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Scientists Write An Open Letter About the Sequester

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Did you see this in the Atlantic a few days ago? If not, well, here it is.

basic scientific researchPaul Alivisatos, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Eric D. Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory, and Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory wrote an open letter, published on the Atlantic website, stating their view that the sequestration will set back basic research for a decade. You may be saying to yourself, no big deal. Let private companies take over. Except private companies have decreased their research budgets dramatically over the last decade. Or you could say, well, what’s so important about all that research? Or even, oh, they’re just exaggerating. Maybe. Guess we’ll find out. Just remember, while we’re cutting research funds, China is increasing them.

Here’s their letter.

The Sequester Is Going to Devastate U.S. Science Research for Decades

Cutting the meager amount the federal government spends on basic science would do little to meet short-term fiscal goals while incurring huge costs in the future.

Most of the talk about sequestration has focused on its immediate impacts — layoffs, furloughs, and cancelled White House tours in the days and weeks ahead. But one severe impact of the automatic spending cuts will only be felt years — or even decades — in the future, when the nation begins to feel the loss of important new scientific ideas that now will not be explored, and of brilliant young scientists who now will take their talents overseas or perhaps even abandon research entirely.

Less than one percent of the federal budget goes to fund basic science research — $30.2 billion out of the total of $3.8 trillion President Obama requested in fiscal year 2012. By slashing that fraction even further, the government will achieve short-term savings in millions this year, but the resulting gaps in the innovation pipeline could cost billions of dollars and hurt the national economy for decades to come.

As directors of the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, we have a responsibility both to taxpayers and to the thousands of talented and committed men and women who work in our labs. We are doing everything we can to make sure our scientists and engineers can keep working on our nation’s most pressing scientific problems despite the cuts. It’s not yet clear how much funding the National Labs will lose, but it will total tens of millions of dollars. Interrupting — or worse, halting — basic research in the physical, biological, and computational sciences would be devastating, both for science and for the many U.S. industries that rely on our national laboratory system to power their research and development efforts.

Instead, this drop in funding will force us to cancel all new programs and research initiatives, probably for at least two years. This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the world races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities.

New ideas, new insights, new discoveries — these are the lifeblood of science and the foundation of America’s historic culture of innovation and ingenuity. The science community recognizes the importance of those new ideas, so we have systems in place to make sure great new ideas get a chance to thrive. Every ongoing federally funded science program is reviewed regularly to make sure it’s on track and likely to yield results. Each year, stalled programs are terminated to make room for more promising lines of research. Under sequestration, we will continue to review and cull unsuccessful research efforts, but we won’t be able to bring in new ideas to take their place.

Every federal agency that supports basic scientific research is facing this impossible dilemma. The National Science Foundation — which funds 20 percent of all federally supported basic research at American colleges and universities — just announced it is cutting back on 1,000 new research grants it had planned to award this year. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the nation’s largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences, will have to shut the door on hundreds of new proposals as well. The impact will multiply as long-planned and overdue supercomputer upgrades and other necessary investments in our scientific infrastructure are stretched out, delayed, or put on hold indefinitely.

The National Laboratories aren’t just crucial to America’s scientific infrastructure. They are also powerful engines of economic development. Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow has calculated that over the past half century, more than half of the growth in our nation’s GDP has been rooted in scientific discoveries — the kinds of fundamental, mission-driven research that we do at the labs. This early-stage research has led to extraordinary real-world benefits, from nuclear power plants to compact fluorescent bulbs to blood cholesterol tests. Because the United States has historically valued scientific inspiration, our government has provided creative scientists and engineers with the support, facilities, and time they need to turn brilliant ideas into real-world solutions.

Basing funding decisions solely on short-term fiscal goals risks the heart of America’s scientific enterprise and long-term economic growth — diminishing our world leadership in science, technology and in the creation of cutting-edge jobs.

Sequestration won’t have an immediate, visible impact on American research. Laboratories will continue to open their doors, and scientists and engineers will go to work. But as we choke off our ability to pursue promising new ideas, we begin a slow but inexorable slide to stagnation. We can’t afford to lose a generation of new ideas and forfeit our national future.


A Real Girl’s Role Model

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Thanks to UniteWomen.org, today I learned about another remarkable woman, Rita Levi-Montalcini, who changed science. Her life served as yet another example of the achievements women can and do make when given opportunity and encouragement.

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Levi-Montalcini enrolled in medical school in 1930 despite her father’s objections (who believed that the role of a woman was to be a wife and mother, not an academic). She earned a degree in medicine and surgery, but her post-graduate career was cut short when Mussolini issued his “Manifesto of Race” which barred those of Jewish descent from professional careers. Rather than fleeing the country, Levi-Montalcini chose to stay in Italy and continue her work alone. She built a small research unit at her home and installed it in her bedroom.

She spent time on her research and as a physician during the war, and then returned to academic life afterwards. In 1947 she joined Washington University and became a full professor there in 1958. In 1962 she established a research unit in Rome, splitting her time between there and St. Louis, and in 1969 she became the Director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research.

In 1986, Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for isolating Nerve Growth Factor from tumor cells. 

Although she officially retired in 1977, she never truly stopped working as a scientist or an educator. Eight years ago she founded the European Brain Research Institute (EBRI) in Rome. She (with her sister Paola) also founded the Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation, which focuses on the education of girls and young women in Africa. In 2001 she was appointed an Italian Senator-for-life.

More on Levi-Montalcini’s life, achievements, and dedication to science here.
Don’t be afraid to try:

Make Mistakes

Written by Valerie Curl

January 1, 2013 at 11:19 AM

Famous Women Scientists Never Before Known

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Great Women In ScienceAfter watching the movie, Cheaper By the Dozen, about Frank and Lillian Galbreth, I was curious to learn how much of the movie was fiction and how much was truth. While doing a google search, I came across a website celebrating little known but great women scientists.

Women in Science (pdf)
features 16 female scientists from earlier eras who made significant contributions in a wide range of scientific fields. Most, if not all, of these women are unknown and little celebrated, having studied and worked in eras not friendly to women in scientific careers. Nevertheless, each made scientific discoveries that have been often obscured by history or attributed to their male counterparts.

Each of these women is worth discovering, especially by girls and young women.

Aussie Climate Scientists Rap

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I’m not normally a big fan of Rap music, but I love this:

A transcript from the Wonkroom:

So begins a new rap video by actual climate scientists from Australia, one of the continents hardest hit by global warming pollution. The group of scientist-rappers, in coordination with the Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s comedy show Hungry Beast, rap about science, politicians, and right-wing deniers with an amusing combination of fact and irreverence. Here’s their take on the dangerous risks of positive feedback loops and intensification of extreme weather:

Feedback is like climate change on crack.

The permafrosts subtracts: feedback!

Methane release wack : feedback!

Write a letter then burn it: feedback!

Denialists, deny this in your dreams,

Coz climate change means greater extremes,

Shit won’t be the norm,

Written by Valerie Curl

May 13, 2011 at 9:19 AM

Dumb Down of America, as Espoused by Rush Limbaugh

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Even as the U.S. faces enormous global economic competitive challenges to our standard of living, high school and college graduation rates are falling. Per capita, China has more college graduates in science and technology than the U.S., according to recent statistics. U.S. graduation rates already behind the small, third wold county of Kazakhstan. And the U.S. has fallen to fourth place in worldwide innovation statistics.

Not that long ago, the U.S. led in high school and college graduation rates and was the world leader in scientific discoveries and technological innovation. It’s what made America economically strong and vibrant…the world class leader. That is who we’ve been since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Every American knows gloomy these statistics. We’ve heard them over and over again. But just when we need to boost our national science and educational standards, the great leader of the far right, Rush Limbaugh, has taken aim against science and education.

The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.

Our country cannot afford to allow this anti-science, technology and education rhetoric to continue while still expecting to support a vibrant middle class and entrepreneurial society far into the future.

Is a truly uneducated, ignorant America how we want our children are to compete in a globally competitive economy that requires superior knowledge of science, technology, and creative innovation?

After Limbaugh’s rant against science, Nature Magazine commented with a strong riposte against Limbaugh’s anti-science, anti-education rant in favor of ignorance.

If we, as a proud forward-leaning, innovative country, do not fight against this propagation of ignorance by right wing media pundits, our children and grandchildren truly will find themselves living in the world’s largest third world country. Is that what you seek for your children and grandchildren?

Science scorned

The anti-science strain pervading the right wing in the United States is the last thing the country needs in a time of economic challenge.

“The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.” It is tempting to laugh off this and other rhetoric broadcast by Rush Limbaugh, a conservative US radio host, but Limbaugh and similar voices are no laughing matter.

There is a growing anti-science streak on the American right that could have tangible societal and political impacts on many fronts — including regulation of environmental and other issues and stem-cell research. Take the surprise ousting last week of Lisa Murkowski, the incumbent Republican senator for Alaska, by political unknown Joe Miller in the Republican primary for the 2 November midterm congressional elections. Miller, who is backed by the conservative ‘Tea Party movement’, called his opponent’s acknowledgement of the reality of global warming “exhibit ‘A’ for why she needs to go”.

The right-wing populism that is flourishing in the current climate of economic insecurity echoes many traditional conservative themes, such as opposition to taxes, regulation and immigration. But the Tea Party and its cheerleaders, who include Limbaugh, Fox News television host Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (who famously decried fruitfly research as a waste of public money), are also tapping an age-old US political impulse — a suspicion of elites and expertise.

Denialism over global warming has become a scientific cause célèbre within the movement. Limbaugh, for instance, who has told his listeners that “science has become a home for displaced socialists and communists”, has called climate-change science “the biggest scam in the history of the world”. The Tea Party’s leanings encompass religious opposition to Darwinian evolution and to stem-cell and embryo research — which Beck has equated with eugenics. The movement is also averse to science-based regulation, which it sees as an excuse for intrusive government. Under the administration of George W. Bush, science in policy had already taken knocks from both neglect and ideology. Yet President Barack Obama’s promise to “restore science to its rightful place” seems to have linked science to liberal politics, making it even more of a target of the right.

US citizens face economic problems that are all too real, and the country’s future crucially depends on education, science and technology as it faces increasing competition from China and other emerging science powers. Last month’s recall of hundreds of millions of US eggs because of the risk of salmonella poisoning, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, are timely reminders of why the US government needs to serve the people better by developing and enforcing improved science-based regulations. Yet the public often buys into anti-science, anti-regulation agendas that are orchestrated by business interests and their sponsored think tanks and front groups.

In the current poisoned political atmosphere, the defenders of science have few easy remedies. Reassuringly, polls continue to show that the overwhelming majority of the US public sees science as a force for good, and the anti-science rumblings may be ephemeral. As educators, scientists should redouble their efforts to promote rationalism, scholarship and critical thought among the young, and engage with both the media and politicians to help illuminate the pressing science-based issues of our time.

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