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.

ShuweiTrey

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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Thin slicing a thin-skinned president

A wonderful elementary school friend who I haven’t seen for over 40 years recently drew my attention to a Canadian journalist and author named Malcolm Gladwell. I first read his book “Outliers,” a book that examined how the very most successful people in a variety of fields (from computer gurus like Bill Gates, to star hockey players, to airline pilots) managed to climb to the top of their respective disciplines. The overwhelming premise, backed by a slew of fascinating facts and anecdotes, is that skill, intelligence and drive are simply not enough on their own; without being in the right place at the right time (fate, luck, coincidence or whatever), no one would reach the top.

I have since moved on to my second Gladwell book, “Blink.” No less entertaining and original than “Outliers,” “Blink” deals with the notion that people have a relatively unrecognized and poorly understood mechanism for making ‘snap’ judgments, a mechanism that Gladwell claims is often as effective (or even more effective) than ‘traditional’ rational decisions.

I found this argument to be particularly interesting, and although I often pride myself on carefully articulated and cautious judgment, I also know that many of my most important and (accurate) decisions are made very quickly. This is true not only in my personal life, where many times I find that an initial negative impression upon meeting someone is almost inevitably borne out upon closer acquaintance, but also in my professional capacities. The success of a science lab rides on the quality of the personnel—students, postdocs, and technicians. And I feel that I have been fortunate in typically selecting the best of the best, something that has been great for our research.

Gladwell likes to use the phrase “thin slicing” for this type of quick judgment, and gives numerous examples of how people who are good at thin slicing can make immediate and accurate judgments, often without understanding how they are doing so. His examples include identifying forgeries, being able to rapidly assess whether a married couple will remain together, evaluating whether a tennis player will double-fault as he/she prepares to serve, and assessing the teaching of professors after watching them only for several seconds.

One spectacularly successful bit of my own thin slicing, if I do say so myself, was done just a couple years ago during the Republican primaries for the 2016 US elections. Not watching any television, aside from the news and an occasional Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) show, I had never heard the name of one Donald Trump before the primaries. This bit of thin slicing, unconsciously and rapidly evaluating him as a person, must have occurred not in seconds but milliseconds (nanoseconds?)—and my intuitive feelings so strongly indicated that this is a morally compromised and revolting individual, that I am continually in awe of my thin slice judgment with each passing day and each new terrible discovery of the mendacious and narcissistic personality who holds the office of the presidency. If only thin slicing could provide hope and indicate when this awful person will finally disappear from public life for the good of the country.

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Corruption is contagious: just ask the former US Health and Human Services Secretary

This week, as Caribbean Islands including Puerto Rico are struggling from the horrific effects of Hurricane Maria, as running water and electricity have all but disappeared, and as the first rumors of possible cholera have emerged from the rubble, America’s rich spoiled brat took to the airwaves to criticize those “Sons of bitches” who dared to kneel in protest against discrimination. In the meantime, as the spoiled brat flew off to one of his fancy golf clubs, he took time to attack the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, describing her, in his classic misogynist manner, as “nasty,” eerily as he did to Hilary Clinton.

We seem to flounder from crisis to crisis in this country, hanging by a presidential tweet, with our tolerance for disgust being continuously immunized with every passing day. The president seems to be that blind squirrel, but one who never manages to find an occasional nut. Or the dog, who is always on the wrong side of the door. Is there any issue that he ever manages to come out looking like a leader, one who has empathy for anything other than his own ego? Well, there’s a rhetorical question.

Underscoring all this “winning” (perhaps he meant whining?) that the president promised the country (you’ll get tired of all the winning, believe me!) the country is being run by a cluster of fellow rich spoiled brat millionaires and billionaires, none of whom seem to understand that rules apply to them, and that they are supposed to be looking out for the good of the country. Not their own egos and comfort. But of course, corruption and spoiled-brattedness (yes, I just coined a new phrase) are contagious. And an infected president has infected his cabinet and inner circle.

Yesterday, the American Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price, resigned (or more accurately, was forced to resign). Price, who just loved to talk about his commitment to the American taxpayer and the terrible waste flying in private jets  resigned in the wake of a scandal uncovered in a series of articles by diligent Politico reporters Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan about—you guessed it: wasting taxpayers money by flying on private jets .

Price took at least 24 chartered jets across the US, including a ~$25,000 return flight between DC and Philadelphia, which would have cost about $72 for a return Acela fast-train and would most likely have delivered Price more quickly to his destinations. All in all, including the chartering of military jets for overseas flights that he could have flown commercially for a mere fraction of the cost, Price racked up around $1,000,000 in costs just since March/April! He should be proud—that’s probably record government waste, for Mr. Fiscal-Responsibility.

What is especially alarming is the context of the waste, as James Hohmann of the Washington Post points out. Before his fortunate early forced retirement, Price was a big proponent of cutting research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by almost 20% in 2018, noting that the research is not efficient enough (wasteful?). Sure—it pales with the need for private jets! Just for some personal context, the average NIH grant, which has not increased in its amount over the last 20 years, is at about $1,000,000 in direct costs to the research lab over a 4-5 year period. That keeps a principal investigator, several graduate students, a technician and perhaps a postdoctoral fellow employed and active in basic and clinical research, all of which lead to improved health and economic growth. By contrast, what does the American public gain from a private jet flight by the Health and Human Services Secretary between DC and Philadelphia? Go figure…

More context: The history of the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing is long and convoluted, and it is not my intention to wade into the controversy over patents and who first made the crucial discoveries. Suffice to say that after fundamental findings probably dating back to the mid-1990s, over a brief period of time beginning around 2012, several investigators (most prominent among them Doudna  and Zhang , recognized and developed the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system as a method that could be used to edit genes in human cells. A mere 4 years later, an article in the New Scientist reports on more than 20 clinical trial involving technology derived from the CRISPR/Cas9 technology . Indeed, the online NIH Reporter tool shows that Dr. Zhang is funded for ~$1,095,702 for a grant focused on CRISPR/Cas9 technology. Dr. Doudna is listed as also funded for a grant-center at about $2,000,000 to study this technology. And what was the contribution of the leader of the NIH and former Health and Human Services Secretary Price? Wasting a million dollars that could have gone to brilliant and hard-working researchers to support health and advance science.

Fortunately, the arrogant Health Secretary has now been dismissed. But I seriously doubt that his replacement, if not already infected by the contagious corruption of the Trump-swamp, will be able to hold his/her head above the stinky waters for long, especially as the president has opened the dams of the sewage reservoir.

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Diversity skips African Americans in science

On a recent grant review panel, I was struck at the degree of diversity among the reviewers  at the table; with roughly twenty scientists in the group, I noted people who who hailed from at least nine different countries (not including the US) and four continents, spanning Europe, Asia and the globe. I found this to be a remarkable feat; almost half of the reviewers on the panel–scientists who were considered to be sufficiently established to help make important decisions about the future of US science–came from outside the US.

grant review

In an era where the president of the US avidly rejects the need to invigorate and rejuvenate this country with new blood through immigration–which has always been a hallmark of American success–such a review panel symbolizes the integration of foreign cultures and highlights how the US has traditionally leveraged its policy of welcoming immigrants to funnel new ideas and approaches into this country. “The best and the brightest” and in fact, anyone with a work ethic has always been welcomed. At least until now.

Despite the pride I feel at being part of the great American melting pot, in the wake of the events at Charlottesville, Virginia recently–including the death of anti-Nazi and anti-KKK protester Heather Heyer, it is clear that the US has not been able to entirely overcome its racist past. But even putting aside the racist fringe groups (and one might well argue, as did ESPN’s Jemele Hill, that the president and key White House staff are white supremacists), there is no question that despite the US success in integrating immigrants and people from outside the country, the African American community in the US is still suffering from the horrific long-term consequences of slavery, and in its aftermath, longstanding inequality.

Following the terror and murder in Charlottesville, I was moved by some of the African American journalists and commentators that I watched on the news. One commentator noted, in a statement that really resonated deeply with me, how the African American community has watched wave after wave of immigrants come to the US, and within a generation, each has managed to assimilate and become successful Americans. And yet, the African American community remained repressed, impoverished and unequal, and extremely frustrated as each new wave of immigrants claimed their part in American society.

A lot of controversy has surfaced with the introduction of affirmative action, programs designed to ‘level the playing field’ and help African Americans and other under-represented minorities get accepted to college and other positions. Admittedly, while this may help in the short run, it is an imperfect solution, as it does not get to the root of the problem, and it also imposes a subjective system of acceptance with its own imperfections.

The real, long-term solution is to eradicate prejudice and discrimination, reduce poverty, beef up and especially enhance all levels of pre-school, elementary school, middle school and high school education for African Americans and minorities, to provide an equal footing. If we were able to achieve this, in 10-15 years I am certain that we would have a proportionate number of American Americans in science, and eventually on grant review panels. But for now–as this solution does not appear to be on a government priority list–we’ll probably be left with varying forms of affirmative action.

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Science in the Trump era

Shortly after the inauguration of Trump as president of the US, this country has entered a new “post-truth” era. The president, who undoubtedly has serious (and perhaps justifiable) feelings of inferiority and insecurity along with his narcissism–despite outward posturing–claimed that his inauguration crowd size was larger than that of Obama or of any US president in history.

crowd_split_social_y

Does inauguration crowd size matter, one way or another? Actually, who really cares? But perpetration of the lie–and this is a man who lies as easily as he breathes–DOES MATTER. Particularly when there is ample proof that this is a lie. The image above and the ones below, taken at almost the same hour on Inauguration Day for Obama in 2009 and Trump in 2017 make this abundantly clear. Screen_Shot_2017_01_20_at_11.04.49_AM.png

Trump inauguration 2017

 

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Obama inauguration 2009

However, the president sent out his advisers and press people to perpetuate the false claim that more people attended his inauguration. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer stood in front of a room full of journalists and told them, and the American people–and the world–that they are wrong and that the president was right. He stated the bald-faced lie (with obvious irritation at being asked about the issue) that it was the largest inauguration ever. Period. Those were his words before ducking out and refusing to answer questions about the telling aerial images and photos that proved he was wrong. Later, Trump’s mendacious mouthpiece, Kellyanne Conway, repeated the lies and coined a new term which will, I predict, have long-range damaging effects on American society. When pressed about the issue by Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press,” she told the American public that “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary — gave alternative facts,” she said. His answer, of course was: “Alternative facts aren’t facts, they are falsehoods.” The new ‘post-truth era,’where ‘alternative facts‘ become an accepted answer when pressed about prevarication, has ramifications that go beyond politics. After all, if we can casually brush off lies and call them alternative facts regarding day to day events, why not in science?

Take the following potential situation, for example: my colleagues in the lab and I recently discovered that a protein influences mitochondrial fission. This means that in the absence of this protein, the mitochondria in cells are not cleaved and trimmed, but tend to become very long and elaborate. Just as the inauguration of President Obama was large. Mitochondrial fission

The length of mitochondria increases when the protein EHD1 isn’t there… We recently published our findings, and this first figure from the paper shows that a protein called EHD1, when deleted from cells genetically (the right-hand images) leads to elongated mitochondria (the white structures marked by the protein Tom20). As one can see from the graphs in F, G and H of the figure, we have quantified mitochondria from hundreds of cells, and this is not merely an atypical set of images but images that are representative of what is really going on.

Suppose that rather than the peer review our paper was subjected to, we instead had a “Kellyanne Conway-like” editor who wrote back to us after our submission: “Dear Dr. Caplan, we appreciate your sending us your manuscript to our journal for review. While the data is intriguing, our reviewers and editors have carefully reviewed your findings and believe that there are serious concerns. Both reviewers who read your manuscript believe that the mitochondria are not really longer in the cells lacking EHD1, indeed, they believe that there are alternative facts that show that the mitochondria are much shorter in the images lacking EHD1.”

Humorous? Satirical? Highly unlikely? So was the election of our current president. Scientists, beware. You have been warned.

post-note: the removal of the US from the Paris Accord and the trampling of scientific evidence on climate change and the environment show that this is already occurring…

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