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A selection of comments from our readers

By | January 1, 2011

 

Really Learning Biology

At least in the Unites States, most undergraduate biology majors are required to take an evolution course as part of their core curriculum, but I know of no undergraduate curriculum that requires a course in systematics. While evolution does indeed explain the “why” of homology, systematics tackles the more fundamental questions of “what is homology, how do we discover it, and use it to infer phylogenetic relationships?”

Dr. Moroz is right to decry a dearth of graduate-level evolution courses,[1. L. Moroz, “The Devolution of Evolution,” The Scientist, 24:36, November 2010.] but I would argue that the situation for systematics is even more dire than it is for evolution. This is due, in large part, to the usurpation of systematics as an independent field of inquiry by the “architects” of the modern synthesis in the 1940s, who conflated evidence with explanation and relegated the concept of homology and other principles of systematics to tautology, as “products of evolution.”

Andrew V. Z. Brower
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, TN
abrower@mtsu.edu

Animals As Research Subjects

Sarah Greene’s editorial[2. S. Greene, “We Must Face the Threats,” The Scientist, 24:13, November 2010.] touches on key aspects of the animal research debate. The core issues are not the degree of predictability of animal research as applied to humans, or the effectiveness of public debate among scientists or literate lay people.

The issues have to do with the relative weight given to conflicting values: the cost of human effort, material resources, animal suffering, etc. to purchase some (or any) useful data for the benefit of society at large, as compared to the benefit of avoiding human suffering by the production of such data. This applies to “basic” research as well as problem-directed research.

There is not a “right” answer when I confer with a patient and family about whether or not to give or withhold treatment modalities which may or may not increase or decrease degree of suffering or length of remaining life. Yet it is a question which I and they must answer, and in a way that is never fully satisfactory to all parties.

Edward Draper
Veterans Administration Medical Center
Boise, ID
edwardalandraper@hotmail.com

This Is Not News

As to your article[3. R.P. Grant, “Infection Plagues IQ?The Scientist, 24:22, November 2010] “Infection Plagues IQ?”: Springer published my book entitled Human Intelligence and Medical Illness: Assessing the Flynn Effect in 2009.

Among the community of scientists who use IQ tests for research, it is well known that such tests have to be renormed every decade or so, otherwise too many people will achieve a “genius-level” score. A careful compilation of the literature suggests that average IQ is increasing at a rate of about 1 point every 2 years. Hence, if IQ tests are not renormed every decade or so, the average person in 5 generations (100 years) would be a genius by current standards. This is the strongest possible refutation of the hackneyed argument originally advanced in The Bell Curve, that IQ is an immutable thing.

These changes are obviously far too rapid to be explained as resulting from evolution. Instead, rising IQ is almost certainly a product of improvements in general health, both in the United States and abroad.

My book identifies 30 preventable illnesses or conditions that together lower the IQs of millions of children in the United States; for example, more than 10 million American children are at risk from the environmental effects of poverty alone. The average number of IQ points lost for each of the 30 medical conditions identified is roughly 9 points. In a worst-case scenario, up to 367 million IQ points have potentially been lost by American children as a result of medical conditions that are preventable or treatable. If we assume that there are 74 million children in the United States now, this amounts to 5 IQ points potentially lost per American child.

R. Grant Steen
Medical Communications Consultants, LLC
Chapel Hill, NC
g_steen_medicc@yahoo.com

Funding Biomedical Research

Jonathan Yewdell’s[4. J. Yewdell, “Opinion: Research Redesign,” The Scientist News, November 9, 2010.] analysis of the current state of biomedical research in the U.S. is insightful. In a recent editorial in Science, Bruce Alberts stated, “With success rates for acquiring an NIH grant below 10% in some cases, achieving a stable research career now has elements of a lottery, with one’s future depending on a chance ranking assigned through a peer-review process that is unable to discriminate adequately among a sea of research proposals.” Indeed, as Yewdell’s article proclaims, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

“Whining for dollars is the #1 academic indoor sport, and no one does it better than biomedical researchers!”

The solution is a paradigm shift in the way we fund research. Yewdell’s proposal to have a version of the NIH intramural system in universities reminds me of the CNRS labs partnered with universities in France, and could be a component of the new paradigm.

Another component of the new system should be the allocation of about half of NIH funding to scientists who have a track record of solid publications, and the other half to young scientists with a proven postdoctoral track record who are starting their first independent position. These awardees will save time by not having to submit numerous grant applications, avoid the anxiety of uncertainty, focus on their research, take risks, and afford to be creative. With grants limited to $300,000/year for “established” investigators, $50,000/year for younger scientists, and indirect costs limited to 30%, we can fund 80,000 grants at a cost of $18.2 billion/year. This is more than 3 times the number of R01 grants the NIH funds now. Imagine how many more new ideas will be generated by these 80,000 grantees to help cure cancer, AIDS, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

Nejat Düzgünes
University of the Pacific
Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry
San Francisco, CA
nduzgune@pacific.edu

So let me get this straight. There are too many researchers and too few dollars, but there isn’t any problem with training too many students and throwing a good portion of them to the wolves of unemployment? This has the advantage of being very convenient for PIs who need cheap labor, but the disadvantage of flying directly in the face of the highly competitive job market encountered by life sciences PhDs.

There will be no solution until the overpopulation problem is recognized and addressed. Unfortunately, there is still motivation to cynically promote the myth that there is a shortage of PhD students.

Michael Holloway
Rhode Island Hospital
Providence, RI
mike_holloway@hotmail.com

I earn my living thinking about science funding, and I have tried to draw attention to the detrimental warping the current system exerts on academic norms and values. More than a decade ago, I floated an idea akin to the one in this Opinion by many of my friends and colleagues, mostly successful biomedical researchers at prestigious research universities who are well-funded by NIH. Many think it a good idea as long as the “everyone has enough but no one is huge or overly rich” rubric is only applied to others. Whining for dollars is the #1 academic indoor sport, and no one does it better than biomedical researchers! The roots of this problem deserve serious outing: overbuilding, the addiction to discretionary funds brought to institutions via indirect cost recovery, and the overproduction of trainees. A smaller, leaner basic biomedical enterprise, unfettered and allowed to study serious biology, will probably accomplish much more than the bloated work-fare program we currently are trapped in.

Susan Fitzpatrick
James S. McDonnell Foundation
Saint Louis, MO
susan@jsmf.org

Shhh: Scientists Rock

Re: your news story by Amy Maxmen.[5. A. Maxmen, “Scientists As Rock Stars,” The Scientist News, November 17, 2010.]I find it hard to believe that scientists have to run around pretending we’re not nerds in white jackets and slide rules (!). Of course, we’re mostly ordinary people, but do we really want the public to know that? Ordinary people don’t ask for and get million-dollar government grants to play in their laboratories. Bankers and Wall Street gamblers keep an aura of mystery and magic around them, and citizens can’t stop themselves from throwing money at them.

William Penrose
Custom Sensor Solutions, Inc.
Tucson, AZ
wpenrose@customsensorsolutions.com

We want to hear from you. Please e-mail your comments, criticisms, or differing viewpoints to
mail@the-scientist.com

Corrections: In the December 2010 print edition of The Scientist, the biography of Kevin Kelly (Thought Experiment: “Evolving the Scientific Method,” p. 30) was inadvertenly truncated. The full biography reads: Kevin Kelly is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine, which he co-founded in 1993. He is also editor and publisher of the Cool Tools website. Formerly, he was publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Review, a journal of unorthodox technical news; he co-founded the ongoing Hackers’ Conference; and was involved with the launch of the WELL, a pioneering online service started in 1985. He is author of the best-selling New Rules for the New Economy and the classic book on decentralized emergent systems, Out of Control.This essay is adapted from Kelly’s latest book, What Technology Wants, published in October 2010 (Viking/Penguin). You may read the first chapter at http://www.kk.org/books/whattechnology-wants.php.

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