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Government The Almighty Buck Science

When Scientists Give Up 348

New submitter ferespo sends a report from All Things Considered about the struggle for scientific funding in today's political and economic environment. "Federal funding for biomedical research has declined by more than 20 percent in the past decade. There are far more scientists competing for grants than there is money to support them." It's a tough situation for new scientists trying to set up labs. In addition to all of the scientific work they do, it's essentially a full-time job in addition to that to maintain funding. The reviewers who decide which projects receive funding are risk-averse to the point where innovative research is all but off the table. The consequences of this are two-fold: not only are we giving up on the types of research that led to so many of today's marvels, but many promising young scientists are giving up on the field altogether.
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When Scientists Give Up

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:19PM (#47873243)

    Try the "not immediately useful" sciences, like astronomy, which are shedding researchers like crazy as the NSF / what-have-you cuts their budgets and increase "proposal pressure". Just talking to a PhD will reveal two hard truths about being a scientist: you will never be rich and you will never have job security. It takes a special kind of crazy to be a scientist these days.

    • by OhPlz ( 168413 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:24PM (#47873305)

      you will never be rich and you will never have job security

      So it's like most jobs then.

    • by houstonbofh ( 602064 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:36PM (#47873473)
      Not just research... EVERYTHING is totally risk averse. This is why every new song sounds and looks the same. Why we keep getting remakes, reboots, and blatent copies of the same old story over and over in the movies. There is a "patch" for this with the indie film community and the indie music scene. An indie research community would be cool, but they keep arresting people trying to do basic chemistry at home. http://io9.com/5119166/teen-wi... [io9.com]
    • by meta-monkey ( 321000 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:45PM (#47873577) Journal

      In college I started out as a physics major. Then I realized "holy shit I'll never get a job" and switched to engineering.

      • In college I started out as a physics major. Then I realized "holy shit I'll never get a job" and switched to engineering.

        I'm sorry you bailed on your real potential. Not as a physicist, but the training helps make you a better IT prospect than anyone who learned coding in college. Let's see:

        myself - physics major, now a rather well paid systems/storage analyst for a fortune 500
        friend 1 - physics major, astrophysics major (ABD), now a systems admin and IT director for a major hospital
        friend 2 - math major, now a highly paid database admin and IT director for a major health care firm
        friend 3 - biology major, now a high priced

        • Ummmm...I'm not unemployed and am doing rather well for myself. I taught myself to code starting with BASIC in elementary school. I went for a master's in electrical engineering specializing in computer architecture so I could really get into the hardware, which gave me a much better understanding of software.

          Anyway, glad you're doing well. I've always said that when I retire I'm going to go back to school and finish that physics degree.

          • by plover ( 150551 )

            I've always said that when I retire I'm going to go back to school and finish that physics degree.

            If it's something you're passionate about, don't wait. I went back as soon as my son left the house, and I found I had more free time. Very satisfying.

  • by l0ungeb0y ( 442022 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:20PM (#47873265) Homepage Journal
    I'm sure Chinese Firms would love to have scientists educated at the top US Universities conducting research for them. America is fast becoming a Design and Services Economy, best to leave the real innovation to China and others.
    • Re:Move To China (Score:5, Insightful)

      by the gnat ( 153162 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:27PM (#47873339)

      America is fast becoming a Design and Services Economy, best to leave the real innovation to China and others.

      Except China hasn't done any particularly innovative research yet, at least in the biomedical sciences. Its biggest success story is BGI (Beijing Genomics Institute, although they rarely use the full name), which is sort of like the Foxconn of genomics. I don't mean that in a bad way, because they've been very productive (and their employees seem to be better-paid and less suicidal), but they're basically just a sequence factory. Ironically, all of the tech they're using was developed in the US and UK. Their approach to developing their own sequencing technology? Buy a US company (Complete Genomics).

      Although you're partly right about "move to China" being the solution - they've been trying to repatriate leading expat scientists for years (with some success), but now they've started luring non-Chinese too. (Most of whom don't actually move to China, but maintain joint appointments, because you'd have to be absolutely insane to leave California for China if you weren't native Chinese.) Still, anyone in that position is usually going to be in the top tier of researchers already (one is a Nobel laureate), not the hypothetical junior faculty member worrying about tenure.

      • Still, anyone in that position is usually going to be in the top tier of researchers already (one is a Nobel laureate), not the hypothetical junior faculty member worrying about tenure.

        Which really seems like a missed opportunity. Get them when they are cheap. You would get 10,000, barely making rent, juniors with their entire careers in front of them for the cost of a noble laureate. It has got to be a better cost to result ration to buy talent before it becomes a hot commodity.

  • Happened to me (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DrElJeffe ( 741629 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:24PM (#47873313)
    Spot on. No funding = no tenure = bye-bye faculty position and no more lab. Very proud of the papers we put out and the 3 PhD students and 1 MS student that graduated before the end though. We had just uncovered a possible mechanism for how an actin-binding protein could be involved in invadopodia formation and cancer metastasis (cancer cells escaping their initial tumor).
  • Stop the presses, we need to run this new story!
  • by ilsaloving ( 1534307 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:28PM (#47873351)

    We're at a point where there's nothing going for scientists. They have to fight, all simultaneously:
    -for funding in a very crowded market
    -Politicians trying to control the results of what they do, to the point where the scientific integrity is at risk
    -Govt's muzzling you because they don't want pesky things like facts to get in the way of their ideology
    -Idiot reporters who completely, constantly, and continually misrepresent your research (should it make the presses)
    -umpteen bajillion quacks who don't know their ass from their mouth, yet somehow manage to convince people that they are right and that actual experts are wrong (ie: Jenny McCarthy, or whoever FoodBabe is)

    Doing scientific research is hard enough as it is, without having to deal with the current environment of anti-intellectualism.

    I'm honestly surprised that scientists arn't yet being marched into concentration camps at gunpoint.

    • I'm honestly surprised that scientists arn't yet being marched into concentration camps at gunpoint.

      We're planning that for this weekend.

    • by the gnat ( 153162 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:43PM (#47873563)

      -Politicians trying to control the results of what they do, to the point where the scientific integrity is at risk
      -Govt's muzzling you because they don't want pesky things like facts to get in the way of their ideology

      These issues honestly aren't that big of a problem for all but a handful of people; certainly not for anyone in the biomedical sciences.

      -Idiot reporters who completely, constantly, and continually misrepresent your research (should it make the presses)

      That's certainly true, but I would add that university PR departments are just as awful, and scientists willingly submit to that.

      Doing scientific research is hard enough as it is, without having to deal with the current environment of anti-intellectualism. I'm honestly surprised that scientists arn't yet being marched into concentration camps at gunpoint.

      What makes you think the current environment is anything new? Do you think that Americans (or any other nationality) were somehow less ignorant and anti-intellectual 30 years ago, or 100? The only thing that's definitely worse is that electronic media have made it so much easier for us to read all the awful things that Joe Public says about us. At the same time, there are more people working in science than ever before, it's much more ethnically diverse (our imported Chinese laborers are treated very well compared to the men who built railroads in the late 1800s), and the opportunities for women keep getting better. We also have something resembling a real community of scientists that can advocate for common interests, instead of being merely a handful of aristocrats who could afford to tinker in labs.

      I don't want to sound too idealistic, because I agree with the basic premise of the article, but I'm obsessed with the recurring theme of social decay and lamentations for some fantasy golden age that never really existed. The real problem isn't that society has turned against us, it's that policy makers, university bureaucrats, and senior scientists have deliberately generated an over-supply of PhD recipients, and we've simultaneously become utterly dependent on a pool of government funding that is not infinitely growable. I am not happy about any of this, since it is painfully obvious that I picked the wrong career 15 years ago, but I'm not going to blame Middle America for my shitty job prospects. (And I say this as someone who is not usually shy about expressing my elitist disdain for the ignorance of Middle America.)

      • by Altrag ( 195300 )

        Do you think that Americans (or any other nationality) were somehow less ignorant and anti-intellectual 30 years ago, or 100?

        Ignorant perhaps, but definitely anti-intellectual has swung back and forth over the past 100 years or so. 20 years ago, computer programming was all the rage for everyone -- and that's not exactly brainless work. Between the end of WW2 and about a decade after the moon landing, Americans were all about science -- promises of flying cars and robot housekeepers and who knows what else. Didn't make your average Joe any smarter, but it kept him interested in what science was doing (or more precisely, what i

        • 20 years ago, computer programming was all the rage for everyone -- and that's not exactly brainless work.

          We must read different news sources then, because from what I can see it's becoming all the rage now, and people are starting to use phrases like "coding literacy" and discussing whether programming should be part of primary education.

          Between the end of WW2 and about a decade after the moon landing, Americans were all about science -- promises of flying cars and robot housekeepers and who knows what els

  • ...but it also puts more and more pressure on principal investigators to color their conclusions in the direction of whatever is currently trendy in the eyes of the grant reviewers in that field in order to get future grants. It's not good.
  • by ChilyWily ( 162187 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:39PM (#47873497) Homepage

    The lack of Leadership, and I mean true forward looking people who take risks to move the Nation forward are no where to be found. The mantra of becoming rich is gospel and quick monetization, quarterly Wall Street figures reign supreme.

    The Leaders of the past few generations, those who would see a public interest and use the immense power and resources of the Government to enable it, are long gone.

    So the question isn't really one of giving up... the question is one of choice and priority. If you have no vision and no real sense of purpose beyond enriching yourself when you occupy a position of influence, then the rot will spread and not just Scientists but many others will wither away as well.

    We can spend on un-ending and meaningless Wars, enriching the military-industrial-political complex through war mongering, developing our sense of uber individuality where our selfish needs are supreme above any common good or we can choose to go after bettering the lives of our fellow humans by challenging ourselves to bigger better goals and being a good/reasonable neighbor.

    • So the question isn't really one of giving up... the question is one of choice and priority. If you have no vision and no real sense of purpose beyond enriching yourself when you occupy a position of influence, then the rot will spread and not just Scientists but many others will wither away as well.

      I'm starting a new movement "The Boot Party": everyone promises to vote *against* the incumbent regardless of political party.

      Government not acting in the interests of the people? Give 'em the boot!

      Won't you join me?

      • Government not acting in the interests of the people? Give 'em the boot!

        I'll enlist! Where do we start? Here is one guy in Iceland who did just that and won...

        http://www.pri.org/stories/201... [pri.org]

        I have seen him talk and he is funny and very sensible. I wish he'd have left some sort of legacy so a pattern of change and good candidates could appear. Perhaps wishful thinking but its a start.

  • by jpvlsmv ( 583001 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:39PM (#47873499) Homepage Journal
    I heard this piece on NPR yesterday, and the thing that kept running through my mind is how the pharmaceutical industry is extorting huge profits based on fundamental research-- with much of that happening under NIH grants. Why not set a tax rate on drug patent royalties and use that to fund the NIH?

    You have a multi-billion-dollar-sales patented drug? Chip in 0.5% of the revenue to fund NIH grants. Or make your own equivalent grants to truly independant researchers.

    Enter into a licensing deal on a drug patent? Chip in 0.5% of the revenue to fund grants.

    • by meta-monkey ( 321000 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:54PM (#47873687) Journal

      Even then, the problem is the fundamental science aspect. That's what they can't get funding for. You're talking about engineering work, something we're trying to turn into a product. You'd still need to be able to convince the NIH to throw some of that money at people who are trying to find out the answers to questions that may or may not ever have a practical application. But we won't know if there's a practical application until we do the research.

      • by jpvlsmv ( 583001 )
        No, the tax is on engineering results. It would laundered through the NIH for funding the basic research that NIH would fund now if congress would give it the money it has in the past.
    • I heard this piece on NPR yesterday, and the thing that kept running through my mind is how the pharmaceutical industry is extorting huge profits based on fundamental research-- with much of that happening under NIH grants. Why not set a tax rate on drug patent royalties and use that to fund the NIH?

      Because that's not really how basic research is supposed to work, and because the gap between NIH-funded research (which is indeed hugely important, but not the way you seem to think it is) and actual drugs is e

      • I hate to break it to you but not one single drug is developed in a vacuum. All research is based on other research. No pharmaceutical company develops drugs that is not based on other research. More importantly there have been no break through drugs developed by the pharmaceutical industry that justifies their 15 year exclusive patents. All they have done is make allergy medications and penis drugs.

        I agree about the patents but blame the corporations that claim they can't make the drugs with out them
    • Your comments got me thinking -- if people want to treat 'intellectual property' as 'property', then shouldn't it be subject to property taxes?

      Of course, the problem with both of our ideas is that the companies would do exactly what they've been doing with their logos -- spin off a company in another country, give the IP to that company, and then rent the use of the IP back to the original company. (thereby reducing the profits of the main company, reducing their tax burden ... and the spin-off is in a low

    • Enter into a licensing deal on a drug patent? Chip in 0.5% of the revenue to fund grants.

      Great in theory; does not work in practice. Look at Hollywood. Every film ever made loses money for the studio. Their accounting says so. The drug companies would just adopt the same scheme, and never pay a penny.

  • by DudeTheMath ( 522264 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:52PM (#47873657) Homepage

    Clearly, we need to encourage more young people to go into STEM fields. Until then, more H1-Bs for the best and brightest biomed workers.

    • by JWW ( 79176 )

      You are joking, but really, how does the "Grant money for science is drying up" exist in the same country where we continually get "there are not enough people going into science" ?

      There is a cognitive disconnect here. It even exists in private industry, where much much less funding is going into research as well.

  • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @01:55PM (#47873695) Homepage Journal

    The obvious solution is to return to traditional methods: establish an independent income, then take up scientific research as a hobby.

    Historically, our most notable scientists were working at day jobs or otherwise independently wealthy, and did amazing research on their own as a hobby. Some devoted entire wings of their house towards scientific research, amassing a collection of equipment (or specimens) over decades.

    Henry Cavendish [wikipedia.org], of the Cavendish experiment, is one such example. The experiment was so delicate that air currents would affect the measurements, so Cavendish set up the experiment in a shed on his property and measured the results from a distance, using a telescope.

    There used to be a term "Gentleman Scientist" [wikipedia.org] for this, but it might more accurately be called "self-funded research".

    Consider Paul Stamets [wikipedia.org] as a modern example. With only an honorary doctorate, he is co-author on many papers [google.com] and has proposed several medications, including treatments for cancer [fungi.com].

    I could also nominate Robert Murray Smith [youtube.com] to the position. His YouTube Videos [youtube.com] are as good as many published Chemistry papers.

    The benefits are obvious: You get to work on whatever you think is interesting (or fruitful), you can set your own pace, and you can draw your own line between supporting your dreams and your lifestyle: If you have a family emergency, you can pause your research and spend more money on personal welfare. It also forces you to come up with more efficient (read: less expensive) ways to work.

    There's a wealth of useful equipment on eBay and other places, big expensive equipment is not out of the reach of the dedicated researcher. Ben Krasnow has three (I think) electron microscopes [hackaday.com]. I personally own a UV/VIS spectrophotometer. a microgram scale, and a Weston cell.

    The idea that "research can only be done at the behest of government" or "is only associated with university" is a modern fiction. Government would *like* you to believe that everything depends on their whim and largesse, but it's not the only, nor even the best way.

    Build a lab and start tinkering, or join a hackerspace. Lots of people do it. Lots of good science is done this way.

    • by damn_registrars ( 1103043 ) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @02:18PM (#47873973) Homepage Journal

      The obvious solution is to return to traditional methods: establish an independent income, then take up scientific research as a hobby.

      The problem though is that a lot of the big scientific problems require more capital than any ordinary person would ever be able to amass on their own. My PhD project consumed supplies at the rate of tens of thousands of dollars per year, and that is ignoring the cost of time, utilities, physical space, and standard lab supplies that our lab kept around for general consumption. That also is ignoring the cost of the instrumentation that we used to do the work.

      If someone did fund something like it independently, then they would run in to the cost of publishing the results; the main paper from my graduate work cost somewhere around $1,500 to publish in an open access journal. Without budgets set up for that purpose, why would someone do this on their own?

      Sure, there are interesting projects that can be self-funded, but not many of them. And the two people described in the NPR story were both working on projects that were way beyond that level of resource requirements.

    • The obvious solution is to return to traditional methods: establish an independent income, then take up scientific research as a hobby.

      Sad but true. My only friend who made it to being a teaching professor can sustain himself because he was rich going in. He donates his teacher's salary checks to a charity or some such, and lives off his investments. He teaches science and does a bit of research because that is his passion. No way he could make it otherwise.

    • by Yakasha ( 42321 )

      It also forces you to come up with more efficient (read: less expensive) ways to work.

      What is the "less expensive" way to store & protect your anthrax, or other dangerous pathogen that you'd like to muck with? How do you bypass the fees & other costs mandated by government, such as the FDA requirements for drug tests, or hazardous waste disposal, or a 24/7 guard & clean room to make sure your anthrax isn't stolen or accidentally released?

      Sometimes, shooting a person in the head doesn't force them to come with a way to survive with a hole in their head... it just kills them.

      The idea that "research can only be done at the behest of government" or "is only associated with university" is a modern fiction.

      I thi

      • What is the "less expensive" way to store & protect your anthrax, or other dangerous pathogen that you'd like to muck with?

        You should have picked a better example. Remember just a while ago where a very well funded organization (CDC) with everything you mentioned misplaced some damned smallpox [theguardian.com] in a friggin' cardboard box?

    • All of which would probably be illegal now, some one reason or another.
    • Some great science can be done on very low budgets, even by high school students. [smithsonianmag.com] However, Space X was not and never could be the product of a high school science fair. Nor could the Human Genome project.

      Remove public funding, and science will indeed to back to hobbyist, 18th Century style....where the only people who can afford to do expensive science are the idle rich. I don't know about you, but I'd rather not trade thousands of universities and colleges doing science involving millions of students an

  • by K. S. Kyosuke ( 729550 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @02:00PM (#47873767)

    The reviewers who decide which projects receive funding are risk-averse to the point where innovative research is all but off the table.

    One of my all-time favorite quotes:

    "If you don't fail at least 90 percent of the time, you're not aiming high enough." -- Alan Kay

  • by Stem_Cell_Brad ( 1847248 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @02:12PM (#47873891)
    It is also the mechanism whereby it is distributed that is the problem. We get grants for a few years at a time for discrete projects. When one of these grants is not renewed, a lab can basically collapse and then shut down completely. This prevents long term thinking and taking the risk on something that won't fit in that 2-5 year window and on that specific project. The NIGMS at NIH is trying out a new way to provide more stable funding in exchange for less overall funding for some labs. Think of it as funding people rather than projects (http://watersheding.wordpress.com/72314-mira-mira-on-the-wall-whos-the-fairest-grant-funding-system-of-all/). I think it is a good start.
  • I listened to this on the radio, and they left some bits out.

    Apparently Bill Clinton and GW Bush substantially increased funding ironically. The lab community were foolish, took all that money and used it to build new labs... they assumed the funding would continue indefinitely and they were wrong. Now all those new labs are floundering looking for funds. It's not that funding has dropped from historic levels... it's that there was a massive increase in the late 90s early 2000's that didn't continue.

  • by Ukab the Great ( 87152 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @02:47PM (#47874273)

    The problem is that we don't have enough people graduating with STEM degrees. All the smart people people at Fox news know this.

    • by k6mfw ( 1182893 )
      Someone commented in IEEE Spectrum we have all these STEM programs that pushes people from high school through college and into the real world like World War One soldiers into the trenches. What is lacking are experienced people in the work environment to share their experience, but these newbies have to fend for themselves while learning the trade (and pay off huge debt).
  • They are crying about funding in real dollars. Please cry to the Fed about that. In addition, plugging numbers from their own publications [amfar.org] into online CPI calculators shows they are overstating the case (Shocking!)

  • There's going to be a LOT of posts about politics here. Mine will be no different. oh look, the first post is about global warming. "Just link your thesis to Global Warming, and you won't have a problem."

    Except that's the complete opposite of what the article is saying...

    We need good science. I'm very annoyed that we are subsidizing profitable industries while NOT funding important science work. You all should be too. What happened to us? What happened to America? When did we become so.... Stupid? When

  • I have always laughed when I see someone doing fundamental research and saying that it could help defeat bombs, or something else that DHS would love. The mental twists and turns that somehow connect something fundamental to something very practical although worthless.

    So I have a simple idea, half the DHS budget and hand it to fundamental research. Also play a random game where projects are ordered by what seems to be some sort of worthiness. Then use that as a weighted order to select random projects. Th

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