Fusion: just around the corner? Redux

This interesting news about a collaboration between MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Inc (at Nature and potentially behind a firewall for some readers). In any case, the key idea here is that a new generation of superconductors will be used to create a magnetic confinement for the hot fusion plasma.

Many years ago, before I went to graduate school, during an internship on the Hill, I got very interested in fusion. But that was several energy crises ago. These days I would be interested in fusion power as a potential play for mitigating climate change….or possibly Bitcoin mining (not).

Adult neurogenesis? Not so much in humans

This is a huge result, making NPR and published in Nature, here. Since the discovery of adult neurogenesis in rodent models, it has been assumed by many (but not all) that we humans did the same thing. The assumption was that we grow new neurons every day throughout our lives.

Aside: actually that assumption was contrary to what many of us were taught. Before the discovery of rodent adult neurogenesis, it was thought humans stopped producing new nerve cells with the onset of adulthood.

The latest findings indicate that in humans, the production of new neurons slows down by age 7 and is gone by age 13. That’s shocking. What was the selection pressure for loosing such a phenotype from rats and mice?

Teaching again…

I am now three weeks into the semester and surprisingly, it’s been fairly easy.  The routine of teaching, grading, seminar preparation and the like are relaxing, even enjoyable. My students are graduate level in the School of Public Policy at George Mason. Because we are in D.C., some of my students are as senior as I am. And, I am learning from all of them.

At the same time, I have started a book project and am busy shopping out an Op Ed about the  President’s science budget–which hasn’t been released yet. Although… there was a leak that made it to the Washington Post in the last day or so.

For fun, over Spring Break, I’ll be headed to Paris with my wife. We plan to take advantage of all the excellent advice that we have received from friends and even ex-colleagues at NSF. So enjoying life…

Graduate Tuition Support at NSF

One thing that I didn’t know, before I came to NSF in 2014 was that support for graduate student research assistants as part of regular research grants includes tuition support that is not capped. According to this NSF FAQ:

Tuition remission is generally treated as part of an organization’s fringe benefit rate or as a direct cost. NSF’s policy is that colleges and universities should budget tuition remission consistent with its established indirect cost rate methodology and negotiated rate agreement. If tuition remission is budgeted as a direct cost, it should be listed in the “Other” category of the Budget under “Other Direct Costs.

Note that there is nothing about a cap in the above guidance.

In contrast, NIH does cap tuition support for graduate research assistants at around $16K. Here is the relevant NIH policy:

Undergraduate and Predoctoral Trainees and Fellows:  For institutional training grants (T32, T34, T35, T90, TL1, TL4) and individual fellowships (F30, F31), an amount per predoctoral trainee equal to 60% of the level requested by the applicant institution, up to $16,000 per year, will be provided.

This difference between the two science agencies is trivial for a lot of cases, were graduate students are paying in-state tuition at a public university. You can find some of the relevant data from the College Board here. However, in the case of some of the private research universities, this can be a very large amount of money. Here is the relevant tuition information for Princeton. And here in the same for Boston University. Even for public institutions, the out-of-state tuition can be very large in comparison to $16K (Rackham graduate school, University of Michigan).

Taken to its logical conclusion, NSF risks becoming a tuition-support agency instead of a science agency as tuition costs continue to rise across the country. This makes no sense. NSF should cap tuition support just like NIH does.

The communications problem…

As in the communications problems of scientists as they try to explain the intellectual merit of their work to non-scientists in plain language. Here’s a terrific essay by Samuel Matlack on that problem within the context of physics. This is not some feel-good exercise. Unless and until scientists develop this knack, they will continue to be viewed with skepticism by the folks who hold the purse strings.