Science under siege

Scientists across the US are feeling the sting of decreased funding (photo: USDA)
Scientists across the US are feeling the sting of decreased funding (photo: USDA)

In the United States, the vast majority of scientific studies are performed by federally funded scientists. Science funding was already tight before sequestration began and now the government shutdown is squeezing the system even tighter. This makes it a particularly difficult time to be a scientist in the U.S. (in fact 1/5 scientists have considered leaving the country all together).


AAAS Member Central has a new blog series that examines how sequestration is impacting various components of the scientific enterprise. It does a good job of highlighting the different populations affected by these funding cuts as well as the downstream consequences (decreased productivity, closing of labs, lay offs, strains on private foundations, etc.).

The series thus far:

Stanford grad student: Sequester will have economic consequences

How sequestration is affecting training program directors

Yale lab forced to reduce size by attrition (my interview with Yale professor Lawrence Rizzolo)

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank Conlon: R21 budgets reduced by 5 percent

Federal government shutdown

The partial government shutdown that began Oct. 1 has obvious impacts on the lives and research of the furloughed scientists  and support staff who work at the NIH, NSF, and NASA, but it has far-reaching downstream impacts as well.  To get a feel for the impact on scientists across the nation (and even internationally), you can check out discussions about the shutdown on Twitter (#shutscience) and on reddit (there are some really interesting discussions on this page). Some examples:

  • new patients will not be enrolled in clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health
  • scientists can’t communicate with collaborators who are federal employees or receive supplies from them
  • new grant applications will not be processed, and the processing of existing grants may be drastically slowed
  • seasonal Forest Service scientists have been laid off
  • many government websites that scientists depend on are either not online or are not being updated (NIST resources, for example)
  • Forest Service permits that are required for field research are not being issued and scientists who do research at National Parks are locked out of their field sites (note: this can be a big deal because field work is often seasonal and cannot be stopped or rescheduled)
  • fishing surveys that determine future fish quotas will be incomplete

A silver lining?

Luckily, scientists are resilient, and some researchers are finding ways to continue to work and help their colleagues. For example, there are tales that scientists serving on grant review study sections this week are putting in valiant efforts to prevent the shutdown from slowing down review of their colleagues’ grants. And at least one professor is providing a mirror website for vital NSF forms. Hopefully these creative fixes won’t have to last for long, and the shutdown will end soon–for all our sakes.


The scientists behind The Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad

Chemistry prof Donna Nelson makes sure the meth is cooked correctly on Breaking Bad. The DEA makes sure you can’t learn to make it at home. (image: Radspunk via wikimedia commons)

Some scientists do outreach by visiting classrooms, tweeting, or writing blog posts. Others help make sure the science in TV shows and movies is accurate. Recent media coverage highlights the scientists behind the science shown on the Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad:

The Big Bang Theory

NPR’s Neta Ulaby interviews UCLA physics professor David Saltzberg about his role as an adviser on the Big Bang Theory. Saltzberg gives the show’s producers advice on everything from whiteboard formulas to the appearance of a grad student’s apartment. He’s even gotten a joke on the show:

That happened in the very first season, when Sheldon and another scientist have a fight. Saltzberg pitched a joke: When one of the characters describes the fight as “a little misunderstanding,” Sheldon is furious. “A little misunderstanding?” he cries. “Galileo and the pope had a little misunderstanding!”

Breaking Bad

Over at Scientific American, Gary Stix interviews the scientist who makes sure the meth is cooked correctly on Breaking Bad–University of Oklahoma chemistry professor Donna Nelson. It’s fascinating to read the lengths that Nelson went to in order to get the science right. For example, the show wanted to use an aluminum-mercury reducing agent since it would be the easiest option for the actors to pronounce. In order to figure out the yield from this particular reaction, she had to go back to her grad school roots:

That reagent turned out to be obscure, and I had to go to a German patent from the 1950s to get the information to make the calculation. Fortunately, when I was a graduate student, I had taken German. So I was able to get back to them and tell them the quantity of meth produced, in pounds. So it worked out, but it was a little trouble.

Before I knew that Nelson worked on Breaking Bad, I asked her to contribute her answers for a AAAS 5 Things About Me Post. Check it out to learn about her love of muscle cars and what she would bring to a desert island.

For more interesting meth related reading:

How Much Meth Does Your State Cook? These Maps Show the Drug’s Foothold In America (PolicyMic)

15 Maps That Show How Americans Use Drugs (Business Insider)

Updated clips page

M mammals
My daughter checking out the large mammals at the Harvard Natural History Museum

I’ve updated the clips page with my posts for the American Association for the Advancement of Science blogs from the last few months.

Here are my most recent posts, which are currently available to everyone (older posts are viewable if you are a AAAS member):

Career exploration resources for grad students and postdocs Driving Force May 22nd, 2013

A look at the NIH sequestration policies Capitol Connection May 20th, 2013

Is the ‘High Quality Research Act’ the antithesis of science? Capitol Connection May 20th, 2013

Help budding scientists–be a Science Buddy! AAAS Serves May 10th, 2013

The ‘irreproducibility’ problem Driving Force May 1st, 2013

10 ways scientists can use Twitter and rehab for scientists?


10 ways scientists can benefit from Twitter
I’ll admit that when I first heard about Twitter, I didn’t really understand the fuss (in fact I may have said something like “that sounds like the stupidest idea ever—what could you possibly say in 140 characters?”). But a little over a year ago I listened to a webinar that convinced me to give it a shot.

At the beginning things were slow, and I often felt like I was shouting in an empty room (when not many people are ‘following’ you this feeling is natural). But gradually I developed a network—actually, several networks—that I’ve found really helpful for me personally and for my career. Continue reading…

Can rehab help scientists guilty of misconduct?
Could remediation work for researchers who have committed scientific misconduct? A new program run by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) aims to find out. Continue reading…

SciStarter and revolutionary vaccine technology: new AAAS posts

SciStarter helps citizen scientists discover new projects: SciStarter is an incredible database of science projects that anyone can participate in.  Read more about the website and some of the projects it includes here.

Salmonella typhimurium Photo: Volker Brinkmann, Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, Germany

Engineering self-destructing Salmonella to make better vaccines: Researchers at Arizona State University are doing an amazing thing. Wei Kong and others in Roy Curtiss’s lab are engineering Salmonella to turn it into a delivery system for DNA vaccines. They recently published their advances in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hypothetically such vaccines could be used against not just viruses but also fungal or parasitic infections and could also be a key defense against bioterrorism. Read more here.