Mr. President, can you save science, please?

Scientists love to complain. That is not to say that they enjoy the situation that they are complaining about, but to me it seems as though in the US there is a level of fatalism that translates into inertia. And of course, being busy surviving has always been a valid excuse.

This weekend I decided to take another small step to do something for science; to write a letter to the President of the United States. I sent it to the White House. I do not expect much, but at least it gives me the impression that I am trying.

Dear President Obama,

This is an appeal to you from a basic biomedical research scientist and citizen of this country to help save science before it is too late.

Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Steve Caplan, and I am an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC). I have been here for eight years; I run an active basic research program and teach graduate and medical students.

Although my family originally hails from Canada, I was born in the US during my father’s medical residency in the mid-1960s. After my childhood in Canada, I moved to Israel where I eventually obtained my Ph.D. and finally arrived back here in the US for post-doctoral studies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1998. In 2003, realizing that the US was still the most opportune place for thriving scientific work, I accepted a faculty position here in Omaha at (UNMC). While I still believe the US maintains the best infrastructure for science in the world, if things do not change within a few short years this will no longer be the case.

Before continuing, I would like to note that the scientific community is tremendously appreciative of the funding that NIH received as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and your support for science. However, as helpful as the ARRA awards were, the mood among scientists in the US today is grim, and the United States is on the verge of losing an entire generation of trained biomedical scientists.

Let me start by first describing the situation as I see it. New investigators are finding it incredibly difficult to obtain funding right now. In this system, after spending about 15 years of undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral training, the lucky and talented few who are able to obtain independent research positions are being weeded out of the system. A researcher who is unable to attract grant funding will not get tenure and his or her door to other scientific positions will be closed. True, not all new faculty members deserve to stay on as independent researchers. However, in today’s almost hostile atmosphere, I am familiar with a good number of very talented and successful people who are in the process of being lost to the system.

Adding to this, I can relate to you that many institutions have completely stopped hiring new faculty that have just completed their post-doctoral work; instead they elect to head-hunt and hire experienced faculty from other institutions who already have funding. As you can imagine, in the long and even intermediate run, this will have a terribly detrimental effect on the future of science.

Unfortunately, the issue of funding is not just problematic for newer faculty members. It is extremely depressing to see so many senior faculty members looking tired and haggard, and speaking out about retirement. Please understand that this vocation is one of love, and there have always been a great number of “retired” professors who would go on forever working just for the advancement of science. This reflects a deep frustration that will undoubtedly trickle down to the next generation of scientists.

Since I’ve been a faculty member these past eight years, I’ve seen the budget for my grants decrease steadily. On the other hand, the cost of equipment, reagents, and of course the salaries for my personnel has been increasing with the cost of living. As a consequence, it is becoming harder and harder for researchers to survive—not to mention thrive.

The NIH has done its best to try and address these issues. It has made a number of changes in the grant system, from the way grants are submitted to the way they are reviewed. However, the bottom line is that these are cosmetic changes that will not improve the situation. Without a significant commitment to support science from the US government, this country will soon be overtaken as the global science leader by European and Asian nations.

I suppose that in times when the national debt is a major issue that some skeptics might ask “what has science ever done for us?” The answer is that science—including very basic and fundamental science—has had an enormous impact on the US and the world. There is a tendency to think that science that isn’t designed or targeted towards specific diseases is dispensable. After all, the public wants and deserves better medical treatments and advances against such terrible maladies as cancer, heart disease and other ailments. Historically, however, it turns out that the greatest advances have often come serendipitously from the basic sciences.

US Nobel Prize laureate Arthur Kornberg discussed some of the greatest biomedical research findings, including penicillin, x-rays, the polio vaccine and genetic engineering, noting, “No matter how counter-intuitive it may seem, basic research has proven over and over to be the lifeline of practical advances in medicine. Without advances, medicine regresses and reverts to witchcraft.”

Other skeptics may say that this is fine, but the US can’t afford to spend so much money on science. The truth is, that the US can’t afford NOT to spend more money on science. These skeptics are probably altogether unaware of the economics of science. Each invention spurs new patents and industry, creates companies, jobs, and of course revenue for the US government. Consider even a single laboratory. We won’t even deal with the construction of the building and all the work needed to bring a new laboratory into existence—we’ll start with a new position being created.

When a new faculty member is hired, and allocated a certain amount of “start-up” money for his/her lab, this immediately leads to the purchase of large and small equipment. In addition, the new faculty member will likely hire a technician, take on a couple students and perhaps a post-doctoral fellow. More jobs are created, more taxes are paid, and American companies benefit. The continued success of such a laboratory enhances both the local and federal economies.

So what could possibly be a better investment?

As a scientist and concerned citizen of this country, I beg you to reevaluate the priorities and needs of this country. I hope very much that you will come to the conclusion that support for science needs to be made an immediate national priority.

I thank you for your time and wonderful service to this country and the world.

Respectfully yours,

Steve Caplan, Ph.D.

Any bets on a reply?

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
This entry was posted in Education, research, science and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Mr. President, can you save science, please?

  1. cromercrox says:

    Well done you!

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Thank you, sir, but it’s probably like spitting into the wind.

    • cromercrox says:

      Well, yes, but if everyone thought that, nothing would ever get done. If you write such a letter, then the chances are that others will too. I suppose you’ve already written to your congressperson/senator?

  3. That’s a wonderful letter, Steve. Do let us know if you get a response, even if it’s just a form letter.

  4. MGG says:

    Very nice letter. I had shared the link with 16 of my researcher friends…trying to do my teeny part. I hope that at the very least, it increased some traffic to the site.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Awareness is good, but most scientists are already aware of these problems. The issue is getting busy scientists to take a few minutes to complain to the policy makers…

  5. It is a well considered letter, but as long as the human-biomedical tail continues to wag the biological dog, it is hard to be real sympathetic. Yes, biomedical research has much to offer and no question, it requires a substantial amount of support, and the situation is worrisome. But biomedical research is so much better off that support for the more esoteric research that the rest of us do for the important task of interesting students in research and teaching them how to do it, and the shame of it all is that in comparison, my research is so cheap to do. Diseases and disorders are certainly the stuff of individual suffering, but ecology and the environment affect us all.

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    I have to admit that your comment has me a little confused. Is your view that there is already enough money spent on biomedical research and that it’s necessary to give more support to ecological/zoological/botanical research?

    In my letter, while specifically advocating biomedical research–because that is where the majority of bioscience research is–I was pretty specific in pointing out the need for BASIC research, and emphasizing that a basic understanding of how things work historically and serendipitously leads to the greatest advances. So I don’t really think my views are at “cross-purposes” with yours, if I interpreted your comment accurately.

Comments are closed.