Politics

How does the 2012 election change policies on science, space & technology?

Every election year brings about changes to the US Senate and House of Representatives.  But for scientists, it’s important to pay attention to the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  This committee presides over all federal, non-defense scientific research and development spending.  In other words, this committee has jurisdiction over NASA, DOE, NIH, NSF, and NOAA policy to make sure US tax dollars are being spent in accordance with committee views.  Despite the grand name, the committee actually has little power over how tax dollar are spent, which is decided by the Senate appropriations committee.  However, they do make important broad policy decisions and can conduct oversight hearings on the above mentioned agencies.

During this election year, let’s take a moment to reflect upon some of the current and outgoing members to this committee.  After all, 10 current members have either been defeated or are retiring.  That is almost a third of the committee and could lead to changes on how scientific policy is determined over the next couple of years.

Let’s start by bidding a glorious adieu to Congressman Todd Akin (R-Missouri) who lost his re-election campaign.  You might remember Congressman Akin’s recent viral comments on “legitimate rape” that he made on August 19, 2012.  I won’t subject our readers to his complete lack of human physiology, but if you’re interested in you can read it here.  If Congressman Akin is this clueless on 7th grade reproduction, I would hate to learn about his views on more complex scientific policy.  Thank you Missouri residents for driving US scientific policy forward one politician at a time.

Congressman Paul Broun (R-Georgia) who was unopposed in his recent re-election campaign is also a current member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  Congressman Broun believes that evolution, embryology and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of Hell.”  These remarks actually prompted James Leebens-Mack, a plant biologists at the University of Georgia start a Facebook write-in campaign for Charles Darwin to run against Paul Broun.  Apparently being deceased for 130 years didn’t stop more than 4000 people from inking Darwin’s name against Congressman Broun in Dr. Leebens-Mack district.  Let’s hope Paul Broun will start paying attention to this portion of his constituents.

Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland), the second oldest member of the US House of Representatives, and one of the few with a doctoral degree, lost re-election this past week.  Congressman Bartlett often backed increased funding for basic research especially in the area of renewable energy.  We’ll be lucky if a like-minded individual fills this seat.

The committee will most likely be welcoming back physicist Bill Foster (D-Illinois) who recently won election in his district and subsequently ousted a current committee member, Judy Biggert.  Foster was a former member of this committee during his seven year stint as a Congressman.  Science support actually played a large role in this election campaign since Foster’s Congressional district included the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

In addition, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is in the process of electing a new chair.  The current chair, Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas) has reached his term limit for committee chair.  With Republican majority in the US House of Representatives, three conservative members have shown interest in the position including Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (California), Lamar Smith (Texas), and James Sensenbrenner (Wisconsin).  James Sensenbrenner was previously chair of this committee during the Clinton administration.  Unfortunately, all three have denied climate change, so don’t expect major recommendations for clean energy from this committee anytime soon.

Let us know how you think membership changes to this committee will reflect US science policy in the upcoming years.

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How Safe is GM Food?

What are the health effects of eating genetically modified food? 

That’s the question Séralini and colleagues sought to answer by studying rats fed Round-up tolerant genetically modified (GM) corn (with and without 0.1 ppb Roundup in water) for a period of two years.

Publishing their findings on September 19, 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicology, rats fed GM corn had shorter life spans, severe liver and kidney damage, and developed large mammary tumors compared with control rats. 

This study has become a media firestorm both in the European Union and the United States.  The French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has requested that the National Agency for Health Safety review the study.  Austria has asked the EU to reconsider their approval process for safety of genetically modified food.  And, in the US, this research has provided strong support for California’s Proposition 37, an initiative to place labels on genetically modified food, something that is already required in at least 50 countries. 

But all might not be as it seems.   This study has come under criticism for several reasons.  First, the type of rat used, Sprague Dawley, is susceptible to developing mammary tumors when their diet is not properly controlled.  Second, the number of control rats used was low (n=20 males and females; 10 per sex) to draw definitive conclusions.  Third, rats fed the largest percentage of GM corn, had less severe symptoms compared with the lowest percentage group. 

Despite hundreds of peer-reviewed feeding studies supporting the safety of GM food, Séralini and colleagues have lumped GM food into cigarette smoking or bisphenol A consumption. 

Now, the question becomes not is GM food safe to eat, but rather how valid is this study?

Tim Worstall has provided an interesting argument to the topic.  Harlan, the provider of rats used in this study, has used genetically modified corn in their rat chow for the last ten years.  If GM corn was increasing the formation of tumors and causing liver and kidney necrosis in laboratory animals, scientists and veterinarians would have noticed these health concerns years ago.  Tim suggests we use common sense when examining the conclusions drawn from this study. 

Regardless, the media coverage following this study will help sway the court of public opinion against GM food.  As for myself, I agree with Tim.

Update: October 4, 2012
The European Food Safety Authority has determined that a French study supporting the toxic effects of genetically modified corn was poorly designed and therefore does not support the conclusions made in the paper. The authors have until October 12th to address concerns raised by the agency.

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Innovation Corps

I recently wrote a post about entrepreneurship in science and received a lot of feedback. While most people agreed that “with the overabundance of highly educated and specialized STEM workers, we are going to need to be able to fabricate our own jobs”, there was a wide range of ideas on how much government involvement should be in place to help support entrepreneurial scientists. One of our followers shared information on an intensive eight week government program funded by the NSF (Innovation Corps) that is the brain child of Errol Arkilic, a program director at NSF, and a 2012 Harvard Business Review “Master of Innovation” Steve Blank. I found it intriguing and wanted to pass it along to you. The pilot classes of Innovation Corps seem to have potential and be set up to give you real life experience using your own creations. Everyone in the program is part of a 3 person teams…one NSF funded PI and his graduate student or postdoc who are appointed as the “Entrepreneurial Lead.” The third member of each group is a mentor with previous start-up experience. As someone who would prefer that the government paid down debt rather than fund entrepreneurs, this program makes my mouth water. And it got me thinking…wouldn’t a version of this, maybe combined with an introduction to accounting be a great addition to the PhD curriculum? Even if you didn’t go the entrepreneur route, the accounting/financial aspect would be beneficial both in academics and industry. After all, a team leader is not only responsible for obtaining grant funding, but also managing (salaries, supplies, conferences) that funding throughout the duration of the grant.

What do you think? Would you welcome the addition of a class focused on entrepreneurship, innovation, and accounting?

Update September 6, 2012:
I just found out that the Dublin Institute of Technology offers a structured PhD program that includes training in skills such as communication, innovation and entrepreneurship, leadership and teamwork, and career management. For those of you thinking about getting your PhD, it is worth taking a look at.

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Entrepreneurship in Science

I was browsing the internet the other day and saw a link for “Grants to Encourage Entrepreneurship in Science and Technology for Women”.  Being a woman in science and a new entrepreneur, I decided to click on the link.  What it took me to was a slightly informative, and incredibly self-serving article in Forbes written by the United States Chief technology Officer, Todd Park.  The title was “What Efforts Has President Obama Made While In Office To Encourage Entrepreneurship And Innovation?”  I read on hoping to get to the part that is specific to women entrepreneurs in science…

“Promoting high-growth entrepreneurship” where I learned that the Administration has committed to match $2 billion private investments in high growth companies, is trying to make it easier for graduates to manage their student loans, and is taking credit for Startup America Partnership connecting startups with private-sector funding.  Why is our government so interested in funding startups?  As someone heavily invested in a startup, I think it is great, but as a taxpayer I think that there are several other places that you can go to fund a startup, such as angel investor groups, the bank, and other private-sector funding/grants.  Our country is in enough debt.  Let’s put our capitalistic roots to good practice.  Dreams can and do come true in America, but it is not the government’s job to supply us with the seed money.

Under “Helping accelerate technology breakthroughs” I learned about the Obama Administration’s advancements in space exploration…umm, aren’t we moving away from NASA and towards privatization of space exploration? 

Finally, we are starting to get into the research part…apparently, “President Obama has implemented the largest increase in federally funded research and development in history”.  Wow, I am really glad to hear that!  Just one question…Does anyone know any scientists in the US that thinks it is actually easier to get funding or that there is more money available for research???  We would love to hear from you.

Sadly, there was nothing on opportunities for women entrepreneurs in science.

The article also reiterates the Administration’s stance on science and technology and that more people need to go into science.  In the next decade they plan to have an additional 100,000 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teachers and graduate 10,000 more engineers every year.  However, the article did not acknowledge that if you do decide to pursue the STEM path that it is going to be hard to get a position in academia and the funding that is often required to obtain said position.  Leaving the other main option of going into industry where the positions are also scarce due to outsourcing and downsizing.  Maybe that is why the article focuses on entrepreneurs.  With the overabundance of highly educated and specialized STEM workers, we are going to need to be able to fabricate our own jobs. 

RateMyPI.com does not endorse any candidate, but we do urge you to research their stance on issues important to you.  For a good overview on the candidate’s scientific platforms we encourage you to visit AAAS.org.

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