Synthetic Bio, Meet “FBIo”

If the FBI wants to help protect scientists from bioterrorism, strategy needs to be first on this list, not last. Unless the FBI understands that, they won’t get anywhere. Scientists will be justifiably reluctant to work with law enforcement until they can be assured that the policies and procedures that led to the Steve Kurtz persecution have been fundamentally changed. Any lab that messed up as badly as the FBI did in that matter would take years to get its reputation back, and “PR and marketing” wouldn’t do the trick. It’s chilling that anyone thinks the FBI or any law enforcement agency can get what it wants just by selling itself better. This is an attitude I saw over and over again during my military career: “don’t fix the problem, just spin it.” The culture of science is uniquely suited to see through such chicanery....

Daniel Dvorkin
University of Colorado Denver
Aurora, Colo.

“The antiscience attitude of the FBI and Homeland Security could well subvert our leadership more effectively than any terrorist.”

The attitude of the FBI and Homeland Security has more in common with the Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials than with scientists and scientific procedure. When this is combined with the intellectual insecurity and power arrogance so common among people who speak for the FBI, it creates a condition truly dangerous for the American scientific enterprise by suppressing free inquiry, open communication, and the attraction of bright young Americans to science and engineering.

Here I observe that the leadership position of the United States in today’s global technology depends directly on the free inquiry of its scientists, engineers, physicians, and technologists. No amount of financial manipulation, sales creativity, or clever advertising contributes to that leadership. So the antiscience attitude of the FBI and Homeland Security could well subvert our leadership more effectively than any terrorist.

Wayne Lanier
Retired Microbiologist
San Francisco, Calif.

Opinion: Why cutting science is good

The story about how the loss of research dollars will enable colleges to focus on teaching1 correctly identifies one of the reasons that there has been a major shift toward reliance on research funding. State and local governments have cut support for higher education. In the current recession they are cutting support even more. As a result, the total number of available spaces for students and teachers in higher education will need to be reduced. In other words, reduction in research funds does not increase teaching funds and will not lead to increased teaching. It is much more likely that there will be fewer teachers, fewer spots for students in the classrooms, and fewer spots in the labs.

Bryan Heidorn
University of Arizona
Tucson, Ariz.

1. D. Grushkin, “Synthetic Bio, Meet FBIo, “ The Scientist, 24(5):44–51, May 2010.

Genuine research experience as an undergraduate can make a real difference in a student’s academic career. I have personally witnessed this impact numerous times in my career, which has spanned both an R1 institution and a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI).

My research projects moved with me from my previous R1 post to my current post at a PUI. This leads to the question of whether the work was somehow more “legitimate” before my choice to relocate. It should also be noted that truly transformative research has been carried out at PUIs for a fraction of the cost of a typical R1. So if supporting more research with less money is the goal, then it would be better to scrap R1 programs and put the money at the PUIs.

While many faculty at my current PUI do indeed “scrape by” with limited, mostly internal, funding for their research projects, others have successfully navigated the peer review process and secured major federal funding. In all cases, the students have benefited from working closely with the faculty on a topic that all are passionate about.

Robert Bachman
University of the South
Sewanee, Tenn.

Undergraduate research is a high-impact educational practice, and it has been amply demonstrated that undergraduate participation in high-quality research is an important factor in the recruitment and retention of students in STEM disciplines. I also have observed in my travels to many undergraduate institutions that faculty who remain actively involved in research are also more current in the fields of study, making them more effective and inspirational teachers.

At our college, which is not unlike many other liberal arts colleges, many if not most science departments require all graduating seniors to be involved in research as a condition of earning a bachelor’s degree. One does not “choose” one path over the other: teaching and research are complementary, necessary activities of true teacher-scholars, the kind of faculty we should aspire our undergraduates to be associated with.

Roger Rowlett
Colgate University
Hamilton, NY

I appreciate the perspective provided here, as I am one of the exhausted PUI faculty members to whom the interview refers. My best research activities are in fact carried out by my modest but real contributions to projects headquartered in powerhouse labs at top institutions. Some but not all of my fellow faculty here find that (when successful, which is increasingly rarely) our research activities recharge our batteries, keep us fresh, and frankly relieve the morale killing frustrations of administrivia and student immaturity that we (lacking office staff and TAs) are forced to deal with in our PUI jobs. I just came back from 4 days at “my” meeting, days I could barely scrape free since finals are next week; and I’m so fired up, I gave 3 of the best hours of classroom discussion today of my entire career. I love teaching, but it would be a grim world indeed if I could not also meaningfully involve myself—and a few select undergraduates—in research in my field.

Dana Vaughan
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
Oshkosh, Wis.

1. M. Scudellari, “Q&A: Why cutting science is good,” The Scientist News, May 5, 2010.

Science and the oil spill

Please don’t get me wrong...this oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a catastrophe beyond belief. But at least there is a wealth of data to measure it against so that we know the real effects and not just what certain corporate interests “imagine” them to be.

I hope the folks at Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, Louisiana State University’s Coastal Marine Institute, and other places don’t have to deal with mass disruption of their valuable work, but I also thank them, as we all should, for their dedication to knowing and understanding as much as possible about this important area of our country.1 Maybe now, more of our “leadership” will pay attention to what these scientists and others have been trying to tell them.

Clifford Kern
Consulting biologist
Metairie, La.

There are strains of oil-metabolizing bacteria available commercially that are quite effective at converting crude oil to nontoxic, or less toxic, chemicals.2 It might be worthwhile for the various US government agencies and British Petroleum involved in these well-plugging and clean-up operations to consider this option. Importantly, there are knowledgeable scientists and engineers who could be consulted about the possibility of using bioremediation techniques for the clean-up.

James Wilmer
Market America, Inc.
Greensboro, NC

1. B. Grant, “Scientists brace for oil impact,” The Scientist News, May 17, 2010.
2. B. Grant, “Oil spill is boon to bacteria,” The Scientist News, May 25, 2010:

When originally published, “Naturally Selected” listed the author of an article in Atlantic Monthly as David Carr. Also, “Synthetic Bio, Meet FBIo” this story misspelled the name of Integrated DNA Technologies. The Scientist regrets these errors.

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