Putting a chill on international science…

I saw this piece by Jeff Mervis in SCIENCE today. Basically, if you are supported by NIH and you appear to them to be more “connected” to other nation states than you have explicitly disclosed, your institution may have some explaining to do. As Jeff points out, this can be somewhat confusing, since most productive scientists (particularly in biomedical research) do their work in a manner that crosses-borders–just like Ebola or SARS. This new NIH action affects the many, not the few.  As I’ve said from my time at the bully pulpit: science is inherently international. When you publish a journal article, it is read by your colleagues all over the globe (at least if it’s good science). And that dissemination is key to producing more excellent science.

I have no problem with disclosing contacts (although there is a paperwork burden). But creating a culture of intimidation that puts a chill on international collaboration–that is a problem.

Why do we need the “driver’s license”?

When I was a trainee in neuroscience, there were plenty of examples of physicists who decided that figuring out the brain was to be their next big idea. They did just fine. You’ve probably heard of them.

Growing up with two parents who had both received their doctoral degrees in philosophy (!) but were, in actuality, running a neurophysiology lab, further inured me to the notion of being scientifically siloed by our degree title.

These days I lead two teams that aren’t doing neuroscience at all. One works on the future of AI, the other at the intersection of ecology and microbiology. At the Institute I led for sixteen years, my closest colleague was a biophysicist whose scientific passion was astrobiology. At the end of his life he was deeply involved in thinking about d-orbital catalysis in chemistry.

So increasingly, I’m coming to the conclusion that excellent science can be done by anyone with sufficient creativity and a willingness to team up with like-minded collaborators. But: with the caveat that the team as a whole has the requisite methodological skills.

This I think has implications for the future of team science–which I’ve spoken about at length.

Mid-term election: science implications I

Most of the results of the mid-term election are now in and can be reviewed on-line. Jeff Mervis at SCIENCE has a nice summer of what the changes in the House mean, here. My own sense is that with Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) as the likely chair for House Science, the tenor of that Committee’s relationship with the non-biomedical US Science R&D agencies is going to improve significantly. Specifically with regards to Climate Change, and more generally with regards to a less adversarial oversight role. I think that’s probably a good thing.

NASA and probably also NSF lost a key advocate in John Culberson (R-TX) as chair of CJS, the appropriations committee responsible for the two agencies. On the other hand, NASA will probably be able to finesse the timing of when they send a probe to Europa and NSF’s contacts with Chinese science may be a bit less fettered (although the one from the White House is still pretty hawkish).

Barbara Comstock’s loss in Virginia is complex. While she could be a thorn in the side of NSF (e.g. NEON), she was extremely supportive of the DC metro area federal workforce and this benefited science agencies who depend on expert staff to keep the wheels moving.

My sense is that NIH is still coming out of this smelling like a rose. A more conservative senate may put the brakes on some hot-button research topics, but in general, I am pretty  optimistic about the biomedical sector.


Hana Gray

She was the President of the University of Chicago during the 1970’s and 80’s. She was also a consummate institutionalist in a way that some might think quaint in these days of social media-driven rage. Here’s a review of her recently published memoir which captures well this characteristic that is so rare among current academics. The operative metaphor is UC run as a modern-day Venetian Republic. Of course modern-day only in the sense of several decades ago and not during the Middle Ages.

Gray compares the University of Chicago’s elaborate governance structure to “the constitution of the Republic of Venice in the late medieval and early modern eras,” but praises it for “offering an invaluable means of garnering advice and discussion on all kinds of issues … with the faculty at large.” Of course, that matters only if one intends to work with one’s colleagues rather than one’s Twitter followers.

Hubble Telescope

I know that we are waiting on the James Webb Space Telescope, but disturbingly, the Hubble Space Telescope is sitting in safe mode after a gyro failure this past weekend (hat tip to NASA watch). This is the telescope that has been the workhorse of NASA’s astronomy program.

In a sense this is the future. If we continue to send very complicated gadgets to technological edge environments, particularly in the near future with AI on-board, they are going to have to be much more resilient. Space and deep ocean are examples of such environments. There are implications for big science and DOD.