Earmark Science

The practice of funding science with congressional earmarks1 is just the tip of the iceberg. I fear that we are experiencing a general disintegration of the quality and integrity of American science and engineering. From fundamental research to operating decisions like the ones made on the Deepwater Horizon that led to the disaster in the Gulf, bad technical decisions are being made—more often than not driven by politicians, lawyers, managers, and accountants with little or no relevant technical knowledge.

The Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have effectively turned most of their scientists and engineers into contract monitors. Privatization of research has turned many of our academic researchers into prostitutes, willing to lie, cheat, and blow in the ear of anyone with money. We need to begin to demand better of our leaders and ourselves. If we do not, we can look forward to...

“Privatization of research has turned many of our academic researchers into prostitutes, willing to lie, cheat, and blow in the ear of anyone with money.”

Alan Ramsbotham, Jr.
Orion Enterprises, Inc.
Fredericksburg, Va.

The only way to take back control of our research and our futures is to force ourselves to go through standard channels and refuse earmarks. It is painful, but peer review is still the best way.

Felicia Etzkorn
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, VA

1. B. Grant, “Science, Side of Pork,”The Scientist, 24(6):32–38, June 2010.

Do Women make Better PIs?

In your editorial1 you seem to imply that because a particular field may be more “male” it follows that it is somehow easier for an individual male within that field to attain a PhD, much less become a Principal Investigator.

It is as an individual, whether male or female, that one determines one’s future in science. One must have the “right stuff” to succeed—a combination of intelligence, persistence, savvy, resilience, fortitude, a bit of luck, personal tact etc. The university science landscape is littered with male individuals who, having failed to meet the demands of a full-fledged scientific career, are relegated, if not to the periphery of their chosen careers, to a niche which is at least palatable. There never will be a shortage of male former postdocs. The brutal fact is, they didn’t have what was necessary to attain tenure-track PI status.

John Leferovich
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pa.

I am sympathetic to the discussion about whether or not women make better PIs,2 but I don’t think that it really helps women all that much. Our society has trained most of us to look outside of ourselves whenever we encounter an obstacle. “They rejected my proposal, the reviewer must be an ignoramus!” (When in fact the fault always lies with us as the writers.) “The oil spill in the Gulf is caused by big, irresponsible oil companies!” (When in fact the oil companies are big and irresponsible only because we keep driving cars and buying gas from them.) “My science career is moving slowly because I’m a woman and there are barriers!” (When in fact we could be doing a number of things to personally overcome those barriers so that this wouldn’t be an issue.)

Morgan Giddings
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC

1. S. Greene, “Our Science, our Selves,”The Scientist, 24(6):15, June 2010.
2. E. Zielinska, “Are Women better PIs?”The Scientist, 24(6):71–73, June 2010.

Shock and Age

Richard Morimoto’s very nice article about the role of heat shock proteins in aging1 reminds me of how Balkanized the heat shock field was in the early days. Investigators were walled in by disciplinary boundaries and geographical ones as well. It was Rick and a handful of community-minded researchers who took time away from their scholarly work to serve as presidents of the Cell Stress Society International. Although he was too modest to include it, his efforts and those of his colleagues really stimulated cross-fertilization of ideas in this field on a global scale. To a large extent, this is what has led to the realization of the role and potential for stress responses in human health and disease.

Lawrence Hightower
University of Connecticut
Storrs, Conn.

I was attracted to the article by Morimoto’s statement: “All protein misfolding diseases are associated with aging.” He is fortunate that he became interested in the problem of protein misfolding from his grade school days. I am from an older generation, and first heard about the problem of protein folding from Buzz Baldwin, while he was an Assistant Professor at the Biochemistry Department, University of Wisconsin. I came to the same laboratory as a graduate student to the adjoining laboratory in 1957. Subsequently, I kept up a passive interest on the subject, but it has amazed me—like so many other basic science findings—that a little observation leads to a very profound thesis on a fundamental principle and in life sciences relevant to human diseases. I wish this kind of an article will be read by younger people first taking science courses.

Robert Fujimura
GRECC, VA Puget Sound Health Care System
Seattle, Wash.

1. Richard Morimoto, “Shock and Age,”The Scientist, 24(6):15, June 2010.

New Impact Factors Yield Surprises

The news story about the 2009 impact factors1 shows how impact factors can really change and mislead. In spite of the outcry from scientists all over the globe, impact factors (and not citation half-life) have continuously been unwisely employed, interpreted and manipulated, particularly by the administration. The result is that many scientists who actually did good work went down the drain and were never recognized by anyone because the journals they published in had a “low-impact factor” (which everybody knows is not an indication for individual papers). Thirty and 40 years before impact factors came abroad, we scientists were surviving pretty well. Even now, we select the papers that are important to our research, and these selections usually do not come from high-impact journals. What is worse is that in these days, when the economy is weak, a lot of “scientists” use impact factors to step down on their colleagues to get ahead. If the administrations do not have a broad knowledge or mind, this is going to be detrimental to the future of the universities. Note that these comments represent my view only.

David T. Yew
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong

1. B. Grant, “New Impact Factors Yield Surprises,” The Scientist News, June 21, 2010.

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