How much should Gardasil cost?

Re: "How much should Gardasil cost?",1 which argues that Merck could cut the price of its HPV [human papillomavirus] vaccine by 90% and still profit. Stop complaining that publicly traded, for-profit companies charge too much for their products. They were not established to maximize the social good. If you believe they are denying treatment due to pricing, you have other options beyond haranguing them about morality: Go to a stockholders' meeting, campaign to change patent laws, or investigate a vaccine to compete with theirs. Personally, I'm just glad to see the pharmaceutical companies actually back to working on life-saving products instead of hair-growers and erectile-dysfunction treatments.

Robert Dodge
Falmouth, ME

"The benefits of taxpayer funded research should be made available at a very reasonable cost to the American public."

In considering how much profit Merck is entitled to make on its...


1. G. McGee, "How much should Gardasil cost?" The Scientist, 21(8):26, August 2007. 2.

Getting more out of grants

Nejat Düzgünes states that the system is "overwhelmed by a large number of grant applications that are impossible to distinguish in terms of their significance and merit."1 The low funding rate stimulates multiple and repeated submissions of proposals which swamp the reviewing system and impede its proper operation so that the evaluation scores given are near stochastic. As researchers become aware of the stochasticity of the decision process, they adapt their strategy by mass-producing applications and bombarding agencies with submissions, for in a random process the number becomes the key determinant of the probability of success.

This self-perpetuating vicious cycle not only costs time, energy, and nerves of applicants and reviewers that could be spent for more creative tasks, but the time pressure also lowers the overall quality of both submissions and comments. In a stochastic system, naturally, the average reigns. Average, by necessity, means mediocrity. In other words, the entire review process has over the years evolved a state that actively and robustly promotes mediocrity, and it is locked in this state.

Sui Huang
Children's Hospital, Harvard Medical School
Boston, MA

Ten-year grants with $300,000 per year are a very good idea and would give the recipient scientist stability, financial security, and best of all, the emotional security that comes along with it. However, barring scientists who receive these grants from applying for any other federal grants is a mistake. Not allowing the scientist to respond and participate in periodic RFPs [requests for proposals] will stifle science and the scientist.

Shanthi Raam
Oncology Lab, Tufts University School of Medicine
Boston, MA

A lottery to hand out funds and not judging the merit of work2 will result in a lot of garbage and very little results.

Gordon Couger
Stillwater, OK


1. N. Düzgünes, "
A new paradigm for NIH grants," The Scientist, 21(8):24, August 2007. 2. A. Aszodi, "The perils of industrialization," The Scientist, 21(8):25, August 2007.

Scientists stopped at the border

Unfortunately, since physicians have been found to be at the core of a significant terrorist plot, and since it is known that Al Qaeda wants to use chemical and biological weapons, a person such as Mohammed Sajid will be watched carefully.1 It is even more unfortunate that London has proved to be a center for expatriate Islamist radical activity. Consequently, a man such as Mr. Sajid, by traveling there, fits a pattern that puts him on a list of very high level of concern.

Additionally, many of the 9-11 attackers were college educated, with families, so that traditional marker of relative safety has also been reversed. I am a US citizen and not either Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent, but I have been flagged and questioned by the FBI. We must all bear with this, and cooperate with it, because there really is no other way to deal with this problem of asymmetric warfare. Isn't it better that a few people are inconvenienced than for thousands or millions to die?

Brian Hanley
University of California, Davis
Sacramento, CA

In the long run, government prying into personal spheres will contribute to thousands of people suffering longer and dying earlier from debilitating disease, where scientific endeavor and treatments are disrupted or delayed.

John Collins
Technical University of Braunschweig
Braunschweig, Germany


1. E. Zielinska, "
Have science, can't travel," The Scientist, 21(8):17, August 2007.

Discrimination in academia

Editor's Note: Frank Douglas resigned from senior positions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this summer, in the wake of the Institute's controversial denial of tenure to James Sherley, who staged a hunger strike in protest in February. In Discrimination in academia, Douglas describes his reasons for resigning, which go beyond the Sherley case. We published it in late July, in advance of print, to spark a discussion of diversity on university campuses. These are some of the letters that resulted.

It is not often that a person has the strength and determination to sacrifice their own personal well-being in order to take a stand on important issues, particularly an issue such as racial discrimination, which has somehow fallen into disrepute in the academy today.1 It is almost as if all our rhetoric about "diversity" has somehow made it inappropriate, hypersensitive, and extremist to identify and agitate against the insidious manifestations of racial and gender discrimination in American institutions. I applaud Frank Douglas for his actions, and I hope that his efforts will serve as a wake-up call to those of us in the academy who believe in academic integrity.

Leslie Alexander
Ohio State University
Columbus, OH

As a women's studies professor and historian of medicine and race, I share many of Frank Douglas' concerns. But I was at the MIT conference last spring, and I believe he has mischaracterized the opposition to BiDil. The concept of it as a "race drug" comes not from the social scientists but the NitroMed company that took it to the FDA asking for approval only for "self-identified African Americans." Jonathan Kahn, one of the key critics of the drug who spoke at the conference, gave testimony at the FDA hearing asking that the drug be approved, just not for African Americans alone.

The conferences on race and medicine have always heard differing views; indeed, I spoke to others at the conference who have been very involved in BiDil's approval, from an NAACP representative to National Minority Health Month's executive director. I am sorry that those who came to the conference could not open a more meaningful dialogue with Frank Douglas, but he did not stay around long enough at the meeting for this to happen.

Susan Reverby
Wellesley College
Wellesley, MA

Racism persists in America because of the action of racists and the inaction of the rest of Americans, often including those who are harmed directly by racism. It will maintain as long as those who do not believe in racism deny its existence and fear standing together against it.

Racism is rarely subtle or unintentional, but it is often denied or ignored. This paradox persists because both the racist and his/her target perceive a benefit from their ironic collaboration. The racist continues to enjoy the pleasures of undue sociopolitical and economic priority. The resigned target hopes that by acquiescing to current racism, fairer treatment will be granted in the future. This pathological relationship cannot endure. The sooner we address racism honestly and openly, the sooner we can move on to a more productive social structure in America.

James Sherley
Boston Biomedical Research Institute
Watertown, MA

I think Frank Douglas' decision to resign was a heroic act which exemplifies his integrity as a top-level academic. It is useless for top universities and research institutions to tout increases in the numbers of minorities in research at the undergraduate and graduate levels as evidence of positive change, particularly if very few (if any) of these students progress to the top of the food chain by achieving tenure.

"Racism is rarely subtle or unintentional, but it is often denied or ignored. This paradox persists because both the racist and his/her target perceive a benefit from their ironic collaboration."

As the tenure process has become increasingly difficult for everyone in this era of diminished NIH budgets, the intangible aspects that determine which candidates would make "a good fit" within a given department become increasingly important. Expressions such as "He/She would get along well with the other faculty" become that much more relevant in the process, even though these are very subjective judgments, shaped by the lens through which each person views the social climate. I wonder if James Sherley's "unorthodox" (interpreted by me to mean straightforward/"in-your-face") style conjured up images of the stereotypical "angry black male" in some of the folks who were reviewing his application and served as a check mark against him? One must ask, in all honesty, had a "nonthreatening," nonminority individual used the same methodology, would that person have received the same dismissive treatment as Sherley?

"I believe James Sherley has made it harder for MIT to recruit minority professors. He has made the Institute seem like it is a bastion of racism when, in fact, at least in my department, we work hard every time we recruit to make sure we specifically ask the underrepresented minority and female communities to apply."

I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the NIH (NIAID) with a PhD in virology, and I will be looking for faculty positions in the next few years. I also happen to be an African American male. Witnessing the manner in which the MIT administration handled the Sherley case and reading the comments from Douglas has pretty much eliminated MIT as an option for me, no matter how good of a package they might offer.

Tshaka Cunningham
Bethesda, MD

The worst offenders are often subtle and insulated within our university systems. Their biases are not detected in their words or facial expressions, but in their deeds and in the statistics of graduating students, or promoted employees. I applaud Douglas for his stand, not because he necessarily believed that Sherley deserved tenure, but because he realized that the system was flawed, and certain forces within the institution wanted them that way.

Dawne Shelton
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, UT

As a department administrator at MIT who wants diversity in the faculty (and is told many times that this is MIT's goal too), I believe James Sherley has made it harder for MIT to recruit minority professors. He has made the Institute seem like it is a bastion of racism when, in fact, at least in my department, we work hard every time we recruit to make sure we specifically ask the underrepresented minority and female communities to apply.

I don't have a solution, but I know that in my department's field the problem is not that minority candidates are being considered and rejected due to their race, but rather that there are no qualified minority candidates applying for the assistant professor slots. Given Sherley's position, I bet some qualified minorities who considered applying to MIT have changed their mind.

Please note this is my opinion, not MIT's.

Peter Brenton
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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