Part I: Oh the Sad Irony; Thoughts on a Report to President Truman in 1945

I stumbled across a report from Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development Vannevar Bush to President Harry Truman in July 1945 in response to Roosevelt’s Letter a year earlier which stated:

“New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.”–

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT November 17, 1944.

Almost 70 years later, I feel Bush’s words and recommendations within the Report ring just as relevant. In a time when developed countries have increased funding for research and development in FY2012, TWO countries stood out like sore thumbs for decreasing federal research dollars; the United States and Canada. I wish this report could be redistributed to all members of Congress. In this post, I want to bring attention to some of the most ironic/prophetic points. Let’s get right to it…

The responsibility for basic research in medicine and the underlying sciences, so essential to progress in the war against disease, falls primarily upon the medical schools and universities. Yet we find that the traditional sources of support for medical research in the medical schools and universities, largely endowment income, foundation grants, and private donations, are diminishing and there is no immediate prospect of a change in this trend. Meanwhile, the cost of medical research has been rising. If we are to maintain the progress in medicine which has marked the last 25 years, the Government should extend financial support to basic medical research in the medical schools and in universities.

Bush spoke of the great advancement made in antibiotics with the discovery of penicillin. Today, this quote still rings true, certainly with the growing threat of antibiotic resistant pathogens.

How do we increase this scientific capital? First, we must have plenty of men and women trained in science, for upon them depends both the creation of new knowledge and its application to practical purposes. Second, we must strengthen the centers of basic research which are principally the colleges, universities, and research institutes. These institutions provide the environment which is most conducive to the creation of new scientific knowledge and least under pressure for immediate, tangible results. With some notable exceptions, most research in industry and Government involves application of existing scientific knowledge to practical problems. It is only the colleges, universities, and a few research institutes that devote most of their research efforts to expanding the frontiers of knowledge.

 

Never send for whom the budget tolls, it tolls for thee: an open letter Part III.

During the current political environment, R&D budgets are being reduced or frozen. For example, the budget for NIH, the largest public funding program in the U.S., is lower than it was in 2003. The “Plan B” outlined in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (aka sequester) plus the current 6-month continuing resolution cycle employed by Congress has all in the research community scared; not only for their own jobs but also for what it is saying to our citizens and people across the globe.  Our ‘leaders’ in Washington no longer consider basic research a priority. In essence, the ‘leaders’ are saying, “We are too worried about our re-election bids to see the big picture and the catastrophic consequences of our short-sightedness”.

The innovations and technologies directly or indirectly resulting from basic research have brought invaluable prosperity to this country and has enriched the lives of each of us directly. Cuts to research are the essentially the same as cuts to flesh. Eventually, the infection at the cut spreads to the entire body. The cut doesn’t suffer, the body suffers. John Donne said it well in his passage, Meditation 17 Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:

No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The bell is tolling in the U.S. and has for some time now. We all suffer when ignoring our research community.

 

Sincerely,

Matt Russell, Ph.D.

Never send for whom the budget tolls, it tolls for thee: an open letter Part II.

The sixty years between World War II and September 11, 2001 were unparalleled for discovery and innovation even though they were fueled by fear. First, fear of Japan, Germany, and later Russia. After the war was over, a new ominous threat emerged that (in the eyes of most) threatened our future as a country if not defeated, communism. ‘Necessity breeds invention’ sure was true during the Cold War and our Research & Development infrastructure became the envy of other countries.

On the tragic day 2,977 innocent lives died, our nation changed. We awoke to a new, hidden enemy with no country boundaries. It brought us together like nothing before. We were united. But some quickly turned to ideology and misinformation leading us into constant military offenses with no real way to fund them. One of the first schemes was by increasing the maximum allowable interest rate of student loans. Personally, mine went from 2% to 6% overnight.

science funding
R&D spending initially rose after 2001. However, this is due to mostly an increase in Defense Department R&D budget increases.

Later on, other sources were needed to continue funding war campaigns. Although most of this funding was borrowed against our future generations, the rest came from discretionary spending. One of the major spending bills is that for science R&D and energy R&D. When the Human Genome Project was completed in April 2003, America’s largest scientific spending project in history was over. Instead of using these funds for other science and technology programs, no other big science project has ever come to fruition (the Spallation Neutron Source began construction prior to 9-11-01).

Never send to know for whom the budget tolls, it tolls for thee: an open letter Part I.

To whom it may concern,

This letter is for any and all that have a genuine interest in the future of our country. Many whose livelihood and passion dwells under the umbrella of Research & Development have watched helplessly over the past decade a deterioration in the enterprise that has made the United States the most successful global leader in the history of civilization. This enterprise emerged from one of the darkest tragedies in our nation’s history on December 7, 1941. With great foresight, our leaders knew resilience and ultimately the preservation of our way of life depended not upon naive belief but creativity and innovation among the brightest minds in the country; themselves immigrants brought here by persecution. 

Beginning with the Manhattan Project, the U.S. has built unchallenged scientific leadership. The unfortunate irony is that another dark tragedy on September 11, 2001 started its slow downward spiral. 

What do you say when #sequester eliminates your position?

Sequester (my adorable princess) is a very misguided attempt to do what's best for science and innovation (adorable baby goat).
A fine line between hugging and strangling. Sequester (my adorable princess) is a very misguided attempt to do what’s best for science and innovation (adorable baby goat).

Warning: this will be a personal post with not much in the way of explaining scientific wonders.

 

I had just graduated with my Ph.D. and was in the job market; ready for an exciting post-doc or a faculty position at a local community college. Full of ideas and enthusiasm, I was going to conquer the world and provide for my family. Little did I know Science had another idea. I applied instinctively for a Research Associate III position. “Science Writer? Hmm, sure, why not?” I thought. They wanted a writing sample based upon a recent journal article. I got a call for an interview and happily scheduled it in my calendar.

I was still on the research/post-doc bandwagon and didn’t think much of the science writer interview until I sat in that chair and talked for an hour about science. It opened my eyes to a whole other world. A world filled not with test tubes and media bottles but with a computer and an imagination. A long term goal of promoting science to anyone who cared to listen soon became a reality when I was offered the position. “You want to pay me how much? I would do it for free!” I thought.

I settled into my new home, an actual office with a window and two computer screens. I was living the American dream. I was studying up on previous documents the group had published; top quality, award winning documents. While waiting for my first assignment, I started a blog to tell the world all the wonderful science discoveries I was taking note of. The group was going through an usual dry spell. “Don’t worry, it will pick up” I was told. It was fall and we should have some meeting documents to work on first of the year (2013).

Thanks to the failure to reach a compromise in response to the Budget Control Act of 2011, budget sequestration took affect January 1, 2013. Austerity had reached American shores and it wasn’t pretty for science and innovation. No new programs could be organized and the forward-thinking science program managers were handcuffed to politics. “It won’t affect me” I thought. Operating on a continuing resolution also meant no new monies for programs…strike two. Thanks to the GSA ‘training sessions’ in lavish resorts, travel restrictions were placed across all federal agencies…strike three.

On August 13, 2013, I was told my position was being eliminated due to lack of work. My wife had just taken a administrative leave without pay from her position because we were days away from becoming foster parents. We also had just found out she was pregnant after a year of trying, including one (maybe two) miscarriages.

 

Sigh…

If you need a face to put with sequester, try my four year old’s.

Wanted: A Nation of Bill Nyes. Making science mainstream, fun, and relevant. Part 3. « Taking Science to the People

Wanted: A Nation of Bill Nyes. Making science mainstream, fun, and relevant. Part 3. « Taking Science to the People

As many have noted, the number of students who pursue a career in a STEM field fall well short of the demand from industry and see this as the problem. On the other hand, I see this as the result of the problem. At some point between toddler years and middle school, the inherent curiosity of a child fizzles; overtaken by media and gadgets. Have a question? Look it up on the Google app (I’m not criticizing Google. It is the best tool for any scientist). We, and our children, are constantly connected to everything going on in the world. For some it is politics or business, but for our children, it is Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. To me, again, this is not the problem.
Let’s take a couple of other celebrities as examples: Brad Pitt and Will.i.am. We all know Pitt as an actor, however, we know him just as well for his charity work through the Jolie-Pitt Foundation. Will.i.am is a musician but is also into science as seen through his support for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and its robotics competition. These are two examples of celebrities using their fame for a greater good.
STEM has an image problem in the United States. (A great survey sponsored by Microsoft showing the perception of STEM by students and parents can be foundhere). According to a study by Lenovo, the second leading hesitation to a career in STEM for U.S. students is that it requires too much work or school. The number one reason being that the student doesn’t feel confident in their ability. Here is the disconnect…if the passion and curiosity of the world around you and how to make it better is not there or hasn’t been curated, a STEM career is considered too much work. My Ph.D. took 6 and a half years to complete. I never once considered giving up or considered it too hard or too much work. To me, it wasn’t work. I felt lucky to be able to do what I loved and get paid for it.

Wanted: A Nation of Bill Nyes. Making science mainstream, fun, and relevant. Part 3.

As many have noted, the number of students who pursue a career in a STEM field fall well short of the demand from industry and see this as the problem. On the other hand, I see this as the result of the problem. At some point between toddler years and middle school, the inherent curiosity of a child fizzles; overtaken by media and gadgets. Have a question? Look it up on the Google app (I’m not criticizing Google. It is the best tool for any scientist). We, and our children, are constantly connected to everything going on in the world. For some it is politics or business, but for our children, it is Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. To me, again, this is not the problem.

Let’s take a couple of other celebrities as examples: Brad Pitt and Will.i.am. We all know Pitt as an actor, however, we know him just as well for his charity work through the Jolie-Pitt Foundation. Will.i.am is a musician but is also into science as seen through his support for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and its robotics competition. These are two examples of celebrities using their fame for a greater good.

STEM has an image problem in the United States. (A great survey sponsored by Microsoft showing the perception of STEM by students and parents can be found here). According to a study by Lenovo, the second leading hesitation to a career in STEM for U.S. students is that it requires too much work or school. The number one reason being that the student doesn’t feel confident in their ability. Here is the disconnect…if the passion and curiosity of the world around you and how to make it better is not there or hasn’t been curated, a STEM career is considered too much work. My Ph.D. took 6 and a half years to complete. I never once considered giving up or considered it too hard or too much work. To me, it wasn’t work. I felt lucky to be able to do what I loved and get paid for it.