I was reading the morning feed from an alumni list server for individuals that attended one of the scifoo camps sponsored by Google, Nature and O’Reilly publishing. There was a pretty intense discussion of how politically partisan the posts had become in the context of Scientific American’s recent unprecedented endorsement of Biden. The entire discussion worries me. When scientists publicly take sides, they invite a backlash. Which has already happened I think. Science then becomes politicized in much the same way mask-wearing has and it doesn’t serve the public well.
I am well aware that scientific results have political implications. And that’s fine. But, when one side becomes anti-science (as in against the scientific method/process) then if they hold power, further accumulation of scientific knowledge becomes at risk (e.g. Galileo). And this puts the nation at further risk: anti-science nations don’t compete well in the geopolitics of the 21st century.
Science is not a special interest. But it risks being perceived as one.
In one of my classes this semester, we’ve reached the point where we are talking about that crucial part of the innovation ecosystem where the work actually has to get done. There are several great videos from this lab that capture the essence. This one is my favorite (and no, Gradual School is not a typo):
This is a topic close to my heart since the above slide was part of my Rules of Life slide deck while I was running NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate. Well, turns out Venus may harbor life. Lay version of the story here. So I may need to revise my thinking.
The problem is as follows: the ribosome is a specialized macromolecular complex with the specific function of translating messenger RNA into proteins. So how would it have evolved prior to proteins in an RNA world (or even a metabolite world)?
Selection pressure is lacking. There are no proteins that need to be made.
So the thought is, it must have been doing something else. What might that else be? And can we glean that from its current form?
Tom Philpot’s excellent analysis in The Guardian here. Both the Central Valley of California and soil-rich Iowa. There are many pieces to solving these issues–they include diversification, cover-crops, re-thinking the role of soil microbiomes and water use–but the driver for the challenges is pretty clear: the climate is changing.
The latest call emphasizes computer science areas such as AI. There is what I liken to an immune antibody response from the community to something new–this is the norm for when NSF changes gears (which it normally always does). The science press writes an article with juicy quotes. Perhaps there are Zoom meetings to prepare talking points for the agency leadership. And life goes on.
To my mind, the program (GRFP) is doing just fine. Smart and diverse graduate students from all STEM fields will continue to get funding for their doctoral research–from economics to theoretical physics. And perhaps one of them will make the a crucial discovery in quantum computing that changes everything–NSF funded discoveries have been at the center of practical advances for society since I can remember. From basic curiosity-driven science great things often happen.