Let's change the world

I congratulate you on "The scientist as politician,"1 and I personally feel it is critical that those in scientific professions become involved in the political process for a variety of reasons. Skills in writing and communication are important, since I have found that by being on several nonprofit boards, and now serving as president of a local homeowners' association, that "paralysis by analysis" tends to creep into meetings. The ability to communicate clearly and succinctly is critical.

Finally, I would add one modest bit of advice. While being active in politics is a laudable goal, be careful what you wish for, as I have found the time commitment substantial. Whether it be a phone call, correspondence or informal discussions, I have found one can easily have hundreds of hours committed. However, one of my favorite bumper stickers said: "Don't complain about farmers with your mouth...

I found it always peculiar why scientists do not get involved in politics. Now, after more than one year as a Minister of Health of Spain, I understand why.

As a university professor for more than 20 years, I found it always peculiar why scientists do not get involved in politics. Now, after more than one year as a Minister of Health of Spain, I understand why. Even with the experience of chairing a department or several scientific societies, I found working in politics to be hard. There is no training for such a job, but we scientists should commit with taking more responsibility in politics, otherwise others will do the job. If you plan to stay in science, at least send your suggestions to your government. It works. Even more, you could become the next minister.

Bernat Soria
Minister of Health and Consumer Affairs
Madrid, Spain bsoria@msc.es

I am a scientist who has gone from academia to business and, very recently, into the Oregon legislature. While academia is certainly a political environment, it is only modest preparation for a political career. Few issues, if any, are straightforward and the expert advisors present their differing positions with clarity and great confidence. The "peer review" process on legislative committees is, to my newcomers' eyes, certainly no easier than deciding whose proposal gets funded.

In tight races, the campaign easily fills every waking hour. Hopefully, you're elected and get to serve. Having just come on board, I am looking forward to the session and fully expect it to be a very rewarding experience. Not monetarily, though: As with many research positions, you can't be in this for the money.

Most reactions I've received from my new colleagues so far are very encouraging. The legislature is definitely not saturated with scientists and someone with our training is viewed as a welcome addition by most other legislators.

Christian Harker
President, Cayuse, Inc.
Representative, Oregon House District 34
Portland, OR charker@cayuse.com


1. E. Zielinska, "The scientist as politician," The Scientist, 21(9):73-75, September 2008.

Classical biology, RIP

Re: "Is systematic biology dead?"1 the same question applies to many of the "classical" branches of biological sciences. The old teachers and the remaining hardline researchers in these fields are going into extinction, suffering often from the lack of appreciation and funding. These fields are in fact vital to the foundation of biology and health sciences, and their downfall (or even extinction) will have a great impact to the human community and will influence the scientific society in the ages to come.

David Yew
Chinese University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong, China david-yew@cuhk.edu.hk


1. B. Grant, "Is systematic biology dead?" The Scientist NewsBlog, September 8, 2008.

Ferreting out fraud

In "My favorite fraud,"1 Steven Wiley says he now reads a paper's technical details before evaluating its conclusions. This is something I like to do as well, but I am finding a most disturbing trend - in many journals, the "technical details" are relegated to the appendix or electronic file, along with other data as tables or figures. While these files are "accessible," they are not always available remotely. Similarly, we are about to go to severely reduced grant proposals in the NIH system, wherein the "technical details" don't even need to be present nor much evidence of preliminary data. This worries me badly.

Virginia Huxley
Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center
Columbia, MO huxleyv@health.missouri.edu

"That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." (William Shakespeare)

I was fortunate enough to take two Shakespeare classes taught by an outstanding Shakespearean, Warren Smith. I saw pharmacy, engineering, and microbiology majors standing in long lines at registration trying to get into his classes.

It was he who told me that when we read journal articles of any kind, we ought to cover the author's name and judge the article on its own merit. It takes the ego out of things, and I found the technique to work across all sorts of disciplines.

Megan Lalli
Avondale, PA megan49@hotmail.com


1. S. Wiley, "My favorite fraud," The Scientist, 21(9):29, September 2008.

Fishing for answers

Is there any chance the Chiapas catfish with African origins that mysteriously turned up in Mexico, described in "Whence this fish?",1 was a relatively recent introduction of an exotic invasive species from the aquarium trade? For instance, someone could have dumped a fish that got too big for an aquarium.

Alternatively, the fish could have arrived via the aquaculture industry or perhaps ship ballast, implicated for introducing the infamous Zebra mussel, round goby, and other organisms in the Great Lakes. Did the researchers look for it in Africa?

Greg Wooster
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY gaw5@cornell.edu

We have indeed considered the possible human-mediated transplant of an extant African species, especially in light of our global inventory of catfish species. However, there is no sign of Lacantunia in Africa, where ichthyological exploration has had a long and productive history. If Lacantunia were a transplant, one would expect it to be reasonably common and known in Africa - it is a big edible fish. Also, if it were such a transplant, it would be an old one (decades or more), since the local Mayan Native Americans in Chiapas have their own name for it: "Madre de juil", that is, "mother of" one of the other catfish in the Rio Usumacinta.

John Lundberg
Academy of Natural Sciences
Philadelphia, PA lundberg@ansp.org


1. E. Dolgin, "Whence this fish?," The Scientist, 21(9):23-4, September 2008.

Zerhouni's NIH legacy

Re: "Zerhouni resigns as NIH head."1 The trend under Zerhouni's watch for NIH to bias funding towards more grandiose schemes (programs and already enormous groupings) is a common evolution in many science jurisdictions.1

Here in Canada, we are seeing a similar switch of funds away from the individual generators of new ideas to large "collaborations" (at least on paper) and high price infrastructure. Increasing difficulty in getting a basic grant funding has eroded the spirit of many young investigators.

In the UK, the MRC went through the same stages (toward big project funding) and then reversed back in favor of individual grants. I hope NIH and federal agencies everywhere get the message.

Robert Harrison
University of Toronto
Ontario, Canada rvh@sickkids.ca


1. B. Grant, "Zerhouni resigns as NIH head," The Scientist NewsBlog, September 24, 2008.

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