Congress is losing it.

February 27, 2014

Just after we noticed that Congress has seen fit to add a special prohibition on anything done with Federal grant funds that might suggest gun control is in order, there’s another late breaking Congressional mandate notice.


FY 2014 New Legislative Mandate

Restriction of Pornography on Computer Networks (Section 528)
“(a) None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to maintain or establish a computer network unless such network blocks the viewing, downloading, and exchanging of pornography.

(b) Nothing in subsection (a) shall limit the use of funds necessary for any Federal, State, tribal, or local law enforcement agency or any other entity carrying out criminal investigations, prosecution, or adjudication activities.”

Really guys? That was a top priority item?

Interesting though, isn’t it? Including indirect cost expenditures this would seem to apply to a very large number of Universities in the US. And now Congress has demanded they adopt nanny pR0n filters.

I don’t see any exceptions for classwork here, either.

I had previously noted a situation in which an ad for a volunteer (i.e., unpaid) postdoc position requiring 2-3 years of prior experience was posted in the San Diego area.

A bit by David Wagner (@david_r_wagner) on the KPBS site specifies:

Well, it wasn’t a joke. But it wasn’t exactly straight-forward, either.

The job listing was vague from the get-go. Who exactly was hiring? The only details given were “lab in La Jolla.”

Well, there are lots of labs in La Jolla. So I had to do some digging to find out which one posted this, and I found out that the listing was posted by a researcher named Laura Crotty Alexander. She’s a physician at the VA San Diego Healthcare System who doubles as a UCSD faculty member. I couldn’t reach her for comment.

If Alexander’s listing looked like a terrible opportunity, that’s by design, according to VA chief of staff Robert Smith.

“Frankly, what she was trying to do was make it look unappealing,” Smith said. “Because she was trying to create an advertisement that nobody would apply to.”

You see, the VA lab already had someone in mind for the position: a postdoc from Egypt who actually volunteered to work for free.

The reporter further specified:

which in my view is a far from uncommon situation. I’ve received inquiries about working in my lab under similar circumstances.

This is wrong.

You know how I feel about unpaid internships.
Unpaid internships are a systemic labor exploitation scam- yes, in science labs too.

That was written in the context of undergraduate “interns”. Imagine the magnitude of my distaste for exploiting a PhD with 2-3 years of postdoctoral experience. It is wrong.

1) It is wrong because it is labor exploitation. We dealt with that over 100 years ago in the US. Yes, exploitation always continues and is resisted in fits and starts by unions, regulation and competitive pressures. But the arguments remain the same, the benefits of exploiting labor are tempting and the excuses are no better in the scientific context. I don’t care that the candidate “volunteers”. I don’t care that the candidate is getting authorship or keeping her hand in the game of science or whatever excuse you want to advance. This is the case for all postdocs. Should we refuse to pay all of them? Heck no. Just like we stopped letting companies demand their employees worked in the mines for 14 hr shifts, 7 days a week with no breaks. Just like we discouraged and restricted company-store, company-town scams which ended up reducing real wages. Just like we established a minimum wage. Etc. Just like modern jurisprudence is rejecting free intern scams.

2) It is wrong because it is an unfair competitive advantage for those who choose to exploit junior scientists in this way. I am a PI who is competing for precious research grant funds with other PIs. This competition is based in large part on the work product that comes out of our respective laboratories. Data generated and papers published. If some other person gets labor for free and I have to pay for it, then I am disadvantaged. Under our general labor laws, this is an unfair tilt to the table. Everyone should have to play by the same rules.

Please, people. Call your Congress Critter. Draw their attention to this news report. Use your knowledge of their political positions to trip their triggers. Maybe it is the visa-dodging aspect. Maybe it is the “taking the job from American postdocs” aspect. Maybe they are sensitive to labor exploitation arguments. Whichever works, use it.

h/t: @neuromusic



Tightly wound

April 17, 2013

A friend was recently observing that we academics seem pretty high strung right now. Cranked up to the breaking point, I’d say.

Of course we are. This sequester and continuing resolution thing has really put the bite on. The lab closings that seemed only in the realm of a Friend of a Friend or a likely possibility are now becoming reality. I’m seeing PIs leave. Close down. Jump ship. In all of this there are technicians and postdocs losing their jobs. Grad students who cannot find a funded lab to join after the rotations are finished up. Institutional decision making that seems even closer than usual to hand-flapping panic rather than a plan.

Baby, it’s cold outside.

I pointed out some time ago that inflation “UnDoubled” the NIH budget rapidly in the wake of sustained Bush-era (now Obama-era) flatline budgets for the NIH. Nothing like a graph to make a point so I’ll repost it.

Figure 1. NIH Appropriations (Adjusted for Inflation in Biomedical Research) from 1965 through 2007, the President’s Request for 2008, and Projected Historical Trends through 2010.
All values have been adjusted according to the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index on the basis of a standard set of relevant goods and services (with 1998 as the base year).* The trend line indicates average real annual growth between fiscal years 1971 and 1998 (3.34%), with projected growth (dashed line) at the same rate. The red square indicates the president’s proposed NIH budget for fiscal year 2008, also adjusted for inflation in biomedical research.

Now, what I ran across today at Ethan Perlstein’s post on Postdocalypse now (go read) was this graph which makes the same point in a slightly different way. I like it. He didn’t link the source so I’m not certain of the inflation adjustment used…probably not the above BRDPI, I would think. But still…makes the point doesn’t it? At best the NIH purchasing power went up by 50%. It was never actually “doubled”.

UPDATE: Perlstein noted that he grabbed the figure from this article at dailykos by emptypockets which says this about the sourcing:

The Science column links to a study by Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University (PDF of PowerPoint slides) that puts some numbers on exactly how the doubling affected young scientists.

And help keep his attention on this possible throw-away from the State of the Union address.

I was heartened by several observations from the US President that seemed to suggest he understands that investment in basic research (no, not just targeted development) was the key to sustained economic growth into the future. But you need to help keep him on task. And get Congress on board.

I noted a few months ago that a petition has been launched to collect signatures favoring minor increases in funding for the NIH. There are 3,931 people as of this writing.

Are you one of them? Have you passed the link around your lab, department or Uni? How about to your academic socities? Have you posted it on your Facebook and Twitter feeds?

Please do.

I ran across a petition on the Twitts today that asks Congress to support scientific research in the current budget discussions. This one is focused on the NIH:
Congress: increase federal research funding for the National Institutes of Health

The text reads, in part:

Dear Members of Congress

I am writing to you today to implore you to support the House proposal to increase the 2012 National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget by 3.3% ($31.7 billion). Since the 1930’s, the NIH has been a fundamental supporter of basic biomedical research in the U.S. Funding from the NIH supports research in all 50 states. These awards are made to over 3,000 universities, medical schools, and research institutions, and they support more than 350,000 researchers. NIH funding to basic research has supported findings that were honored by 121 Nobel Prizes, including this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The nonprofit coalition United for Medical Research concluded that funding by the NIH in 2010 produced $68 billion in new economic activity, which is a greater than 100% return on our investment!

I urge you to add your name to the petition.
The bumpersticker is from Zazzle.

from Nature:

The 2012 spending bill would cut the salary cap by 17%, from US$199,700 to $165,300, for extramural scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health…

I was wondering when some Congress Critter would figure out s/he can make some hay out of attacking scientists for their exorbitant salaries.

Here’s my question though. Since $250,000 per year is “middle class” according to the last round of political rhetoric which addressed the salary/class issue…by what justification should scientists be under attack?

[bit of a Twittersation going on as well, start here]
p.s. The vast majority of NIH funded PIs are way, waaaaaay under the salary cap, going by my experience. I would estimate that a disproportionate number of them are MD’s as well. The theory on this latter is that they need to be bribed, I mean equivalently compensated, away from purely clinical careers. Agree or not, it needs to be considered.

p.p.s. While this sounds good on paper, in the immediate and medium term, this would roll back on those of us who are not BSD investigators making cap. Why? Because the Uni’s would have to come up with the difference. Money being fungible, this means less cash for startup packages, bridging support, faculty senate pilot awards, paying for administrative staff, graduate student salaries….

p.p.p.s. Despite the pain, and the fact that some day I’d love to be at cap as it is right now, I’m actually in support of this. In the abstract. And if there were some way to stave off the immediate pain for junior folks (there isn’t) I’d be a lot happier about it.

Isis the Scientist recently posted a letter from the FASEB regarding a proposal in the Congress to pass a continuing budget resolution that whacks $1.6 Billion from the NIH budget for the current fiscal year. That’s a whole lot of grants that won’t be funded.
I’ll join many of my blogging colleagues in urging you to click on [ This Link ] to find the phone number of the Washington DC office of your Congressional Rep and for you to make that call.
I’ll also suggest a few things you might want to have at the top of your list for communicating to the office staffer who answers the phone. This originally went up Oct 29, 2008.

Since many of our US readers are feeling jazzed about politics right about now, it is a good time to discuss Talking Points. You, DearReader, whether in the biomedical science biz or merely interested in some aspect of biomedical science, are the first line of attack in advocating for the continued health of our federally funded science enterprises. As we’ve all learned over the past 8 or even 16 years of US politics, crafting and honing messages to convey essential themes is critical to political success. Generating a mantra-chant and drumbeat of lemming feet on a consistent and limited set of bullet point topics is the way to cut through the noise and transmit the message. Call it framing or Talking Points or whatever you like.
I have a suggestion for how scientists may wish to approach their CongressCritters.

Read the rest of this entry »

There is a long tradition of Congressional members trying to whip up a little support from their base by going after federally funded extramural research projects of the NIH. I have described some of this here and here.

You will note the trend, this has by and large been an effort of socially conservative Republican Congress Critters to attack projects that focus on issues of sexual behavior, drug taking, gender identity, homosexuality, etc. We know this is their focus because despite talking about “waste” of federal money they make no effort to realistically grapple with cost/benefit. No doubt because in their view the only necessary solution to behavioral health issues is “Stop it! If you can’t then you must be morally inferior and do not deserve any public concern”.

You will also note that they don’t really mean it in many cases. You’ll see this blather when they know they have no chance of getting the votes. In a prior case I reviewed, the complainers identified cancer as being a “real” concern worthy of funding, and then picked on a cancer-related project. A long while back when I first got interested (and I can’t remember the specific details- it was a psychology type grant on beautifying dorm rooms or something), the Congress Critter’s amendment specified an existing specific grant year- there was no way that I could see that the funds can be retrieved in such a situation. So you could see where much of this is just naked political posturing with no intent of actually doing anything. But still…it continues the anti-science environment and political memery. So we should address it.

Cackle of Rad has tipped us to a new effort by Rep Eric Cantor (R; VA) and Adrian Smith (R; NE) to invite you, the public, to identify NSF projects that irritate you. One assumes they think the public should be allowed to vote the projects out of funding.

Now, admittedly, I find the specific examples to be refreshing and new

Recently, however NSF has funded some more questionable projects – $750,000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players and $1.2 million to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game industry.

Not a sign of a social issue and, gasp, are they really criticizing corporate pork? Admittedly the video game industry is not traditionally an ally of social conservatives (Grand Theft Auto anyone? hmm, maybe this requires some additional thought) but still.

Okay, so what are my two biggest objections to this practice.

First, the basic-science issue. It has been discussed before extensively on blogs. All clinical applications, medical devices, drugs, etc, are rooted in prior basic science that stretches back for decades and in cases centuries. We cannot get to new treatments in the future without laying the groundwork of basic understanding of healthy and diseased function of the human, the mammal, the vertebrate, the animal, the alive, the Earth-ian. Therefore the application of much of the present basic science work cannot be confidently asserted at the time it is being conducted. Sure, we pursue a general idea and can make some predictions about where it might apply but the history suggests that it is often a fortuitous inference, surprising connection or unlooked-for application of existing knowledge that creates a new therapy.

Non-biological research and design differs very little in this regard. Many new products and applications are built on the discoveries and innovations that came from basic (and applied, admittedly) science that came before.

It is a big mistake to allow persons who do not understand this to make the tactical decisions on what should and should not be funded. By tactical, of course, I mean the specific projects. I have less problem with Congress weighing in on general priorities, such as swings from focus on breast cancer to AIDS to Alzheimer’s to diabetes or whatever. We have to accept, in the sciences, that there will be some degree of this prioritization that will not respect each of our own parochial research interests.

Just so long as we don’t have wholesale prevention of research into major categories of health concern, that is…

My second objection to the democratic approach is the cost/benefit analysis objection. Not that it is my role to do such cost/benefit but the system as a whole should be sensitive to this. To a rational knowledge that, for example, if we create a new drug which lets an Alzheimer’s patient live at home for 9 mo longer, stave off the need for in-home professional help for 12 mo and/or transition to low-intensity hospice later..well this is going to save a lot of money on a population basis. Not least because then they might, statistically, die of a stroke or heart attack or some other normal condition more frequently before they go into the intensive phase of managing end stage Alzheimer’s.

The argument for corporate welfare for new products of a non-health nature is really no different. Spend money now to reap bigger savings later.

It’s called “investment”, yo!

And I don’t really see where little ‘d’ democracy at a tactical level helps out with deciding what to invest in for the future.

The NIH Office of Extramural Research has a howler in the recent Nexus.

Application titles, abstracts and statements of public health relevance that are part of your application are read by reviewers, program officers and other NIH staff, but once funded, this information is also available to the public

so therefore

The extramural community has a responsibility to clearly communicate the intent and value of their research to all those interested in learning more—Congress, the public, administrators, and scientists. Take every opportunity to tell people what you do, why you do it, and why they should care.

Well yes, this is true. DM’s always going on about the taxpayer being “the boss”. Ok. Gotcha there.

But how stupid do they think we are? Why the emphasis on the items that show up in RePORTER?

Right wing wackaloon politicians making hay by bashing peer reviewed and funded scientific projects. That’s why.

Like ol’ Proxmire






Barton and Walden

and the latest….John McCain and Coburn on supposed ARRA excesses.

Gee, I somehow think that us scientists explaining the importance of our research a little better isn’t going to do much good. These dumbasses don’t care about the science. Heck, they don’t even care about the money- one R01 is a mere dustmote in the Congressional allocation process. This is about drumming up political mouth breathers with anti-science blather, preferably focused on social health issues which run afoul of their moralistic viewpoints on human behavior.

Sex, drugs and HIV.

Work on those topics and all the explaining in the world isn’t going to fend of critique from Congress.

I think we can safely ignore this request.

From this Op-Ed.

The Institute of Medicine has recently released a report outlining the ominous public-health threat of chronic hepatitis C, much of which is the result of unwitting infection through medically-necessary blood transfusions, leading to 350,000 deaths worldwide each year and infecting more than three to five times as many people in the United States as HIV.

Narsty isn’t it? We should get right on that, don’t you think? Any decent models for research?

Currently, chimpanzees are the only experimental animal, except for humans themselves, susceptible to infection with hepatitis C. The Great Ape Protection Act would end the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, grinding promising studies to a halt and unconscionably delaying the release of anti-viral therapies and a vaccine for chronic hepatitis C.


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Our good blogfriend, Scibling and scientist-artist BioE! has a post up discussing the intersection of drug abuse health care, drug abuse science, research funding and the political process. I recommend you start with:

Double standards, politics, and drug treatment research

But there’s a huge double standard in the media, and in society in general, when it comes to drug abuse treatment…Maybe it’s because these other addicts are meth addicts, or potheads, or heroin addicts – probably not people you relate to or approve of. That makes it pretty easy for the media to take cheap shots at crack, etc. addicts, and question whether we should waste money trying to help them…But here’s an even easier target than pot smokers: drug-using Thai transgendered prostitutes!

That last is not a joke.

Read the rest of this entry »

The good Dr. Isis is in the midst of reviewing Unscientific America and she has been striking a plaintive note:

Read the rest of this entry »

In our last episode of “CongressCritter Meddling”, it was Rep. Issa (R; CA) who tried to amend some appropriations bill or other to prevent the funding of three specific NIH grants.
The latest round of heroes are Reps Joe Barton (R; TX) and Greg Walden (R; OR) who are asking the new NIH director, Francis Collins, to come clean about a list of grants.

With that in mind, Barton and Walden are puzzled by some of the grants that were approved: “Impact of Dragon Boat Racing on Cancer Survivorship”; “Substance Use and HIV Risk Among Thai Women”; “The Healing of the Canoe”; “Patterns of Drug Use and Abuse in the Brazilian Rave Culture”.
“We do not doubt that there may be some degree of scientific benefit to be gained from these studies,” Barton and Walden wrote. “However, given the number of urgent public health issues facing the NIH, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and pandemic disease, we question how peer review panels determined these projects to have ‘high scientific caliber’ and how they are particularly relevant to the NIH Institute and Center research priorities.”

It is the usual blowhard posturing. Want proof?

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Poster Version
from Research!America
As PhysioProf just posted, we received a note from Heather Benson of the New Voices blog alerting everyone to a new poster created by Research!America. These sources also point us to a nifty web site which allows you to examine the distribution of NIH ARRA funding in the US.
Pretty interesting. In a couple of prior posts I talked about using NIH funding data to enhance your communications with your Congressional Rep I notice that the ARRA tables provided by the Research!America site include a national rank for each Congressional district. I make out the top Congressional NIH ARRA recipient districts as:
1. MA 8
2. NC 4
3. CA 53
4. NY 14
5. PA 2
Hmm, pretty good concordance with the overall NIH allocation, the only outlier seems to be MD 07, which falls to 6th on the ARRA list from 4th overall.
If you have received any ARRA funding I would encourage you to print out the poster and stick it up somewhere. Remember, all those support staff of your institution right down to overnight custodians are taxpayers and voters. It is important to communicate to them that the stimulus is supporting your work (and therefore their jobs) just as much as the new bridge-fixing or pothole-filling projects that impede their commute.