects the rule of law, the court system, and judges. A country that has and respects a free press. I chose a country that sends aid to less fortunate countries and people, a country that helps other countries when they have crises, national disasters, and refugees. I chose a country whose people are courteous, kind and helpful.

I never considered any of the reasons for my choosing the United States to be partisan, relating to one party or another. I always considered these reasons as values held by and large by the majority of Americans; I STILL do. It’s time for the people of this country to unite—not regarding political issues such as taxes and healthcare and other legitimately debatable issues—but on one very specific point: the ignorant, malevolent, narcissist in the White House, Donald Trump, is concerned only with his own immediate gratification and self-adulation.  All good people in this country must unite to reject the degradation of the presidency and the ruination of American values and morals, and everything that is good in this nation.

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Run with Science, Dr. Julia Biggins!

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Dr. Julia Biggins, Democratic candidate for Representative of Virginia’s 10th District

One of the few positive outcomes of the Trump presidency, is that some people have become so fed up with the quality of those in elected office, that they are willing to leave careers that they love behind in order to challenge and replace some of the appalling current politicians in Congress. Indeed, I have read that there is a new trend of scientists who have decided to run for political office.

According to a recent CNN article, a handful of candidates who are either active scientists or physicians, have decided to place themselves on the ballot to combat the damaging anti-science and anti-truth White House. The “war on science” begins, first and foremost, with a brutal assault on the truth. As the administration tells full-out lies at an amazing rate, and brandishes its communications machinery to support those lies (which include the size Trump’s inauguration, whether Trump won the popular vote, whether the election was a ‘landslide,’ whether Obama wiretapped Trump at his home—just to bring a few early examples of the lies), they use the absurd Orwellian method of claiming that those reporting the truth (journalists and the media) are “fake.” Call others what you yourself are. Just like the “No puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet!” tic-like bellow by Mr. Trump in his debate with Mrs. Clinton, when she argued that he was acting like a Putin puppet. If you call others what you really are, then that absolves you of your sins, and places them on others. Or so a stable genius thinks…

But the war on science goes beyond the broad attack on the truth. Trump’s pick for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director, Scott Pruitt, has been especially damaging to science and the quality of the environment in this country. A climate-change denier, Pruitt has done everything he can to prevent EPA scientists from publishing data on climate change, attending meetings, etc. There has been an exodus of scientists from the EPA, and Pruitt has pushed to overturn regulations that until now prevented dangerous toxins that can cause childhood cancers from being used.

In addition, the Trump administration called for a 20% cut in funding to the National Institutes of Health, showing not only a lack of concern for the development of new drugs and treatments for diseases that afflict the American people, but also a lack of understanding of how scientific research is an economic engine that has helped the US become (and stay) a global leader. At least until now.

Of course, let us not forget that the Trump administration recently put a ban on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and forbid this institute from using such tainted and terrible words, as “evidence-based, science-based, fetus, transgender, vulnerable, etc.,” in their upcoming budget. The words ‘science-based’ in a budget for the CDC? How inappropriate! Only an administration bent on destroying science and truth could possibly dream up banning the use of these words!

For these reasons, I was delighted to read that an active scientist, Dr. Julia Biggins, has signed on to run for Representative of Virginia’s 10th district as a Democrat in the 2018 mid-term elections! Dr. Biggins is an infectious disease researcher, and she has noted that not only will she fight for science and against the current administration’s anti-science policies, but she will bring all of her scientific training to Congress to fight for rational and common-sense policies to the complex issues facing this country.

I cannot stress how much respect and credit Dr. Biggins deserves for her willingness to step into the quagmire of federal politics. To leave behind what was undoubtedly years and years of training and dedication to her field to hopefully provide much-needed support for the rest of American scientists shows that she has broad vision and commitment to the scientific enterprise as a whole. I am certain that she will do a spectacular job if elected, and will fulfill an urgent need to bring “science-based,” “evidence-based,” and “truth-based” discussion back into the national discourse. Run, Julia, run! You have earned my support.

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Reversing Copernicus

copernicusre

The revolutionary advance in our understanding of the universe, as proposed by Copernicus.

Donald Trump heads the single most anti-science administration that has ever set foot in the White House. It is fortunate that this self-centered, narcissistic personality, who born with a golden spoon in his vulgar mouth, has a Congress that still appreciates the value of science.

Long before stepping into the White House, this abominable president has been a disaster for science in the United States; he has transformed the Environmental Protection Agency into a climate-change deniers paradise, turned back the clock on pollution and regulations aimed at keeping our water drinkable and our air breathable, and proposed a ~20% cut to biomedical research. Fortunately Congress ignored his proposal and continued to modestly increase funding for biomedical research. But make no mistake; damage is being done.

So many of the terrible decisions being made are counter to any logic, and so absolutely insane that one wonders how anyone could possibly propose them. For example, the over-turning of a ban on a chemical fertilizer that is known to cause cancer in children and birth defects. Why? I mean really! Does anyone want their children or grandchildren to become ill with cancer? Just so the White House can say that they “deregulated” regulations made during the Obama period? Only a sick-souled person could do such a thing without his conscience affecting him.

It is no coincidence that science is “on the run” during the Trump administration. So is journalism and any honest inquiry aimed at divulging the truth. It seems that this is a type of ill-thought-out strategy, with the Orwellian type of idea that if everything is challenged, attacked, separated to left and right along partisan terms–then nothing has any absolute truth any more. Thus allowing the president to counter, for example, allegations of sexual misconduct as merely “fake news” propagated by his political enemies.

The most recent and horrific example of this Orwellian attack on truth is the Trump administration’s attempt to ban the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from using a variety of terms in their 2018 budget request. Which terms, you ask? Here they are:

SCIENCE-BASED

EVIDENCE-BASED

VULNERABLE

ENTITLEMENT

DIVERSITY

TRANSGENDER

FETUS

Tough words, aren’t they? You wouldn’t want your children to voice them, would you?

A scientific center that is the number one agency to deal with diseases, like Zika virus, that can affect the fetus, wouldn’t want to do science-based and evidence-based research to protect vulnerable people?

In reading through my Twitter-feed, one fed-up tweeter wrote that we should remember this ridiculous ban when the Trump administration demands that we allow Neo-Nazis the right of free speech.

I’m sorry, but this has to be one of the scariest consequences of electing a thoroughly incompetent (and corrupt) president. If the US were not such a strong and overall good country, able to run on “autopilot” despite interference from the White House, we’d be in worse trouble.

Are we trying to reverse Copernicus?

What’s next, gravity?

 

 

 

 

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A Sad Sign of the Times

This past week, my graduate student, my post-doctoral fellow, and I flew out to Philadelphia for the annual American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) meeting. This 2017 meeting was my 20th year as an ASCB member, and marks 20 years since I first attended the ASCB meeting in Washington DC, 1997, when I came to present my research and simultaneously interview for post-doctoral positions.

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Shuwei and Trey at their posters.

The ASCB meetings, while continuing to be a highlight for me, have evolved greatly along with my career. In the earlier days, the poster presentation and speeding through the enormous poster hall to visit other posters was always the most exciting part. Feedback at one’s poster–positive or negative–was extremely helpful, and there was a certain thrill to having strangers scrutinize my work.

Today, meetings are very different for me. First, being a cell biologist on a campus with a primary focus in cancer and other disease-related or translational research, this is my opportunity to show my younger co-workers that our field is not obsolete, and that we belong to a wider community of researchers who DO have a keen interest in our fundamental research. It’s an eye-opening experience for my younger students when they attend their first meeting, and realize that there is an entire community “out there” that doesn’t merely say “nice work, but what impact does that have on cancer,” and truly shows appreciation for our studies.

In addition, I find myself suddenly, a “mere” 20 years later, among the older attendees at the meeting. Clearly, ASCB is a young person’s meeting, and I guess that the mean age would be at least 15 years below mine. I suppose that if I want to feel younger, I can always attend the symphony, where the average age is still safely 15 years northward of mine…

Another intriguing thing about ASCB is that over the years, I have picked up responsibilities. As a member of the ASCB Public Policy Committee (PPC), we had a 3-hour annual meeting–and while incredibly important, it unfortunately fell during the time that 3 extraordinarily great researchers were giving talks.

Even the fabled poster sessions are no longer what they used to be. Once, as an anonymous young student who knew almost no one in the field, I could wander happily from poster to poster with no interruptions. Today, (and no complaints) I find myself being stopped dozens of times by friends, acquaintances and long-lost colleagues, often making it impossible to actually get to the next poster. But then, that becomes the purpose of these meetings, meeting old friends and chatting about science. Sometimes terrific collaborations ensue, even if I never actually make it to the next poster.

Sadly, I noticed another not-so-positive change. All ASCB meetings have traditionally been packed with exhibitors and vendors from all companies that sell scientific reagents: antibodies, inhibitors, equipment, microscopes, books, etc. Journals and the National Institutes of Health typically have booths with opportunities to meet editors and scientific liaisons. However, this time, I noticed a booth that I had never seen before: one for immigration lawyers. I am not belittling these lawyers (although lawyers do deserve belittling in general), but I have never before noticed immigration lawyers peddling their services to international scientists at this meeting. I know that perhaps this is helpful to foreign-born scientists working in the US, but to me, this was a sad sign of the times that the current administration is driving talented and good people away from the US.

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Prayer works–or does it? Shall we ask the murdered?

No sooner had I penned my piece exposing the hypocrisy and weak-kneed leadership of Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, when he has made new headlines with another smug, holier-than-thou, awful and divisive statement–that is also wrong.

Following the horrific church shooting in a small Texan town, in which at least 26 people were murdered by rapid gun fire, Mr. Ryan was criticized for his now- standard response that “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Many Americans, however, are unimpressed with the hollow words–that tend to follow every gun-related massacre–and have criticized Mr. Ryan saying that thoughts and prayers are not enough.

Mr. Ryan replied in the following manner:

“It’s disappointing, it’s sad, and this is what you’ll get from the far secular left. People who do not have faith don’t understand faith, I guess I’d have to say. And it is the right thing to do is to pray in moments like this, because you know what? Prayer works. And I know you believe that, and I believe that and when you hear the secular left doing this thing, it’s no wonder you have so much polarization and disunity in this country when people think like that.”

Really? The secular left is the problem? The ones who are “polarizing” everything?

Mr. Ryan, please take note: for thousands of years people have been praying to one entity or another. Idols, the sun, the moon, polytheism, monotheism–take your pick. For thousands of years people have continued to die from hunger, disease, accidents and murder. People have died during civil wars, in the Holocaust in gas chambers, in Rwanda and in Syria. People continue to pray. And die of cancer and heart disease. Children and refugees continue to suffer around the world. And you say prayer works? For whom? For those who have lost their lives? Or just for you–making you feel better?

For many of the issues still causing suffering across the globe there are no easy answers. For mass gun murders, there are also no easy answers. There are, however, rational steps that can be taken to decrease the likelihood or deadliness of these events. Even if these measures, related to common sense gun control, ‘only’ prevent one such massacre (rather than all of them), evidence still shows that this will be more helpful–to the potential victims–than prayers.

Speaker Ryan, it’s time to get off your pew–and your smug high-horse–and use your position to push for common sense measures to protect the children of this country. Pray all you want, if it makes you feel better–but DO SOMETHING to ensure that others feel better.

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Paul Ryan, it’s time to go home

It has now been a full year since the elections that brought a morally reprehensible person into the White House. By now, any remaining negligible hope that the man who was elected president might “pivot” and show even a semblance of the type of moral leadership expected from the holder of this position has drowned in the swamp that he so hypocritically vows to drain.

In the course of the elections, we were met with an occasional and largely insincere smattering of spineless criticism from the Republican leadership, every now and then. After release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tapes, in which Trump prided himself in forcing himself on women and being able to grab them by the genitals, there was a short period of silence from Republican leaders. Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz even went as far as to rescind his support, noting that with a 15 year old daughter, he couldn’t bring himself to support Trump. Interestingly, in the aftermath, he managed to forget about his daughter fairly quickly. It’s remarkable how sparingly that principles, integrity, honor and courage are related to politics these day.

Arguably the most morally bankrupt Republican politician today is Paul Ryan.  This man, who once stood as a vice presidential candidate for an honorable man, Mitt Romney, has lost any shred of respect that I once had for him. Following the very most revolting comments and behaviors of Trump, Ryan occasionally–when pressed and appearing as though in a hostage video–surfaces to make a weak statement. The man who noted that Trump made a “textbook racist comment” continues to support him to this day. Why? Tax reform, of course. Isn’t it obvious?

What Ryan fails to understood, as is fitting for a man lacking any moral courage, is that however one feels about tax reform–he is selling out the country by supporting a president who does not respect our democracy.

How many times will Trump attack American judges before Ryan speaks out against him? How many times will Ryan and the weak Republican leadership fail to reprimand a president who continuously complains about the FBI and the Department of Justice, and sees fit to interfere with ongoing investigations? Does Ryan–and his fellow leaders on the hill–not understand that taxes are meaningless in comparison to the threat to our unique democracy? I will accept ANY kind of tax system that congress and leaders agree on–as long as we prevent our democracy from sliding toward the type of autocratic system that the president is pushing for. But our system of justice and equality must be protected. And Ryan is asleep at the wheel.

It is time for Ryan to step down and allow Republican leaders who value moral clarity to take his place. There comes a time when not speaking out can only be viewed as endorsement–and by supporting morally reprehensible behavior, by default, one becomes morally reprehensible.

 

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A danger to science and so much more

Recent polls demonstrate that a shocking number of Americans believe ridiculous conspiracy theories. For example, nearly 1/3 of Americans believe that the Federal Drug Administration in the US deliberately withholds new drugs that target cancer from the American public. In addition, a full 25% of Americans still believe that former US President Obama was not born in the US (the “birther conspiracy”). Many also believe that the US government itself caused the horrible deaths of thousands on Sept. 11, 2001, or even that the whole event never occurred. And our current president is a major proponent of a variety of such conspiracy theories, especially the one about President Obama’s place of birth.

It needs to be said clearly that truth is objective, not subjective. It is not an opinion. 2 + 2 will always equal 4, and no amount of BS from artists like Kellyanne Conway or Sean Spicer (supporters of the “Alternative Facts” movement) will change that. Hydrogen has a single proton. Conway, Spicer, Trump or anyone else can say it has 2, or 10 or 1000–that will not change the truth of the matter. Just as they can say that Trump’s inauguration was the largest ever–when data shows that it wasn’t. It will not change the truth. Similarly, climate change is real. You can “believe” climate change is not happening all you want–that won’t change the truth, just as you can believe 2+2=5. Belief has nothing to do with truth.

The massive number of people who are gullible enough to fall for these conspiracy theories is extremely worrisome, and bears careful consideration. I break up the US population into 3 segments: 1) Those that go by evidence (scientists, mathematicians, teachers, academics, journalists, and essentially anyone who has been trained to think critically). 2) Those that are gullible and will ‘believe’ conspiracy theories. 3) Those who know that the conspiracy theories are BS, but propagate them to their own advantage (politically and otherwise).

Of these groups, ethically the worst are the propagators–Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicers and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, along with the enablers (the Mitch McConnells and Paul Ryans)–all of whom know that they are spouting lies and nonsense that has no evidential basis, and yet do so for supposed political gain.

The massive number of people drawn towards conspiracy theories and other debunked nonsense presents a clear and present danger to this country and to democracy in general. It also makes science an almost impossible feat; when such a large segment of the population is stuck in the middle-ages of truth, how can science proceed? How can people appreciate scientific evidence when fact has lost its meaning?

It is difficult to stop these promoters of lies and vicious conspiracies, especially when they appear to get away with their crimes. There is only one tried and true way–that is to start from the “bottom up” and slowly but surely teach children and adolescents critical thinking in school.

Children must be taught the difference between objective facts and opinions–and that “believing a fact” is nonsense. One doesn’t believe in facts–a fact is a fact, period. No ifs and buts. And children need to understand what makes a fact a fact, and what precludes a fact.

This is an emergency; if there is not sufficient emphasis placed on ensuring that the next generation can differentiate between facts and BS, then democracy will lose its meaning. And science will become the first victim.

 

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Why we need to better educate the public about science–and stop bill “S. 1973, The Basic Research Act”

The 20th and 21st centuries have arguably been the “Golden Age” for science in the US and other developed countries. Within a generation we have gone from people routinely dying as a result of simple bacterial infections to the power of antibiotics in preventing most deaths. We have gone from polio, smallpox and even chickenpox to vaccinations that largely eliminate disease in immunized people. Even many dreaded types of cancers are slowly becoming, in some cases, manageable diseases with the advent of new therapeutics, including the remarkable new chimeric antigen receptor T cell therapy (CAR T) that is based on taking a patient’s T lymphocytes and engineering them to express a protein that selectively attacks the patient’s cancer cells—before returning them to the patient’s bloodstream to take on the cancer cells in battle.

There may be no “magic bullet,” but torrents of sticks and stones, along with researchers who are determined to better understand our natural world, are steadily improving human health. If there had been similar advances (to those in biomedical research and science in general) in preventing war, terror, and discrimination over the past hundred years, the world would be an infinitely better place to live in—as we generally live longer and healthier within it.

Despite these dramatic advances, I am convinced that the public lacks a crucial appreciation of the value of science and scientific research, and just as importantly, there is a lack of understanding how scientific research works. What evidence is there for these claims of mine? First, the White House and administration have been calling for massive (20%!) cuts to the National Institutes of Health, the chief funder of biomedical research. Fortunately, bipartisan support for research in congress has rebelled against these calls and continued its support for science. But now a new proposal threatens science and research from another angle.

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has introduced a new bill (S. 1973, The Basic Research Act) that proposes to fundamentally alter grant review at both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). What is he proposing? That on every grant review panel there be two additional “reviewers:” one who is outside the general field of research who would independently judge which fields are most worthy of funding, while the other panel member would be a “taxpayer advocate” who would be there to ensure that “there’s no silly research that the government has no business funding going on.” Worse yet, for the NSF, there would be a new “Office of the Inspector general and Taxpayer Advocate for Research” that would randomly sift through top-rated proposals that were reviewed to decide if these proposals “deliver value to the taxpayer,” and this office would have absolute veto power over funding of any NSF proposal.

The senator’s proposed bill threatens to seriously undermine and damage the grant review system and research in this country. It is agreed by most researchers that our peer review system isn’t perfect. Just as democracy isn’t perfect (trust me, look at what happens when an intellectually and emotionally unfit person is elected to the highest office). But despite being imperfect, the peer review system still works—even under the highest levels of stress. As a reviewer at NIH, I frequently see that reviewers independently manage to identify strong grants and weak grants. There are relatively few disagreements; where it becomes trickier is separating the very good from the excellent. Can reviewers really discern between a grant that is in the top 8% compared to the top 14%? And are these comparisons mostly subjective? Despite these issues in grant review, which are worsened by insufficient funding in the system (if the top 25% of grants were all funded, these would not be concerns), reviewers do a good and thankless job overall.

Why is Senator Rand’s proposal so damaging to scientific research? Because it illuminates his own ignorance of science and the scientific process. It characterizes his misunderstanding of how scientific advances are made. It ignores the principle that science is built brick-on-brick, and goes from fundamental understanding to applications for diseases. It ignores centuries of knowledge beginning with Darwin, demonstrating that humans are part of an evolutionary ladder, and fails to realize that lower organisms are frequently a very useful tool for scientists to understand how humans function—at physiological, cellular, molecular and atomic levels.

Without basic studies on proteins, their structure and function (would the taxpayer advocate care about protein structure?)—how would we be able to engineer vaccines? Without genetic engineering—coming from the study of bacterial enzymes (would the taxpayer advocate care about bacterial enzymes?), would we be able to edit DNA in cells and reprogram enzyme production in children with human enzyme deficiencies? Without the very same genetic engineering techniques (and again, would the taxpayer advocate care about these things?), we would never have been able to produce insulin for diabetics.

Another fine example: would the taxpayer advocate have thought that it was worth the taxpayers’ money to study how bacteria can acquire resistance to bacterial pathogens (called bacteriophages)? These studies ultimately led to the CRISPR/Cas9 method for targeted gene editing, opening a new era in molecular biology, leading to over 20 new clinical trials to ‘correct’ defective human genes, and likely on route to future Nobel prizes.

The public needs to be better educated about how scientific discoveries are made so that people understand that science is not a parochial system. It is not nationalistic. It is global. One discovery leads to another. There are no artificial boundaries, and science cannot be lumped into useful and wasteful categories. Often times bizarre findings in one field can have a huge impact on another. The identification of enzymes from bacteria at Yellowstone hot springs—enzymes that are resistant to high temperatures—led to revolutionary advances in molecular biology and genetic engineering, and have been the foundation of much of modern medicine. So the public needs to be better educated about how science actually works—so that it refrains from electing senators who threaten the advance of science and biomedical research through their ignorance.

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