Where are the opportunities?

I’ve submitted my grades for this academic semester and am now on sabbatical until Fall of 2022. And I’ve been back at my university long enough to have a bit of perspective on my time at NSF. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the big scientific opportunities for new biologists who stand on the threshold of becoming independent investigators. Per my own experience, I focus on basic life sciences although the biomedical implications are often obvious. Here is my list:

  • Origin of the ribosome and translation
  • Evolution of molecular signal transduction
  • Brains embedded in bodies as unified systems
  • Environmental microbiomes as sentinels for ecosystem dynamics
  • Deep ocean adaptations in eukaryotes
  • Biosphere/Lithosphere self-organization principles
  • Viruses/animal toxins and their co-evolution with their attack surfaces
  • Mnemonic storage in genomic sequences (as distinct from the DNA dogma)
  • The biology of the high atmosphere ecosystem
  • Evolution of excitable cells
  • Beyond signal sequences in protein targeting.

If you are a trainee looking at one of these areas for your own research, please go ahead and drop me a line for my further thoughts.

Building on the shoulders….

One thing about science in general and biology specifically: progress is dependent on previously published results. Loose confidence in those and the whole thing is a house of cards. What’s remarkable to me is that for the life sciences, in general, the whole edifice is remarkably sturdy. The reason I have confidence in my mRNA-based vaccine is because ultimately, I accept the DNA-dogma and the constellation of results over the past 60-70 years that have supported it. In other words, the theory of how the vaccine works makes sense within the larger theoretical framework.

While to a large part, this is also true of physics, it’s also clear that there is a basic fundamental issue between the macro-physics of General Relativity and the micro-physics of Quantum Mechanics. This theoretical problem has been around for such a long time, that those of us on the outside of that discipline don’t waste time worrying about it. But….if that inconsistent dogma was directly connected to something deeply practical (like a life-giving vaccine), I would be worried. There’s a very deep-end of the pool quality to the theoretical frameworks of physics that removes us from mostly having to worry about their practical effect on us here in the shallow end of our blue planet’s neighborhood. But let’s stay far away from any event horizons.

OSTP and NSF….

Eric Lander is having his confirmation hearing today, coverage from Politico here. I applaud the President’s raising the profile of the OSTP director to cabinet-level.

More interesting are the two competing versions of a huge NSF plus-up that are making their ways through Congress. Here’s a nice analysis from National Journal’s Brendon Bordelon. My view is that the NSF’s proper wheel house is basic science. Full stop. The caveat is that my world view is already contradicted by the existence of the Engineering Directorate. So I suppose both of these bills aim to recreate an extramural version of Bell Labs inside the NSF as well.

If that’s the case, then I will say, that model has been sorely missed by the US. But I’m not sure a federal agency is the right place to start over. Instead, I’d take a look at the National Labs–both Sandia and Argonne same obvious candidates.

Do authorship conventions really work?

Camille Nous, is a fictitious French addition to quite a few high profile articles designed to “protest” current authorship conventions in science. She has published across quite the waterfront of disciplines–easily explained by her non-existence. But the larger question raised by the addition of Nous to the list is whether our authorship conventions serve the function for which they were designed–namely to allocate intellectual responsibility for the publication as a product. My own view is that this question is quite valid. The whole reason that I support ORCID is the notion of allocating credit for the production of scientific work in a manner that is more functional than the current status quo. Although it goes beyond ORCID. Many journals require a section that essentially states who did what with regards to the project. Now if you could attach that to ORCID, then we’d be in a better place.

The Green Premium: Bill Gates

I’m guilty of reading quite a bit of science fiction. My latest read is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. It deals with the decade just ahead of our own time, when the climate chickens truly come home to roost. After this year of pandemic and political unrest, it’s easily imaginable. Which leads me to Politico’s interview with Bill Gates, here. Gates, mainly advocates going after the really big stuff for reducing carbon emissions–where the really big payoffs are. Rather than sweating the small incremental policy adjustments.

Events of January 6 here in DC…

There is much excellent content out there. My own experience of the day itself was surreal, as it was for many. For me, the connection goes back to beginning of my professional life, not in science, but on the Hill. Right after graduating from Amherst College, I interned on the Hill for the New England Congressional Caucus. Our senior member was non other than the House Speaker, Tip O’Neill. Since then, for me, there have been decades of visits to the Capitol Building for various work obligations. What happened this past week was of course an armed rebellion that led to deaths and threatened the very core of our republic. That it was stopped before killing democracy in this country doesn’t ameliorate the on-going threat.

Going back to the subject of the blog, it is the respect for such a thing as objective truth, that keeps the discoveries coming. Let us all work together, to protect the concept of truth, so as to be able to continue with what many of us love: science.