A call for revolution in US science, dino microbes in space, vaginas in the lab

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US science is in a fix, so let’s fix it

“It’s as if the Pope and three leading cardinals held a press conference predicting the collapse of the Catholic church. These people know what they are talking about and we need to listen.” This from Incidental Economist Bill Gardner.

On the other hand, “This should be read as a mea culpa, given the authors’ roles in creating this problem in the first place,” a tweet from Jonathan Gitlin, policy wonk and occasional Ars Technica contributor.

Sandcastle and sand burial. Credit:  Xiaphias

Sandcastle and sand burial. Credit: Xiaphias

Both are talking about Monday’s editorial in PNAS, the highest profile call yet for revolutionary changes in the US system for supporting biomedical research. (Access to free PDF here.) The authors could hardly be more magisterial: Bruce Alberts (former president of the National Academy of Sciences and  editor of Science), Marc Kirschner (cell biologist, founder of Harvard’s systems biology department), Shirley Tilghman (molecular biologist, HHMI investigator, former president of Princeton), and Harold Varmus (Nobel laureate, former NIH Director, current NCI Director.)

Some of their proposals: Train fewer academic scientists. Convert the ones we are training from slave labor funded out of a lab’s grants to government training grants, which will help slow the flow. Train grad students for careers outside academic research. Turn postdocs into salaried staff scientists. Don’t pay faculty solely by grants either. Reform grant payments for institutional overhead. Reduce the competition to publish in the classiest journals. Reform the grant review process to stress innovative proposals and reduce the emphasis on translational research.

Nothing new and nothing doing

Two main points about this clarion call (aside from the fact that all four distinguished authors have contributed materially to potentiating the problems they now deplore): (1) There’s nothing new here; and (2) There’s very little chance the suggested reforms will come about.

The fact that the US is creating an oversupply of scientists has been known for decades, at least to those who will listen. An NAS report from a committee Tilghman chaired came out in 1998. I (and others) wrote about it in the 1980s. In their sharp summary and critique of the new paper, Beryl Benderly and Jim Austin note at Science Careers that a warning against a surfeit of scientists was part of that much-venerated modern roadmap for science, Vannevar Bush’s “Endless Frontier” report, in 1945.

I commend the subtly scathing Benderly-Austin post to your attention not just because it provides splendid context for understanding the editorial, but also because it lives at Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, surely the heart of the science establishment. (Disclosure: Beryl is an old, dear friend, and I have written for Jim Austin, but I’m quite sure I’d be paying the compliment even if that were not true.)

That dense tangle of vested interests

From their lips to God’s ear. Benderly and Austin are hopeful that the glamour of the editorial’s authors and the fact that it’s appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences could, at last, prompt people in positions to make changes to start making them. But, they also say, “The PNAS article authors do not provide a practical strategy for overcoming the dense tangle of vested interests and perverse incentives that protect the current system.”

An Australian sand castle 10 feet high. Credit: G. King

An Australian sand castle 10 feet high. Credit: G. King

And of course a practical strategy for overcoming the dense tangle of vested interests is exactly what’s needed. Can the prestige of Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman, and Varmus tip the balance?

See John Timmer at Ars Technica for fine explications of of those vested interests. Timmer is not particularly hopeful. He points out that a seemingly obvious solution, more money for science, is not only not forthcoming but also would only intensify the problems, not solve them.

Pessimism seems warranted, since changing the system in the ways Alberts et al. suggest would gore oxen galore. Timmer points out that those who can make needed changes won’t like them and will resist. Moreover, implementing them will require cooperation from dysfunctional politicians, none more dysfunctional than the House Science Committee.

The stench of elitism and other objections

Here’s a smattering of additional commentary by scientist-bloggers who have thought about these issues a lot, and written a lot about them too.

Mike the Mad Biologist: “the grant review proposals are just daffy. I would argue we need more junior people closer to the research as well as non-academic researchers (i.e., from institutes and companies when appropriate) as reviewers.”

Ken Weiss at The Mermaid’s Tale, to which an HT for the sandcastle motif. Weiss says the problems are not only at NIH; some areas of the National Science Foundation budget may be cut as much as 20 percent in just one year. He advocates “a frank but non-partisan national discussion of what kinds of science and scholarship are most important and to phase in more funds for those and less for areas that, no matter how legitimate, are just less vital these days or less promising of major new discoveries.” Setting aside the near-impossibility of initiating a frank but non-partisan national discussion on any topic whatever, that sounds like the road to more translational and applied research. Quite different from the emphasis on basic science that Alberts et al. advocate.

Drip sand castle. Credit: Henry Mühlpfordt

Drip sand castle. Credit: Henry Mühlpfordt

Drugmonkey sees good things here, but. “What I don’t like about these proposals is the stench of elitism that encircles them. . . The alternative that is being proposed here is that we select good scientists at the beginnings of their careers and that is it. They get the money even if someone else has a better idea. . . The racket will be dominated by pedigree, you better believe it. Not good.

I have a bone to pick with those dinosaur-microbes-in-space stories

NASA plans to send a few dozen kinds of microbes to the Space Station to see, it is said, how they fare. The germ launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has (of course) been delayed; it’s now scheduled for today (Good Friday, April 18, 2014.)

The microbes are said to have come from various publicity-attuned venues, one of which is Sue, the T. rex fossil that Chicago’s Field Museum periodically waves in front of reporters. Kim Bellware tells you about it at HuffPo.

At no point do any of the stories I’ve read make clear that this is not likely to be a microbe native to dinosaurs. It has been identified as the sticky-sounding Paenibacillus mucilaginosus. The researchers who did its genome say it is a growth promoter found in microbial fertilizers in China. Originally, apparently, a soil bug.

I am skeptical of this escapade. It lacks seriousness.

Tissue-engineered vaginas. No smirking allowed.

This one doesn’t lack seriousness. In fact, it’s a masterful example of bioscience geared to fixing a real-world medical problem, published in  a most respected journal (The Lancet), but also guaranteed to grab eyeballs.

In this research, tissue engineering has reached an apotheosis of sorts. It has achieved functioning vaginas grown in a lab. Well, functioning once they had been implanted in patients who lacked them.

Beginning eight years ago, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine took a bit of tissue from the vulvas of teenagers with a congenital deformity called Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome and grew the tissue into vaginas. (The syndrome, which results in an underdeveloped or missing vagina and uterus, is fairly common; NIH says it occurs in about 1 in 4500 newborn girls but is often not discovered until adolescence.)

Bahar Gholipour described the process in detail at LiveScience. It takes about six weeks to grow a vagina. “Once the organs were ready, doctors surgically created a cavity in the patients’ bodies, and stitched one side of the vaginal organ to the opening of the cavity and the other side to the uterus,” Gholipour says.

The patients have been followed for at least five years. The researchers report that the vaginas are functioning normally, including sexual intercourse.

At io9, Robert Gonzalez says the lab-grown vaginas may have other applications, for example in cancer and sex reassignment surgery. He is also looking forward to the lab-grown penis that he says is in the pipeline.


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