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September 07, 2007


It is the belief of the Skull & Bones crowd (and yes New England has a history of real pirates living public lives) that R&D should be spent on weapons, because then you can simply take what you want, when you want. And now the Skull & Bones crowd is in control of the arsenal, like all pirates they can be bought. Bad news for you and me, but what do they care?

Thanks for another great post.

Thanks for the post emptypockets. I've been doing research for 20 years now in different disciplines and I can never remember a time when people haven't been fretting about funding. That said, given our current spending priorities and the hostile attitude of this administration towards science, I worry that we will lose our current standing in the world.

I am also troubled by the hostile attitude towards foreigners in our country. The fact that we attract highly skilled scientists and engineers to work here should be a point of pride. Instead, talk radio hosts blather on about the foreign invasion and the INS has a nasty habit of treating people like criminals. Dealing with the INS is so onerous, that foreigners are now looking to pursue their careers in other countries. That doesn't bode well for our future either.

I continue to be surprised by the fact that no one is raising alarm bells over the fact that Singapore has managed to attract some of our top scientific talent. Our immigration and border policies are making it harder for people to come here to train. People don't even want to visit the country, because customs is such a nightmare. And Bush wants to cut the NIH's funding. We're in danger of losing an entire generation of young scientists, and no one seems to be paying attention.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of things to be alarmed about right now, even if one just focuses on federal support for science. A few months ago I happened to see James Watson (of Watson and Crick, the "DNA guys") and another biomedical researcher on Charlie Rose's show. They agreed that the Bush Administration has been disastrous for genetic research, and not too good on medical research funding in general.

The only added support the Bush Administration has given science seems to be making sure that each branch of government that funds it has its own little commissar to make sure that no one writes or says anything counter to what the Bush Administration would have you believe.

Great post as always. The reality is that Republicans hate science. That is because science deals with reality and, as Stephen Colbert pointed out, reality has a well known liberal bias.

But science is an art, is it not? What China has gone through in it's recent past does not make me think that great creative thinking will come easily to them. If you have ever read Jan Wong, "Red China Blues," you will know that the repression for so long takes years to wear off. Even here in the states, the boys in my son's class that are first generation Chinese Americans suffer at the hands of their fathers for disobedience. Creative thinkers are nutured, will China allow their society that freedom to think?

Not to mention the US educated and trained scientists and researchers who are leaving permanently to go to fertile ground. Bush has created and promoted bright flight. The US isn't going to be able to rest on its reputation for cutting edge research and development much longer - too much corrupt science, oppressed science, distorted science, etc. Now we can be 43rd in life expectancy and science. Whoop. Di. Doo. Great post - hope it gets lots of eyeballs.

phred, your point that there is always grumbling about research funding is well received. It's what's made it difficult to get people to understand that the current crunch is much worse than the usual shortfalls that have come and gone over the last few decades. I've tried framing it in budget numbers, in terms of lost opportunity, in terms of health and disease, and this is the first time I've framed it in terms of national competitiveness, particular regarding economic competition with Asia. All of them are true, the question is which is most effective for moving people politically.

eyesonthestreet, extremely astute comment. I don't know Chinese culture well enough to guess how they will blossom, but I'll give you two anecdotal data points. First, the ASCB newsletter article I cited in this post was written by Dacheng He of Beijing Normal University, and he says, under "Areas of Promise, Challenge": "The major concern up to now has been how to avoid low level, repetitive investigation." So the point you bring up is not only on the mark, but at least some of the leading Chinese scientists have recognized it and must be actively trying to address it. The other anecdotal data is the case of Tian Xu, a geneticist at Yale who emigrated from China in 1983. He's setting up an enormous mouse mutant screen, on a scale that would be difficult to build or fund in the US. He's already got it running, at lower cost and very quickly, in China:

To produce the million mice it will take to find 100,000 mutants, Xu and the School of Medicine have embarked on a joint research project with his alma mater, Fudan University in Shanghai. The mutagenesis of the mice will be done at Fudan, where Xu and his colleagues have set up a state-of the-art mouse facility and production lab supported by Chinese government funds.
In fact, a lot of modern ("post-genome") biology has become filled with low-level, repetitive tasks, as experiments move to being done on the scale of 30,000 genes at a time rather than one at a time. In the US, we've been building robots to automate many of these operations, but in many cases it's cheaper just to get grad students or technicians to do them. So, until a new generation of Chinese scientists arrive with their own style (if they haven't already!), Chinese science may still be extremely productive by providing a lot of the large-scale labor and resources (and funding) not available in the US, while their best minds collaborate with ours.

Another area where China has begun to catch-up to the West, in general, and the US in particular is in accelerator physics.

But Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which was unleashed in 1966, closed universities and journals and set back Chinese physics for a generation. ...

Mao’s enthusiasm for particle physics nevertheless left a legacy.

Ever since 1989, in a collection of buildings occupying about a city block in Beijing, Chinese physicists have been quietly shooting electrons and their evil-twin opposites — positrons — around a 80-yard-diameter underground track at nearly the speed of light, and then banging them together in little fireballs of energy.

Over the years, the work at the Beijing collider has produced results that are critical to efforts on the frontier of particle physics at more famous and much larger accelerators — those that have racetracks miles around and trillion-electron-volt energies, like the Tevatron at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, known as Fermilab, outside Chicago, and the Large Hadron Collider, scheduled to open next year at the CERN laboratory near Geneva.

At the moment they are doing yeoman's work. Uncreative, tedious, but very valuable to the larger enterprise. However, they are also positioning themselves to become major players.
More important, Chinese particle physicists are poised to make a major contribution to one of the grandest collaborations of all, a proposed giant accelerator called the International Linear Collider, or I.L.C. The world’s physicists have already determined that it will be the Next Big Thing, but how many billions it will cost and where it will be built have yet to be decided.

Still in planning stages, the linear collider would be designed to carry international research beyond any new laws of physics and forms of matter that may be discovered using the new machine at CERN.

“China is certainly interested in the I.L.C.,” said Dr. Chen, who is a member of the steering committee for the international collider, and one of the organizers of a meeting this week in Beijing, where Chinese scientists and industry and government leaders will start talking about what role to take in the project.

rege, absolutely. And it's worth putting China's progress in perspective with the US supercolliders. From a terrific lecture by Alan Alda (PDF):

In 1991 in Texas they started digging a tunnel that would be 12 feet wide and run in a circle 54 miles long. They were going to install a series of very high-powered magnets, each weighing tons, in this tunnel. The magnets would pull along protons faster and faster until they came very close to the speed of light. And then they would smash into each other, momentarily creating particles, many of which had never been observed before. This was going to be the biggest, most sophisticated particle accelerator ever built and we were going to make real progress in finding out what matter was made of. We were going to understand reality in a way we had never understood it before. Well, Congress thought about it, and of course they already understand reality in a way no one ever has. After they’d spent almost $2 billion on the accelerator, they canceled it -- because it might cost as much as $11 billion, and that was too much to spend on knowledge that had no practical application. Senator Dale Bumpers said, “It would be nice to know the origin of matter. It would be even nicer to have a balanced budget."

Pure basic research always leads to practical results. But at first, new knowledge always seems to appear trivial; a luxury.

We haven’t progressed much beyond where we were in 1745 when Pieter Musschenbroek in the town of Leyden figured out the Leyden jar, and stored large amounts of electric charge in it. It was a novelty to most people. And few years later, Benjamin Franklin called lightning down a wire on a silk kite during a thunderstorm and stored it in a Leyden jar. Everyone was just startled by this amazing phenomenon of electricity but, still, they felt it was essentially just a parlor trick. They didn't know then that the great parlor trick to come would be the little box in the parlor that brought the farthest reaches of the world to the other end of the carpet, and that the leaders of the world would rise and fall based on their performance in that little box, no bigger than a Leyden jar.

Here’s an update on the fate of the superconducting super collider. The site has been vacant since the project was canceled. But there is still a tunnel underground. This August [2006], a Dallas firm, called the Collider Data Company, started renting out the tunnel as a place to store computer data.

The giant circle in the ground will house magnetic disks with old bookkeeping records sitting on them, instead of giant magnets hurtling protons at nearly the speed of light, and slamming them together to produce bursts of knowledge. The death of the possible at the hands of the practical.

Again, all we need to do to lose our edge is to do nothing while others move ahead.

emptypockets: laughed when I read this part- it's perfect:

"His good fortune did not impress his mother in China.

“It was the first time she’d heard from me in six months, because I couldn’t afford to call home. But this was big news.” When Xu’s mom asked what he intended to study, Xu replied, “I’m gonna work on flies, Mom.” After a very long silence, his mother spoke: “Son, we have a lot of flies right here in our hometown.”



don't you know that the USA is going to spend 4 to 5 Trillion dollars on this Iraqi War and it's aftermaths during the next 20 years?

We can't afford nonmilitary research anymore.

: (

What red-blooded american kid wants to spend years and years, as well as a lot of money and skull-sweat, to become a nerd? A geek? A wonk?

Not many, it would seem. I'm glad I did, though :-)

Hey! Hey!

More on China:
Animal housing is cheap, space costs are inexpensive, labor is cheap, benefits are cheap.

I know several Chinese-American medical researchers who are running labs at Universities here and in China. They farm much of their animal work and labor-intensive projects to their lab in China. Recently, a highly-regarded tenured Professor at my institution decided to move back to China to lead a program in Beijing.

I hate to break the news to you, Boo Radley and Fred, immigration is having a negative impact on quite a few of us. Apparently, you've never lost a position to H1B visa workers...I have, twice. A substantial number of biotech and Big Pharma firms in my part of the US utilize hundreds of contractors on H1B visas even though there is NO shortage of local research talent. At this point, I'm seriously considering emigrating to Ireland or New Zealand. Since I also speak Mandarin, I could easily relocate to Asia if necessary.

Another concern that I have relates to biomedical research and national security issues. Most of my former colleagues at NIH and NCI were absolutely clueless about the number of post-docs sent packing by the FBI for espionage-related activities when I worked at NCI-Frederick back in the '80s and '90s. I could tell you recent horror stories about corporate espionage that would curl your hair. Let's just say that China has different views on intellectual property than the rest of world. Until basic research funding is seen as a national priority, we're screwed.

Just an odd thought, but seeing as they are a 'Dallas Company' maybe they are doing a favor/contract for 'someone' and perhaps know where all the 'missing e-mails' etc, are being 'stored'..
I know odd, but that was the first thing that popped into my head

'Here’s an update on the fate of the superconducting super collider. The site has been vacant since the project was canceled. But there is still a tunnel underground. This August [2006], a Dallas firm, called the Collider Data Company, started renting out the tunnel as a place to store computer data.'

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